Faith. It’s an easy concept, on the surface. It’s a beautiful idea, being able to deal with problems by just believing something will work out, that things have to get better someday. It’s an idea we sing about, write poetry about, profess in our prayers. It is one of the most important words we use to define ourselves as Christians–we have “faith” in God and his Son Jesus.
It’s easy to say that. But, of course, actually living by faith is another thing. It’s easy to say you have faith when things are going well, or when your troubles are light and momentary. Having faith when your life falls apart and there seems to be no way out? That’s another matter entirely.
If you’ve ever truly had your faith tested, you know it. And until you have, you won’t fully understand the concept. Because faith is something that can’t be truly understood until it is actually exercised. I can say all day that I believe my chair will hold me up if I sit on it; but until I actually do sit on it and see what happens it is all just talk, not actual belief.
I’m speaking here from experience. Until recently I had never had my faith tested in a way that forced me to closely examine what I believe and why I believe it–or whether I really believe it at all. I had constructed my life, my daily routine and even my identity around the belief that God was working out a plan–one that I couldn’t see completely, but which I nonetheless believed was there. And I truly believed that; God had a plan for me and he would one day bring it to fruition. And I thought I knew roughly what that plan was, I was just waiting on God to fill in the details and move the right pieces into place.
And then, it all fell apart. Suddenly, I found myself past middle-aged, having done everything I believed God had asked of me to prepare myself to serve him, having waited for years, if not decades, for the plan to come to fruition and . . . . nothing. Worse than nothing. I found myself forced to back out of the plan altogether simply to keep myself and my family afloat. I was devastated. And for the first time I questioned whether I had it wrong all along. Maybe there wasn’t some master plan being worked out by a benevolent God. Maybe that was a story I had bought into because it gave me hope and kept me looking forward.
That experience forced me to think about what “having faith” truly means. I thought I had faith before. And I did. But it was faith in the wrong thing–in a PLAN, not in a PERSON–the person of God in the form of his son Jesus Christ. I didn’t believe that my life had a purpose outside the plan because I had forgotten that the real “plan” for the Christian life isn’t a particular career or life goal, but rather two things: to love God and to love our neighbor. That’s it. I realized I didn’t need to have a plan fulfilled in order to carry out the true purpose of the Christian life–loving those around me.
In this passage, the author of I John (“the Elder”) shows us the relationship between faith in God, through Jesus Christ, and loving one another as the ultimate goal of the Christian life.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands” (vv. 1-2, NIV). These verses seem circular in their reasoning. How do we know we love God? By loving God’s children. And how do we know we are loving God’s children? By loving God. This convolution is mostly likely intentional. As John Phillips argues in his commentary, the structure of these verses mimics their message: “[The author] wants to get us locked into the endless round of loving God and loving man, loving man and loving God. Round and round we go in a cycle, which will continue throughout the endless ages of eternity.”
Christians demonstrate their love for God by keeping his commandments (v. 3). For the Johannine community loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is the foremost commandment after loving God (cf. Jn 13:34, 15:12, 17), and the two are interlocked: without one the other can’t exist. This connection has already been made at least twice before in the epistle (3:23; 4:21) so it only needs to be referenced here with the word “commandments.”
But the author is careful to explain that God’s commandments are not burdensome, like those of human law (v. 3), but rather faith in God, demonstrated by fulfilling his commandments, is liberating: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” (vv. 3-5).
True “faith,” then, isn’t evidenced in a wistful hopefulness that God will accomplish something we want sometime in the future. It isn’t even constructing our lives and identities around what we think God may make happen someday. Faith is not a future thing–it is a present reality, and its calling card is love.
My true “calling” from God, then, is not a particular career or lifestyle, but rather doing everything I can, no matter my circumstances, to share God’s love with those around me, especially my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. In the process a specific career or job may manifest itself, or it may not. But the mandate is the same: love is to be the center of my activity and identity as a Christian. Love is the essence of faith.
 John Phillips, Exploring the Epistles of John: An Expository Commentary, The John Phillips Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional Publishing, 2003), 159.