by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, M.Div.
It is difficult to know what the word for faith in the New Testament means because all too often, the term is used without definition. One of the few biblical definitions is given in Hebrew 11:1, which states “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” There are at least two interesting elements to this “definition”: hope and the idea that one’s faith exceeds materialism. Faith has to do with more than seeing, touching, tasting, feeling, etc. and to have faith means that one gains their assurance not just from the things they experience empirically, but it also comes from the spiritual, nonempirical realities of life as well. Besides this,
the New Testament authors tell us that it is something those following Jesus or wishing to do the will of God need. Biblical texts also talk of those whose faith is strong and those whose faith is weak, indicating that there is a scale ranging from weak to strong faith measured in part by one’s commitment to doing what they think they are supposed to do and living the way they are supposed to live. Those who love unconditionally, in other words, are strong in their faith whereas those whose love is conditioned by jealousy, anger, envy, etc. have a weaker faith. There is, however, no precise measure except that one live as Christ beseech them to live by practicing a devout and committed life. Still, this seems rather subjective, and faith seems relative to the one who professes it and how the group of which they are a part defines it. Given the vagueness of the terms, let’s examine the term “faith.” What does it mean and what claims does it make upon our lives if we profess to have it?
Part of the problem has to do with translating the Greek into English. The Greek term for faith is πίστις (pistos), which is the substantive form of the infinitive πιστεύω (pisteuό). The noun and the verb have the same root, πιστ, yet when translated into English, the noun πίστις is translated “faith,” and the infinitive πιστεύω is translated “to believe,” leading to the question, is faith believing or is believing faith? How do we bring these two—faith and believing—together so that we think of the same thing, faith being something we possess while believing is something we do?
Traditionally, this has been done propositionally. The Christian faith, the theory goes, is comprised of certain propositions: Jesus Christ is our personal savior and forgives our sins; Jesus Christ is God; we become Christians by asking for forgiveness; Jesus died on the cross to save our sins; God is a triune God comprised of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etc. The list of these propositions can be quite long and depending on the Christian tradition can be comprised of liturgical practices as well as an ethical code defining “Christlike” behaviors. To believe these propositions are true, is to have faith. But a proposition can only go so far. What is the merit of believing that Jesus is God? What, to put it bluntly, does such a belief do? How does it change those who profess these propositions as their faith?
As one reads the words of the New Testament, it becomes apparent that having faith goes beyond the propositions one affirms and reaches to the very core of one’s life. The community of the faithful is more than simply a group of people believing the same propositions. The community is not academically defined; it is lived. Paul, in II Corinthians, puts it this way: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:17-18). For Paul, to “be in Christ” goes well beyond the propositions one professes. Paul refers to an ontological process whereby
the very being of a person is transformed and the process of working out this transformation existentially—in the everydayness of one’s life—is faith. We don’t necessarily believe anything, but as we “faith,” if you will, we begin to understand what this new creation means not only for ourselves, but just as importantly, how it impacts our relationships with others. Or as Augustine once said, faith seeks understanding of the life we are called to live when we profess to be followers of Jesus. The author of I John is more to the point. Here we find the following words:
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness (I John 2:9-11).
The meaning of these words is difficult to misunderstand for the meaning is simple: If one hates those around them, they are not a person of faith; they are not “faithing” and hence, they are not a member of the family of faith. If, however, a person loves those around them, e.g., shows them compassion, relates to others empathetically, listens to them, cares for their needs, etc., then this person is a person of faith; this one is faithing and is a part of the family of faith.
Is this a black and white issue? What if one is not perfected in their love of others? What if they make a mistake or act out of anger, prejudice, jealousy, or spite? While the author of I John speaks of love being “perfected” in Christ, we must be careful to understand what is being said. Here perfection is not a state whereby a person loves and does no wrong. It is not a black and white issue. We are, in Paul’s words, called to a ministry of reconciliation where we strive to give no one a reason for stumbling. But reconciliation is a process, and the perfection is found in the commitment made to the process of reconciliation. This commitment is faith. If a person of faith grows angry with another person, then the faithing process requires an apology and, learning a lesson from their anger, commits themselves to doing so no longer.
This is not an intellectual practice. It has to do with the merit of the relationships kept by the person of faith. Relationships are not static; they change over time and through the interactions they inspire. Faithing speaks directly to the quality of relationships we strive to maintain and our interaction with other persons of faith is edifying when it helps the faithful to understand the ebb and flow of the process of reconciliation. We learn through our sins, and we gain the power (grace) to overcome our sin through edifying discourse with the faithful. In this sense, “perfection” is not an unchanging state. “Perfection” denotes the strength of commitment to practicing loving and redemptive relationships throughout the course of our everyday lives. Those who do this, as I John says, walk in the light—they are persons of faith even though they may not always act as they would have liked, but still strive to keep practicing loving relationships.
This, then, is the hope of faith…through a process of reconciliation, creating a world of love. Such a world may not exist…yet. The community of which we are a part may not reflect the love for which we strive…yet. Our family life may be punctuated with bickering and stress may test the fabric of our familial love; it may not be the loving family we desire…yet. The peace that love brings may be a distant flicker, but we have hope that love will prevail and our commitment to faithing means that we do not give up. We do not quit because we hope that by engaging in a ministry of reconciliation and committing ourselves to loving others, this process will be redemptive and evoke a change for the better in our world however defined. Those persons who are committed to building a better, more peaceful world through reconciling relationality, or love, are those persons who are people of faith.
This is why it is confusing to me that those who profess to walk in the light—those who profess to love others—believe they can do so by hating those who are different, belittling those who are less fortunate, or excluding people simply because their skin is a different color, or their sexual values differ. It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25: 21-46). We faith when we commit ourselves to the ministry of reconciliation regardless of who that person may be. For those who shun us or attempt to persecute us for our love, we accept their rejection, but we do not do so by hating them, fighting with them or excluding them; we do so by continuing to hope that our efforts will bear fruit. The faithful do not quit, a persistence that led Representative John Lewis to coin the phrase “Good trouble.” Reflecting his commitment to civil rights, he meant by this that faithing is peacefully engaging the injustices of life in the hope that those who follow us will be able to live justly, they will be able to live lives of faith as those who think, look, and dress differently can live in peace because they have been reconciled to one another even though in many things they may disagree. That is love, and those who love are those who have faith.
Believing may have a place in our spiritual life, but believing is not faith. We may believe that our faithful living will create a just world where love prevails. By believing it, we define our hope. But faith is much more than believing. It is living a life committed to love, which manifests itself in a ministry of reconciliation where we learn to live with those who are different from ourselves not to make them like us, but to celebrate the beautiful diversity of the world in which we live. That is faith, and those who commit themselves to doing so are the ones who have love in their hearts and walk in the light. These, after all, are the ones who do God’s will.