What does the Christian life have to show for itself at the end?
Someone recently told me their whole family dropped out of church. In lieu of gathering with believers, they’ve begun hitting the nightclub circuit instead. I was sad when I heard this, but at the same time, another part of me understood. Over the years, the thought has crossed my mind that maybe I’ve been missing out on some things. This was never so vivid than on Monday mornings when friends were yucking it up over their weekend hijinks, and then inviting me to join them on their next blowout. My interior dialogue would say, What’s the harm in pursuing more fun?
On other occasions, it was the allure of an easier life that beckoned me—one that was more convenient, restful, comfortable. Don’t you owe it to yourself?
And then there was the temptation for a life I could control. You’ve probably wanted one of these too, where you’re in better command of your future, your schedule, your plans. I’m tired of the chaos!
Or maybe you’d like a life featuring more tokens of your success, things with which you can compete with others (in a good-natured way, of course). Besides, I paid my dues all those years in a college dorm room, eating ramen noodles, and riding city buses.
I’ve also been especially attracted to productivity, a life where I could get more done in less time. Think of the things I could accomplish!
If you can’t imagine yourself in any of those shoes, guaranteed there’s someone in your neighborhood who can motivate you. For instance, the ripped couple who live at the gym and have kids in every sport, are putting in a new pool—not just any pool, but one that has double diving boards, and a fountain, and a little island in the middle, so you can kayak to it when you’re swimming.
All of that would look so good on you.
What I’ve just described is basically life in the ‘burbs. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having fun, and nice things, and accomplishing goals. If you can manage it without compromising your relationship with Christ, please go for it. But these disparate interests and drives converge to create an undertow that can sweep you along without your conscious agreement to it.
Back when you were young and single and broke, your faith carried you. But as you complete your transition to Suburbia, something different starts to propel you—the desires and pressures of a world tailored to your tastes. Faith used to act like a mysterious river. Though unpredictable, its flow always delivered us to eddies of blessing in between stretches of sheer terror. But now we carry that formidable force around in our pocket like a Swiss Army knife…in case something needs tweaking or fixing out in the ‘burbs.
Why do we do this? Because somewhere along the line, we began to wonder if faith—with its investment of time and attention, and yes, self-denial—is actually worth it. Maybe we’re missing out on something better.
I’d like to show you how the Bible approaches this.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 NKJV).
First, understand that when the word faith is used here, it doesn’t mean simply believing in something. One person believes in Bigfoot, and another in the Great Pumpkin. You can have “faith” in all kinds of things, but if what you believe isn’t true, all the faith in the world won’t make any difference. And if you start ignoring objective reality, saying things like “Well it’s true to me,” then beware. We call that attitude deluded. The faith in this verse refers to biblical faith, to believing Scripture, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, contents that are intrinsically true. It’s not enough to have some sort of detached faith. What you believe in must be real, because biblical faith doesn’t make false things true.
Okay, so what does faith actually do? Take a closer look at the word “substance.” It is translated from the Greek word hupostasis, which, before being a theological term, was a medical, scientific expression commonly used among the Greeks. The ancients would collect body fluids like blood or urine, and notice there would be a settling of sediment to the bottom of the container. The writer of the book of Hebrews had this idea in mind when he defined faith. Faith is the substance, the substantiating, or substantiation of divine things. It’s when the things of God gather in thick, substantial form.
You’ve seen this in your own kitchen when you pour a glass of orange juice for the kids. Maybe it sits there on the table for a while, and by the time they get to it, the glass is two-toned—dark orange at the bottom, where all the pulp has settled, and bright yellow, watery, and thin at the top. The orange has substantially gathered at the bottom of the glass.
You’ve also seen the instructions on packaging to shake well before opening. Why do manufacturers put it there? Because they assume that given time, hupostasis will occur, and thick content will settle within the container. In a similar way, faith is the unseen things of God becoming apprehendable.
So what is the thin part? That’s life in The ‘burbs. Ironically, it’s what people chase after. They may even ladle out the thin part for guzzling, but dispose of the thick. They feel the thick isn’t relevant unless it can help them get more of the thin.
That’s sad, because faith substantiates the things of God to the point that it becomes “the evidence of things unseen.” It affords a sense of reality hard to argue with. That’s why even though we can’t see Christ, we still believe in him. And even when we fall into stretches of doubt, which is typical for human beings, we still believe. And when skeptics ask us questions we can’t answer, and we ourselves have to concede that they’ve made a good point, we still believe. Even if we walk away from the faith, and though faith is no longer active, we are haunted by it. Faith has made things of God evidential to us.
Occasionally I’m in downtown Columbus for meetings around the noon hour. As a few of us walk down the street looking for a place to eat, we’re greeted with a combined aroma of pizza, chicken strips, and steak sandwiches. The fragrance is so enjoyable, it’s the next best thing to eating. Before you ever see that food and put your hands on it and taste it, your nose is already substantiating it in advance.
But someone on the same sidewalk with a stuffy nose wouldn’t share that joy. They couldn’t substantiate the food in advance. They get nothing from it. You can’t prove to them you smell it, yet you know there’s food being cooked, and to deny it would be to deny your sense of reality. Before you order that food and start to eat it, from a city block away it has already begun to be yours.
We’re currently limited to our mortal space and time, where eternal things are not fully manifested in us and around us. Through faith we can have them now, but only to a certain extent. The good news is we don’t need a ton of faith. Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed would be able to move mountains. If that’s the case, your small faith can currently substantiate unseen things. When you do this, you actually increase your possession of things God has done, is doing, and will do. It often doesn’t seem that way. We are, after all, gaining things not visible to the naked eye.
It’s much easier to notice material accumulation, and especially when it is seen in the life of someone nearby, who is pulling ahead of you in the rat race. If we’re honest, their success sometimes pressures you.
Interestingly, the Bible addresses such intimidation:
Ps. 49:16 Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
These verses virtually tell us that at the moment of death, no matter what kind of status symbols one has accumulated, nor accomplishments, nor tokens of prosperity, from that person’s standpoint, it all vanishes. Everything disappears. The visible things human beings labor to squirrel away will become invisible. And all the invisible things we Christians have been substantiating through faith will become visible.
During the time we spend substantiating unseen things, we’re actually accumulating portable wealth. For instance, anytime you commit a sin, but then repent, and confess it to God, the blood of Jesus washes your conscience. That is an accumulated experience of Christ’s redemption. When you go to work, and decide not to turn on pop music, or talk radio that makes you angry, and you decide instead to pray or to listen to your audio Bible, that is an accumulated experience of new life in the resurrection of Christ. Whenever you decide not to stew in anxiety, worrying about the future and all its possibilities, and decide instead to turn it all over to Christ, that is an accumulated experience of the ascended Christ who rules over all things.
At any rate, when we cross the bridge into eternity, these are the things we bring with us. They are the currency of the realm. “For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11).