Part 6 in a series on Athens or Jerusalem: Establishing the Spiritual Heritage of Jesus’ Followers
In Christianity, there almost seems to be a fixation with other worldliness, so much so that the Church needs to be brought back into a more biblical balance and return to being concerned about what happens right here today in this world.
From its beginnings, Christianity has tended to view “spirituality” as an otherworldly, ascetic pietism. We have been taught to believe that a “spiritual” person is one who prays hours every day, has their “eyes” heavenward and focused on the joys of the world to come. To live a spiritual lifestyle is often thought of as an ability to detach oneself from this present world and live in a higher, more exalted dimension. A truly spiritual person in much of Christianity should be consumed with winning souls to join them in an eternal future in the Kingdom of God. They should not get overly involved in other activities in this world.
Faith: Thinking or acting?
What does it mean to have faith? Many Christians ignored the Hebrew background and consequently lost the true meaning of biblical faith. Many Christians, especially those ignorant of their Hebraic heritage, understand faith mainly as a matter of intellectual assent to a particular doctrine. We are taught that we must learn or memorize a few “statements of faith,” believe them, and we are saved. The Hebrews looked at faith differently.
To begin with, the most commonly translated Hebrew word for faith “aman,” is translated as “believe,” “trust” or “have faith.” The same term is also translated “support,” “nourish,” “confirm,” “make firm,” or “make lasting.” Derivates of aman like “omenet” mean “nurse, and “omenot,” “pillars.”
Here we learn that within the word “faith” or “faithfulness” is the idea of “firmness,” “steadfastness,” “stability,” or “reliability.” This meaning is clear from the account in Exodus where Aaron and Hur are holding up the arms of Moses in prayer as the battle against the Amalakites rages. “His hands remained “emunah” until sundown” (17:12). This idea of “emunah” as steadfastness or remain standing set the tone for future understandings of faith, faithfulness and “trust,” a frequent cognitive of the word “emunah.”
One of the most pivotal verses used by Christians to understand faith is from Habakkuk 2:4 “the righteous will live by faith.” This verse was later quoted by Paul and became the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. To get a better understand of how the Hebrews saw faith, let’s consider this prophetic statement in its original context.
During the time of Habakkuk, the people had fallen on hard times, but not just any hard times. This time it was God who would be sending a foreign, ungodly nation to punish Israel for her sins. Imagine for a moment just how much this situation required a deeply rooted faith and trust in God, especially in his justice and his wisdom in how he manages the world. They needed faith that God is good thought things are going so wrong. A faith that would give them the stability and support needed just in order to survive knowing that it was God who sent the trouble.
To better understand just how deep the Hebrew faith in God is, consider the Holocaust. Without judging as to whether or not this was God’s punishment on the Jewish people, how difficult is has been for them to keep their faith in God. Sure, many have abandoned the faith and cannot understand or believe in a God who would allow such an overwhelming tragedy to come upon his people from such an evil man. But the true miracle is that any Jew at all still believes in the God of Israel after the Holocaust.
You see, to the Hebrews, faith meant confidence in their God, no matter what. Mere intellectual consent wouldn’t do it. Faith is the ability to face life and all it brings, with courage, hope and expectation because you trust that God himself is faithful (emunah – eg. Psalm 119:86). That’s the kind of enduring stability God’s people need to survive.
How difficult it must have been when yet again when it was the peoples’ sins that caused great destruction to come upon Jerusalem and the entire nation during the times of Jeremiah. Yet the prophet declare back to the very God who has sent the troubles, and through his tears, “Great is your faithfulness [emunah]” (Lam. 3:23).
Can you say “Amen”?
In Jewish and Christian worship, we use the word “amen” which also comes from aman. When we say the Hebrew “Amen” we are affirming or supporting the proclamation or prayer that has been spoken. We are declaring that “it is worthy of trust, reliable, stable and lasting.” Amen is an affirmation and the trust that, “God will bring it to pass” no matter what.
Faith in the world of the Hebrew is more than a belief in his heart or an attitude of trust. He steps out in life and acts upon his belief or her trust. His mental, intellectual or heartfelt convictions must be turned into actions. For the Hebrews faith was more than a theory or belief, it was a life of service.
The Hebrew could serve God through work. Biblical faith is to act, live and work with confidence that God will be there waiting for you. As Abraham Joshua Heschel so well stated, faith is “a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.” It should be pointed out that this understanding is in full agreement with the New Testament that, “Faith, by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).