Faith is often thought of as an all-in or all-out decision. It’s as if there is a clear line in the sand – on one side is faith and on the other is not. You either completely trust God, submitting to His every word, or you don’t. In an era of cliché preachers and obtuse fundamentalists, “faith” has two faces. To some, it is a militant compliance with no (or at least very little) questions asked. To others, it is an emotional optimism ignorant of personal failures and painful circumstances. In Scripture, faith is much more obscure and dynamic. It is often violent, rebellious, absurd, and even doubtful.
Don’t get me wrong. There are often, if not normally, times of serene trust. Faith does expect that we will trust and follow. What I would like to push back against, however, is this notion that faith is silent obedience or plain acceptance. Once again, not that there are many a time that having faith is what that means. In Scripture, faith is much more fluid and dynamic. It is practically never defined and never spelled out. In fact, the word faith is almost non-existent in the Old Testament compared to the New. The one place faith is defined (which I would suggest is not a definition but rather a metaphor), it is followed by a litany of examples that almost seem to contradict the definition.
Hall of Faith
In Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith”, faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author then provides examples of what that looks like. We read as the author recounts these exemplary people as if they had this miraculous and fully obedient faith. But, if we were to look into each’s life, we find blaring discrepancies with our modern understanding of faith. Abel simply offered a sacrifice that was accepted by God. Noah gets plastered on wine and curses his son. Sarah laughed at God’s promise. Jacob was a liar and manipulator. Moses was a murderer, refused to speak to Pharaoh, and failed to make it to the Promise Land. Rahab was a prostitute looking out for her own safety. To even reference Gideon and Samson as a model of faith is a complete joke. David is better, but he was still an adulterer and murderer.
These are not pretty and clean examples of faith but rough and imperfect. Perhaps, the author of Hebrews used these examples to illustrate faith because they are not the perfect example. Faith is not easy or pretty. It is ugly and it is rough. As the symbol and founder of the Jewish people, Abraham’s character and actions were of central importance. In him, we find a man who typically trusts in the promises of his God. However, he still sleeps with another woman attempting to shortcut God’s promise. Another time, he flat out argues and opposes God.
As God and his two companions were on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, God says this;
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
For some reason, God knew that Abraham would not like what He was about to do. He knew that Abraham would be upset and He knew the reason he would be upset was the exact reason God had chosen him, “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” So when Abraham did learn of God’s plan, he flipped his lid. “Far be it from you to do such a thing! …Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?!” (Genesis 18:25). After this, Abraham haggles God down to an agreement. If there are at least 5 people righteous in these two cities, God would spare them.
Saving People from God
This happened again with another key character in the Old Testament narrative. Moses, the redeemer of Israel, abandoned the Israelites and later doubted God’s very clear direction to return. After the success of the exodus, as Moses descends from Mount Sinai after receiving the 10 Commandments, he finds the people worshipping a golden calf. God then states that He will utterly destroy them and start the Abrahamic promise over with Moses. To this, Moses responds;
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
Moses changed God’s mind. Or, at least, it seems that way. This topic (“Can God change His mind?”) is a much larger theological debate but it would seem that, at a minimum, God wants us to act like He can. Moses challenged God, saving millions of people, and became a hero of faith.
In another book, we read of Job, a righteous man that God seems to callously give over to the Devil to test. Job loses everything: family, wealth, and health. Job wrestles with why God allowed this to happen with no clear answers. He questions God over and over. His friends attempt to offer answers but none suffice. As the tension builds, eventually an answer is given:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.”
God then lambasted Job with one unanswerable question after another. To which, Job basically mumbled, “I don’t know” (Job 40:3-5). But this answer was not good enough for God. So God blasted him again with a deluge of questions that Job was unable to answer. Job then responded;
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job, although questioned by God, was in no need of atonement. However, God rebuked Job’s friends for their simple answers and demanded they make atonement through Job for their petty answers (Job 42:7-9). In Job’s refusal to accept a simplistic answer, he found redemption, while his friends, by their simplistic answers, found themselves further from God.
In Isaiah, God implored His people, “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) and “Put me in remembrance; let us argue together; set forth your case, that you may be proved right” (Isaiah 43:26). He beckoned his people to argue with Him and try to change His mind. What God wants more from His people than simple blind trust, is a dynamic relationship, one where we wrestle with our own nature, the nature of the world, and the nature of God. He wants us to wrestle with Him through the night, as Jacob did, demanding a response (Genesis 32:22-32). It is in the wrestling that we discover ourselves. Does faith end in obedience? Typically. Does it end in trust? Often.
Faith is not the exclusion of doubt but rather an expression of it. Faith is not a silent submission but a violent struggle. Faith is not simply complying with God’s demands but also making demands of Him. Faith is the commitment to be engaged even when it pulls against you. Faith is not pretty. It is soaked in blood, sweat, and tears. It is a dance with two stubborn partners. Faith is built on the back of questions and fears. It’s feisty. One thing faith is not is placid. It is not blindly optimistic nor quietly submissive. It would seem that faith is not about some end perfection but about the process through the imperfect.
Often in today’s Christian environment, we speak of faith as some blind trust, one that quietly and simply submits, no questions asked. Sometimes, this is explicitly stated. Other times, it is communicated implicitly with simplistic catch-phrases and cheap platitudes. One source of such thinking is from an overly systemized theology, where everything is explained and neatly positioned. We try to control every aspect of our life, including God. We think we can create a system by which we give to God what we think He wants, and He then gives back to us what we want. But He is not that simple, safe, or predictable. And I don’t think He wants us to be either.