Increasing Our Faith

I don’t know why the “apostles said to [Jesus], ‘Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). It may have been because their faith was being increasingly tested. Jesus had told them clearly about the high cost of following his way (Luke 9:21-27). Now they’re on the way to Jerusalem, where his death awaits him (9:51), and he has repeated his warning about the cost of discipleship (14:25-33). Soon he will enter Jerusalem in his final confrontation with the powers of the world (19:28 ff) – a defining test of faith.

Or they asked him for more faith because they saw in the faith Jesus lived a deep resonance and peace they saw nowhere else, and they wanted such a faith for themselves. Everywhere he went, he went with the offer of abundant life, more and better life than anyone ever dreamed of having (John 10:10). It would have seemed an empty offer if he had not been living that life fully himself, if they had not seen it already present in him. “Increase our faith,” they asked; “show us how to have what you have.”

Instead of saying, “Here’s how to have more faith,” he says, “If you had even the smallest amount of faith, you’d have more power than you ever dreamed of having” (cf. 17:6). They ask for more faith; Jesus responds as if they don’t have any. Imagine the apostles, at this stage in their journey with Jesus, having no faith! Maybe they and Jesus are not talking about the same kind of faith, and it makes me wonder: when I feel my faith needs to be greater, am I being shown I have no real faith at all? I want the life I see in Jesus, but do I know what I’m asking for?

When I discussed this passage with some colleagues last week – and clergy can discuss the life out of anything – the old question came up: what is faith? Like we confess our sins, we also confess our faith, we say what we believe. In the Lutheran tradition, we do it every Sunday – a creed, we call it, from the Latin credo, or “I believe.” We have two or three of them; Presbyterians have a whole book of them, snapshots of the church’s faith at different times in history. We describe our faith in more detail in a catechism – Lutherans have long and short versions, and we have whole collections of books to explain the catechisms that explain our faith.

Explaining what faith is can get complicated, even before we ask that it be increased, and the more complicated an explanation becomes, the less I trust it. Occam’s Razor, the principle described in the fourteenth century by philosopher William Ockham, states essentially: don’t make explanations more complicated than necessary. Or as we might say today: keep it simple, stupid. So I want to trade the nearly 9,000 words of Luther’s Large Catechism for something simpler, like the definition found in the letter to the Hebrews, that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

I like that, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” First of all, it’s short, a dozen words long, and I can easily memorize it, unlike Luther’s 9,000 words. I also like it because there’s lots of air in it, lots of breathing space and room for questions, lots of blanks I’ve got to fill in myself to personalize it and make it mine. And filling in those blanks myself means I can’t bind it in a book and put it on a shelf; I’ve got to live with it, experiment with it, test it, learn from it, and grow with it. And it doesn’t allow me to be too sure of myself, too strong in my convictions, because they’re convictions “of things not seen,” and that means they’re convictions that may change with time and experience. My uncertainty keeps me dependent upon God, which is what I believe faith is all about to begin with.

Maybe any discussion of faith misses the point. “No one has ever seen God,” John wrote in his first letter, but “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Maybe any discussion of faith is really a discussion of love, and when we ask for our faith to be increased, we’re really asking for our love to be increased.

“Increase our faith,” the apostles asked, as they wrestled with their struggles and doubts and questions; increase our trust in the power of love so we’ll have the currency with which to pay the cost of discipleship. “Increase our faith,” the early church asked, as they struggled with the challenges of becoming a church for the ages; increase our trust in the power of love, so we’ll have the resources with which to pay the cost of the changes that deepen our connection with God. “Increase our faith,” we ask today, as we face the challenges that change brings; increase our trust in the power of love, so as we sail these stormy seas, our keel will ride deep to stabilize us.

Years ago, in deciding which of two job offers to accept, I realized I didn’t know enough about myself to make a good decision, so I decided simply to make the best decision I could make with what I knew, and to trust God to guide me in the future. I took the job; God guided me to a congregation. I stepped out in faith to continue a career in publishing; God guided me to where I could experience the love I needed in that season of life. Deepening my faith with a desire to pay better attention to God turned out to be the opportunity I really needed to start learning how to love in a Christian community. “Increase my faith,” I asked of God, and God set my feet on the way of learning how to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

Writing for CNBC earlier this year, Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani addressed the challenges of facing an unpredictable, daunting, and especially risky future. The work of specialists in business will continue to be important, he contended, but the work of generalists, people who can step back and connect the dots to see and describe what picture is emerging, will be just as important if not more so.

As the world faces a future that is unpredictable, daunting, and especially risky in so many aspects, we will need scientists, politicians, economists, business leaders, environmentalists, and so many other specialists to help solve our problems. And we will need people who can step back, take a broader view, and connect the dots that will make the picture that is emerging. In other words, we will need a church that is faithful and prophetic, which is to say loving and truth-telling, to describe the new thing God is doing in the world and that already is taking shape (Isa. 43:19).

And we will need a church that is patient, that knows how to wait. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time,” the prophet Habakkuk wrote; “it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). As we wait, let’s “hold on to the standard of sound teaching” that has been handed on to us through the church, and “guard the good treasure entrusted to [us], with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2 Tim. 1:13-14). And that good treasure is love.

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