How do you define the word “faith”? Not only is it hard to define, but it’s hard to live out that definition! This week, the writer of Hebrews defines faith, and then gives an example of a couple who lived that out. Were they perfect? No way. But they were faithful.
SCRIPTURES – Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Heb. 11:1-3, 8-16
August 12, 2007
This passage speaks directly to several conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks. The conversations were all very different, but had the same theme running through them. One was with a young woman who is just now starting to explore her faith and learning all about what it means to follow Jesus. Another was with a woman who is trying to move deeper into to faith, but is struggling with what it means to give your whole self to God, to step into that realm of faith. And the last one was a good friend who just lost his sister-in-law to disease. He prayed and prayed for her to get better, but she didn’t. What does that mean for his faith? All three of these people were wrestling with what it means to have faith, and what it means to live out that faith.
The book of Hebrews was written for people like these, people who don’t have all the answers and are sometimes dogged by the questions. The author is writing to a group of new believers in Christ who are trying to decide if what is being preached about him is really true. These people were Jews who were probably considering a return to their former religion. They were constantly being persecuted for their faith in Christ as the Messiah, and their resolve is weakening. Wouldn’t it be easier and safer to not have faith than to have faith?
Of course it would. In the short-term, at least. What all three of my conversation partners were expressing, and what many of us know, is that having faith is not easy. In the movie “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean is a nun who ministers to people on death row. At one point, a visitor says he admires how she is able to keep her faith in such discouraging circumstances, and she responds, “Oh, it’s not faith. It’s work.”
Yes! Amen! That’s one of the most accurate definitions I’ve ever heard for having faith. The author of Hebrews offers another one: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Paul says it another way: “Fix your eyes on what is unseen, because what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” He also says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
That’s easier said that done, isn’t it? When Molly was just learning to walk, one of her favorite activities was to put a blanket over her head and just take off. She didn’t care what was in front of her. She’d run into chairs, into furniture, into walls. She would bounce off, fall down, laugh, and do it all over again.
Sometimes believing – walking by faith and not by sight – is like putting a blanket over our head and taking off. And sometimes it feels like we run into walls. Wouldn’t it be easier to put our trust in what is seen? Wouldn’t it make more sense to walk by sight, to trust our senses, instead of a God who we can’t see or hold or take to lunch?
When I was a journalist, I liked the fact that every question had an answer. I didn’t need to have faith that the city councilman knew what he was doing; I could ask him, make him prove himself. And if he couldn’t answer, I wouldn’t believe. It was very simple and made for great copy.
But Christian faith is something completely different. For sure, there is a lot to know. We could study the Bible for our entire lifetime and only scratch the surface of what it says. Bible study is one of my favorite spiritual disciplines because there is so much that it has to say, and each time I read it, it says something new. There is a lot we can know about Christianity.
But that amount is infinitesimal to what we don’t know, and never will know, about the God in whom we believe. I wonder if part of my love for Bible study comes from my desire to reduce the unknown about God. The more I study the Bible, the more I know about God, the less mysterious God seems. The more comfortable I become with my faith. The easier God fits into my box I’ve designed for Him.
But what I’ve come to learn, and what the author of Hebrews is trying to tell his audience, is that there’s a limit to what we can know, and when we reach that threshold, we have to decide what we want to do about it. Faith that can see every step of the way isn’t really faith. So, do we slink back from the edge of faith, unable to give our whole self and make that leap into the unknown? Or do we step forward beyond the limits of our understanding, trusting that, whatever is out there, Jesus has gone before us and is waiting for us there?
There are three steps I have experienced in my faith journey that speak to these threshold experiences. When I first started out, I wanted information. I wanted to know everything I could about God and Jesus and the Bible. I soaked up information like a sponge. I have shelves full of books and binders full of notes. I wanted the who, what, where, when, and why of God.
Then, at some point, I moved from information to formation. The words I was reading started to have an effect on me; they began to shape who I was and how I lived. God was using the Bible and prayer and other people to form me into the person God had called me to be.
And finally came the third step. I went from information to formation to transformation. At some point, I became a person of faith. Now, I can’t look back and give you a day and time. I have no conversion to speak of. I like to think of it more as a journey; at some point, while I was walking along, I happened to look over and saw that Christ was walking with me. When did he get here? How long had he been there? I don’t know. But he was there.
I believe it’s that acknowledgement that God is looking for in us. God doesn’t want us to just know about him; he wants us to know him. God is more concerned with our trust than our level of understanding. And that trust is always borne out in how our lives are changed by our faith, in how we are different from those who don’t believe. If we’re really not that different, what does that say?
Transformation is the at the heart of faith, and I believe that’s what the author of Hebrews is getting at when he lifts up Abraham and Sarah as examples. You see, faith is ultimately indefinable. The best way to tell someone what faith is is to show them what it looks like. Pastor Mike Erre says, “What you believe and what you trust are always revealed in how you live and act. I know that the people in church each Sunday trust their chairs and pews because they sit in them. We trust our cars because we drive them. When we look both ways before crossing the street, we trust our senses because we act on what we see and hear. Trust always reveals itself in behavior.”
For Abraham, that behavior was trusting in God when God called him to pack up his household and hit the road without knowing where he was going. And he did it. He traveled around, lived in tents, made his home in foreign lands. When God told Abraham that he and his 90-year-old wife Sarah were going to have a child, he believed him, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
But here’s the kicker. God also promised Abraham that He would make Abraham’s name great, and that he would make his descendants more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach. And you know what? Abraham believed him. Abraham knew he wouldn’t live to see this promise fulfilled, and yet he still believed. The truly great thing about Abraham and Sarah’s faith is not that they believed the promise about their son Isaac that came true, but that they believed all those far-off promises that didn’t come true in their lifetimes.
Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that Abraham and Sarah are some kind of faith superheroes. They’re not mentioned here because they are perfect. In fact, they were far from it. The Bible doesn’t make us privy to all their conversations, but I would have to think, considering what God was telling them, that they had their share of doubts. You want me to do what? Go where? My wife is going to have a what? Isn’t our natural response to God’s call in our lives one of incredulity and doubt?
Not only is that natural, I think it’s healthy. Doubt isn’t abandoning your faith; it’s simply questioning the assumptions. After years of trying to understanding everything about God, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want all the answers, because that would be (1) overwhelming and (2) boring. But the consequence of not having all the answers is living with the doubt.
Deep down, that’s what all three of my conversation partners were dealing with. I want to believe, but I still have these doubts. But we don’t have to eradicate all our doubts in order to believe. In fact, I think doubt is essential to faith. As we have our doubts, as we ask our questions, as we seek our answers, as we experience the trustworthiness and goodness of God, our faith grows. It may be more of a stagger than a leap, but it grows.
Faith is hope that has turned to certainty. Faith is the conviction that it is better to suffer with God than prosper without him. Faith is trust that we don’t have all the answers, but someone does, and that someone loves us. Every day we are called to go out like Abraham, to start a journey with an unknown destination. We’re not sure where God is taking us, but we trust that God will be walking beside us each step of the way. In the end, for me, a recovering journalist and former skeptic, that is enough.
1 – What characteristic about God do you find it hardest to believe?
2 – What do you think is the greatest barrier to people having faith and trusting in God?
3 – Is there an area of your life where you trust of God is the strongest? Why is that?