Despite some of the errant ideas that get promoted in the church world I would like to offer you a bit of comfort this morning. There has been, and continues to be, a running understanding of faith that I fear can leave many people with a feeling of futility and spiritual exhaustion.
Faith is a mysterious thing. It is a “thing” that really remains undefined in the Bible. The author of Hebrews offers us this –
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
While that is a beautiful statement, it is hardly a definition. It is a description. Faith is not merely “assurance”, and faith is not only “conviction”; those two things are the results of faith, not the definition of it. My goal this morning is not to set out on a lengthy discourse about what faith is and what it isn’t. The older I get (and hopefully the more mature, despite what my wife and friends tell me) the less comfortable I am with trying to stick concise, lowest-common-denominator definitions on things that the Bible refuses to approach that way. All through that chapter in Hebrews we don’t get faith by definition, we get faith by illustration…it would seem that God suggests that matters of faith are best seen in the context of a story, not a definition.
With all of that as an introduction I want to point to a story in the New Testament that would fail to make the Hebrews 11 examples. In John 20, after the Resurrection, the disciples see Jesus. He comes walking into the room that they are hiding in and meets with them. They see Him, they talk with Him, they are comforted (and probably a bit unnerved) by Him. All of the disciples, that is, except one. Who knows where Thomas was, who knows what he was doing. He was, in this chapter, the only disciple who wasn’t in hiding for fear of what might happen to him; though the possibility does stand that he could have been hiding somewhere else by himself. But the disciples later tell Thomas that they’d seen Jesus, the same Jesus who they knew had been dead, and while they couldn’t exactly put their finger on it, He just didn’t seem quite as dead anymore. Thomas’ reply to them is a classic, and oft repeated moment:
But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
We call him “Doubting Thomas” because of this scene. We have actually given him a nickname based on a single remark. How unfair is that? I wouldn’t want to be known as “Red-Light Running Kris”, even though that has been true in the past. Thomas gets tagged for bringing up an objection that many of us would likely have shared, and this is where the point of this post emerges.
As I said above, faith is often seen as the energy source that drives the machine of God’s blessing on our lives. If we can just “believe” enough, or have enough faith, then (to hear some tell it) God has to do something. This kind of understanding of faith makes it out to be the spiritual arm bar that we can put on God in order to make Him submit to our desires and requests. I would offer this advice: it’s never a wise move to try and put God into an arm bar. While I completely understand texts like Ephesian 2:8-9, which highlight the importance of faith in the process of salvation, I also look back at this text in John 20 and have to pause before creating a ludicrous doctrine of faith.
In the face of Thomas’ doubt, in the midst of his belligerent refusal to trust what the disciples were telling him as well as what Jesus Himself had actually told them all, in spite of this lack of faith we read this:
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas,“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
Does a lack of faith keep Jesus away? It sure doesn’t seem to. In this story, incredibly, a lack of faith actually draws Jesus near. The Savior makes a special trip because Thomas doesn’t believe, not because he believes enough. Friends, let me put it clearly: Jesus is greater than faith. God is not confined to a system of barter and exchange. He is not on the edge of His throne in heaven, hoping that there is someone out there who will believe hard enough so His hands can be untied and He can “finally” swoop in and work. To the contrary, in your greatest moments of doubt I would offer you this comforting advice: watch closely, because in the locked room of doubt and despair you are hiding in you might just find that Jesus is standing there with you, closer than ever. When we blithely use expressions like “Jesus loves me” do we see that love as a “payment received for services rendered” or do we see it as the unconditional, unstoppable, unfiltered affection of the King of the Universe toward us?
Do you have faith? Wonderful! “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe” (John 20:29). Do you lack faith? Wonderful! “If we are faithless He remains faithful – for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
Do you realize that the only person in the Gospels to refer to Jesus as “Lord and God” was Thomas? And do you know when he made this declaration? When Jesus saw his doubt and came, as any good friend would, to assure him that he could believe.
Faith is a powerful and wonderful thing. But friends, don’t think for a second that a lack of faith keeps God from loving you or coming near to you. Jesus is greater than faith.