We talk a lot about walking by faith and not by sight. Paul the Church-planter said it just like that, in reference to living here and looking beyond to our Home-with-Christ: “For we live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)
But I think we mostly are talking about having faith to accomplish things. Faith that moves mountains. Faith that changes hearts and lives. Faith that takes risks and steps out to do impossible things. Faith that carries us through difficult times. And it’s pretty easy to understand that in all these pressing situations my own abilities fall short and I need to reach out to the power of God. Faith is more like trust in that context, and that makes sense to most of us, because we have experienced childlike dependence that reaches arms up to Someone Bigger Who Can Help. When we are looking for that kind of faith, it has more to do with convincing ourselves that He really does love us individually and personally. Or maybe, if we are utterly honest with ourselves, it’s about figuring out how to get His power to work out the circumstances we desire (and cope with it when He doesn’t). It’s not that I doubt Who He Is…just that I need to experience it for myself, prove to my heart and my senses that He is present, and interested in my small world.
But when the writer of Hebrews is reminding us of all the great people who lived by faith and what they accomplished by God’s power, he defines faith in a somewhat surprising way. It sounds more like poetry than fact, and I have read it for years as one of those beautiful sentences you just accept without understanding: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for….” (Hebrews 11:1) The substance– the nature, the very essence– of things unseen. Which, if you are talking about faith to do, or faith to receive what you desire, might lead you to conclude that faith produces substance– as if by believing something hard enough you can will it into existence. Of course many have gone down that road with all its spiritual and emotional gymnastics, until they inevitably meet big-enough circumstances to defy any amount of positive powerful thinking.
No, these ancient people of faith weren’t trying to create what they desired. For the most part they were listening to the bewildering instructions of God about what He wanted, and struggling to listen and obey. Faith is that act of latching onto what God says, in full confidence that He knows what He is doing, reaching out for something He says is Real and True, even though we cannot experience it with our senses. It reminds me of something I read recently in a random book summary: “Life lived for sensory input alone cannot deliver the spectacular promises that each sense evokes.” And my spirit resonates with the truth of that sentence: there are unseen worlds that we glimpse only briefly here, and the glory of God flashes like sunlight through the thin places….what the Oxford Christians saw as inklings of immortality, and Amy Carmichael called “the edges of His ways.”
The Letter-Writer of Hebrews helpfully specifies what exactly those ancient heroes were holding onto: the universe formed entire at God’s command, worlds and suns hung in space in an instant….the knowledge that God exists and wants to interact with His people, inspiring worship and obedience in their everyday lives….that death is not the end, but the beginning of a different kind of life….that righteousness is the proper condition of mankind….that all God’s promises are true and faithful. This is grand overarching Truth beyond the reach of physical senses. The old heroes were looking at the Reality beyond ours, the invisible world where God lives and moves and works out His plans, with a host of created beings at His command, where stars sing and the heavens bow before His throne.
This is a faith that goes beyond accomplishing things in my little world, and making life better in some way, with God’s help. Because that’s still all about my interests and my concerns. It is a good start, at least, and Heaven knows I need all the help I can get, to live here. But let’s recognize what the author of Hebrews is talking about: a larger, bolder faith that opens its eyes to God’s world and what He is doing– the Real World, you could even say, with Jesus in the center, “For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:16) In this context, faith is more like opening your eyes to see what has always been there. “Faith is… the evidence of things hoped for.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is our spiritual eyes and ears, gathering evidence of the unseen world and witnessing to the truth of what God tells us.
And when the unseen realities become as near and tangible to us as the physical world, we’re not just wishing for a better life any more and reaching out to God to help us. Faith literally gives us the substance of an unseen world beyond the tangible experiences of this earth, and Hope along with it. Not a daydream sort of hope, but a foundation-to-build-life-on sort of hope… an assurance of what is to come that is as dependable as the sun rising and the seasons changing….the kind of thing you can only know for sure when the eyes of faith are open. So open your eyes, and run well in this New Year. Because we understand what is lasting and real, and what is fading away. Because we have the evidence of the Unseen, alive and powerful within us. Because faith witnesses to God’s Truth every day. Because everyone is watching, like it or not. “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” (Hebrews 11:13)
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (CS Lewis)