Do you have faith or belief?
by N. Graham Standish
Faith is like a knife: use it sparingly and it becomes little more than a dull
trinket kept in a drawer, or a ceremonial trophy to be hung on a wall. But when it is sharpened and used in everyday life, it can cut through veils to reveal with clarity God’s presence and will.
I carry a tiny knife with me everywhere I go. It’s a little Swiss Army knife with a blade, a file that can act as a screwdriver, small scissors, tweezers, and a tooth pick. I picked up the habit from my father who wisely said that you never know when you might need a knife. Knives are used in everyday life to do everything from preparing food, to pruning plants, to scraping goo off a table, to opening boxes, to whittling art out of wood, to defending ourselves. Like a knife, faith can be used in everyday life, too, but how often do we really use it?
We talk about faith a lot in the church. I talk about faith a lot in my sermons and writings. But what is it, really? Many people think it’s merely belief in God, but that’s really just a dull understanding of faith. It assumes that God sits around lamenting, “Man! I just wish people would believe I exist!” Faith is much more than mere theological belief in God’s existence. Real faith is trust. It is surrender. It’s like one of the commercials where a person falls into a pool while drinking tea, a Nestea plunge into God’s care.
For those who haven’t seen one of the commercials, here’s an old one:
Many people claim to have faith, but all they have is mere belief. They believe in God. They have a rudimentary knowledge of God that includes words like “omnipotent,” “omnipresent,” and “omniscient.” They periodically pray to God when they have a need, even if they question whether God is paying much attention. But that’s not faith.
Real faith is a deeply emerging awareness of God’s loving presence everywhere, a profound sense of God’s involvement in the world, and an ever-tightening embrace of God in each moment. This kind of faith doesn’t happen automatically. It blossoms because we cultivate it.
Deep faith forms as we face the seemingly insurmountable struggles of life, and make the apparently irrational decision to surrender our lives to God instead of abandoning ourselves to hopelessness and cynicism. Deep faith forms as we accept a difficult past that won’t go away, face an uncertain future that may not go our way, and decide to let them go so that we can trust God in the NOW—in each moment. I don’t mean each church moment. Or every moment that seems to be a “religious” moment. I mean every moment of work, play, home, away.
Real faith also doesn’t mean trying to be deeply religious in each moment where we do the right moral thing, say the right theological thing, or speak in religious language. Faith is simpler and deeper than that. Faith is opening our hearts, minds, and souls to God in each moment so that we can increasingly allow a deep connection with God become a conduit of God’s grace and Spirit that flows through every moment. And as we do this, it begins to heal the past and brighten the future.
Unfortunately, for so many people in the world, faith is dull. It doesn’t get used much. They look for God periodically, but their unimaginative faith rarely takes the risk of really putting their confidence in God. Sure, if a crisis happens, people go to God in a burst of faith, but that’s the worst time to work on faith. It’s not that God doesn’t care about us during a crisis. It’s that our drawer-bound, dull, rusty faith is so blunt that it’s abandoned pretty quickly. We ask God to help us, but when nothing happens we quickly we resort to our own resources. And then we complain that if God was really so good, God wouldn’t have let us struggle. In other word, if God was really good, God would make us God and have faith in our judgment. A dull faith is a lifeless faith that prevents us from sensing God’s presence and activity all around us no matter how apparent God may be to a person of deep faith.
It’s like the person who recounts his time stranded in the desert, saying, “I finally decided to pray, and asked God to help me. But before God could answer I came across an oasis filled with friendly nomads.” The person with a sharp faith cuts through the veil of mirages to see with clarity God’s presence in the oasis, the nomads, and the moment. The person with the dull faith only sees a mirage.
The Rev. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W. (www.ngrahamstandish.org) is senior pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania (www.calvinchurchzelie.org). He is the author of seven books on spirituality and church transformation, and is an adjunct faculty member of Pittsburgh Theological and Tyndale Seminaries. He also has a background as a spiritual director, and as an individual and family therapist.