Sometimes it is suggested that the opposite to faith is doubt.
That’s an understandable perspective. Didn’t Jesus say to Thomas “Don’t doubt any longer, but believe“? – as if the two concepts were polar opposites. But if you reflect on it, the doubt that Thomas expressed was closely allied to a fear that Jesus was not who He said He was.
No, the opposite to a faithful trust that God will do what He says He will do, is the fear that He won’t or can’t.
You either operate in faith or in fear. Fear is like a negative faith. It paralyses and disables. This concept is a theme in the early chapters of Luke -the birth narrative- before the author applies it to us, to the life of the disciples.
Here’s how the theme is developed.
There’s an old story about a series of telegrams being sent to the wrong addressees with the message: “Your secret has been discovered! Flee!” Though apparently innocent, many of the recipients immediately upped and fled!
Fear can be a mighty motivator, then!
The angel had said to Zechariah: “Fear not!” He repeated it to Mary: “Fear not!” And now he says it to the shepherds in the Christmas narrative (Luke 2:7-11): “Fear not!” It’s a natural thing for someone who continually messes up to fear. The more guilt we have, the more things we fear: fear of being found out for some little deceit, fear that some ache we have is God’s judgment, fear of dying and meeting the holy God face to face.
But even though it’s natural, God sends Jesus with the word: Fear not! Hebrews 2:14 says: Jesus became man “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death have been held in lifelong bondage.”
Doesn’t this last phrase imply something tremendously liberating for our daily life? If the worst fear—fear of death—has been taken away through the death of Christ, then surely God does not want us to fear the little things in life: job insecurity, money worries, relationship issues, and all the myriad matters of love and life! The message of Christmas is fear not! God is ruling the world for the great good of his children.
Listen to his promises:
“Fear not for I am with you.
Be not dismayed for I am your God.
I will help you; I will strengthen you;
I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness . . .
Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall wear . . .
Cast all your anxieties on God because he cares for you . . .
The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life:
Of whom shall I be afraid?“
So what makes you afraid?
Why not rather concentrate on the question: With what does Jesus replace fear? The answer is confident JOY. Joyless faith in Jesus is a contradiction in terms. Paul summed up the goal of his whole ministry like this: “for the advancement and joy of your faith.” And he told the Philippians and Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, and again I will say rejoice.” Always? Yes. Not without tears of grief and pain. But still joyful. So don’t oversimplify: it is not wrong to cry (we weep with those who weep), but there is a joy rooted in God’s rule of love that is never overcome in God’s children.
So now let’s sketch the opposite trajectory of faith in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 5:20: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Luke includes the same story seen in Matthew 9:2 and Mark 2:5. Your faith is shaped by the people around you.
Luke 7:9: “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
Here again we see the centurion from Matthew 8:10. Mark didn’t include this story in his Gospel. This is a powerful example of faith as a virtue, and we see Jesus bragging about this man’s faith to the people in the crowd. Each time I read the example of the Centurion I am envious of his faith, and of Jesus’ response to it.
Luke 7:50: “Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Again we see faith as a virtue instead of a gift, but here we see it in a story found only in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus dines with a Pharisee and a woman pours perfume on his feet. She isn’t healed physically, but Jesus responds to her gift by telling her that her faith has saved her.
Luke 8:25: ““Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”
The same story as Matthew 8:26 and Mark 4:40. The people closest to Jesus are rebuked for not having a healthy faith, whereas people like the centurion (7:9) are commended for their great faith.
Luke 8:48: “Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
The same story as Matthew 9:22 and Mark 5:34. Again, we see that her healing is a result of her faith. Like we’ve seen in the other two Gospels so far, Jesus seems to be taking the focus off of Himself and placing onto this woman.
Luke 12:2: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”
This example is found only in Luke. It’s another example of Jesus addressing little faith and again we see that He is addressing His own disciples about it!
Luke 17:5-6: “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”
Another story found only in Luke, we see a great request from Jesus’ disciples. This is the first tangible example that I’ve seen that could be used to argue faith as a gift. They desire more of it and so they ask Jesus for it. Interestingly, Jesus responds by talking about what their faith would allow them to do.
Luke 17:19: “Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
This is from a story where Jesus heals ten lepers and is only found in Luke. Like we’ve seen many times so far, Jesus credits the man’s healing on his faith alone.
Luke 18:8: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
This is a question that Jesus asks only in Luke. Depending on your view of God’s foreknowledge, Jesus could be wondering how much faith (as a virtue) people will choose.
Luke 18:42: “Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
This story is also found in Matthew 20 and Mark 10. It is another example of healing from faith.
Luke 22:32: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
This interchange is only found in Luke. Jesus prays for Peter’s faith not to fail? If Peter’s faith is up to God alone (faith as a gift), then this is odd. If faith is up to Peter (faith as a virtue), then we see that Jesus is telling Peter that after he disowns him he needs to choose faith again.
Think about how Luke is encouraging the young Christian community to operate in faith. In fact, Luke emphasises that faith can exist in community.
Often Jesus rebuked His disciples for little faith and highlighted other people for their great faith. So faith can grow and develop like a muscle, the more you use it!
Think about healing, specifically. There are a lot of unique faith examples found only in the Gospel of Luke and most of the healing examples that Jesus does are attributed to the individuals’ faith. Not all, but many.
Think about that distinction. When someone’s faith falters, we become the stretcher-bearers to carry one another into the presence of Jesus.
We are summoned into a “faith-community.” We are here to build one another up and to encourage one another in the faith. It’s not like one of those football huddles where we shout “Team!” and pysche each other up. It is the reasoned confidence that God is all we need!
And out of that certainty we expect to see the kingdom mandate (as expressed in Isaiah 60 and in Luke 4) to be fulfilled in deliverance, healing and the authoritative declaration of confident believers.