The Daily Office New Testament reading for today, Hebrews 11:1-11, includes a common proof-text for justification by faith in Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” I was a little surprised by how the sentence finishes out: “For whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Then when I looked at the Greek, I discovered that the Greek word for God, theos, wasn’t even there: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι. I think the translators inserted God because the previous verse includes God after the same verb: εὐαρεστηκέναι τῷ θεῷ. But technically speaking, verse 6 should read: “Without faith, it is impossible to be pleasing.” So I thought I would narrate my journey of trying to explore what in the world this commonly quoted line really means.
Hebrews 11:1 starts off with a definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” The word “substance” is ὑπόστασις (hypostasis), which theology nerds will recognize as the Greek word used for each member of the Divine Trinity in the original Nicene Creed that gets turned into persona in Latin and “person” in English. Hypostasis is the word you use when you want to talk about something that is concrete and physical. So to call faith the substance “of things hoped for” is to say that people with faith live as though their hopes have been substantiated in front of them, which is of course a paradox because hope stops being just hope when it is substantiated into reality.
Depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, verse 2 says that because of their faith, the Hebrew patriarchs “received approval” (NRSV), “were commended” (NIV), or “had witness borne to them” (KJV). The Greek word is ἐμαρτυρήθησαν, the passive aorist form of the verb martyreo, which means giving a report. I think the reason martyreo can also have the meaning of “approval” or “commendation” is because the word is often used to describe a report that corroborates somebody else’s story or confirms their credibility.
Verses 4 and 5 then use various forms of martyreo to describe God’s response to the faith of Abel and Enoch. In all honesty, it’s a bit strange to try to read “faith” into either Abel or Enoch. I have often wondered whether the reason Genesis 4:4 says God “had regard” for Abel’s offering and not Cain’s is because animal fat burns better than grain. The text says nothing to indicate that Abel had more “faith” than Cain. Likewise, Genesis 5:24 says only that Enoch “walked with God” and that God “took him.” Enoch only lived 365 years when the average lifespan of his kin is more in the 800′s or 900′s, so I wonder if the “God took him” is just supposed to be an explanation for why he was a youngster when he died.
Regardless, the claim of Hebrews is that God honors people who have faith in Him by confirming their faith with an act of witness. When verse 6 talks about “approaching” God, it’s talking about a privileged access that we gain through our faith. Since God is an unseen omnipresent mystery, to approach Him means more than just going to His “house” at church. It means to encounter a sacred confirmation of His existence that doesn’t require a megachurch’s giant amplifiers, soaring guitar solos, and strobe lights to give you goosebumps.
In our day, we have acquired a certain presumptuousness about approaching God. It has a very understandable cause. People get bent out of shape wondering about what words to use when they pray, so we tell them just to talk to God like you would anybody else. And that’s certainly the way I talk to God much of the time. But I wonder if we set people up by the casual familiarity with which we describe God. Whether we call Him our BFF or our king, any label is an utterly inadequate description of who He is that can turn into a projection that keeps us from really encountering Him.
I don’t think God is deliberately withholding Himself to punish us when we say the wrong words in a prayer or have questions or doubts about whether He’s there. But having a cynical attitude can block us from receiving the blessing we would experience if we approached God with open trust. The word for God in Hebrew is a combination of three often silent consonants that are used to indicate the presence of vowels: Y, H, and W. Yahweh — the sound of breath, the still, small voice that we never hear when we’re not really listening for it. My fellow Methodist blogger Ben Gosden shares a great metaphor in a recent post. When we cannot see God, it is because we “are like the fish who, when in the ocean, never notice the water.”
That’s why we need the faith that “understands that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:3). The writer of Hebrews is basically assuring us that when we have that faith, then God will show us the delight that He takes in us. Pleasing God seems to mean receiving a confirmation of His approval, a witness that vindicates us against any who would deride us for our faith.