What’s So Great About Faith?
One of the greatest intellectual struggles I have ever had in my Christian walk was trying to get my head wrapped around the idea of faith. While the word “faith” is a positive expression in the Bible of our complete, restful trust in God, it has a negative connotation for many today. It is often seen as a stubborn, irrational belief about something for which there is no evidence.
Douglas Adams, author of the best-selling series Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, comically captures a popular American understanding of faith in one of his books. The book begins by introducing the reader to an Electric Monk, which Adams describes as a “labor-saving device, like a dishwasher or video recorder.” The Electric Monk “believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” However, the robot in this story has an error in its programming. It is set to believe with “the faith that moves mountains, or at least believes them against all the available evidence,” that everything in the universe is the color of lightly-shaded pink. Adams says this faith “was a solid and abiding faith, a great rock against which the world could hurl whatever it would, yet it would not be shaken.”
I’ll confess, this description of faith got a laugh out of me. It sounds so absurd, doesn’t it? Yet, Adams has hit the nail on the head with how many people feel about faith. When faith is nothing more than stubborn, irrational belief, faith seems utterly ridiculous. Unfortunately, this understanding of faith is often perpetuated in the church as well. Have a doubt about God? Ask around at church long enough, and it probably won’t be long before you run into someone who pleasantly suggests, “Well, you should just have more faith!”
If you have ever been on the receiving end of this well-intended, but extremely unhelpful statement, you know how difficult it can be to have someone tell you that you can resolve your doubts by believing harder.
Renowned atheist Richard Dawkins shares a letter that he says “so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind” in his book, The God Delusion. Let me quote part of this letter. It was written by the president of a historical society in New Jersey to Albert Einstein about statements Einstein had made concerning science and religion:
“As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, ‘There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another’s faith.’” 
While I want to think the best of the man sending Dr. Einstein this letter, I can see why Richard Dawkins found it so troubling. Is faith the opposite of knowledge, as this man implicitly states? Is faith so fragile that we must avoid poking at it, lest it immediately crumble?
A Further Problem
Before I give you my own take on this subject, let me highlight one other problem about faith that has baffled me in the past. To put it simply, I couldn’t understand why God would value faith to begin with. I had been taught my whole life that God wanted to have a relationship with me, but when I considered faith as “stubborn, irrational belief,” the need for faith seemed strange. Faith only struck me as being necessary if there was an uncertainty that needed to be dealt with, and what possible benefit could come from uncertainty in regards to my relationship with God? Here is how I reasoned it: “I have never doubted that my parents loved me or that my best friends were my friends. So, why should I need to exercise faith that God really loves me? For that matter, why do I have to exercise faith that God even exists? If he is real and he actually cares about me, wouldn’t he go out of his way to make this undeniably clear?”
Here is another way to think about this. You’re currently reading an article at a website called Christianity Makes Sense. Why does a site like this need to exist? At a time, it struck me as absurd that I should ever need to make a case for God’s existence. What did God have to gain by this? He is GOD after all, so why would he need someone like me to convince other people to believe in him? And it gets worse. If the Christian worldview is correct, all who die without Christ will spend eternity separated from God under his punishment. If that’s what is at stake, then why leave any room for uncertainty at all?
Faith struck me as being such an outlandishly bad idea that it made me question if there could really be a god at all.
I Was Completely Wrong About Faith
Thankfully, I have learned over the years that I was completely wrong about faith. Even though Christians sometimes put forth (or at least imply) the definition of faith that we have been discussing so far, that is not what the Bible teaches about faith. Faith is not stubborn, irrational belief. But if that is the case, what has led so many people to adopt this view?
How Did We Get Here?
While I don’t claim to know how every person has developed their view of faith, I suspect that the idea that faith is stubborn, irrational belief may have roots in a misapplication of one of the most important chapters in the Bible about the subject: Hebrews 11. The chapter begins, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). Actually, the word translated “conviction” here is from the Greek word ἔλεγχος, which carries the idea of evidence. That is why some translations, such as the NKJV, translate this as the “evidence of things not seen” and the NIV translates it as being “certain of what we do not see.”
People correctly conclude from this that Christian faith is meant to be far more steady than mere wishful-thinking. It is highly confident, leaning towards certainty.
Furthermore, this confident belief is extremely pleasing to God. As the chapter continues, the author states that “without faith, it is impossible to please him (God), for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The author then offers a number of examples of faith that God found pleasing in what has come to be known as the “Hall of Faith,” with individuals being honored for their faith ranging from Abraham to Rahab.
So, to summarize, Hebrews 11 teaches at least two significant truths about faith:
- “Faith” is an extremely strong conviction about realities that we cannot currently see.
- Christians are morally obligated to have faith if they want to please God.
However, as important as these two truths are about faith, they do not represent the whole picture.
Hebrews 11 may teach us about what faith is and its importance for the Christian life. However, the chapter teaches us nothing about the rational basis for our faith. Therefore, when taking this chapter alone, many Christians find themselves in the unpleasant situation of feeling guilty over not having enough faith while being unsure how to make their faith stronger. Can you see how there might be a temptation to muster up more faith through sheer willpower?
Let’s turn our attention now to see how the rest of the Bible complements the truths we learn about faith from Hebrews 11.
Faith is a Gift, but it is Rational
Taken as a whole, the Bible teaches a common-sense understanding of faith that is very practical for our daily lives. It teaches that faith is a trust in God that arises as God’s gift to us (Ephesians 2:8-9) primarily in response to the good news about what Jesus has done for us (Romans 10:14-17). However, it is not a trust that is forced, but a trust that is rationally grounded in real actions that God has done, IE evidence. Consequentially, we are taught to live our lives consistently with what we know to be true. That makes a lot of sense.
This is the kind of faith that has driven the great heroes of the Bible. Their faith was anything but irrational.
Consider the Apostle Paul. Paul is especially noteworthy in Christianity for having penned a large number of the books in the New Testament. However, he started as an opponent of Christianity… someone who placed no faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah of his people. Paul never forced himself to believe in Jesus. He became a Christian because of three powerful sources of evidence: (1) a miraculous vision of Christ that left him blinded for several days (Acts 9:1-19), (2) the undeniable fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:6), and (3) his conviction that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures about the Messiah (Acts 9:22; 18:28).
Paul’s ministry was marked by many other notable miracles as well, which further strengthened his belief in Jesus. So, far from being someone who merely willed himself to have faith, Paul is an excellent example of someone who had total faith in Jesus that was grounded in rational belief. For that matter, it would have been irrational for Paul to deny Jesus in light of such powerful evidence.
Paul is not the only example. All of the disciples transformed from being mere followers of Jesus to powerful advocates of Christianity when they encountered the resurrected Christ. It is a remarkable and inexplicable transformation apart from them experiencing such powerful evidence. Most of the disciples were eventually martyred for their faith, demonstrating their absolute conviction that Jesus really was God. Again, this was not an example of them willing themselves to believe… it was an example of faith grounded in rationality.
Once you start looking for it, you will constantly see examples of God expecting His people to trust him because of rational evidence. For example, God regularly judges Israel for the nation’s faithless behavior towards Him. Their behavior is unacceptable because of all of the tangible things that God has done for them. The greatest of God’s works on their behalf was miraculously delivering them from slavery in Egypt, a truth which God expected His people to make sure their children were well aware of.
We could also look to Jesus to see a call for evidentially-based faith. Jesus regularly explains that people should believe in him because of the miraculous evidence he provides. In John 14:11, he says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves” (emphasis added). When John the Baptist questions if Jesus is really the messiah, Jesus defends his position by appealing to Old Testament prophecy (Luke 7:18-23). He also judges the crowds for not believing in him despite the evidence, saying that some of the most wicked cities in history would have repented of their evil ways if they had been shown the same proof (Matthew 11:21-24)!
Finally, I would argue that Paul would stand against the idea that people should force themselves to irrationally believe. There is plenty of evidence, so there is no need for that. Yes, he wants people to believe in Christ, but he would be the first admit that it would be pitiable to believe in Jesus if he never really was raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14-19).
What This Kind of Faith Looks Like in Real Life
We have seen that true biblical faith is not something that is irrationally forced. Yes, it requires an act of God for human hearts that don’t naturally seek God (Romans 3:9-18) to be receptive to hearing the truth, but the resulting faith is extremely rational. Even our trust in the Bible is well-founded (do a quick google search for evidence for the reliability of the Bible). When you have a grounded faith, you can overall be confident about who God is even when you periodically have doubts about him or find his actions to be confusing.
Remember the letter that Dawkins cites in his book? Ironically, even though the man insists that his beliefs are based on “Faith, not knowledge,” he is unintentionally lying. That is because the man clearly has knowledge that is driving his beliefs. He probably got his views about God from the Bible, or attended a church service, or had parents who raised him to believe what he believed. He apparently thought whatever source told him this information was credible, so he decided to adopt the views as his own.
That’s because it’s impossible to just have faith.
Having COMPLETELY ungrounded beliefs is the same as being crazy. Even though many people have not thought through the justification for their beliefs and cannot defend them well, they nevertheless still have a reason for believing what they do.
The biblical expression of faith can be likened to the faith expressed between a husband and a wife. Because the wife is not an omniscient being, she cannot know what her husband is doing every second of the day or even what he is thinking. She cannot prove that her husband is remaining faithful to her and honoring his wedding vows. As a matter of fact, if she sent someone to constantly monitor her husband, it would be a breach of trust! The husband would rightly be offended. He would wonder why his wife would suspect him of foul behavior.
Notice though that the faith expressed in the relationship between husband and wife is not irrational. The wife should trust her husband because he has a track record of being faithful. She got to know him before they were married. She knows that he made promises to her that are trustworthy.
It is the same in a Christian’s walk with God. God has given us ample reason to know that He exists (see my other blog posts) and incredible evidence from the Bible to show that he cares. Therefore, we can have a grounded faith. That’s not to say that we won’t sometimes have questions about God in the same way that a wife might have questions about something her husband is doing. However, because our faith in God is grounded, we can give Him the benefit of the doubt and honestly ask God our questions. A website like this exists to help people process through their questions about God.
So, What’s So Great About Faith?
The fact remains that if God wanted us to be absolutely certain of His presence, He could do a lot more to prove Himself. He could strike the tree next to you with a lightning bolt at His command. He could send angels to visit you as He has done with many in the past. So why doesn’t God do that now?
The answer is simple: He doesn’t want to.
In my next article, I am going to address why it might make sense for God to keep himself somewhat hidden in order to accomplish His greater goals. However, the fact that God does not give us every piece of evidence we would want to prove His involvement in our lives does not mean that He has given us nothing. Actually, there is an almost embarrassing amount of evidence for God in this world, as Romans 1 makes clear.
However, to circle around to where we began, I think Hebrews 11 gives us the short answer to what is so great about faith: it pleases God. God wants a real relationship with you. He is willing to show Himself faithful and provide plenty of reasons for you to trust Him, but at the end of the day, He wants to see if you will continue to take Him at His word. When people push through their doubts, sometimes even with tears, and they nevertheless continue to trust God because of all that He has done for them, it brings a lot of joy to His heart.
That’s biblical faith. It’s the kind of faith that Abraham had, even though he doubted at times. It’s the kind of faith that Moses had, even though he doubted at times. It’s the kind of faith that John the Baptist had, even though he doubted at times.
Far from being stubborn, irrational belief, faith in God is the most natural thing ever. It is the faith of a wife who trusts her husband, a child who trusts his father, and a friend who trusts his best friend. It is a trust that is earned… an essential component of any loving relationship.
Final Note: You might have gotten to the end of this article and thought to yourself, “Well, God certainly hasn’t shown himself to be loving or faithful to me.” Hang around until next time. I’d love to talk with you more then.
 Adams, Douglas. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Chapter 1.
 Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. 16-17.