What It Means to Have Faith in God – Br. David Vryhof

Easter II

John 20: 19-31

Something mysterious happens to us when we find something to believe in. We discover that some task, some project, some idea has so captured our imaginations that we want to give ourselves wholeheartedly to it. We become dedicated to its fulfillment. Perhaps it leads us to support a cause or join a campaign, perhaps to take up a new role or responsibility, perhaps to make a commitment of time, energy or financial resources.

Whatever it is, this new cause captures our attention and awakens our passion. We believe in what we are doing, and we commit ourselves to it with our whole being. We continue to push forward even when obstacles arise or doors close. Because we believe in our dream, we persevere. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to it, because at some deep level – beyond the level of common sense or logic – we know that it is the right thing for us to do. We believe in this.

This is what faith is about.

Faith is at the center of Christian life. We profess that we have been saved by faith, and that we now live by faith. But what does it really mean to have faith? What does it really mean to believe?

This is an important question, especially in our day, because for a great many people, faith has first and foremost to do with assent. For them, to have faith means to give our mental assent to a proposition, to believe that a claim or statement is true. There are a great many Christians who understand their faith in this way. They have given intellectual assent to certain claims or statements about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about the human condition. But when faith is understood primarily in this way, it becomes a matter of the head rather than of the heart. When Christian faith is seen as assent, the emphasis shifts to holding the correct views, believing the right things to be true.

It is important to recognize how this notion of faith – faith as giving mental assent to a proposition, or believing that a claim or statement is true – limits and distorts our understanding and practice of Christian faith. What we believe to be true – about God, about Jesus, about the scriptures – then defines us and sets us apart from those who do not see things as we see them. Groups form and split. Some are considered “in” while others are “out,” depending on their “beliefs.”

The opposite of this kind of belief is doubt or disbelief. When we suspect that some claim or statement might not be true, or might have to be understood differently than we understood it in the past, we enter this gray area of doubt. If we imagine that belief is what God wants of us, the doubt or disbelief become sinful.

Knowing what we believe and being able to articulate it is important, but if this is all our faith is about, we have not gone deep enough. Authentic faith has more to do with the heart than with the head. Genuine faith involves trust. Christian faith, Christian belief, has to do with a radical trust in God. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; it means trusting in God.

Who is this God in whom we trust?

In the course of our worship we regularly profess our faith in God using the words of ancient creeds of the Church. We profess that the God in whom we trust is the God who was revealed to us as the Creator, the God who was made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth whom we call Christ, the God who has stirred us up by the Spirit and united us together as the church, the Body of Christ. When we profess this faith, we are not merely giving assent to a series of propositions about God, we are declaring our faith in God. We are saying that we believe in this God, that we have put our trust in this God, that we have given ourselves wholeheartedly to the service and worship of this God. We are saying that we have willingly staked our lives and our future on God.

What does it mean to have faith, to believe and trust in God?

Marcus Borg cites a metaphor used by Soren Kierkegaard, a great philosopher and radical Christian of the 19th century, who claimed that faith was like floating in a deep ocean.1 If we panic and struggle, Borg says, if we tense up and thrash about, we will eventually sink. But if we relax and trust, we will float, no matter how deep the water.

This is the challenge, isn’t it? Learning to relax in the water, to trust its buoyancy, to let go of our fear – all these are key to staying afloat in deep waters. In the same way, we could say that to have faith is to trust in God, to believe in God’s ability to sustain us, to hold us up, even in difficult circumstances. Faith helps us to relax and let go, to rest and find peace.

When faith is understood as trust rather than as assent, its opposite is not doubt or disbelief, but lack of trust. When we do not trust, we become anxious and fearful. To have faith means to let go of anxiety and fear, and to give ourselves over to God, trusting God’s love and care for us. “Do not worry about your life,” Jesus tells us, “what you will eat or what you will drink… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:25, 26)

Observe the disciples in today’s gospel reading. They are gathered in a closed room, behind locked doors, filled with anxiety and trembling with fear. They have lost sight of the purpose for which God called them, the task which Jesus had given them, to be signs of God’s love in the world and proclaimers of God’s good news. They feel abandoned, alone and overwhelmed.

Jesus comes to them with a greeting of peace. He breathes on them the Holy Spirit. He restores their vision, their hope, their faith. They believe once more. Their fear is gone, and these trembling disciples are transformed into courageous witnesses, who testify to the resurrection of Jesus with incredible boldness, even in the face of opposition and death. They do not fear the power of men, but instead trust in the power of God. They are not deterred by hardship or persecution, by beatings or imprisonment. Their eyes are fixed on God. They move forward in faith, despite the obstacles.

There is much fear in the world today. We fear our enemies and those who intend us harm. We fear those who possess weapons of mass destruction; we fear nuclear proliferation; we fear guns and violence in our streets. We fear the warming of the earth and the consequences it will bring. We fear hatred and crime, poverty and oppression, chaos and suffering. Some of us are afraid that we might lose what we have, or that it might be taken away from us by others. We fear for our future and the future of our children.

But “perfect love casts out fear,” the author of First John tells us, and “God is love.” God’s perfect love overcomes fear and casts it out. Love holds us and sustains us, regardless of what may come our way. “Do not be anxious, you of little faith,” says Jesus. Trust in God. Entrust your lives and all your concerns to God.

Certainly, we must work against the forces of violence and war, we must respond to the threat of global warming, we must counter hatred and violence – these are all part of our call as Christians in the world. But we need not be bound by anxiety or paralyzed by fear. God is in our present, and will be in our future, just as God has been in our past. There is no power in the world that can overcome God’s power – even death itself has been defeated. Nothing, says Paul, can separate us from the love of God.

“Do not fear,” says God in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame will not consume you… Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-5)

Are you anxious and afraid? What is it that worries or concerns you? Have faith in God. Trust God with your life and with your future. Let go of fear. God is faithful and will in all things sustain and keep you. Do not be afraid. Only believe.

1 Borg, Marcus J.; The Heart of Christianity; chapter two

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  1. george miller on November 5, 2013 at 12:41

    thank you a thousand times–this is fantastic. Completely re-arranges my understanding and frees my heart…God bless you.

  2. Bettylee on November 5, 2013 at 05:19

    I’m new to Brother, give us a word. This morning I read and read todays message. I am having shoulder surgery this Friday. Your words calm me and trusting in Him, gives me peace and rest.

  3. Brian on October 17, 2013 at 23:09

    First, I love this site and I love this ministry. I’m a faithful reader. I also am a Christian who works out his faith in “fear and trembling.” That phrase, to me, includes asking questions, especially questions about phrases that seem comforting intellectually, but fall short when faced with real world problems.

    For example, look at the concluding paragraph. “God is faithful and will in all things sustain and keep you.” What does that mean practically? What If I’m married with children and I’m the sole breadwinner. I see that the utility bills and health insurance premiums coming due total more than I have in the bank. Will God provide a miracle that allows me to meet those obligations? Maybe or maybe not. Will God make the utility companies cut me some slack and let me work out a payment plan?

    What if none of that happens and my utilities get cut off and my health insurance lapses? Again, I ask, what will God do to “sustain me”? What level of sustenance can we expect from God? Christian children die of hunger or malnutrition everyday. They weren’t sustained. Christian homeowners lose their houses everyday. There mortgage payments weren’t sustained. They get kicked out of apartments. Rent wasn’t sustained.

    When we say God will sustain us “in all things,” I can’t help but question that. My faith remains solid. I’m in no danger of becoming an atheist. But I struggle with these types of comforting sayings.

    A corollary situation: we use our God-given talents as best we can to make ends meet. But, those ends don’t meet. We then rely on our faith in God. The ends still don’t meet. What’s the balance between “letting go and letting God” and becoming an adherent to self-reliance or, even more dramatic, an atheist? What can I expect God to sustain me in? If I can’t expect God to sustain me with the basics such as food and shelter, can I only expect that God will be there to help me not lose my mind while I endure the misery and heartache? In practical terms, what does it mean to say that God will sustain us “in all things”?

  4. DLa Rue on August 12, 2013 at 04:25

    I might look to sources other than Borg; I’m not much in sympathy with his not-very-historical approach to studies about Jesus’ life and work, generally, although his use of Kierkegaard seems reasonable as cited here.

    And I’m uncomfortable with dualized formulations that pit the heart against the mind, since I see them to be more potentially integrated than antagonistic–one of the elements that danced worship can bring to the life of faith, in fact, is this increased sense of unity between the inner and outer person.

    That said, I also see lived faith as an enacted, ongoing assent to God’s presence in life and a very help in time of need or trouble. Encouragement in that effort is a constant need, and where faith informs life, it is the basis for hope in all things.

    Engaging in conversation with those who think deeply about these things is a gift. Courageous living is not easy, as Paul points out in Colossians, and elsewhere. Energy to go on must seemingly well up out of the very bones and sinews of our faith at times. Blessings on us all as we seek to do so.

  5. Bob on August 11, 2013 at 03:20

    Br. David, It is a useful distinction to make between intellectual assent and emotional trust which I associate with Marcus Borg but in practice aren’t they two sides of the same coin. The one feeds the other or else one can get the most rigid fenced in ‘letting go’ – trust in a very circumscribed God who simply supports one’s prejudices and cultural norms. Doesn’t faith have to be fed by both continuously? Isn’t faith dynamic continuously evolving never over or complete. We float in an ocean of water that has storms, waves and sharks that do not disappear because one has company ! Margo.

  6. Jeanne Karras on August 10, 2013 at 14:44

    I have great fear for our Country..
    It is going down the path to destruction with our current leadership..
    I need to trust and believe that God will take care of us as he has
    promised but it is difficult for me not to worry.

  7. Maureen Doyle on August 10, 2013 at 11:09

    This is such a freeing message, yet a very demanding one. There is a prayer saying ‘obedience to your will is perfect freedom.’ That prayer and this message free me from theological guilt and give me the freedom to work the tasks of God: bringing Jesus’ love to each person I meet-not with a bunch of words, but with respect and compassion. Tall order. Don’t fight it. Thank you for this gut level meditation.

  8. Mino Sullivan on August 10, 2013 at 09:09

    Dear David,
    Thank you so much for your inspiring and timely words. As fall approaches and the usual activities becon for time and attention I am left in a quandary. What does God want from me this fall? How do I serve? How do I express my love? What activities, filled with long-standing relationships, do I give up? And what new directions and people call me? I know God wants all of me, and I yearn to respond whole heartedly. You are so right, deep faith requires immense trust and surrender.

  9. Dorothy on August 10, 2013 at 08:17

    Thank you for making the distinction between assent and trust. It is so easy to see one or the other and not to hold these two concepts in tension. I pray I can honor relate to my Lord with complete faith: assent and trust.

  10. Michael Mullen on August 10, 2013 at 08:11

    “Marcus Borg cites a metaphor used by Soren Kierkegaard, a great philosopher and radical Christian of the 19th century, who claimed that faith was like floating in a deep ocean.1 If we panic and struggle, Borg says, if we tense up and thrash about, we will eventually sink. But if we relax and trust, we will float, no matter how deep the water.”….These quotes by Borg and Kierkegaard are wonderful.

  11. Lorna Harris on August 10, 2013 at 06:23

    Your words touched my heart this morning. Thank you.

  12. Ruth West on April 30, 2013 at 17:07

    Thank you for this significant gospel message. It isn’t always the easiest
    thing to do, but we must “Let go, and let God…” He understands our sorrows, our problems, our doubts and fears. God is Love. How could
    he love us so? I am printing this one so that I can read it again. It is truly the story of Jesus.

  13. Ian Ernest on April 29, 2013 at 05:19

    I have had in the past weeks several challenges and difficulties in many aspects of my life. It is true that God through Christ is very much part of my life but your written words of faith and trust are of great comfort to me as it renews my understanding of what it is to trust in The Lord. With my gratitude and love in Christ.

  14. Pam on April 28, 2013 at 08:02

    Reminds me of the title of Brennan Manning’s book Ruthless Trust. “Willing to stake[ed] our lives” on God. That’s ruthless trust. Sometimes I have it, and sometimes I don’t.

    • Ceil on April 29, 2013 at 15:19

      Agreed…….sometimes I do sometimes I dont. My husband died rather suddenly three weeks ago, and I have faith I have the where-with-all to deal with this…then sometimes I simply dont……I can only rely on God during these non-faith moments ……I hang on to that…and I ask, are you really there??? Like right now..

  15. Ceil on April 27, 2013 at 17:23

    My husband died three weeks ago, not expected! I have printed this out…..so read unitl it eases my broken fearful heart….

    Thank you…

  16. Margaret on April 27, 2013 at 11:31

    Thank you for saying this so well. As I wait for the resolution to a long-standing problem, the fear and anxiety are so strong. Thank you for this encouragement to float, and trust.

  17. Kathryn on April 27, 2013 at 09:08

    Just what I needed this morning. Thank you for being so clear about such a difficult thing to do; trust.

  18. Anders on April 27, 2013 at 07:04

    How do we practice trust in God, rather than about God? How do we learn to let go and float, when our Christian culture is marked by tends to fight to death to hold the right things to be true, and conversely that others are untrue? How do we overcome our fear of not knowing? Perhaps we need to let go of the proposition or assent of faith in order to claim faith the trust as a church and community. We need to claim our role in the crucifixion, that we ourselves nail his hands to that wood, in order to celebrate the resurrection that the risen Christ is not always where we think we have him.

  19. Bob Hedges on April 27, 2013 at 06:39

    What a cogent message for me this day. I am expecting a visit today, as I recover from surgery, from a very fearful friend, and I have already printed a copy to share with her. Thanks and God bless you, Br. David

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