I had a conversation over the holidays with my little brother. (And I say “little” purely from the perspective that he’s younger than I am. He’s about 6′ 6″!) He doesn’t see things the way I do and he asked a great question.
Why is faith a good thing?
I’ve been thinking about it a bit since that conversation and it’s even a bigger question than I first realized.
It’s important that we understand what faith is, and what it is not.
Sometimes folks understand faith to be a purely religious term that involves sort of a “checking your brain at the door.” Some people misunderstand faith to mean “disregarding all the evidence,” which is not the case. And while it’s true that faith is an important aspect to most religion, faith is exercised in many aspects of our lives outside of religion.
However, since I’m a Jesus follower and believer, let’s look at the classic Biblical definition of faith found in Hebrews. Besides, it’s a good starting place for a non-religious discussion of the term too.
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.— Hebrews 11:1
Faith is closely related to belief. The two are so close in fact that they often get confused even though they are different.
Faith vs. Belief
Belief is what we hold on to. For the most part, our beliefs are evidence based. Some people even go so far as to say, “seeing is believing.”Faith, on the other hand, kicks in when we get to the end of the evidence. It is the how behind the things we believe before we have concrete evidence for them.
Take skydiving for example. We may believe that a parachute will get us to the ground safely when we jump out of an airplane. That belief might be based on talking with folks who have done it. Maybe we’ve studied aerodynamics to know the theory behind how parachutes work. We might have even jumped out of planes before and experienced floating safely to the ground with a parachute.
However, the moment we jump out of the plane we have faith that our parachute will open when we pull the ripcord. It hasn’t happened yet, but we sure hope it will!
Faith is what connects the evidence to our beliefs when the evidence doesn’t quite get us all the way there, like in that moment when we’re free falling before the parachute canopy has deployed above us.
Opposite of Faith
The opposite of belief is unbelief. You might dispute facts like skydiving being statistically safer than driving a car. Perhaps you look at the evidence and decide that it’s nuts to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Then you wouldn’t believe that skydiving is for you.
However, the opposite of faith is not unfaith. The opposite of faith is fear.
Maybe you look at all the evidence and truly believe that skydiving is safe. You know that parachutes get people to the ground without incident every day and that it is more dangerous to drive your car. But in spite of all the facts, all the evidence, there is no way you are ever going to jump out of an airplane because the thought of free falling thousands of feet above the ground terrifies you.
You can believe all the right things about skydiving but never actually do it because you lack faith. If you had faith, it would overcome your fear.
In Spite of the Evidence
Faith can even cause us to believe things in spite of the evidence.
This causes problems for some because sometimes people believe goofy things that are simply untrue.
However we all know stories about people who believed and persevered in the face of overwhelming odds when everyone around them thought they were nuts. Yet in the end, they were shown to be right.
We tend to say that people like that have great faith.
On a small scale, all the evidence seems to be saying that you are going to die when you jump out of that airplane. However you jump anyway because you have faith that the parachute will open in time to save you.
Object of Faith
The key then is the object that faith is placed in. You could say that faith is only worth the object it is place in.
If your parachute is in good working order, then you have placed your faith in a worthy object and all will be well when you pull that ripcord.
However, if your parachute is defective or was packed by someone incompetent, then you’ll have problems. Your faith in that case is misplaced because that parachute isn’t going to save you. (Hopefully your backup chute will!)
If the object of your faith is worthy then all is well. If it isn’t, then best case scenario – you end up looking pretty silly. Worst case you end up doing lots of harm to yourself and others.
Is Faith a Good Thing?
Which brings us back to the original question.
The real answer is that sometimes it’s not. Faith placed in something that is not true is not a good thing at all. If you go through life believing lies that others have told you and you assume are true, deceived because you never looked at the evidence for yourself, then you are going to have trouble.
Or maybe you did look at some of the evidence yourself but the evidence you saw was incomplete or not really true. Then you’ll end up reaching the wrong conclusions.
And that’s not a good thing at all.
However, when our faith is placed in something that is worthy and true, then it’s a very good thing.
When your faith is rooted in unshakable truth then you can live without fear and be so peaceful that it might not even make sense to folks around you. Jesus said it this way.
And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.— John 8:32
Deep down we all long for true freedom.
Wired for Faith
Human beings are wired for faith. We all have core sets of beliefs. Some are based on more evidence than others.
And sometimes new evidence may come to light. When that happens, some folks change their beliefs.
Others exercise faith and cling to their beliefs despite the new evidence.
Pick most any controversial topic and you’ll find passionate people on both sides of the debate who have followed the evidence as far as it will go and then have faith to get the rest of the way to their conclusions.
To me it seems that faith is inescapable. We all have faith in something.
What makes faith good or evil is where that faith is placed.