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What is Faith? (Part 1)
I come from a family of lawyers. I studied law at university and practised as a barrister for a number of years. My sister is a barrister. My son qualified as a barrister. My daughter is qualifying as a barrister. My father was a barrister. My mother was a barrister. My grandfathers on both sides were barristers. My uncle was a barrister. If we had a cat it would be a barrister!
As a barrister, I was involved in many criminal trials where the jury was told by the judge that they had to reach a verdict. They could not find the defendant guilty unless they were ‘satisfied so that they felt sure’. Every such verdict was an act of faith. They were not there at the time the crime was committed. They had to believe the evidence.
Faith and being sure are not opposed. The writer of Hebrews says, ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). St Augustine wrote, ‘God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.’
Faith is a rich and varied concept. In today’s passages we see aspects of the rich nature of faith.
1. Faith is the way to true satisfactionProverbs 27:15-22
‘I can’t get no satisfaction ’cause I try and I try and I try and I ... ’. The song of The Rolling Stones released in 1965, sung by Mick Jagger, echoes the cry of the human heart. Human eyes are ‘never satisfied’ (v.20). Where is satisfaction to be found?
This passage of Proverbs, typical of the book, contains a wealth of practical wisdom. It warns against being quarrelsome (vv.15–16). It points out how friendship can improve our effectiveness, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend’ (v.17, NLT).
He goes on ‘Those who tend a fig-tree will eat its fruit, and those who look after their masters will be honoured’ (v.18). Faith means serving the Lord – looking after our master.
The writer goes on, ‘Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are human eyes’ (v.20) or as The Message puts it ‘Hell has a voracious appetite, and lust just never quits’ (v.20, MSG). True satisfaction comes by faith in Jesus, who said, ‘I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10).
The writer then makes an interesting point about the importance of how we deal with compliments: ‘The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but people are tested by the praise they receive’ (v.21).
When John Wimber received praise he would say ‘I’ll take the encouragement but I’ll pass the glory on.’ The person of faith recognises that God is always the primary cause of any success we have. He created us, and gave us all the gifts and opportunities that come our way.
Lord, thank you that faith is the way to true satisfaction. Help us to live lives of faith, looking to you as our Lord, giving you all the glory and serving you each day.
2. Faith is trust in GodHebrews 11:1-16
‘The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd’ (vv.1–2, MSG).
The writer of Hebrews goes on to speak about the many aspects of faith.
- Faith leads to understanding
‘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’ (v.3). As Augustine of Hippo pointed out, ‘faith is the first step to understanding; understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.’
- Faith pleases God
Enoch pleased God. As a result he ‘skipped death completely’ (v.5, MSG). The writer goes on to explain ‘It’s impossible to please God apart from faith. And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe both that he exists and that he cares enough to respond to those who seek him’ (v.6, MSG).
- Faith leads to intimacy with God
‘By faith, Noah built a ship in the middle of dry land. He was warned about something he couldn’t see, and acted on what he was told ... As a result, Noah became intimate with God’ (v.7, MSG).
- Faith means saying ‘Yes’ to God
‘By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going’ (v.8, MSG). True faith commits us to obedience.
Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans – at the height of its prosperity (2006–1950 BC). He heard God’s call and ‘obeyed and went’ (v.8). He did not ‘know where he was going’ (v.8). But he knew with whom he was going. His faith brought blessing to him, his family, his nation and to us.
He trusted God even when the evidence pointed in the opposite direction. Abraham had one great disappointment in his life. His family went back a long way (see Genesis 11). He had a beautiful wife but she was unable to have children. The book of Hebrews puts it bluntly describing Abraham (and therefore his family line) as ‘as good as dead’ (Hebrews 11:12).
Abraham believed God (see Romans 4). It was not that he never had any doubts. In fact, he got fed up with waiting and had an affair with his maid. Thankfully, God does not judge us on the basis of our lapses. He saw their settled attitude of faith (Romans 4:3,18).
- Faith sees beyond this life
Abraham took a long-term view. We live in an ‘instant’ culture. Everything is about instant satisfaction. Abraham was in it for the long haul. He was ‘a stranger in a foreign country’ (v.9). He lived in tents. He lived a temporarily unsettled existence. He was semi-nomadic like the Bedouin of today. Yet he knew where God had called him.
He did not look back to what he had left behind through his step of faith. Rather, he looked forward: ‘he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (v.10).
Earlier the writer had pointed to Abel’s faith as having a lasting impact. ‘Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead’ (v.4).
The writer concludes ‘Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing ... You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them’ (vv.13,16, MSG).
Lord, thank you for the examples of these heroes of faith. Help us to follow their example. Thank you that you do not judge us on the basis of our lapses (which in my case are many). Thank you that the important thing is not the strength of our faith, but the person in whom our faith is placed. Thank you for the righteousness that comes by faith in you (v.7). Thank you that by faith, it is possible to please you and that you will reward those who earnestly seek you (v.6).
3. Faith means staying faithfulEzekiel 22:23-23:49
What are we to do when we live in a society that turns its back on God? How do we remain faithful to God when all around us people are faithless? Do we give up and join them? Do we judge and condemn them? Or is there another way for the people of God?
The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel again. God’s concern was typical: ‘Extortion is rife, robbery is epidemic, the poor and needy are abused, outsiders are kicked around at will, with no access to justice’ (22:29, MSG).
He describes the sin of Jerusalem and Samaria as being like those of two prostitutes who become ‘more and more promiscuous’ (23:19). They are an example of what we read about in Proverbs – ‘lust just never quits’ (Proverbs 27:20, MSG). Oholah’s ‘lust was unrestrained (Ezekiel 23:7, MSG). Her sister was even worse: ‘Crazy with lust ... Their outrageous obscenities, obscenities ranging from adultery to murder’ (vv.11,36, MSG).
This is the nature of sin and addiction. Because it does not satisfy, the practices become more and more extreme. People were meant to love God and be faithful to him. Instead they have lusted after the wrong things.
The language and imagery Ezekiel uses here is unexpected and shockingly explicit. It is not the kind of thing you expect to find in the Bible! The strength of the language is deliberate though. God uses shocking and disgusting images to help the people grasp the full reality of their sin, and how much it pains him to see it.
The root of the problem is their unfaithfulness to the Lord. ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: Since you have forgotten me and thrust me behind your back, you must bear the consequences of your lewdness and prostitution’ (v.35).
Forgetting God is the opposite of faith. It leads to the terrible consequences described in this passage.
But Ezekiel remained faithful to God. He continues to proclaim God’s message. What God was looking for was someone to intercede for them – to ‘stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land’ (v.30). This is the way of faithfulness for the people of God.
Prayer really does make a difference, and intercession is one of the most important things we can do. Both as individuals and corporately we need to make intercession a high priority.
I am so grateful to the many people who have told me over the years that they pray for us regularly. I am so grateful for the people in our community who turn up faithfully at 7am on a Tuesday morning ‘to stand in the gap’.
We are in the middle of opening up a new 24-7 prayer room at our church, and I am so delighted by the way in which this is galvanising people to pray and intercede.
Lord, may we never forget you. May we keep on remembering you all the way through the day, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, trusting in him, abiding in him, and serving him with all our hearts. Help us to live lives of faith – staying faithful to you, faithfully praying for others.
‘A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand.’
This theme seems to come up rather a lot. The verse is a reminder, just in case we are tempted!