Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Faith Rational?

While most people have faith in at least something (whether in God and the Bible or Allah and the Koran or Darwin and Science), how many people could give an accurate definition of what faith is? Is faith an irrational belief is something you can never prove? Do you have to park your brains to have faith? I guess it depends on how you define faith. To many, faith starts where knowledge leaves off. Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing in something you know is not true.” I'll admit, that might accurately describe some people's faith. People believe all kinds of irrational things, and sometimes even give their lives for it. But is that the nature of Biblical faith? That is, is faith as it is described in the Bible an irrational belief in something you can never prove?

The Bible itself gives us a definition of faith. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 11, we have an entire treatise on faith, beginning with a definition and then illustrated in the lives of men and women of faith from throughout Biblical history. Verse 1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1).

At its most basic level, faith has to do with that which we cannot see or have not yet obtained, and yet it is both an assurance and a conviction of the reality of those unseen things. Faith is not simply a weak wish or a leap in the dark. Though many people believe in things for no other reason than that is what they have been taught or raised with, true Biblical faith is a conviction based on sound evidence. This is seen throughout the Bible, especially in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the book of Acts, the latter of which gives us the record of the early Christians as they sought to testify to their belief in Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

The Gospels are records based on eye-witness accounts (cf. Luke 1.1-4; John 20.26-31), as is Acts (Acts 1.1-4). In Acts we see the apostles constantly reasoning from the evidence in order to persuade skeptics (Acts 2.21-36; 17.2,4,17; 18.4,19; 19.8,9,26). Their faith was based on firsthand experience, historical and eyewitness testimony, Old Testament predictions, nature, and other forms of evidence. Their faith was not unreasonable, but highly reasonable.

Nonetheless, faith by its very nature relates to “things hoped for” and “things unseen.” Thus, it relates to the unseen realities of the past, present, and future. We may have never seen the Roman Caesars, but we do not doubt they existed. We may have never seen the atomic components that hold matter together, but we do not hesitate to sit down in a chair. And we know all too well what happens when you split those components apart in an explosion. And though we have never seen Jesus in person, we can have a sure conviction that he lived and died and rose again. Enough evidence has been provided. And while we cannot see the present reality of Jesus living and ruling in heaven at the right hand of the Father, we need not doubt it because we have enough evidence. Likewise our hope (confident expectation) of eternal life beyond the grave is an unseen future lived as if it in were the present. These are all unseen, but no less real.

And yet, faith can only exist in the realm of doubt. It is not the same as absolute knowledge in terms of first hand experience. Whenever we board an airplane, we must place our complete confidence (faith) in the pilot who will fly it, the mechanics who worked on it, the engineers who designed it, and the Air Traffic Controllers who will guide it (not to mention the airport security services who protect it). Yet though we do not really know with absolute certainty that they have all done or will do their jobs correctly, we get on the plane. That is faith. But if there was no room for doubt, there would be no need for faith. As Paul said, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5.7). Faith does not mean we never have doubts. It only means that we do not let doubts prevent us from acting on our faith.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Should We Fast?

Last week’s article on fasting seems to have resonated with many of you (this article is also sent out on an email list, from which I received many responses). Evidently I am not alone in my experience (or rather, lack of) with fasting. Many of those who responded suggested that they do not fast and have seldom or never heard any teaching on fasting. There were some notable exceptions, however. Nonetheless, it does seem that fasting is rare among Christians today (I can't say that my "sample size" is anywhere close to representative of course).

Before coming back to my personal experience and thoughts about fasting, however, let me briefly consider a few examples from the Bible. The first Biblical mention of fasting might be Gen 24.33, where Abraham’s servant, who was sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac, refused to eat food that was set before him until he told his business. Even if it was just one meal, this would qualify as a fast, which simply means to “abstain from food.” Later, fasting began to be commonly practiced among the Israelites. The Law of Moses evidently required only one fast, which was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.29-31 – “humble your souls” has traditionally been interpreted as fasting). Yet we see many references to fasting among the Israelites. Moses twice fasted for 40 days while receiving the Law (Ex 34.28; Dt 9.18). Throughout the Old and New Testaments fasting was done to seek God’s guidance and gain understanding and wisdom (Jud 20.26; Dan 9.3; 10.3 Acts 13.1-3), to beg God’s forgiveness (1 Sam 7.6), to mourn the loss of leaders (1 Sam 31.13), to entreat God’s healing (2 Sam 12.22), to express national or personal repentance (Jonah 3.5 – these were not even Israelites), to call on God for protection (2 Chro 20.3; Ezra 8.21) , to call upon God’s power (Mt 17.21), and for many other reasons. There are just too many instances to list here.

Fasting not only has many purposes, but many benefits as well. In her book, The Roots and Fruits of Fasting, Mary Ruth Swope lists such “fruits” as drawing closer to God, bringing about spiritual brokenness, building self-control, concentration on prayer, greater sensitivity to God’s will, fortification against Satan, greater focus on Jesus, and many others, including benefits to physical health. Other good books include Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, and Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast.

Fasting, like the other spiritual disciplines, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The intention is to draw closer to God by making us more dependent on him. Fasting puts us in a place of weakness, where true strength lies (cf. 2 Cor 12.9). Not only are we physically weakened, but we are weak against the desires of the flesh. In fasting we come to battle against the flesh at one of our most basic levels: hunger and the desire and need for food (though fasting can include abstaining from sex or other desires as well -– 1 Cor 7.5). Here is where we truly learn that “man does not live on bread alone….” I cannot say that I’ve fully experienced this, as I haven’t fasted beyond 24 hours. I cannot fathom what it must be like to fast for seven or ten days as some of you have done, let alone 40! I have a long way to go, but perhaps I’ve begun the journey. Next week I want to share some personal challenges to fasting.