Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In our everyday lives, we use “faith” to refer to any belief system and say “I have faith in you” when we believe someone is able to do something. When something bad happens in our lives, we might hear “just have faith” or “everything happens for a reason,” to encourage us that God is still in control of the situation.
What happens, though, when we can’t seem to muster up that faith? When we feel that God is distant or not working in our lives? The theologian A.W. Tozer, in his book, The Pursuit of God, describes faith as “the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.”
Tozer writes that anyone reading the Bible will notice right away that faith is a central theme:
”The place of weighty importance which the Bible gives to faith will be too plain for him to miss. He will very likely conclude: Faith is all-important in the life of the soul. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Faith will get me anything, take me anywhere in the Kingdom of God, but without faith there can be no approach to God, no forgiveness, no deliverance, no salvation, no communion, no spiritual life at all.” (pg. 80)
When we think of examples of faith in the Bible, figures like Abraham, who trusted where God was leading and was even willing to sacrifice his son, and the Roman soldier, who believed Jesus could heal his daughter, come to mind. Jesus himself, however, references a rather obscure story in Numbers to illustrate to Nicodemus what it means to have faith.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel constantly alternate between following God’s direction and complaining to him about their circumstances. At the beginning of chapter 21, the people pray to God asking for a military victory, which he grants. Yet in verse 5, as they continued traveling, “the people grew impatient along the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”
In response to their lack of faith in him as the provider, God sends venomous snakes to bite the Israelites, and many of them die. This time, the people go to Moses, acknowledging that they had sinned and asking him to pray on their behalf. In response, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live’” (21:8). In this case, by looking at the snake, God saw an act of obedience and faith, and kept those who gazed at the staff alive.
Jesus references these 6 short verses when speaking to Nicodemus, who is still stuck on the concept of being “born again,” about himself and the kingdom of God. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). This verse occurs right before perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16. If we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we will live.
Later in John, the disciple Thomas does not believe that Jesus is alive. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Jesus then invites Thomas to see and touch, but says in verse 29 “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus responds to Thomas’ doubts with physical evidence, yet makes it clear that we should strive for belief and trust without assurance.
Realizing that seeing and believing are not the same, the “gazing” that Tozer speaks of, and the Israelites demonstrate, must not actually be about what is physically in front of us. Often we resist the very idea of faith because we can’t “see” its evidence. Yet if we are honest, it can be easier to explain away some things as “coincidence” rather than acknowledge the possibility of a power greater than ourselves.
In a lot of ways, the idea of faith might seem clearer in biblical times. For the Israelites, the situation was often black and white: either they had faith and prospered, or they didn’t have faith and were punished. Even Job, whom God tested by taking away his family and riches, is given back twice what he had before after he acknowledges God’s power and prays for his friends (Job 42). Although the concept of immediate corporate punishment may be distasteful to us in the 21st century, God’s power and expectations were clear. In our lives today, it’s problematic, if not wrong, to attribute prosperity or illness to God’s favor or punishment based on someone’s faith. On the other hand, we can see negative effects in our lives when we don’t spend time reading the Bible and praying, and positive effects when we do.
To describe “the gaze of the soul upon a saving God” as a picture for faith, then, is both easy and difficult to accomplish. In the Old Testament, the priest was the only one able to enter the most holy place and speak to God directly. The Israelites had to bring animals to sacrifice and atone for, or get rid of, their sin. Since Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice for humanity’s sin and restored our relationship with God, there is no curtain or holy space between God and us. We don’t need to look at God at a certain day or time or bring any sacrifices. We come to him exactly as we are. Yet it’s all too easy to look away from God when something more satisfying distracts us in the moment. We can choose to look or choose not to look, and we can’t rely on anyone else to do the looking for us.
In the end, though, having faith is not about us, it’s about God. Tozer describes it this way. “Faith itself is not a meritorious act; the merit is in the One toward Whom it is directed. Faith is a redirecting of our sight, a getting out of the focus of our vision and getting God into focus.” Moses acted in faith to lift up the golden snake, and the people acted in faith to look at it and believe, but it was God who gave them life. Faith, then, is a continuous cycle of us looking at God and his work in our lives, allowing him to reveal what he wants us to do in response, acting accordingly in faith, and stepping back to watch him work again.