Most Church folk don’t define the word “Faith” as the Bible does, at least not according to a passage in the “Book of Hebrews” (a book in the New Testament, most likely authored by the Apostle Paul). This letter to Jewish Christians gives the most clear Biblical definition you’ll find, but it’s one that, ironically, requires a level of faith most people don’t have. I didn’t ether, until I was recently asked to preach a sermon on this passage, then it hit hard, which is somewhat embarrassing given my education and background as a pastor. I should have seen it a long time ago.
This definition of faith will make you mad if you hail from a camp that has some level of respect for the scriptures. Typically, especially on Sunday mornings, we’re taught to think about God and faith differently – drastically so. St. Paul is cognizant of how “out of the box” his thoughts are, so he takes great care to unpack things so his audience will have an understanding of faith that’s almost guaranteed to lead to something good. The stuff he’s peddling is intended to change your life. It’s been changing mine.
Hebrews chapter 11 says:
Without faith it is impossible to please God.
Everyone can quote that part, but define “faith” as some combination of “believing the right things about God,” “doing what you’re supposed to do,” “Living a moral life” and/or “Avoiding sin.” Very few people can quote the following from the same passage:
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.”
“Anyone who comes to God must believe a) He exists and b) that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
These two statements are rarely preached because they have a significant aspect of “there’s something in it for you.” As churchy people, we don’t like that, although we rarely pursue anything unless it promises some significant aspect of “there’s something in it for you.” When we think about what God wants, we think in terms of reverence, respect. No questions asked. Here it states that you can’t please God unless you believe that you’ll get something out of the deal. If you’re choking on this paraphrase, I get it, but read these three passages again, very carefully.
God isn’t pleased with you unless you have FAITH
To have FATH, you must
(A) Believe that God exists
(B) Believe the things that you’re hoping for will come to fruition
(C) Believe that if you follow God you’ll be rewarded
The author then goes into detail about the lives of people who had this kind of FAITH. One of the most popular to his readers would have been the guy who started it all – a guy named Avram (“wanderer”), who’s name God changed to Avrahim (“father of many”). We call him Abraham. Everyone knew his story – Abraham was a hero, but started out a normal ancient middle-Eastern man with normal ancient Middle-Eastern hopes and dreams.
In his day it was considered a huge blessing to have a large family and a good piece of land. We don’t think that way today, we hope in terms of more “modern” things – huge house, sweet job, big paycheck, etc. these things are not only enjoyable, they communicate something about the bearer – strength, smarts, savvy, etc. Abrahams’s hopes and dreams would have been different than ours, but they had the same meaning, the same weight. There was nothing spiritual about Abraham’s hopes and dreams either, he didn’t hold them because of some religious obligation. You might say they were “selfish.”
But Abraham had a problem. He was old, and his wife Sarah was even older, way past her child bearing years. So Abraham had to reconcile these huge desires with the fact that they would never come true. Maybe that’s why God picked him and promised to deliver the things Abraham was hoping for. The guy who thinks it’s all over will do some crazy shit if you prove to him it’s not.
Everyone laughed at God’s promise, so when Sarah had a son they named him Itzach (laughter). While it’s common to name our kids “Isaac” today, it would have been weird to name a kid “laughter” back then. But that’s how crazy this story is.
So, as St. Paul puts it, Abraham decided to make God the boss “by FAITH,” believing that a) his hopes and dreams would be fulfilled and b) that he would be rewarded for following God.
Faith and Expectation
Most people attempt to align their lives to God’s desires out of a sense of obligation, duty, sacrifice, shame, and many times, fear. Some of those people manage to live very “holy” lives, but in my experience they’re not very much fun to be around, much less listen to. Many fail, and with that failure comes more shame and bitterness towards church and the idea of God. You want to avoid that kind of faith.
People who believe that they’ll “get something out of it,” that there’s a reward somewhere in there – something in the shape of the things that are running amok in their hearts – are far more likely to be holy, and happy, and be the kind of people who are willing to take great risks (there is no holiness without happiness and risk). St. Paul’s list of ancient Jewish heroes all lived with great expectation (they lived “by FAITH”), and as such did amazing things. Whatever reward they received helped them to trust God, which helped them to follow Him even more recklessly.
Expectation is a fundamental part of FAITH.
I try to make my kids clean the kitchen after meals, although I usually skip it because it’s miserable. The whining really gets under my skin so I tend to avoid it. Things go much better however if I promise treats or TV when they’re done. A friend of mine says that’s wrong, “you’re only teaching them to expect treats after work.” Most psychotherapeutical types would say that I’m teaching them to trust me, and that, over time, they’ll learn to do the things they need to do without treats. They get “something out of it” on both ends.
Our hopes, dreams, and desires are very powerful things and as such can be powerful motivators. We can expect God to meet us there as He invites us to do his stuff. Either way, there’s something in it for us.
There’s one problem though. I’d like to have a private jet, but God hasn’t delivered yet. I’d like to look like Daniel Craig. I’d like to have 100K people follow my blog. I’d like to be independently wealthy. Silence. Abraham didn’t get what he wanted either. He was promised more kids than grains of sand on the seashore. He was promised a huge spit of land, a really good one. He only got one son, a crazy life, then he died. But even in death, because of whatever reward he was given, and because that reward was in concert with his hopes and dreams, he saw something beyond death, something that gave him hope even as he drew his last breath.
Death is not the end of anyone’s story. If there is a God, by definition there’s more. If God put these very powerful desires inside of us, we can expect that he’ll deliver. He won’t deliver on the corrupted versions of our desires – greed, lust, injustice, etc.. He’s got His eyes on the good desires underneath – intimacy, significance, peace, adventure, mystery, pleasure, etc. So God granted Abraham a part of what he wanted, enough to open his eyes to the fact that God can do whatever He wants, and for some reason He wanted to fulfill Abraham’s desires. The heroes of the ancient Jewish scriptures had their eyes opened in similar ways. As such they were burdened by a very powerful hope and lived a life that was very pleasing to God.
St. Paul is forcing us to ask the question “What am I dreaming of? What am I hoping for?” I’d caution you to use some care as you explore these questions, to dig deep into what you want and why, and get used to the idea that God knows what you want better than you do. But I’d also caution you to expect great things from God, not religious things, or things that seem boring, but at least a glimpse of things that are tailor-made for what’s living raucously in your heart.