English kind of lets us down when we try and describe New Testament faith. We believe in God, we devote ourselves to God, and we are fully confident that God can do all God promises.
But I’d say that the essence of Christian faith is loyalty.
Christians believe that the Creator God lives in Jesus intimately, and that Jesus lives in the Creator, and we submit our whole selves to Jesus, the God-Man as King.
Good enough. But take a serious read of the scriptures, and things get not so clear. What do we make of the divided mind of some of the disciples after Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28.17)? Some believed and some doubted. And what do we do with Jesus’s apparent gentleness towards those who doubted? And what about the type of certainty that Jesus rejects: “blessed rather are those who do not see and yet believe” (John 20.29)? And does faith require works (James) or is it a gift that leads us to works (Paul)? And what are the differences between belief, trust, and faithfulness?
Let’s see if we can get some of this straight. Faith in God, our trust that the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the father — the loyalty that brings us everlasting life — may be straightforward enough for a child to experience. But it is not simple. If we want to experience the full power of Christianity, and to avoid harming others with an undignified type of spiritual abuse, we must be able to answers these questions and keep faith in God clear.
A good reading of the gospel of John helps remedy our enduring ignorance and sets us straight. Give it a try; read the whole set of 21 chapters (It’ll take one hour less than watching the most recent Marvel movie: the fact that you know how long a Marvel movie is says enough). See if you can get a grasp on Jesus’s teaching about faith.
Really. Go do that now.
What did you discover?
In my reading, I see a constant teaching about the humility it takes to believe that the Father is in Jesus and that Jesus is in the Father. I also see that Jesus’s closest followers struggled to give themselves over to Jesus humbly even in the face of the risen Lord. They saw and some struggled. I see that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day had their prestige and their own kingdoms to defend. We all have our kingdoms we defend, and the wrong type of response to Jesus is that kind resistance where we reject God in order to defend our proverbial temples and nations (John 11.48).
Here’s how I see it: humility in the face of Jesus, a non-defensive internal confirmation that Jesus has a special relationship with God, somehow sets our world back on its original base. This faith aligns us with reality. A prideful defensive antagonism towards Jesus blinds us. Human beings—seasoned Christian and others alike—linger somewhere in between, moving back and forth between humility and pride.
Faith, in its fullness, brings us to worship, to a heartfelt abandonment where we trust in the careful watch of Jesus. This is where the whole thing leads.
There was once a man that Jesus healed, who was born blind from birth (9.1). He was one of the few in the gospel of Joh who reached destination of faith. Here’s what he said after Jesus stood up for him in front of all the terrifying leaders: “I believe, Lord, and he fell down to worship Jesus.” Or later, we find Jesus’s disciple Thomas getting there too: “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28), he declared about Jesus. Matthew tells us that, though some doubted, some did worship him (Matthew 28.17). This worship is something we do before Kings and gods. We bow and obey. “Come, let us worship and fall down before him and weep before the Lord that made us”, the Psalmist declares. The Kingdom of God is build on these kinds of responses to Jesus, the cumulative voice of people sharing their hearts openly, wisely, and with invitation to others.
But in this early faith community, not all people were there yet. Some doubted. As the gospel writer describes in John 20, before he could have faith, Thomas demanded proof; a very particular sign in order to give himself over to Jesus. He wanted to touch the wounds of Jesus. He was slipping from doubt towards unbelief. Jesus shows up and lets him touch his fresh wounds and warns Thomas not to slip further away from faith. “Blessed rather are those who have not seen and yet believed.”
So some doubted and Thomas demanded a sign.
Are you seeing the difference yet? You can find this contrast loaded in the stories of scripture.
Jesus warns against unbelief but seems almost indifferent to the doubt in Matthew 28 and commissions the whole group anyway. Doubt and unbelief: two different things.
If faith is believing without seeing, then unfaith, or unbelief is seeing without believing. Unbelief says, “even if I see I won’t believe.” Unbelief is an “I am defending my kingdom” approach. Its basic instinct is defence, and its root is pride. It is the “they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father” (John 15.24). Even if I see I won’t believe. That’s unbelief. Demanding a sign from God signifies the slip. It puts you among those who will hate Jesus when they see him face to face. Jesus doesn’t abide unbelief.
But doubt is different. Doubt is born of one mind warring with itself. It is a desire to believe, on the one hand, and yet a struggle with obstacles on the other. Unanswered questions. Hesitations. Shock.
Jesus treats doubt gently as long as people don’t get stuck there. Sometimes people need a few minutes (or a week or some years) to recalibrate, after experiencing something that shakes them. Doubt is what Peter had that time when he got out and walked on water, saw the waves, and began to sink: “Why did you doubt”, Jesus asks kindly and with a rescuing hand. Jesus did not pummel Peter the Rock apart for this doubt. Any time the gospel is preached, souls will get shaken. Anytime humans begin to trust in anything, they will soon hesitate when instability threatens. Jesus asks the world to believe him, trust him, and not slip toward a defensive posture even when he gets daring. And he does.
This brings us all to John 6. Jesus feeds the 5,000, escapes the crowd who are ready to make him king, walks on water, awakes and starts eating some kind of breakfast in his home town of Capernaum. The 5,000, fed yesterday, hungry for anything today, come sailing to Jesus. “How’d you get here”, they ask. Jesus throws some sand in their face by telling them that they only want to follow him because their stomachs are full. These are the same people who will – just one year later – be shouting “crucify him.” They’ll give Caesar a try.
Today they want a sign, so they can believe, as if all he just accomplished did not compute. Jesus remarks without hesitating, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.35). This is not a response to their question. He skirts it. It is an answer to the right questions: who are you and why trust you? Signs, when given to spiritual consumers, lead to unbelief.
It’s no wonder that many leave Jesus right at this point. Jesus loved to disguise himself. He rarely wanted to do miracles. And this is why: hungry for anything, quick to get defensive, we cannot abide being unmasked. Faith requires vulnerability and defensive people hate being exposed.
He knows that what separates believers from unbelievers is a posture in their hearts. He wants people to worship him in humility without him needing to prove anything to us. He knows that, confronted with his Lordship, many will waffle between faith and doubt, struggling to submit their lives to another King–The King– so to align their hearts finally with the flow of reality. And he knows that showing up too quickly or perceptibly to free people will cause some to retreat into unbelief. Modern people weren’t the first to require a sign in order to believe.
So he is patient, wooing, leaving traces of his design. And rather than coercing people to feel some form of certainty, he used stories to reach those humble in heart.
So. Faith in God.
- Christian faith is a confident loyalty to Jesus.
- Faith never reaches certainty.
- The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s unbelief.
- Doubt is wanting to give yourself to your Maker but finding yourself hesitating.
- We can be gentle with our doubt and bring it to the Lord who will hear us with compassion.
- Unbelief is the prideful hatred of Jesus, even after he’s fully revealed himself.
- If you want a sign, or if you struggle between doubt and unbelief, and you want to have faith, figure out first what kind of kingdom you are guarding.
- If you want a sign from God, He will find a way to confront what you are guarding.
- Be ready: all at once he will confront your kingdom AND offer His rescuing hand. Then humbly receive Him.
- You don’t have to experience certainty to begin your journey to God.
- Learn to delight in God’s hidden ways; with humility we will see him in lowly disguises (check out the first chapter of the spiritual classing “Abandonment to Divine Providence” for more on this.
When we straighten out these details in the elementary school of Christianity, so much else starts to align. And we can start to answer some of the more tricky questions about works, belief, trust, and faithfulness. But if we get this first point of departure wrong, we jumble up Jesus.
The world does not need a jumbled Jesus; He is a king who always confronts our unhealthy pride with striking clarity. He always asks for full loyalty. He challenges us in the worst of ways (from our vantage point). But he is also gentlemen, and when it comes to faith, if we can get the basic outline straight, our own nobility should follow and the world may just yet believe.