The Habit of Faith

I have a friend over there in those United States who really annoys me. When I ask him, ‘How are you doing?’, he responds with, ‘I’m blessed!’. It’s frustrating because when I ask how he’s doing, I really want to know! Now, Americans use that question How ya doin’? as a greeting, kind of like ‘Hi!’. And so it’s most often not a request for a 15-minute download on the state of your soul. But when I ask someone, ‘How’s it going?’, I do, genuinely, want to know.

And that’s what makes my friend’s response so frustrating. Whatever it is that is going on in his soul, his family, his work, his life … I don’t get any download on that; rather, I receive from him a faith statement – an affirmation of what is true in his life by virtue of his adoption status as a child of God. He is simply referencing Ephesians 1.3: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

What an amazing statement! We are blessed with every spiritual blessing! So even though frustrating on one level, my friend’s statement is a power move: rather than interpreting his life circumstantially on the basis of what’s going on, he interprets his life positionally on the basis of God’s promise to him. To walk by faith means to inhabit God’s promises as our defining reality.

To experience the fulness of what God has for us in this life requires us to adopt this faith perspective. To help us gain this perspective and understand the habit of faith, we’re going to listen to the greatest faith teacher in history – Jesus.

Mark 11.22-24

This text is fascinating and challenging, but before we consider it, let’s put it in context. At this time – after his Triumphal Entry and during the week leading up to his crucifixion, Jesus was staying in Bethany and daily going through to Jerusalem (the village of Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived, was only two miles from Jerusalem, or about a 40-minute walk).  One day, as he was leaving Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was hungry: seeing a fig tree, he hoped to find figs, but did not, and so cursed the fig tree ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again’ (Mark 11.14).

The next day Peter noticed that the fig tree had withered to the roots; he was impressed and pointed this out to Jesus. This set Jesus up for a profound but challenging teaching moment:

And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Mark 11.22-24

This is a difficult text for Christians to read and hear objectively because it has been taken out of context and misapplied by ‘prosperity preachers’ who use phrases like ‘name it and claim’ and ‘you can have what you say’. These teachers portray words like magic potions that enables us to create our own reality. Like any good false teaching, there is a grain of truth in these emphases; words are powerful and creative. But our tendency is to over-react to the misapplication of these teachings and thus to water down what Jesus actually says and means. Let’s let Jesus teach us about faith.

The Jesus Faith Process

In these three short verses Jesus packs a package of five key instructions about how to develop the habit of faith. Let’s unpack these.

1. Have faith in God

The foundation of the praying and speaking that Jesus teaches about is having faith in God. Faith is simply believing that God is who he says he is and that He will do what he said he will do. Hebrews 11.1 defines faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. That is, faith is confidence that God is really God, and trusting God to do God-stuff, acting consistently with his character, fulfil his promises and keep his word.

This statement have faith in God is the most important part of Jesus’ teaching. All the other actions extend from real, genuine, rock-solid faith in God. Faith is the appropriate response to the revelation that God is who God is – that he is almighty, all knowing, good, perfect, holy, and benevolent. In short, God is exactly how he has revealed himself in the Bible to be.

Let’s be honest. Faith is not a natural, normal human response. Doubt and unbelief are both natural and normal. It is normal for the sinful heart of humans to doubt. There are two sources of doubt and unbelief in our lives – our inherited sinfulness and our cultural context. The very first human sin was doubting God’s word (Gen. 3.1-7); since the sin of our ancestors, every human naturally doubts God and his word. In addition to our internal tendency to manifest unbelief we also live in a context that champions questioning, doubt, cynicism, scepticism, and a critical perspective. To walk in faith is not natural, it is spiritual; to walk in faith is extremely counter cultural.

The opposites of faith are both fear and doubt. Doubt is believing that God won’t be faithful to his character and his word; fear (the dark room where negatives are developed) believes that the negative things we can imagine are going to happen – that God is not going to intervene the way we want him to.

How do we displace doubt and fear and grow in faith? Very simply, we build our lives on God’s word. That means we regularly, consistently read and meditate on the word of God. When we open the Bible and read it, we step into a world in which God is God and acts like God and speaks like God unfiltered through the limitations of our doubt and unbelief.  Paul expressed it like this: ‘Faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ’ (Romans 10.17). So as you regularly read the Bible, faith grows, doubt is displaced, and we walk forward with the confidence that will fulfil his promises in our lives.

2. Speak to the mountains

This is what Jesus said: ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’… (Mark 11.23).

Most of us find it easier to talk to God rather than speaking to mountains. Remember the beginning of this passage? Jesus talked to a tree … and the tree obeyed him! It can feel weird to speak to inanimate objects – or to situations – as if they can hear us. So why does Jesus want us to speak to mountains?

Jesus teaches us that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12.34). If we do Step1 – have faith in God by allowing God’s word to fill our hearts and minds, the faith God’s word produces will leak out of our lives through our words. But deeper – when we have a revelation of God’s greatness, power and might, even the biggest mountain gets reduced in size to a mole hill. So Jesus wants us full of a vision of God, and he wants us speaking boldly to mountains.

What is a mountain? My reading is that a mountain is any barrier standing between us and the purpose of God. Why does the Lord permit mountains? So we can learn how to exercise faith.  

3. Do not doubt

The Lord says, ‘ … and does not doubt in his heart, ...'. This is one of those frustrating statements of Jesus – it’s so simple, but its so hard to do. And yet, Jesus in his grace and love challenges us by identifying the attitude that sabotages faith. Why is doubt so pernicious? In essence, doubt questions God’s goodness and faithfulness. But where would this doubt come from if God’s word teaches us that God is good, faithful, and to be trusted? Very simply, doubt comes from being an empiricist; that is, we reach conclusions about God on the basis of observation and experience rather than reaching conclusions about observation and experience on the basis of who God is and how he works. Jesus is asking us to put on a theological (God-centred) lens to evaluate life, rather than an anthropological (human centred) lens to evaluate God.

4. Believe that what you say is going to happen.

‘…but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him’.

This is what you need to see in this phrase: the believing is done before the event comes to pass. If you have already experienced the thing you are speaking about, it’s not faith, it’s thanksgiving. Faith means that we believe that what we say is going to happen (move, mountain!) before it happens. In the context of Mark 11, Jesus had no doubt the fig tree would wither. He cursed it, he believed it before it happened, it happened the way he said and the way he believed … end of story. The teaching that follows this event confirms that Jesus wants us to walk in that kind of faith.

5. Believe you have received what you pray.

‘Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

Jesus takes his faith teaching and applies it to prayer. This is a radical statement – ‘whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’. It makes us very nervous and very hesitant; we want to immediately begin adding qualifications. Multiple scriptures do that for us; for example, 1 John 5.14 says, ‘And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us’. Jesus has already taught us to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’. So of course we want to pray in line with God’s will as revealed in his word. But from observation, most Christians err far on the side of timidity and qualification rather than boldness and audacity. Jesus simply wants us to believe we have received something when we ask for it. And he says, ‘Whatever …’. As a father, I get thrilled when a child asks me for something. Even if the thing they ask for is stupid and dangerous, the fact that they are looking to me to provide for them – that’s what fathers do. I believe the Lord is much more bothered by a lack of faith than with audacity or presumption in ‘asking for too much’.

Finally, before moving on to the next section, if you read through Mark 11.22-24 you’ll notice these words: faith, says, believes, says, ask, believe. That is, you have to do as much saying as you do believing. We’re going to come back to this principle in our application: the habit of faith means speaking consistently with God is and how he works.

Understanding Faith

Before we move on to practical application I want to briefly describe the nature of faith. Our focus is the habit of faith, not faith itself, but to develop the habit, we need to understand faith.

1. Faith is belief and trust.

The essence of faith is believing that God is God, he does what he says, and trusting him.
Hebrews 11.1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

2. Faith is built by God’s word

The best way to grow in faith is to read and meditate on God’s word. Romans 10.17. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

3. Faith is not based on sight.

To walk by sight means that we live on the basis of perception; to walk by faith means that live on the basis of God’s promises. This does not mean that we live in the tension of cognitive dissonance between what is observable and what’s promised, but rather, we simply affirm and believe and live like this: God has the final word.

2 Corinthians 4.18. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 5.7. For we walk by faith, not by sight.

4. Faith includes believing and speaking

The believing part of this relates to God’s promises; we believe that God will do what he said he would do. The speaking part of this relates to God’s word. We speak God’s word as a default move in life’s situations.

This is true in salvation:
Romans 10.8-10. The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

This is true in how we live life:
2 Corinthians 4.13: Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke”, we also believe, and so we also speak.

5. Faith is defensive and offensive.

That is, faith protects from Satanic attack, and faith moves forward in God’s purposes. Satanic attack comes in the form of temptation, but especially lies and accusations (about God, about yourself, and about others).

Defensive Faith:
Ephesians 6.16: In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.

Offensive Faith:
Hebrews 11.32-34: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Satan has fiery darts from which we need to be protected; we defeat his attacks by faith.
God has stuff for us to do; the only way we will press forward into what He has for us is by faith.

Four Areas to Exercise Faith

As I bring this to a close I want to focus on application. There are four areas where we need to develop the faith habit of believing God’s promises and speaking God’s word.

1. Your Soul

Psalm 42.5: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.

The Psalmist’s soul had a tendency to get stuck in ditches; rather than allowing this to be the defining situation in his life, he began speaking to his soul. His words were rooted in faith – that God is his salvation – and this faith moved from his heart to his mouth, and he spoke God’s word.

There are times in life that the only way out of your soul ditch is to speak God’s word to your own heart.

2. Your destiny

Acts 26.16: But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.

This is a statement Paul made towards the end of ministry years as he made a defence of his life, ministry, and gospel to king Agrippa. But here, he is still rehearsing the words Jesus spoke to him many years before – the words of destiny, and calling and ministry. Paul faced many forces trying to knock him off course; rehearsing God’s call helped to keep him on target in the face of great obstacles.

3. Your Church

Matthew 16.18: I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

If anyone had a right to be concerned about his church, it was Jesus: one of his inner circle was going to betray him, another would deny knowing him, the rest of them would flee at his moment of greatest need. And then, even after the resurrection, they all decided to quit the ministry and go back to fishing. From a human perspective, this was not a great church Jesus was leading! And yet, Jesus didn’t look at what he could see in the natural, he say with the eyes of faith and declared, ‘I will build a church so prevailing hell can’t defeat it!!!’

How do you look at your church? Do you judge it by what you can see, or do you see with the eyes of faith? Do you complain about it, or do you speak words life, growth, blessing, and flourishing over you church? Join with Jesus and extend faith by speaking God’s promises over your church.

4. The Harvest

John 4.35. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.
  
Jesus sees that the fields are white for harvest. And our tendency is to think, ‘Sure! Jesus was the greatest evangelist ever!’. And he was. But take a moment to look at the harvest field he called ripe. This was 1st century Israel, where some people loved him, but there was a movement that hated him so much they eventually killed him. In the face of intense opposition, Jesus looked past the circumstances to the power of God to break into human situations.

We live in a spiritually dark context. The degree of gospel-resistant secularism marking Europe is staggering. Your workplace is probably populated with people that have no time for God whatsoever. This is the reality that marks our lives.

But Jesus invites us to see a bigger reality, a deeper reality, God’s reality. And God’s reality is that he is on the move, his gospel is advancing, he is working in the lives of people that we don’t know about. Our job is to come alongside God and extend faith by speak words of life and blessing about our context. In short, don’t curse the darkness; light a candle.

Wrapping It Up

Whatever you get out of this, here’s the main point: have faith in God; let God’s word dwell richly in your heart; speak God’s word into the life situations you encounter.

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