Triumph and Suffering By Faith
Ever notice this about Hebrews 11:32-38?
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
There's a dramatic difference between the two parts of that list. As the author challenges the Hebrews with the need to persevere and not turn back, in chapter 11 he calls witnesses to the stand to testify to the reality and significance and possibility of enduring faith. But he doesn't have time or space to tell in detail about every person of faith in their history. So towards the end, he gives a quick summary of some others. That's where we find the shift highlighted above: his list goes from great accomplishments to great suffering.
What distinguishes the two parts of his list? Some might say faith. Christians with strong faith enjoy great triumph and success as they walk through this life. Christians with weak faith are more likely to struggle and suffer.
But that's NOT it (proponents of the prosperity non-gospel and others to the contrary). You know what comes next in this passage? Hebrews 11:39 "And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised..." Fully receiving what was promised awaits the return of Christ. But for our focus in this post notice that faith is not what distinguishes those who are triumphing from those who are suffering. Both groups, rather, are commended through their faith. Some escape the sword (v. 34) by faith and others die by the sword (v. 37) by faith.
Since faith, by definition, looks away from self to the Savior, there is no room for pride or a martyr's complex among people of faith. The one currently accomplishing great things by faith may not look down the one who is suffering great things by faith. The one suffering is not to be envious of the one triumphing. God calls different ones of his children to face different things, and they are all fully dependent upon the object of their faith. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. All believers must wake up in the morning and acknowledge that they can do nothing in their own strength.
Whether intentional or implicit, the propagation of a view that says the distinction between suffering and triumphing is based on the strength of one's faith is dangerous and damaging. It can lead to pride and arrogance for those enjoying good things and despair and hopelessness for those suffering.
The truth is there's great comfort here for sufferers. People of great faith have suffered greatly. And for those triumphing, the glory goes to God alone. God may call a person of faith to accomplish great things or suffer great things or somewhere in between or some of both. All of these are to be commended for their faith, and all can rest in and bring glory to the object of their faith: the faithful God.
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