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Thinking about faith, Jesus and living-together

Recently, I ran across a wonderful little section in A New Testament Trilogy discussing the role of faith in understanding the process of coming to know and walk the Way. Authors Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson explore three aspects of faith—Faith as Assent, Faith as Trust, and Faith as Faithfulness—which get at the heart of how we walk the Way.

By “Faith as Assent,” the authors mean what most of us think of and the definition dominant in church culture when it comes to faith: “. . . faith as belief—that is, giving one’s mental assent to a proposition, believing that a claim or statement is true (e.g. ‘The tree is tall’).” This often plays out most familiarly in doctrine and distinguishing ourselves by what we believe.

By “Faith as Trust,” the authors move beyond our most common understanding and begin to get at the depth of faith: “This is faith that is represented as a radical trust in God as a person and is most clearly what is represented by faith in Scripture.” They point to James, who challenges us that faith is more than belief—“even the demons believe,” he says (James 2:19 NLT). This aspect of faith moves deeper, from giving assent to Jesus as Lord to an “act of personal trust or commitment.” It involves personally encountering the Living God. It is trust in this Person, which the authors suggest can actually be measured in our lives: “Little faith and anxiety go together. Simply, the person who worries or is anxious is a person who lacks trust in God. We can measure the degree of faith we have by the amount of anxiety in our lives.”

By “Faith as Faithfulness,” the authors go even deeper: “loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of self at its deepest level, the commitment of the heart. This type of faith is not faithfulness to statements about God, but faithfulness to God as revealed in the Incarnation, the Bible, and the life of the believing community.” And this plays out in our priorities: “It means loving God and loving our neighbor and being faithful, above all, to these two great relationships.” It means not only “not straying” (fidelity to God) but also paying attention and doing what we can to nurture our relationship with God—“through worship, prayer and the life of compassion and justice as we reflect the light and love of Jesus. To be faithful to God not only means to love God, but to love what God loves, namely one’s neighbor, and indeed the whole of creation.”

For many of us in North American church culture, our concept or understanding of faith has become narrowly centered on doctrine and believing the right things—faith as assent. Too often, in our conversations about what it means to be Christians and live-together as believers in this world, we talk about what we believe and what doctrine and creeds we share (or don’t). Don’t get me wrong. These are very important—they help us articulate truth and communicate it. And I’m all too aware that we live in a culture where it is imperative to remind ourselves of what is true. But when we overemphasize faith as belief or mental assent, it starts to affect some foundational things about how we view the Way.

For example, by overemphasizing faith as belief or assent to statements, we begin to unconsciously reduce Jesus to a set of thoughts, ideas or doctrines rather than a Person—a Person who is alive and interacts with us and lives within. Yes, most definitely being a follower of Jesus is about giving assent to who he says he is but it doesn’t stop there. We say, “You ARE Lord,” and then start walking with him in wholehearted trust and proactive faithfulness. I like the author’s suggestion on measuring the degree of faith we have by the amount of anxiety in our lives—this is a very practical way of getting at deep our faith/trust in Jesus really goes.

Overemphasizing faith as belief or assent also affects how we live-together as followers of Jesus along the Way (how we do church, how we think about Christian community, etc.). Recently, I’ve noticed how easy it is to slip into doctrine and creeds and statements of faith when we talk about community among us. We tend to focus our conversations on what we believe as opposed to what others believe. Again, I get why this is important in the times and culture we live in, but without reminding ourselves of the deeper nature of faith and what it means to be a follower of Jesus, it leaves our experience of community rather dry and shallow. It centers our coming-together on the beliefs we give assent to rather than the Person of Jesus and our faithful and trusting relationships with him.

I appreciate the authors’ reminder of the depth and aspects of faith. It helps remind us that walking the Way (with Jesus and others) is more than just believing the right things. Walking the Way is all about Jesus—believing he is who he says, trusting that he does what he says and living by that trust in him. That expresses itself in loving God and loving others as ourselves—something we can’t do unless we trust and walk with Jesus as a here-and-now with-us-and-in-us Person as we go through each space and moment in our lives.

(Image: Book cover copyrighted by Praxis and Church Smart Resources; Nicaea icon is public domain via Wikipedia; Along the Path by tico24 at flickr, some rights reserved)