Walk by Faith, Not Sight: What It Means, What It Doesn’t
What does it mean to walk by faith, not sight (2 Cor. 5:7)? It’s common to think that, as inspiring as the phrase sounds, walking by faith would make a person unintelligent, sheltered, and aloof. The truth is, walking by faith means being perceptive, resilient, and engaged.
In 2 Corinthians 5:7, the apostle Paul says, “We live by faith, not by sight” (NIV). The ESV says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” By “we,” he’s talking about followers of Jesus. If you’re a follower of Jesus, how do you do this?
At first glance, it looks like an inspiring motto. But what would it actually look like to live this way?
What We Picture in “Walk by Faith, Not Sight”
Growing up, I heard a story of a couple nuns who worked in a hospital. They were out driving in the country when their car ran out of fuel. When a truck happened by, the driver offered to drain some gas from his tank, but he didn’t have a gas can. The nuns found a clean bedpan in their car and decided to use that. After the trucker drained some gas into the bedpan, they thanked him, he left, and they began pouring the gas into the tank. A police officer drove by and saw what the nuns were trying to do. He stopped and said, “I don’t think that’s going to work. But I certainly admire your faith!”
Not a bad joke, huh? And it’s also not a bad snapshot of how most people see “walking by faith.” Many people admire the idea. They likely find it inspiring. But they don’t look at walking by faith as something they themselves would want to do. After all, it sounds inspiring but not intelligent. Sure, there are some of the more pugnacious atheists out there who treat faith as a bad thing—like Richard Dawkins who has called faith “one of the world’s great evils.” But most people would say that walking by faith sounds admirable even if it’s not personally attractive.
“Most people would say that walking by faith sounds admirable even if it’s not personally attractive.”
Walking by faith and not by sight sounds like one of those things that could work in the movies, when the lighting and background music are just right, but you don’t really take it seriously after the credits roll and the cinematic spell is broken.
To “walk by faith” strikes us a bit like the climactic moment in the original Star Wars movie (A New Hope) when Luke Skywalker is preparing to take his one shot at destroying the Death Star. As he nears the spot where the Death Star is most vulnerable, he’s peering through the computerized scope to get the best aim, when the voice of his deceased Jedi mentor says, “Use the force, Luke. Let go, Luke. Luke, trust me.” So he switches off the computer, relaxes, and trusts the force to guide him. It’s an inspiring moment in the movie—but it’s not as though the 20-year-old boomers driving home from the theater went on to close their eyes on the trip home, letting the force guide them.
So what does it actually mean to “walk by faith, not by sight”? Is it actually doable? Even if it is doable, is it worth doing?
“It’s easy to read into “walk by faith, not by sight” whatever inspirational meaning we’d like it to mean.”
It’s easy to read into “walk by faith, not by sight” whatever inspirational meaning we’d like it to mean. But if we really want to see what 2 Corinthians 5:7 means, we’ll need to look at the context of the verse (what comes before and after it). From the context, we’ll be able to explore what it means—and doesn’t mean—to walk by faith and not by sight.
What It Doesn’t Mean to Walk by Faith, Not Sight
On the face of it, to “walk by faith, not sight” sounds fairly unintelligent. It sounds like you’re ignoring what you can see right in front of you and trying to force yourself to believe something that probably isn’t true.
Yet far from being merely an emotional psych up, faith throughout the Bible is connected to serious-minded confidence (“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for,” Heb. 11:1, NIV) and increased knowledge (e.g., Rom. 14:1-2). As we zoom out and look at the context of Paul’s “Walk by faith, not sight” verse (2 Cor. 5:7), we see that Christian faith is based on beliefs of which “we are convinced” (2 Cor. 5:14, NIV). The verse before and the verse after 5:7 each say that “we are confident.” This is because Christian faith leads to greater bedrock confidence in the living God—and not to easily evaporated elation over what turns out to be a mirage.
“Christian faith leads to greater bedrock confidence in the living God—and not to easily evaporated elation over what turns out to be a mirage.”
In fairy tales and atheistic literature, faith is depicted as believing with your heart something that makes zero sense in your brain. But for followers of Jesus, the typical experience is that biblical faith presents fewer difficulties to our minds (the existence of God actually has a ton of evidence to back it) than to our often-irrational human hearts—which incessantly work to convince us that we’re smarter and more important than God.
Whatever it means to walk by faith, not sight, it’s not a matter of turning our brains off so as to psych ourselves up to believe what we know isn’t true.
At first glance, “Walk by faith, not sight” sounds like something you can afford to do only if life’s already going well and you don’t have to worry about anything serious in life. It sounds like a pastime of the sheltered and privileged. The rest of humanity has to keep their eyes open and their hopes realistic so they can keep putting food on the table.
But again, when we zoom out and look at the larger context of “Walk by faith, not sight,” we see the opposite picture being painted. Paul narrates what life is like for him and his fellow disciples of Jesus using words such as “hard pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “struck down” (2 Cor. 4:8-9, NIV). He writes, “We who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:11a, NIV), and “Outwardly, we are wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16, NIV). “Meanwhile we groan” is how he describes the interim between now and Jesus’ return someday (2 Cor. 5:2, NIV).
“Paul narrates what life is like for him and his fellow disciples of Jesus using words such as ‘hard pressed,’ ‘perplexed,’ ‘persecuted,’ and ‘struck down.'”
Whatever it means to “walk by faith, not sight,” it doesn’t mean living a blissful life sheltered from pain and trouble.
Living by faith, not sight might conjure images of someone so preoccupied with heaven that they’re not invested in making a difference here. It’s true that walking by faith means “fix[ing] our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18, NIV). But it’s not true that this means staying aloof from others. Instead, walking by faith leads us directly into the path of people who aren’t yet interested in Jesus: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20b, NIV).
Whatever walking faith by faith means, it’s not a matter of staying aloof from and unattached to people.
What It Means to Walk by Faith, Not Sight
As we zoom out and look at the context of “Walk by faith, not by sight,” we see that faith is actually a matter of seeing reality as it is, whereas, without faith, we see only with our physical eyes and thus can only discern a sliver of reality.
Paul says that walking by faith means seeing people from heaven’s perspective instead of “from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16, NIV). Walking by faith means having an eternal perspective, so that we can feel at home in both worlds (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Walking by faith, not sight means fixing our eyes on what is eternal: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18, NIV).
“Walking by faith, not sight means fixing our eyes on what is eternal.”
In the words of journalist Marvin Olasky in “A Matter of Seeing,” “When we see that the world is spiritually as well as materially populated, every aspect of life looks different. That’s why Christianity isn’t a hobby, and why life is more than the sum of our diversions.” Walking by faith, not sight means looking beyond to the unchanging orbs of reality rather than trying to navigate our way using shifting clouds as points of reference.
And when we perceive reality as it is, we become more perceptive about what counts in life. We realize that, as followers of Jesus, we can’t lose, whatever we face. Whether we’re “at home in the body or away from it” (alive on earth or alive with Jesus in heaven), we’re going to be well-looked-after by God. Either way, “We make it our goal to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9, NIV).
To walk by faith, not sight means to be perceptive of reality as it is and to view life through this eternal perspective.
As we saw earlier, walking by faith, not sight was no vacation from experiencing pain and trouble. If anything, walking by faith in Jesus got Paul in way more trouble than he’d ever experienced in his life. But being “hard-pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “struck down” was also no reason for Paul or us to despair. Walking by faith, not sight makes a person resilient when they face difficulties:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Cor. 4:7–10, NIV)
People who walk by faith don’t lose heart, even when life is collapsing around them:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16–18, NIV)
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
This resilience is fueled by faith in a God who redeems broken things and turns them into treasure. He takes the disappointments of our lives—the fruit that fell to the earth and rotted—digs into them and finds seeds for growing Christlikeness in our lives. It is this Christlikeness which restores God’s glory in us. As Paul put it: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27, NIV). Being “hard-pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” and “struck down” are all woven into God’s grand plan that “the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10, NIV).
To walk by faith, not sight means to face difficulties with resilience, knowing that God uses the tough times to grow Christlikeness in us.
Walking by faith, not sight makes us more engaged with the world around us, not less. For faith teaches us to see people as being of the part of reality which has eternal significance. Walking by faith means that we “regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16a, NIV). As such, we treat people as the most important earthly item on the calendar:
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor. 5:20, NIV)
To see reality in its full scope is to see people in all their eternal significance. Ironically, walking by faith, not sight means really seeing people for the first time.