WHAT IS FAITH?

  1. Perspectives on Faith 

The common conception of faith is that it is an inner power by which we might obtain outer benefits, an intangible force for getting tangible things, a spiritual key to material gains.  To that extent, faith is often proclaimed as a means of getting something.  Such perspectives are quick to point to such verses in Hebrews 11 as state, for example, how “by faith” there were escapes from the danger of lions and fires, how deadly weapons became powerless against the faith-full, how “women received their dead raised to life again” (Hebrews 11:33-35).  Nevertheless, that is merely one side to the total truth about faith in that chapter.  

  1. The Substance of Faith 

According to Hebrews 11, faith is not only the power by which we receive things, it is also the power by which we understand: “Through faith we understand…” (v.3).  So, faith is not just about ‘obtaining’ material possessions, as we commonly hear.  Faith by which one understands the word and works of God is no less faith than that by which another receives her child raised to life.

 Faith is a “substance” (v.1), true, but how does one explain the substantiality of understanding, or of the other results spurred by faith?  Abel had faith by which he “obtained” something.  What did he obtain? He obtained a witness; the “witness that he was righteous” (v.4).  How substantial is ‘witness’ or ‘righteousness’?  And what is material in the fact that Enoch “was translated” by faith (v. 5)?  What ‘things’ did faith ‘obtain’ for those ancients?

  1. Faith that Offers 

Hebrews chapter 11 shows that faith is not just about what we get but also about what we give, for “By faith Abel offered unto God” and “By faith Abraham … offered up Isaac” (vv. 4, 17).  Faith, by our selfish and materialistic definition, is strictly that by which we ‘obtain’ something but offer nothing.  True faith, however, is much more about God than about our lacks and their satisfaction, for “without faith it is impossible to please him” (v.6).

By faith, Noah and Abraham obeyed.  Is giving obedience faith?  By faith Abraham “went out.”  Unfortunately, ‘by faith,’ he did not ‘obtain’ the object of his faith-trek, but “looked for” it (vv. 8-10).  Does that fit into our common conception of faith?  Faith, as we define it, does not ‘look for’; it ‘takes’ and it ‘possesses.’  So…

If we were to rewrite Hebrews 11 today, hardly a quarter of those on Saint Paul’s list will make it on our list, not especially characters like Abraham that “received not,” and Samson that died trying, and all the rest that, very ironically, “died in faith, not having received” (v. 13).  Does one die ‘in faith’?  What agreement has faith with death?  More worrisomely ironically, is “not having received” faith or failure?

  1. The Two Classes of Faith 

That takes me to the two categories of faith in Hebrews chapter 11: the faith that receives, and the faith that does not receive.  Contradiction?  Wait. Watch this: by faith “Sarah received strength to conceive seed” (v.11); by faith, mothers banished death and ‘received’ life for their dead children (v.35), but there were the others who, also by faith, did not receive, but merely saw, “afar off,” that for which they had had faith (v.13).  By common conception, faith receives.  So, can we truly call it faith which merely sees but does not receive?  Can we call it faith whose substance is afar off, not near?

Faith is positive, we say.  It is active and bold, not passive and cowardly; so we can understand when it is said that by faith Sarah the barren conceived a child; but can we also truly call it faith when Moses “was hid” (v.23)?  Does faith hide or it confronts?  Was it faith or cowardice to have hidden the child?

Hebrews 11 further speaks of those who, “by faith” chose to “suffer affliction” (v.25).  Does faith suffer anything, let alone suffer AFFLICTION?  As if faith had not been injured enough, the chapter puts the final focus on the “others” (v.26) who, no less by faith, had trials and “cruel mockings and scourgings” (v.36).  Of them it is said, “the world was not worthy” (v.38), as if to say that they belonged to a superior class of their own.

I understand faith by which one can be delivered from the sword, but I don’t get the faith by which one is stoned and “sawn asunder” (v.37), becoming a victim of the same horror that others escaped “by faith.”  If one truly has faith the way we know faith, should any disaster come to them?  Of the “others” in the second category of faith, it is said, they “obtained a good report through faith” but “RECEIVED NOT the promise” (v.39).  They ‘obtained’ something but ‘received nothing.’  Strange.  Faith receives.  To ‘receive not,’ is that faith or failure?

  1. Faith Beyond the Matters 

What comes to mind now is the picture of the three Hebrew boys in the Bible who said to King Nebuchadnezzar in the face of his deathly furnace, 17 The God we worship can save us from you and your flaming furnace. 18 But even if he doesn’t, we still won’t worship your gods and the gold statue you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18, Contemporary English Version).  In other words, “Our faith is founded in God; it is not defined by what we get or do not get.  Our faith is larger than the things of which it speaks.”

True faith is so firm in a present God that it is not shaken by the things it sees afar off, whether received or not received.  Faith is larger than what it receives.  It sees the things it seeks through God; it does not see God through things.

  1. What is Faith? 

“They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (v.37).  Does this fit into our contemporary conception of faith?  What is faith?  In the language of the three Hebrew boys, faith is the foot that stand steadfastly with the faithful God even if everything else should fail and the outstretched arm seems empty.

From The Preacher’s diary,
September 30, 2023. 

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