Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Faith that moves mountains

Faith is a nice buzzword in our culture, often synonymous with “religion” or “religious”, but not always. It can mean a lot of different things to people in different contexts. Some examples:

- Faith is Blind, opposed to knowledge
“There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so'.” – Mark Twain
- Foolish, leading to disaster (see picture to the left)
- Useful for being a whole person, but it doesn’t
matter what you believe in (see Shepherd Book)

But what is biblical faith? What is Christian faith?

For the Christian, faith is pretty essential. Scripture makes clear faith is not only the foundation of our salvation (e.g. Eph. 2:8; Rom. 4:5; etc.), but the early followers of Christ called themselves simply those “of the faith”. Faith is the primary expression of our relationship with God, and we can’t really know God in any real way without it.

Jesus describes faith as able to “move mountains” (Matt. 17:20). This is a rather remarkable notion of faith! After all, how many of us can say with honesty that we see our faith accomplishing such things? Now Jesus isn’t speaking of literally moving mountains, but is instead using language that Rabbi’s used to describe accomplishing “exceptional, extraordinary, or impossible” feats. While we don’t expect to move mountains, Jesus’ point is that even with a little faith we can accomplish what seems impossible. After all, right after this he adds “nothing will be impossible for you”. This still sounds rather out of character with our own experience of faith, and it certainly seems to be a bit out of character with a lot of Christians around us.

So the question for this blog is: how does faith accomplish this?

I want to begin by briefly outlining what the Bible has to say about faith. I think three basic concepts seem to capture the biblical notion of faith (not because 3 is a magic number, but because that's all I could come up with).

Faith is Turning
The first is Turning. Throughout the Bible faith and repentance are tied together. You cannot have faith without repentance, and true repentance leads to faith. Repentance is turning away from something, in this case sin. But turning away from sin by itself is no more effective than repairing a broken car is by simply removing t the defective parts. For the repair to actually be a repair, the broken parts need to be replaced or fixed. We aren't "fixed" to just turn away from sin, there has to be something (or someone) to replace that. Faith is the expression of this turning to God, so that we are turning away from sin (Paul calls this dying to sin (Rom. 6:6), being freed from slavery to sin(Rom 6:7)) and turning to God (offering ourselves as instruments of righteousness(Rom.6:13), being raised with Christ for new life(Rom. 6:4)).

In scripture, turning to God entails several things:
Accepting Jesus as Lord over your whole life (after all, you cannot serve two masters Matt 6:24)
Freely submitting your will to God’s
In dying to sin, dying to your self in order to live for God (Mark 8:34-35; Rom. 6:6; etc.)
Committing to a life of obedience -- faith isn't just passive, it's active and revealed in it's fruit (e.g. John 15, James 1, etc.).

Faith is Trusting
The second concept of faith is Trusting. Trust is a rather familiar concept involving reliance and confidence. Biblical trust begins by responding to Jesus’ invitation positively. John describes this as the thirsty coming to Jesus for a drink (John 7:37), Matthew describes it as the weary coming to Jesus for rest (Matt. 11:28), and Hebrews describes us as confidently approaching his throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). We can't begin to trust God without first approaching him. This concept of approach is rather radical as it reveals mere sinful humans approaching God, coming into his holy presence. Biblical trust begins with this unique relationship of nearness with God.

In addition to this positive response, trusting includes several other aspects of our relationship with him:
• Trust involves being led by God. In Heb. 11:8-9 Abraham trusted God to lead him, even though he didn’t know where he was going. This kind of trust means we shouldn’t be worry about things God will provide (Matt. 6:26ff), but trusting in God’s wisdom and power in his plan for our lives, either in specific works he wants us to do today, or the bigger life choices he would prefer we take.
• Trust involves being grounded in God. James describes faith as producing steadfastness (James 1:3), which is opposite of doubt “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind”, (James 1:6). When we trust in God we are grounded and find assurance only in him and his proven faithfulness. We aren’t swayed by mere doubt, and when doubt does creep in we quickly fall back on our foundation of trust in who God is.
• Trust involves confident in God’s ability to do great things. The Centurion believed in Jesus’ healing power, in contrast with the majority of Jews at that time. Jesus described future believers as “blessed” when they believe in him even though they were not witnesses to his miracles (John 20:29). This confidence is in manifest when we act when God leads. We cannot say we really trust God if we don’t believe he’s able and will do the things he says he will.
• Trust also involves hope. Biblical hope is centered on the future realization of our salvation. The Christian hope is that this world and this life are not all that there is to living. Instead, we trust in God’s promises to bring salvation and restoration. This hope drives us to trusting that God will act in the future in ways consistent with how he’s acted in the past.

Faith is Knowing
The third concept of faith is Knowing. Faith is a form of knowledge that we all recognize, even if some argue it is in contradiction with fact. Most religious people would consider themselves as having faith of some sort. The common thread here is an understanding that faith involves an experience of God or the divine in some way. For the Christian, this experience is not just an emotional / spiritual experience, but an encounter with the living and risen savior, knowing the real, personal, sovereign, immanent, and transcendent creator of the universe. Further, this encounter changes who we are. Jesus is an active participant in the strengthening and growth of our faith, (Heb. 12:2).

But what is more unique to the Christian faith is that knowledge isn’t just an experience of God. It is also knowledge of something factual, historical, and true. Hebrews begins this knowledge with simply acknowledging that God exists (Heb. 11:6). Paul argues that we cannot call on God without first hearing the good news about God (Rom. 10:14). Paul continues in 1 Cor. 15:14 that without the real, historical resurrection of Jesus our faith is empty and in vain. This means that in order to experience God, we have to know something about him, (which is a good reason why Christians should read their Bible: over 1,500 years of reliable stories about our God and how he is faithful!)

More importantly, the Christian faith isn’t just “faith in something”, but faith in the person of Christ. John describes this as “whoever believes in”, which he doesn’t use the normal preposition for “in”, but the preposition eis which means “into”. The notion here is not just a mental ascent to a fact, but the activity of knowing and being united with the person of Christ. "Believing in" Jesus is more than just knowing about Jesus, or having an experience of Jesus, but is trans-formative and points to a deep and unique relationship.

A final aspect of knowing faith is endurance. Faith that involves a real experience of Jesus and includes knowledge about him must endure. Throughout the Christian life our faith will face temptation, persecution, and challenges against hope. Paul describes faith as a shield against these challenges, against the “the fiery darts of the enemy” (Eph. 6:16). Hebrews makes clear that we can endure, because we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses”, we can endure by focusing on Christ, who for the joy of our salvation endured far worse (Heb. 12:1-4). Not only that, but we can have confidence in enduring because Jesus will be faithful to help us along the way (1 Cor. 10:13; Heb. 10:23).

So what it is about this faith that enables us to move mountains?
1) Faith means being close to the heart of God. We can accomplish the impossible when we seek and know things that are in God’s will. This notion of “being close to the heart of God” is grounded in the concept of transformation. Christianity is fundamentally about being “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”, (Rom 12:2). This means by having a faith that includes turning, trusting, and knowing God we can grow in our understanding of God and what he wants.

2) Faith means being “in”. John loves the notion of being “in” Christ and “abiding” in him. John uses this language to express our reliance on and trust in God, our being rooted in God, and God using us to bear fruit. One image John likes to use is of a vine that bears fruit (such as John 15). The branch bears the fruit, but without the life giving sustenance provided by the vine the branch is useless and dead. Hebrews describes this concept as a heavenly citizenship, (Heb. 11:14-16). Our citizenship and our identity are rooted in God, so that our goals and desires are oriented towards his kingdom.

3) Faith means “trust and obey” by His power. In Matt. 17:20, Jesus’ promise of “moving mountains” is in the context of responding to the apparent failure of the disciples in exorcizing a demon. The disciples’ failure was not for a lack of power, but a lack of trust and reliance in Jesus. Jesus explains that even if they had a small portion of faith, they would have succeeded. It’s not that faith is a quantity, but that it requires trusting in God and confidence in him. To me, this sounds a lot like the disciples, even though they were trying to be obedient, were trying to act in their own power.

Instead, scripture is full of success stories of people who accomplished amazing things by faith. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of such examples. What is interesting is that all that they really did was trust God. The power wasn’t from themselves, but instead their faith meant God’s power was expressed through them. All they needed to do was trust him and act in obedience.

How then can we grow in this faith?
Simply put, are turning, trusting, and knowing a reality in our faith? All three are interconnected and necessary for one another, and all three are necessary for knowing God. But are they a part of our faith?

Paul says we should examine our faith (2 Cor. 13:5). We should test whether the faith we have is real by comparing it with these telltale signs of true, living faith:
Producing the fruit of good work (John 15; James 2:17-18)
Lives continually marked by trusting God (Matt. 6:25-34)
Lives marked by love and obedience
Lives marked by relying on God’s power
These are the marks of a vibrant faith. If we see areas of turning, trusting, or knowing that are failing, then we should confront those areas in prayer (and work through them with other believers).

What is the root of the problem?
Are there other desires, concerns, fears, or emotions getting in the way?
How can I surrender these areas to God?

No Christian this side of eternity is perfect, so even if we’re doing “okay”, we most certainly have a lot of room for improvement. If we really want to know God more and be used by him, we need to regularly be asking ourselves

What area of my life do I need to turn to God more?
What area of my life do I need to trust in God more?
What area of my life do I need to know God more?

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