Faith is probably the most used term in the Christian language, and yet we still have problems understanding what it really means, and how it is to be used. Christian parents, who have been earnestly praying for healing for their little boy suffering from cancer, might find that the Lord takes the child to himself. What went wrong? Did they not believe earnestly enough that God would heal? Did not enough people support them with their prayers? Why did the Lord not answer their prayers? After all, the Lord told us to ‘ask, and it shall be given us,’ and, ‘the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’ (Js. 5:16). Is it that there was unconfessed sin in their lives that stopped God working his miraculous healing? Satan throws all sorts of fears and doubts in people’s minds at times like that.
The section of the Bible that defines faith for us, and illustrates the definition, is Hebrews 11. What I find very instructive, is that all the examples of real faith in this gallery of heroes of faith, come from the Old Testament. Have you wondered about that? The kind of faith that God accepts, finds its roots in OT history, and they are there because we are to learn from these illustrations.
Let’s begin by looking at verses 1 and 6 first, and then, at 3 heroes of faith described in the first 28 verses. I believe we will see that genuine faith has a cost attached to it. Without this kind of faith, it is impossible to please God. To begin with, let’s eliminate any misunderstanding about faith.
- Faith is not a Creed, or a body of belief that we hold. When I tried to witness to relatives of mine in Russia many years ago, they told me that they had a different faith to mine. Theirs is the Russian Orthodox faith, while mine was a Baptist faith. That is not the kind of faith the Bible is talking about.
- Nor does it have anything to do with believing something with all our strength, or earnestness.
What is faith?
Being Sure Of Our Christian Hope
What does the writer to the Hebrews mean when he says, Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see? (v.1). How can you be sure of something that you are hoping for, unless the person who has built up your hopes is utterly reliable and capable of fulfilling his promises? Even then, how can you be certain about what is beyond your vision or understanding? We are obviously talking about a unique relationship between a person and his God. Confidence in a hope always depends on the One who has given us this hope.
Being Sure Of God’s Existence
It begins by a deep certainty that God exists. Am I saying something that is obvious? Let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves exactly what that means. James gives a warning about the nature of belief. He says, You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (Js. 3:19). Obviously, the Bible is talking about a belief that is different to an acknowledgement that there is a God in this universe. That kind of acknowledgement is of no benefit to us, and has no acceptance with God.
We are living at a time when I believe many believers are undergoing a crisis of faith. God doesn’t seem to be what they expected him to be. He doesn’t seem to do things they expect of him. Some may even have a serious doubt about the reality of God, or, at least about the kind of God they expect him to be; not that they may be prepared to openly admit to it.
I cannot remember all the details of this true story, but I will share what I do remember of it. A well-known preacher of God’s Word went through a stage when he was attacked by serious doubts about God’s existence. He went through a very dark period in his life, yet he determined to keep on preaching God’s Word as faithfully as he could. This went on for 12 months. Finally, God brought him out of the darkness of that experience, and he was able to preach with a new, revived confidence. He didn’t share those dark experiences with anyone, lest he damage the faith of his congregation.
This reminds me of the experience Asaph, the author of Psalm 73 went through. He went through a period of serious doubt about God’s goodness and righteousness. He wrote,
If I had said, ‘I will speak thus [i.e. if I had told others about this experience] I would have betrayed your children. [i.e. I would have caused irreparable damage to them] When I tried to understand all this it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny [i.e. of the unbelievers]. (Ps. 73:15-17).
Many people go through a period of doubt, either of God’s existence, or of his goodness. But God brings every genuine believer through that dark tunnel into his light.
God Rewards The Seeker
The writer to the Hebrews says, Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (v.6). He is a God who has promised to reward us if we seek him earnestly.
What that means is very important for us to understand because without this kind of faith, we can’t begin to please him. Have we looked for the wrong kind of result because we have had a deficient view of God? Is it because God didn’t answer our prayer the way we wanted him to? Is it because we failed to accept God’s answer? The wonder of God is that he hasn’t changed one whit from the God we read about in the Scriptures.
Essential to pleasing God
What kind of faith do we need, without which it is impossible to please God?
Perhaps by looking at the three illustrations of faith in the passage that we read, we might discover what is deficient in our understanding of true faith, and how we need to reappraise our faith.
For Noah—certain of what was unseen.
Let’s try to envisage the world of Noah. We are told that Noah was a righteous man and that he walked with God (Gen. 6:10). What did that mean for him?
Let’s take a step back in history to see what led up to the circumstances Noah had to face in his day.
After Cain murdered his brother Abel, and had to face God’s condemnation of him, we are told that Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden (Gen. 4:16). His side of the family grew and developed. Some became livestock farmers, others became musicians, and some industrialists (Gen. 4:20-24). Despite the rebellious spirit they inherited from their ancestor, the tribes flourished and civilisation developed.
Adam and Eve then had another child, whom they named Seth. With him, a new attitude emerged. We are told that At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26). From that line two men were born who “walked with God”. They were Enoch and Noah.
Unfortunately, the godly tribes mixed with the ungodly, leading to such moral degradation that there was no hope of any reformation, and God decided to destroy all he had created. God chose Noah to be the agent through whom he would save a remnant of people and animal life. But, salvation was also available to anyone who was ready to accept Noah’s message.
We need to stop and consider the implications of Noah’s righteousness. Righteousness in the OT has nothing to do with perfection; it was always regarded as an attitude of trust in God, and obedience to him. In that kind of a world, and that kind of society, to resist the pressures all around you, was extraordinary. We need to remember that Noah was living in OT times! He knew nothing of the marvellous grace of God in Christ. His walk with God provided him with all the confidence and perseverance he needed to go ahead and do what God told him to do.
When he set about building the Ark God instructed him to, he didn’t have the faintest idea where all of this was leading. He didn’t have an army of helpers—just the opposite. He was mocked and jeered day after day, and year after year. People regarded him to be queer. Imagine still believing in God! ‘Nothing is going to happen to us, Noah. Come down and enjoy yourself. That’s what we are doing. You are wasting your time and your energy. Imagine building a boat in the mountains! God isn’t going to destroy us whom he created.’ Morality and ethics had been thrown overboard. It was every man for himself; a ‘dog-eat-dog’, self-destructive society.
For Noah, faith meant trusting God, despite his aloneness in his belief. It meant doing what God appointed him to do: build an Ark, although he could not imagine the outcome of it all. All his friends had forsaken him; it was too humiliating for them to associate themselves with him. But for Noah, it was accepting God’s call to be part of what God was doing. And it cost him everything. The only way to survive was to ‘walk with God’; to commune with him even as he drove the nails into each board, and filled each gap with tar.
For Noah, faith meant certainty, not in the outcome of it all, but in the One who called him, and told him what to do. He believed that God would do what he said he would do, and Noah’s role was to be part of it. Certainty in the unseen future always begins with certainty in the unseen One who controls that future.
How well do we resist the pressures of society around us? Or, do we compromise our values and our beliefs for the sake of a more comfortable survival?
For Abraham—it was a sure hope in God’s promise.
Abram was called to leave a very developed civilisation in Ur. Although he belonged to a semi-nomadic family, that doesn’t mean they knew nothing of a settled existence. All around them was a proud civilisation. Excavations have shown that the residents of Ur had many 2-storied houses. The larger ones had 10-20 rooms. They had well-equipped kitchens, good plumbing systems and sanitation.
The inhabitants of Ur were Semites, the offspring of Shem, son of Noah. Originally they were worshippers of God, Yahweh, but at some point of time, had turned from worshipping the Creator, to worshipping that which was created. They had become worshippers of Naana, the moon god. Nor do we know if all of them turned away from God. Abram’s family would have been involved in the pagan worship.
A great people movement took place at that time, and it seems that God told Abram and his family to join the movement. We read,
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur… to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Gen. 11:31).
Haran was the junction of the trade routes from Egypt to Babylon, and even to the north. There they were still surrounded by people they were familiar with, and because Haran was the seat of the worship of Naana the moon god, people were able to continue their customary worship.
What we often forget is that God is sovereign in the affairs of nations whether they are aware of it, or not, and he was in the process of moving Abram toward the destination he intended for him. When Tehrah died, the last significant link with the family was broken, and God was ready to move Abram again. That’s when God came to Abram and said to him,
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. (Gen. 12:1).
Previously, Abram was called to leave the place of his birth and the civilisation with which he was familiar. Now he was called to leave his relatives, and to move away from the influences that bound people to their families and their past. He had to step out into an unknown future that somehow involved cooperation with God’s plans for him. To do that, involved leaving behind everything that was familiar to him, and every close tie. Faith that led to his obedience, cost him everything. Abram acted on his belief in God. It was not some kind of cerebral belief that wasn’t tested. It was faith that responded in obedience. That’s why God credited to him, ‘righteousness’.
Abram’s faith was all the more extraordinary because he came from a pagan background. He didn’t have the example of believing parents to help and encourage him to step out into the unknown trusting only God. Although there must have been some memory of God, the Creator, that would have been passed on by Noah to his children. Abram was sure that the God who had spoken to him, was bigger than anything he had experienced in the pagan worship around him, and that God would fulfil his promises to him and his family. There was a dimension to God’s promises that Abram could not have understood, but that was in God’s hands, not his. God’s will and purposes are far greater than the part that he entrusts to us.
Are we afraid of letting go in some areas of life that we feel we need to maintain control over?
For Moses—discovered something about the One who said he was, the I AM.
What did faith mean for Moses? It was a rash action in Egypt that seemed to interrupt God’s preparation of Moses for his future task. But, of course, Moses had no idea what God had in store for him. He spent 40 years discussing his problem with the sheep he had to mind in the desert of Sinai. But they obviously had nothing to contribute to him, except patience.
When God finally confronted Moses at the burning bush, he must have wondered what the last 40 years talking to sheep had to do preparing him for what God was calling him to do. When God told him what he wanted Moses to do, it is perfectly understandable that Moses should feel that his communication skills had hardly been sharpened minding the sheep!
However we view Moses’ excuses before God, I believe he saw himself completely and genuinely inadequate for the task. As well as that, what God was calling him to do, would disturb the quiet, undisturbed life he had led for 40 years. He had seen his family grow, and he lived with a family whose religion was not too dissimilar to the one he had learned about at his mother’s knee.
To respond to God meant uprooting himself from all that had become familiar and comfortable for him, and accepting a task that went beyond his imagination, and involved conflict. Who in their right mind would choose such an option! No wonder Moses said, ‘O Lord, please send someone else to do it.’ (Ex. 4:13). Most of the people we read about in the OT whom God called to serve him, were conscious of their own inadequacy.
This is such a contrast, to the modern secular attitude that has seeped into the imagination of some Christians, who have come to believe that nothing is impossible if they really set their minds to it. We are told that we need to believe in ourselves, and if we do, there is nothing that we can’t achieve. Is that why we don’t see much achieved for God, and plenty for ourselves?
Moses, like all the others God called in the Bible, realised that God called them not because of their wisdom, skills and abilities. It is the eternal God, the One who was, is and will be, the Almighty One who is working in the world, and calls us to be part of what he is doing. The plan is his; the power is his; the results will be his doing; and the glory has to be his alone.
Paul understood this very clearly when he said,
But we have this treasure [this Gospel, or good news] in jars of clay (referring to the frailty of his humanity), to show that the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Cor. 4:7).
As with Noah and Abraham, Moses had to leave behind all that had become important to him, and trust God for his future. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith, to be genuine faith, involves obedience, and obedience costs! Faith that is not tested in life, or in the workplace, is unproven. When Paul was explaining to the Christians in Rome his calling, he described it like this,
We received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. (Rom. 1:5).
He didn’t say “to faith”, but to the obedience of faith. Biblical faith is not a faith in the living God unless it works itself out in obedience to what God tells us to do.
Do we still live with the idea that we have to impress upon people around us an image of success before they will take notice of our Christianity? Are we relying on our own resources to impress on others the reality of God? Are we constantly seeking some visible evidence of God working through us?
Neither Noah, nor Abraham, nor Moses saw the ultimate fulfilment of God’s plans in their lifetime. However, by faith they recognised that God’s plans for the world were greater than their part in them.
They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” (Heb. 11:13). They persevered because they saw him who is invisible. (v.27).
What did they see? It wasn’t some kind of defined figure, because God is Spirit, but in their minds and hearts they saw One who works in time and space to achieve his purposes in the world: the Sovereign Lord.
God has always been active in this world. Each generation is called to respond to him. And, a response to him will always cost us, particularly as it touches areas in our lives that we feel we need to maintain control over: our families, our jobs, our reputation, our ambitions, our future. If we respond to him, we will be stepping out into the unknown. That’s why these illustrations are so valuable to us.
Will real faith cost us?
As we have already seen, faith to be true faith involves putting behind us what we cherish the most, to step out into that which God wants for us, and into what he is already doing. It does not necessarily mean that God wants us to go into politics, or to cross-cultural ministry either here or overseas. But it does mean that we might have to rethink our personal ambitions. Does our faith in Christ cost us anything?
When we ask ourselves this question, we are always confronted by the cross of Christ. We cannot adequately answer this question apart from Christ’s sacrifice for us. His sacrifice for us calls for an appropriate response from us.
Yes, it will affect our finances. But it will affect much more than that. It touches every area of our lives. Are we prepared to be faithful witnesses to Christ in our jobs? Or, do we survive the pressures at work by blending in with the rest even when their practices are questionable? Do we compromise our ethics when we are told to, in order to keep our job? [Some people might even laugh that one off, and say, ‘Come on, be realistic. That’s the kind of world we live in.’ Are we assuming that the people we have been talking about knew nothing about the hardships of living in a godless society, and were never tested about their integrity?]
Are we prepared to relate to people of other ethnic backgrounds in the same way as we do with people we know well? Have we developed sound biblically based arguments for our position on political issues, or do we toe the party line despite the philosophy that controls their agenda? Are we prepared to demonstrate to our work colleagues and friends a Christian perspective on materialism, or are we caught up with it as much as anyone else?
If Satan doesn’t prevent us from believing in Christ in the first place, then he will try to persuade us to that all that God wants of us, is some kind of faith in Christ—that’s all. As long as we believe in him, we’ll be all right. No, we won’t!
Faith untested, is unproven
True faith calls us to more than that. It involves seeking him. “Lord, where do you want me to fit into what you are doing in my office, in my classroom, in the surgery, in my law practice, in my neighbourhood, among my relatives, in that retirement village? You have placed me there for a purpose. Help me to know what you want, and to respond to you in obedience.” We are told to seek the Lord.
It will cost. But responding to God in obedience is faith in practice, and will be the difference between a comfortable life, and a rewarding life; between a predictable life and one where we are called to walk by faith leaving the future and the consequences in his hands. It will be the difference between striving for what we want, and seeking only what he wants. After all, for faith to be genuine, it has to lead to a deeper relationship with God. It is our understanding of God that generates faith in him. We cannot put God into a box of our imagination, and then use him to do what we want him to do.
The heartbroken parents who lost their little boy, in seeking the Lord, can discover the reward of an enriched and deepened relationship with a God who cares and wants nothing but the best for them, even when that best isn’t what they had in mind. The rewards will not always be what we want, but they will always be worth living for.
When we go through difficult experiences where our faith is tested, we need the encouragement of the Scriptures.