“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 a 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.
The Bibles definition of faith and experience of those commended for their faith contradicted the pastor’s message.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
The 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.
Pistis, the Greek word translated “faith” in Hebrews 11:1, means persuasion. Elpizo translated “hoped” in this verse 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 be persuaded 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 with the nation to,
“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 will give us the strength we need to persevere. If we don’t understand Abraham’s faith, we will have little reason to continue our faith walk when promises are unfilled and prayers remain unanswered.
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 begins as a tiny seed that grows into a mighty tree with deep roots. 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).
Abraham had a good reason to follow God. Abraham did not approach God with a desire. God approached him with an offer too good to refuse and maybe too good to believe. 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.
Abraham pondered God’s offer for years before he responded. He was sixty 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. God patiently waited fifteen years until Abraham’s father died and then approached Abraham with the gospel message again.
The things God promised gave substance to Abraham’s faith. He followed God for more than a new camel and material wealth. 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 embraced Abraham’s faith. He left Ur looking for a city built on the foundations of God’s wisdom and justice.
This time Abraham obeyed. But like an infant learning to walk, he repeatedly stumbled in his faith. He 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 and God swore an oath do to everything he promised.
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 where there is none 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’s voice. The impartial and equitable way God treats us is revealed by the sun who shines on the good and the evil. We witness life springing from death by the seeds planted in the ground that die 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. Corruptible and perishable flesh and blood cannot inherit the eternal kingdom of God. Therefore, if we accept the son Abraham had the foresight to see, who we now know is Jesus, reasons to believe will abound.