The Elements of Faith

20160816_104627Hamlet Act III Scene 1-

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,

Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles, and by opposing end them:

To die, to sleep No more; and by a sleep, to say we end the Heart-ache,

And the thousand Natural shocks that Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

must give us pause. There’s the respect that makes Calamity of so long life:

For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time, the Oppressor’s wrong,

The proud man’s Contumely, the pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,

The insolence of Office, and the Spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his Quietus make with a bare Bodkin?

Who would Fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of.

Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all, And thus the Native hue of Resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment,

With this regard their Currents turn awry, And lose the name of Action.”

Hamlet utters the words most people who have never read Shakespeare have likely heard,

“To be or not to be, that is the question- “

In this soliloquy he is contemplating whether it’s worth it all to keep hanging in there or if it’s better to just end it all with the quick thrust of a knife. That idea isn’t foreign to the scriptures as Job’s wife essentially told him the same thing in the depths of his despair over the turn of his life.

Life can be exceedingly difficult and frustrating and sometimes it is tempting to want to cash it all in. In the movie, “The Princess Bride”, the hero Wesley tells Princess Buttercup, “Life IS pain Highness. Anyone who says different is selling something.” The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that Life is hard (existence is suffering). It seems as this is a universally recognized fact, so why not just end it all? Hamlet answers his own question by saying it is the existence of “the undiscovered country” that makes cowards of us all. The undiscovered country is death and what lies beyond “from whose bourn no traveller returns”.  While life is hard, death is even more frightening and so many people live between the proverbial frying pan or the fire. This is what leads to all kinds of attempts at muting or dulling the pain of life. Because we are afraid to die, we just try to make life more bearable with sex or drugs and alcohol or perhaps something even worse. At that point life is no longer lived, it’s just tolerated. That is the difficulty for almost everyone, as with Hamlet it seems as if life gives us two choices, suffer for no reason or in some way put an end to it all.

Christians know something however Hamlet doesn’t seem to know, the “Undiscovered Country” of death is no longer undiscovered. The basis of Christianity is that someone has returned from that country….his name is Jesus. He has provided an escape, if not from life then from the fear of death, or at least the fear that so often makes life miserable. He has said that he has come to give us “life, and that more abundantly.” Jesus not only has been to that country and returned, the Bible says he has conquered that country and has prepared a better country….or dwelling place.

The writer of Hebrews in chapter eleven tells us that by faith the ancient seekers of God sought not an undiscovered country but a better one. They believed that there was a better place whose “builder and maker was God.”

Even in searching for that “better country” however we still have to deal with the difficulties of life of which Hamlet speaks. Believing that God has something better does not make us immune to the thorns and thistles and pain that come with the curse with which we live in a fallen world. Now some may not have to deal with the ravages of overt, rebellious sin but we still have cancer, difficult relationships, and all sorts of other things that make life so frustrating. But that takes FAITH, trust that God rewards those who diligently seek Him and his promise of something better….Hebrews eleven is about this quality of faith that led the great characters in the Bible to hang in there and follow God. They were motivated to find a better country that they knew was out there because they believed in God. The writer wants us to trust that God is doing something and has done something to lead us to that better country which is not oblivion, and not the best we can make until we die, but something much better, a country built by God, and not by us. This trust is the basis of faith, not just that God exists but that we can trust him with our lives. Faith is essential to being able to hang in there without just giving up, to seek after another choice.

But what is faith? Why is faith important? Its purpose?

Ultimately what or who is the object of that faith?

There is a substance of faith- Of what faith consists

There is a purpose to faith- Why it exists

There is the object of faith- Who and what in which we have faith.

The substance of faith- What exactly is faith?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  

Hebrews 11:1–3 (ESV)

The writer of Hebrews, whom the Bible does not identify, tells us that the substance of faith is an assurance that there is something better that exists that we presently cannot see. It is the ability to understand the reality of something that hasn’t yet been fully realized or even verified. There is evidence that points to something beyond than what has been verified to know it exists and to take action on that.

The Christian author C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy then the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” The fact that there seems to be an expectation that our world should be better is an indication that perhaps there is a better world out there. This longing is evidence that produces in us a conviction that there is a better country out there that can be found “whose builder and maker is God.” But this evidence isn’t blind, it is based on things that can be verified. The Apostle Paul tells us in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Romans 1:20(ESV)

Some people would object that this kind of evidence isn’t logical but actually modern physics uses this kind of detection to find “invisible attributes” all the time to find various kinds of subatomic particles. The Large Hadron Collider ascertains the qualities of particles to small to be seen by “shooting” other particles at them and observing the results of these interactions.

The assurance of faith is that while we may not know everything about the particle, we do know enough to recognize it is there and we can learn about its properties by studying it. This is what Paul is saying about God. By observing creation around us we trust that there is more than meets the eye at the present moment and what is unknown can be discovered if it is pursued. God’s creation goes beyond just pointing to the existence of another country, it also points to it as a “better country”.

The purpose of faith- Why do we need it?

“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith 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.”  

Hebrews 11:4–6 (ESV)

The writer of Hebrews gives us an example of why faith is important in Abel, Cain and Enoch. Abel was commended as righteous because he gave “a more acceptable sacrifice”. The point that is made here was that he gave a better sacrifice because he trusted that God could provide more for him than he could create for himself. Enoch was blessed because he sought God as his reward rather than what God could give him.

As a pastor a question I’ve been asked many times and have wondered about myself is this: Why does God want us to have faith in the first place? Why doesn’t he just reveal himself so there are no questions? Certainly people would then acknowledge him wouldn’t they?

That would seem to be an excellent solution except the example of Abel and Cain’s parents demonstrates that really doesn’t solve anything. In the book of Genesis the Bible says that Adam and Eve not only saw God, but walked with him in the cool of the day.  When the tempter Satan came in the form of a serpent his challenge to Eve wasn’t that God didn’t exist but that God was holding out on her. Satan was telling Eve that the command to not to eat from the tree of the Knowledge of good and evil was given not to protect Eve, but to protect God from Eve being like Him. The issue wasn’t uncertainty of God’s existence, but of his goodness. The main purpose of faith is not to trust that God exists, but that the country he has for us is a “better country” than that we can make for ourselves.

In the New Testament the original word that we translate faith has at its heart the idea of belief that incorporates trust. In other words, faith is more than just believing that God exists, it is also a trust in God’s character and his purposes for me and everyone else. This is one of the main purposes of faith. We need to trust that God does love me and has my best interests at heart so that I will follow his directions and learn to love who and what he is. Instead of giving us Eden, we are given a desire for it so we will recognize what it is that God truly wants for us. Both Abel and Enoch realized that God was the key to life and so they wanted to please him.

J.R.R Tolkien wrote a short story about a man named Niggle who was a painter that had been given vision of a grand tree and the whole expanse beyond it. Try as he might Niggle was never able to see in his mind the whole picture, he just had glimpses of it but it captured him so much that he started to sketch it. It became so important to him that he built a shed simply to hang a giant canvas so that he might paint the entire scene. He sketched an outline of the tree and its surroundings but paid particular attention to the leaves. Unfortunately Niggle was interrupted by life and the needs of others so he never made much progress on his tree. Eventually Niggle died and was taken to his special dwelling place in heaven where he saw the entire scene of the tree and its expanse that he had been glimpses of in life. It was more magnificent than he possibly ever imagined.

This is a bit what God does for us in the hope we have for the “better country”. He gives us little glimpses of pieces of heaven. But those glimpses aren’t just for us. If we trust God with the glimpse he has given us others benefit as well. At the end of the story Niggle’s canvas is found and used as an emergency patch for a house after a storm. It was terribly damaged and was mostly useless except for a small corner that was left which had only one leaf remaining of the original work. But that one leaf was one that Niggle had spent a lot of time on and others were so entranced by its beauty that it was given a home in the local museum and many others were given a picture of the expanse that Niggle was painting. It made them long for the same beautiful area for themselves. By holding to the better country ourselves others start to see and long for it as well, instead of living in fear of the undiscovered one. As we learn to trust God it can produce a longing in others to seek out this country for themselves. That leads to the question, “why trust God?”

The Object of our Faith- In who or what do we have faith?

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

Hebrews 11:7–10 (ESV)

As we have seen, faith is simply a belief and trust in something or someone else.  Since belief is about trust, there needs to be an object worthy of that trust, and when it comes to life the only object that is worthy is God. This trust is the only thing that makes our current situation bearable, we trust what happens will ultimately lead us to something better. As Hamlet rightly points out, we are very dependent on things that are beyond our control, and that can be incredibly daunting, but there is one who can help us to navigate those things. We are given two examples of faithful people who were faced with some very difficult decisions, and yet, because they trusted in God to give direction were greatly blessed. However, they were only blessed because the one giving the direction could be trusted to lead in the right way. Noah was instructed to build a boat in circumstances that went against all logic. Abraham was told to go to a place he had never been to gain an inheritance he had never seen. But because the one giving the directions was trustworthy their lives were extended and expanded.

There has been a tremendous amount of confusion about the nature of faith. Many people believe the key is the amount of faith I have, but that will not do. I can have a tremendous amount of faith in something, but if whatever I have faith in isn’t sufficient to the task no amount of faith will be enough.  Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has said, “Strong faith in a weak object is fatally inferior to weak faith to a strong object”. What he means is that the key isn’t the amount of my faith as much as the object in which I have faith. This is an important point, faith, or trust, is only as good as that in which I have faith. Faith of its own really has no power, it simply puts us in a place to receive from that which does. In the last Star Trek movie with the original cast, interestingly subtitled, “The Undiscovered Country”, Spock tells his protege Lieutenant Valeris, “You must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.” According to Spock then, the universe has a destiny that is intended for it. But if it has a destiny then it follows that it needs to have a designer that sets the intended destiny. That is a powerful amount of trust in something or someone that isn’t mentioned since it is the intention of the designer that is key to the trust. I can want the universe to unfold “as it should” all I want, but the “should” is only as good as the one who decides what should happen as it unfolds.

Years ago, when my wife Dorinda and I were first married we were in need of a new car but had very little income. We went to a local car dealership that sold a car that had newly come to America and was very inexpensive. The salesman who showed us the car was very enthusiastic about it and demonstrated not only its features but also what he termed as its “fine craftsmanship”. Its price seemed affordable to our budget and the salesman’s in the car faith sold us on its value….unfortunately it was a Yugo. This brand has become famous as a lemon since then and our car was no exception. Almost immediately we had problems with it and eventually had to get rid of it. No amount of enthusiasm and “faith” would make it a good car because the maker of the car wasn’t committed to making it good or had the skill to do so.

This is why faith isn’t nearly as important as the God in whom we have faith. It’s seems as though this what Jesus meant when he said we could move mountains if only had faith the size of a mustard seed. Our faith isn’t the power, it’s God who supplies that power, our faith only puts us in a place where we can access His power. But it doesn’t take a lot of faith to put us in the place to access that power. Both Noah and Abraham obeyed God’s directions because they trusted him as one who was worthy of their trust. Instead of being satisfied with the world that they had made, they wanted a better designer and builder.

Another option, trusting in God and his “better country” (Nice)

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.  

Hebrews 11:13–16 (ESV)

All of us have experienced the frustrations of life. It can be so good and yet at the same time so painful, why can’t it be better?  Our society seems to be coming to the conclusion that the best option when life becomes too difficult is that we should just check out. The increasing prevalence of Euthanasia in Europe and Assisted Suicide in the States seem to confirm this hypothesis. Hamlet sees only two choices, the rest of the world seems to only see these choices, but this is a false choice

There is a better option, having faith or trusting that God does have a better solution for us,  a “better country” asi it says. As we saw above, Adam and Eve had that better country but they rejected it for a place of their own making…and that hasn’t worked especially well. God through Jesus has provided us the opportunity to return to his country, a heavenly one. Some would say, as a friend has suggested, that’s the problem with Christians, you let the world fall apart looking to the next one. I would suggest this “heavenly one” isn’t just heaven, but a country born out of heaven. We take our goals and values from the heavenly kingdom because our new country is born from there. This provides us hope, not only from a better ultimate destination, but a better current country as well. By living in faith and trusting God we no longer live only for ourselves but also in love for others, which leads to fewer of the things in which Hamlet laments. In God’s new kingdom we no longer have to fear the “whips and scorns of time” because we know we are destined for something better. But also have fewer “oppressor’s wrongs” and “proud man’s contumely” as we live according to God’s character as expressed through his son, Jesus Christ. When we live for God’s ultimate country we find a better country here as well.

Now the question has been raised, if the new country is better, why not just ditch this current country? Why bother with a country that has so many problems? That’s where faith comes in as well. God has given us a life here, we must have faith or trust in his purposes, even if it is difficult. It may very well be that part of that purpose is so that we might be “Niggles” and help others to recognize this new country.

We have seen the elements of faith, its substance, its purpose, and its object leads us to the decision for which country we are looking. Hamlet was afraid of “The Undiscovered Country” so he had painted himself into a corner of misery and frustration without hope for anything better in the future. God has a better country for us if we will trust in him, like the people of faith of old, our job is simply to seek him.

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