We have it. We preach it. We pray for more of it. But do we know what it is?
What is this thing we call “faith”? More importantly, what is it according to the Bible?
A common struggle I see (and have experienced myself) in personal Bible study is the temptation to bring our own definitions and preconceptions to the Bible, interpreting it through the lenses of our own backgrounds and experiences. This can often be subconscious, even automatic, because the reality is, few of us have had occasion to practice and perfect interpreting ancient texts that are surrounded by a context decidedly different from our own. (More on how to study the Bible here!)
This problem is widespread and certainly understandable, but it can also be deadly to a right understanding of Scripture and an obstacle to knowing God, so we must do all we can to eradicate it.
That’s the foundation behind this post, and the ones that will follow it, in a series called “Biblical Vocabulary.” The words we study will be familiar, even basic, but sometimes it’s the most familiar and basic words that are the easiest to misread.
We’ll begin with faith.
What is faith?
The top three definitions of faith on dictionary.com are as follows:
confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
Each of these definitions makes up at least a piece of our typical understanding of the word “faith.” When we come across it in Scripture, one of these - or bits of each - likely informs our understanding of the text surrounding it.
And each of these definitions has a place in the Biblical understanding of faith as well. There is an element of faith that requires trust, and belief in that which is not necessarily concrete; and, of course, it is associated for our purposes with God and religion. But none of these captures fully the spirit of the word “faith” as it’s used in the Bible, so we go to the Bible next.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 6
These are the most famous “Faith is” verses in the Bible, especially verse 1. The trouble with this verse is that the language is about as clear as a theological dictionary - it sounds good on paper, but what does it even mean? “The assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen” just sounds like a fancier way of restating the definitions from dictionary.com.
But we miss some key information if we don’t dive into the subsequent verses and allow the author of Hebrews to expand on his words. Verse one is merely his thesis statement; the rest of the chapter shows us what this thesis statement means - what faith is as a reality in the life of a believer.
By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. . . . By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.
Hebrews 11:7-8, 11
Faith is a new perspective.
We could call it supernatural vision, or God-glasses, or God’s eyes - whichever phrasing we use, the culminating point of Hebrews 11 (corroborated by the rest of Scripture) is that faith is not simply having confidence in a thing; it’s not simply believing something you can’t prove; it’s not simply believing in God or the teachings of Christianity; it is seeing things the way God says they are, and not the way my eyes see them.
When I look out the window, I see solid ground and a world made up of physical things - trees, people, buildings, rocks. But God says that there’s more to this world than that, and that “what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). Elsewhere in the Bible I can read of principalities and powers that are invisible to the human eye, and spiritual realms outside of my vision. When I put on faith, the whole world gets a thousand times bigger, and the need to put on my spiritual armor becomes a thousand times more necessary.
Likewise, when Noah began to build the ark, he saw solid ground. He had never seen water fall out of the sky or press up from the fount of the deep to cover the face of the earth. But God said that He was going to cleanse the world with a flood, and Noah made the choice to order his life around what God could see, and not what his own eyes could see. In doing so, he “became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith” (Hebrews 11:7) - along with Abraham, Sarah, and the dozens of other named and unnamed witnesses whose testimonies make up the remainder of Hebrews 11.
Notice that faith is not a feeling. It is not feeling certain or feeling confident. Faith can exist outside of certainty and confidence, and even outside of belief, because faith is an action (see James 2).
One of my pastors uses a helpful illustration for this concept: He fully believes that parachutes work, and that when someone jumps out of a plane and deploys their parachute, they will survive the descent to the ground. But you’ll never find him jumping out of an airplane, because he won’t put his faith in a parachute.
Faith jumps. Not because of any extra-special feelings of confidence, but because of a supernaturally-broadened perspective that relies on God to be who He says He is and to do what He says He will do, even without a clear view of the outcome.
The next time you read a Bible passage that uses the word “faith,” don’t just insert your own definition of the word - use the Biblical definition. When Paul charges Timothy to “[hold] onto faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19), how does your understanding change if you read “hold onto God’s perspective and a good conscience”?
For me, using the Biblical definition of faith completely changed how I understood large portions of the Bible and Christianity. I no longer feel guilty when I don’t “believe hard enough,” or wonder if I’m not really saved when I don’t feel fully confident in the tenets of Christian doctrine. I can see the examples of what saving faith looks and acts like in the testimonies of Hebrews 11, and I can look back on my own life and see the times when God said “Jump!” and I jumped.
Incidentally, He’s never failed to catch me. And every time I let Him, my faith is a little stronger the next time.