The Nature of Faith – August 8, 2010

Proverbs 3:1-14, Hebrews 11:1-7

August 8, 2010

Today we’re looking at “The nature of faith.” And frankly, we could look at this subject from now until the end of the year, and we wouldn’t even get started! Faith is a difficult thing. It is illusive. It is fragile. And for a while there, in the modern age, it was seen as useless. However, in the post-modern age, people have begun to be more interested in things like faith and spirituality. And that’s a good thing!

As we think about the nature of faith, we’re looking at Paul’s great statement about faith in Hebrews 11. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1-2) Those words seemed to jump off of the page and me, and they’ve been growing in my mind!

So I want you to think about those words for a moment. Listen to them again. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That seems almost contradictory, doesn’t it? How can we be assured of that for which we only hope? And while you’re working that one out in your head, ask yourself the next part. How can we have conviction – that is a “strong belief” – about that which we cannot see?

Friends, that is the nature of faith!!! And it isn’t easy! And sometimes, no matter what experiences we might have had, that help us to “hope” and to “see” more clearly, we still find ourselves wanting more evidence! Do you ever feel that way? I know I do. And that’s nothing new! That’s part of the nature of faith. It can be illusive at times!

Jesus experienced that same thing with people when he was here on earth. “Show us a sign!” they said. “I’ve already shown you a sign!” he said. “How many more signs do you want before you believe?” If we’re honest with ourselves, aren’t we like that? Don’t we sometimes find ourselves thinking, “Gee, if only God would show me things more clearly.” “If only he would give me more signs.” I know I’ve thought that very thing over the years! If you think this is always easy for me, you’d be wrong!

However, before you think that faith is too difficult, I want you to consider a couple of things. First, we are people of faith – in many ways! Even those who think they are not “people of faith” are “people of faith!” We have faith, for instance, that the floor boards of this hundred and twenty something year old building will hold us up. Anybody have any doubts about that? Anybody want to move outside now? We’re people of faith!

We have faith when we go to restaurants! How do we know the sanitary conditions of that kitchen? How do we know the safety of the food we’re eating? At least now they’ve started to give us warnings. Maybe you’ve seen the little footnote on your menu. “Meats cooked ‘Rare’ carry the potential of food born illness.” In other words, “If it’s still mooing, you’re on your own!”

We are people of faith when we drive our cars! (We are people of great faith when we drive our cars!) We have to have faith in everyone around us! We also have faith that our brake lines are all sound at any given moment, when our hurtling piece of steel weighing thousands of pounds is moving toward a moment when it must be stopped or it will come into violent contact with somebody else’s hurtling piece of steel! Do you think about that when you move your foot to the left and press on that pedal? When was the last time you looked at your brake lines? How many would even know where to look for a brake line, or would know what it was if they were looking at it? You are people of faith!

There’s a bridge over the Schuylkill river in Conshohocken. It’s a new bridge. But I remember the old one! They built the new one because the old one was deteriorating so badly. In fact it used to be said that if you ever looked underneath the old bridge, you’d never drive over it! But people did all the time! They were people of faith!!

At a certain point we realize Paul is right. Faith is the assurance things unseen, but things in which we have “learned to trust.” That’s how faith is established, and that’s how it grows. We push that pedal countless times and it works every time. So we trust it will the next time we push it! So the question is, “How do we learn to trust in God that way?” How do we start that trust?

The first step is obvious. We start by taking the step (or for some, the “leap”) of faith. And we do that for many reasons. Maybe because someone we trust inspires us to. Maybe because the spirit draws us in – and we can’t even explain it! Maybe because we’re out of options. But the point is, we choose to believe first. We say, “I believe.” That doesn’t mean it’s always a strong statement, either. It doesn’t mean we believe fully. Maybe we’re like that amazingly honest man who approached Jesus and said, “I believe, Lord! Help thou my unbelief!” Isn’t that a great statement about faith?!

Tony Campolo tells about a time in his teaching career when he was guest lecturer at an Ivy League University. One day, a large number of students came to hear him speak. Afterwards there was a time for questions. And at one point, a young man stood up and asked, “How can you possibly believe all that stuff about the Bible? You seem like an intelligent person, and you seem to be well credentialed. How could anybody with your academic background possibly accept the faith of the Bible as though it were true?”

Tony’s answer was right on. (I wish I could think this fast!) He said, “Because I decided to!” He then went on to describe the search for truth in his earlier life, and how he decided to believe the faith of the Bible. No, he didn’t have all the facts at that moment. No, he didn’t know all the convincing arguments. He decided to believe. “After that,” he said, “I spent the ensuing years gathering information that would buttress my beliefs. But to be honest, I believed first. And all my philosophizing and theologizing since then has been designed to support my a priori faith commitment.”

The young man thought he had gotten Tony to admit something detrimental to faith. But Tony was quick to follow up. He said, “Now I have a question for you!” “Why don’t you believe? Please don’t tell me you’ve read the Bible from cover to cover, tested out what it has to say, and gained empirical evidence to refute it. Please don’t tell me it’s full of contradictions, because I don’t think you could name five.” “I think that what you did was to decide a while back that the Bible was not true, and having made that decision, you’ve spent your life gathering information to support you’re a priori commitment to non-belief.”

Isn’t that great? That’s the nature of faith! For whatever reason, the influence of those we love and respect, the draw of the Holy Spirit, or because we have no other options, we take a stance of belief. Not because we understand it all! Far from it! We do so simply trusting! And then we go from there gathering the evidence that helps that trust grow. We go from there opening ourselves to the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives! Then faith does become the “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But we believe first! We take a step (or leap) of faith first! That’s why the witness of our lives is so important for other people! Faith is not a formulized tract or pamphlet. It’s what Paul described as “a living letter, written on tablets of human hearts!” (II Corinthians 3:3) People don’t just need to hear the story of faith. They need to know how we trust it!

So, we believe first! But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just a matter of choosing to believe. We must also act! That’s they way we test out that belief. That’s the way we learn to trust.

There’s a classic story of Charles Blondin, the famous French tightrope walker who lived in the mid 1800’s. One day, with a huge crowd watching, he walked a tightrope over Niagara falls from the Canadian to the American side. When he reached the side the crowd went wild! “Blondin, Blondin, Blondin…” they chanted! He quieted the crowd and said, “Do you believe I can walk back across these falls?” They shouted, “Yes! Yes! We believe! We believe!” Then he said, “Do you believe I can walk back on that tightrope carrying a man on my shoulders?” Again, the crowd roared to life. “We believe! We believe! We believe!!” So Blondin quieted them again and asked, “Alright, who will be that man?” Now the silence became complete! After a while, only one man raised his hand. It was his business manager, Harry Colcord. In the end, though the crowd shouted it, only one man acted on his belief!

As I said before, we act on our belief in many things all the time! Our daily lives are one long series of actions taken on faith in our surroundings and circumstances. Why then does it seem so hard to trust in God? We need to practice that trust! Because the nature of faith is active. It is “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen.” But it becomes those things because we are constantly in the process of trusting and testing that trust. And I believe God wants us to do just that! He wants us to take the steps and leaps of faith. He wants to show us great things! But that’s hard when we don’t act.

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Let faith be for us a matter of trust! Let it be a learning and growing experience. Let us practice that trust in God. Let us pray.

Prayer.

Eternal God, you have called us to be people of faith. Help us to grow in that faith. Help us not to stand in one place but to move forward in our trust in you. Give us the power and assurance in your Holy Spirit, that we may have the courage to take the steps and leaps of faith. For these things we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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