Breaking the Feedback Loop

The Book of Hebrews is a theologically dense book that holds many lessons for believers of all vintages.  It was written during a time and for an audience in which blistering persecution was the norm.  Without a deeply rooted encouragement to keep on, the early believers ran the risk of extinction and irrelevance.  As a result, you can find some of the most uplifting and faith-girding passages in all of the Bible in this book.

You may know that Chapter 11 recounts a “who’s who” of the people of God, the titans of faith whose convictions and actions serve as life lessons for the rest of us mere mortals.  This is, of course, the best way to encourage believers in distress, is to remind them of those who came before us, and it is a soaring account of memorable followers and transformative deeds. 

What I keep coming back to is that the lesson of this chapter rests on two main points.  One is that what kept the faithful faithful is that God promised them something to see them through.  All well and good; how right it is to be buoyed up in staying the course by the greatness of what awaits and the assurance that we will in fact see it.

Ah, but the second main point is potentially troublesome.  Let me quote you how the chapter ends (emphases are mine):

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

Come again?  The faithful were able to stay faithful because of what was promised to them and because of the assurance of that promise, and yet for all of that God intentionally did not allow them to receive that which was promised.  Wow. 

In our lives, we operate in a feedback loop.  If we do something that makes us feel good or advances us in some way, we learn to do more of it.  This is true about just about everything good in life, from studying hard in school and taking care of your body to being nice and telling the truth.  If it makes us physically or emotionally stronger, if it enhances our social life or popularity, if it enriches our pocketbook or the groups we are part of, it’s a good thing and we learn that it is worth it to do more of it.

Ah but the faith journey sometimes doesn’t work that way.  Sometimes we are called to do things for which there is no positive feedback loop.  In fact, sometimes we are called to do things for which there is an immediate and uncomfortable feedback loop: we experience physical hardship, emotional duress, or fierce opposition. 

That second lesson from the book of Hebrews and from its 11th chapter is a heavy but ultimately life-giving one to receive, which is that there is a great reward that is promised to us that we may not yet see on this side of glory but that is ultimately the most important thing to motivate us to do what we have been called to do.  It can seem so unnatural to break the feedback loop – to say no to a life that responds only to things that make us feel better or look good or make more money, and yes to a life that may involve deprivation and unpopularity and isolation – but it is actually the way to real and lasting life. May we have that kind of faith to claim that in our lives.  Eternity depends on it.

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