Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Hebrews 11:11.
I memorized it in the second grade at the little Baptist school I attended, but I’ve pondered its meaning countless times in the years since. What is faith? Sometimes, as I listen to my fellow Christians bandy the word about, I want to declare, like Inigo Montoya, “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Miracles happen when faith is great. God provides if you just have faith. We tend to rely heavily on Scriptures like Matthew 18:19 Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. So we ask for comfort, health, peace, prosperity, success, favor, etc. And we tell each other things like, “Believing with you!”
I’ve been told if I had enough faith, I would get my desired outcome in a given situation. If I believed strongly enough and refused to entertain the alternative, it has even been intimated I could bend the will of God.
So we strain really hard to conjure up enough faith to make our circumstances miraculously change. We’re devastated when they remain the same. We wonder where we went wrong and we can feel the eyes of accusation on our backs, as well. We prayed for it; we believed for it; we even commanded it to be. We feel like failures and worse, like God failed us.
I read the whole of Hebrews 11 and I’m almost stunned by the contrast. Story after story presented, not about circumstances changing because of faith, but rather what those people DID because of faith. The aptly named “Faith Chapter” is all about action, not wishing things would change and move our way.
By faith Abel offered, Enoch ascended, Noah built, Abraham moved, Rahab provided shelter, and on and on the list goes. Faith allowed these people to see beyond their current circumstances and obey. Only once in the entire chapter, do we read that because of faith, circumstances were simply changed. That’s the story of Sarah conceiving Isaac in her old age and it could be argued that action was, of course, needed in that situation, as well.
Even more startling for us, in a warped American church culture that tells us God wants us to have faith for prosperity and health and anything less is failure, we find these ancients indeed failed, according to that definition.
36 Some faced jeers and flogging while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Destitute and flogged doesn’t sound at all like the American dream, er, abundant life the church often holds up as the result of a life of faith. And then, verse 39? They didn’t even get what they’d been promised after all? These are the fathers of our faith. If they can’t even achieve the promise, there seems to be little hope for the rest of us.
I read all that and I have to wonder if maybe our definition, our idea, of what faith is? Maybe it’s not really faith at all. What if a faith that insists on its own outcome, that assures us its all about us, that allows us to believe we have control is really arrogance in disguise?
What if we’ve been duped? Saying something is true, doesn’t make it so. Neither does wishing it to be. Nor does commanding it.
That’s not faith.
Faith, according to Hebrews, has little to do with our circumstances.
Instead, it has everything to do with seeing the world beyond this one and believing in it so much that we are willing to do whatever it takes to further that Kingdom. It’s about doing hard things at great cost to our comfort, our security, our happiness, and even our very lives. Its about acknowledging that we are aliens and strangers on earth (vs. 12) and deciding we’re good with that. This is not our home. It was never meant to be.
Faith is not about control, but all about surrender. It does not dictate what is best, but humbly accepts our present knowing this is but a blip and all of eternity is waiting. Nothing we experience here matters toward that end, but everything we do here does.
So who are the real heroes of the faith according to Hebrews 11? Those who command their suffering to ease in the name of Jesus? Not so much, it turns out. Those who, with faith in hand, seem to have it altogether? Not them, either. Those who live with eternal perspective are the real heroes. Those who were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection, according to verse 35.
It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But to me, it sounds hopeful. It takes my faith out of the court of public opinion and back where it belongs…between me and God. It strips away falsity (like pretending I believe in a healing when I’m not sure I do) and allows me authenticity. It takes the pressure off and lets me surrender into Him. It allows me to have real relationship with Him instead of jockeying for position. It gives me permission to share my heart in all honesty without worrying He’ll see the crack in my shield and everything will go awry.
Faith is not demanding your own way. It’s not lying to yourself to suppress all doubt in hopes of affecting outcomes. It’s not insisting on wishes in the face of facts.
When my world collapses and doesn’t get back on track in 0.3 seconds like I think it should, I don’t have to feel the weightiness of guilt along with the devastation. Instead, it’s faith that reminds me He works all things for my good, He will never leave me, and this world is only temporary.
He is good. He is present. And no matter what we’re going through, there is grace for that, even when our faith seems small.