READ : Hebrews 11:1-6
Perhaps the greatest faith in one sense is to live for God in spite of not believing – rather than because of believing.
In this series on the seven great virtues we have already looked at the four virtues of the classical world: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The early church accepted these cardinal virtues as forming the foundation of character, that hard-to-define quality that we all recognize when we see it in a life well-lived. But these cardinal virtues are not enough. Being a moral person of character is good, but it isn’t the best that humans can do. And so the early church added to the four classical virtues three more distinctively Christian ones, the famous biblical trio of faith, hope and love. Today we consider the virtue of faith.
WHAT IS FAITH?
The opening verses of Hebrews 11 answer three important questions about faith. The first is this: What is faith? The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith means having the assurance that the things we’re hoping for – things like God, and Christ, and heaven, and eternal life – are real and will be ours some day. Faith is being sure that things we can’t see or touch or prove through our senses are nevertheless genuine. Faith is a persuadedness about truths that are impossible to demonstrate by logic or observation alone.
“Seeing is believing,” we sometimes say. That’s true, for sight is the means by which we make sure of what is really happening, what is real, what is true. Suppose somebody comes up to you and tells you it’s raining outside. You can’t believe it. When you came indoors just a little while ago, it was cloudless and sunny with no rain in the forecast. So what do you do? You go over to the window and see for yourself. You confirm the reality of that statement by the evidence of your own senses.
But what about the things that can’t be checked by sight or by any of our other senses? How can you be sure whether or not something invisible is real? Some things are invisible because they’re spiritual and impossible to see with our physical eyes – angels, the soul, God himself. Other things are invisible because they happened in the past before anyone was around to see them – like the creation of the world. Still others are invisible because they are in the future and are not yet here to be seen – like tomorrow’s sunrise, or our place in the Father’s house in heaven, or the Lord’s return at the end of time, and all the other “things hoped for.” The only way we can be certain about the reality of any of those things is by faith.
The writer to the Hebrews offers one illustration of the way faith works in verse 3:
“By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Only faith can tell us about the things we cannot see. You may believe that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, or you may believe that the universe and everything in it (including us) is the result of a random, meaningless process of evolution, but either way you are walking by faith, not by sight, because there’s no way to prove either one of those things.
FAITH IN WHAT?
The second important question Hebrews 11 answers is: What does faith believe? Out of the vast array of things that must be accepted by faith, biblical faith lays hold on two things in particular:
Anyone who comes to [God] must first believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (v. 6)
Notice that before he states the specific things which faith believes, the biblical writer says something about the person who does the believing: “anyone who comes to God.” Faith in God must be preceded by desire for God. In order to believe in God, you must be willing to come to him and draw near to him. If you would like to have faith in God, you first have to want to know him. The Bible says that those who seek for God will surely find him (Deut. 4:29; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:8). But no one will find him who doesn’t care to seek. If you are one of those people who says, “I wish I could believe in God but I just can’t seem to find faith,” the question you must face is whether or not you really do want to meet God. Do you truly desire God? Would you really like to know him? If you honestly would, he will enable you to.
But back to those two basic facts which biblical faith accepts. Here they are again: by faith we believe that God exists – that is, that he’s real – and that God is good – that he rewards those who seek him.
Let’s consider those two beliefs, starting with the belief that God exists. I don’t think this means that “God” in general, in the abstract, exists, the generic god most people talk of. I think it means that GOD exists, the true God, the living God, the God of the Bible. Biblical faith is not faith in just any god but faith in the God. As the writer to the Hebrews points out in the very opening of his letter, this God revealed himself in the Scriptures, his written Word, and supremely through his Son Jesus. He is the God who in Christ has reconciled the world to himself. This is he whom the writer refers to when he says that whoever would draw near to God must believe “that he exists.” He’s the real God, the God who is there, the God who came in Jesus Christ. He was born of a virgin, died on a cross, rose again, and ascended into heaven. He dwells there now in glory, and one day will come again to judge the whole world.
But faith not only believes that this God exists; it also believes in him. It believes that he is good. It believes that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” In other words, faith believes in the trustworthiness of God’s character. I really don’t think it’s enough just to believe that there is a God. You also must know what he is like; you must trust in his goodness. You must commit yourself to him personally, depending on his grace. You have to be confident that if you truly seek him with all your heart, if you cast yourself on his mercy, he will hold you. He will never fail you, and he will not let you fall. And then, day by day, you must rely on the promises of his Word and live out your confidence in his faithfulness, reflecting that confidence by the way you face suffering, hardship or disappointment as you live to God’s glory. That’s what real faith is all about.
Finally, this third question is answered by Hebrews 11: What does faith do? Does having faith in the God of the Bible actually do anything? Does it make any difference? Most assuredly it does! It may not guarantee that we get everything we want, but it does do this one thing supremely: Faith pleases God. “And without faith,” says the writer, “it is impossible to please God” (v. 6). But with it, we conclude we are well-pleasing to him.
C.H. Spurgeon, that great lion of God, once explained the purpose of each human life this way, “We were meant to please God.” He learned that truth from Jesus. Jesus’ life is the master pattern for the whole human race. Jesus once summarized the meaning of his own life by saying, “I always do what is pleasing to God” (John 8:29). Remember that the next time you find yourself caught up in a frantic effort to please somebody. We are always trying to please somebody – a teacher or a boss, family or friends (or those we wish were our friends), even ourselves. But what matters is pleasing God, for that is what we were meant to do. And the only way to please him, says the writer to the Hebrews, is by faith.
I find myself thinking, “Why is that so?” What is it about faith that is so pleasing to God, so much so that just having it makes us pleasing to him? I believe that our faith pleases God primarily because it relies on what he has done to save us, not what we do to save ourselves. This again, says the letter to the Hebrews (in chapter 11), is the very lesson of every Old Testament believer’s life. Do you want to know how to please God? Well, look at those who did, the writer argues. All of them, from the very beginning, pleased God only through faith. This is what the ancients were commended for, he says. There were never two ways of relating to God, one of them by good works (during Old Testament times) and the other by faith (since the coming of Christ). No. It’s always been through faith alone that anyone has ever been pleasing to God. God justifies those who trust him and rely only on his grace, rather than on their own merits or good works.
Now, what about you? Are you pleasing to God? Are you sure of that right now? Whether or not you are depends entirely upon your faith, for remember: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”
INTERVIEW WITH DR. RUTH TUCKER
Historian and seminary professor Dr. Ruth Tucker has written a number of books on Christian subjects but her most recent book explores a very personal side of the conflict between faith and unbelief. It’s called “Walking Away from Faith” and it tells the stories of a number of people who have struggled to believe, not always successfully. David Bast sat down with Ruth Tucker to talk about both the book and the subject of faith in general.
David Bast: Thinking about how to get into this whole question of faith, I really want to talk about it from a little different perspective. It might strike a lot of listeners to Christian radio as very unusual for us to talk about losing faith as opposed to gaining it. I mean, most of what we’re doing is an attempt to help people to grow in their faith or come to faith. We at Words of Hope say we have two primary objectives: to win the uncommitted to faith in Christ and to build up Christians in the life of discipleship. So we don’t ever, to my knowledge, talk about the dark side of the question or the back door of the church which is people leaving the faith or losing faith. But you have talked about it quite honestly in a brand-new book that you’ve just written called “Walking Away from Faith.” What made you choose to do that?
Ruth Tucker: It was for personal reasons as well as issues that I’ve read about for decades. The personal side of it is that my faith has always been difficult. I don’t believe easily, and I struggle with unbelief in my life. I tell about that in the book. In reading about others I have a concern that so many people are walking away from faith for all the wrong reasons. I just got a letter from a pastor who said he’s leaving the faith. He’s told no one. He’s not told his wife or his ministry team. He’s biding his time because he knows this is going to be so very painful. But one comment in his email to me was that Christianity just doesn’t make sense. When you unravel it and you lay it out, it doesn’t make sense.
David Bast: This is a pastor?
Ruth Tucker: This is a pastor.
David Bast: And he read your book so he chose to contact you.
Ruth Tucker: And he said, “How can I go on preaching when it simply doesn’t make sense?” And I challenged him that perhaps he’s walking away or contemplating walking away for all the wrong reasons. That’s one of the things I write about in the book, that if Christianity made sense, if the religion made sense or the Bible made sense, we wouldn’t be talking about faith. But faith is something that we must have. We must exercise to believe in the unbelievable and the incarnation alone that God, the very God of the universe, the God who created the two hundred billion stars out there, is the very God who came . . .
David Bast: . . . who chose to become one particular human being on one particular insignificant speck of dust, our planet, in the middle of all those galaxies.
Ruth Tucker: I’m sorry but that is simply unbelievable. It makes no sense, and he said that very thing, “Christianity doesn’t make sense and I cannot go on preaching.” And I said, “Where does faith enter into this?” And that is the very thing that we talk about with faith, that if Christianity made sense it would not be the faith that it is.
David Bast: So one of the wrong reasons, you’re saying, that people might walk away from faith or say they’ve lost their faith is the desire to have all the answers, to have a complete rational case, no more doubts, no more imponderables, but everything sensible.
Ruth Tucker: Everything sensible. And we as evangelicals feed into that because we have our apologetics.
David Bast: Yes, we do have a strong rationalistic tendency that seems to imply, “If only people were smart enough and had read the right books and thought clearly they’d have to accept this.”
Ruth Tucker: And I don’t blame the evangelical, Reformed sort of folks because that’s part of our culture. We are very rationalistic, and our scientific modern world view tells us we’ve got to figure things out rationally. Naturalism is the philosophy that reigns over this western world, not supernaturalism. And if we are going to accept the supernatural, we have to commit to it by faith. If we have thought that we could accept Christianity by rational belief alone, we’re really going down the wrong path.
David Bast: It sounds like you’re just making a distinction there between rational belief and faith, or between belief and faith. Are you suggesting that faith involves something more, something certainly more than intellectual understanding?
Ruth Tucker: Oh, absolutely. Madlyn Lingo said of the incarnation, “With my naked intellect, I cannot believe. I just sit down and try to figure this out with my intellect and I have to go beyond that. I have to move into this realm of mystery, of paradox of faith.”
David Bast: In a way, what’s coming to my mind is the idea of faith not so much as intellectual assent but faith as loyalty.
Ruth Tucker: That’s a lot of it.
David Bast: You choose to make a commitment, then you stay loyal to that commitment.
Ruth Tucker: Yes, and once you’ve chosen, there are a lot of apologetical helps and things like that that help make sense out of the faith. I think of the resurrection and the story of the resurrection, how the disciples doubted and the women believed. If you’re going to make up a story and make up an ancient myth, it just would not go by that scenario at all.
David Bast: There are a lot of reasons why the resurrection seems to be a credible explanation for what happened, even though it is incredible.
Ruth Tucker: It’s incredible but it’s plausible.
David Bast: Yes, it’s plausible. Maybe that’s a better word because, I mean, where did the church come from? That’s always impressed me very strongly, and I remember some scholar, a New Testament scholar, I can’t remember which one now, who said that the resurrection is the fundamental apologetic fact of Christianity. It is really the key.
Ruth Tucker: It’s the proof, but it’s the proof for the person who has already made that step of faith.
David Bast: Right. It’s an encouragement to those who’ve made that commitment to the Lord.
Ruth Tucker: And for people who are coming to faith, I think these things can be very helpful. But for the person who has been in the faith and is walking away, I think they have to be challenged once again that this is part of tradition that you hold to and think of yourself without the Christian faith. I sometimes challenge the person who is walking away, “Where are you in that time when nothing else is holding you?”
David Bast: Well, it’s a walk into despair. It’s a walk into darkness. It’s a walk into nothingness. I have for so long been impressed by a line of C.S. Lewis. Lewis said, “Well, if it isn’t true, it ought to be because there’s nothing better that’s ever been conceived. This whole fantastic story of incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection, God himself becoming one of us actually on this tiny speck and then dying at our hands and then triumphing over death, if it isn’t true, it ought to be.” And he like all of us I think entertained moments . . . I mean, anyone who thinks really hard about these issues is going to have moments when you wonder.
Ruth Tucker: It ought to be true and the Christian faith ought to be true.
David Bast: Because it’s better than any story that anyone has ever come up with.
Ruth Tucker: It is better, and it ought to be better. That is something we can always hang onto as Christians on those days when our doubt is so heavy to say, “But, yes, I am making a difference in peoples’ lives. I am making a difference on this earth. I am making a contribution in some way that hypothetically if it were not true I would have spent my life well.”
David Bast: In other words, we should not only say it ought to be true but we should live as if it is true.
Ruth Tucker: Live the truth, absolutely.
David Bast: Let’s talk about the other person now on the other end of the spectrum, the person who says, “You know, I just have a child-like faith.” I mean the person who might be listening to this conversation who’s utterly bewildered by it and says, “Well, how can you not believe?”
Ruth Tucker: And the child-like faith is by no means a childishness. Some of the brightest people I’ve ever encountered have this kind of faith that does not doubt. And I highly respect them, and I envy them at times. But I would say to them, “Be understanding of the person who doesn’t have that faith.” And our churches need to be far more open. One of the common things I have found about people who walk away from faith is that they have not been able to tell anybody about their doubts, and that is one of the weaknesses of our Christian community.
David Bast: We can’t be honest.
Ruth Tucker: We should be talking about this topic, and talking with others, and reading about it. The person who has the strong faith should come alongside the other person with understanding and encouragement.
David Bast: It’s one of the unspoken secrets of the church that there are many people perhaps who are struggling with this and don’t dare to mention it for fear of being judged as inferior somehow.
Ruth Tucker: I’ve had so many students come into my office at Calvin Seminary saying, “You know, what you’ve written is the very thing that I am struggling with.” And I say at one point in the book that I sometimes sit and look out my window and say, “If they only knew. . .”
David Bast: . . . how many of them there were.
Ruth Tucker: Yes. So now I’ve put it in print, and they do know. It’s a kind of community that will accept that. But too many of our churches say, “If you’d only pray more.” I’ve had people say that to me, “Ruth, if you would only pray more. If you’d only read your Bible more. If you would only do this, if you would only do that” instead of saying, “Hey, this is part of the Christian life and God can use you even in your unbelief.” Only God judges. Only God is the one who knows who has truly walked away and who is in that period of unbelief.
David Bast: And only God knows what happens at the end and on the inside.
Ruth Tucker: Absolutely. Isn’t it wonderful to leave that judgment up to God. We all need to reach out with utter humility. That is what my years of doubt and unbelief have given me, just utter humility. I could never act like I have it together, my faith together, like this pastor who is walking away from faith. I can see everything he says, and I can say, me too. I have the same struggles but somehow I have been able to hang on with this glorious mystery that I celebrate.
David Bast: I wonder whether it might not be a very heroic act of faith for someone like this who said, “I no longer believe” to continue to live as if he did, that it wouldn’t be hypocrisy. It could be hypocrisy, I guess, to do that if you did it out of fear of losing your job or something. But it seems to me that you could do the very same thing out of a heroic act of faith where you said to yourself, “I’m going to keep preaching as if I believed it.” Maybe the greatest faith in one sense is to live for God in spite of not believing rather than because of believing.
Ruth Tucker: I think what you’ve said is absolutely true. I go through periods of time like that when I am seeking to live for God even though there is unbelief. I think of all us need to nourish the believing side so that when we are going through periods like that we are nourishing and nurturing ourselves. For me it is often the old hymns. I grew up on the old hymns of the faith. I can sit down at the piano and play “Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry” and other of the old hymns. They bring me into the presence of God like nothing else does.
David Bast: Well, there are means of grace, as the old divines like to say that include worship, the Word and prayer. Those things can nourish our faith. In the end, I guess it comes down to living that prayer, that biblical prayer, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Ruth Tucker: Absolutely. That is it and we need to recognize that, especially those who are struggling with unbelief.