Last week, as we began our series on faith, I furnished you with an initial definition: faith is seeing with your heart. This week, I want to look at another facet of the gem of belief. This is another descriptive phrase designed to help you understand what faith is and how it operates.
Let us begin with the idea that faith is first belief. That sounds redundant, I know, but follow me. Faith is my initial reaction of belief when I hear something. Think of Lot and his peers, for example. When the angels brought the news to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah of their soon coming destruction each hearer had to decide whether to believe or scoff. Lot, for all the criticism justifiably hurled at him later, reacted first with belief.
Faith begins with the instinctive, or perhaps I should say initial, pointing of the arrow of the compass of my heart toward, “Yes, I believe that.” I was a very young boy when my parents told me the Bible was the Word of God. I believed them. I believed It. I reacted in faith. I was very young when I was taught that Jesus was God’s Son, that He died on the cross for me, that He rose from the dead for me, that He is coming again for me, and that He would take care of me in the intervening period. My first reaction, my initial response was to believe.
Though it is true to say that faith is first belief, it is also incomplete. For intellectual honesty, personal experience, and biblical example show us that the initial belief is soon mixed with doubt. Cast your mind back to the Garden of Eden. When God limited the trees that Adam and Eve could eat from in Genesis 2.16-17 and promised them the negative consequence of death if they disobeyed they initially responded with belief. Yet within just a few verses we find the devil sowing the seed of doubt into that faith in Genesis 3. Yea, hath God said? God spoke. The initial response was belief. That belief was soon followed by doubt.
The devil understands how powerful faith in God is and how much God values it. Consequently, there may be nothing he works quite so hard to subvert and destroy. He does this several different ways, as we shall see, but one of the very first ways he does is by attempting to sow doubt into the ground of initial belief. He casts doubt on the authenticity of God’s Word, on the infallibility of God’s Word, on your understanding of God’s Word, and on your application of God’s Word. He casts doubt on God’s timing, God’s power, and God’s willingness to honor His Word. And on a thousand other things.
Do recall Israel’s response when they first came to border of the Promised Land? Yes, they sent spies in but it was not because they were uncertain whether they could or should go in, rather they sought to determine how they should go in. Those spies were sent under God’s direct instruction (Numbers 13.1-3) as a reconnaissance force. Only later did they resolve themselves into a Committee of Doubt, determined to vote themselves and the people of God directly out of obedience into sin. First there was faith. Later, there was doubt.
I cast my mind back to one of my early yet serious experiences with this. I surrendered to the ministry at fourteen, and all through high school I carefully considered which Bible college I should attend. I prayed about it, studied on it, and sought counsel about it. Finally, I made my decision. I would attend Hyles-Anderson College. I believed – see the faith? – that God was leading me there and that this is what God wanted. Yet as the first semester rolled along and I kept losing jobs through no fault of my own, as I watched my school bill mount and my inability to pay it mounted right alongside guess what crept into my heart? You know the answer, right? Yep. Doubt. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe this is not what God wanted? Maybe I did not have what it took? Maybe I should quit? Yea, hath God said?
It is important for me to stress here that I am not talking about scoffing and mockery. I am not talking about a blatantly rebellious refusal to believe. I am talking about the normal or usual sequence of events for God’s people. I am talking about someone whose initial reaction is belief, but who very soon finds doubt creeping into their mind.
Fortunately, we are not yet done laying out this progression. The first reaction to God’s Word is belief. This initial reaction is soon followed hard on its heels by doubt. But then faith, real faith, rises back up. It casts its eye on the Word of God and choosing to ignore the siren call of doubt, it steps out on the belief. This then is the progression: faith à doubt à stepping out on the belief. Ergo, my second descriptive phrase for faith is born – faith is stepping out on the belief.
Let us say I invite you to my home for a meal. You readily accept, and step inside the door. I kindly take your coat and hat and hospitably point you toward a rickety, cane-bottomed decorative chair straight out of the eighteenth century. You pause. Why? You are weighing – pun intended – the alternatives. The chair looks like its best centuries are behind it. Your girth is substantial. Will it hold you up? Yet why would I point you toward it unless I full well knew it was up to the job? Inside of you a split-second war rages. On the one side is faith, trusting my judgment and trusting that chair to hold you up. On the other side is doubt, accusing me of malfeasance and insisting the chair is to be avoided. How do I know which one of those two wins? By your actions. If you avoid the chair, doubt wins. If you sit in the chair, faith wins. Faith is stepping out, or in this case sitting down on the belief.
Every person reading this blog post knows what it is like to entertain doubt in God and in God’s Word. But entertaining that doubt does not damn you. Acting on the doubt would but entertaining it does not. Your heart is revealed to God by your actions. If you act on the belief even while doubt is present in your heart you are not condemned for such. You are applauded in His world. Why? You are stepping out on the belief.
If you care to examine the stories of the great men of faith in the Scripture you will find this pattern repeated ad nauseum. They were not scoffers. They did not have a faith unmixed by doubt. Instead, when God spoke to them they reacted with initial belief, entertained doubt as it crept in, and then stepped out on the belief even thought the doubts were still present.
God instructed Abraham to leave his home and family, and God promised to give him a new land and many, many descendants. His initial response is belief, as evidenced by his leaving Ur. Doubt, however, rears its head, as evidenced by the events surrounding Ishmael. Yet when all was said and done we see in Romans 4 that Abraham had clearly risked everything on the faith side of the ledger, and was thus blessed.
Peter, on the darkest night of the Apostle’s lives that side of the crucifixion, in desperate excitement turned to a Jesus walking on the water and said, Bid me come unto thee on the water (Matthew 14.28). Jesus uttered one word. Come. Is that being an apparition, a ghost? Or is it his Messiah? Peter’s initial reaction is faith, evidenced by the fact he stepped out of the boat. That faith was soon mixed with doubt, as evidenced by the fact he began to sink. But in the final analysis, Peter trusted in Christ, evidenced by the fact he cried out, Lord, save me (Matthew 14.30). There are layers of faith and doubt interwoven through this story but it is glorious to see Peter step out on the belief.
Understanding this puts the lie to one of the more egregious scriptural fallacies about faith. That fallacy says faith has to be pure, entirely unmixed with doubt, for God to bless it. The truth of the matter is the complete opposite is revealed from one end of the Bible to the other. This side of eternity faith is often mixed with doubt yet it is exercised as faith and blessed as faith nonetheless – when we act on the faith regardless of the doubt we feel or hold.
It is not unusual for me to come across some long-standing saint of God making a second profession of faith in Christ, or even making repeated professions of faith. It is not a lack of understanding of the Gospel that drives such actions; it is rather a lack of understanding of what faith is and is not. “Well, I’m not sure I really believed the first time” is the rationale. It is an unscriptural rationale. We are not saved by a pure faith unmixed with doubt. We are saved by a faith that steps out on the belief, that casts itself solely on Christ as our hope for redemption, forgiveness, and eternal life, a faith that views itself as unworthy and wonders from time to time but obtains salvation for us nevertheless. Even a little faith can move mountains. Even just a grain of faith. Yes, there is Bible teaching that a strong faith is not mixed with doubt, but faith does not start there. It must grow to that point via long experience with God. And to say that God does not honor faith unless and until it is entirely free from doubt is not only illogical, it is just plain wrong.
Let me prove it to you.
In Mark 9 we find the story of a man afflicted with a demonically oppressed son. Jesus was not available but the next best thing – His disciples – were. So he presents his son to the Apostles asking for deliverance only to see the Apostles fail miserably. In one of the most encouraging personal interchanges in the entire Gospel record we find Jesus seeks first to ascertain the man’s faith. Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. That sounds like it comes straight out of a Pentecostal television broadcast. What follows next most assuredly, however, does not. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. If the fallacy is true, if our faith has to be pure, unmixed with doubt, in order for God to honor it this guy and his son do not have a snowball’s chance in hell. But that is not the case. Instead, we find a rejoicing father and a young boy gloriously delivered. Why? Because the father, though justifiably filled with doubt, stepped out on the belief. He came to Christ. He asked of Christ. He threw himself, doubts and all, on Christ. And was delivered.
Beloved, you do not have to be some kind of super-Christian in order for God to respond to your faith. You do not have to measure up to the stature you imagine Bro. So-and-so to be. No. When the doubt comes – when, not if – you just have to step out on the belief.
That is faith.