Belief or faith? What’s the difference and why is it important? It’s a matter of head versus heart, explains Mark Wreford
Belief is a powerful thing. The well-known placebo effect proves this. The idea that a sugar coated fake pill can have the same medical effect as something which tastes nasty and contains some more particular chemicals, doesn’t make much sense, does it?
What’s more, this is just one of the many examples of the strange interaction between our minds and our bodies. We’ve got plenty of records of mothers performing seemingly superhuman feats of strength to rescue their children, and the continual triumph of elite athletes who push the boundaries of possibility. We don’t fully understand the way that the body and brain interact, but the one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that belief is vital.
When BBC’s The Apprentice rolls around on the TV, we get to see a group of people who have apparently endless reserves of self-belief, which seems to push them beyond the boundaries of normal human behaviour in a bid to change Lord Sugar’s ‘F’ to an ‘H’ (Fired to Hired). For me at least, watching this strange type of human is a revelation, because the way they see themselves is certainly not how I see myself… I definitely have my doubts!
A wise man once said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. When it comes to talking about belief, God is a regular topic.
Today I believe in God, but tomorrow I might wake up and decide that my opinion has changed. We have to see belief in God as an option open to all of us on a kind of level playing field if we are to make any sense of the arguments surrounding the role of religion. It colours the whole way in which we think.
But what if that’s not quite the whole picture? In fact, there’s actually something seriously worrying with this picture. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it yet, but belief is all about me. It’s in my head. It’s my choice. It can change on the basis of my whims, my emotions, my physical urges and anything else you care to add. God might be the same yesterday, today and forever, but, unless I wake up feeling the same, his part in my life could draw to a close at the drop of a hat.
This is fine if you think about God as just another thing. I could rid myself of the desk I’m writing at tomorrow and it wouldn’t complain – I don’t think! If I suddenly woke up and decided that it was time to divorce my wife, however, questions would be asked. I’m pretty sure she’d have something to say about the matter. So why do we think God is more like a table than a spouse? Is this how the Bible portrays him?
The answer to that rhetorical question is an emphatic “No!” God is always presented as a person, not a thing. The Spirit is not some impersonal force. He has a personality. God interacts with us as a man with his friend – or a lover with his beloved. So surely he’s got something to say about whether we believe or not?
And in the Bible we discover that he has some very specific things to say. One of the most important, though, requires the introduction of a new word. Belief is one thing, but faith is another. Belief is something I do, faith is something I have.
Now, if faith is something I have – a ‘substance’ if you like – it has to come from somewhere. Faith is God’s gift to me that allows me to come into relationship with him. In sonnet 116, Shakespeare wrote about an ‘ever fix-ed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken’. The Bard was writing about love, but this approaches more the nature of faith than ‘belief’ with its myriad possibilities could ever hope to.
Our response to the gift of faith is to come into relationship with the giver. It is the aim of the gift, and it is only made possible by the gift. But every gift must be accepted, and, if it is to be a true gift, reciprocated. The excitement of the child on Christmas morning is the parents’ reward for the hard work of earning, choosing, purchasing and wrapping. The love of a believer is God’s reward for the faith he freely gives.
Belief might be able to bend the boundaries of what we thought the human body could achieve, but faith expands the horizons of the heart. The reality is that relationships are a two-way thing. God isn’t something you can just upgrade or trade in. God is a person, who invites each one of us into a relationship by giving the gift of faith.
Next month we’ll take a look at the question of just how we can try to understand this, and who God makes this offer to. But for now, let’s revel in the mystery that the Creator of the universe – the one who is so different that he’s beyond our scale of measurement – thinks it so important that we know him that he has given us the gift of faith and invited us into relationship.
Faith is a gift that makes a relationship possible – kind of like a wedding ring. A wedding ring is a portal to a new realm of life. Similarly, faith is God’s great gift to humanity. It represents the opening of his arms in invitation to a loving embrace that we can experience in the here-and-now. Faith is a doorway to a new realm of life. It is the substance of all that is to come, demonstrates God’s commitment to us, and makes the spiritual accessible. Most of all, though, it speaks of the love shared.