Whether you have grown up in Christian culture or not, it’s probable that you have heard the religious term ‘faith’ many times. It’s a buzzword really. It’s denoted with admirable spirituality and is loaded with the unknown–and people use it a lot. You’ve likely heard an assortment of the phrases “take a step of faith” and “place your faith” and “just have faith” with different spins and various applications. However, while we we hear about ‘faith’ time and time again, I’m afraid that our understanding sometimes fails clarity, objectiveness, or practicality. Speaking from personal experience, I think the notion of ‘having faith’ often comes across as ambiguous, mysterious, and subjective, which isn’t always helpful when it’s understood as the prerequisite for something as significant as salvation, among other things. Indeed, it’s crucial to Christianity.
And while there is much to be said about ‘faith’, Tim Keller provides some insight about the overall nature of faith, what it looks like, and how it plays out in our lives in his exposition of the biblical account when Jesus calmed the deadly storm. What he says here gives much clarity to that term in Christianity that is so crucial, yet sometimes so pervasively ambiguous and foggy.
Check it out:
Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” That could actually be translated as “Where is your faith?” I love that way of phrasing it. By asking the question in this way, Jesus is prompting them to see that the critical factor in their faith is not its strength, but its object.
Imagine you’re falling off a cliff, and sticking out of the cliff is a branch that is strong enough to hold you, but you don’t know how strong it is. As you fall, you have just enough time to grab that branch. How much faith do you have to have in the branch for it to save you? Must you be totally sure that it can save you? No, of course not. You only have to have enough faith to grab the branch. That’s because it’s not the quality of your faith that saves you; it’s the object of your faith. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the branch; all that matters is the branch. And Jesus is the branch.
People who believe more must not be hard on those who believe less. Why? Because faith ultimately is not a virtue; it’s a gift.
If you want to believe but can’t, stop looking inside; go to Jesus and say, “Help me believe.” Go to him and say, “So you’re the one who gives faith! I’ve been trying to work it out by reasoning and thinking and meditating and going to church in hopes that a sermon will move me—I’ve been trying to get faith by myself. Now I see that you’re the source of faith. Please give it to me.” If you do that, you’ll find that Jesus has been seeking you—he’s the author of faith, the provider of faith, and the object of faith.†
I love that. Much uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt can be traced back to the fact that we are measuring our standing with God by the degree of our faith instead of Jesus’ finished work for us on the cross.
Oftentimes, our faith frequently drifts off its proper orbit around the gospel of Jesus and spins off into space, carried only by the momentum of its own separation. However, its the gravitational force of the gospel that pulls our faith into constancy and assurance. Outside of that orbit, our faith is left to forever drift into further dimensions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and ambivalence. It’s the planet of the gospel, not the orbit itself, that gives the metaphorical orbit of your faith assurance. If you’ve ever taken an astronomy/science class, you would know that it’s the existence of the plant first that causes the existence of the orbit. The planet and its gravitational force is what produces the existence of the orbit. Therefore, orbits are maintained and upheld as long as the planet is there. Similarly, true faith is not caused by our trying to orbit, but is produced by the gospel simply existing. If the gospel is the center, your faith won’t spin off into unknown dimensions of space.
To relate this idea to another analogy, think of a bicycle tire: faith is like the spokes and the gospel is like the hub. So long as the spokes of your faith are connected to the hub of the gospel, the tire of your Christianity will stay moving. But when you regard the spokes of your faith as the centerpiece, you’re gonna start having some major problems.
Thus, faith actually cannot come from the inside, but only from the outside. Faith cannot rise from the depths of our sinful hearts; it can only come into existence–like the orbit–by responding to the reality of Jesus’ loving sacrifice and resurrection.
This is important because it has two significant practical implications. First, if faith was primarily about what you could muster up, then you would inevitably boast in yourself because you have more faith than others; and if not, you would inevitably despair because you can’t seem to naturally muster up enough faith like other people. Both ends of the spectrum are busted morally. However, if faith is primarily about what Jesus has done, then you have no reason to boast in yourself, but only in Him. This destroys all notions of pride and despair, which is what a holy God aims to do in our lives anyways.
Second, if faith was primarily about what you could muster up, then gaining assurance of your salvation would be impossible. How much is enough? Am I working hard enough? Do I need more faith to finally be right with God? How do I know? The problem with inward faith is that you will never know how much is enough. You’ll constantly be anxious. But that is not the way God wants us to live our lives. He loves us and wants us to know that. And so the answer is not to look inward at your degree of faith, but to look outward at his decree of grace. Looking at the cross and the resurrection–outside of yourself–you can be assured that Jesus paid it all for your sins. Therefore, if you lean the weight of your soul upon how much faith you have, everything will crumble; but if you lean the weight of your soul against the unmoving and completed work of Jesus, you will finally find peace and assurance.
If you have a hard time believing in Christianity, these are moral proofs of why Christianity could be true when we look at the notion of faith. Its founder, Jesus, produces a type of humility (not boasting) and confidence (not fretting) in us that we could not possibly produce in ourselves. Other religions will ultimately tell you to trust in how well you have kept the moral code. Morally, this philosophy ends in either pride or despair (based on how well you have kept the code), and also never gives you the peace of assurance. Sure, such living will look good on the outside, but the inside will inevitably suffer from self-righteousness, self-deprecation, or self-doubt. Yet, if Jesus is the savior who alone brings salvation, then we can’t boast (since we didn’t achieve it), we can’t despair (because we can’t lose), and we can have peace of assurance because the cross and resurrection prove it.
Truly, our faith decreases–not increases–when we focus on the degree of our faith for Jesus. Instead, our faith grows more–not less–when we focus on the work of Jesus for us.
To conclude, if you’re like me and you have struggled with mustering up ‘enough faith’ to please God or to ‘be a good Christian’, I encourage you to give up these vain attempts of self-help. You’re only going to find such help for self by clinging to Jesus anyways–because He hasn’t given you advice about what to do; He’s given you news of what He has done. So, today, drop your checklist of what to do to get a stronger faith, and start believing Jesus that “It is finished”.‡ And while you’re fixating on that, your faith will seem to naturally refuel.
† Keller, Timothy. Jesus The King, p. 130-132.
‡ John 19:30