This past Sunday, we continued our new series, Being Useful, by looking at the first character trait on Peter’s list that will make us more useful to Jesus. Item number one: Faith. What is faith? What does it look like to have faith? And how does growing in faith make us more useful to Jesus? Read on to find out.
Making God Happy
We were sitting in a restaurant the other day and over my shoulder a family had been seated at a pretty large table. They needed the space. The waitress came over like she would for any customer and took drink orders. Not long after, they called her back. They wanted to make some special requests. Then they called her back again. Then she came to take their food orders…and they made some special requests. Then the drinks came out. And those weren’t right. The appetizers were wrong too. So was their dinner. The manager came to the table at least once, maybe twice. It took a couple of trips by the waitress to get dessert ordered and right too. Now, this was a busy restaurant and certainly mistakes are occasionally made in the industry. But as we looked around the room, we didn’t notice anybody else getting the amount of specialized attention they were getting. Now, they were never ugly that we could tell, but the fact that just about all of their stuff wasn’t quite right began to suggest a pattern. The pattern wasn’t a restaurant that couldn’t get its stuff together. The problem was a family that was hard to please.
Have you ever been around someone who is hard to please? Is perhaps someone sitting close to you hard to please? Don’t answer that right now. Odds are, if you can’t think of someone in your life who is especially hard to please it may be because you’re that person. Just saying. Now, on the one hand, the hard to please person may justify their persnickety-ness by appealing to high standards. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. These are usually perfectionists who aren’t being hypocritical in their pickiness because they hold themselves to that same standard. I don’t know anything about that at all. But just to be safe, don’t confirm that assertion with my wife…
Being around someone who is hard to please can be a real drain, though, can’t it? It drags your spirit down. Over time, a consistent exposure to this kind of unfailingly retreating standard can leave you questioning your own worth and ability. You start to ask: Is it them or is it perhaps really me? If you are someone who’s hard to please, you need to do some serious introspection on why that is. Are you simply doing to others what was done to you by a parent or grandparent? Are you trying to vicariously make up for some perceived weakness in you by insisting that the people around you do better? Or are you just a bit of a curmudgeon who enjoys making the people around you squirm? There are more reasons than those to be sure, but it’s worth your time to clarify what’s going on inside that is working its way out like it is.
There is someone, though, who nearly all of us have felt is hard to please at one time or another. Some of us feel it more pressingly than others for a variety of reasons. Do you know who it is? God. Have you ever felt that? Sure you have. There are days when it feels like God is really hard to please, aren’t there? I mean, there are just so many laws written down in that book and all those promises of judgment for not doing them right. Jesus said that if we don’t exceed the Pharisees—a group famous for their conspicuous righteousness—in being righteous, we aren’t going to make the cut for Heaven. In fact, He said that if we aren’t perfect, we don’t make the cut. It’s hard enough pleasing a person who is a perfectionist. How on heaven or earth are we supposed to please a God who’s a perfectionist?
People respond to this tension in a number of different ways. Some turn to a rigid legalism of some kind to help keep them at least moving in the right direction. Some turn the other way, throw up their hands, and just give up. Most folks fall somewhere in between those poles. Frankly, we live most of our lives not even thinking much about it. But somewhere there in the back of our minds, we know we’re going to have to deal with this eventually. It sure would be nice to have a clear strategy for making some kind of headway on this. Isn’t there some trick that makes this a whole lot easier than it usually seems? As a matter of fact, there is.
This morning we are in the second part of our brand-new teaching series, Being Useful. For the next several weeks, we are going to be talking about how we can take our knowledge of Jesus and do something worthwhile with it; we’re talking about how we can be useful to Him. Kind of like with pleasing God, this is a tension we all face. We all have a desire to accomplish something of value, to achieve some measure of significance, to be useful. This applies to our lives generally, but it also applies to our relationship with Jesus.
Driving us on this journey is something the apostle Peter wrote in his second letter. Now, let me tell you, if there was anyone who experienced this desire to be of use to Jesus, it was Peter. Peter was constantly trying to position himself to be the first and the best of the disciples. He asked out loud the questions the other guys would only let rattle around in their heads. He was the first to answer when Jesus asked a question—whether he was right or not. He was the one who jumped out of the boat to walk on the water out to where Jesus was. He insisted that he wouldn’t abandon Jesus even if all the other guys did. He was also the one to utterly deny even knowing Him. Peter wanted to be useful. And as the Spirit continued to do work on his heart, he gradually came to understand that the path to usefulness wasn’t all this doing. It was instead a road lined with being. And in his second letter, after listing out some of these characteristics, Peter said this: “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The big idea, then, very simply, for this series of conversations we are going to have is this: If these qualities are going to make us useful to Jesus, then how can we make sure that we not only have them, but have them in this “increasing measure” Peter says we need? Each week, we are going to take a look at one of these qualities Peter lists to better understand what it is, what it means, what it looks like in our lives, and how we can be growing in it.
That brings us to this morning. The first quality on Peter’s list is faith. Faith is the foundation, the bottom line to everything else we’re going to be talking about. Everything flows from our faith. Now, if you’ve been around the church for very long, you “know” this is true, but what does it mean? Why is this the case? What is faith in the first place? Well, it’s the secret to pleasing God. Let’s talk about how and why that is and how growing in faith can make us more useful to Jesus.
In order to do this, I want to take you to a passage in the New Testament that deals with faith more directly than just about any other in all of the Scriptures. We don’t actually know who wrote these words, although there are a variety of guesses. We don’t know because unlike many of the other New Testament documents, this one is not identified by its author’s name and nowhere in the letter does the author identify himself (or herself—again, we don’t know). Instead, it is simply addressed to the Hebrews. Hebrews was a letter, yes, but it’s a letter that is also a theological treatise. In fact, with the exception of Romans, nowhere else in the New Testament do we get such a rich theological exploration of who Jesus is and what exactly He’s done for us.
Writing to a primarily Jewish-background audience, the author goes on at length comparing Jesus to Moses and showing how Jesus was the greater of the two. He describes Jesus as a high priest under the old system of the Law, but shows how He is greater than all who came before Him because of the nature of His offering to God—His own life in exchange for ours. He made the final offering for sin that God has or will ever require from people. He willingly laid down His life as a once-for-all sacrifice that would forever pay the price of the sins of humanity. Coming out of all of this in chapter 10, the author encourages us first to do two things in light of all of this: lean into Jesus and lean into each other. He then turns immediately and offers a rather unsettling warning. He talks about the danger of living in some kind of ongoing, unrepentant, deliberate sin after receiving the truth about Christ. The danger amounts to this: Because there isn’t any other sacrifice for sins that can be made, if we reject this one, we are pretty well sawing off the branch we’re sitting on. Because of the particularly costly nature of Jesus’ sacrifice, His Father takes it pretty seriously when we don’t. Playing like it is something we can take or leave depending on our current needs isn’t something God will stand for.
Well, at the end of this warning, the author reassures his audience with these words: “But we are not those who draw back and are destroyed, but those who have faith and are saved.” As encouraging as that sounds, though, it just prompts the question we have already asked this morning: What is faith? As if anticipating such a question, the author turns in chapter 11—the famous “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews—and answers it. Look at what he does here with me starting in Hebrews 11:1.
“Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” As a slogan, that sounds really good. It’s pithy. It’s a little mysterious. But at first and maybe the second and third glance, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. What’s the author getting at here? I want to make sure we all understand this well since he’s, you know, defining faith for us by the inspiration of the one in whom we are placing that faith.
The author starts by calling faith “the reality of what is hoped for.” Let’s start with that. When we hope for something, what are we doing? Hope is simply the embrace of a positive picture of the future. When you hope for something, you are buying some mental or emotional stock in a future reality that you deem better than your current reality. If you are convinced the future will not be better than the present, you do not have hope, you have dread, which is the opposite of hope. If hope is the imagining of a better future than the current reality, faith is taking that hope a step further to begin living now as if that future reality was a sure thing.
Let me illustrate that with something a bit more concrete. Let’s say I’ve been outside working really hard, and I’m ready to go in and rest. The future reality I consider to be better than my current circumstances involves my sitting in a chair to give my tired legs a break. That hope is a powerful motivator to get me moving from the yard to the door to the living room…or maybe just the kitchen table so I don’t get my outside smelliness all over the living room furniture. I am hopeful as I move in that direction, but it is faith that is in the driver’s seat. I have faith that I’m going to be able to sit down when I get there. I hope the chair is going to hold me, but it is faith that leads me to crouch in a sitting position over it and lower myself all the way to the seat. Hope is good and powerful, but by itself it doesn’t accomplish much except to get us through this day to the next. Hope allows us to survive. It is faith that brings into reality the thing we have hoped for.
The author also calls faith the “proof of what is not seen.” I can’t illustrate this one with a chair quite so easily, but let me put it like this: We can’t see the future. The palm reader in Albemarle just around the corner from the Stanly-Montgomery Association office building may disagree, but the future is permanently opaque to us. We don’t know what’s going to happen five minutes from now, let alone five years. I may not finish this message (and the people said, “Amen!”). We make predictions and assumptions based on the past, but we don’t know. We can’t see it. With faith, though, what we are doing is expressing a confidence in some imagined future—that we can’t see—that is so strong we are willing to go all in that it is in fact happening. It offers proof to those still unsure that, yes, this is what is going to happen. Living now as we will be when the final kingdom of God arrives and Heaven begins offers proof to the doubting that it is coming.
Understanding this at least a little better, look at what the author says next: “For by [faith] our ancestors won God’s approval.” That statement may seem like almost an afterthought, but it should leave your jaw sitting on the floor. Have you ever wondered what kind of provision God made for people to be right with Him before Jesus? We know about the sacrificial system laid out in the book of Leviticus, but according to this, that was merely the outworking of something that was happening on the inside. In other words, just like Paul wrote in Romans and Galatians, salvation has always come by faith. What gained God’s approval for people like Abraham and David and Elijah and Moses and others who followed in their footsteps was not anything in particular they did, but their willingness to trust so firmly in God’s promise of a future that was better than their present, that they were willing to alter their entire way of living according to what life would be like then. So, yes, they did things, but it was the trust that preceded the doing that saved them because without the trust the doing would not have happened.
Let me expand things here just a little bit for us: This trust in what God has said doesn’t just look forward. It also looks backward. This is particularly true for us. We adjust our lives in light of what happened before us as well as what’s coming after us. Specifically for us, the death and resurrection of Jesus are not things we can see. The author lists creation itself here. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” We weren’t there for that. No one was. But, we trust, we have faith, that it played out the way God says it did, and act accordingly. Our faith in action is the proof of what is not seen.
But think about this with me for just a minute: In all this trusting, what exactly is the object of our faith? We are making faith-driven choices because of our hope in something we cannot see, but is this something we cannot see the object of our faith? No, and let me explain why like this: Let’s say I tell you that tomorrow, I will give you a million dollars if you don’t say a single ugly word to another person all day today. Are you going to carefully guard your speech because of your faith in that million dollars? You may guard your speech because of your hope for that million dollars, but you’re going to closely guard your speech because of your faith in me (which in this case would be a wildly misplaced faith as I do not have said million dollars, but just go with me on this one). If you adjust your behavior in some way because someone you trust has told you something about tomorrow that will require such adjustment, you make the adjustment because you have faith in the person, not the something. The point here is that whether we are looking back to something we can’t see in the past or forward to something we can’t see in the future, while the something may provide impetus for our actions, it is the person who is the object of our faith.
Now, stay with me here for a minute longer: What does it do for you when someone places this kind of trust in you? How does it make you feel when someone considers your word to be of sufficient merit that they are willing to make adjustments to the way they do things when you give it to them? It makes you feel good, doesn’t it? You might say it pleases you. Well, God’s kind of the same way. In fact, He’s very much the same way. Well, why does it make you feel that way when someone places trust in you? It’s because in placing their faith in you, they are saying something positive about your character. They are saying you are trustworthy, that your word is good, that you are the kind of person who does what you say. Now, if you don’t deserve that kind of praise, that may be a little embarrassing, but if you do, you don’t want to be characterized as something other than you are. If you are confident in your character, few things make you more upset than when someone unfairly maligns it. If you know your word is good, being mistrusted is absolutely infuriating. Again: The same thing is true of God. When someone trusts in you by honoring your character and adjusting their lives in light of the things you say and do, that’s someone with whom you are going to be able to have a relationship.
Look at v. 4 here: “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did.” Why was his sacrifice better? We’re not told, but I’d be willing to bet that Abel offered his sacrifice trusting in God’s character in ways Cain did not. Stay in v. 4: “By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.” Abel’s example of faithfulness is still being used to encourage faith today. Next, the author points to Enoch. We really don’t know anything about Enoch except for one amazing fact, but he occupied a large place in Jewish folklore. There are whole books purporting to tell his story. They’re pretty wild, but Enoch really doesn’t need the help. What we do know for sure is wild enough by itself. Verse 5: “By faith Enoch was taken away, and so he did not experience death. He was not to be found because God took him away. For before he was taken away, he was approved as one who pleased God.”
There it is again. Enoch pleased God. In fact, he pleased God so much that God didn’t make him experience death. As Moses wrote in Genesis 5:23: “So Enoch’s life lasted 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was not there because God took him.” Can you imagine pleasing God so much that He didn’t make you face physical death? That’s a whole other level of making Him happy. I’d say we wouldn’t ever have to worry about whether He’s pleased with us or not again after that.
This just brings us back to that thing burning inside us from before: How do we please God? What was Enoch’s secret? I mean, the whole not facing death thing was probably a one-off act on God’s part, but if we could get anywhere within the same galaxy as that, we’d be pretty happy, right? How do we do it? We trust Him. Look at v. 6: “Now without faith it is impossible to please God…” Now, that puts it in the negative, but there it is. The secret to pleasing God is faith. It’s trusting Him. It’s trusting that He is who He says He is and that He can do what He says He can do. It is believing “that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” But why? Why is this the case? For the same reason you want it to be the case for you. If someone doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to be able to have any kind of a meaningful relationship with you. That’s just how relationships work and a relationship with God, grand as it may be, is still a relationship. In case all of this hasn’t made it obvious yet, here’s the point: Making God happy starts with trusting Him. Or perhaps to put that another way, being useful to God starts with trusting Him.
Here’s the thing: God’s not hard to please. He is not like those customers I saw at the restaurant. He doesn’t nitpick. He doesn’t nag. He’s not a faultfinder. In fact, He’s cheering for you to get it right. You’ve just got to know how. Thankfully, the author of Hebrews tells us right here. Making God happy starts with trusting Him. It starts with our being willing to accept who He is and hold so tightly to His character that we are willing to make sometimes significant life-adjustments in light of that. And listen: This is not just about getting into Heaven, although it is the thing that will get you there. This is simply about being in a relationship with the God who loves you so much that He sent His only Son to die in your place so that the sin keeping you from that relationship could be dealt with and the road cleared for you to draw near to Him in Christ. That, more than anything else in the world, will make Him happy. And it can begin when we trust Him. Making God happy starts with trusting Him.
That being said, the way the author put it here in v. 6 really should catch our attention. Without faith, without trusting in Him, it is impossible to please God. It’s not just really difficult, it’s impossible. Unless we accept who God is and are willing to adjust our lives accordingly—notice, that doesn’t mean we get it right all the time, it means we are willing to try because of our trust in Him—we absolutely, positively cannot make Him happy. So then…how do we know we’re getting the trust piece right? Because our lives demonstrate the fact. Making God happy starts with trusting Him, and the thing about trusting God is that when we do, our lives don’t look the same as when we don’t. In fact, if the life of someone who has professed faith in Christ doesn’t look any different from the life of someone who hasn’t, there’s a problem. The problem is that we don’t really trust Him. Think back to the chair with me. If I really trust that chair, I’m going to sit in it. I may even collapse into it. Because I trust it. If I don’t really trust the chair, I may make overtures toward sitting in it, but I’m going to make sure I don’t put all my weight on it so that it doesn’t fail me. You know this too. If someone makes some adjustments in light of your word, but keeps a fallback plan in place, then they don’t really trust you, and let’s be honest, you’re probably hurt by that. It sours to the point of breaking their relationship with you. Assuming your word really is good, until and unless he apologizes for his lack of trust and commits to making a change, a meaningful relationship is impossible. It will be impossible to please you. Well, making God happy starts with trusting Him, and anything less than total trust just won’t do.
So then, what do you do with this? You start with a hard conversation with yourself centered on this question: Do I really trust Jesus? Do I really have faith in God? Am I willing to put all my weight on Him, or am I keeping a backup plan in place just in case? And once you’ve had that conversation, you start acting out of faith. Even if your efforts are weak and feeble at the beginning, you start acting out of your trust in Jesus. You make some life adjustments in light of who He is and what He’s said. As you do, you will experience the pleasure of God in ways that will only encourage you to keep moving forward. After all, making God happy starts with trusting Him. And speaking of life adjustments, we’ll start looking a bit more closely at those next week. I can’t wait to see you then.