This post is another reflection from a book I am currently reading through, Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978; reprint, Maryknoll, NY Orbis Books, 2003. You can find more information about the book by clicking on its picture in my side widget “books I am reading.”
What is faith? What does it mean to have faith in God? How do we understand faith? We certainly have the Hebrews writer who tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1, NRSV) which is followed by a catalogue of wonderful examples to flesh his definition out. We have the Apostle Paul who insists that obedience is a part of faith (Rom 1.5). There is James who insists that faith without deeds – faith reduced to words only – is no faith at all (Js 2.17). Of course, there are countless examples in the Gospels of people who risked much to seek out Jesus, not to mention Jesus’ own example of faith. We might also consider the wise counsel of Solomon who insists that faith is not self-reliance but trust in God (Prov 3.5).
Of course, all of these passages (and many others) give us biblical insight to what faith in God actually is but the question is how do we understand faith? Until we can explain it in our own words, we probably don’t understand in a way that makes sense to us – and we have the luxury of both literacy and a plethora of books reflecting upon the subject of biblical faith to help us understand (the cynic in me says that that may be the problem though).
As Donovan was speaking with the Masai people about who the Living God was, the subject of faith came up. He learned that in the language the word faith simply meant agreement to something much like we might agree to buy a book from Amazon, it requires little investment or risk. He tells how the Masai described that sort of faith as being like the “white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and fingers took part in the act” (p. 48). Different from simple agreement, Donovan tells how the Masai went on to describe their understanding of true faith which in their language meant to believe as being:
…like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelopes it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms), pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is (p. 48).
For an illiterate people relying upon a missionary to communicate the gospel to them, to place their story within the grand story of God’s creation, I think the Masai people understood what biblical faith is about. What about us? How do we understand faith?