Faith: More Than Meets the Eye

Hebrews 11:1-6   

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8-13)

“These three remain…” What an intriguing passage. That these three elements hold such an integral place in the life of a Christian. Faith, hope and love. When you boil everything down, slice away all the fat, blow away all the chaff, peel everything down to the core, this is what you have left: faith, hope and love.  Lest you think this is just a chance combination of the three, you find this trio six other places in the NT.

They are the heart of our relationship with God, they are Christianity at its simplest. They are foundational, they are the roots. And for the next few weeks I would like us to look at some of those roots of our relationship with God. What are those things that are most important?

I hope I won’t be telling you anything you don’t know or haven’t heard before. We’ll be talking about familiar subjects.

Peter, near the end of his life wrote a letter to his fellow believers and said, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.” (2 Peter 1:12)

Peter says, some things bear repeating, some things are so important you can’t leave them packed away like those childhood keepsakes that you stored away in your parents’ closet when you grew up.

These are the things you take out often and spend time thinking about, and hopefully growing into and securing more firmly in your life.  This morning let’s start with faith.

In Mark 2, we find Jesus teaching in a crowded house. Suddenly, the roof starts to chip and crumble and then a hole opens up and four men start to lower a pallet into the middle of the crowd. On the pallet is a man who is crippled. Jesus looks up, and Mark writes: “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

In Mark 5, we meet a woman who had been bleeding from a hemorrhage for twelve years. She hopes just to slip quietly up to Jesus in the crowd and touch his garment. But when she does that, Jesus immediately feels the power go out from him and turns and finds the woman in the crowd and says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”

And we find this happening over and over in the Gospels. When Jesus encounters faith, he is both amazed and delighted, and always responds with healing and affirmation.

In one sense, I think we all know what faith is – we recognize faith in contrast to disbelief and cynicism, we understand faith when we see its opposite in doubt and skepticism.

I think we all want to be people of faith – to be people who believe deeply, whose lives reflect their beliefs, who confidently step forward knowing that God is in control of our lives.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews defines faith for us: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb 11:1)  More than that, the writer talks about the absolute necessity of faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb 11:6)

And I’m glad that the Hebrews writer didn’t stop at a definition, but then spends the entire chapter illustrating what faith looks like in real life. And he demonstrates faith in the lives of men and women who lived out their faith in circumstances that often put their backs against the wall and forced them to choose paths that would indeed take them through the valley of the shadow of death.

They weren’t perfect, and all the better or we would have a tough time relating to them. But out of their imperfect lives, God called them to step out in faith to obey him and follow him regardless of the cost. And they did.

Let’s talk about what is faith and what is not:

We learn right up front that faith isn’t a result of having all your questions answered and doubts relieved. If you know how it’s all going to turn out, it isn’t faith.  C.H. Spurgeon wrote, “To trust God in the light is nothing, but trust him in the dark – that is faith. Faith is trusting God to lead you on the best path – maybe not the safest or the most direct – but the best path. Remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7)

We are taught by this world to live by facts and figures and proof. You research and check things out. You make sure you get the best return on your investments, the best car for your money, the best future for your family. And God gives us brains to make rational decisions like that. But Paul tells us that ultimately our lives need to rest on something and someone beyond our sight and comprehension. When it comes down to a life lived by faith, it is let letting God direct your life – not so that you have everything spelled out in black and white with a money-back guarantee – because the bottom line isn’t always the bottom line.

What Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29 is so relevant. After Thomas had touched Jesus’ wounds he cried out, “My Lord and my God.” And Jesus said to him: “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.” Having all the facts might be one thing, trusting God simply on his word is another.

It would be wonderful if we knew all the answers and had perfect knowledge, if we could see the future, but we don’t and can’t.  Yet God call us to act by faith – faith in the one who does know and can see – and how great is the blessing when we believe in spite of our imperfect knowledge.

We can gather all the witnesses, check all the sources, use logic and reason, and yet faith calls upon us ultimately to face up to the question, “Do you take God at his word?” Once you do take him at his word, you must live like it. Belief is that essential blend of faith and faithfulness, trust and obedience.

Look at two of the examples that the Hebrews writer uses: Noah and Abraham. The Lord told Noah to build an ark – he didn’t give Noah an explanation or rationale for why – but Noah began to build. God told Abraham to go to a place he had never heard of, but Abraham packed up his family and went. Their faith was a powerful combination of belief and action.

It’s a little intimidating standing in the presence of these great examples of faith. How can you stand shoulder to shoulder with someone like Abraham or Noah? But they were people just like us, they made mistakes and took wrong turns. But their faith wasn’t in themselves – it was in God. And that’s one thing we learn from Hebrews 11: the size and substance of a person’s faith isn’t in the strength of their character, but in the size of their God.  Our faith isn’t a matter of us, but of God. And that begs the question: “How big is your God?” Jesus said, all you need is faith the size of a mustard seed – as long as that faith is based on the God who with a word created the universe. Faith is simply my response to what I believe about the promises of God.

Faith and belief are sister words – they are interchangeable. Our problem is that we pull out our dictionary and read the definitions and belief is reduced to a matter of agreeing with something – an acceptance of a fact. It doesn’t require any action on our part. I believe that George Washington existed and was the first president; I even believe that he was a great man and worthy of respect. But my belief doesn’t demand any kind of response.

In the Bible, though, faith always calls for a response. Belief is never a mere act of intellectual agreement to a fact or an idea. When a person believed in Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of saying “Yes, I know he existed.” That’s James’ point when he wrote, “Even the demons believe, and shudder.” Agreeing to historical facts and having faith are two different things.

The Hebrews writer used the words “sure” and “certain”.  Those words must be completely divorced from self-reliance. If I make a choice based on what I believe I am capable of, or what fits into my comfort zone, or because I’ve thought it all out and it makes sense to me, it is not faith. Faith makes decisions without seeing the end result, and without knowing that I am up to the task.

Don’t mistake that for a blind leap of faith. I’ve met the people who live carelessly and make stupid decisions and then blame it on faith – “I’m just stepping out in faith.” Faith isn’t an escape from the real world, but seeing the real world through a different set of lenses. Jesus isn’t asking us to suspend reality, but to put our faith in a reality that is more solid than anything in this world.

There are also people who view faith as some kind of key to the treasure room of God. You’ve heard the television preachers who preach a gospel of health and prosperity – “By faith, claim your healing… Just have faith and all this can be yours!” And if you have problems, or you are struggling financially or you are suffering illness – “You just don’t have enough faith.”

Don’t misunderstand, faith is the key to receiving blessings from God, but the religious world has bludgeoned this into meaning something that neither Jesus nor the NT writers ever used it to mean. Faith is neither a blindly optimistic attitude that manipulates God into answering our prayers, nor is it a wimpy escapism that exempts us from troubles in this world.

With faith, I look at the world differently, and certainly see my relationship with God differently. Faith causes me to make choices and decisions for my life that may look foolish from the world’s point of view, but absolutely correct from God’s.  Yes, by faith, I put all of my problems under God’s control, but I do not presume to tell him how I expect him to answer my prayers.

What if your faith isn’t where you want it to be? Maybe you’ve been thinking you would like your faith to be stronger. Let me offer some direction on growing your faith.

Where does faith begin? There are several factors, but ultimately, as Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ.” About his own Gospel, the apostle John wrote, “These things are written so that you may believe (or have faith) that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

If faith begins in the word, it is also nurtured and sustained by the word. And if you want your faith to be living and growing, you need to spend time in the Word of God. There is no substitute. As you read the accounts of God’s mighty acts and stories of God’s men and women of faith, your own faith grows and is strengthened.

A second thing about faith – it grows as you use it. The Hebrews writer says, “Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Faith, like any other spiritual discipline grows as we put it to use. If faith is belief put into practice, then we need to practice stepping out in faith – acting as faithful people act. Observe those who are mature in the faith and imitate their faith. It is something we grow into.

There are no correspondence courses in swimming – at some point you have to get into the water. In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons, Lucy is telling Charlie Brown that her uncle had always wanted to play the violin. He went to the music store, bought a violin, then attended a concert to listen to them play. He went home and tried to play, but he couldn’t play at all. She tells Charlie Brown, “Next time, he’s going to try sitting closer.” Our faith grows as we use it and practice it.

Not only do we need to practice living by faith, we need to stretch our faith. Start living radically for God, start giving sacrificially to the Lord, try making God the highest priority in your life. At first it will feel unnatural and uncomfortable. It’s like those muscles that ache when you start exercising and stretching them – it will be just as true for our spiritual muscles.

Paul writes to Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim 4:7-8)

Faith is that threshold into a relationship with God. Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians: “By grace you have been saved, through faith.” God invites us into a relationship with him.  As we put our faith in him he pours his saving grace into our lives. It is a promise that demands a response – a response of faith – believing that God will do exactly what he says and then staking your life on it.