I thought I had answered the question, but, just five days after completing radiation therapy, there it was again--What did I learn? A week earlier I decided that I probably wasn’t learning anything new, but was having some beliefs and decisions confirmed. This time, as I started thinking the same thing, a new thought popped up--Your faith is real. Immediately, I said, “That’s it. That’s what I’ve learned. My faith is real.” It’s not artificial, make-believe, second-hand, or “inherited.” It is my faith, and it is very real.
What is Faith?
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NKJV)
There are several dictionary definitions of “faith”. Among other definitions, the American Heritage Dictionary defines faith as a “confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing, “ as well as “the theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.”(1)
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that “faith” usually means “reliance” or “trust,” (2) as we see in Hebrews 11:1. The rest of Hebrews 11 gives many illustrations of faith that demonstrate the reliance of Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and many others upon a God who had shown Himself to be trustworthy. Theirs was not a blind faith, but rather, one based on God’s past trustworthiness. This trustworthiness was sufficient to enable those believers to treat the future as if it was present and the invisible things as if they were visible. Thus, they could look forward to the coming of the Messiah and have absolute, unwavering trust that He would come. Christians today look forward to Christ’s return with that same absolute, unwavering trust, which we call “faith”.
Before I continue, let me explain what I mean by “inherited” faith. Someone recently said that the fastest growing religion in America is “the faith of our fathers.” What he meant by that is essentially what I call “inherited” faith.
If you grew up in a church-going family, you most likely remember going to Sunday school and worship services with the rest of your family. You weren’t asked if you wanted to go, you were expected to go. That was what your family did on Sunday mornings. For some of you, that extended to Sunday and Wednesday evenings. You “grew up in the church”. You thought of yourself as a Christian, as did the rest of your family. You believed in God. You knew all the Bible stories about Jesus, the apostles, and all of the Old Testament characters. You tried to live the way you were taught, following Christian principles. You believed what your parents believed. If your grandparents or great grandparents were alive, you discovered you believed the way they did. You had “inherited” the faith of your fathers.
In the movie, “A Man Called Peter,” Barbara is a good illustration of what I mean. After Peter Marshall preached his first sermon at the New York Avenue church, college-age Barbara tells him that he’s brought in his first sheep. Her grandmother responds, “Barbara, whatever in the world do you mean by that? This child’s gone to church all her life.” Barbara replies, “Just like I go to the dentist every six months.” Barbara grew up going to church and it became her habit. A good habit, but it didn’t mean she had a faith of her own instead of merely imitating her grandmother.
For many people, their faith never goes beyond that of their childhood, and they never develop deep and abiding faith like Jesus talked about and the apostles wrote about.
He said to all, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, WEB)
For me, as a college student suddenly confronted with a Gospel tract that said I was a sinner who needed a Savior, and that Savior was Jesus, I realized I had to make a personal decision about what I believed. My mother’s faith was her faith. I needed my own. A few years later, my faith had developed to the point where I wanted to obey from the heart and not just the head. I wanted to follow Jesus, not just admire Him. That included following Him in baptism. This was a big step for me and really marked the end of my transition from an inherited faith to my personal faith. No human being intervened to turn me one way or another. This was my decision, guided solely by the Holy Spirit.
As I came up out of the baptismal waters that Friday afternoon in 1980, I knew my decision was correct. I felt the peace of God within me, and for the first time, I had no doubt that I was His child, saved by the blood of Jesus.
Over the next 18 years, I knew God was with me, although I didn’t always immediately recognize His hand in life’s events. Often, it was long after the event when I would realize God had led me through a particular situation or gave me the words to say to someone. My faith grew during this time, but not like it could have if I had not let the cares of this world obscure the voice of God.
The day finally came when I followed the Holy Spirit’s leading and attended my first worship service with the members of Sunset Ridge Church of Christ in San Antonio. Although it was not convenient for me to continue to attend, I came back several times. One Sunday morning in April, 1998, I officially became a part of the Sunset Ridge church family. My spiritual growth increased slowly over the next few years. It was probably two years before I started attending Sunday morning Bible classes and, eventually, Wednesday evening classes. That got me going.
Blessed is the person who does not follow the advice of wicked people, take the path of sinners, or join the company of mockers. Rather, he delights in the teachings of the LORD and reflects on his teachings day and night. (Psalms 1:1-2, WEB)
Then, in November, 2001, I started meeting weekly with two sisters from Sunset Ridge in a spiritual formation group. The week after we started that group, I was invited to join a small group Bible study. I accepted. These two groups were wonderful stimuli for me, causing me, for the first time, to dig into the Word on a regular basis. As I did so, my hunger for the Word increased. I have said during the past couple of years that I think my ideal job would be as a researcher for publishers of Bible study materials so that I could spend my days studying God’s Word. If you know of such a job, be sure to let me know!
In October, 2002, Babs, one of the ladies in my spiritual formation group announced that she had bone cancer. For the next 16 months, I observed up close how someone with a deep, personal faith goes through the valley of death, hanging onto her faith and looking to Jesus every step of the way.
Life is Fleeting
“For what is your life? For you are a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14b, WEB)
Although I’ve never been present at the moment of death, I am not unfamiliar with death. In my early college years, one of my high school coaches committed suicide. I had visited with her the night before she left for her summer graduate school session, and just a few weeks later, she was dead. That may have been my first real acknowledgement that life is fleeting, or as Job put it “my life is a breath” (Job 7:7a, WEB).
After that, a young woman I knew died of cancer, having contracted the disease at the age of 17.
Around 1985, I helped a young motorcyclist who had been hit by a car, along with one of his friends. I learned the next day that one of the two died, but I don’t know which one. I certainly knew by then that death comes to us all and sometimes when we’re quite young.
There were other instances of people my age or younger dying, and there were the older folks, as well. My stepfather died suddenly at 81 and my father at 68. Some people live into their 70’s, 80’s, and beyond, but, eventually, they die, too.
The first time I really thought about my own death was in the spring of 1974, shortly before my high school graduation. I had finished running in a track meet and went to the restrooms, which were in a concrete structure next to the stadium. I was coughing. A woman walked out as I walked in, leaving me alone. I was coughing hard. It would be a few hours before I would find out that I had pleurisy. At that moment, with every cough, I felt like I was being stabbed with a sharp knife. The pain was so intense that I remember thinking, “I’m going to die right here in this restroom.” I didn’t think that would be an appropriate place to die. The coughing subsided after a few minutes. When we returned to Minot that evening, I received treatment, and put aside any thoughts of my eventual death.
I dealt with the subject on the surface, on an intellectual basis, in 1986 when I prepared a will prior to my three-year Army assignment in Germany. In 1994, a friend I met in Germany died suddenly, leaving behind her 15-year-old daughter. I think that was the beginning of a gradual process of dealing on a deeper level with the very real truth that I will die someday.
A few years ago, I attended a Sunday morning class on biomedical ethics from a Christian perspective. During that class, I thought quite a bit about the process of dying, but not a lot about what death will mean to me.
Since then, a couple of good friends have died, I have heard several sermons on death and heaven, I have read a few books, and have I done a fair amount of Bible reading. As the Holy Spirit guided me through that time, I became certain that physical death for a Christian is not a tragedy. It is, rather, the milestone that marks the beginning of a fabulous new life in which I will never again have to deal with the desires of the flesh. The flesh I crucified on earth has refused to stay dead, but, once I die physically, my fleshly desires will be permanently dead, and I will be in the presence of the Lord forever!
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV)
Less than three years after Babs’ death, I was told I needed to have a biopsy because of a suspicious area on a mammogram. I prayed that if the diagnosis was cancer, God’s glory would be seen through the way I responded to the news and the treatment to follow. From the moment my doctor told me I needed a biopsy, I felt the peace of God within me. I was experiencing Philippians 4:7:
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. (WEB)
When the call came on December 19, 2006, and I learned I had cancer, I knew what a cancer diagnosis could mean--impending death. But, I also knew that God raised Jesus from the dead. He has power over death, and I am His child. Therefore, I need not fear death. When it comes, He will be there with me.
During the next four and a half months, that peace never left me. As I said several times during those months, it took me a few years to reach the point where I could, with conviction, say with the Apostle Paul, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” It is one thing to say those words when you’re healthy, but quite another when you’re not.
One week after I received my diagnosis, I wrote these words:
"Then I pray to you, O Lord.
I say, 'You are my place of refuge.
You are all I really want in life.' (Psalms 142:5, NLT)
"When I selected this verse for the jacket of a CD designed to bring comfort and encouragement to Christians going through a difficult time in life, I had no idea I would be in such a place myself, just two years later. I have had to ask myself if this true for me. Is Jesus really all I want in life? Without hesitation, I answer 'yes.' You can take everything else from me, but give me Jesus."
I don’t know how I would have reacted to a cancer diagnosis ten years ago. I know my reaction would have been very different. I suspect the opening line on the website of Breast Cancer Support Services, Inc. would have fit me perfectly: “A diagnosis of Breast Cancer brings with it confusion, fear, hopelessness and isolation.”
In His mercy, God developed my faith to the point where such a diagnosis could not shake it. As He walked me through the valley and brought me up out of it, He gave me His peace. He demonstrated His trustworthiness, His reliability to me. He showed me that my faith is real. He already knew that. I was the one who needed to be sure my faith would pass the test.
Now, five months after my diagnosis, I wholeheartedly agree with Psalm 142:5. Jesus is all I really want in life.
O, Lord, My God, how awesome You are! How magnificent the works of Your hands. I can never thank You enough for all that You have done for me, especially for redeeming me, for saving me from the pit of hell. Father, I don’t understand how You could send Jesus to die for the sins of such insignificant creatures as mankind. Yet, maybe I do understand a little, for I know that in Your eyes we are not insignificant. We are Your creation and You love us. I just find it difficult to comprehend the immensity of Your love.
Jesus, that You would voluntarily give up all that You had in heaven and come to earth to live among us, to show us how to live, to pay the penalty for our sins, knowing all along that we would nail You to a Cross--that staggers my imagination.
Thank You, Father, for not leaving me, nor forsaking me, for leading me beside the still waters and restoring my soul. I am very grateful for Your mercy and grace.
Please help me, God, to not waste the experiences You have given me. Use them, Father, to mold me into the person You want me to be. You are my God, and I will love You always. Though You slay me, yet will I love You.
Help me, Father, to let the Light of Christ shine through me to dispel the darkness in the world about me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
(1) Faith. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith (accessed: May 24, 2007).
(2) Orr, James (Gen. Ed.). Faith. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1844-1913 ed.