The Most Misunderstood Thing about Faith

bible hebrews and faith

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.”

Or this:

“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.

65 thoughts on “The Most Misunderstood Thing about Faith

  • This is great! When we were fighting sexual sin, we genuinely expected God to deliver us from it quickly. In the midst of that storm in life, we also expected our marriage to be healed. It was and is still being healed. Expect things from God. He delivers.

  • OK….that was challenging and compelling. I am going to forward this for discussion in my mens group this week. Thanks!

  • Great post. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I have been pondering the concept of rewards for some time now. Have you come across any resources that you can recommend on the subject? I’d love to study this further.


    • Thanx for reading. I honestly don’t know any offhand, it’s not a popular subject, and most conservative religious folk wouldn’t want to read it I think. If I come across anything I’ll let you know.

  • We’re reading Francis Chan’s book “Crazy Love” in Sunday School. This week’s chapter basically focuses on Hebrews 11:6. It’s impossible to please God without faith, so where does that leave folks who are just plain unsure about any of it. One day they feel like faithful believers, the next day they’re struggling agnostics. It is especially problematic for people who feel they DID have a strong faith at one time and then, through a myriad of circumstances, lost their grip on it. We have a FEW people in our class who are in that boat. They continue to worship and be a part of the work of the congregation, go to SS, etc., but they can’t hold onto that necessary faith that they read about in this passage.

  • My favourite scriptural definition of faith for many years; but why did I never see this in it? Thank you so much for this inspirational blog.

    • Thanx, that’s really encouraging. Re “why didn’t I see this before?” I’m asking myself the same thing, I “got it” last year. It is, though, really dangerous to the idea that we’re not supposed to think about ourselves. Maybe that’s why we avoid it? Fascinating to me.

  • What a perfect read for my Sunday morning, thank you! I particularly loved your thoughts on rewards. I have long believed that there is nothing wrong with external rewards because God uses them too. We are all promised wonderful and beautiful things when we follow the commandments, so why would we expect our children to just inherently want to do good? I was also compelled by your thoughts on the next life- I believe that God’s promises extend to everyone and that we will all at some point get a chance to hear those promises and get a chance to fulfill the commandments in order to receive the blessing. Ultimately it’s up to us, but God will always give everyone a chance to try, which may occur in this life or in life after death. Since not everyone has that opportunity in this life and God is always fair, why can’t that extend to the next life? Anyway, just my thoughts on that.

    • One one level it does feel selfish, but God knows we’re human, and we’re trying to navigate some pretty huge desires. It’s unfortunate that for so many, religion means little more than a destructive level of repression. Really appreciate your thoughts here. Mark

  • I struggle with the “what do you want?” The bible talks about the things we want and how we will win to get them. And you are right, a lot of times it’s not what God wants for us. That doesn’t mean it’s automatically sinful. I think a lot about what comes after this life. The life I have now is full of disappointments and sadness and yes, Joy too. But it’s eternity that reminds me to keep going. When we are disappointed, we need hope to bounce back and not cave under pressure but we need a vision of what we were given at the cross too. Great reminders. Thanks for sharing!

    • I struggle with the same stuff. It’s been a challenge to dig below my corrupted desires to get a glimpse of the ones God authored, then allow those to be blueprints for what’s coming next. I’m better than I used to be, but still a long way to go. Religion for me, for so long, was all about repressing ALL desire. Healing from that has been tough. Great to hear from you by the way. Hope you’re well.

      • I just read an article about introversion (as that’s what I deal with) and it was talking about suppressing your desire for solitude. I struggle with that train of thought because solitude can be such a good thing! I guess complete selfishness and choosing never to be around ppl would be a bad thing but I don’t see the problem with solitude. I think that is what religion is…all desire is bad. I think God gave us desires but anything that causes us to sin is something we need to be careful of. Such good thought here! Thanks for sharing them as it is still helpful to be reminded of these things.

  • So true! My favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11 which is all about getting stuff. Somehow I forgot that verse in my late 20s and fell into exactly what you described. I lost my faith until I realized again that God is for me. I had forgotten about that last part about that we must believe that He rewards those who seek him. We used to sing that in Sunday School. I will have my son read this post as I think he, too will find it very helpful. Thanks!

  • I am as you would say ‘without faith’ but really enjoyed this well-written, insightful article. And I do the same with the whiny kids in the kitchen post dinner. 🙂

  • That’s a really interesting discussion about faith. I recently nominated you for the Leibster award on my blog and I hope you will post out the answers to the questions I have asked on there (no pressure though!) 🙂

  • I’ve always known there was a God. From the time I was very little. Not by my parents doing. I just knew. But even knowing that he is real I’ve always followed Him out of duty like you were talking about. I love that your article has given me a fresh perspective to think on! It’s very refreshing and (I think) much needed in the world today.

    Ps. Thanks for stopping by the blog & following along! 🙂


  • I deeply appreciate this post. I have long struggled over the meaning of Hebrews 11:1. You have helped me by confirming I am not reading it completely improperly. I do not expect rewards from God, but there is much comfort in believing we have an assured expectation. He will not do evil to us in a chaotic, random way. He will provide goodness.

    • Thank you for your encouragement, great to know this post was helpful for you. Can I ask why you don’t expect rewards from God? Not trying to be facetious, I think it’s one of the most fundamental pieces of this passage.

      • I believe my service to God does not depend on what He can do for me. If he cares for all the people I love, and that’s a big number, then he doesn’t owe me a thing. That’s the expectation I am assured of.

  • Mark, wow!! This is the best sermon I think I’ve ever heard on this passage!
    Thanks so much for coming to visit, and following me!
    Now that I’ve returned the favor, we can keep in touch.
    God loves us so much, we can’t even begin to know it! And He gives good gifts to His children!

  • Thank you for visiting my blog! My favorite definition of faith is: Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. Because, after all God SPOKE the world into being! Therefore, things that are “seen,” came from things unseen. 😊

  • Thanks Mark…just found your blog thanks to you finding mine. Faith has been a difficult concept for me this past year but I am learning that it can be restored. It is also being restored now, not as a concept, but as an action. I am striving to place my faith before my own efforts…what a boost! As far as asking and receiving..I always try to remember that it it the righteous desires of my heart that are probably getting Gods ear….not the independent wealth or private jets…oh wait, those were yours. 😳 Mine are a perfect husband and a defiance of gravity concerning God’s obvious overlook of the effects of it on the aging female body. Best settle for a pure heart and contrite spirit for now…😏

  • Good post!! I’ve always said that Faith is what stopped Jesus in his tracks, when he was in the middle of a multitude! He always commented on faith whether it was not enough or if he was impressed!

  • You certainly have given us a lot to think about without being preachy. God is a powerful reality that lies within each moment for me. He’s always there waiting. But not in a holy roller sense.

  • Thank you for sharing this definition of faith. My daughter in heaven’s name is Faith. Named so because we had faith that even though we weren’t expecting a baby at the time, we had faith that God had good things in store for us through new life. When she died before she was born, the name became an even bigger testament to her meaning in our life, as we continued to have faith that God would provide. He would carry us through. And He still has great things in store for our lives, through the life of our tiny baby Faith.

  • Really enjoyed reading your blog. Very encouraging especially as I am grappling and slowly starting to come to terms with the fact that God does love us and that He does want to bless us.
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Very thought provoking…

    “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.”

    This blessed me.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I guess we met for a purpose…Thanks!!

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