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Pastor Robin Fish
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

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Mon, Sep 1, 2008 

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen."  That is what the author of Hebrews said, by inspiration, in chapter 11, verse 1.  There are probably few things as misunderstood as what the Bible refers to as "faith".  The problem is more than just a difficult or incorrect definition.  It is that we all want it to be something that it is not.  Charlatans take advantage of an unclear concept of faith which is popular among the poorly-catechized among us.  Then, we have the problem of wishful thinking.  You know the story, someone wants to believe something, and so they do, and in the realm of religion, no one can teach someone who doesn't want to learn.

If you are sick, you generally will go to the doctor.  He or she is trained, and knows stuff, and one would be silly to ignore the guidance of a good doctor in matters related to their health.  There are those who read the "your doctors are lying to you and trying to poison you for fun and profit" sorts of magazines, and believe every word they say, but generally if you want to know something medical, you consult a trained professional - or the hippie at the health-food store.  If someone has a legal problem, they will most generally ask a lawyer.  That is because the lawyer spends years and years studying and preparing to wrestle with the intricacies of the law.  You have heard the old saw, "The man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client."

But if you have a question about theology, anyone's guess is as good as another.  You don't need an expert.  At least that appears to be the popular position.  The pastor who has trained for years to be able to unravel the confusion of doctrines which the world will happily spin for you is just another Joe.  His opinions are not likely to be any better than your Uncle Edgar's, or your own, or the "psychic spiritual advisor" who writes for the tacky tabloid publication you can buy at the grocery counter.  Unfortunately, that judgment is true of many who call themselves "pastor".  But the attitude that religion is of a nature that whatever one thinks is perfectly adequate, is a pathway to confusion, error, and destruction.  Jesus described it as the "broad and easy way which leads to destruction, and many are those upon it."

Contrary to popular belief, faith is not simply wishful thinking, nor is it adherence to propositions of low probability.  Faith is something with substance to it.  It is grounded in knowing things, and it is shaped by a lively trust.  Blind faith, as it is called, is not really faith.  It is wishful thinking, or it is willful credulity, or it is desperation trying to wear a positive mask.  In order to be what the Bible calls faith, there must be a reason to believe something specific.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for.  Those words tell us plainly that there is substance to faith, not just a vacant will to believe something.  The Christian faith is filled with the promises of God and the truths which God has revealed to us in Scripture.  The "what" of faith is filled with God's Word.  The reason to believe it is that God, who cannot lie, has spoken, revealed, or promised the stuff that we believe.  When we believe, it is not blind, but focused on the specific things that God has said, and the promises that He has spoken.  Those promises are the things hoped for.

Again, it is important, when reading this verse, to remember that in the New Testament, "hope" is not that wishful thinking sort of thing that we intend when we commonly use the word in everyday conversations.  You know what I mean, "I hope the weather is nice for the picnic on Saturday."  When we use the word in normal conversations, we generally intend to express a wish or a desire, but have no real power to determine the things about which we "hope".  In the New Testament, the hope is a reality, a certain thing, and something we possess, but of which do not experience the fullness at the present time.  The hope of eternal life is a good example of this principle.

The New Testament speaks of "the hope of eternal life".  Scripture teaches us that we are born again to a new and eternal life in and through our Baptism.  We therefore possess eternal life, but our experience is aging, sickness, and death of the body.  We also possess the resurrection from the grave, in connection with Jesus Christ, but we don't experience it.  We experience funerals, and the dead we bury seem to stay buried.  The world looks at that and contradicts what the Bible says and takes the witness of their senses as authoritative in the place of the Word of God.  Faith takes God at His Word, and so we understand that the possession of eternal life is not something we fully experience now, and resurrection is ours, but is not yet for our bodies.

Our spirit is that part which died and rose to new and eternal life in Baptism.  The whole person will, on the day of the resurrection of all flesh, experience the fulness of the reality of eternal life and resurrection.  We possess it now, but that experience lies in the future, and so we "hope" concerning it.  Faith lays hold of the promises and teachings of God in His Word, and trusts Him that it is all just as He said.  Faith takes the Word of God as authoritative, and understands that the witness of our senses is misleading in these matters because our senses can only deal with the moment, and not with promises or with the future.

Knowing the truth of God, our faith is the evidence of those things not seen - which is to say, our faith takes those unseen things as real, and the promises of God as authoritative, and dismisses the testimony of the senses as inadequate and incomplete.  Faith is worked by the Holy Spirit within us, not the creation of our own wills, so the presence of faith itself is evidence as well.  It isn't the sort of evidence that would be admissible in an American court, but it is evidence, of the work of God in us and of the reality of the things about which faith has gathered.

A friend recently spoke about wrestling with faith and the sense of being alone.  I understood the comments to be describing the lack of 'feeling' the presence of God when praying, and having that dryness of spirit that tempts us to believe that when we are praying that no one is 'out there' listening.  When people are wrestling with troubles, sorrows, or unfulfilled desires in their lives (big desires, not the little, daily, niggling ones), they often hunger for a feeling - for that sense that God is listening.  They look around them at people who seem to have strong faith, and they interpret what they are seeing as someone who has what they are lacking, the inner experience of faith.  That is a faulty interpretation, and a sweet and subtle temptation provided by the Father of Lies.

Almost every Christian can relate to my friend's sense of being alone.  It is the common lot of the believer.  That is why we call faith "faith".  It is about things not seen.  The reference in Hebrews 11 to "seeing" actually covers all of the senses.  It includes the things not felt, as well.  The secret that the world around us does not understand, and would like us to be confused about as well, is that in some ways, being a Christian gives us no advantage over the unbelieving world around us.  People filled with faith must often endure the same pains and temptations to despair as anyone else.  Life is real, often brutally real, for Christians.  Jesus actually tells us that it will be worse in some regards as His children because the world will hate us for His sake, and persecute us because we are His.

When believers confront these temptations to fear and despair, they turn to God, and hope in Him, trusting the promises and taking God at His Word that He will help, that He will provide a way of escape, that we may endure, and that when it is all said and done, we will discover in His arms that is was all well-worth the trouble, pain, and angst.  While they trust God, however, they may experience the sensation that none of what God promises seems to be real or true.  I suspect that this fact will surprise most people.  It surprises everyone who goes through such experiences in their inner wrestling with feelings and such, at least the first time they pass through that dry spiritual valley.  It is surprising for many people because they just naturally hold to a theology of glory which says that if I am God's, then I should triumphant, I should feel all spiritual and 'blessed', and I should be as confident and unflappable as the person I observe who appears to have such a solid faith.

Truth be told, faith does not feel good.  The Theology of Glory is the devil's work.  Jesus tells us, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me."  Following Jesus is not promised to feel good.  The cross was an instrument of pain, torture, and death, not an amusement park ride or a long-sought-after reward for good behavior.  Faith involves the cross, first, then glory, hereafter.

This doesn't mean that faith is painful, either.  The reality of the situation is that faith doesn't "feel" at all!  To the best of my knowledge, there are no nerve endings in the soul.  Faith is not about feeling this way or that.  Faith knows.  Faith trusts.  Faith hopes.  But faith does not feel.  People with faith do feel, but what they are feeling is about faith, not faith itself.  They consider what they believe, and whom they believe, and they have an emotional response.

Feelings are a neutral thing.  They can be either good or bad.  When your feelings are good, it makes sense to enjoy them.  It is unwise to learn to depend on those feelings though.  Feelings are fickle, and they can change from pleasant and desirable feelings to fear, sorrow, or frustration bordering on despair in a heartbeat.  Precisely at the moment that you need faith the most, your feelings will fail you.  I have been with people as they faced death, and almost none of them appear to be having a good time.  The diagnosis of a fatal condition does not bring cheer to mind, and if you manage to keep your spirits up for the moment, the coming days and weeks lie in wait to sabotage your good spirits.  The devil will be there to tempt you with frustration and uncertainty and pain, many times.  If your faith rests on good feelings, your feelings will betray you at the crucial moments of your life.

Think about your life.  The situations in which you need those positive feelings most are the situations which call forth fear and a sense of hopelessness.  If your life is like most, you generally come out on the other end of those situations and find that the fears were groundless (not based in current realities) and the hopelessness was silly because you came through just fine.  You survived.  But at the moment you needed them most, the feelings betrayed you and made things worse, not better.

Faith properly looks at God's Word, not the situation in which it finds itself.  Such a faith - the Biblical sort - will never betray you.  It will remain steady because it focuses outside of you on God and His promises, and not on how things seem right now.  In the situations where faith is vitally important, it comforts, not because it feels something, but because it reminds you of the promises of God.  It is the evidence of things not seen, like the angels of God hovering around you, keeping watch, holding you safe.  Faith reminds you that if the worst thing happens, you will be in the presence of God and of joy forever!  Not a bad outcome from a terrible situation.

The man or woman of faith must deal with life, in all of its unpredictability and frustration and pain.  I think God does that so that we can show the world around us that He is real, and that faith has an application to the lives they must live.  Faith comforts our fears.  It gives us courage in the midst of weakness.  It tells us that we are not alone, not even when we feel so very alone.  It puts the lie to the story our senses tell us, and tells us that our Heavenly Father, who loves us so deeply, is with us, totally aware and totally involved, and working all things together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purposes.

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen."

Yours in the Lord,

Pastor Fish

These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.

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