Faith: What is it?

What is faith? How can you believe? Why might someone have difficulty believing?". These are very good questions. In this study we look at what faith is and why it is so important.

A good place to look for examples is Hebrews chapter 11 . It’s a whole chapter dedicated on the topic of "Faith". Yet, it's only in reading all of the scriptures that things make sense.

What is faith?

Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is “the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Perhaps, no other component of the Christian life is more important than faith.

“Take the shield of faith with which ye will be able to quench all the inflamed darts of the wicked one.” (Ephesians 6v1).

The ’shield of faith’ is so important and serves to protect us from the many ’darts’ that try to shake us every day. We cannot purchase it, sell it or give it to our friends. So what is faith and what role does faith play in the Christian life? The dictionary defines faith as “belief in, devotion to, or trust in somebody or something, especially without logical proof.” The Bible has much more to say about faith and how important it is. In fact, it is so important that, without faith, we have no place with God (see Hebrews 11:6). According to the Bible, faith is belief in the one, true God without actually seeing Him.

Where does faith come from?

Faith is not something we conjure up on our own, it isn't something we are born with, nor is faith a result of diligence in study or pursuit of the spiritual virtues. Instead, we read that faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). A gift is not earned by some good deed or kind word, and it is not given because the giver expects a gift in return. The Bible emphasizes that faith is a gift because God deserves all of the glory for our salvation. If the receiver of faith could do anything whatsoever to deserve or earn the gift, that person would have every right to boast about his or her worthiness(Ephesians 2:9). God wants Christians to understand they have done nothing to earn faith, it’s only because of what Christ did on the cross that God gives anyone faith (Ephesians 2:5).

By knowing that our faith comes from God alone, it should encourage us, but remember God decides the measure of faith each one receives (Romans 12:3).  The Bible specifies the way, or the means, that God gives faith to people. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Romans 10:17). It is the Word of God that produces faith. Someone could receive faith while hearing a sermon teaching the gospel, someone else by reading about Jesus in the Bible. Any time the true gospel of Jesus is communicated, there is potential for faith to be given. This is why it’s so important to preach the gospel. Faith is given through the message about Jesus.

It is good for anyone who wants faith to ask for it. God freely gives what is good to all who ask (Luke 11:9–12), and it’s good to ask for an increase of faith (Luke 17:5; Mark 9:24). Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith to be strengthened (Luke 22:32). As with any gift from God, it is our responsibility to  exercise the gift and not become complacent, lazy, or apathetic (see Romans 12:1–2). We can find comfort and peace of mind knowing our faith is from God, because He has said He will finish the good work He started (Philippians 1:6). God is the Author and the Perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2a; Romans 8:29–30).

Why have faith?

God tells us that it pleases Him that we believe in Him even though we cannot see Him. A key part of Hebrews 11:6 tells us that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. This is not to say that we have faith in God just to get something from Him. However, God loves to bless those who are obedient and faithful. For example Jesus is engaged in dialogue with a sinful woman, in the gospel of Luke, when He gives us a glimpse of why faith is so rewarding. “Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace" (Luke 7:50). The woman believed in Jesus by faith, and He rewarded her for it.

Faith is what sustains us to the end, knowing by faith that we will be in heaven with God for all eternity:

"whom, having not seen, ye love; on whom, though not now looking, but believing, ye exult with joy unspeakable and filled with the glory, receiving the end of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9).

Without demonstrating faith and trust in God, we have no place with Him. We believe in God’s existence by faith. Our faith can falter at times, but because it is the gift of God, given to His children, He provides times of trial and testing in order to prove that our faith is real and to sharpen and strengthen it. The people mentioned in Hebrews 11, went through their trials and miseries, but where able to "keep their faith" and "finish the race". This is why James tells us to consider it “pure joy” when we fall into trials, because the testing of our faith produces perseverance and matures us, providing the evidence that our faith is real (James 1:2-4).

Beautiful examples of faith

Hebrews 11 is the “faith chapter” because it describes great deeds of faith. By faith Abel offered a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord (v. 4); by faith Noah prepared the ark in a time when rain was unknown (v. 7); by faith Abraham left his home and obeyed God’s command to go he knew not where, then willingly offered up his only son (v. 8-10, 17); by faith Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt (v. 23-29); by faith Rahab received the spies of Israel and saved her life (v. 31). Many more heroes of the faith are mentioned:

People “who by faith overcame kingdoms, wrought righteousness  (Joshua, Judges, David, others), obtained promises (Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon), stopped lions' mouths (Samson), quenched the power of fire (Sadrach, Meshach, Abednego - Daniel 3:19-30), escaped the edge of the sword (David - 1 Samuel 18: & 19:9, Elijah - 1 Kings 19:1-3, Elisha - 2. Kings 9:15), became strong out of weakness (Ehud - Judges 3:12, Jael - Judges :17, Gideon - Judges 6:15 & 7:1, Samson - Judges 16:21, Hezekiah - Isaiah 38:1), became mighty in war, made the armies of strangers give way” (v. 33-34).

All these people had some power or authority, yet none of them are praised by their accomplishments or abilities; instead, they are noted for what they've accomplished through faith in God. Clearly, the existence of faith is demonstrated by action.

Struggling with faith

The apostle Paul exhorts Christians to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). What we see here is a contrast between truth and perception—what we know and believe to be true and what we perceive to be true. This is where the Christian struggle with a lack of faith finds its basis. The main reason why so many Christians struggle with a lack of faith is that we follow our perceptions of what is true rather than what we know to be true by faith. It’s a hard concept to grasp, isn’t it?

Perhaps before going any further it may be helpful to come up with a working definition of faith. Faith is not “belief without proof.” This is the definition that many sceptics give faith. This definition creates the openings to strange sects or cults. That's not what "faith" in the Christian religion is defined as. Faith is not belief without proof or belief despite the evidence; rather, faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. That trust or confidence we have in someone is built up over time as he proves himself faithful time and time again.

Christianity is a faith-based religion. It is based on faith in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ. God has provided us with His Word, as a testimony of His faithfulness to His people all throughout history. In its bare essentials, Christianity is faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. His life was one of perfect righteousness according to the revealed Law of God, His death was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of His people, and He was raised to life three days after His death. When we place our faith and trust in Christ alone for our salvation, God takes our sin and places it on the cross of Christ and awards us, by grace, with the perfect righteousness of Christ. That, in a nutshell, is the Christian message. As Christians, we believe this message and live in light and joy of it.

Despite this, Christians still struggle with believing the biblical account because it doesn’t match up with our perception of reality. We may believe that Jesus was a real person, we may believe that He died by crucifixion at the hand of the Romans, we may even believe that He led a perfect life according to God’s Law, but we don’t “see” how faith in Christ makes us righteous before God. We struggle to “see” Jesus as having atoned for our sins. We struggle to “see” or “perceive” the great truths of Christianity, and, therefore, we struggle with lack of faith. As a result of this lack of perception, our lives often do not reflect the fact that we really believe what we claim to believe.

There are many reasons for this phenomenon among Christians. The main reason we struggle with faith is that we don’t truly know the God in whom we profess to have faith. The more we know someone and the more time we have had to see him “in action,” the more likely we are to believe what he says. But, if God is essentially a stranger to us, we are less likely to believe what He says in His word. The only cure for this is to spend more time in God’s word getting to know Him. That is why as Christians we need to be constantly reminded what Christ has done for us and what our response should be. Paul says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Our faith is built up as we have the gospel continually preached to us. We need to be built on the solid preaching of the Word and the regular observance of the ordinances. 

Consider the example of the Israelites in the Old Testament. God had performed great miracles in rescuing His chosen people from slavery in Egypt—the Ten Plagues, the pillar of smoke and fire, the crossing of the Red Sea. God brings His people to the foot of Mount Sinai, gives them the Law and makes a covenant with them. No sooner does He do this than the people begin to grumble and lose faith. With Moses gone up on the mountain, the people convince Aaron to construct an idol for them to worship (Exodus 32:1–6). They were no longer walking by faith, but by sight. Despite all the clear miracles God did in their redemption, they lost faith and began to go on their natural perception. That is why God instructed the new generation of Israelites before going into the promised land to continually remind themselves of what God had done for them (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). God knows that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Mark 14:38).

In conclusion, we need to heed the example of the disciple Thomas. When Thomas heard the stories of the resurrection, he wouldn’t believe them until he saw Jesus with his own two eyes. Jesus accommodated Thomas’ lack of faith by making an appearance to him and allowing him to see and touch Him. Thomas responds in worship, and Jesus says to him,

“Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed they who have not seen and have believed" (John 20:29).

Many sceptics today echo Thomas’ sentiment: “Unless I see Jesus face to face, I will not believe!” We mustn't behave like that. As we continue in dependence , trusting on the Lord we will gain more and more experience of His goodness to us. Faith is not based on no evidence, but rather in firm foundations of our experience with God Himself. We need to continually keep in mind Paul’s exhortation to walk by faith rather than sight, because faith is believing the Word of God and acting upon it, not responding to our perceptions.

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