Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Faith, Belief and This Week's Readings

This past Monday's (February 1, 2010) lectionary readings brought together a couple of lessons about faith and belief that I will pull out of context because they made me stop and reflect a little bit.

First we heard in Hebrews 11:1-12 :
"1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen...

...6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."

Paul presents us with an excellent definition of faith in #1. I don't think that even the esteemed Merriam-Webster can do better. The online definition lists,
"1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs

synonyms see belief"

It is interesting that Merriam-Webster presents only one synonym and that is "belief." Similar but not identical. If you ask Merriam Webster about belief, you do find an attempt to differentiate faith and belief.
"belief may or may not imply certitude in the believer . faith almost always implies certitude even where there is no evidence or proof "

Belief and faith are nouns, while to believe is a verb, and faith is listed as a transitive verb (after all nobody says "I faith in you").

I prefer Paul's definition of faith insofar as the scripture passages for Monday are concerned. Paul did not define belief in these passages, and it would have been interesting to see how he might compare and contrast the two. I have tried to digest scholarly discourses on the contrast between the two, but it all seemed too scholarly.

I am left wondering if there is a requirement for one to come before the other. Modern rationalists might find the following analogies helpful,

The first person to survive a marathon run had faith. All who follow in his footsteps have belief.

The Wright Brothers had faith. When I board a jet airplane, I believe it should fly.

I differ from the modern rationalist since I have faith that I will see Jesus if the plane crashes because I believe that God exists. Or is it the other way around? Do I believe that I will meet Jesus if the plane crashes because I have faith that God exists?

For me, faith, however ill defined, seems to have come first and has led me into belief. For many years I was in open denial of the existence of God. This is not something unique to the age of reason. Paul, in #6, shows (by noting the importance of believing that God exists) that there were those who argued against the existence of God back in Paul's day just as they do in the present age. When Paul was spreading the Gospel, did he lead those people into faith or belief, or both, and in what order? Perhaps it does not matter. Fortunately, God has a means to bring us from a state of disbelief or unbelief to belief through faith.

Some where, some when, Jesus was the means by which I was brought back to faith and belief. He spoke through the Gospels. For me, it was Luke's Gospel, but for others it might be the other reading from this Monday's lectionary John 6:27-40 :
28 Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ 29 Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent...’

...35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away;...

...40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’

Jesus recognized those in His presence who did not believe in Him (#36). I admit that I would probably have been one of them. Why should I or any other modern person listen to and believe in Him or His words and deeds as written in the Gospels? Why "have faith in Him" in the first place? You might think that this is a question only for the evangelist and the Christian apologist and not for oneself. I disagree. I think that the question of faith and belief are central to the problems of our age. What is certain these days? Love and death? Death and Taxes? Heaven and Earth? Who cares about all that religion and stuff when you have the Internet, cable TV, air conditioning, and a grocery store on every corner? In this day, when people can be "spiritual and not religious" without ever believing in anything, who needs faith?

When faith and belief are being tested by the zeitgeist at every opportunity, even in the church itself, it becomes of paramount importance for each and everyone of us to pray, to study, and to practice answering the question our self-centered world will ask us, and that is probably not the question of which came first, faith or belief, nor is it the question, "what do you believe," but instead,
"Why should I believe?"

When it comes time for me to hear that question, I have faith that God will provide the words to give an effective answer. At the same time, I believe that he wants me to keep studying and practicing in order to be ready for that time.


  1. Perhaps the problem is the English language. I don't know whether in Greek there is a difference in nuance or meaning between "to believe" versus "to have faith in." I don't know, but they appear to be used in English synonymously.

    Perhaps belief comes after evidence is presented, a la a science experiment. Drop a bowling ball on your foot ten times in a row and you believe it will happen on the eleventh iteration. Faith exists without evidence. Query under the above whether anyone can truly believe in the existence of God, absent some sort of "burning bush" experience?

    I need to think about this some more, but thanks for a though-provoking post.


  2. An all-around fine post. Your final paragraph reminds me of 2 Timothy 1:12.

  3. R,

    There will be no one to compare with Moses who saw the LORD face to face.

    After posting this one, all kinds of day to day examples of faith and or belief keep popping up. Funny how that happens.