The definition of faith as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1 KJV), has always felt to me like an algebraic equation. You just plug in faith as the unknown ‘x’ and the math leads to saintly people doing dangerous things. So you read on in the chapter and you find that by faith: Noah builds a really big boat, Abraham leaves Ur and sacrifices his son, Moses leaves the palace and splits the Red Sea, and Rahab the prostitute commits high treason. All this seems a bit mysterious until you circle back to the word hope. Hope, not faith, defines the passage.
I write fiction, from time to time. Call me Ishmael, but the greatest challenge to writing a best-selling novel is not making up the words. It’s developing realistic characters. And, what makes characters believable and interesting is their hopes and dreams. The author of Hebrews understands this. He or she, begins with the most basic hope we all have. In verse 3, we read that by faith we know that the world is not a meaningless collection of random events. Our lives have purpose. The creator of all that is, did it with a plan. God set us into this particular time and place, did so knowing that by faith we would come to glimpse his plan and find hope for our lives.
Hebrews goes on to tell us of Cain who hopes that his worship will be pleasing to God and Enoch who hoped to guide each day’s activities by his moral compass, so that, his life was pleasing to God. Noah hoped for a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by the beautiful creatures that God had made. Abraham, it turns out, was not a very good Zionist. He didn’t hope for an earthly land called Israel for his people. Instead he hoped for an eternal homeland and a spiritual relationship with his God that was manifested by justice in this world.
In Hebrews 11’s great catalogue of the faithful, the author is trying to teach us that the power and quality of ones faith is directly proportional to the value of the thing one hopes for. If Abraham had hoped for an earthly home, his faith would have been greatly diminished. He might have achieved his goal, but at what cost? We are often invited to write for ourselves “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely) goals. Faith, it seems, flows in the opposite direction. If what we hope for is obtainable, then its not a matter of faith.
How can we hope for more noble things? When you read the examples given in Hebrews 11 carefully, you find many surprises. What people discern for their lives after heartfelt prayer is often counterintuitive. The chapter also displays a rich diversity. Each faithful person hopes for something different. That is why so many great novels have been written. Because there is a seemingly endless variety of things for people to live their lives hoping for, the human story is always interesting. Life imitates art. Beauty comes from hoping for the right thing.