The tension of faith

What is “faith”? Readers of the New Testament, looking for a definition of sorts, might turn to Hebrews 11, which parades before us the great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) that have preceded us in the faith. Here we have short sketches of the faithfulness of Abel and Abraham, of Joseph, Moses, Rahab and many others. Accordingly, the author of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1, NRSV).

There may be something unfortunate about that translation.

Words like “assurance” and “conviction” play into an overly psychologized understanding of faithfulness as cognitive certainty, which in turn leads us to believe that any experience of doubt, any questioning of God or God’s purposes, is inherently un-faithful. Understanding faithfulness as certainty can lead us to scold or punish others for expressing their doubts, creating congregations in which people feel pressured to build community on the sands of play-acted cheerfulness.

And, I suspect, this is one of the reasons we may find the honesty of the psalmists’ laments so uncomfortable: we’ve been socialized into the assumption that faithful people shouldn’t say such things. Sure, take your suffering to God — just be polite about it. You know, nice. None of this Hey, God, where the heck are you? stuff.

What the author of Hebrews seems to mean — and what the stories in that chapter illustrate — is not so much some kind of internal doubt-free certainty, but the willingness to live consistently on the assumption that what you believe is true. Abraham, for example, lived his entire life according to the promise, even though — as the author of Hebrews seems to be at pains to point out — he never actually saw the promise itself fulfilled (11:13; see also vss. 39-40).

Faith, then, isn’t demonstrated by the complete absence of doubt or lament, but by the willingness to act in accordance with what you believe to be true, whatever doubts and questions you might have.

. . .

Previously, I’ve suggested that the life of faith, as portrayed in the Psalms, is inherently characterized by the tension between lament and praise. Trying to classify psalms into mutually exclusive categories is a losing game; many psalms of lament have an element of praise, and vice versa. The more helpful observation, I think, is that while there are psalms that give us praise without lament (e.g., Psalm 150) or lament without praise (e.g., Psalm 88), there are no psalms in which there is either lament or praise without faith.

To some, that might sound like an obvious thing to say. But I want to make sure we get this: to lament as the psalmists lamented is an act of faith, not faithlessness.

Let me push this a little further, by modifying the diagram we started with. Faith is inherently relational; it is never simply “faith” for its own sake, but faith in something or someone.

We could, following the cognitive reading of “assurance” and “conviction” above, think of faith as a relationship between a knowing mind and a statement whose truth is in question.

But I think it’s better (and more biblical) to think of faith in terms of the relationship between God and his people. It’s not simply a matter of the truth of statements, but the truthfulness of God.

In that sense, lament and praise are not simply literary categories, but moments in a faithful relationship with God. There is an ongoing tension between the two: we lament in the anticipation of praise; we praise in the shadow of lament. Today, we lean more toward one, and tomorrow we may lean more toward the other.

But one is not inherently more “faithful” than the other — as long as lament is still characterized by reaching out to God, even pleading with him to be the God we believe him to be.