As I was growing up in Jamaica, my parents raised my sister and me to be “good people.” In our home, good meant obeying our parents, telling the truth, being successful in school and work, and going to church . . . at least Easter and Christmas. I imagine this definition of being a good person is familiar to many people, regardless of culture. In fact, the apostle Paul, in Philippians 3, used his culture’s definition of being good to make a greater point.
Paul, being a devout first-century Jew, followed the letter of the moral law in his culture. He was born into the “right” family, had the “right” education, and practiced the “right” religion. He was the real deal in terms of being a good person according to Jewish custom. In Philippians 3:4, Paul writes that he could boast in all of his goodness if he wanted. But, as good as he was, Paul told his readers (and us) that there is something more than being good. He knew that being good, while good, was not the same as pleasing God.
Pleasing God, Paul writes in Philippians 3:7-8, involves knowing Jesus. Paul considered his own goodness as “garbage” when compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” We are good—and we please God—when our hope and faith are in Christ alone, not in our goodness.
A memorial stone stands in the grounds of a former Japanese prison camp in China where a man died in 1945. It reads, “Eric Liddell was born in Tianjin of Scottish parents in 1902. His career reached its peak with his gold medal victory in the 400 metres event at the 1924 Olympic Games. He returned to China to work in Tianjin as a teacher. . . . His whole life was spent encouraging young people to make their best contributions to the betterment of mankind.”
In the eyes of many, Eric’s greatest achievement was on the sports field. But he is also remembered for his contribution to the youth of Tianjin in China, the country where he was born and that he loved. He lived and served by faith.
What will we be remembered for? Our academic achievements, job position, or financial success may get us recognized by others. But it is the quiet work we do in the lives of people that will live long after we are gone.
Moses is remembered in the faith chapter of the Bible, Hebrews 11, as someone who chose to align himself with the people of God instead of enjoying the treasures of Egypt (v. 26). He led and served God’s people by faith.
“You gotta have faith,” people say. But what does that mean? Is any faith good faith?
“Believe in yourself and all that you are,” wrote one positive thinker a century ago. “Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.” As nice as that platitude may sound, it falls to pieces when it crashes into reality. We need a faith in something bigger than ourselves.
God promised Abram he would have a multitude of descendants (Gen. 15:4–5), so he faced a huge obstacle—he was old and childless. When he and Sarah got tired of waiting for God to make good on His promise, they tried to overcome that obstacle on their own. As a result, they fractured their family and created a lot of unnecessary dissension (see Gen. 16 and 21:8–21).
Nothing Abraham did in his own strength worked. But ultimately he became known as a man of tremendous faith. Paul wrote of him, “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Rom. 4:18). This faith, said Paul, “was credited to him as righteousness” (v. 22).
Abraham’s faith was in something far bigger than himself—the one and only God. It’s the object of our faith that makes all the difference.
It’s tempting to think of faith as a kind of magic formula. If you muster up enough of it, you’ll get rich, stay healthy, and live a contented life with automatic answers to all your prayers. But life does not work according to such neat formulas. As proof, the author of Hebrews presents a stirring reminder of what constitutes “true faith” by reviewing the lives of some Old Testament giants of faith (Heb. 11).
“Without faith,” the author says bluntly, “it is impossible to please God” (11:6). In describing faith he uses words such as “persevere” and “endure.” As a result of their faith, some heroes triumphed: They routed armies, escaped the sword, survived lions. But others met less happy ends: They were flogged, stoned, sawed in two. The chapter concludes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (v. 39).
The picture of faith that emerges does not fit into an easy formula. Sometimes it leads to victory and triumph. Sometimes it requires a gritty determination to “hang on at any cost.” Of such people, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (v. 16).
What our faith rests on is the belief that God is in ultimate control and will indeed keep His promises—whether that happens in this life or the next.
Each year on June 18 the great Battle of Waterloo is recalled in what is now Belgium. On that day in 1815, Napoleon’s French army was defeated by a multinational force commanded by the Duke of Wellington. Since then, the phrase “to meet your Waterloo” has come to mean “to be defeated by someone who is too strong for you or by a problem that is too difficult for you.”
When it comes to our spiritual lives, some people feel that ultimate failure is inevitable and it’s only a matter of time until each of us will “meet our Waterloo.” But John refuted that pessimistic view when he wrote to followers of Jesus: “Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
John weaves this theme of spiritual victory throughout his first letter as he urges us not to love the things this world offers, which will soon fade away (2:15-17). Instead, we are to love and please God, “And this is what he promised us—eternal life” (2:25).
While we may have ups and downs in life, and even some battles that feel like defeats, the ultimate victory is ours in Christ as we trust in His power.
Chinese philosopher Han Feizi made this observation about life: “Knowing the facts is easy. Knowing how to act based on the facts is difficult.”
A rich man with that problem once came to Jesus. He knew the law of Moses and believed he had kept the commandments since his youth (Mark 10:20). But he seems to be wondering what additional facts he might hear from Jesus. “ ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ” (v. 17).
Jesus’ answer disappointed the rich man. He told him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him (v. 21). With these few words Jesus exposed a fact the man didn’t want to hear. He loved and relied on his wealth more than he trusted Jesus. Abandoning the security of his money to follow Jesus was too great a risk, and he went away sad (v. 22).
What was the Teacher thinking? His own disciples were alarmed and wanted to know “Who then can be saved?” He replied, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (v. 27). It takes courage and faith. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
I parked my bicycle, fingering my map of Cambridge for reassurance. Directions not being my strength, I knew I could easily get lost in this maze of roads bursting with historic buildings.
Life should have felt idyllic, for I had just married my Englishman and moved to the UK. But I felt adrift. When I kept my mouth closed I blended in, but when I spoke I immediately felt branded as an American tourist. I didn’t yet know what my role was, and I quickly realized that blending two stubborn people into one shared life was harder than I had anticipated.
I related to Abraham, who left all that he knew as he obeyed the Lord’s call to live as a foreigner and stranger in a new land (Gen. 12:1). He pressed through the cultural challenges while keeping faith in God, and 2,000 years later the writer to the Hebrews named him a hero (11:9). Like the other men and women listed in this chapter, Abraham lived by faith, longing for things promised, hoping and waiting for his heavenly home.
Perhaps you’ve always lived in the same town, but as Christ-followers we’re all foreigners and strangers on this earth. By faith we press forward, knowing that God will lead and guide us, and by faith we believe He will never leave nor abandon us. By faith we long for home.
Our valley in Idaho can be very cold in the winter. Clouds and fog roll in and blanket the ground, trapping frigid air under warmer layers above. But you can get above the valley. There’s a road nearby that winds up the flank of Shafer Butte, a 7,500-foot mountain that rises out of our valley. A few minutes of driving and you break out of the fog and emerge into the warmth and brilliance of a sunlit day. You can look down on the clouds that shroud the valley below and see it from a different point of view.
Life is like that at times. Circumstances seem to surround us with a fog that sunlight cannot penetrate. Yet faith is the way we get above the valley—the means by which we “set [our] hearts on things above” (Col. 3:1). As we do, the Lord enables us to rise above our circumstances and find courage and calmness for the day. As the apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11).
We can climb out of our misery and gloom. We can sit for a time on the mountainside and through Christ who gives us strength (v. 13) we can gain a different perspective.
Like most children, I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas. With great anticipation, I would snoop under the tree to see what toys and games awaited my eager grasp. So I felt deflated when I started getting things like shirts and pants. Grownup gifts were no fun! Then last Christmas, my kids gave me some cool socks with bright colors and designs. I almost felt young again! Even grownups could wear these socks, as the label reassured me: “One size fits all.”
That welcome phrase “one size fits all” reminds me of the best gift of Christmas—the good news that Jesus is for everyone. The point was proven when the first invitation sent by angel choirs was to shepherds on the bottom rung of the social ladder. The news was underscored further when the VIPs—the wealthy and powerful Magi—followed the star to come and worship the Christ-child.
After Jesus began His ministry, an influential member of the Jewish ruling council came to Him at night. In the course of their conversation, Jesus invited “whoever believes” to come to Him. The simple act of faith in Christ grants eternal life to those who trust in Him (John 3:16).
If Jesus were just for the poor and marginalized, or only for the famous and fortunate, many of us would not qualify. But Christ is for everyone, regardless of status, financial situation, or social standing. He is the only gift truly fit for all.