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Living Faith Beyond Circumstances

Amazed and Confused by Heather Zempel 9781401679231

…but the righteous shall live by his faith. – Habakkuk 2:4

I don’t remember the first time I met Marva Adams, but I do remember the first time I met her daughters. They were both at the young adults retreat I attended four weeks after first visiting National Community Church. The youngest, Christy, drew the short straw to be my cabinmate. I’m convinced it was the sovereignty of God because Christy and her sister Leslie both became dear friends, the kind that only come along a few times in life.

Faith is the assurance of things you have hoped for, the absolute conviction that there are realities you’ve never seen. – Hebrews 11:1 (The Voice)

A few years later, their aunt Joan began to battle cancer. When I heard she’d lost the battle, I slipped out of the conference I was speaking at in Gulf Shores, Alabama, climbed onto some rocks, prayed, and made one of the hardest phone calls I had made to date. The Adamses are good people, and it all seemed so illogical. Heartbreaking.

Months passed, and as Ryan and I realized that our dating relationship was heading in a potentially permanent direction, we mutually decided to find an older couple to mentor us. We didn’t really know what we wanted in a mentoring couple; it just sounded like something good to have. Our families are very important to both of us, and it seemed foreign for us to navigate an important decision such as marriage without the encouragement and counsel of parents nearby, so we primarily wanted some surrogate parents close by to augment the parental wisdom we were getting from afar. Independently, we prayed for a few days about who we would like to approach to fill that role, and we came together with mutual agreement. We wanted Gregg and Marva Adams to mentor us.

On a separate note, I had been praying for a mentor for several years. I was still working full-time in the U.S. Senate and part-time for National Community Church, and I knew I was entering a season of transitions and big decisions. I just wanted an older woman to walk alongside me. Marva was a win-win for my life. We loved the Adamses, my parents loved them, and Ryan’s parents loved them. For several months leading up to our engagement and marriage, they loved us, prayed for us, encouraged us, and were available for all of our ridiculous questions and concerns.

Then cancer struck again. This time, it was Marva. Lightning couldn’t strike the same family twice, could it? Deep down, I knew Marva would come through. Her mom was still living, she had two daughters, and she loved life. She and her husband hopped on a plane and celebrated our wedding in Mobile.

A few months later it seemed as if things took an unexpected turn for the worse. In February, I went to the hospital to visit and was shocked to find Marva in a coma. The night before, she had gone to dinner with friends, full of energy and life. A few days later, Christy called me at work. “Heather, I was just called to the hospital. It doesn’t sound good. Could you just pray?” She assured me I didn’t need to come with her. About an hour later, my phone rang again. This time, it was Pastor Mark [Batterson]. “Marva has passed away, and the family asked me to call you.” The speed at which she left us was incomprehensible.

The next few days were a flurry. I saw an amazing picture of the love and support that the Body of Christ provides, but I was confused by what God was thinking and doing. To me, He was the bad guy of this story, but I didn’t have time to think about that or even talk to Him about it. I had small groups to console, a family to prepare food for, and an eulogy to write. It was cathartic to be busy helping others mourn and cope. Meanwhile, my heart ached. I was angry, but I could channel that energy into serving others and playing the pastor. Eventually, life began to move on again, and I couldn’t hide behind the pastor role anymore.

I was left with questions and a hollowness of heart. How could God take away such a good person? Why would He make a mother bury not just one but two daughters? How could He take away a mother just years before her own daughters were married? And on an incredibly selfish note, what about me?

For one thing, I didn’t want to pray for another mentor; I just wanted Marva back in my life.

There was only one thing that made me pause every time I started to let God have it: the faith of the Adams family. Gregg, Leslie, and Christy displayed a calm in the middle of a storm like I had never observed before. Certainly, it was difficult. Surely, when no one was around, they questioned and cried out in frustration. They hurt just like anyone would in those circumstances.

But they had faith beyond their circumstances. In fact, their lives were anchored by it and framed by it. They lived by faith.

stories of great faith

Living By Faith

In the second chapter of Habakkuk, God responds to the prophet’s protest: Write it down. What I say will happen is going to happen, and there are two ways to live through it. The enemy lives with pride and selfish desires. The righteous will live by faithfulness. Another translation would render it, The just shall live by his faith.

The message takes an abrupt turn here as God moves from pronouncing the coming destruction of Judah to the later destruction of the Babylonians themselves. Verse 4 declares,

Look at the proud! They trust in themselves and their lives are crooked. – Habakkuk 2:4, NLT

The NIV translates it,

See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright.

In the original Hebrew language, “puffed up” is a peculiar expression that carries with it the idea of being swollen – the prideful serve their own interests and worship their own strength as a god. It can also indicate a loss of faith.

According to Rabbi Simlai (a third-century teacher), “Habakkuk based all the 613 commandments received by Moses on the single principle that ‘the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Habakkuk 2:4). This simple idea tucked away in the middle of banter between God and an obscure prophet, found its way into three New Testament letters and became a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin said it is “that faith which strips us of all arrogance, and leads us naked and needy to God, that we may seek salvation from Him alone, which would otherwise be far removed from us.”

This declaration about the relationship between the just and their faith has been translated four different ways in Hebrew, LXX, and New Testament quotations:

  • living by faith
  • living by faithfulness
  • living by [God’s] faith (or promise) concerning the future of the righteous
  • living by [God’s revelation] faithfulness

{LXX refers to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was likely translated sometime around the second century BC and is quoted by many New Testament writers, particularly Paul. It was also heavily used by the early church fathers and continues to be the version of the Old Testament used in Eastern Orthodox churches.}

If you read commentaries, you will find a good bit of debate over the correct translation and the differences between faith, faithfulness, and the faithfulness of God. Is their disagreement over the understanding? Or is the original language so layered and kaleidoscopic that we find dimensions of our faith, our faithfulness, and God’s faithfulness working together to form a more complete picture? Perhaps living “by faith” and living “by faithfulness” are not two mutually exclusive ideas. The NIV Application Commentary posits that perhaps the “perceived contrast” between the two ideas is in reality a “false dichotomy.”

Faithful living and sturdy faith are indivisibly linked. I struggle with this idea every time I stand in line for a roller coaster. If I have faith that the roller coaster will not fly off its track and into orbit, then faithful living will lead me to strap myself in and enjoy the ride. If I have faith that a bridge will hold me but don’t take a step to cross it, then I am not living by faith. If I have faith that God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do, then that will change the way I live my daily life. James Bruckner explains it this way:

Faith is what faith does. ‘Living by faith’ is redundant because faith is lived faith when someone is faithful… The one who trusts God in faith lives faithfully by His Word. Conversely, the one who is faithful to His Word also clearly trusts it and has faith in the One who gave it.

The words “live by” that precede the word “faith” or “faithfulness” further bolster the notion that we are not simply embracing an idea or a mind-set. This isn’t just about giving mental assent to an abstract principle; we are living as if we believe something is true. One principle of scriptural interpretation is to “let scripture interpret scripture.” In other words, when the meaning of a passage is confusing or unclear, look for other places where a common word or theme is addressed to see if it sheds new light or gives more insight into understanding. In the case of Habakkuk 2:4, we find three notable places where it is quoted in the New Testament. Pastor and author Warren Wiersbe summed it up: “It takes three books to explain and apply this one verse.”

Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews are arguably the three most theological books of the New Testament. In the book of Galatians, Paul framed the way the law and grace interacted, and he took his first stab at a systematic theology, which would later be fleshed out in the book of Romans. Hebrews was written by someone, likely a Levite, to lay theological groundwork for devout Jewish people who were considering the claims of Christ. When Paul quoted Habakkuk in Galatians and Romans, he emphasized that by faith a person is justified. The writer of Hebrews, on the other hand, stressed that by faith a person who has been justified will live.

Many of us love Hebrews 11. Listen to this faith-stirring passage:

I could give accounts of people alive with faith who conquered kingdoms, brought justice, obtained promises, and closed the mouths of hungry lions. I could tell you how people of faith doused raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, made the weak strong, and – stoking great valor among the champions of God – sent opposing armies into panicked flight. I could speak of faith bringing women their loved ones back from death. – Hebrews 11:33-35

Yeah. That’s the kind of faith I want to have and the kind of life I want to live. Conveniently though, most of us never care to read or talk about the last five verses of this great chapter on faith. In fact, we stop halfway through verse 35. Keep reading from verse 35 on.

I could speak of faith bringing women their loved ones back from death and how the faithful accepted torture instead of earthly deliverance because they believed they would obtain a better life in the resurrection. Others suffered mockery and whippings; they were placed in chains and in prisons. The faithful were stoned, sawn in two, killed by the sword, clothed only in sheepskins and goatskins; they were penniless, afflicted, and tormented. The world was not worthy of these saints. They wandered across deserts, crossed mountains, and lived in the caves, cracks, and crevasses of the earth. These, though commended by God for their great faith, did not receive what was promised. That promise has awaited us, who receive the better thing that God has provided in these last days, so that with us, our forebears might finally see the promise completed. – Hebrews 11:35-40

These heroes were tortured, but they refused to turn from God. They were mocked and whipped and chained and stoned and gutted and sawn in two. None of them received all that God had promised… He had something better in mind.

What do we do when we don’t receive all that God promised?

In the first thirty-four and a half verses of Hebrews 11, we see the stories of those who found God to be the Deliverer. Their stories ended happily ever after. They believed God could and God would – and God did.

But in the second half of verse 35, we begin to find those who stood strong in faith in the midst of pain and torture – in the midst of being amazed and confused. They embraced a God who can and who will deliver but sometimes does not. They remained faithful anyway.

Stories of great faith always begin with great adversity.

Faith does not mean God meets our expectations. It means we cling to God’s character, knowing that God will always accomplish His purposes. God wants to forge in us a faith that is far greater than our circumstances. Faith means knowing God can, believing God will, but clinging to Him even if He doesn’t. Faith is not an assurance that everything is going to be okay; it is the assurance that God is in control. That’s the only way to live, knowing that some of the pains and confusion of life will remain mysteries even to our graves.

Excerpted with permission from Amazed and Confused by Heather Zempel, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.

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Your Turn

What kind of faith are you living? Join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear your thoughts on Habakkuk and living faith!