By Faith, Not By Sight
It was electrifying news: Jesus Christ had risen from the dead! Just as he had said he would. "We have seen the Lord!" some of the disciples excitedly affirmed. The disciple named Thomas, however, could not bring himself to believe it. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side," he exclaimed, "I will not believe it" (John 20:25).
Some days later, Thomas’ doubt evaporated when he had the opportunity to see in person the resurrected Christ and to examine his wounds. "Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’" (verse 29).
"Those who have not seen and yet have believed"—that describes most of God’s people past and present. We have been called to worship the invisible God. When we pray, we don’t see or hear God. Our faith does not rest on physically detectable signs or manifestations. Our beliefs sometimes go contrary to what logic and the physical senses indicate. Faith is "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1).
"So we fix our eyes," Paul wrote, "not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.... We live by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 4:18; 5:7).
As we walk through this life, we trust in our great, caring Shepherd to lead us safely. At times the path may wind through green pastures and beside still waters. At other times it may traverse the valley of the shadow of death. At all times, though, God is with his people today as he was with the saints of old.
Those men and women of God "were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.... Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:13, 16).
No human knows exactly what the future has in store. But Christians have the advantage of knowing that the steps they take in faith lead to a definite and positive goal—God’s promise of immortality. Peter referred to this comforting truth when he wrote, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:8-9).
The Christian life was illustrated long ago by what the ancient Israelites experienced. As the Israelites trekked through the rugged wilderness to reach their inheritance in the Promised Land, so Christians journey through this life, with all its obstacles, on the way to their eternal inheritance in the future fullness of the kingdom of God.
|We can believe God when he says he will help us, encourage us, make things work out for the good.|
It’s a journey of faith. The Israelites, for the most part, showed how not to make the journey. They lacked faith. Doubt and disobedience kept an entire generation of them from their inheritance — "they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief" (Hebrews 3:19). They perished in the wilderness. The warning to Christians is obvious: Faith is essential to inherit salvation (Hebrews 4:1-3). A converted person must "through faith and patience inherit what has been promised" (Hebrews 6:12).
One of the Israelites’ biggest mistakes was their lack of spiritual vision. At one point they were poised on the border of the land they were to inherit, awaiting the return of 12 scouts who had been sent to get an idea of what the land was like. The scouts returned and in glowing terms certified that the land was indeed rich and fertile as God had promised (Numbers 13:23-27). "But…," they added, and then began to list all the obstacles they had seen (verse 28).
They had seen strongly fortified cities, and strong warriors of great and fearsome stature. For 10 of the 12 scouts, there was only one logical answer: retreat! "And they spread among the Israelites a bad report" (verse 32).
The people of Israel chose to believe the bad report. They trusted in what they could see, what they had heard from the spies. Faith disappeared. Morale collapsed. Disaster followed. The scouts who brought the bad report reasoned wrongly. They should have said, "Our eyes may see many terrifying obstacles to inheriting the land, nevertheless we believe God’s promises. Our God is bigger than all of them put together."
Many centuries later, Simon Peter also had to choose between what seemed obvious to him and what God said. Jesus, standing in Simon’s fishing boat, directed that the nets be let down for a catch of fish. Simon balked. He and other professional fishermen had just spent hours toiling in a fruitless attempt to catch something.
"Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything’" (Luke 5:5). Simon stated the facts. But then he added, "‘But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break" (verses 5-6).
The physical evidence may proclaim impossibility. All our eyes can see may threaten defeat. Nevertheless, we can believe God when he says he will help us, encourage us, and make things work out for the good.
Being spiritually minded
A classic example of faith versus sight is Peter’s attempt to walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee. One night Peter and some companions were in a boat being battered by a storm. They were in grave danger of sinking when, suddenly, they saw Jesus walking toward them amidst the surging waves, telling them not to be afraid.
"‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ ‘Come,’ he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. [So far, so good!] But when he saw the wind [faith now gives way to sight], he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’" (Matthew 14:28-31).
One of the greatest hindrances to faith is that the world around us, like the raging waters swirling about Peter, seems so real. We, made from the dust of the ground, are naturally in tune with the physical. We feel pain when we are sick. We hear harassment or threats from neighbors and relatives. When we lose a job, we see the cold reality of a termination notice and the accumulation of bills. Family problems are real. Medical reports are real. So are the temptations and weaknesses of the flesh.
Whatever the situation is, we can look around and see, hear, taste, smell and feel material reality. Knowledge of it comes to us through our senses. But there is another vital dimension: faith. Faith sometimes operates in conjunction with our physical senses, making spiritual truths real to us.
Once a massive army was sent to capture the prophet Elisha and his young servant. The situation did not look good. Elisha’s servant could see that the number of enemy soldiers was immense. He saw they were well-armed. He saw they surrounded the city. He saw there was no escape route. He was overcome with fear. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" he asked (2 Kings 6:15).
Elisha, to whom God was very real, answered, "Don’t be afraid…. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them" (verse 16). The servant must have wondered, What does he mean by that? Can’t Elisha count? There are two of us and multitudes of them!
"And Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha" (verse 17). The servant now saw with his eyes what he should have seen by faith: The power that sustains and protects the righteous by far exceeds all opposing forces.
If our minds are mostly on the world and material things, exercising the spiritual element of faith is extremely difficult. We easily begin to sink in the waters of doubt as Peter did. Or we worry and fret as Elisha’s servant did.
On the other hand, getting one’s mind off the physical and onto the spiritual is one of the greatest keys to strengthening faith. We can fill our minds with spiritual understanding by studying God’s Word and allowing God’s Spirit to work in us. Also, through God-centered prayer, our minds will be more focused on the reality of God’s presence in our lives.
Daniel and his three friends
God was real to the prophet Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Daniel was known to pray to God every day. One day, Daniel’s enemies tricked King Darius into signing a decree that outlawed making petitions to anyone but to the king himself. Anyone found breaking this law was to be thrown into a den of hungry lions.
Here was a test for Daniel. The new decree made it unlawful for him to pray to God. Should he now forsake prayer? Daniel determined to do what was right, and in faith leave the outcome to God. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published...he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before" (Daniel 6:10).
His enemies caught him praying, reported him and had him thrown into the lions’ den. There he was, face to face with ravenous beasts closing in for the kill. Had he made a mistake by trusting in God? No, the Lord "sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions.... And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God" (verses 22-23).
Daniel’s three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, had trusted God in a similar situation. King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that everyone worship a golden image he had made. Those who would not comply were to be thrown into a fiery furnace (Daniel 3:4-6).
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to worship the king’s golden image. The king was furious. He decreed that the furnace be heated seven times hotter than usual. Even as Daniel’s three friends fell into the blazing inferno, their faith remained steadfast. They would not compromise with God’s law even though they could see no escaping from the fire. They knew God could deliver them at any time. And they knew that even if he chose not to do so, their ultimate fate was still in his hands.
Imagine the astonishment of those who braved blasts of heat to peer into the furnace. There, walking about in the flames, they saw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, accompanied by a fourth individual, who appeared to be a divine being! When the king ordered the three to come out of the furnace, he and his attendants "saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. Then Nebuchadnezzar said, ‘Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him’" (verses 27-28).
The Bible contains many accounts of individuals who believed God and his promises. They said, in effect: "I see what the circumstances are. I see the hardship. I see the trial, the danger, the suffering. Nevertheless, I believe God and his Word. I will walk by faith, not by sight."
We should review those accounts often (see Romans 10:17) so we get used to thinking of God as the living God who is faithful to what he has promised. To those who have faith, God has promised that they will not be tested with more than they can handle (1 Corinthians 10:13). All things will eventually work out for good (Romans 8:28). Exactly how and when is up to God to decide. After all, the principal goal of faith is not that we be free of every problem and difficulty in this life. The main goal of faith is salvation (1 Peter 1:9) and receiving a crown of life (James 1:12).
When God allows our faith to be tried and tested, when our eyes can focus on no visible solution to our distress, we must not despair. That’s precisely the time to continue believing and patiently waiting in faith for God to lead. He knows what is best. We must learn to trust him in faith.