A Pepper Grinder Post

What is Faith? - Part 2

We made a pretty pitiful start .  We asked the big question, “What is faith?” and ended up with nothing more than what faith is NOT.  Over and over in Hebrews 11, we saw that faith was not just a feeling we could manufacture in order to get anything we prayed for.  We saw that while there IS a connection between faith and answered prayers, there is also a connection made between faith and homelessness, isolation, ridicule, and martyrdom.  Most surprising of all, we are explicitly told that the Old Testament figures held up as examples of faith did NOT receive what was promised.

You may remember that I skipped over a few verses in Hebrews 11 last time, because I was only focusing on the parts of the chapter giving examples of people living by faith.  How about if we look at the verses we skipped?  Verses one and two start out with the phrase:

Now faith is

Hmm.  Sounds suspiciously like a definition.  Why waste our time trying to unravel the question of what faith is when the “faith chapter” of the Bible starts right out with a definition?  Let’s take a closer look.  Here are Hebrews 11:1-2 in the NIV

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.

Wait a minute!  This sounds like the black Jetta model of faith.  Tim Johnson hopes for the car and manages to get himself to feel sure he’ll get it.  He doesn’t see it in his driveway yet, but he is certain he will.  He has faith, according to the clear definition we’re given here, and so he will get what he prayed for—just like “the ancients” (except that Jettas hadn’t been invented then).

farm in the mistThere are two problems.  One is that neither the context of what is talked about just before this chapter (perseverance in the face of trials), nor the examples given to illustrate faith that follow, fit in with this at all, as we saw in the .  The other problem is the NIV’s translation.  If I had to choose one English translation of the Bible to have with me when I was stranded on a desert island, it would be the NIV.  Most of the time, I think this translation does a great job of being accurate, while still managing to sound like regular English.  However, I think the NIV translation of Hebrews 11:1 is lacking.  Here is how I would translate it:

Faith is the reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.

Translation is a tricky business.  You want to stick closely to the original text, but you want the translation to mean the same thing to the people reading it that the original meant to the people for whom it was written.  To give a silly example, if I wrote in English that someone was pulling my leg, and you translated it literally into another language that didn’t use this expression, you would have some confused readers.  The translation I’ve given above is more literal.  I’m sure the NIV translators were trying to make the real meaning of the text more clear.  In this case, however, I think they have steered us in the wrong direction.

The word I’ve translated as reality (hupostasis in the Greek) is only used 5 times in the New Testament, but is not too infrequent in other Greek literature.  One of the most interesting ways it is used is to describe the sediment in a liquid such as wine.  In other words, it is the solid part of the liquid.  More generally, it denotes the reality that lies behind appearances.  This is also the general sense of the word as it is used in Hebrews 1:3, when it describes Jesus as being the exact representation of God’s essence or substance.  While it can also mean confidence, the fact that in our verse it is used in parallel to the word “proof” makes it much more likely that the writer meant the word in more of the traditional Greek sense of the solid reality behind appearances.

monumentWe could say all sorts of things about hope, but the main thing I want to point out here is that the idea of hope in the New Testament is much more concrete than the way we think about it.  We say something like, “I hope I win the lottery.”  This means that I am pretty sure I won’t, but it sure would be nice if I did.  In the New Testament, hope is still focused on something in the future, but usually on something that WILL happen, even though we cannot prove it.  We have a hope of sharing eternity with God if we belong to Christ.  We have a hope of Christ’s return.  These are realities in the future for a believer, not just things we wish to happen.  At the risk of being circular in a post that is trying to understand faith, I would say that hope is forward-looking faith.

The word proof (elegkos in Greek) is used nowhere else in the New Testament.  However, the meaning of its related verb and the way this word is used in other Greek literature makes it clear that this word has a distinctly legal flavor.  It can mean conviction, but in our case, proof or evidence is a much better translation.

When a translation depends on words that are used only once or a few times in the New Testament, it is hard to make an airtight case for one meaning as opposed to another.  However, I do think that we can see enough to be able to say with confidence that faith is something solid.  Whereas I had thought of faith as a feeling that I had to work up to get something solid, the Bible presents faith as the solid thing, the reality that lies behind our hopes.  If we get nothing else out of this definition, we should get this:
Faith is SOLID and REAL.

I believe that when we are seeing things through eyes of faith, what we are seeing is actually more real than the physical world we can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.

Do we know yet what faith IS?  Not really.  What we find in Hebrews 11:1 is not the type of definition that would make it into a dictionary.  But it does tell us something about faith.  In addition to knowing that faith is not a feeling of confidence to be worked up so we can get what we want when we pray, we now know that faith, far from being a feeling, is something concrete.  That’s a start, but we still have a ways to go.

What about Hebrews 11:6?  This is the second verse I skipped over when I first looked at the whole chapter, and it is another often-quoted verse on faith.  Here is my translation of the verse:

And it is impossible to please him if you don’t have faith because the person coming to God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him out.

Does this help us understand faith?  The first part makes it clear that faith is essential for the believer.  Having faith is the ONLY way to please God.  Just doing the right things or avoiding doing bad things (the two ways I am naturally inclined to try to please God) won’t cut it.  This is an extremely important message, but it still doesn’t tell us what faith is.

The second half of the verse explains why the first half is true, but I think it also helps us start to understand faith.  We’re told that there are two things a person coming to God must believe:

  1. That God exists
  2. That he rewards those who seek him out

misty pondNumber one is plain enough.  No one is going to turn to a God he or she doesn’t believe exists.  I should point out that given the Jewish and pagan environment of the time, the author of Hebrews was probably not saying that an atheist couldn’t turn to God, so much as that someone who didn’t believe that the God of the Bible was the ONE TRUE God wouldn’t turn to him.  Still, the point for our question is that faith is necessary to turn to God, and that part of that faith is a belief that God exists and is the one true God.

I think part of the problem with the way Christians understand faith is that we have split it up.  If someone says, “I believe in God,” that is seen as one type of faith, but it seems to have very little connection to the type of faith that results in answered prayer.  I ask you to consider that faith is bigger than that and that, these two things are both aspects of the same faith.

Number two is slightly less obvious—to come to God, we must believe that he rewards those who seek him out.  Okay, it is true that everyone is basically selfish to a greater or lesser extent, so I can see it in that way.  On the other hand, this whole chapter makes it clear that the reward is NOT guaranteed in this life, but in the life to come.  I have heard gospel messages that seemed like the following imaginary gospel commercial.

That’s right, friends.  If you act now, we will send you forgiveness of all your sins, and as a special bonus, we will throw in, at no extra cost, peace that passes understanding.  But wait, there’s more.  We’ll also include Christian fellowship and happiness.  And, for a limited time, we will include, absolutely free of charge, answers to all your prayers.  Now, how much would you pay?  But don’t pick up that phone yet.  Jesus Christ, the CEO of KingdomOfGod.com, has personally authorized me to offer you, if you act today, eternal life with him in heaven.  Yes, you heard me right—eternal life!  Don’t put it off, this is a limited time offer.  Call the 800 number on your screen.  Our operators are waiting.

My point is, to hear some tell it, it sounds as though being a Christian is a sweet deal, even without eternal life.  Paul doesn’t quite seem to see it this way.  Here is what he says in 1 Corinthians 15:19:

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (NIV)

autumn poolIn other words, without eternal life, being a Christian is a raw deal.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that there are not wonderful benefits in this life to following Jesus.  However, I think that we are totally unbiblical if we say that all Christians will have happy, fulfilling lives.  The Biblical message is that our lives on Earth may be very hard, but we are assured of eternity in a perfect place, where we will always be with Jesus.  That is where the faith comes in!  If everyone who came to Christ became happy and together, who wouldn’t want to become a Christian?  No faith would be needed—just a self-seeking pragmatism.

This is very important, but I still haven’t answered my main question—what is faith?  In verse 1 we saw that it is solid and real.  In verse 6 we saw that we could not come to God without it, and that this faith involves believing in God as the one true God and believing he will reward us (especially in the life to come) if we seek him out.  So faith consists of believing a reality we cannot perceive with our senses, strongly enough that we are willing to lay down everything we can see to get what we cannot see.

I think we’re getting closer to understanding faith, though it still isn’t clear how this type of faith ties in with the faith that leads to granted prayers.  , we’ll look at the one other verse I skipped over in our first quick pass over Hebrews 11.