‘Every Christian’s Greatest Challenge’
Jan 15, 1989
Series on Hosea, No. 9
The theme of Hosea’s sermon in chapter 7 is Israel’s complete, final, and irreversible failure of faith. She continues to be religious; she continues to call upon the Lord her God, though in a decidedly Canaanite fashion, but all the while, she does not really put her trust in Him, or count upon Him for what she needs. She is, on account of her disobedience and disloyalty to the Lord, teetering on the brink of extinction, and still her real hope lies not in the Sovereign God who knows how to deliver his people out of their troubles and who had delivered Israel so often in the past but in the sort of diplomatic maneuvering which she had been so long practicing with so little real success.
‘They do not call upon me’, ‘They do not turn to me’, ‘They do not search for me’ says the Lord; but they will call upon Egypt or turn to Assyria. When push comes to shove, when their actions betray where their hope really lies, it is clear that they count more upon their diplomacy than upon their God. They will cozy up to those who hate and mock me without any hesitation! ‘Israel has no true faith in me, despite the appearances of her worship; she does not really count on me for the help she needs–she counts instead on her own efforts; and, what is more, and above all, so little does she really feel that what matters is the favor of God, what I think and what I will do and what I will give to her, that she doesn’t care at all about keeping my commandments or proving herself loyal to my covenant with her. So said the Lord.
Israel’s failure, Hosea says, was a failure of faith, and all of her terrible disobedience was simply evidence of the fact that she did not really believe in the Lord or trust in him or count upon him, no matter what she may have said or done at her worship services.
Now, in this, Hosea has unmasked our great problem and our great challenge as well, indeed, the single greatest challenge of any and every Christian’s life. And that is just this: living by faith, really, genuinely living by faith in the Lord. Our faithlessness, I believe for most of us, is not the complete faithlessness of Israel in Hosea’s day, but it is still very great and terribly chronic, and it is this faithlessness, more than anything else, that keeps us from being the Christians we ought to be, from enjoying God’s favor and blessing as we might, and from living the powerful and effective and useful lives we desire to live for Christ’s sake.
It is, in fact, a very easy thing to demonstrate to Christians that their faith is very weak, that they still so easily and regularly and instinctively count more upon that which they can see and hear and touch and do than upon God who is unseen and upon his promises.
1. Take for a first example, the matter of prayer and prayer in comparison with other means by which the things we need come to us.
Think of the care you take to be punctual arriving at your job, to fulfil the duties which have been assigned to you, to be cordial to your boss or your employer. Why is that? Well, it is because you know that your paycheck is dependent upon your job and also, because you spend so much of your time with these people, it is natural for you to want them to think well of you.
But, does not every Christian know and believe that ultimately, all that he has, his job, his income, and his reputation, are God’s gifts to him or to her; and that were God to withhold his favor, perfect punctuality would not prevent us from losing everything.
Why, then, are we so much more interested in pleasing men and so much more faithful at pleasing them, then we are in praying to the One who actually, and finally, holds our fortunes in his hands?
1. Is it not simply a failure of faith on our part? We know these things are so, but practicing that knowledge, believing it for our daily round of activities and duties, basing our actions on what we know of God and his Word–that is very difficult for us to do. And the purest act of faith–which is prayer–is therefore the one we most struggle constantly to perform faithfully and well.
In Richard Hooker’s immortal sermon on ‘Justification by Faith,’ the great Anglican theologian and preacher says this about prayer and our faithlessness in it:
‘We are never better affected unto God than when we pray; yet when we pray, how are our affections many times distracted! How little reverence do we show unto the grand majesty of God unto whom we speak! How little remorse of our own miseries! How little taste of the sweet influence of His tender mercies do we feel! Are we not as unwilling many times to begin, and as glad to make an end, as if in saying, “Call upon me,” He had set us a very burdensome task?…’
And Thomas Shepard, the founder of Harvard University was only speaking for everyone of us, when he confessed that there were times when he would rather die than pray.
And Alexander Whyte sums it all up by saying that there is nothing we are so bad at all our days as prayer.
And, what does all of that mean, but simply that our faith is so frail and so weak, that we are so much more inclined to trust ourselves and others more than God, that, preoccupied with what we can see and do, prayer does not seem to have sufficient importance for us to do it well and often.
2. A second example, from a multitude which I might have chosen to demonstrate the great problem we all have with living by faith, is that of our ordinary response to trouble in our lives.
When the bill comes which we did not expect; when illness of a serious kind strikes fear into our hearts; when troubles at home or at work increase; or, at the last, when death approaches, what is our customary frame of mind? Is it not, in fact, for most of us, very often, dismay, or fear, or discouragement or depression or anger?
But every Christian knows, that God has ordered all of his steps and every single circumstance of his life; every Christian knows that nothing at all falls to him except what passes through the hands of his Father in Heaven who like a father pities his children; every Christian knows that the troubles which God permits his children to bear are all designed in his most wise and gracious providence to do us good, to draw us closer to himself, to make us holy, to break the grip of this sinful world upon our hearts, to make us long for heaven and home, and so on. Every Christian knows that by faith he is supposed to accept his afflictions as good for him and even, at the bottom, to rejoice in his trials, knowing that the testing of his faith produces patience.
1. But, still, with faith so weak, seeing God’s hand in all of this so dimly, hearing only so faintly the promises of the Word of God, we so often grumble and complain and fear and become depressed just like those who do not know God or how he deals with his children.
A real faith, a real trust in God’s wisdom and goodness, a real confidence in his Word and his character, a real counting on his promises, you would think would cause us to say what John Bunyan once said after receiving so much blessing from one of his trials: ‘were it lawful, I could pray for greater trouble, for the greater blessing’s sake.’ But, it is rarely so with me or with you is it?
Our faith is too weak and we practice it far too little day by day.
This failure of faith is a common feature of our daily living–though, I pray, not in the unqualified way it was in the lives of Hosea’s contemporaries–and so, it should be the greatest part of our seeking after sanctification and growth in grace and the Christian life, that we school and exercise and strengthen and enlarge our faith, that more and more we might actually, really, genuinely live by faith day by day, really live our days and our nights reckoning with God and his Word, counting upon Him and his promises, and considering those promise, those exceeding great and precious promises, the only absolutely certain and sure things in this world of sight, sense, and sin.
But that is difficult work and requires a conscientiousness and perseverance to which we seldom rise, and so to steel you to the effort, let me remind you of three facts, all readily apparent in the experience of Israel, three facts that ought to make us ready and willing to renew our effort to build our faith in the Lord.
I. First, while the life of sight and sense is natural and effortless for us, the life of faith is only achieved by great effort.
Israel didn’t have to do anything to live by sight, to be all astir about diplomatic maneuverings but really uncaring about what God thought or promised. That all came quite naturally to her.
What is more, no doubt, long before this time, Israel had never set out to live the life of unbelief, to be a people who lived by sight and not by faith, who did not count the promises of God and his commandments as really important.
The simple evidence of this in chapter 7 is that Israel continued to maintain the pretence of faith in God. She did not think, she would not have agreed that she was a faithless people. The evidence proved the contrary she would reply to Hosea. Do we not pray to God; do we not worship him?
1. But, says Hosea, your actions belie your claims. Everything you do makes abundantly clear that God does not really figure in your calculations, whatever you may say in church! It is not to him that you really look for help; it is not by seeking his favor that you really expect to be delivered.
2. No, this people continued to go through the motions by habit and, indeed, by a certain kind of conviction; but subtly the reality had disappeared, the real issue now, Israel clearly thought, whatever she said to herself or others, was joined not in church but in the halls of diplomacy.
Faith had simply slipped away; sight and sense are so strong, that they had sucked all the real intention and conviction out of the acts of prayer and worship which Israel performed, and had fixed her attention solely on that which belonged to man and to this world.
ISRAEL, EVEN AT THIS TIME, WAS STILL LARGELY UNAWARE THAT SHE HAD NO FAITH IN GOD–but it had long since disappeared.
Faith is so hard to keep; sense is so strong a force, we are so captivated by what we can see and hear and touch that the unseen world can only be kept alive in our hearts by great effort and a careful watching against its weakening.
II. Second, the life of sense is degenerative.
This is another of Hosea’s points in this sermon. Israel had so long beckoned to the world of sight, had for so long ignored the unseen realities of the life of faith and of God’s covenant, that she now had become totally blind and deaf to those realities.
Her long living by sight instead of by faith had so enfeebled her faith and finally so destroyed it, that finally she was completely cut off from that truth and that understanding which faith alone gives. The result now was that no amount of evidence in the world could make Israel realize what total folly she had chosen for herself.
How often this theme recurs in Hosea’s preaching and several times here:
In verse 9 Hosea says, in effect, the nation is near the end, near to death, but the people do not see it.
In verse 7, all her kings have fallen, but none call upon the Lord.
In verse 9 again, ‘foreigners are sapping her strength, but she does not realize it.’
The consequences of her forsaking God are everywhere to be seen; the doom which she faces can now be seen approaching over the Eastern horizon, but Israel has now by long practice become so habituated to ignoring the truth of God that she is unable to see it and will be still trying to strike a deal with some putative ally when the enemy is breaking down her gates.
Start to live by sight; leave off struggling to live by and to increase your faith in the Lord, and soon all faith will be dead and with it wisdom, and understanding, and hope.
III. Finally, the life of sight and sense in the end doesn’t work.
That is, of course, Hosea’s great theme in these verses. Israel thinks she can find a way out of her mess; somehow escape Assyrian conquest, but she is kidding herself. God will see to it that all her plans are frustrated and that she gets what she deserves. He will not be mocked!
She had hoped that either Assyria or Egypt would be her Savior and so, lurching between the one and the other, she became hateful to both of them. Assyria would become her conqueror, and Egypt would make sport of her when she was destroyed.
We see the same principle everywhere around us today–people who live by sight and sense, trusting only in that which they can see and touch, but discovering in the end the bitter truth that life in this world; life as God has made it, requires the realities of the unseen world and of divine truth written in the heart and practiced in the life, if it is to bring the satisfaction, the peace, the joy, and the hope for the future, that every human being, made in the image of God, thirsts to have.
Some have that discovery forced powerfully upon them in this world, others can somewhat stave it off until the next world, but sooner or later, every man and every woman will find that judging the world by what could be seen and fashioning a life upon that which man could do left out of account the very things that were always most important and without which no true life could be lived and certainly no life pleasing to God.
So, from Israel’s sad experience take to heart these three lessons: that faith must be practiced, for living by sight is altogether so natural and easy for us, that without a determined effort on our part faith will always give way to sight. Second that if we do not practice our faith and build and nurture it, we will not stand still, but slip ever further backward from those unseen realities upon which we must build our lives if we are to be the true children of God; and, third, the penalties for living by sight and not by faith, though not always immediate, are always sure and always terribly grave.
But how do we strengthen faith; how ought we to school and to practice our faith, so as never to slip into the way of life that took Israel to her doom?
Well, so fundamental a question as that could be answered at great length; but let me say briefly a few things to point the way.
Adolphe Monod was the wonderful French Reformed Pastor of the last century, who died slowly and was thus able to address small groups from his congregation, Lord’s Day by Lord’s day, as they would gather around his bed, and whose brief addresses were then collected in a little volume which bears the title: Farewell. Adolphe Monod, in one of these deathbed talks spoke of faith and how to strengthen it and said:
‘There are three things we must do to grow in faith: ask for it; exercise it; and see it exemplified in the great saints as we study deeply the Scriptures.’ [p. 32]
Well, then, we must make prayer for faith the centerpiece of all of our praying for grace and growth each day–for faith is the key to everything else and what we must have before all else if we are to live the Christian life as it is meant to be lived.
And we must feed our faith, especially on the Word of God. What good do those great and precious promises do us and do our faith, if they are not, by much study and meditation always present to our mind and heart, always pressing against our thoughts as we pass through a day. ‘I will never leave you or forsake you…’ ‘Ask and it shall be given you…’ ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you…’ ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…’ ‘He who acknowledges me before men, him will I also acknowledge before my Father in heaven…’ ‘In keeping the commandments of God there is great reward…’ ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness…’ ‘ Cast thy burdens…’ and many other great and precious promises just like those.
And we must exercise our faith and strive to exercise it more and more: when we receive our paycheck, to look to see the hand of God giving it to us; and when we rise in the morning to thank the Lord for another day to live and serve him; and when we sit down to eat, to acknowledge the one who gives us every good gift; and when we love our wives or our husbands to acknowledge that God has joined us together…and on and on every morning, noon, and night.
And, then, parents of children, how much we must begin to build that faith in our children, that practice and that habit of living by faith, of trusting in God, and of counting upon his promises more than upon anything we can see, hear, or touch. All of us must gather faith for the future, build now the faith we will need ten years from now or twenty or on our deathbed; but how much more our little ones, who have a whole lifetime of faith yet to live.
Teach them, by your table prayers, fathers and mothers, that it is not a mere ceremony to you; but that you know as surely as you know anything that, no matter the food came from the store and no matter it was bought with your money, it is God and God alone who feeds his people, who enables us to earn money and for the earth to produce food for us!
Give God his due at every turn before your children; acknowledge him for life, for salvation, for forgiveness, for health, for troubles and for joys, until your children begin to live and move and have their being altogether in the Lord God!
And then, from time to time, use your sanctified imagination, to think of other ways in which you might write upon your children’s lives and hearts the lesson of living by faith and not by sight; do the kind of thing that the Great Awakening preacher, Richard Cecil, once did for his daughter’s education in faith:
“I imprinted on my daughter the idea of Faith, at a very early age. She was playing one day with a few beads, which seemed to delight her wonderfully. Her whole soul was absorbed in her beads. I said–“My dear, you have some pretty beads there.” “Yes, papa!” “And you seem to be vastly pleased with them.” “Yes, papa!” “Well, now, throw ’em behind the fire.” The tears started into her eyes. She looked earnestly at me, as though she ought to have a reason for such a cruel sacrifice. ” Well, my dear, do as you please: but you know I never told you to do anything which I did not think would be good for you.” She looked at me a few moments longer, and then (summoning up all her fortitude, her breast heaving with the effort) she dashed them into the fire. “Well,” said I, ” there let them lie: you shall hear more about them another time; but say no more about them now.” Some days after, i bought her a box full of larger beads and toys of the same kind. When I returned home, I opened the treasure and set it before her: she burst into tears with ecstasy. “Those, my child,” said I, “are yours; because you believed me, when I told you it would be better for you to throw those two or three paltry beads behind the fire. Now that has brought you this treasure. But now, my dear, remember, as long as you live, what FAITH is. I did all this to teach you the meaning of Faith. You threw your beads away when I bid you, because you had faith in me that I never advised you but for your good. Put the same confidence in God. Believe everything that he says in his word. Whether you understand it or not, have faith in him that he means your good.”
Keep on thinking, praying, exercising your faith, and teaching it to your children, until you and they together see God and God’s hand and God’s heart everywhere, controlling everything, with his banner of love always over your heads.
In that same deathbed sermon, Adolphe Monod said to his assembled flock: ‘My friends, I am in a position where nothing matters to me except faith.’ But so, beloved, are we all! And if we would all recognize it, and act accordingly, building our faith and living by it, why another whole 11th chapter of Hebrews, another honor roll of faith, might be written in the book of God, just from the lives of those who are here in this room this morning.
God make it so!