Much has been written and said about Christian faith, but its essence is too often only partially understood. Faith is typically described as an assent to truth, to a set of dogmas or beliefs, but the description often stops there. And yes, Christian faith is this, but it is not assent to just any truth, but truth about God. That Christian faith is about God is not accidental but defining. Christian faith is about God-become-man, God who revealed his love to us and saved us on the cross. Christian faith is about the person of Christ Jesus and his relationship with us.
That faith is an assent to truth is not in dispute: in fact, Christians use the term “the Faith” to refer to Christian belief in general. The Catechism of the Catholic church says: “Faith … is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed” [CCC 150]. But what is the key element of the truth of faith that makes it Christian? Is it faith because we cannot see this truth that God has revealed, but believe it anyway? In other words, is faith “faith” because it is blind? After all, Hebrews 11:1 says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And it is true that the object of Christian faith is generally not visible. Yet it was not always so: Jesus, during the time described in the Gospels, remarked often on faith (or the lack of it) in people who saw and heard him.
Examples from the Gospels are helpful in understanding this. The Gospels describes one situation where a Roman Centurion asked Jesus for healing for his servant, trusting that Jesus could do it remotely. Jesus did heal the servant remotely, remarking, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith” [Matthew 8:5-13]. Perhaps one might argue that because the miracle was worked remotely, it is still, in some sense, “not seeing”. Yet there are plenty of other examples from the Gospels where everything is fully “up front” and visible. In fact, the Gospels describe an event where a woman suffering from chronic hemorrhage, hoping not to be seen, touched Jesus’ clothes for healing. She was indeed healed, but far from going unseen as she had hoped, was noticed by Jesus. Yet this visibility did not undo the miracle: instead, Jesus made special note of the woman’s faith, telling her it was her faith that made her well [Matthew 9:20-22]. Another example is Jesus’ healing of a blind man. In front of an entire crowd of people who, with Jesus, were passing, the man called out for Jesus, asking for healing. Jesus gave him his sight, then and there, telling the man that it was his faith that made him well [Luke 18:35-43]. On another occasion, Jesus noted the faith of those who brought him a paralytic for healing: when Jesus was speaking in a house so crowded with listeners that people could not come in at the door, they, in the sight of everyone there, made a hole in the roof and lowered the paralytic on a stretcher to Jesus, who healed him [Luke 5:18-26]. The common element here is not that Christian faith is faith in something unseen, it is faith in Jesus. This is why it is called Christian faith, from its object, Christ Jesus. The notion of Christian faith as something unseen is true only because Jesus, who is the one in which we have faith, is now (after his ascension) less visible to us than he was at the time of the events described in the Gospels. Seen or unseen, the core of Christian faith is, and remains Christ Jesus himself, God become man to save us.
Is Christian faith, then, a matter of simple belief in Jesus? In God? No, mere belief is not quite enough. The Bible says that even demons believe in God and shudder [James 2:19]. Yet demons obviously cannot be said to have Christian faith. The notion of fidelity, the quality of being “faith-full”, is the missing element there. Fidelity is commitment, constancy, allegiance, loyalty, steadfastness, dedication, and devotion. It is being true to someone, regardless of circumstance. Yes, it means holding fast to truth, but not any truth, but the truth of the person or persons to whom fidelity is being shown, especially who they are in relation to us. For instance, the fidelity of spouses is to hold fast to the truth of the other’s unique and personal spouse-ness, not in a generic sense (i.e., here is a spouse) but in a directly personal sense (this is my spouse: I am hers and she is mine; he is mine and I am his.) So it is with Christian faith and Christ: he is ours and we are his.
We can see here that Christian faith is more than belief: like a spousal relationship, it is an intimate relationship with another, with Jesus. As a relationship, it is a give-and-take, it is reciprocal. This means it is not just about us-to-Jesus, it is also about Jesus-to-us. In fact, Jesus-to-us came first. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Faith is a gift of God [CCC153]. When God gives gifts, it is for a reason. Faith is possible only because God wants a relationship with us. He reached out in the person of Jesus, God who freely became a human being and showed us his love, so that we could know and love God.
God’s gift of faith, because it is a gift, is not a right, obligation or payment due us, it is unmerited. Christians call this gift of God “grace“. But a gift need not be accepted: it can be refused. Faith, refused by us, is a rejection of relationship offered by God. It may be refused perhaps out of fear (“Is God really present?” “Is God really good?”), perhaps out of a misplaced sense of independence (“I am nobody’s servant!”), or perhaps out of despair (“Who am I to be worthy of love?”). When such rejection occurs, our life-story risks becoming a tragedy, where God, desiring to save us, reaches out, but we bat away his hand rather than grasp it, by our own decisions perishing by ourselves rather than thriving with him.
This means that while reality holds the potential for life, peace and joy, it also holds the potential for death and despair. For each of us, there is a choice. Will we be faithful to God, as God is faithful to us? The word “faithful” (“faith-full”) is not accidental. To be full of faith is to live in the reality of who God is, both in himself and in his relationship with us. We become “full of God” because he becomes part of who we are. This is why Jesus repeatedly explained to people he had healed that it was in fact their faith that had healed them. No, Jesus is not saying that they had somehow healed themselves through sheer willpower or some sort of burst of psychosomatic energy, he is pointing out that he was able to heal them because they were willing to connect with him enough to allow him to do it. Yes, healing is from Jesus, but people’s faith in Jesus makes it possible for that healing to become their own.
What, then, is to be thought of terms such as “the faith“? Only this: “the faith” is indeed a belief, but belief as a relational way of living, not just a thing of dogma, terms and precepts. It is a living relationship with Jesus, who is God who become man so that we can know and love him. “The faith“, then, is “the faithfulness“, both the faithfulness of God to us, an invitation offered to us that gives us the possibility of life, and also the faithfulness of us to God, living a relationship with him in our day-to-day lives. In fact, the early Church did not so much talk about Christianity as “the faith”, but as “the Way” [Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, etc.]. By this term, the early Christians sought to capture how Christians, individually and collectively, are living out a relationship with Jesus that grows and develops, a sort of “journey” or “way” together to a shared destination. This way is the essence of faith: Jesus reaching out to us freely and we embracing him in response, making it possible for us to live and grow in relationship with him. We must not misunderstand Christian faith to be anything less than what it is in its fullness: more than assent to truth, dogma or facts, faith is a living relationship with Jesus himself.