Faith is the cornerstone of Christianity. It is the foundation upon which we build ourselves up, to become spiritual adults in the eyes of God. It is our belief, our hope, in things that we haven’t seen. No one presents to us a photograph of Heaven and says, here’s your proof. God doesn’t come down and visit with us on our thirteenth birthday to help us become adult believers. And yet, we have faith. Why?
The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament of the Bible helps answer this question. It is an anonymous missal to the early Christians telling them to hold fast to their faith at a time when many Christians were starting to “drift away” from the message of the Christ. A time when an absence of things people could see and touch was leading to an absence of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews draws heavily on references from the Old Testament to make its argument for the importance of faith. Not that this use of Old Testament scripture as support for New Testament writings should be surprising. There is a continuity to the Bible which begins with the book of Genesis and weaves common threads throughout the whole of the books, chapters, and verses in the Bible, from Old Testament and New.
The author of Hebrews explains in detail how Jesus, the Christ, is the ultimate revelation of God’s word to His people. And because this revelation has been made we as Christians have all the more reason to retain, and to build up, our faith. The central message of this argument comes near the end, in Hebrews chapter eleven, verse six, amid a vast array of seemingly unrelated Old Testament references that are actually examples of faith in action. “And without faith,” Chapter eleven tells us, “it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Put another way, no one can know God without first believing there is a God to know. What an amazing testimony this is. We all know the importance of faith, that faith is essential to living meaningful, fulfilled lives. But here we are told something more, a next step in our development as believers. That even more than needing faith for ourselves is important, we can’t expect to know God without faith in him. And why is this true?
Hebrews eleven, verses one through three, shed light on the reason for this with one of the Bible’s better-known lines: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old received divine approval. By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.”
The conviction of things not seen. No man, the Bible tells us, has ever seen God. It is our faith that assures us of the reality of God, the truth of his ways, and his presence in our lives. It is not cold, scientific reasoning that allows us to accept that there is a God. We can know in our mind that something is true and still not accept it in our hearts. Instead, it is our faith that brings God into our hearts. Our faith in God makes us his, and by so doing makes us pleasing to him.
Think of this example. Say you are invited to go sky diving with a friend. Never having been sky diving, you want to learn more about it before you try doing it. You can read up on sky diving, you can do all the training necessary for a jump out of an airplane, you can even do the complicated math that proves a man falling at thirty-two feet per second squared can be stopped by a thin rectangle of silk because the surface area of the parachute creates sufficient drag co-efficient. You can know all these things, but if you don’t have faith that it will work, your fear will keep you from ever doing it.
In the same way, one can know all there is to know about God, have read the Bible from cover to cover, studied what all the great theologians have said on the subject of God. But if, knowing all this, a person still does not have faith enough to believe that God is real, that lack of acceptance will keep them from believing whole-heartedly in God. Such a person is not pleasing to God, in the sense that Hebrews talks to us about. In spite of all this person knows, all the person can teach on the subject of “God,” this person will never know God in a true sense.
This is a hard step to take for many people, this step between knowing and believing. Any number of good people do desperately want to give themselves completely to God. What keeps them from taking that further step, is a lack of faith. Either a deficiency, or a complete lack of it. Mark’s Gospel explains it with a parable in Chapter 4, verses 16 to 17, in the parable of the sower sowing the word of God: “And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.”
How pleasing would it be to God if we joyfully accepted his existence, but then turned away from living our lives for him the first time it became too much trouble? Became too complicated? Too embarrassing? Not pleasing at all, in spite of our initial joy. Instead, what pleases God are those who accept God like seed sown on good soil, as Mark’s gospel goes on to say, “the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit.”
There are other passages in the Bible that give us this same responsibility, to live our life with faith and be pleasing to God. In Psalms 147:11 we read “the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” The Letter to the Romans says in Chapter four, verse thirteen: “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith,” and, in chapter five verse one, says: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
We have peace with God when we justify ourselves to him by our faith. After all, the promise God made to all mankind is given and accepted through the righteousness of faith, not through complicated legal doctrines and hard logic. The Lord, as the Bible says, takes pleasure in those of us who fear him, not in those who fear taking the leap of faith to accept him.
Of course, the second chapter of James has a very simple truth to add. Faith all alone and by itself, without actions, amounts to nothing. “Faith apart from works is dead.” This is very true. We can’t be secure in our faith without acting on it, without living our lives and being involved in the world in a way that exercises our faith. If we accept God whole heartedly, but then shut ourselves away in our house until we die, we won’t please God either. Our faith becomes at that point just like a present kept selfishly hidden away in a locked box.
Our faith is what pleases God. But it pleases Him when it bears fruit, going back to the parable in Mark’s Gospel of the seed falling on either rocky ground or good soil. Our strong faith should be accompanied by strong deeds.
Hebrews gives us many examples of this by explaining why our faith is so vital to pleasing God. Noah, warned by God of the impending flood, acted with faith instead of fear. In spite of everything his family and neighbors said, the nay-saying and finger-pointing, Noah believed God’s word and built the ark, saving himself, his family, and animals that were used to repopulate once the flood waters receded. Abraham is another example in Hebrews. Tested by God with the only son Abraham had, he had faith that God knew best and was rewarded for it. And Moses, sent by God to challenge the Pharaoh himself and win the freedom of the Israelites, acted on faith against overwhelming odds.
These are all extraordinary persons of the Bible doing extraordinary things, of course. Could any of us hope to achieve what they did? Absolutely. So long as we hold onto our faith and act on it. Not everyone is called by God to do something quite as momentous as removing a group of people out of slavery and into the promised land. But we are all called, and called to act upon the faith that is a necessary foundation in our lives. We will be unable to respond to that call without our faith to support us. Without faith, we risk fear ruling our life. Without faith, our knowledge of God can not take proper root. Without faith, we are unable to please God.
(All quotes are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)