Faith is a verb. You can write that down. I’ve just come to understand this in the past few years.
Used to, I thought faith was believing right things in correct ways. Even though I’ve always been a part of a non-creedal Christianity, I still thought you had to assent to certain creedal statements about church, God, Christ, Spirit, the Bible.
Faith was about ideas.
Now I believe faith is a verb. For me, it’s more about my doing faithful things, acting in faithful ways, behaving with faithful intentions. Faith is about change and transformation and personal commitment and the re-orientation of a life.
AND faith is about counting on the faithfulness of a God who creates and informs and sustains the faithfulness of my own faith. It’s about entrusting myself to the faithfulness of the God who covers for me even when I do believe incorrectly and even when I do behave unfaithfully. It’s about letting the whole of my life flow from the life of the God who is the ultimate Verb, the One who is ever the I AM; always present tense; always acting on behalf of all humanity for the sake of the Promise.
Faith is a verb.
When we read the famous chapter 11 in Hebrews, the Hall of Fame chapter, we can’t miss how active real human faith really is. This chapter is chock full of verbs. The faith of our fathers, the faith of our mothers that “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, put enemies to flight” (Hebrews 11). The faith of the martyrs that “suffered mocking and flogging and imprisonment. The martyrs who went about persecuted and tormented.”
Sometimes the verbs of our lives are passive; they describe the world and the fixed realities in our lives and our own endurance to live faithfully with whatever comes our way. Other times the verbs of our lives are active; they have power to change what is. Verbs can make things happen and transform our existing reality. Faith as a verb.
And yet, of course, faith also is a noun. There are some facts, some realities that we must assent to before we can act. The Hebrews writer says we must first and foremost believe that God IS. And then we believe that God acts; as Hebrews says: God ‘rewards” and responds, acts and interacts with everyone in the process of their seeking.
Like air, even when we can’t see God, faith assents to this Divine Fact of our lives. It is the grounding of ourselves in this Unprovable Fact that moves us and motivates us to act. Believing THAT allows us to believe IN.
Believing THAT God IS gives us confidence to entrust ourselves to the One is the Ultimate Verb of eternal, always-present Being.
Faith is not abstract; rather faithing embodies hope; it makes hope tangible and reveals invisible realities. Faithing is stepping up, going beyond what we know is possible.
The Letter to the Hebrews pictures faithful living in one powerful image with a particularly active verb when it imagines faith “as a race that is run with perseverance.” Hebrews envisions us faithful runners as surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses,” the faithful who have gone before, cheering us on. Hebrews presumes we do not run this race alone, on our own power and stamina and know-how; but rather we are running with Jesus – “the Pioneer of our faith, the Perfecter of our faith.”
Faith as a verb.
A few years ago, a moving interfaith worship service at the National Cathedral honored those who were wounded and died at the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.
When I heard President Obama use these same powerful words as a way to comfort the Boston Marathon runners and the cloud of witnesses at the finish line who had been so traumatized on that terrible Monday – my spine tingled. It was a powerful image in that setting: running the race with endurance and fortitude; rising again to run again in spite of the traumas life brings. Running has long been powerful in the imaging of Christian faith: keeping-on-keeping-on with patient staying power in this marathon of living.
But there is another profound image of running that speaks to us today, another image of running that makes my spine tingle: the picture of people running – not away from danger and disaster – but running right into it.
We’ve seen this kind of faith and faithfulness race to confront heart-breaking, gut-wrenching pain over and over again. Wherever there is tragedy, faith and faithfulness will rush in. Faithful people will always step up and step out and go beyond what they know is possible. Their faithing will always embody invisible realities of hope and compassion and perseverance. These are people who live their lives chock full of verbs.
And then, on the other hand, there is another kind of story from Numbers, a little story about the paralysis and stagnation of unfaithfulness.
When Israel walked away from slavery in Egypt, they were walking in the direction of the Promised Land. The Red Sea opened up before them; a pillar of cloud and fire went ahead to guide them; bread fell from the heavens and water flowed from the rocks. Time and time again, God’s people saw evidence of God’s faithfulness. The “I AM” who is ever acting on behalf of humanity for the sake of the Promise.
But then, when the people sent their scouts into the land of promise to spy it out, the reports they received made their knees quake with fear. It’s too hard. We’re too small. The challenges are overwhelming. Our resources are limited. The obstacles are like giants. We are like grasshoppers. We can’t. We won’t.
Instead of running the race set before them; instead of running into the challenges that – yes – were very, very big; instead of facing the apparent impossibilities with the faithfulness of faith, the people dug in their heels and turned their backs on their own future.
As the story goes, because of this faithlessness, they ended up running around in circles; they wandered in a wilderness of hopelessness for 40 years. “40 years” in Bible-speak = a very long time.
You probably noticed the Hebrews author did not include this little story from Numbers in his Hall of Fame in chapter 11.
The “pilgrims” and “sojourners” that he praises weren’t wandering around in circles. They might not have known exactly where they were going, they may not have known how to get there, but Hebrews describes how these pilgrims of faith managed to see what was invisible. He describes how they greeted God’s promises from a distance; how they could imagine a city whose builder, whose architect was God.
Even when they did not know where they were going, they knew they were going somewhere. And if not in their own lifetime, they entrusted themselves and their children and their great-great-grandchildren to God’s faithfulness. They trusted enough to continue to live faithfully even if they didn’t see the promise come true for themselves; they were content to live toward the promises. And so, in the midst of all their unknowing, they still were able to live with focus and direction and confidence.
So there is First, running with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Second, running with courage right into the challenges that come.
And now Third, running toward God’s promises.
Faith – the assurance of things hoped for; faith – the conviction of things not seen. Anthony Thiselton says:
Like all God’s pilgrim people of faith…we need forward looking faith which will appropriate and act on God’s promises concerning the future purposes… Like Abraham, we must “venture forth.” We need fresh vision, fresh courage, fresh perseverance, fresh heart in the face of stagnation and a desire to shelter within old securities.
Hence we are urged: “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2)
We have the same choices God’s people have always had: to let the challenges ahead overwhelm and paralyze us. Or to run the race that is set before us. We can continue to wander around in circles for a very long time, hoping that God might send something more than manna, like say a map so that we can know exactly where we are supposed to go and how we are supposed to get there – all before we are willing to step out and go forward.
Or we can step out and step up, faithing into our future, putting our faith and trust and hope in the One who promises to accomplish amazing and good and impossible things in us and through us.
We can embody hopelessness or we can embody faithfulness. I vote for faithfulness. How about you? So may our faith – may our lives – always be chock full of verbs.
Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992) 265.