What Is Faith? – (Matthew 14:22-33 / Hebrews 11:8-9, 17-19)
Three years ago I visited South Korea. During my visit, I had a chance to meet with two of my old friends—my college buddies. One of them was a long-time Christian, and the other friend was sort of a beginner in faith who had converted only a couple of years ago. He was what we call a seeker and was serious about the Christian life, exploring what it means to be a Christian and to have faith.
We were so happy to talk to one another that we lost all track of time. We talked about family, work, some life issues, and then our conversations moved to faith matters. My seeker friend asked a question, “What does it mean to have faith? What is the Christian life about?”
While I was pondering over such important questions, my long-time Christian friend broke the silence and said, “Hey, you don’t know about that? It’s really simple. What it means to be a Christian is to believe that we are all sinners and we were doomed to die because of our sins, but God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, and he died to save us. Being a Christian, having faith, means believing it, believing in Jesus Christ as our Savior. That’s it! Then you will be saved.”
Well, somehow my new Christian friend was not satisfied with that answer. The look on his face showed that something was missing and he asked, “Believing in them like that? Is that all? Is that really enough?”
In my personal story, it seems that as my long-time Christian friend summed up Christian core beliefs and recited them well, he understood faith as holding a kind of set of “beliefs.” So for him it was a tool to measure who is a Christian and who is not.
Many people today, in the church and outside of it, take it for granted that Christian faith means believing a set of Christian beliefs to be true – for example, believing that there is a God, that the Bible is the revelation of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins. Well, the list of the set of Christian beliefs may vary, depending on a person. But whether the list is short or long, the notion that Christian faith is about believing a set of claims to be true is very widespread.
Well, I know that this understanding of faith has touched and shaped our lives and the lives of so many people through the centuries. But this is just one way of understanding faith.
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg comments, “The word faith has in fact several rich meanings… To see faith as “belief” is closest to faith as ‘a matter of the head.’” He suggests a couple of meanings of faith that understand faith as “the way of the heart.” I’d like us to explore today two of those meanings of faith.
- Faith as TRUST
In today’s gospel of Matthew, we see Peter walking on water for a while but as he became frightened, he began to sink. After rescuing him, Jesus addressed him as “you of little faith.” What’s the problem with Peter?
Peter was able to walk on water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. But, as soon as he took his eyes off Jesus and noticed his circumstances, he was afraid and began to sink. What we learn from this story is that in the trials and crises of life, we should keep our eyes on Jesus, not on the circumstances – most of them we cannot control. What makes us keep our eyes on Jesus is faith – faith as trust. When Jesus said to Peter, “you of little faith,” he meant Peter’s lack of trust in the Lord. Faith as trust enables us to overcome the storms of life. Without faith as trust, we sink.
Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean. Soren Kierkegaard, one of the philosophical giants of the 19th century, says, “Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.” Sounds like today’s story of Peter, doesn’t it?
How many of you have taught a small child to swim? If you have, you know that the biggest hurdle is getting the child to relax in the water. I believe the consistent mantra of any instructor who teaches the child to swim would be, “It’s ok, just relax. You will float, it’s ok.”
You see, faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of Being—in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
There is a man who gets too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, loses his balance, and slips over the edge. Just before falling 1000 feet, he grabs on to a root sticking out from the edge. “Help me!” He hollers. “Is there anyone up there? Help me! Save me! Is there anyone up there?”
A voice answers, “I am the Lord. I can save you. Do you believe in me? Do you really want me to help you?”
“O, yes, Lord, I believe in you, more than you’ll ever know. Please help me.”
“OK,” the Lord says. “I’ll save you. Now let go.”
“Just let go of that root you’re holding on to, and I’ll save you. You have to trust me.”
The man pauses a moment, and then shouts out, “Is there anyone else up there?!”
Again the point is we trust in God as the one upon whom we rely, as our support and foundation and ground, as our safe place. That is faith as trust. It doesn’t mean trusting in a set of statements about God. It means our radical trust in God, Himself.
- Faith as FAITHFULNESS
Now I’d like to talk about faith as “faithfulness.” Faith is faithfulness to our relationship with God. Faith as faithfulness means loyalty, allegiance, commitment – total commitment to God – not to statements about God, whether biblical or doctrinal, but to God and to our relationship with Him.
Abraham, who is called “the father of faith,” is a great example of faith as faithfulness – total commitment to God. Today’s second Scripture, Hebrews 11, deals with him and his faith.
In verse 8 we see Abraham demonstrating his faith by following God’s leading. “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he… obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”
You see, Abraham just packs up and begins an uncertain journey which takes him from his father’s land, familiar place, his comfort zone to the unknown place for no other reason than his God told him to do it. This is fabulous faith, isn’t it? It shows faith as radical trust in God. It also shows faith as faithfulness – total commitment to God – as Abraham “ACTED” in obedience to God’s call.
In verses 17-18, we see another example of Abraham’s faith as faithfulness. You know, God calls on Abraham to take the teenage Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. Oh my gosh, what a bizarre thing God is asking! Besides, didn’t God give Abraham Isaac through whom all his offspring were supposed to come as He promised? But by faith faithful Abraham did as he was told, took Isaac, prepared to sacrifice him, had the knife poised and ready to strike, when suddenly God stopped him. The boy was spared, and a ram which had been caught was sacrificed instead.
In this story I want to make it clear that God never intended for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The word “tested” in verse 17 is a word which means “to test or examine, to make a trial of something.” It can sometimes mean “to tempt” when used of enticing someone to do something wrong, but the Bible tells us that God never tempts anyone to do evil. God was not tempting Abraham here. He was testing Abraham. He was examining him. Did Abraham really love God more than anything else? Did Abraham really put God first in his life? God knew that Abraham loved Isaac dearly. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, God was testing Abraham’s faithfulness to Himself and making a trial of Abraham’s commitment and obedience.
Abraham passed this test. He put God first in his life. He chose God as the one primary relationship that ultimately determines who he is and what he does, and in which all other relationships are grounded. That is faith as faithfulness – total commitment to God.
Then how can we grow in faith as trust and as faithfulness? What can we do to cultivate our trust in and faithfulness to God? Well, you may want to make a resolution like this: “I am going to try really hard to trust in and be committed to God more and more.” If it feels like you do such a thing, don’t do that. God is absolutely trustworthy, but resolutions are absolutely not. Maybe the more you try hard to get it, the more you will get frustrated or compulsive.
The real issue is whether you seek free, open time and spaciousness in your life that God can be encountered in the present and you bring Him back again and again to the center of your being, your life. Because faith as trust and faithfulness is the product of a deeper and deeper centering in God. Faithfulness leads us to pay attention to our relationship to God—through such attention, we become even more deeply centered in God. Trust is the fruit of that deeper centering. It grows as we center more and more in God.
It may sound a little complicated, but faith’s ways are very simple, though challenging. Faith as trust and faithfulness can grow and mature as we become more and more attentive to our relationship with God just like any human relationships we have. We can be attentive through the simple means of worship, prayer, spiritual practices, and a life of compassion and justice – ministry and mission – if you want to call it that way. They are the means of loving God and loving our neighbors and all that God loves. And that is what the faith is all about.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.