“Ya got ta have faaaaith,” the preacher drawled. He withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat pouring down his face. Shoving the damp handkerchief back into his pocket, he picked up his open Bible. Jabbing his finger on the well worn page he continued, “It sez so right here! If ya justa believe, ya can have annnnything you want in life. A new car just ax him, mo money just ax him. If ya got faith, he’ll do it for you.”
“Amen,” a burly gentleman to my left shouted. “Glory,” cried an elderly woman to my right as she exploded from the pew to dance a jig in the aisle. I left the service wondering how to get this elusive substance that granted my every desire. I believed, but I seldom possessed everything I desired.
Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This definition is followed by a long list of people commended for their faith. During their lifetime on earth these heroes of faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice and turned weaknesses into strengths, but many lived a less than successful life by human standards. Some of them were stoned, others tortured or murdered. They lived like foreigners without a country to call their own and suffered trials that were a mockery of justice. Clearly, there is more to faith than the self-serving faith I was taught as a young Christian.
There is nothing particularly complicated, mysterious or magical about faith. The Greek word translated faith in Hebrews 11:1 is pistis, which means persuasion. “Hoped” in this verse is elpizo, which means to expect. Therefore, we can paraphrase the Bible’s definitions of faith like this: Now persuasion is the substance of things expected, the evidence of things not seen. To have faith is to have a reason to believe that what we expect to occur can and will come to pass.
When Israel lost hope that God would fulfill his promises to them, Isaiah pleaded, “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Remembering the faith Abraham possessed would give Israel the strength they needed to persevere until they obtained the things God promised the nation. The Gentiles are granted the same option. The promise to make Abraham the father of many nations was fulfilled when God taught Abraham how to have faith. His faith pleased God and set the example of commendable faith people from any nation can emulate. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, called Abraham the “father of us all” (Romans 4:16). Therefore, anyone can obtain the things God has promised to do for Israel through one faith – Abraham’s.
If we don’t understand Abraham’s faith, we will have faith without reason because we won’t know what to believe and why we believe. Much of the faith taught in contemporary Christianity bears little resemblance to Abraham’s. We are lead to believe faith is instantaneous, when true faith takes many years to develop. We are exhorted to follow God blindly citing Abraham as an example. Abraham “did not know where he was going” when he left Ur but this blind spot in his faith was brief (Hebrews 11:8). Finally, many teach faith as a formula for obtaining personal desires. Abraham did not approach God with a desire. God approached him.
God preached the gospel to Abraham while Abraham lived in Ur, but he pondered God’s offer for years before he responded. He was sixty-years-old when he made his first halting steps in faith. Abraham left the city of Ur as God desired, but he did not separate from his family and stopped in Haran for fifteen years. God waited patiently until Abraham’s father died and then approached Abraham with the gospel again. This time Abraham obeyed and followed God to Canaan. But like an infant learning to walk, he stumbled in his faith for the next twenty-five years. Abraham laughed at God, left Canaan against God’s wishes and attempted to help God fulfill his promises by fathering a son with a household slave. He followed God for more than seventy years before his faith proved genuine.
Abraham had a reason to follow God. He arrived in the land of Canaan possessing partial knowledge. When he left Ur, he did not know where he was going, but he knew why. If Abraham obeyed, God promised to do six things: make Abraham into a great nation, bless Abraham and make his name great, make him a blessing wherever he went, bless those who blessed him, curse those who cursed him, and use Abraham to bless all the families of the earth. Even though Abraham did not know God’s final destination for him, he had a good reason to begin the journey.
The reason for Abraham’s faith gave him substance. While Abraham would benefit from obeying God, so would everyone he encountered on his journey (unless they cursed him) and ultimately every family on earth would be blessed by God if they imitate Abraham’s faith. Abraham pursued more than a new camel and material wealth. He left Ur looking for a city built on the foundations of God’s wisdom and justice. He never found the city. Instead, Abraham found a son from whom he would inherit the city and then died in his faith before the son was born.
Before Abraham died he was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21). God convinced Abraham that he could give life by waiting until Sarah was well past the age of bearing children before she gave birth to her one and only child. Abraham’s faith was reinforced by creation. Every seed planted in the ground dies before new life emerges. His faith solidified into an unbreakable rock when the son who came from Sarah’s barren womb willingly laid upon an altar believing God would raise him from the dead.
Faith easily corrupts into worthless formulas and God is viewed as little more than a servant to satisfy our wishes when we abandon Abraham’s faith. To have faith without the hope God gave to Abraham is to have faith without reason. The foundation of Abraham’s faith was the son he saw “afar off” and a belief in God’s ability to raise the dead. We, like the faith heroes who lived before us, will die in our faith. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. His kingdom is eternal and our flesh is corruptible and perishing. Therefore, if we are content with the son Abraham had the foresight to see, who we now know is Jesus, reasons to believe will abound.