In this passage we see the book of Hebrews’ great definition of faith. It is only a few words, but it contains depths of meaning that unfold as we come to know the Lord. I suppose all scripture is like that. God’s word is about infinite things, so we never really reach the end of their wisdom. With God there is always more. Just when we think we have heard all a passage has to say, the Lord speaks again, and suddenly a whole new world of understanding opens up to us. It is like starting afresh in our walk with God. I believe such things are especially true of Hebrews 11:1.
Some people who read this verse might conclude that it means simply…
Do you believe in God? If you are reading this article at a website called “God is a Gift,” you probably do. Yet, what does this mean? If you ask many people whether they believe in God, they think you are asking them if they believe God exists.
In the world there are two minds that seem to be constantly at war with one another, one acknowledges God and the other doesn’t. There are those who believe nothing is a miracle. To them everything has a natural explanation, and as humanity’s understanding of the creation grows, there is less and less need for a Creator. The natural pushes out the supernatural until we are left either with no God at all or a God who has distanced Himself from His creation to the point of irrelevance.
Of course, the prize of all prizes is to explain how the universe came into being without the supernatural. This quest greatly accelerated when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. Today scientists have moved beyond mere evolution. Physicists are even working on mathematical theories to show how something came from nothing, thus eliminating all need for God. I don’t think many of these researchers are out to kill God. They just operate from a paradigm where nothing is a miracle.
Believers can respond to this worldview in one of two ways. Some try to fight reason with reason. They present the case for God with great passion and seek to overcome unbelief with a superior argument. A quick search at Amazon.com will produce an almost endless list of books that take up the task of Christian apologetics, defending everything from the inerrancy of the Bible to a literal six day creation.
Others are far more accepting of science’s natural explanations, but they believe that God is in the natural and very involved with every aspect of the universe. To these the natural order of the creation points to God, not away from Him. It is as if the universe is filled with the fingerprints of God, but only those with open eyes can see them. One of my favorite non-biblical quotes comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the nineteenth century English poet. Its inspiration comes from Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush. There God told Moses to take off his shoes.
We see these two minds, one of belief and the other of unbelief, daily at Thorncrown Chapel. Thorncrown Chapel is renowned architect Fay Jones’s masterpiece. Before he died, he and his wife Gus came out to the chapel from time to time, and they would sit for hours. You could never get Fay to talk much about God. When I was younger, this led me to believe that he was not a very spiritual person. It was only after he died that I realized I had been sitting in his spirituality for decades, but I didn’t see it. He expressed his belief through architecture, and it spoke very loudly. Our visitors often tell us that it is impossible not to believe in God in such a place.
Yet, it happens all the time. Thousands of our guests see Thorncrown’s great architecture but leave oblivious to what the design is trying to tell them. Some walk down the aisle turn, shrug, and say “What’s the big deal?” We watch in amazement, wondering how they can’t see God. Yet, if we could peer into their thoughts, they might be equally amazed at us, wondering how we can see a God who by their reasoning doesn’t exist or is not real enough to be relevant.
So, the great debate of the modern era continues. Both sides have their champions and evangelists who hope their mind will win the day. Yet, is that all faith is, simply choosing a side? If belief is simply mentally bowing to the fact that God is real, then it really doesn’t have much substance. I have seen friends lose such faith to what they thought was a better argument. Yet, even if we believe God is real, reason alone cannot bring us to truly know Him. God is not just an idea but a Person to be encountered. This brings us to a higher definition of faith. It is one thing to have a theory. It is quite another to have an experience.
This second definition of faith is the one which is most widely taught. It says that God is not only real, but He is also very active in the natural world, and He blesses us in ways that we can see with our eyes. Jesus taught that God is wonderfully near and compassionate, and He demonstrated this reality. He made the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. He raised the dead, cast out demons, and cleansed the lepers. Once He was teaching a huge multitude and apparently everyone forgot their lunch except one young boy who had five loaves of bread and two fish. It wasn’t much, but with God it was more than enough. Jesus turned this meager meal into enough to feed over 5,000 people. Many believe that Christ is still the same today. He still makes something from nothing in the lives of those who believe in Him.
We have had millions of visitors come to Thorncrown Chapel, and it amazes us how many people have a story to tell. I have a stack of letters in my desk. Each of them is from someone who encountered God at the chapel, and some of the stories are quite miraculous. They come from a time when people used to write letters. Now, we get mostly emails, but they are just as precious.
Over the years we have seen the Lord provide in ways that defy explanation. When we were building our Worship Center, we were trying to complete the building debt-free. It turned a one year project into a six year project, but it freed us from the burden of a large mortgage. We always paid our workers on Fridays, so there had to be enough in the bank to cover the payroll. One Thursday I was looking at the books, and we had come up about $5,000 short. I went to the Lord in desperate prayer. As I prayed, I felt a great peace, and somehow I knew everything was going to be okay. Later that afternoon a man approached me with an envelope in his hand. He said that he felt like he needed to give us a gift. In the envelope was a check for $5,000!
I believe as we walk with God, we will encounter the Lord in ways that can only be explained by His presence. This is part of His love for us, and it is part of our journey with God. Such experiences make our faith stronger. Yet, can this kind of faith be overturned? Yes, it can, and I have seen it happen. Sometimes contrary circumstances can shake such faith. What if there is no answer to our prayers? What if God seems to give us the opposite of what we ask for? What if a tragedy strikes that seems to defy the idea of a loving God? What then? If the purpose of faith is simply to make our lives the way we want, we can end up bitter when God does not oblige. We have all faced times such as these, and they can be a dark night of the soul. But, if we seek God, He will lead us to something higher.
In this world there are finite things. These are things that we see with our eyes. They can be measured, and when this life is over, we can’t take them with us. Yet, the scriptures reveal infinite things, things which are divine. They can’t be seen or measured, and they are of this world and the next. Jesus spoke of the infinite when He talked about eternal life. Eternal life is not just life that lasts forever. It is the life of God, and it is God’s greatest gift to us. It is literally God giving us Himself in Christ Jesus. John in his gospel ties eternal life to knowing God (John 17:3). To John, knowing God was not just having the correct facts about the Lord. It was to participate in God and to be one with Him. Too often we make the gospel about going to heaven or having a good life, but its ultimate end is God, Himself. More than anything Jesus came to give us God and God abundantly.
We often seek God for finite blessings, and we worry about their absence. Think of the thing which has you the most afraid. I can virtually guarantee it is something finite. We worry about finite things, because we can lose them. We are also afraid of not having them. Yet, in the book of Hebrews we see that people of faith looked beyond the seen to the unseen. Speaking of the Old Testament saints such as Abraham, the book of Hebrews says:
God promised the Old Covenant people of God a land in which to dwell, a wonderful place where they would suffer no need. It was a place you could find on a map, filled with blessings the eyes could see. Yet, this land of plenty was only a foreshadow of the higher promise which was a heavenly country, a place not found on a map nor seen with the eyes. This heavenly dwelling is the presence of God, a place filled with infinite blessings. The realm of the infinite is the goal and highest purpose of faith. Paul speaks of this great promise in Ephesians chapter two, and he reveals the means by which we get there. It is only in togetherness with Christ that we dwell in the heavenly places.
God wants us to dwell together with Him, and this togetherness is the purpose of redemption. Yet, to dwell with God and to know Him, we must know the infinite and what Paul called the divine nature. When we understand this destiny, we gain yet a higher view of faith. Many believe faith’s purpose is to make our world the way we want it to be. Its end is that which is seen with the eyes. However, such an understanding can leave us blind to the infinite and deaf to the call of faith, which is to God through the death and resurrection of Christ.
Faith sees something that the finite minded can never see. In the kingdom of God the way to gain is through loss. It is through faith that we lose our finite measures. This is the power of the cross. Through faith we lose the measure of self for the measure of Christ. If all we have is the finite measure of self, we can never dwell in the presence of the infinite God. We may gain a glimpse of Him when our deeds are especially good or when we think we have come to special times and places, but we will never know what it means to abide in God’s presence. Our lives will be divided between the holy and the unholy. Near to God will be a place we visit, but it will not be our home. In order to live in the heavenly country, our righteousness must die that we might live in the righteousness of Christ. We can spend many years in the wilderness of self-effort before this work is accomplished. Yet, the day we come to the end of ourselves is precious to God, because it is the day He can show us what it means to be one with Him.
Faith not only lets go of the finite measure of self, it also lets go of the finite measures of life. The world has so many ways of defining a good life: money, possessions, the approval of man, the right look, success, and the list goes on and on. These things the world calls life, and the world measures them to decide if life is good or bad. Yet, faith lets go of these willingly. Why? Why would anyone forsake what the world values so much? It is because by faith we know what is on the other side…resurrection. When the finite measure dies, the infinite measure is revealed. The infinite is on the on the other side of the cross. The cross is the doorway to the heavenly country.
Jesus taught that we are to lay down our lives. This doesn’t mean just service. It means that we lose the world’s finite definition of life for God’s infinite definition. Like Paul, we come to proclaim that Christ is our life (Colossians 3:4). This is truly a new realm in which to live. Christ took the journey to the heavenly country before us, and now His journey is worked out through faith in our lives.
When we begin to understand that faith is far more about the infinite than the finite, we begin to see God in our lives as never before. If we think our journey is a trip to the life we want, we will either end up feeling disappointed and unloved, or we will end up feeling superior and contemptuous. If our hearts are set on the infinite, we will see our lives are wonderfully orchestrated, leading us to the Lord. We will see that when God removes or withholds the finite, it is so He can give us the infinite. If God makes us unimportant in the world’s eyes, it is so we can find infinite importance and worth in Him. Every finite thing God withholds is an invitation to the infinite. It is a call to leave that old home behind for the heavenly country. If we gain this wisdom, we will no longer compare ourselves to others, wondering why they seem to have more than us. Nor will we look at others who have less and count ourselves more important. Instead, we will redefine ourselves as God’s chosen, chosen not for finite glory but for the glory of God. We are truly not of this world. We are of a higher one, and we live there by faith.
Therefore, walk by faith. Have faith that God is real. Have faith that God blesses us with seen things, but most of all have faith for your true home, the heavenly country, the place you and God dwell together as one.