What do Christians mean when we use the word faith? Often, we are speaking of a set of beliefs or doctrines. But there is a more important meaning without which all our doctrines and words are empty.
That more important meaning has to do with hearing and responding to God when God reaches out to us, offering us a promise, wooing us, calling us into a living redemptive relationship. Scriptures for the Second Sunday in Lent this year reveal a pattern having to do with God's invitation into a covenant relationship and our response to it. It is a pattern duplicated in dozens of similar stories throughout the Bible. And, it is a pattern we can recognize in our own lives today. It goes like this:
- God calls, promising to use our lives for God's high purposes.
- The recipient of the call expresses fear, doubt, or anxiety.
- Then comes divine reassurance.
- Finally, there is a faithful response to the promise of God.
We see it in the life of Abraham and Sarah. We see it in the life of Moses. We see it in the life of Jeremiah. We see it in the life of Mary and Joseph. We see it in the Apostle Paul.
And, of course, we see it in the life of Jesus. In his baptism and on the mount of Transfiguration there is the call. In the wilderness there is the question and the divine reassurance that comes to him. Then, there is the faithful response.
When we meet Jesus in this Sunday's Gospel reading (Luke 13:31-35), he is ministering to people up in the Galilean territory. Some friendly Pharisees have come to warn him that the tetrarch of that region, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, is out to get him. They urge him to leave the area. He gives them a response that is to Herod but also to God. "I will finish what I need to do here but then I am going on my way to Jerusalem where my work will be fulfilled." He does not let either the warning of his friends or the threat of his foe deter him from what God has called him to do and the promise which lies before him.
In his book, Living Faith While Holding Doubts, Martin B. Copenhaver writes, "There are times when we must make a 100% commitment to something about which we are only 51% certain" (Pilgrim Press: Cleveland, OH, 1989).
But let's be clear about something. Faith, in this sense, is not a momentary phenomenon, an act at one point in time. Faith is a long-term trust, a committed, continuous response to the promises of God. Out of real doubts and deep questions, Abram ventures forth with God. The venturing forth does not erase those doubts and questions. Rather, he gathers up his doubts and stumbles on behind God into a future on the basis of nothing but the promise. This is what we Christians mean when we say, "faith."
John Dillenberger says that in Christianity, the term faith refers to the "dynamic and vital stance of the believer's dependence on God...faith is a living confidence and trust in God in the experience of knowing God's gracious presence as manifest in Christ...a reality that one would not have unearthed by oneself but that has come to be present as a sort of miracle, a happening that encompasses but does not seem to be dependent either on one's seeking or on fleeing the divine (A New Handbook of Christian Theology, Nashville: Abingdon, 1992, p.182).
God promised Abraham that he would be a blessing to all the people of the earth and that the promise would be extended to his descendants forever. The old Rabbis used to teach that when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the dust, he was referring not only to numbers but to the fact that they would outlast those who trampled upon them. St. Paul tells us that all who trust God the way Abraham did are his descendants, not just those who have his genes. Jesus shows us that the way of the cross is the way of faith. God's promise of a relationship, a peace surpassing understanding, a permanent place at the banquet table of our heavenly Father, is absolutely dependable.
When God calls to you, how do you answer? With doubts, anxieties, fears? You are not alone! But can you listen beyond them to God's reassuring voice, calling you to trust God to lead you through them, perhaps even to use those obstacles to faith as bridges into the future where he is trying to get you to go with him? Can you say, I'm 51% sure, Lord, but I'll trust you with the other 49%? If you can, you are not far from the kingdom of God.