Faith is often disparaged as being contrary to knowledge, as if faith and knowledge can’t exist together, making it foolish to believe in things we can’t prove with science and reasoning. For example, I’ve heard faith defined as:
- Believing without evidence.
- Believing despite contrary evidence.
- Believing what is known to be untrue.
But these are all describing blind faith, which I believe is not really faith at all.
Setting faith and knowledge in opposition is a false dichotomy. Knowledge is awareness of a truth. Faith is commitment to a truth (or an untruth). These are not mutually exclusive. The fact that you know something doesn’t mean you don’t also believe it, and there are many aspects of daily life that we cannot “prove,” but accept by faith and live accordingly (and successfully).
For example, although it is certainly possible to refuse to believe things that we know to be true—psychologists call this “denial”—generally speaking, practically everything we know we also believe. This is just common sense. I know that the vast majority of the times that I push up the light switch on my wall, the light will come on. I also believe this so much that most of the time I push that switch without thinking about it. At those rare times that the light does not come on, such as when the bulb has burned out, it startles me, sometimes even making me forget why I was going into that room. So at the same time that I know (for all practical purposes) that the light will come on when I push the switch up, I also firmly believe that fact.
As for believing what we do not or cannot know, we do this all the time, too. We drive on the freeway, trusting that the driver in the next lane is sober. We order a meal in a restaurant, trusting that the food will be prepared correctly and healthily. We drink water from the kitchen tap, trusting that the local utility company has filtered out any unsafe impurities. We go to sleep at night, trusting that the furnace will keep the house warm enough, without burning it down. In short, we all live by faith almost every moment of the day and night, and there is nothing wrong with that.
So what is faith, then?
One evening about 40 years ago I got to thinking about that, especially regarding religious faith. I don’t remember why it came to mind, but I had grown up in a church tradition that vigorously affirmed that no amount of good works could make us right with God. So I was puzzled by the apparent conflict in the Bible between John’s and Paul’s clear statements that we are saved through faith alone (e.g., John 3:16; Romans 10:4; Galatians 2:15-16; Ephesians 2:8-9), and James’ assertion that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26, KJV). I also didn’t understand what appears to be the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see” (NIV). On the surface that sounded a lot like simple blind faith that intuitively seemed so meaningless.
So I spent quite some time thinking about examples of faith I could see in my own life and in others’, as well as what the Bible says. After exploring several wordings, I settled on this definition:
Faith is acting on what you are accepting as true.
Since that time, whenever I have encountered an indisputable instance of faith, I have tested this definition against it. Without exception, this definition has correctly described it. And that’s not just religious faith, but any sort of faith, such as faith in another person to do something they promised, or faith in an object to serve its purpose—even something as simple as expecting the light to come on when I push the wall switch. So after literally thousands of real-life tests, over these many years, I have strong confidence in this definition. But I need to unpack it a bit for you.
I’ll start at the beginning: “Faith is acting….” This is my paraphrase of James’ “Faith without works is dead.” Anybody can say they believe anything. But unless they are willing to act on that belief—to commit to it, to do something that might prove their faith is misplaced—their so-called faith is worthless, or dead, as James says. I can say with all the conviction I can muster that I believe the light will come on when I throw the switch, but unless I actually take that action, my “faith” in the switch is meaningless. It doesn’t accomplish anything. I’m still standing in the dark. This, of course, says nothing about whether the switch actually works—it speaks only to whether my “faith” works.
Suppose you are hiking in the woods and come up to a rope-and-board footbridge spanning a deep chasm with rocky, white-water rapids at the bottom. The ropes look old and weathered. When you tug on them, they feel solid, but a cloud of dust billows around them. Is that just dirt, or are the ropes decaying and disintegrating? As you look across toward the other side, you see that some boards are missing, perhaps having rotted in the weather cycles of heat and cold, rain and snow. It looks like you could easily step across the gaps, but will other boards break under your weight? Then you notice the footprints in the dirt. Apparently many people have successfully crossed the bridge in both directions. So what do you believe about this bridge? Is it strong enough to get you safely to the other side? Will the ropes snap when you’re part-way across, letting you fall into the rapids below? Will yours be the step that makes it fail?
You can respond to this situation in two ways. You can turn back and look for another route to your destination, or you can start across that bridge. If you step onto the bridge—do something, take action—you have faith in it. If you refuse and turn away, you don’t. It’s really that simple: “Faith is acting….”
But that outward, physical action must start with an inward, mental decision: “…what you are accepting as true.” Note that this does not say “what you know is true,” “what you hope is true,” and certainly not “what you know is not true.” It also doesn’t say anything about any reasons you may have, let alone the strength of those reasons. What matters is whether you make the choice to accept something as true strongly enough to act on it. That bridge could be made of shiny new steal cables instead of old, weathered ropes. If, for whatever reason, you do not accept that it will hold your weight, and therefore do not step onto it, you don’t have faith in it. And no matter how decayed and decrepit the bridge looks, if you accept that it is is strong enough and start across it, you have faith it in.
The reasons for accepting something as true or not are entirely your own. You might trust the word of experts—or not. You might believe the evidence is overwhelming, or completely bogus. Maybe you just go with your gut. The choice is yours. For faith to be present, all that matters is that you accept the object of your faith strongly enough to act accordingly. Reasons can encourage you to choose one way or the other, but ultimately your choice to accept or reject the object as true and your willingness to act on it is what determines if you have faith in it.
Finally, notice that the degree of your faith does not alter the object of your faith in any way. If that old decaying bridge would break under your first step, no amount of faith will miraculously fix it. Similarly, no matter how worthy of faith something is, it does not automatically engender or enlarge your faith. That shiny, new steal bridge might be able to hold a score of people easily. Your faith depends only on your acceptance and your willingness to act on it.
So we can see that reasoning, evidence, lack of evidence, and even the object of faith do not define faith. Faith is acting on what you are accepting as true.
Although the object of faith does not define faith, the object is certainly important as well. Faith placed in unworthy objects can lead to disaster, as can faith that is withheld even though warranted. And this is where reasoning and evidence are important, because they can help you decide where you can safely place your faith, and when you should prudently withhold it. I’m not encouraging blind faith in anything. Observe potential objects of faith. Study them; think about them. Then decide whether they are worthy of your faith. If they are, then act accordingly.
What other definitions of faith have you heard? Do you believe they are valid? Why or why not?
Can you describe a situation from your own experience when careful consideration led you to the correct decision to trust or to not trust something?
Images courtesy of lkunl at FreeDigitalPhotos.net