Pastor Patience ended his sermon the same way all the Haitian students had, “May God bless you.” He had just finished a triumphant message from Hebrews, but I was worried. Faith, he had argued, will enable you to vanquish fear, overcome obstacles, move mountains. He focused on three portraits of faith in Hebrews 11:29–31: the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the walls crumbling at Jericho, and Rahab welcoming the spies. His energy overflowed as he urged victory through the power of God. Near the end, he drew us in with a moving story about how faith and prayer saved his own infant daughter from a life-threatening stomach illness. Pastor Patience captured us with his passion, but I heard in his sermon a dissonant strain that I couldn’t shake.
Haiti is a hard place. Even when things are good, it‘s chaos. When things are bad, they range from anarchy to reign of terror. If you grew up on the eastern seaboard of the United States like me, then you’ve experienced life after a hurricane. In the wake of a big storm, standing water fills yards. Trees block streets. Wreckage coats parking lots. Cars circle the block like vultures around the one gas station that has fuel—or power. What electricity there is flows from fuel-chugging generators making the gas crisis worse. No one knows when the power will be back on. People stockpiling food pick shelves bare.
This is everyday Haiti.
Imagine living your whole life under these conditions. Babies are born; people pass away. You go to school. You go to work. You go on your honeymoon. You have a birthday party for your son. You visit your mother. You go grocery shopping. You try to charge your phone, but you can’t find power. That’s life in Haiti. Driving to class one morning we passed a dead body, legs wrenched at impossible angles, while people milled around waiting for their rides to work or school.
“I’m worried you’re promising people false hope,” I confessed. “But more importantly, I think you’ve missed the main idea of the text.” The class grew silent, uncomfortable and uncertain, waiting for me to explain. “Look at the end of the chapter,” I continued, “ ‘Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground’ (Hebrews 11:36–38). These people are not overcoming their problems,” I explained. “They’re suffering deeply. Look back at the end of chapter 10. What is the purpose of all these examples of faith? Perseverance.”
“I’m worried you’re promising people false hope,” I confessed. “But more importantly, I think you’ve missed the main idea of the text.”
The point is not that these people overcame; the point is that they acted in obedience when they didn’t know how things would end. Hebrews 11:13 says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” The application comes at the beginning of chapter 12. We must press on in hope following the example of Christ who endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). This is a spiritual hope.
As I offered my assessment, I looked with some apprehension into Pastor Patience’s eyes. Would he understand? Would he be receptive? I knew I was butting up against his theological convictions, so I steered him toward the reality of the text. I was still more afraid that a sense of shame before his peers would deafen him to my concerns. But Pastor Patience was not the first to respond. “This is such a good reminder to us,” exclaimed Pastor Felix; “we must always read the passage in context.” Then Pastor Silas suggested that reading longer passages of Scripture in their churches would enable their congregations to understand the context and hold them accountable in their preaching. All agreed that what they promise their people must match the promises in God's Word. Surrounded by a chorus of his peers, Pastor Patience graciously listened.
This became a beautiful teaching moment for the class—the students recognized that literary context and a close reading of the text must control our preaching. But I too was rebuked. As a Westerner, I regularly slip into functional atheism, a rationalist worldview that struggles with faith in things we do not see. When faced with the challenges of Haiti, with its inescapable suffering, I crave visible results: jobs created, wells dug, clinics built, people fed. I struggle to stand before an impoverished, suffering congregation and proclaim an eternal hope that I cannot empirically verify in this life. And yet, the gospel is an eternal hope—not an immaterial one—but spiritual nevertheless. The promise is not necessarily that our physical surroundings will improve—that Haiti will quit having corruption, gas shortages, and riots in the streets. The promise is that if we don’t lose heart and if we endure these things as discipline from a loving Father, then we will “share in his holiness” and enjoy “a harvest of righteousness and peace” (Hebrews 12:2, 10–11). Even as I steered Pastor Patience toward that understanding of the text and our eternal hope, I came face to face with my own challenge of faith. Will I run with perseverance? Will I preach faithfully? Will I welcome these promises from a distance?