A Pepper Grinder Post

What is Faith? - Part 3

I feel a little as if I’m writing one of those book series where the first chapter is always devoted to giving you the background you would already know if you had read the earlier books in the series.   (Josie thought back to those carefree days at the start of her freshman year at Gray Hill High, before she had realized that half her classmates were either vampires or zombies—both locked in mortal combat and craving fresh blood….) In the , we looked at the idea I used to have about faith—that it was kind of a confident feeling which could help get your prayers answered if you could work up enough of it.  We saw that my immature view of faith totally failed the Hebrews 11 test but we still didn’t know what faith IS.  In the we looked at two brief passages in Hebrews 11, teaching us that faith was something solid, and also giving the clue that faith could involve believing a reality we cannot perceive with our senses which leads to a reward.

This time there is one final verse in Hebrews 11 that we skipped over in the first post, which I believe will give us a much clearer understanding of faith.  Here is my translation of Hebrews 11:27.

By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger—he kept the unseen continually before his eyes.

pyramidsI am going to tell you right up-front that there is something that confuses scholars about this verse.  They can’t figure out which departure from Egypt the writer is talking about.  The first time Moses fled Egypt (after killing an Egyptian to help out an Israelite), he was running for his life from the king of Egypt.  This makes it hard to believe that he wasn’t afraid.  The second time, when he left with all the Israelites, we are given the impression that people were practically begging the Israelites to leave the country, so that also seems like it doesn’t quite fit.  Also, the verse right after this one is talking about the Passover, so it disturbs our tidy western minds that the author might mention the first Passover, which happened just before the Israelites left Egypt, after he mentions leaving.  For the record, I am more in the second camp.  I think, given Pharaoh’s track record of saying first that they could go and then changing his mind, it isn’t hard to believe that someone might be afraid of Pharaoh’s wrath if they left.  Pharaoh had absolute power over what was probably the most advanced nation in that part of the world at that time.  What’s not to fear?  As far as the problem with this verse coming before the one about the Passover, I think that middle eastern folks of the first century were not nearly so worried about presenting things in precise chronological order as we modern-day westerners.

But, the good news is that, for our purposes, it doesn’t actually matter which departure is meant.   My real interest today is with the second half of the verse, and it is enough for us to know that faith enabled Moses not to be afraid of the Pharaoh.

There is also some disagreement about the second half of the verse.  Here is how the NIV translates it:

he persevered because he saw him who is invisible

A literal translation of the Greek would be something like:

as seeing the invisible, he endured.

However, there is also an idiom in Greek whereby saying that someone “seeing, endured” means that he kept something continually before his eyes.  That is why I translate the verse the way I do.  Maybe you’re thinking, who is this guy who thinks he knows Greek idioms better than the NIV translators?  Well, to tell the truth, I got the information about the idiom from a respected evangelical scholar (William L. Lane in the Word Biblical Commentary on Hebrews). But, even though I love the picture of Moses keeping the unseen continually before his eyes, if you want to go with the NIV translation, it won’t break my heart.  Did I take too many easygoing pills this morning?  No, the reason I’m so copasetic is that the thing I really wanted to point out here is that when Moses left Egypt by faith, he was seeing the invisible!

This sounds a little funky.  How can you see the invisible?  It sounds sort of like listening to the sound of one hand clapping.  A good example is found in this passage from Second Kings:

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. 
"Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them."
And Elisha prayed, "O LORD, open his eyes so he may see."
Then the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17, NIV)

cloudsAt first, Elisha’s servant saw things from a human perspective.  He saw the large, well-equipped Aramean army and he saw that the city he and Elisha were in had no forces that could come close to matching it.  He was in despair, and understandably so.  Then his eyes were opened, and he saw the overwhelming power of God.  This was the spiritual reality.  It was true all along, but Gehazi didn’t see it until his eyes were opened.

So what is faith?  I don’t believe what Gehazi experienced was really faith for two reasons.  He did not choose to see what he saw, and what he saw was not “unseen” but physically visible to him.  Faith was exhibited by Elisha who chose to see the unseen spiritual reality which Gehazi only perceived when it was supernaturally revealed to him.  Here is my definition of faith:

Faith is choosing to see the unseen,  or more specifically, choosing to see things from God’s perspective.

Does this fit with the examples in Hebrews 11?  Let’s see.  Here are some things we saw people in the chapter doing “by faith” that didn’t fit with the old definition:

  • Understanding that the universe was formed at God’s command (v. 3).  Yes, this is the spiritual reality that many modern people ridicule precisely because it cannot be “proved.”  (Well, OK, they can’t prove macro-evolution, much less life beginning without God, either, but for some reason, those are scientific whereas “seeing” the spiritual truth of God as Creator is silly.)  This fits perfectly with “faith” meaning seeing the unseen.
  • Abel offering a better sacrifice than Cain (v. 4).  The thing about seeing things from God’s perspective is that we will act differently.  Cain is described as bringing “some of the fruits of the soil,” while Abel brought fat portions (the most prized part of the animal, unlike in our fat-phobic world) from the firstborn (also the most prized) of his animals. (Genesis 4:3-4)  These were the first people on a newly-cursed planet.  They had to work hard to get enough food to survive, and they couldn’t just buy stuff at Wal-Mart if they needed it.  From a human perspective, it made more sense to give God some stuff, but not to go overboard.  Surely God would understand that you needed the food to live on!  From a divine perspective, God’s power and love are limitless.  If we focus on pleasing him, he is more than able to take care of the rest.  Able saw this.  Cain, apparently, did not.
  • Enoch pleased God and was taken from Earth without experiencing death (v. 5).  There isn’t really enough data here to be sure what Enoch did, but the way this flows right into the statement in v. 6 that without faith it is impossible to please God (which was the verse that first alerted me to the possibility that faith means something different than what I had thought) certainly implies that this verse fits the idea of faith as seeing from God’s point of view.
  • Noah built an ark (v. 7).  God knew the world was about to be destroyed by a flood, so from his perspective, building a big boat made all the sense in the world.  To people seeing from a human perspective (like Noah’s neighbors), it was the craziest thing in the world.
  • Abraham became a nomad (v. 8-10).  Once again, knowing what God knew, it made sense.  Otherwise, not so much.
  • Abraham became a daddy (v. 11-12).  The sensible human thing to do in that society would have been to take a second wife.  Although Abraham wavered when he took Sarah’s suggestion to sleep with Hagar, he ended up seeing that God, in his limitless power, could provide a son, even to a couple the age of great-grandparents.
  • 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. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. (v. 13)  This is one of the strongest verses against the concept of faith I used to have, and yet it fits perfectly with our new view.  These people saw the world from God’s point of view and lived accordingly.  The fact that they didn’t live to see the fulfillment of promises they knew God would keep doesn’t mean that their faith was inadequate,  because faith is much more than a tool to get what we ask for.  They were aliens and strangers, because they looked at the world in a radically different way than the people around them.  Anyone who truly lives his or her life in a way that reflects God’s perspective and priorities will be an alien and a stranger on earth.
  • Abraham almost killed Isaac (v. 17-19).  Another example of a thing that was absolutely nuts to do from a human perspective.  Seeing things from God’s point of view, Abraham knew God could raise the dead, and even more importantly, he knew that God was in charge and that obeying him trumped everything else.
  • Isaac gave a prophetic blessing to his twins, and Jacob did the same for his sons (v. 20-21).  These blessings were not just predictions about what the people being blessed would do, but about their distant descendants.  This makes sense when you are seeing things from the perspective of an all-knowing God who is not limited by time.

Next we see Moses and others making decisions that were not sensible from a human perspective.  At the risk of getting repetitive, I’m going to stop going through the chapter verse by verse, but I’m hoping I’ve made it clear how things that did not fit my old idea of faith, fit perfectly with the idea of faith as seeing things from God’s perspective and acting accordingly.  What we see over and over is that this type of faith will produce action.  This, I believe, is why James tells us that faith without works is useless—faith that does NOT produce action isn’t true faith at all.

One question remains: what about the type of faith that DOES lead to answered prayers?  We see some of this in Hebrews 11, and we see it very clearly in places like the Gospels.  Have I simply replaced one definition of faith that doesn’t fit all the circumstances for another?

sea overlookLet’s ask the question, how would we pray differently if we were seeing things from God’s point of view?  Would we know that God had the power to do anything, no matter how unlikely it seemed in human terms?  Absolutely.  Would we be asking for things for purely selfish motives, or would we, seeing things the way God saw them, be praying for the same things God wanted?  Seeing things from God’s perspective, we would desire the things that he desires.  Here is the beautiful thing!  Not only does our new definition of faith help us understand many passages that didn’t make sense with my old definition, it also makes sense of the seeming contradiction between passages that said that anything we asked for in faith, we would receive, and those that said that we would not receive answers to prayer if we asked for things that ran counter to God’s will.  If we are praying in faith, we WILL be asking according to God’s will.  There is no contradiction at all.

I can picture someone saying, “OK, you spent three posts getting a better definition of faith—so what?  Are we writing a dictionary or living the Christian life?”  To answer this, let me give a concrete example of how I (imperfectly) put this into practice the other day at work.  I work with computers and was having one of those frustrating times when something that ought to work wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I tried this and that, all the time getting more annoyed.  Finally, I went for a short walk and asked God to help me see what he was doing through this.  I was asking to see things from his point of view.  It popped into my head that God might not want me to think of myself as an I.T. guru, who can solve any problem quickly and easily with a wave of my mouse.  I apologized for my pride and asked God to change my attitude.  I asked him to make me like Jesus, and I also asked him to help me fix the problem.  I felt much better when I got back to my desk, and the problem was solved within 20 minutes.  I didn’t try to work up feelings of faith, so I could get God to do what I wanted.  I tried to see what God was doing, and act and pray in conformity to that.  Why didn’t God fix the problem before my walk?  I believe it was because he cared more about me and my heart than about the computer problem.  Faith is much more about conforming ourselves to what God is doing, than it is about getting him to do what we want.

False faith just tries to get what we want from God.  True faith—seeing things the way God sees them—changes everything, most of all us.


*Photo Credits: camel and pyramids by