I’ve spent my life in places where there is a whole lot of talk about faith. I’ve got no complaints about that, because faith is a very good thing. Faith makes the world go round. There are plenty of reasons to talk about faith, celebrate our faith, build our faith.
Whenever preachers want to talk about faith, we always go to the “hall of faith” found in Hebrews chapter 11. It’s where the enigmatic author recounts the all-star cast of faith heroes from the Old Testament, all that they believed and all that God did in response to their belief. It’s a beautiful and moving text. And yet there is one verse that always has a way of pricking my skin, the upraised nail I’m never quite looking for. It does nothing to cheapen or lessen the impact of the sweeping statement on faith–it only gives the message depth and texture. Verse 39 says, “These all died in faith, without having received the promises and having welcomed them from a distance.”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where faith throbs and aches every bit as much as it motivates and inspires. God keeps His word. Faith is not empty, as Hebrews tells us it is tough and substantial–you can put your weight down on it. But you don’t always get to see the fulfillment of the promise. And you certainly don’t always see the fulfillment on your own schedule.
That’s why its so difficult for us to know how to speak about faith in a way that makes sense. NPR used to call their Sunday religion show “Speaking of Faith.” The show is still about religion and ethics, but now they are calling it “On Being.” I know that given the broad nature of the program across the spectrum of ideas and religion, faith in its former context was used to speak broadly of belief. I’m not sure what motivated the change. I can only say that it is harder to speak of anything than it is to speak of faith, that when when we do speak of faith we rarely do it well.
When we speak of faith, we sometimes oversell it. In my tradition we had the season of: “Name it and claim it, blab it and grab it.” Think hard enough about what you want–wish hard enough for what you want, and click your heels together three times. Or send an accompanying check to my ministry. And we can turn that faith into a pot of gold. Get your level of faith up to the requisite level, and its automatically done. God Himself is not even necessary in this process.
But when we speak of faith, we sometimes undersell it. Faith is optimism. Faith is seeing the glass half-full instead of half-empty. Faith is looking at the sunny-side of life. Faith is believing you can become the next American idol if you believe in yourself really hard.
In both scenarios, faith gets trivialized. The truth is, faith is weathered and tough. My image of faith is not of Big Bird on Sesame Street and more like a chain-smoking, scarred old gun fighter. It’s precisely because faith is so tough that it can take such a tremendous beating. It’s precisely because its been so assaulted by the elements–chipped at, battered, assailed by nature and by man–that faith is an undefeateable force.
Because when every other virtue is stripped away…when every thing else has been lost–even your own life–faith still remains. The sort of faith described in Hebrews 11 cannot be undone, even by death. Because it is faith that says, even I don’t live to see it come to pass with my own eyes–I know that God is still going to do it.
Faith like that is not easy to come by, and if you come by it I don’t suppose it’s easy to hold onto. Because faith is by nature wild, it will buck you like a bronco, it will make you hold on for dear life. Real faith is big enough to trample you. But it’s powerful enough and tenacious enough to outlast you. If hanging onto faith doesn’t kill you (and maybe even if it does), it will live longer than Methusaleh and bring life into the darkest places of human existence.
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?