A few years ago, I ran into a friend who was going through some tough family times. I asked him if there was anything I could do; his response caught me off-guard. He said, “I am struggling to have faith, and I just need other people to have faith for me.” I confess that before this, I didn’t really consider “having faith” for someone else. Of course I prayed for people and situations; but to have faith for someone – that seemed a bit strange to me. But I have come to believe that having faith for others – what you might call vicarious faith – is one of the most powerful, Christian things we can do as followers of Jesus.
How do you define faith? The writer of Hebrews defines it this way In Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (ESV) So faith might be defined as “trust” or “belief.” One of my favorite definitions is that faith is “leaning our full weight upon” someone or something. I think many times we tend to think of faith as something we have (or don’t have).
It wasn’t until I ran across a chapter in a book called Humanity and God by Samuel Chadwick that my thinking was challenged. He introduced the idea of vicarious faith.
Chadwick says that vicarious faith is a “faith that is exercised on behalf of another and is accepted for another,”* and he points to the Gospel of Mark for the prime example.
In the second chapter of Mark, we read a story in which Jesus has powerfully launched into his ministry and at the end of chapter one just healed a leper. He has now returned to the town of Capernaum, Jesus’ “home base” on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. A crowd has gathered, as it often does around Jesus. And then something dramatic happens. Four friends, determined to get their friend into the presence of Jesus, lower a paralyzed man through a roof. Mark then reports something that may surprise us: “Jesus saw their faith.” In other words, he saw the faith of the man’s friends – he then pronounces forgiveness to the paralyzed man. There is a very interesting interchange with the scribes about whether Jesus has the authority to forgive sins, which we don’t have time for today, but then Jesus goes further and heals the man’s body. Jesus sees the faith of the friends and then turns to the man and says, “your sins are forgiven.” And then he said, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”
Chadwick comments on this scene, “This man received both the forgiveness of his sins and the healing of his body, through the faith of the men who brought him.” It is very interesting that out of more than 20 miracles recorded in the Gospels, at least seven of those were healed through the faith of others.
In Matthew 8:5-13 we read about the Centurion with a sick servant.
“When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment.” (ESV)
Not a word is said about the faith of the man who was healed. It is attributed entirely to vicarious faith – faith exercised for him.
In John 4:46-54 we read about the healing of an official’s child:
“So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. So Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.’ The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ And he himself believed, and all his household. This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.” (ESV)
Whose faith had resulted in Jesus saving the official’s child? That son was healed entirely through the faith of the father vicariously exercised 25 miles away.
In Mark 9:14-29, we read about the healing of a boy with an unclean spirit. The disciples had not been able to heal the boy. Here the boy’s father is struggling with faith, but he says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (ESV)
Whose faith moved Jesus to free the boy? Not the boy’s own faith, not the disciples’, but rather his father’s.
We find a final example in Matthew 15:21-28 where a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and begs him to heal her daughter:
“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (ESV)
Whose faith brought her healing through Jesus? It came, not through any faith of her own, but in response to the mighty faith of her mother.
This takes me back to my friend’s statement, “I just need other people to have faith for me.” He was asking me to have vicarious faith for him and for his family, that Jesus might move in their lives in a powerful way. At the time, he didn’t have faith for himself or his family – he needed others.
Is there someone you know, for whom you might be called to have vicarious faith? Or maybe today you are the one who needs someone else to have faith for you.
Chadwick closes his chapter on vicarious faith with this: “Personal faith brings personal salvation, but vicarious faith brings salvation to others; and in this also it is more blessed to give than to receive. The supreme test of faith is not its personal benefit but its vicarious power.”
This is what the community of faith is about. It’s about having faith in Jesus, but it is also about having faith in Jesus for one another. Lord, may we have faith for one another and remember that it is Christ who saves and heals.
* Chadwick, S., 1904. Vicarious Faith. Humanity and God. London: Hodder and Stoughton, p. 295.
Featured image by James Tissot: “Man with Palsy Lowered to Christ” located in the Brooklyn Museum, New York City. Public domain.