What is Faith?

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1 NIV

When I was in my self-improvement phase, I came across a book titled “The Power of Positive Thinking“, by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.  The basic premise of the book is that in order to accomplish our goals, whatever they may be, we need to believe that we will accomplish them.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, if we do not believe we can accomplish our goal, it is unlikely we are even going to try; and, if we do try, our efforts will be halfhearted, at best.  Which, of course, makes success very unlikely.  On the other hand, there does seem to be a natural inclination to follow through on those things we believe in, and do what is necessary to bring them about.

Anyway, after I read the book, I would try to get the things I wanted by using the techniques presented there, and in fact, the problem is they didn’t work, at least not for me.  I would try to believe, but something would come along that would shake my faith, introduce doubt, and I would fail to achieve my goal.  Oh, I would say the prayers, I would recite the scripture, I would try to picture in my mind achievement of the desired end, but it just didn’t work.

To be quite honest, my goals weren’t really the loftiest, but why should that matter?  After all, if I just stayed positive, continued to believe, visualized success, I could do anything, right?  The answer I got was no, not right.

For some time after that, I would often wonder what went wrong.  I assumed there was something wrong with me because this book had sold millions of copies, so the problem had to be me, right?  My faith just wasn’t strong enough; I was weak, and I was a failure.

Where did go wrong?  It would be years before I got any reasonable answer to that question, but as my knowledge of G-d, scripture, and faith grew, I eventually did come to some understanding, and yes, what we desire does matter, to answer my earlier question.  Let’s start there.

What do we want?  Years ago, I used to play the horses.  I read up on it, studied it, and was actually pretty good.  Periodically, I would buy a system for picking winners, and one such system came in a paperback book.  On the cover was a picture of the author and creator of the system.  He was sitting in the clubhouse of Santa Anita Park, legs crossed, wearing a sports jacket, with an open shirt, and ascot.  In one hand was the Daily Racing Form, which he studied intently, and in the other was a pipe.  He was the picture of success, exuding class and competence.  I wanted to be just like him!

I did try for a time to be that person, but after some effort, I finally gave up.  I never did achieve my goal, and to this day I am thankful to G-d I didn’t.  Why?  Because I started to value other things.  I started thinking about the incompatibility of my goal with some of my other goals, such as wanting a family.  I wanted to get an education, get a job that had some benefit to others, make a contribution.  If I had achieved my gambling goal, it might have been years before I realized what a mistake I had made.

The point is, what we want at some particular time in our lives may not be what is really good for us, and it may not be in G-d’s will for our lives.  To be successful at these things would actually be a curse rather than a blessing and could set us back years on the path we should be on.

So this is the first thing I learned: what we want is important to our ultimate success or failure, and very often, failure is a blessing.  It is just one way G-d lets us know what is and is not in His plan for us.  But, this is where it gets tricky – just because something is hard, or seems impossible, doesn’t mean we should not pursue it.

Later in my life, I decided to go for my masters degree in Computer Science.  I was married at this point, with two young children, and I was working full time.  In order to get done as soon as possible, I took two classes per semester, at night.  This turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I spent long hours away from home either working, in class, or in the computer lab.  When I was home, I was very often off away from the family studying.  And, just to put some icing on the cake, I was plagued with almost constant doubt and fear of failure.

Yet, somehow, in three years I achieved my goal and received my Master of Science in Computer Science from a prestigious university.  How did I do it?  You may think that the details are important, but they are not, really.  What is important, I learned, is that if you are on the “right” path, G-d will provide you with what you need for success, including the will and the desire, no matter how difficult things are or how improbable success seems to be.

But how, you might ask, do you know if you are on the right path?  And my answer to your question is, “you don’t really ‘know’ but more on that later!”

What I did know when I went for my masters was that I was really interested in computers, you might even say I loved computers (still do).  I wanted to know how they worked and why they worked, how they were made, and how to better use them.  I wanted to know about the hardware, the firmware and the software.

The other thing I knew is I had an aptitude for computers, having earned a B. S. in Business Information Systems, and had worked in the field several years as a programmer/analyst and systems programmer.  I already had a good basic understanding of computers and wanted to know more.

I also had some “reverse” incentives, as well.  My company would pay 80% of the cost for every course passed with a B or better.  Less than a B, and I had to pay for it..  But this wasn’t the worst part, what was worse is that failure would have been humiliating; at work, at home, with family and with friends – failure was just not an option.

This experience was so intense, in fact, that for years after I graduated, I had a recurring nightmare.  In the dream,  I was one class short of graduation, everything else was done. I just needed to finish the one course with a passing grade, but in the dream, I never did!  I would wake up convinced I had failed and never had earned my degree.

Doubt and fear are funny things.  We try to avoid them, put them out of our minds, be brave and certain, but they still persist.  It seems the more we resist them, the stronger they get!  The more we resist them, the more they control and dominate our lives!

So what is the answer?  How do we overcome doubt and fear?  Simply put, we don’t.  What we do is stop trying to overcome them, and, in faith, embrace them!  What?!

Once we recognize that doubt and fear are not the enemy, but actually our friends, we start to live in confidence and peace.  They are our friends because they tell us there is something that needs to be looked into, issues that need to be resolved.  Too often, we let doubt and fear prevent us from fulfilling  G-d’s will and plan for our lives, when in actuality, they are G-d’s way of telling us to stop and think, to evaluate, to question, to learn, and thereby continue on, armed with faith, knowledge, and confidence.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  We want to go to London, and our idea is to build a boat and sail there.  We dream of this for years, and finally, we’re in a position to build the boat, so we start right in.  We buy the lumber, and some plans, and start building.  We are so excited about the prospect of fulfilling our dream that we make great progress, but over time we start to have doubts.

After all what do we know about shipbuilding, or navigation?  Nothing, really.  So far, we just have this dream and some pent up energy.  We could just quit and take a plane to London – maybe we’ll do just that.  But no, the dream is to sail with our own boat.  So what do we do?  Well, in this case, we do some research.

Let’s say we research boat travel and we find that only 1% of the most seaworthy of vessels makes it across the Atlantic intact, all of the rest sink.  Not very good odds, to say the least, and so for very good reason, we drop the boat idea, and move on to plan B, take a plane.  So doubt was a good thing because it saved us from near certain death.

On the other hand, let’s say we research boat travel and we find that 99.9% of the most seaworthy boats make it across the Atlantic intact.  Now, that’s better.  Knowing this, we research boat building a little more to determine what makes a boat seaworthy, and we continue with our plan.  So here, doubt was a good thing because it caused us to build a better boat and increase our chances of success, and confidence in our plan has been restored.

But, as time goes on, we start to have doubts again, because there is still that .1% chance that the boat will sink, and that’s if we have the skill to build the most seaworthy of boats.  And how do we know?  Maybe our real chances are only 90%, or 85%, or even 50%.  How do we know?

The bottom line is, we don’t know, but that is where true faith comes in because I am talking about faith in G-d, not in our research skills, our shipbuilding skills, or our navigation skills.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t need all of those things – we do – it just means that we don’t trust in them, we trust in G-d.

The story of David and Goliath illustrates this point perfectly.  G-d told David to go out and face Goliath and He would put victory in David’s hands.  David, a young boy, went to the river and picked five smooth stones for his sling.  David then went to face Goliath, and we all know what happened.  With one of those stones, he felled the giant and then cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword.

I have often wondered why David picked five stones instead of just one.  After all, G-d Himself had promised David victory, didn’t He?  And David was an expert with a sling, so why five stones?

The answer that I have come to is this: David understood his own limitations, and G-d hadn’t actually told David how He would give him victory, only that He would.  As good as David was with a sling, it would have been the height of chutzpah and foolhardiness to go up against a raging giant with only one stone.

Now, all it took was one stone, but if David had gone out with only one stone, do you think it possible doubt would have crept in?  That once he got out there, David might have started to think, gee, what if I miss with only this one stone?  The time for doubt was before he went out, not after.

Of course, G-d knew that David was humble and smart, that’s why He picked him.  He knew that David would prepare himself for battle the best way he knew how.

So it is with our dream of sailing to London in our homemade boat.  Not only is faith in G-d necessary to achieve this goal, but we must make the necessary preparations.  We may believe that G-d has blessed our undertaking, but there are no shortcuts.  Skill and preparation are necessary, otherwise we may be testing G-d, which we are not permitted to do.

No matter what we undertake, we should place the outcome in G-d’s hands in faith, then prepare in every way we need to be successful.  When doubt and fear step in, use it as an opportunity to question and evaluate.  Perhaps we are on the wrong path, and our reasoning will show this.  Or perhaps, we are on the right path – we just need to adjust our plan, learn some new skill, or maybe we have started to put our faith in someone or something other than G-d, including possibly our self.  In these cases, just make the adjustment and move on.

The Bible verse that starts this post provides tremendous clues as to how this process works.  It seems to be saying that simply having faith is evidence that the thing we hope for is true or will come to pass, even though we cannot see the thing itself.  How can this be?  Because G-d is the source of all true faith, and He would not mislead us.

When He needs us to make changes, He allows doubt and fear to creep in.  When we resolve those doubts and fears through reason and work and make the necessary adjustments, He restores our confidence, and we move on with a stronger faith in Him than before.

It is in this sense that faith is the substance, or raw material, of those things that we hope for.