How does the Bible define faith? (Hebrews 11:1)

Hi friends,

We all use the word “faith” in different ways - and so does the Bible.

For instance, sometimes Christians use faith to mean:

  • Believing something without evidence
  • Believing something in spite of the evidence
  • Trusting God
  • A work of the Holy Spirit
  • A belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior
  • The opposite of works
  • The motivation for good works
  • Believing that Christianity is true
  • A word for our spiritual journey (“a life of faith”)

Perhaps the main verse that comes to mind is Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.

Sadly, it seems that this verse is often read as an aphorism disconnected from the context in which it was written.

But if we look at Hebrews 10:32-39, we see that the author acknowledges that these Christians are enduring severe persecution. Despite their difficult circumstances, he encourages them to remain confident that, in the future, God will deliver on his promises. They are to trust God to save them.

With this in mind, we see that in Hebrews 11:1, the problem is that in the present moment, the Christians are experiencing suffering rather than vindication, difficulty rather than ease. Their possessions are being stolen, yet because they trust that God will deliver them, they remain joyful.

However, in the midst of hardship, it can be hard to trust that God will come through for them. So in Hebrews 11, the author reminds these struggling Christians of all the other times that God has been reliable. From Creation, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, and throughout the Old Testament, God’s people have been destitute, afflicted, and mistreated (11:37).

Remembering their faithful trust in God can encourage us to “run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Having reviewed dozens of examples of others who suffered as they were, we get to the climax: Jesus is the ultimate example. For the sake of future joy, Jesus endured the cross. As we consider his life of faith, we are strengthened to suffer, believing that God will take care of us - either in this life or in the next.

As I look at the context of Hebrews 11:1, it’s a complex story.

On the one hand, you could say, “our suffering proves that God doesn’t love us.” So maintaining faith in God could be a way of trusting in Jesus even when all the evidence of our difficult circumstances suggests that God doesn’t care.

But in light of what the author of Hebrews is saying, I see a different picture. He is saying that from Abel to Jesus, it’s consistent: the people who have faith in God regularly suffer for their commitment to Jesus. To be persecuted is actually evidence that you are part of God’s people!

Second, God has demonstrated that he takes care of his people. And it’s not just that he met the needs of Abraham and Moses, and women who received their dead back to life again, but it’s that Jesus himself experienced the very same reality we have endured. His resurrection and ascension are public reminders that God does deliver on his promises.

So we have every reason to believe that God will fulfill his promises to us as well.

As the commentator R.T. France notes on Hebrews 11:1,

… faith is being sure that what is hoped for will in fact take place, that however discouraging present appearances may be, there is a solid reality underlying them—the reality of God’s utterly reliable promises. Faith, in other words, relies on what God has said and acts on the basis of this firm hope, even when circumstances are against it.

To put it succinctly: Faith is what motivates our faithfulness. Every Christian will endure difficulties because of their loyalty to Jesus. The question is whether we will continue to trust God, or turn away from him:

Trust in God → Experience Suffering → Faith in God and his promises → Faithfulness

Trust in God → Experience Suffering → Lack faith in God and his promises → Lack of faithfulness

How do you define faith?

And in particular, how do you understand what ‘faith’ means in Hebrews 10-12?

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Thank you for starting this discussion on faith. I think as Christians though we trust Jesus for our salvation, learning to live by faith and not by sight to the trials that life brings is a matter of discipline. It is not something we naturally grow into but something that develops as we turn to God instead of looking to ourselves, our limitations, or our hopelessness when difficulties come. If we don’t turn to God, we will never truly understand how faith works, we will miss out on knowledge of the comfort of God’s presence and His peace that surpasses understanding.

Faith is a journey that begins at salvation. When we are going through pain amidst trials, questioning how much longer, getting weary in our spiritual fervor, uncertain whether we can handle what is ahead, we can have faith that God cares for us and our feelings. We can have faith that Jesus who overcame death is with us through it all, we can have faith that earth is not our home, that the things we seek will not ultimately satisfy us as much as God’s desires for us of His righteousness in us. We need to be more worried about the permanent things in life than our temporary struggles. When we doubt whether God even cares to hear our prayers, we go to God in faith knowing He rewards those who diligently seek Him. We see closed doors as possible opportunities. It can mean remembering how God has already been faithful in the past. Its important to remember to walk by faith and not by sight as things are not always as they appear. Faith is our shield against every scheme of the enemy ( Eph 6:16).

What is noteworthy for me in Hebrews 10-12 is Heb 11:39. The saints in the Bible did not receive what was promised in their lifetime but they persevered to do their part in the eternal plan of God even in the midst of much persecution. Their hope was in the heavenly city that God has promised to the faithful ( Heb 11:16).

I too have seen Heb 10-12 being taken out of context and used as a way to support positive affirmations of what we may want to see happen. But these chapters have nothing to do with that!

I think Paul’s account in 2 Cor 6: 8-10 can help us understand the faith that is not by sight that is described in Hebrews 11:1.

2 Corinthians 6:8-10 ESV - through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

As we read these verses, we see how Paul chose to respond in faith to the trials he faced based on the promises and knowledge of God. He acted based on his identity as a child of God, with the resources and hope he had in God.

Walking in faith is easier said then done. We need others on this journey of faith. We need their prayers, their wisdom, and be uplifted by the moments that God still continues to intervene.

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