There’s a seemingly quick and simple story in the New Testament that, true to form, still manages to pack quite a punch: the story of the Roman officer. The story shows up fairly early in Matthew 8 and is also recounted in Luke’s gospel.
In it, Jesus is back in Capernaum when a Roman officer comes to him. Matthew doesn’t offer much context to who this officer was. Luke, however, goes into more detail about the officer’s character, telling us that he was actually respected and liked by the Jewish community after he’d built them a synagogue.
The officer tells Jesus that his servant is horrifically ill to the point of paralysis and begs Jesus to heal him. Jesus agrees and moves to go to the officer’s home, but the officer stops him saying “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves ‘Do this’ they do it.” (Matthew 8:8-9)
Both Matthew and Luke tell us that this speech left Jesus amazed. I'm not an expert, but I'd be willing to bet it's not exactly easy to amaze the Son of God. Upon hearing this he turns to the surrounding crowd and told them “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Luke 7:9)
I could write another Thursday Thought entirely on the irony that so many people struggled to grasp what Jesus was saying and believe in him, but a Roman officer (a symbol of everything the Jews felt was wrong in their world) was the one to express faith to the point of Jesus being amazed. This is not a huge exchange between Jesus and the officer, but the lesson of faith goes far beyond the page it takes up.
Faith is a tricky subject. All too often, it’s actually what’s used to condemn people as irrational or uneducated in their belief in God. And quite frankly the blame for that may lay at our own feet. Something has happened over the course of history that has diluted the authority of faith. Time and time again we’ve inserted fleeting, temperamental emotion into a core place in our faith and the results are nothing short of disastrous.
Faith is not a feeling.
When we make it so, we make it just as temporary and fleeting as every other emotion out there and it will not last any kind of test. We get sold this idea that faith is some emotional rollercoaster that asks you time and time again to leap or fall without knowing if anyone will catch you, but it's not. That’s the main thing faith isn’t.
In just this short exchange, our Roman officer shows us what healthy functioning faith looks like. Mainly because this Roman soldier knows how authority works. He gets that efficient authority is worthy of unbending trust and from that he has a faith that shocks the entire crowd. He knew what faith really looks like and his proper application of faith amazed Jesus himself.
So if faith is not a feeling what is it?
1. Faith is logical
One of the biggest arguments I’ve often heard against Christianity is a criticism of blind trust. People feel they are being asked to abandon rational thought in exchange for “going on a feeling” and they’re honestly right to criticize this notion. That is weak Christianity. Faith is most often astonishingly logical. We don’t have faith that a person will do something or pull through because we’re wishing for it. We do so because we are trusting the patterns of their behavior and the strength of their character. Faith at its base is a surprisingly rational step. Time and time again when God calls us to faithfulness he reminds us of the ways He’s delivered in the past. It’s an invitation to examine the facts and step out in faith from that evidence. There are sweet and swelling emotions that accompany that, sure, but we are by no means required to throw logic out the door to exercise faith.
Our Roman officer wasn’t hazarding a guess that Jesus would perform a miracle. He examined his own authority in a military system, measured its process against Jesus’ character, and chose to have faith on the grounds of a rational pattern. His faith wasn’t a fleeting whoosh of emotion. It was a careful, logical, and absolute commitment on his part.
2. Faith is confident
When we waver in our faith, that’s not actually the faith doing the talking. That’s all those fleeting emotions that are here one minute and gone the next. If we’re actually having faith it’s surprisingly easy to tell because it stays sure and confident despite all of our ping-ponging emotions and feelings. It provides a baseline to operate around instead of being flung all over the map by our out-of-control selves.
I’m sure there were a lot of emotions swirling around the officer as he watched his beloved servant go through so much pain. He may have been a hardened, calculated military man, but he was human too. Fear was probably part of the equation when he thought his servant was going to die. Elation probably flung him back in the opposite direction when Jesus said he’d come to help. But through all of that ricocheting feeling he never once wavered in his absolute confidence that Jesus could heal his servant. His faith held steady and strong and balanced out all other feelings.
3. Faith is a lot of work
Oh my word is it a lot of work. As much as I would like it to be, faith is not a one-and-done scenario. You don’t get to exercise your faith once and then never have to do so again. All too often we’re clubbed over the head with our own doubt and worry that our fight to be faithful is an indication that we’re not getting it right, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The very fact that I used the word exercise to describe faith in action tells you how it actually works. It’s very much like a muscle we have to keep working and strengthening. It’s an ongoing process that is never quite finished this side of the grass. As C.S. Lewis put it in painfully accurate terms: “Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” So if you find yourself in a constant state of stepping out in faith or feeling like you’re leveling up in faith, don’t worry. You’re right where you need to be.
Undoubtedly, our Roman officer had seen a thing or two by the time he met Jesus. You can’t be an officer in the Roman army in Bible times and not have seen a thing or two. And yet you can see by this story that he’s comfortable by being tested and tried in dire situations. He doesn’t throw in the towel or throw a fit. He turns to Jesus for help and does so confidently.
Faith is no easy endeavor. No one gets out of life without sliding through or leaping in on great big moments of faith. But as wild as those moments are, faith is not. God knows the turmoil of our hearts and calls us to faith not as an extension of that turmoil but as a neutralizer. Like the Roman officer, we have that same capacity for faith. It’s not a feeling, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon if we stick to it.
Let’s find some joy,