How do you encourage someone who says he’s lost his faith? What if your friend says she just doesn’t believe anymore, as much as she’s tried?
I’ve often wondered how it is possible to tell someone to “believe” or “have more faith” when that is precisely the thing they are struggling with.
The traditional approach has been to tell these struggling Christians to pray that God would give them the strength to believe again, or just to have more faith. After all, we posit, this “season” of unbelief might be simply a test of faith that they must overcome in order to become a better, more mature Christian. I now think that this approach is very unhelpful, and a dangerous misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about faith & belief. Under this traditional approach, many, of course, will “fail” the faith test and walk away from Christianity altogether, apparently sunk by the inability to believe sincerely enough.
When you ask a Christian what faith is, he or she will often define it using Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is being certain of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” While this definition is helpful, it is hardly all-encompassing and provides precious little specific guidance for the aforementioned soul-searcher. The verse, at face value, seems to support the “just have more faith” line of encouragement.
If only, however, there was a way to flesh that verse out a little bit, perhaps bolster it by a few examples. Fortunately, the writer of Hebrews does not leave us to ponder. You’ll notice that the rest of the chapter is not so much extolling the virtues of people who have mentally assented to some vague “belief,” but instead commends people who took seemingly-insane actions as if something was true.
The next time someone quotes the Hebrews 11 definition of faith to you, make them quote the entire chapter!
Rahab certainly did not understand all the ins and outs of what she needed to mentally assent to in order to be a member of the faith hall of fame. But what Rahab DID do—whatever her mental states or feelings were at the time–is ACT as if she truly believed what her actions demonstrated she did.
Even James—the half-brother of Jesus—inexorably links faith & action, stating explicitly in James 2 that “faith by itself, if it does not have [action], is dead.” As in, it doesn’t exist.
The word faith can also be translated as a “conviction.” The “doers” in Hebrews 11 probably were not all on the same page in their “belief,” but they all had one thing in common: they acted with conviction as if what they believed was true. Faith, then, has a lot more to do with directed action in spite of feelings than it does with correct belief.
So what does all of this mean for someone who has “lost” their faith?
This is where we have been a great disservice to those in turmoil. We have told people struggling with belief to “believe more,” or “pray harder.” We have told people scared to death about their lack of faith to just “have more faith.”
Inexplicably, we don’t actually tell our dear brothers & sisters to do the thing that actually will rebuild their faith, namely, to DO something. As odd as it is, we live in a definite, real world. We don’t have the luxury of living inside a fantasy where we can test out hypothetical ideas to see if they would theoretically work. We live in a world with real people and real problems. The only—and I mean the ONLY–way we can actually “have” faith is by taking action in the real world. James says that faith by any other means is not even faith. Faith is always, and necessarily, rooted in actual activity.
Our struggling friends, neighbors, and acquaintances need us to speak truth to them, just as much as we need to speak truth to ourselves. Let’s encourage them to act with conviction—as if they believed it was all true—and then watch how God works. This is, after all, the Biblical definition of faith. In acting, they are responding to the Holy Spirit’s work in their life, not knowing the full picture, but still moving forward within and among a community of believers. And that very act is an act of faith.
In the end, this is a call not just to these struggling Christians, but to us as well. We are called to follow Christ with conviction regardless of our thoughts or feelings. Proverbs 3 tells us to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and lean not on our own understanding. Some days are good, and some are not, but this call to action is one that we must choose every day. And that action is, quite literally, walking in faith, as we watch what God does as we follow, step by step.