Hebrews 11 is often called the "faith" chapter… and you can readily see why; the phrase "by faith" is repeated some twenty times, and the role and necessity of faith is described repeatedly throughout the chapter. Hebrews 11 is also sometimes described as a 'hall of heroes.' It enumerates those from the past who lived exemplary lives of faith.
We read about Abel – who offered a better sacrifice than his brother, not because of the contents of the offering, but because of the faith that accompanied it. We read about Enoch – who, because of his faith, was taken up by God; bypassing the normal death experience that is common to man. We read about Noah and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Rahab. The author says that he (or she) doesn't have time to talk about a number of others such as Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets "who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground…."
I'd like to give a couple of quotes from two of my favorite theologians:
"Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of faith is to see what you believe." – St. Augustine.
"Most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes." Nightcrawler – from X-men 2
Faith is an awkward thing. Christians sometimes talk about it as if it were a quantifiable commodity – a consumable, measurable product. Some segments of Christianity are especially focused on this kind of idea – you can find a lot of them on television, talking about how with faith and with the right amount of faith you can have that new car, you can have that new house, you can be rid of that cancer, or your son will be freed of that drug addiction etc… This isn't faith… this is a magic wand; and it's not at all what is meant by "By faith" in Hebrews 11.
In the same kind of way, the lives of faith described in Hebrews 11 are difficult and awkward. In this chapter the lives of these various heroes are described – but only the positives, only the good and godly. And in our imaginations, and in our minds, and in our stories and remembering and in thinking about these men and women we can sometimes forget that in their lives they were not consistent paragons of godliness and virtue; that they stumbled and fell, and crashed and burned, and doubted –that they tried and sometimes failed…. Just like the rest of us.
A few years ago I participated in an on-line discussion about the life of Samson- one of the heroes listed in chapter 11. Some of the other participants were raving about the need for such a godly sort of man today, someone to lead the people, to take a righteous stand against such things as terrorism, liberalism, abortion, homosexuality, etc… and etc… And into this I inserted a voice of doubt. I wondered whether Samson really was such a great guy. If you go back to the book of Judges and you read his stories, really read them – not just skimming them and remembering the Sunday School lessons we absorbed as children – Samson doesn't come off well… in fact he comes off as a jerk, a womanizer, a selfish, spoiled juvenile delinquent who died in a manner suspiciously similar to today's suicide bombers.
The other participants in this discussion were horrified (and even angered) that I would suggest that Samson wasn't all that they thought he was. I was expelled from said discussion and from the group.
My complaints about Samson could be repeated for many of the other heroes described in this chapter: King David lived a murderous life – anyone who opposed or contradicted him ended up dead; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter because of a foolishly made vow; Abraham pimped out his wife on two occasions and abandoned his son Ishmael…. Etc... Etc… etc…
My point isn't so much to drag our heroes of the faith through the mud and slime and shit, but rather to perhaps lower the pedestals they've been placed on. By focusing narrowly on their glorious exploits and their holy achievements – we've come dangerously close to forgetting that these were ordinary men and women and not gods or angels. They lived lives of risk – lives of faith – and while they often achieved wonderful things for God, they also sometimes failed….
I think that it's very important to remember that they sometimes failed. By Faith they lived lives of risk and danger and turmoil… and sometimes they didn't do so well.
We sometimes treat faith like something to be found and captured and contained. I saw a bumper sticker recently asking "Got Faith?" Do you have it or not? I'm sure the driver of that particular car would say that they have faith. Me – most of the time I feel like the man who came to Jesus with his demon possessed son and said, "I believe. Help my unbelief."
I have questions. Always questions. And like the Hydra of Greek mythology, whenever one question is answered, two more rise up to take its place. I have questions. Always questions. I believe. Help my unbelief.
Questions – for me – are quests… a question is a journey; something to be explored, new terrain to be mapped out, and dark forests in which to occasionally get lost. Questions are quests –ions… rather than con-quests. And I think that this fits well with the life of faith described in Hebrews 11 which says, "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance." The heroes of chapter 11 struggled, wrestled, and suffered towards the goal of their faith. They were on a quest – "looking for a country of their own," rather than having made a conquest of their faith.
As St. Augustine said, "Faith is to believe what you cannot see; the reward of faith is to see what you believe." These heroes of the faith were rewarded – but not during their lifetimes on this earth. They were on a quest; a journey.
And here I'd like to quote another of my favorite theologians, Gonzo, who in the Muppet Movie sang an amazing song of faith, "I've never been there, but I know the way. I'm going to go back there some day." By faith, we travel towards something we know, something we can't see, something we can't always express with certainty – but always with confidence.
Faith is a challenge. Faith is a risk. Faith is never unaccompanied by its constant doppelganger-Doubt. The life of faith is not the Sunday school lesson of heroes untainted. The life of faith is an adventure, infinite possibility coupled with hazard and challenge. "Most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes." But there is more. Much much more. Infinitely more.
Our heroes of faith quested for it; went searching for it. Christians frequently call unbelievers "seekers" with the implication that believers have of course "found it." Hebrews 11 assures us that all our heroes were seekers constantly moving toward the promise of their faith, never – in this life – realizing it completely. Mike Yaconelli (founder of The Door Magazine) wrote in his book Dangerous Wonder, "The church should be full of Christians who seek questions rather than answers, mystery instead of solutions, wonder instead of explanations." We are all seekers, explorers venturing into uncharted territories.
Like our heroes, we will occasionally stumble. We will miss the mark. We will fail and fall. But all is not lost. By Faith we can stand up and start again. Singer and Songwriter Leonard Cohen's song Hallelujah expresses this "by faith" lesson well:
I did my best. It wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Another line from that song is equally encouraging, "It doesn't matter which you heard / the holy or the broken hallelujah."
Even though it all may go wrong, even if we fail and falter and stumble along the way we can "stand before the Lord of Song" and say "Hallelujah" It doesn't matter if it's a holy or a broken Hallelujah. The lives of our heroes of the faith illustrate that we'll all be there with our holy and our broken hallelujahs.
Faith is a journey. Faith is an adventure. It's sometimes dangerous. Sometimes it will be rough. We may step out and see wonderful extraordinary things in our life. We may fall short. We may fail. But by faith we can say with confidence that our reward is sure.