The Gift of Faith

[Note that this is a quick draft of my teaching for Tuesday June 11. I would like to rework it, but in a sense that will happen as I apply this to healing and miracles in the coming weeks.]

The first continuum of spiritual gifts that we looked at was the cognitive-speech spectrum that took in less cognitive or less understandable speech such as glossolalia and its interpretation, that which comes in the middle and is semi-cognitive or understandable, such as prophecy and the discernment of spirits, and that which at least in its reception by others is most understandable, such as expressions of wisdom or knowledge, or the teaching/exhortation gift in general. Now we are turning to a second continuum of spiritual gifts that of affecting the physical world in which we live. In this case the continuum is something of a tree, starting with faith as its roots or trunk and branching out into gifts of healing and mighty deeds (1 Cor 12:8-10). Again, remember that these are only examples that Paul lists to give variety, not a complete list, and also remember that Paul never defines these gifts, and in practice they probably shade into one another. Finally, since prophecy, among other speech gifts is often a speech-act, a speaking that effects what it speaks (much like sacramental speaking), it too shades into these gifts affecting the physical world, almost as if the two sets crossed over each other, indicating two vectors on a graph.

Faith in the New Testament is in essence a commitment to a person and therefore to the truths that the person reveals. The Greek term is a term of trust and commitment. If it is followed by an “in” (and there are two words in Greek for this) or the dative case, usually with a personal object, it means trust that person, entrust oneself to that person, or give one’s allegiance to that person, all of which imply following their directions or obeying them. In the New Testament this person is God or Jesus.

There is also a believing that or trust that, which is a commitment to certain data, usually about the person in whom one trusts or revealed by the person in whom one trusts. One takes on that person’s perception of reality, not because one perceives the reality, but because one trusts the person who reveals. This is why “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Heb 11:1) for our trust in the promiser or revealer gives us assurance. So “by faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God . . .” because we trust in the God who revealed that he spoke that word. My point is that even the “believe that . . .” is based on trust in a person.

Faith is therefore not opposed to deeds, but requires deeds, or it is not faith. If I am committed to a person, I do what pleases them or what they request, particularly if they are in authority. And if I trust a person, I follow their directions, even if I cannot see the result when I step out onto the diving board or jump off the cliff (as in The Silver Chair in the Chronicles of Narnia). If I will not do that, then I show that my professed commitment/trust/faith is a sham. That is, I show how right it is that, as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” If I profess a creed that says that Jesus is Lord, but will not obey him, then my so-called faith is empty.

Now that does not mean that I am not nervous in taking the risk that is entailed in faith. A friend of mine (Gary Best) used to tell the story of his having been a physical education instructor (while I reduced the story to writing, the book available now is Naturally Supernaturally) and, while watching youth swimming in a pool had his mind wander to faith. He is alone on a diving board over the pool. “Jump,” says God. “But there is no water in it!” Gary protests.” “Right. You jump, and I fill.” You hesitate. “I’m good with water. Remember the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and, Oh, yes, I made the oceans.” Your hands are clammy, you feel a bit sick in your stomach, but you eventually close your eyes and jump – that is faith – and there is a splash as you hit the water. You swim to the edge, climb out, and God says, “Do it again.” As you obediently go back to the diving board, you hear the water draining out of the pool. And this continues. In fact, when you get comfortable with trusting God on the lower diving board, he moves you up to a much higher one, and the cycle begins again.

We can go on and one discussing this topic. There is a common faith because there is a common Lord whom we trust and who has revealed his perception of himself and the universe to us. Abraham trusted God or entrusted himself to God and that was expressed in obeying what God told him to do. Because this is trust in God, he does not need to have full knowledge, but acts on what he knows and eventually is brought to the point that he does have the heir God had said he would, yet still needs that trust to be committed to the fact that that one son would become a multitude.

Initially faith or commitment comes from “what is heard” and “what is heard comes by the preaching of the Messiah.” (Rom 10:17) But even that hearing is a gift from the Holy Spirit and is empowered by the Holy Spirit so that it sinks into our heart. Faith is at root a gift, not dependent upon the persuasiveness of human argument, although the Spirit may use that human argument and give it the power to convince.

Now there are about 372 references to “faith” or “believe” in the New Testament, and we shall not cover them all in this post. But it is important to grasp that this relationship of trust is behind all of the gifts of the Spirit and all of the New Testament signs and wonders. It is not that the person who is healed or who experiences the miracle believes or has faith. In only 1/3 of the healings in the New Testament is the person healed said to have faith; in almost all of the other 2/3 it is Jesus or the one who represents Jesus who is said to have faith or who acts in what seems to be trust in God. Likewise, in the stilling of the storm the disciples definitely do not have much trust in Jesus – Jesus calls them “no faiths” in Mark and “little faiths” in Matthew. But Jesus is calm and collected, for he knows what the Father wants to do, so he speaks a word that would be utterly risky and even nonsense to us, and the storm stills. He does not seem surprised, for he trusted the Father and of course if he acted on that trust in the speech-act what the Father said would happen would indeed happen.

That means that it is not the faith of the person being healed that is important, or even that of his or her friends and relatives – although it is wonderful if that is there, and even a mustard seed of faith is powerful – but it is a question of whether the Holy Spirit has given a calm inner trust to the person who is praying or who is speaking the word of command.

I come from a faith tradition, that of the Plymouth Brethren. There were heroes of faith in that movement, such as George Müller of Bristol (and my own paternal grandmother who worked in a Müller-inspired orphanage in England), and others more contemporary to my time, whom I knew in my youth. I also knew men and women of faith in Germany, including the American Baptist pastor from Chicago, Roland Brown. But the essence of faith in all of these people was that they trust God/Jesus out of a personal relationship. They were, in a sense, contemplatives, for they spent time in prayer, including silent prayer, worshipful prayer, and listening prayer. They knew God and knew when they were in tune with him and when they were not.

 

This was also at root the theological basis of the early Vineyard movement in the USA (and elsewhere). The music was music of intimacy with God, music that brought one to stillness, adoration, and quietness. There was a hunger to get to know God better. And then as one got to know him, one would or should do what he told one to do, for one had caught his heart of love. In any given situation one should “seek the Lord” until like Jesus one saw “what the Father was doing,” and then with whatever level of trust one had, one could, as directed, step out and do whatever he requested (e.g. engage in the speech-act). One “did the stuff,” such as feeding the hungry, caring for the needs of the poor, healing the sick, proclaiming the good news, and all that other “stuff” that Jesus and his Church did and that he still wishes to do in the world today.

Faith, then, is the basic gift behind all the gifts to act in the world. It is the gift given to the child, who does not get it that he or she cannot “do it” or that “it is impossible,” but just acts in obedience with the parent doing the rest. It is rooted in the humility that one does not have ability in oneself, but that because Jesus has all power, whatever he says one can do.

The gift of faith, then, is more general than gifts of healing or miracles. George Müller started his ministry with faith for evangelism, faith that God would provide funds without his having to ask for them, and faith for healing. Later, after the Brethren movement developed a doctrine of gift cessationism, he no longer had faith for healing, but retained his faith for the other two works of God (which were not mentioned in any spiritual gifts list). In other words, his trust in God and what God wanted to do shifted, but in those areas in which he retained trust, he still saw miracles happen.

Thus the gift of faith is in essence contemplative. One has to spend time in quiet with God until one has dealt with relational barriers and is in a position to hear “see what the Father is doing” or “hear what the Father [or Jesus] is saying.” In other words, one cannot just quote this or that verse (usually out of context) and “claim it” because on thinks that God must do what he said he will do. On the contrary, in the quiet one spends time with God, realizes where God wants one to “step off the diving board,” and then, acting from that trust that the Holy Spirit has put in one’s heart, one can quietly step out in that direction and do whatever it is that the Father wants one to do under the leadership of Jesus. That may be walk on water, or it may be feed or house the poor in a way that demands means that one does not have, or it may be step out in evangelism, or it may be multiply loaves and fish, or it may be speaking a word of healing, or it may be housing and educating hundreds of orphans, or it may be planting new communities of Christians.

What is clear is that whatever it results in, “faith” is trust, it is relational, and it contemplative, and it is Trinitarian. When it loses these characteristics, it becomes either a type of magic or “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
This entry was posted in Brothers and Sisters of Charity Reflections, Ministry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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