“Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Sometimes when we step out and exercise faith in God, everything goes great. In fact, it goes better than great. We get not just what we wanted, but far more than we could ever ask or imagine. Those kinds of outcomes to our faith are the stories we like to tell. Many of the stories in the Scriptures have these kinds of happy endings. Every story of faith Hollywood tells ends this way. At some point it may look like things are going to go poorly because of faith, but then God saves the day, and they all live happily ever after. But what if things don’t turn out that way? Because in real life, sometimes they don’t. The second set of stories of the results of faith the author of Hebrews shares with us aren’t happy endings. At least they don’t seem to be. Maybe you have a story of faith that didn’t appear to end well. Let’s talk about when we have faith and nothing goes according to plan.
We expect stories to have happy endings. In 2019 when Marvel Studios released Avengers: Endgame, part of the reason the movie did so incredibly well (beyond the fact that it was awesome and fans had been looking forward to it for more than a decade), was the fact that its immediate predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War ended with the villainous Thanos successfully enacting his evil plan to wipe out half the life in the universe. That was a rather decidedly unhappy ending. We needed the rest of the story. There had to be more. Thankfully there was, and it was incredible. But we don’t like unhappy endings.
So, what are we supposed to think about stories that end like the ones the author of Hebrews alludes to here? We don’t know the names attached to these stories, but we know that these are things that happened to people who committed their lives – or at least some part of their lives – to faithfulness to the commands of God. They put their lives in the hands of the righteous and just God who created the universe from nothing…and they were mocked, beaten ruthlessly, put in prison, stoned to death, stabbed, sawed in two, and so on and so forth. How on earth are we supposed to square those two things? How are stories like these supposed to encourage us in the direction of faith?
There are two answers to that question. The first answer is that these kinds of stories aren’t supposed to be encouraging. They are supposed to be honest. When we commit ourselves in faithful obedience to the commands of God, we are setting ourselves on a path that will necessarily bring us into conflict with the world. While God’s power is greater than the world’s power by a margin that isn’t measurable it is so big, He has granted the world a measure of power and His commitment to our ability to make meaningful and consequential choices means He doesn’t get in the way of its exercising that power very often. This in turn means that power is going to be exercised to our harm on occasion when we have set ourselves in the world’s way by our obedience to God. If you are considering taking up a life of faith, you should know this before you get started. Pursuing faithfulness to Christ isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and problems that can be neatly resolved in a couple of hours’ worth of condensed action. Sometimes, in the moment (or perhaps for a long, painful season), the practical results of our faithfulness are pain. Lots of pain. For us and for the people around us. This is why Jesus told us to count the cost.
For the second answer to that question, we need to broaden our vision from these couple of verses to the bigger picture of this entire chapter. Remember what the author said back toward the middle when he was summarizing the first set of stories he told? “These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place – a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
People who commit themselves to a life of faith have their eyes fixed on something beyond this life. Because of that, when things don’t appear to be going well in this life – and even when they are going objectively poorly as far as this life is concerned – they are neither discouraged nor dissuaded from their path by this. They aren’t aiming for something in this life. They are aiming for something beyond it and which is infinitely greater. Therefore, what happens in this life isn’t their chief concern. It’s not that it doesn’t matter to them at all – they are not looking to experiencing pain and rejection and even physical death – it’s that it isn’t the thing attracting their greatest attention.
This is why the author profoundly declares “the world was not worthy of them.” These folks were so committed to the coming kingdom of God that they were willing to endure the best the world could come up with to approximate a taste of Hell. All the while they were advancing God’s kingdom through their lives by their commitment to loving those around them and making their lives better. To give a bit of a preview of where the author takes us next, instead of seeing all of this as the suffering the world intended for it to be, they saw it as God giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to His kingdom. This was a demonstration they took on gladly and with joy, knowing that any scars they might bear here and now will be badges of highest honor when the kingdom comes.
When we commit ourselves to a life of faith, sometimes things will seem to go incredibly poorly by every observable measure. But such apparent setbacks are part of a much larger story that is going to have a happy ending for all those who have chosen to be a part of it. Their confidence in this happy ending is the very thing that keeps driving them forward. When your life gets hard because of your faith in Christ, take heart. The world is noticing your faith which means God has already noticed it, and He will reward it richly when the time comes. Keep moving forward. Be counted among those of whom the world is not worthy.