When the breakthrough does not happen

We all love to see a miracle story. Our eyes light up in awe and our hearts are burdened with deep gratitude when a seemingly impossible situation is turned around by the undeniable power of God. All over the world there has been a revival in faith. It’s faith in the God who performed miracles in the Bible is more than willing to help his people now. Several “crusades” and large Christian gatherings are held on the promise of a miracle. Many ministers boldly proclaim all over the world that all you need is faith and things will change for the better. However, this is not what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about the dark side of the moon. The stories that are not told. I want to talk about the times the breakthrough does not happen, the moments where the spectacular does not happen and the impossible remains impossible. How do we deal with such situations when the story does not have a happy ending? If faith is a formula that guarantees results, a law that is constantly upheld, what do we do when it clearly doesn’t?

Proponents of that view of faith usually respond in one of two ways. Either you did not apply the principles of faith properly or you should exercise patience because it will happen. I wish they were both true but the fact is there are those who do apply the “principles” correctly and see no results. There are those who wait patiently and yet the body of their loved one is taken to the casket. When we face failure, loss, pain we try and make sense of the situation. Mostly it is impossible to know why events happened in exactly the way they did. Sometimes they were very good people, faithful Christians, but tragedy still struck. In the Bible these questions are wrestled with at a very intimate level and I wish to bring a scriptural perspective to bear on this issue.

First of all, we need to reassess our understanding of faith. Our modern viewpoint tends to objectify faith and confuses it with optimism. Faith is then interpreted as the willingness to believe rather than the trusting something for what it is. In the scriptures, however, it is always understood as faithfulness, trust, loyalty, fidelity etc. It is relational in nature. That is why faith is so central to the story of God and his people. Our modern understanding of faith is often excised from the biblical narrative. If faith is relational we need to think in terms of the covenant. We need to place our understanding of faith within the story of a covenant God and his relationship with his covenant people.

This covenant relationship is precisely the context in which faith is understood in Hebrews 11. Overall it is about how God rescues his people. He talks about the patriarchs, the prophets and all the ancient people of that are involved in the story of Israel. The author lists so many examples of faith yet he begins the eleventh chapter in a very curious way with a statement of creational monotheism.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. – Hebrews 11:1-3 ESV

He is enunciating the most basic article of Christian faith, the most enduring confession of all believers, that God is the maker of all things. We were not there to witness it, in fact no eye saw it, but we have absolute confidence that the one we call “God” created everything according to his express will. These opening lines are laden with meaning and there’s so much to say about it. He begins with a statement about the identity of God because without faith in who he is, the Creator of all things, none of the exploits of faith it recounts could happen. If God did not make everything he could not act within creation on his people’s behalf. If his word was not the law of creation, the very truth, his people would not wait on his promises. Having faith means we fully acknowledge him as he is. From creational monotheism (one God made everything) we can move on to covenantal monotheism, that is, the relationship between one God and his chosen people which requires faith.

Since God made everything he is committed to what belongs to him. When God, the maker of all things, made a covenant with Abraham to prosper him and through him bless the world he believed him. In fact the language of blessing to Abraham is reminiscent of what God said to man and woman and subsequently to Noah and his wife. God as the creator is demonstrating his commitment to his creation. Abraham essentially trusted in a good God. The identity and character of God has been the basis of faith from the very beginning.

Hebrews 11 is not the only portion of scripture that recounts wonderful exploits and stories of faith. The Old Testament is littered with them, particularly in the Psalms, stories about how God is faithful to his own. One such major narrative that is often repeated is the Exodus. The Exodus is an incident that reaffirms the commitment of God to his creation. It shows the mercy and loving kindness of God to his people. The Exodus like Genesis is an origin story. The big origin story is that God made everything according to his word. The smaller story is that God formed Israel by being faithful to the word of promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Maker of the ends of the earth is also the maker of Israel.

Now the Exodus episode is “evidence of the unseen.” If there were no examples of God being God that is, showing his sovereignty over creation, then our faith would be nothing more than wishful thinking. We did not see God make all things ex nihilo but we saw him form a nation out of nothing. In the course of history we do have examples that echo our basic conviction in our creator.

Whenever we see God acting in creation it gives us confidence that he is indeed Lord and what he has said will come to pass. This is why the members of the faith hall of fame still continued believing even when the promise was not fulfilled in their lifetime. They had absolutely trust in the sovereignty of God and his faithfulness. Hebrews 11 mentions tales of miraculous rescues and also tales of trial, poverty, destitution and severe persecution. Sometimes believing resulted in your personal wellbeing. Other times it did not. Faith is about trusting in God no matter what the circumstance. It is because he has shown himself to be faithful, and he will continue to be faithful, we therefore have all the reason to continue to trust him.

Now there were times that the people of God’s faith was put to the test. In fact testing is precisely the right word for it. There were times that the promises of God had seemingly failed and the covenant was in jeopardy. The Book of Daniel addresses that situation when the people of God were in exile from the very land that God had sworn to them. They understood their expulsion from the land was due to their unfaithfulness to God. Yet they believed God was still merciful and had not forgotten his covenant. The suffering they had brought on themselves due to their disobedience was also the purifying fire that would restore them. In one of Daniel’s visions he sees the people of God being oppressed. However, through the affliction God finally vindicated them and gave them the victory over their enemies (Daniel 7.) Even though they had forsaken him, if they became faithful to him again even in their exile, he would grant them the victory. He did not reject them entirely but he did put them through intense trial and testing to reform them. He thrust them away to have them back forever.

Revelation is very similar to Daniel having the shared apocalyptic motif of the suffering people of God who will eventual gain authority and power from God over their oppressors. The theme of the patience of the faithful in Hebrews, Daniel and the rest of the Old Testament is continued in the Book of Revelation. However, there is a difference between the Old Testament and New Testament reasons for faithfulness. The Church is paralleled with Israel as an exiled people whose suffering is meant strengthen their conviction. The notable difference is that in the New Testament the people of God are not in exile because of their sins. They have been reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus yet the rest of the world is not. They are a redeemed people living in an unredeemed, or better still, a yet to be redeemed world. Therefore they have become strangers in this world. They belong to God’s kingdom but they live under the rule of monstrous tyrants. The story of Israel’s exile had been uniquely modified through the story of Jesus, the Gospel. The Christians continued to patiently believe like the saints of old because of something that had already happened. Their faith was also in how God had acted within creation in the course of history. This momentous event on which their faith hung was the resurrection.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV

This is the last verse in arguably the most important chapter of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter. Death was the ultimate affront to God’s sovereignty and goodness to his creation. The resurrection of Jesus confirms that God is indeed omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

We are strangers in this world with hostile forces surrounding us. Without the resurrection the Christian cannot handle the disappointment and failures we encounter in this world. No one expected a dead Messiah, God’s chosen leader being defeated by pagan powers. The resurrection completely redefined everything. We no longer live as if death is the end. The destiny of the human race has been changed along with all of creation. Paul said we are more than conquerors. The resurrection is the victory of victories. My body is not going to be left to decompose. God will restore it to new life. This means whatever I do in my body has lasting consequences. There is a reason to continue, to persevere. What I do in life matters because of the resurrection. My labour in the Lord is certainly not in vain.

Whether it is in Acts, 1 Corinthians, Hebrews or in Revelation, the New Testament clearly tells us that the believer will encounter struggles in life. The difference is the resurrection. Even if God does not grant us a temporal victory, even if he does not reverse the situation in the here and the now, we know God in Christ has won for us an everlasting victory. No matter the setbacks we face we can continue faithfully serving the Lord knowing that we heirs of a better resurrection. God has shown his undying love for us and in the strength of this truth we can surmount every obstacle in life whether it is grief, disease, poverty, failure or even death (Romans 8:31-39.) Our hope never dies.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV

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