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Faith Needs Failures: A Conversation With Trillia Newbell

Faith Needs Failures: A Conversation With Trillia Newbell

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In Hebrews 11, the author starts getting a little carried away, listing examples of people who had great faith. 

Verse four: “By faith, Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did…” 

Verse five: “By faith, Enoch was taken from this life…” 

Verse seven: By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family…” 

The examples start coming faster and faster. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and more. These were all people who would have been well-known to the original readers of the Book of Hebrews. They were heroes in the Torah — what most Christians today called the Old Testament — so they needed no introduction. These people were giants of the faith. Reading about their remarkable lives like this may have been a little daunting. 

It’s daunting today, too. Today, this passage is known as the “Faith Hall of Fame,” and stands as a testament to some of the most revered and awe-inspiring people in the Bible — sort of like an Avengers for biblical heroes. It can make us feel a little inferior. After all, nobody’s nominating most of us for any Faith Hall of Fame. In such a context, it’s hard not to feel a little like a failure, with the great heroes of faith giving us a sense of spiritual health dysmorphia. 

It’s not like we need another reason to be skeptical of our own faith. Many Christians spend much of their lives struggling with a sense of failure. We don’t feel like we’re changing the world. Most days, we’re having a hard enough time changing ourselves. Our spiritual lives feel unremarkable so when we see a list like the one in Hebrews 11, it just reinforces the idea that we’re not living up to a certain standard. 

But what if we’ve gotten the purpose of this passage all wrong? What if the this list of biblical heroes wasn’t meant to shame us for not being good enough, but to assure us of something greater? That’s the theory of author Trillia Newbell, who delved into a study on this passage and the people listed in it, and came away with a very different impression of what it all means than she used to have. 

The Common Thread

“I think sometimes when we hear ‘Hall of Fame,’ we think glory. Best,” Newbell says. “We think highlight reel on Instagram.”

“We don’t think prostitute. We don’t think murderer. We don’t think doubter. We don’t think accuser. But these are all people who are in that Hall of Fame of Faith.” 

The more Newbell read about the people in the Hall of Faith, the more she realized how many of them were wholesale disasters. Their lives were messy, and it was often their fault. They faced consequences for their mistakes and got in trouble with friends, family and even the law. Frequently, God has strong words for them. 

In other words, they are all a lot like us. 

“The common thread I saw throughout is that they were all desperately in need of help,” Newbell says. “They were all human. They struggled, they suffered, they sinned greatly. Some of them failed miserably. Some of them are in this Faith Hall of Fame but they didn’t really seem to have much faith, at least not straight away. They questioned God.”

She’s right. Take Moses, one of the most famous people in the Bible, if not world religion at large. It’s easy to focus on the multitudes he led out of bondage from Egypt, becoming a historic icon of liberation from oppression. But he also had a temper, which drove him to murder and disobedience, defying God’s instructions about how to provide for the people of Israel. 

Or consider Rahab, the Canaanite woman who hid two Hebrew spies who were on a reconnaissance mission in Jericho. Her courage saved her life, as the Hebrews agreed to return the favor by sparing her when their army took the city down, and earned her a spot in the Hebrews 11 passage. The writer of Hebrews notes that she was a prostitute — possibly as part of Canaan’s religious practice — but that doesn’t strike her from the list. 

Or what about Samson? We love the stories about feats of strength and how many Philistines he was able to take on with the jawbone of a donkey. It’s not as much fun to talk about his eventual betrayal by Delilah. He spent the rest of his days as a prisoner of his enemies, his eyes gouged out, a subject of ridicule until, according to the Book of Samuel, God gave him enough strength for one last suicide mission. From an earthly perspective, his story looks like a tragic one. But the writer of Hebrews enshrines him as a hero of faith. 

Newbell says this is all evidence that our idea of what makes someone a spiritual giant is very different from God’s. 

“We have a certain standard that God doesn’t even have,” she says. “I mean, it’s glorious because it’s humbling, and it’s encouraging because they’re so human.” 

Crooked Sticks

“Any of us could be in the Hall of Fame of Faith,” Newbell says. “Any of us could.”

Newbell says that should be the true takeaway from this passage. It’s not a list of great people. It’s a list of very normal people, and most normal people are messed up failures. But God built a whole Church on messed up failures. God’s still doing it today. 

“If you look at yourself, you’re not worth it,” she says. “You can’t be a part of this party. I fall every single time I fix my eyes on myself.” 

“But,” she continues. “When we look to God, it changes everything.” 

The ramifications of this go far beyond our perspective of one chapter in Hebrews. It redefines how we think about our lives, our legacies and what really makes someone a hero in the faith. It changes how we think about God, other people and about our own lives. 

“The Lord, He uses crooked sticks,” Newbell explains. “Look to how the people in Hebrews 11 did it. A lot of them faltered. Their faith was not always strong. They struggled. They suffered. So when we look at them, we can emulate them. 

Newbell says the trick is to stop thinking of your own life as a measuring rod for your level of faith, and start using looking beyond yourself. She says the Faith Hall of Fame “tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, and that’s what they did. They fixed their eyes on their faith and they kept running. The ramifications for us is that we can. We can finish this race. We can continue to walk with God until the very end.” 

“We can look at their lives and say, ‘OK, how did they finish the race? What do we need to do?’” she continues. 

That’s where Hebrews 12 comes in. 

The Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 12 doesn’t have a fancy name like “Faith Hall of Fame” but, for Newbell, it’s a key part of understanding Hebrews 11. The writer of Hebrews isn’t just listing a bunch of names to elevate them to Icon Status. A bigger point is being made about how we’re supposed to live in light of their legacies, and if you’re struggling with a sense of failure, the wisdom here is invaluable.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” says Hebrews 12: 1-2. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” 

Newbell says this “cloud of witnesses” serves as an inspiration for those of us who are still running our race. If we look to the stories of the people who’ve gone before, we’ll see that their lives point us to Jesus. Their lives are a reminder that it was never about them. “They’re there to help us and encourage and change our ultimate identity to being transformed from one degree of glory to the next is in Christ,” she explains. “So it’s not about the people. Their faith witnesses to us.” 

“They are the cloud of witnesses because their faith tells us we can finish. Reading through their lives, helps encourage us towards it.”

So, practically speaking, what does “running the race” look like, especially when you don’t really feel like you’re doing a very good job of it? 

Newbell recommends a few things — the first of which is a trusted friend. If you’re struggling with feeling like a failure, the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself. 

“We are not called to do it on our own. We need community. We need people,” she says. “Grab someone and let them know what you’re experiencing. You definitely want to share that.” 

Newbell also encourages people struggling with a sense of failure to get specific. Write it down. Really try to figure out exactly what it is you’re wrestling with. Is there an addiction you feel like you should be giving up, but can’t figure out how? Are there spiritual doubts you can’t figure out how to resolve? Is it burnout? A relationship that’s dragging you down? Any one of these things are worth addressing, but you won’t be able to really work on it until you’ve named it. 

“And then go search, look, read,” she says. “There are lots of books! There are people who’ve really thought deeply about these questions. Enlist other people who can help or who might challenge you because we don’t like to be challenged. But we need that so that we can really truly evaluate what’s going on.” 

Author and Perfecter

“Believing the truth and walking in it, those are separate things,” Newbell says. “Faith is confidence that what we’re saying is true and then walking it out.” 

Phrases like “fix your eyes on Jesus” make for nifty cliches, but it can be hard to put such vague advice into practice. Newbell says the trick is to remember that Christianity, for all its heady spiritual language, is intensely practical. And she says the practical side of “fixing your eyes on Jesus” is key to overcoming that sense of failure. 

“To fix your eyes is to remind yourself of the truth,” she says. “To say it to yourself, ‘OK, this is true,’ and then to walk in it. I’m either going to continue to condemn myself or I’m going to believe it’s true, I’m going to lay that aside and I’m going to walk in faith.” 

There’s one member of the Faith Hall of Fame who does need an introduction. It’s in Hebrews 11: 5-6, “by faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God.” 

We know almost nothing else about Enoch. There’s a handful of verses in Genesis 5 about how long he lived and how many children he had, and then one mysterious endnote: He didn’t die, but instead was taken away by God. This, according to the writer of Hebrews, was an act of great faith on his part. Newbell says that this is maybe the most encouraging part of the whole passage. 

“He’s so obscure!” Newbell laughs. “But his obscure life meant something. That has been really impactful just to remind myself to walk closely with your Lord. Do justice. Serve. That is what He’s asking you to do.” 

Maybe you feel like your spiritual life is a colossal miss. Moses certainly understands that feeling. Maybe you just feel sort of quiet and obscure, like there’s nothing special about you. Enoch would have felt the same way. Or maybe you just don’t really fit in, the way Rahab would have felt. All of these people were remembered for their faith centuries later in Hebrews, and are still remembered today. God chose failures to build the story of faith. He’s still building it today. And if Hebrews 11 is any indication, there’s nothing any Christian can ever do that would remove you from being part of the story. 

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