Faith: What is It?

The Rev’d. Marek Zabriskie

By: Marek Zabriskie

Peter Drucker may be the most significant business writer of all time. Even people with no interest in business discover great wisdom in his writings. He was a thinker’s thinker, a guru, who coined the terms and concepts “post-modern” and “management.”

Yet, one of his finest pieces was a 1949 essay on Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian. Drucker wrote, “Faith is not what today is so often called a ‘mystical experience, something that can be apparently induced by the proper breathing exercises or by prolonged exposure to Bach (not to mention drugs). It can be attained only through despair, through suffering, through painful and ceaseless struggle.”

I don’t agree completely with Drucker’s on this, but I have witnessed and know that those who have gone through great adversity often develop a profound faith, one that has been tested in the fire of suffering and in the crucible of pain, loss or failure. Such a faith is not superficial pie in the sky, but something of deep substance, quietly carried within that transforms our words and deeds.

For many of us, “faith” is an ill-defined word. One definition I know has something akin to the way most men drive their cars. Faith is setting out on a journey without a map or any clear set of directions and yet somehow trusting that you will still arrive at your destination. Many men travel by faith.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). So, often faith is born on the edge of despair. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “The greatest act of faith that a man has is when he discovers that he is not God.” That revelation most often comes during a time of trial when we are tested and when we become willing take risks since we have nothing left to lose.

Yet, for most of us, “faith” is no easy task. When the word “faith” is mentioned, most of us feel like we suffer from an inferiority complex. We think, “My faith couldn’t possibly be as great as hers.” Or “He believes ten times more than I do.” We see ourselves according to what the English novelist E.M. Forster had in mind when he described one of his characters as having faith with a small “f.”

That is precisely where most of us start our journey with God. No lightning bolts. No burning bushes. No blinding lights. Just a little nudge from within, or a word spoken by a friend or a character in a novel whose spiritual plight ignites a small spark of belief within us – like reading about Alyosha in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov. Each of the three brothers represented a crucial aspect of human experience – faith, reason and passion.

The Catechism in the back of the Book of Common Prayer notes that the mission of the church is to teach the faith. Baptism is our charge to live the faith. The Eucharist is sacramental food to feed our faith. Prayer strengthens our faith, and the Bible is the book that elicits our faith.

Yet, for most of us, it is not so simple. For most of us, “faith” is something we’d all like to have more of, yet we don’t know how to go about getting it. If it’s a gift from God, should we just sit back and receive it? If it’s generated by our own effort, why is our faith lacking? If it’s so important, why doesn’t God dispense more of it? What must we do to receive it? How can we increase it?

Faith can be elusive. When we say we would like faith, we should really admit that what we would like is a sign. What we long for something concrete – like water jetting from a rock, a stone turned into a loaf of bread or better yet a dying mother returned to life. Give me something tangible, we shout, whisper or pray.

And thus, our churches, synagogues and mosques are full of people whose faith is spelled with a small “f.” All of us feel this from time to time. That’s where we begin to walk as pilgrims on the journey with God. We take small steps.

We discover that faith is best understand as a verb. Faith is actually a verb, not a noun in the ancient Greek used to write the New Testament. Because “faith” is a verb and not a noun, we cannot dissect, study, purchase or obtain it. We must simply strive to live by faith. The way to make it grow is to put it into practice. To use it in small ways and then big ways, too.

Eventually, we learn to do as St. Paul did. We learn to “walk by faith, and not by sight.” (II Corinthians 5:7). Faith is not ascribing to the Creeds, but rather it means living them. That’s why the writer of the Epistle to James notes, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:17) For real faith always elicits action.

Thus, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. Fear is the opposite of faith. Whatever we fear most, that is where God is calling us to develop faith. It is our spiritual growing edge. That is the place where God is calling us to move forward in trust and love.