As a young teen, I read the biographies of “men of faith:” George Mueller, “Praying” Hyde, G. C. Bevington’s Modern Miracles of Faith and Prayer, and others. God’s mighty working in response to the prayers and faith of these saints fired my imagination. I wanted that kind of faith!
Whether I understood them correctly, I came away from reading such books with the idea that faith is asking God to do something and then firmly believing that He will do it. Or, faith is stepping out to do something for God without any knowledge of how it can be done. On this definition of faith, people who experience doubts about whether God will come through have “weak faith.” People who plunge into the future, confidently expecting God to act on their behalf, have “strong faith.”
A Different Perspective
Since then my study of Scripture has convinced me that this isn’t what the Bible calls faith. I call this kind of faith “subjective.” Its strength is based, not on God’s character or word, but upon the person who has it.
Admittedly, “subjective” faith has the appearance of being biblical. Its advocates urge, “Believe God!” They bewail the lack of faith that hinders God’s mighty hand. Boldly they assert, “God has said if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains.” Though “subjective” faith seems to be biblical, it is actually based on a misunderstanding of God’s word.
Imagine that I tell my wife I’ll be arriving tomorrow in Cincinnati on Delta at 5:00 and ask her to pick me up at the airport. If I mean 5 PM and she understands 5 AM, we have a problem. No matter how great my wife’s faith in me and my word is, I won’t arrive at the airport at 5 AM.
God has told us, “Ask anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14). If God means “Ask anything you know is according to my will, and I will do it,” but we think he means, “Ask anything you want, and I will do it,” or “Ask anything you think is according to my will, and I will do it,” we have a problem. No matter how confident we are in God and His word, God isn’t going to do anything we ask Him.
Biblical Faith’s Object
When I say biblical faith is always objective, I mean that faith is always based on a knowledge of God’s character and His word, properly understood. That last phrase is crucial. It’s no good claiming God said it, I believe, that settles it, if you haven’t properly understood what God said.
It’s no good claiming God said it, I believe, that settles it, if you haven’t properly understood what God said.
Take the example of Peter walking on the water. Peter knew Jesus could do anything. He was watching Him walk on water! Peter knew that meant Jesus could even empower him to walk on water. That is biblical faith. But Peter didn’t step out of the boat on the basis of that knowledge. That would have been folly.
Peter stepped out of the boat after he heard Jesus bid him come. With the knowledge that Jesus had said, “Come,” Peter could confidently disembark onto the heaving sea. Peter’s faith was “little,” because he entertained doubts about Jesus’ ability to keep him above the surging waves, despite the fact that Jesus had told him to come. Jesus would have commended Peter’s faith as “great,” if like the centurion he had heard Jesus’ “Come!” and then persistently walked toward Jesus in confidence that Jesus’ bidding was a promise of Jesus’ keeping.
I’ve had several different people point out to me Jesus’ promise that if we have faith and ask anything in His name, believing that we have received what we ask for, we will receive it (Mark 11:23-34). They have asked in Jesus’ name, believed, and did not receive. Why doesn’t God keep His word?
The problem isn’t with God. The problem is with the common understanding of faith. To understand what Jesus means in Mark 11:23-24 or John 14:13-14 we have to grasp three things. First, what it means to “have faith in God.” Second, what it means to ask “in Jesus’ name.” Third, what it means to “believe that you have received what you ask for.”
Let’s start with “Have faith in God.” According to Scripture, Jesus commended two people for “great faith”: the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) and the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15:21-28). Careful reading of these accounts reveals six elements of their faith.
- They believed Jesus was able to do what they were asking.
- They believed his authority had no boundaries.
- Despite appearances to the contrary, they believed Jesus cared about their problem.
- They acknowledged their unworthiness.
- They persisted until they received a final answer.
- They believed Jesus’ word when he said their request was granted.
Lest you think that great faith always receives “Yes” answers from God, recall Paul’s thorn in the flesh. There’s no doubt Paul was a man of great faith (Acts 19:11-12). When a “messenger of Satan” tormented him, he too exhibited the elements of faith (2 Cor. 12:7-9). He believed God was able to heal him. He believed that God’s power has no boundaries.
Despite God allowing him to suffer, He believed that God cared about him. He persisted until he received a final answer, which in his case was, “No.” And he believed God’s word: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul demonstrated his belief in God’s word by boasting in his weakness so that the power of Christ would dwell in him.
Now consider Jesus and the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 19-24). It was Jesus’ last week on earth. On the way from Bethany to Jerusalem, Jesus sees a fig tree in leaf. He looks for figs, even though it isn’t the season for figs, finds none, and curses the tree. A little known fact explains why Jesus looked for figs when it wasn’t fig season: fig trees produce figs on their branches before they produce leaves. If a fig tree has leaves, it should have figs!
Faith is confidently believing that God can do anything He wants and that He will do everything He has promised.
But why did Jesus’ curse the tree? John 5:19, 30; 8:28, 38 provide the answer: Jesus only did what he saw the Father do; Jesus only said what he heard the Father say. Jesus never did anything on his own initiative. That means Jesus cursed the fig tree because he knew it was God’s will for him to curse it. Twenty-four hours later the disciples find the tree withered from the roots up. Amazed, they point out the miracle, and Jesus responds, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”
“Have faith in God” is actually short-hand for “Have faith that God can and will do His will.” When you know it is God’s will for you to say to a mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” then you can speak to the mountain with absolute confidence that it will, in God’s time and God’s way, be moved into the sea.
Here’s the point: faith is not asking God for what you want and then believing that He will do what you have asked. Faith is confidently believing that God can do anything He wants and that He will do everything He has promised.
Revised from articles published in God’s Revivalist.