Most of the truly valuable things in life aren’t well suited for measurement. Try quantifying the next kiss someone plants on your cheek, for example. What criteria would you employ? What instrument would you use? Why would you even want to rate that kiss?

Faith is a valuable piece of life that resists all measurement. If some ominously big news, like stage 4 pancreatic cancer, were to suddenly stare you in the face, you might think you need mega-sized faith to meet this challenge. But the continuity and steadiness of your faith matters more than some felt need to make it swell rapidly.

Neither tablespoon nor ton means a thing when describing this gift from God called faith. We should take comfort from the disciples who, by several Gospel accounts, never obtained big faith. Jesus often referred to their “little faith.”

The good news is that little faith is not an insult. Given even a speck of faith, faith as small as a mustard seed, one can uproot a sycamore tree and stuff it in a lake. Faith may even move mountains, presumably our own mountains of guilt, pride or despair, not to mention other immense obstacles in life.

The substance of a spiritual life comes down to what one chooses to do with however much faith one has been given. 

We often confuse belief — an act of the intellect — with faith — an experience of the whole person. In this confusion, faith gets tucked inside a bubble of belief. When the disciples cry out, “Increase our faith,” they can hardly be asking for more catechetical instruction or for more things to believe.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not belief in his teachings, his principles or his moral commandments. Faith is the fullness of one’s disposition toward God when Christ plays a central or shaping role in oneself. As Paul experienced in his own life: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me …” (Galatians 2:20). 

Jesus’ invitation to his followers is that they would come fully into his embrace. Thus, his repeated admonition was “Follow me,” not “Follow my teachings.”

At one point Jesus even referenced the difference between the teachings of Scripture and life in him: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life … Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40). 

A breakthrough for understanding faith comes from a helpful distinction Martin Luther made. In the Middle Ages, the leading word for faith was fides — intellectual assent to certain propositions. In place of fides, Luther popularized the word fiducia, meaning personal trust. We know its English counterpart, fiduciary

If I deposit my money in a bank and trust company, I trust the owners of that business with my assets. I may believe all kinds of things about their work, and I may assent to all sorts of propositions about their solvency as an institution. But I do not engage a fiduciary relationship with that bank and trust company until I invest my money there. 

Faith is trusting God with the totality of our lives. More than a feeling, more than a supernatural bag of tricks, more than a leap in the dark, and even more than intellectual assent to particular teachings, faith is saying yes with one’s heart to a God worth trusting. It is believing in God, which is altogether different from believing things about God. 

Similar trust occurs in other dimensions of life. If you have been seriously ill and others have believed in you enough to help you rally, you know the strength you derived from their fidelity. A bride and groom exchanging vows do not simply announce pleasant things each believes about the other. They profess a deep belief in each other, enough to commit the rest of their lives to living out those shared promises.

The most beautiful facet to this gemstone called faith may be its lively or dynamic character. If our language would only permit, faith makes more sense as a verb than a noun. It is essentially a journey full of motion.

Perhaps this is what prompted writer and theologian Frederick Buechner to describe faith as “the direction our feet start moving when we discover that we are loved.”

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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