A Firm Confidence
The word “believing” has lost some of its strength. In our everyday terminology you can detect some degree of uncertainty: “I believe so, but I’m not 100 percent convinced.” “Are you sure? No, but I believe so.” It is not something you can figure out or verify. You simply assume it’s right, unless proven or shown otherwise. The word “believing” has become so uncertain that often we need to add words to reinforce it: I certainly believe it. There is one exception, and that is when we say we believe in someone. Now suddenly “believing” has a different ring to it; it has gained certainty. Someone inspires trust and credibility. You have confidence in him.
Is the development in the language not indicative of the development in the church? “Believing” does not come across as being fully certain. The phrases “sure knowledge” and “firm confidence” of Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, arouse a sense of alienation. Such certainty goes against the grain of many people. It evokes resistance, because it reminds them of the time that they were taught about the doctrines of faith. There were unshakeable dogmas, anchored on the formula of the “undoubted Christian faith” – which was the standard phrase to always introduce the reading of the Apostles’ Creed. Have we not turned our backs on the certainty with which we used to claim many things? Are we not taking a few steps back, reluctantly? Or are we not now at least saying that things are more nuanced? Who still dares to speak so firmly at the beginning of this new century? Who is so pretentious as to claim that he has all the answers? We’re not all that sure anymore. Believing – might there be an element of uncertainty in it? Or perhaps: should there be?
What or That I Believe
What is believing? To start with, it is good to go back to an age-old foundational distinction between what you believe and that you believe. What you believe is about the content of faith. That you believe is your activity of faith. Let’s take that expression, “undoubted Christian faith.” Of course it was never meant to indicate that every believer never has any doubts. As if someone could have such a stable faith that all uncertainty is excluded. No, the word “undoubted” was used in relation to the content of faith, and not in connection to the faith with which you believe. And yet, these two are inextricably linked. For example, the resurrection of Christ is for you a sure “fait accompli,” an irrefutable fact, “undoubted.” But my faith in the resurrection of the dead is more labile. Such faith is not self-assured, but always seeks its certainty with that fact. This is especially true when a direct experience with death appears to deny this.
This distinction can help to clarify things. But the question still remains, what is this believing as an activity? It has often been understood as saying “yes” to a number of truths of faith. You get a large quantity of expressions that you can’t prove, which are sometimes called articles of faith. And next you are asked whether you acknowledge these. Whether you agree and regard these things as true. You must “simply believe” that it is so. As if you adopt a certain system. As if it speaks for itself. As if it is obvious that you believe all this?!
For people of our age, the reaction is predictable. They have seen the demise of “big narratives.” They have learned to relativize. They have learned to depend more on their own experiences. They do some serious soul-searching. And what is the reaction? “I can no longer believe. It doesn’t touch me anymore. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t do anything with it. It doesn’t relate. It does not inspire me anymore. I wish I could believe it. Faith is apparently something that needs to be given to you. How can I ever reach this?”
But believing does not consist of accepting a system. And it’s certainly not a watertight system. Shocking thought! In the Bible, believing is not assuming that something is true; or that after we’ve done due diligence and checked things out that we’re ready to consent. No, believing is a gradual trusting that Someone is dependable. Therefore, it’s not a matter of “it being true” but rather that “He is true!” Not: “I (do) believe it,” but “I believe in God as he has revealed himself.” Of course, this faith is not independent from my understanding, my emotions, and my will. Believing is not irrational, without feelings, or devoid of any will. However, believing does show me the boundaries of my understanding and emotions toward God (Eccl. 7:23-25). It is always much bigger than I think. It always goes deeper than I feel. It always reaches further than I want.
Believing is only true believing when there is trust. Believing is a matter of full confidence. This also becomes apparent in the language used in the Bible. It always points in the direction of trust, being faithful, being dependable, being connected. I believe in Someone. That little word “in” shows the connection. It indicates an intimate bond. I believe in Someone – that says more about the Other than about myself. Believing is not something that arises from within you. It is therefore definitely not being self-assured, but it seeks the certainty outside of oneself.
Believing is a matter of trusting knowingly and knowing in trust. It is difficult to trust yourself to a stranger (trusting knowingly), and you grant trust only to someone you know (knowing in trust). In both cases we deal with trust. Certainty of faith is therefore not a mathematical calculation with an end result, a logical conclusion. It’s a matter of your heart. Faith touches your entire personality, with everything that’s in you. You’re totally involved in this. Believing is establishing a personal relationship, not out of your own initiative, but by invitation. The question is not: how do I come to faith, how do I reach God? But rather: how does God reach out to me (Deut. 30:11–14)? You truly believe when you are convinced that God speaks to you and that your heart goes out to him (Calvin, Institutes III.2.16).
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for (Heb. 11:1). With that word “hope” it’s pretty much the same situation as with the word “believe.” Whether we use the word “believe” or “hope,” some degree of uncertainty may be expressed. When you say, “I hope so,” you’re not entirely convinced. You hope for the best, but you don’t know for sure. Nobody can look into the future. But “hope” here means a grounded expectation. The Christian hope has a foundation. It lives because of what God has said. He started with pronouncing the expectation! God does not leave people in uncertainty, in limbo. He lets himself be heard.
This becomes apparent in Abram, the father of all believers. God had global plans with him. How could Abram be so sure of this? He did not even know what his destination would be. Those around him could have said, “I hope so for your sake, Abram, that things will turn out better for you!” What guarantees did he have at the beginning? A promise – that was all he had. He had to be satisfied with that. Abram could hardly depend on his reasoning, or go by his feelings. But it did affect his reasoning, will, and emotion! Nothing remained but to rely on God’s promise. And how long did God not let him wait? Eventually he was pointed to look at the stars in the sky. But even then… Faith remains a matter of trust.
Father Abram went without any guarantees. That doesn’t mean that he was taking a chance. He went in good faith. His hope was based on something, on a promise of God. And in his dealings with Abraham God showed time and again that he was worthy of his trust. God took the time to gain Abraham’s trust. Whenever Abraham went by his own feelings, when he went by his own reasoning, when he was disappointed, made self-assured plans, or expressed his despair … every time again God called him back to what he had pronounced earlier. He is not to be understood, but he is to be trusted.
What God says is very promising. The living God has given us tremendous promises: forgiveness, renewal, change, improvement, care … too many to mention. For everyone alive today this brings with it a certain tension. And it’s precisely this tension that spurs faith into action. The things God promises can very well run counter to your understanding, to your feelings, or to what you want. Faith goes against what typically counts. Faith provides certainty where normally you don’t see it or expect it. Faith is a restless thing that seeks its certainty elsewhere. It is called for in what God promises.
You can hear that a life with Christ means great happiness, but sometimes you may think that you’re better off without him, and you can feel very unhappy at times. We are declared righteous (you are now beyond reproach), but we still have to deal with sin and the feeling that we haven’t arrived. We are assured of the resurrection from the dead, but when you look into a grave it’s quite deep. We are assured that God will bring everything to a good ending, but you can have serious doubts whether everything will turn out just right. Every time it comes down to trust! Trusting him, even without understanding him. That remains true your whole life long. That keeps things tense.
Our faith is a confidence that is constantly under attack. “I know no faith without challenges” (Luther). Faith is not unchanging like a block of granite. It is alive. It can increase (2 Cor. 10:15 ff.; 2 Thess. 1:3), grow, and blossom. Over against that it can also decrease and dissipate, rust or fade. The relationship with God can be rather superficial, or in decline. But it can also grow in depth.
The call of the living God remains the same: to continue to trust him at his word. Christian faith cannot exist without the voice of Scripture. Christ repeatedly called his disciples to faith (Mark 4:40; 6:50). He persists. Still he continues to let us hear him. Hold on to me! Remain in faith against all appearances of reality, even the harsh reality of death” (Mark 5:36). That faith seeks its anchor in him for whom death did not have the final word. Sometimes faith begins where all experience ends. Faith is a gift. But did Christ not say that his Spirit would never be refused to those who pray for him (Luke 11:13)?
There is yet another fragment in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is … the conviction of things not seen.” But how can you provide evidence of things you can’t prove? Many people today will say: something is only true when you can observe it. “First see and then believe.” Paul says matter-of-factly, “For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). Christ foresaw this when he proclaimed – also with an eye to our generation – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29)! The apostle Peter ties in with this: “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Peter 1:8).
From childhood on you are taught about people, places, and things that you are unable to visit or view. Everything is by hearsay. You don’t get to see an album of heavenly rooms. No lifelike angels on your screen. Seeing angels is impossible. Our eyes are mostly closed to them. But then again, you don’t have to see everything in order to believe it.
People want proof: compelling evidence, tight guarantees. They want to see – with their own eyes. Hear it with their own ears. A sign in the heavens, or something like it. It does not mean you’re wrong when you want to see your faith confirmed. Seeing as such is not wrong. Time and again believers have asked for it, and God has granted their request. Is that not possible today? There is no limit to the things that can happen! God can certainly give proof. For that matter he gives signs that most people look down upon: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Someone who is not seen, quickly loses the attention of people who are strongly focused on their own range of vision. An invisible King is easily neglected. But faith looks up on high, where the seat of government is in heaven, where Christ makes the world do his bidding. When you don’t believe, you’re rather shortsighted. Faith knows of dimensions of time and space that escape our visible world. Faith also looks ahead, past the things you can discern with your own physical eyes. Faith in the promise enables you to consider as proven those things that you cannot see. Again, that’s a matter of trust. It always concerns something you cannot see, that is at odds with the visible reality, that cannot be proven objectively.
But proving things you can’t see – isn’t that somewhat strange? What is actually meant is conviction. The invisible things themselves are not convincing, but faith is convinced of what God has promised without you being able to see it. Visual images alone, and receiving big impressions, no; you won’t be able to build your faith on that. Even if you have seen, that’s still no guarantee that you believe. There are people who saw the most miraculous signs and miracles when Jesus was with them. Did they all believe? All those signs proved to be an insufficient foundation for them to believe (Luke 16:30–31).
Believing is having and gaining trust in what you do not see. This requires conviction. Proving it means to be convinced of something. Having an opinion is much too open-ended. It is becoming convinced of God’s truth. This does not mean you rely on your own powers of vision, your own experience, and your own assessment. Doing this, you’ll never rise above your doubts. God still gives us enormous prospects! Faith looks for a splendid view enabled by God, and trusts his insight and oversight.
Believing is a personal matter, but never a lonely, isolated issue. Believing is something you do together, because Christ unites us together. In addition, a cloud of witnesses surrounds us in our struggle of faith (Heb. 11). They will not reach their perfection without us, and neither will we without them (Heb. 11:40). We are interdependent. The witnesses ensure that they are still being heard, even from a distant past. God has commissioned their portraits, through the window of faith. These people have believed, when the promise was still hanging among the stars. They believed, without any calculation based on visible facts. Each one of them has passed on their experience with God who keeps faithful to his word; with faith that could be shaken, yet with an unshakeable promise (Heb. 12:26).
The Perfecter of Our Faith
Our faith is incomplete, unfinished. Christ has promised to finish it. He is the perfecter of the faith (Heb. 12:2). He has shown us. Like no other he has shown how much God is to be trusted. What an opposition he endured. How much did he have to row against the tide. How much has he been mocked. He held on tight to God’s promise, even in the somber and outer darkness. He could not depend on anything or anyone else. Even when at the cross the words were uttered, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now” (Matt. 27:43), he kept going. That is true faith, building on God’s faithfulness. Entrust yourself to him.
He will make our faith so complete, as if I have never doubted, but have always been a courageous confessor. This is the sequence: he has fulfilled it for me; he has shown the way to me. Believing means to look at him, for he has gone before me. He persevered; he completes and perfects me. You can only persevere when you realize that he has persevered for you, until the end. Believing is to entrust yourself entirely to him. Believing is embracing Christ.
In 1859, a certain Charles Blondin ensured there was a tight cord over the Niagara Falls. He was well known as an experienced tightrope walker and drew the attention of thousands of people. He managed to walk across the rope from the Canadian to the American shore. When he reached the far side the crowd chanted his name, “Blondin! Blondin! Blondin!” In the end he raised his arms and quieted the crowd. Next he called out, “Do you believe me?” They called, “We believe, we believe, we believe!”
Again he silenced the crowd and called out, “Now I’m going back! Do you all believe I can make it?” Again, everyone approved and shouted, “We believe, we believe!” to which Blondin responded, “Who seriously believes it?” The crowd remained silent. Not a single word was heard. Finally a man stepped forward. He climbed on Blondin’s shoulders. And after three and a half hours they reached the other side together. Thousands of people shouted that they believed, from a distance. Only one entrusted himself to go with him. That is called believing: entrusting yourself!
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.