While the book of Hebrews may not be as often turned to as other parts of the New Testament, the eleventh chapter is a favorite for many of us. We call it the “faith” chapter, for there the heroes and heroines abound in victorious faith. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph all make the honor roll. They all win.

Even women make the list. Rahab the harlot is mentioned in particular, and more generally “Women received their dead raised to life again.” Then there are still more men listed – Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David.

They are all victorious in faith. Faith itself is the victory. According to this chapter faith is the substance of hope itself, and the evidence of things not seen. It is by faith that we understand the nature of creation, and without faith it is impossible to please God.

 The power of faith is seen in the lives of those who had it. Faith brought down the walls of Jericho. By faith they passed through the Red Sea as on dry land. They subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions. They even quenched fire and escaped the sword. In their weakness they found strength, and they were valiant and victorious in battle, putting their enemies to flight.

Quite impressive! That is what faith does. If one has sufficient faith he can claim victory over both the sword and the mouth of lions. Or so it was in the case of some of those listed by the writer of Hebrews

But that is not the whole story of Hebrews 11. There is a conundrum in this chapter. In verse 35 the writer refers to “others” who are also listed as people of faith, but they were tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins. They were destitute, afflicted, tormented. They lost.

In one list those of faith escaped the sword; in the other list they are put to the sword. In one list faith is victorious; in the other list faith is defeated – or so it seems.

Are we to conclude that those who won were more faithful than those who lost? Some subdued their enemies, but others were tortured. Same faith? Were those who were destitute as faithful as those who prospered? Were those who were scourged and imprisoned as faithful as those who were delivered from such persecution?

We may be inclined to measure faith in terms of circumstances. In the same congregation there are those in wheel chairs, while others move about unimpeded. Some are coping with cancer and other dreaded diseases, while others enjoy robust health. Some are in financial crisis, while others are blessed with more than they need. Do we see such differences in terms of God blessing one more than another, as a reward of faith and commitment?

This is the thesis of the “health and wealth” gospel preached by some televangelists. If you give sacrificially – particularly to the televangelist – you will in turn be blessed twofold, perhaps even tenfold.

Such judgment is sometimes made in reference to the way our children turn out. The children of one family enjoy good health, get a good education, marry well, pursue a meaningful career, and produce grandchildren for the parents back home to gloat over. Great! We all rejoice with them, and we may say they deserve it, considering their spirituality and commitment. An ideal Christian home!

But sitting on the same pew is a family whose daughter turned out to be lesbian and a son who has a brain disorder and who is continually in and out of therapy, and still at home at age 32. No success stories to tell, no grandchildren to bless their Christmases. What are these parents to think when the minister keeps talking about the blessings of bringing up your children in the nurture of the Lord? And when the congregation sings about a victorious faith? They too provided a Christian home for their children, and they too have been both faithful and sacrificial – perhaps even more so than those who proudly show pictures of their grandchildren and tell of their son-in-law’s recent promotion to vicepresident of his company.

It is a problem that goes back to the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the thesis of which is that the godly win and the ungodly lose. If you are righteous you will prosper; if you are wicked, you will come upon hard times. Prosperity is the fruit of righteousness; poverty means you have been sinful. Even David in the Psalms said that he had never seen the righteous begging bread. But David never walked the streets of Calcutta or visited the garbage dumps in the Philippines. Psalms 1 insists that whatever the righteous do shall prosper.

The author of Ecclesiastes did not buy into the Wisdom thesis. If anything, he concluded, it often turns out the opposite way – the wicked win and the righteous lose. He went so far as to say, “There is a just man that perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.”

Neither did Jesus buy into the “health and wealth” thesis. He not only had special blessings for the poor, but warned his disciples that “In the world you will have tribulation” – and he added “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The problem in Hebrews 11 is that the author lifts up faith as powerful and victorious. It wins. The patriarchs were winners. Their faith overcame the sword and lions alike, and it routed the enemy and overcame death itself. But before he is through he talks about “others” whose faith led to different results. Unlike their victorious brothers and sisters, they lost – at least in terms of this world. But was their faith not of the same quality?

He may answer that question in verse 35. He says some of the faithful were tortured because “they did not accept their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” This indicates that they did not deny their faith in the face of persecution. They chose the eternal freedom promised them rather than the temporary respite offered by their persecutors. This may imply that the “losers” had even a greater faith than the winners, being the martyrs that they were.

All this at least means that we cannot measure faith by the circumstance of the faithful. It also means that we must view the vissisitudes of life in the light of eternity and not in terms of this life only. We cannot understand why some have it so good while others lose, sometimes devastatingly. Tragedy often besets the most devoted Christian, while a disbeliever seems never to lose. Faith may have nothing to do with it. The answer is lost in the sovereignty of God.

What matters is that in the end we win. As 1 Peter 1:6 puts it, “though now for a season, if need be, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations,” we will in the end “rejoice with unspeakable joy.”

This means that for some losing is winning, while for some others winning is losing. The Lord himself said it best, “He who loves his life shall lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25).