Monotony often becomes the proving ground for faith.
Bruce Olson was a nineteen year old missionary who took off from Minnesota with the intention of contacting a stone age Amazon tribe. He wrote a book about the experience called Bruchko, which has since become a contemporary classic.
The anecdotes he shared were priceless. In one of them, Olson was sleeping on the Jungle floor, when he had a dream about a butterfly tickling his throat. When he awoke, he realized it wasn’t something on his throat, but in it. He had gone for so long without food, a parasitic intestinal worm had come up his esophagus looking for nourishment. After that experience, he said, he made sure to eat frequently, not only to keep himself alive, but to satisfy the local parasites.
Eventually after a terrifying and painful introduction to the tribe, he began bringing the natives to Christ, one by one, until the gospel became a known quantity there. Later, Columbian guerilla fighters captured and tortured him for months. He eventually led a number of them to Christ and they apologized to him, and let him go.
The typical person sees this kind of story, and reacts with “Wow, I could never do that. I don’t have that much faith!” When we think about works of faith, we associate them with great acts, heroic moments, painful ordeals, and adventures. But faith is often demanded during the ordinary grind, just as much, if not more, than in cases of the extraordinary. The mundane, the rote, has a peculiar power to wear us down, and Christians often do not respond to it well. Some of us without knowing it, have reserved our faith for adrenaline-soaked situations. We might be willing to cross a rope bridge in Peru, but not so much for raising kids, and managing a commonplace daily life.
If we truly want to develop our faith, we must learn to accept, even to embrace, the ordinary.
When we come to a chapter like Hebrews 11, it seems every verse is packed with people who are scoring one-two punches. We’re going to look at a few of these folks, and consider their actual lives–specifically, the long stretches of ordinary time surrounding their works.
11:5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
It’s easy to appreciate Enoch’s rapture, and the miraculous fact that he went up bodily into heaven without dying. What we don’t talk about much is the fact that the man walked with God for 365 years prior to that moment. Verse six hints that he was drawing near to God over those three centuries. The only thing motivating him was his belief that seeking God was worth his time. There was something going on invisibly within him, but nothing visible around him.
7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
Again, we focus on the ark and the flood, but Noah had been warned concerning “events unseen.” That meant for 120 years, every day was one long continuum of the same visible world. As the construction work consumed his days and nights, it’s not unlikely that someone in his family asked him from time to time, “Are you sure about this?”
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
This faith involved going out of one land, coming into another, and then staying there. Abraham looked forward to a city, the fabulous New Jerusalem. He was a man in the book of Genesis looking forward to something in the book of Revelation. Nothing on that schedule was going to happen fast. His heart was set on future glory, but in the meantime, his every moment consisted of living in a tent.
11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
We all know the story of Sarah, and how God made good on his promise for a child. Yet we have a tendency to collapse time together, to jump from mountaintop to mountaintop, from promise to fulfillment, without feeling the drag of many unfruitful years. Imagine if you can, what was going on between those high points. Sarah first heard the promise of a child when she was 76 years old. Conception, not to mention childbirth, was highly improbable, and every year that went by made it even less likely. And so, Sarah was especially sensitive to time passage. She finally succumbed to the weight of impatience. Assuming God might need a little help, she gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham, hoping to obtain a child through surrogacy. She was mistaken. God had actually meant for her womb to bear a child with her husband. God waited another 14 years from that point, and when unliklihood had given way to absurdity, at age ninety, she got pregnant and had a baby.
20 By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.
Typically, we celebrate how these boys turned out. Esau became a great nation. Jacob became Israel. Yet when Isaac blessed them, one was a brute and the other a deceiver. For a long time, everything they did reinforced their contrary identities. Esau, acting on his impulsive passions, sold his birthright, and married four women, who made life a living hell for his mother, Rebekah. Jacob, after cheating his brother and deceiving his dad, ran off into the wilderness where he tried to wheel and deal with God, and then from there, hoped to swindle his uncle. Isaac’s lofty blessing on both these boys took a faith willing to be deferred for many years.
24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
Moses was an obvious success story, but for decades he himself didn’t feel it. At the height of his power—40 years old—he made the decision to refuse Egypt and choose God, but if he thought this noble choice would fast-track him for God’s use, he was sorely mistaken. It was not until he was eighty, that God’s commission came. As the long decades rolled by, the man must have wondered from time to time if maybe he’d made the wrong choice. Second guesses must have intensified as he lived the day-in-day-out grind of having less, and getting older.
In all these cases, and more, faith had to endure long droughts to reach its moment of vindication. Faith conquered, enforced, obtained, and stopped (v. 33), faith quenched, escaped, grew strong, became mighty (v. 34). Faith even received back (v. 35). But in some cases, faith was “tortured, refusing to accept release,” (v. 35), and “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment” (v. 36). Faith was killed (v. 37), became destitute, afflicted, and mistreated (vv. 37-38).
Most shocking of all perhaps, some Old Testament faith “did not receive” (v. 39), but as explained in the next verse, “God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (v. 40).
Faith must sometimes wait, but it never waits in vain. It must continue to thrive in the midst of the ordinary, though that is an especially hazardous season for us.
In fact, beware the allure of many things promising to spice up your life. The unfortunate tagline of one company reads, “Life is short. Have an affair.” This business actually provides a service for people who are bored with their marriages. It’s a vending machine for adultery. Recently the company database was breached, and its private information was leaked out into public view. Once the dragnet was pulled, all kinds of people were caught in it—yes, a number of them Christians. And one was even a seminary president. Thankfully, it was confirmed that though he had signed up, he never followed through with any illicit activity. Yet still, he was asked why he even initiated the process.
He began by saying, “I was at a place in life…” When I read those words, I immediately felt where he was coming from. As a Christian, any sin I have ever committed that burned me deeply, happened while I was “at a place in life…” Usually that place is one of boredom, or uncertainty, or flatness. It has neither crisis nor celebration, only a wide, unremarkable Kansas plain where sameness rules.
What should we do when our days blur into one another, when the problems of this week are almost indistinguishable from those of the last? Hebrews itself answers, in 12:2.
“Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We are to lock our gaze onto the One who has founded our faith, and is committed to finishing it. I know this sounds a bit like a preacher’s answer, but it’s really not. There aren’t any alternatives, at least none legitimate. If we want to arrive at faith’s perfection, it will take deeper considerations of Christ crucified, and Christ resurrected, like the roots of a tree penetrating ever more deeply into soil during times of drought.
The same awesome Son who presides over foreign missions, raises up great ministries, and builds the church into an unstoppable reality, also abides in the humdrum moments of bills, chores, and middle school athletic events.