09 February 2021

Faith. (Which “faith” did you mean again?)

We Christians like to talk about faith, and sometimes refer to ourselves as “faith-based” or “people of faith.” Thing is, we’re not so solid on what faith means—by which I’m talking ’bout the definition of the word “faith.” We use that word all the time, but same as a lot of Christianese words, we never bothered to learn its definition, guessed what it meant, guessed wrong, ran with the wrong definition anyway, and we’ve been stumbling in the dark ever since.

I’ve met more than one Christian who’ve claimed faith has no definition: “Faith is a mystery,” they’ll insist. And again, they’re using that word “mystery” wrong: In the New Testament, a μυστήριον/mystírion is something we used to not know, but Jesus revealed its existence or its meaning, so now we know it. Christian mysteries are revelations, but according to these people God’s still holding out on us: These ideas are way too big for mere mortals. And faith is one of them: We can’t explain faith ’cause God worries the very idea will break our brains. Me, I figure these Christians’ brains are already broken.

The more common guess—and I admit it’s a reasonable one—is that faith is anti-doubt. ’Cause it looks like Jesus kinda said as much.

Matthew 21.21 KJV
21A Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not

If you have faith, you don’t doubt: It appears to imply faith and doubt are opposites. And since the opposite of doubt, non-doubt, is certainty, that’s how many a Christian defines faith. Even those who insist faith is undefinable, loosely define faith this way: Faith is certainty. Absolute, know-it-in-your-bones certainty. Faith is when you know that you know that you know something’s so. You have no doubts in your mind whatsoever.

Sorry to go on a sidetrack here, but I gotta: Is faith a gift from God, or is it something we develop on our own? Christians are of two minds about this. Some of us claim it’s all God, and never us. Others claim there’s more synergy involved, where God grants us faith, but we clearly gotta work with what he’s given us, which is why Jesus has to command us to “Have faith in God.” Mk 11.22 So if faith is certainty, be certain.

But of course how Christians choose to exercise certainty, is not by analyzing the facts or learning the truth; it’s by pure stubborn denial. So when people want faith really really bad, we reckon if we have any doubts in our minds whatsoever, it suggests we don’t actually have faith… so we gotta blot these doubts out. Shove ’em into the darkest recesses of our psyches and bury ’em under other things, and hope they never crawl their way out like a zombie. (Even when they’re wholly legitimate, reasonable doubts which the Holy Spirit himself put in us. Seems we never considered that possibility.) Have you eliminated your doubts by dealing with them or denying them? Too many Christians don’t care there’s a real difference… and that denial’s just gonna come back and bite us.

The power to become fools?

But back to that “faith a gift from God” idea: Many a Christian doesn’t think of faith as mere non-doubt, but a supernatural ability: The power to believe the unbelievable. And this definition has managed to trickle its way into popular culture—and popular mockery. “Faith,” wrote Mark Twain in his travelogue book Following the Equator, “is believing what you know ain’t so.” When we have faith, we can believe anything. We can believe the ridiculous, the nonsensical, the impossible, the stupid. Which we justify by saying, “Well it only seems stupid to pagans. But we’re people of faith, and know better.”

Thing is… a lot of us really don’t know better. I’ve watched Christians get easily suckered by the most obvious liars and frauds, who saw their faith as gullibility and used it against ’em. I’m still watching Christians regularly embrace fake news and false prophets. Antichrists are entirely sure Christianity is entirely fake, so they look upon our “faith” as willful stupidity: We choose to turn of our brains and believe bulls--t… and people like that probably deserve to be fleeced by every con artist who stops by. I don’t share their lack of compassion, but I do get just as annoyed when Christians refuse to use the brains God gave us.

Sometimes these Christians will spark up a brain cell or two and defend this definition. Here’s some proof texts they’re fond of:

1 Corinthians 1.18-21 KJV
18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Is 29.14 20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

“See, it’s okay when faith makes us appear stupid, because God’s plan of salvation also appears stupid to worldly people.”

1 Corinthians 1.25-27 KJV
25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty…

“And it’s okay if we don’t have a lot of wise people in our churches, because we don’t need what the world calls ‘wisdom’; we just need faith.”

1 Corinthians 3.18-19 KJV
Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. Jb 5.13
1 Corinthians 3.18 KJV
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.

That last verse is taken out of context, ’cause the apostles were comparing their own “foolishness” with the Corinthians’ “wisdom”: It’s not about Christians against the world, but Christians against fellow Christians who won’t listen to ’em because they believe they know it all.

Now granted: When we exercise faith as it’s properly defined (which I’ll get to; honest) sometimes we’re gonna look like idiots. The LORD instructed Ezekiel had to lay on his side for half a year, cooking “Ezekiel bread” over dung. Ek 4 (If any so-branded “Ezekiel bread” isn’t cooked over dung, it’s not authentic. Just saying.) Then shave his head and play with the hair. Ek 5 God’s had his prophets get attention by being downright weird, and sometimes he expects us to be weird, or as he describes it, holy. Faith’s gonna produce strange behavior; stuff pagans and unbelievers will gladly mock. But it should produce strangeness for the right reasons. Not stupidity for stupid reasons.

’Cause really, faith isn’t turning off your brain so you can believe outrageous things. Your brain should still be fully engaged, discerning whether this is a legitimate thing to believe or not, judging whether it’s of God or not, and seeking confirmation lest we get scammed by a fraud who thinks “people of faith” are just self-lobotomized morons.

Faith and religion.

Lastly there’s the definition of “faith” as the Christian faith: As all the things we Christians believe, all the practices and rituals and customs we observe, all the institutions we’ve created to spread the gospel and love our neighbors. It’s the Christian religion.

It’s because over the last 50 years, Evangelical Christians have got it into our heads that religion is a bad thing: To Evangelicals, religion means dead and empty ritual. It’s all the stuff we do so we can look Christian, but Christ isn’t actually at the center of this lifestyle: The stuff is. It’s what the rest of us call dead religion, but to Evangelicals all religion is dead religion. Whereas what they have, is a living relationship with Christ Jesus. They have a faith.

Now how do they maintain that relationship with Christ Jesus? Well they pray. They read their bibles. They go to church. They obey Jesus’s teachings. They learn Christian doctrines. They alter their behavior so they behave the way Christians oughta behave: More fruit, less vice, more Christian music on the radio, more name-dropping Jesus. In other words—words any pagan would use to describe ’em—they “get religion.” But these Christians would never say that particular R-word. They have a relationship. They have a faith.

Meh. I don’t care if you call it “religion” or “faith” so long that it actually does further a relationship with Jesus. Too many Christians don’t bother to further our relationship, settle for the trappings, and become Christianist instead. Others are just irreligious: They figure because they’re saved, they need do nothing more to grow as Christians… and they don’t. They’re just as awful as before, but call themselves Christian all the same, and make Christians in general look bad.

Thing is, when you use the word “faith” for religion, it’s really easy to mix up what you mean by faith. D’you mean that indefinable essence God grants his followers, or anti-doubt, or the power to believe anything, or religion? ’Cause whenever Christians talk about “the faith,” not all of us make it clear we’re talking about Christianity, and you know various Christians are mixing up the definitions. If not blending them together into an entirely new mysterious definition. People do that, you know.

Biblically defining faith.

As you can see, there are a lot of ideas floating around when Christians use the word “faith.” And since it’s a central idea in Christianity, it’s massively important to define it properly. It’s why I first of all have to reject all of the above definitions. I don’t care that they’re all found in the dictionary; the dictionary only tells us how our culture defines a word, and our culture’s definitions aren’t relevant when we talk faith. Jesus and his apostles’ definitions are.

And most of us leap right to the Hebrews verse which appears to define faith, and say, “You want a biblical definition of faith? Here ya go:

Hebrews 11.1 KJV
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Here’s the catch: That’s not a definition. That’s a description. That’s the author of Hebrews introducing “the faith chapter” He 11 by pointing out, “Now, all the folks I’m gonna write about in this chapter hoped for God’s kingdom, believed for God’s kingdom, yet never got to see God’s kingdom—as fulfilled in Jesus. But we did.” He 11.39-40 Faith is the solid basis for their actions. But “solid basis for their actions” is not the definition of faith. No more than “a wee little man” is the definition of Zacchaeus—if you know the children’s song. It’s a description, not a definition: What faith does, not what faith is.

You want a proper biblical definition of faith? Here ya go:

Galatians 3.6-7 KJV
6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Ge 15.6 7 Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.

Abraham believed God, and this is why God considered him righteous. Abraham’s “children,” his intellectual and spiritual descendants, are likewise people who believe God, so God considers us righteous. But notice the KJV describes such people as “they which are of faith.” Because faith and belief mean the very same thing. In Greek it’s the very same word, πίστις/pístis, which means faith, belief, trust, assurance, and moral conviction.

If you have faith, you believe. You believe in the chair you’re sitting in; you trust it’s not gonna cave in; you have faith it’s sturdy enough. Why do you believe in this chair? Well, you’ve sat in it before, or you trust the person who provided the chair (or at least figure this time they’re not gonna prank you with a collapsing chair). Or you have no idea who provided the chair, and have never sat in it before, but you hope it’s gonna hold up, and so far so good. That’s a much, much shakier faith—but it’s still faith.

Abraham’s faith was in God. Christian faith should likewise be in God. More importantly, in God through Christ Jesus, because we have faith in him, that he describes God accurately—more accurately than other religions do. (I mean, if we don’t trust Jesus to this degree, we may as well be in one of those other religions.) And that Jesus’s apostles, who wrote his bible, describe Jesus accurately; so to some degree we gotta have faith in the apostles and the scriptures too.

But since faith is a synonym of belief and trust, we should be totally able to swap out those words for faith and have it mean the same thing. We trust in God. We trust Christ Jesus. We trust the scriptures. ’Cause if we don’t, it’s not really faith. It’s some other thing, like wishful thinking or brain-dead acceptance.

And because it’s a synonym, it applies just as much to non-religious things. I’ve never been to Antarctica. Have you? Statistically, no you haven’t. Other than certain explorers, scientists, and those who took cruise ships which skim the coast (and froze their keisters off in so doing), you’ve never seen Antarctica for yourself. So how do we know it exists? Well, ever since childhood, we’ve seen globes or maps with a big white continent on the bottom, and were told this is Antarctica. We were told it’s cold, and desolate, with nothing on it but ice and penguins. Sometimes scientists stay there for various reasons. They took photos and video, and we were shown these things. So we believe it’s there.

So much so, if anyone told you Antarctica’s not there—that there’s a vast conspiracy to make everyone believe in it, for various insidious reasons—you’d think that person is looney. (Or you might not. Some people are just that gullible.) Your faith in Antarctica is that strong. Yes, faith; that’s the proper word for it.

If you thought faith was way more mystical than that, it’s not. It’s just that simple.

And here’s where irreligious skeptics are gonna object. Because they put faith in things too; everybody does. But the irreligious hate to use the word “faith” to describe what they’re doing, ’cause to them “faith” is a religion word. They’re not religious, so what they do can’t be “faith.” What we do is faith… and they’d prefer we stick to the popular definition of “the ability to believe in goofy nonsense.” They don’t believe in nonsense; they don’t do faith.

Thing is, when you actually read the New Testament, you’ll notice the authors seemed to think proof, verification, eyewitness accounts, and reason were kinda important. Kinda the backbone of faith. Same as irreligious people consider these same things important to prove validity. John vouched for the eyewitness testimonies in his gospel Jn 19.35, 21.24 and letters. 1Jn 1.1-3 Simon Peter appealed to his personal experiences of Jesus. Ac 10.37-41 Paul and Sosthenes pointed out if Jesus isn’t really raised from the dead, our faith is based on nothing 1Co 15.12-19 —’cause it’s always gotta be based on something! Even when Festus thought Paul totally lost his mind, Paul appealed to what he considered well-known facts. Ac 26.25-27 It’s like evidence is important to faith—and it is.

See, the apostles realized what they were claiming. Jesus is Lord, and despite his crucifixion the Father raised him from the dead. The Holy Spirit dwelt within them. They could do miracles and exorcisms and cure the sick, because God’s kingdom has arrived, and Jesus is returning to take over the world. Yeah, without proof, this all sounds crazy. Sounds like the most delusional myth ever. Sounds like something no sane person would embrace. (The only reason sane people consider it normal, despite its implausibility, is because we grew up with it.) And the only way the apostles could prove it’s not crazy, wasn’t gonna be with clever intellectual arguments. 1Co 1.22-23 It’d only work on people who believe the apostles 2Th 1.10 and Jesus Jn 3.16 —or who see God’s power for ourselves. Jn 2.23

Look, we Christians don’t believe difficult, even impossible, ideas because we wanna. (And we shouldn’t!) We believe ’em because we trust our fellow Christians—the ones who wrote bible, and the ones who taught us what the bible means. And ultimately, behind all of them, we trust Jesus. If we’re believing things for any other reason, it’s the wrong reason. Our faith must be in trustworthy things. Not in imaginary things.

We don’t just “have faith,” yet never specify what our faith is in. Faith is transitive: Faith has to be in someone or something. “Faith” which isn’t placed, which isn’t in anything, is fantasy. At best it’s “faith in faith,” whatever that means. It’s not solid, not real. It’s imaginary.

We don’t just put our faith in anyone and anything. Let’s not be stupid. There needs to be something substantive to a person before we put faith in them. And there’s always something substantive to people who are truly following God. As well as God himself. It’s why we put our faith in them, and especially him.