I've been reading Lectures on Faith recently, (thanks, Daniel, for reminding me how good it is) and it led me to a few translations of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, Paul's beautifully worded and profound sermon on the power of faith. He defines faith as "the substance [Joseph says "the assurance"] of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (v. 1). Rendered less poetically but more plainly, "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (NIV).
Paul lists many examples of scriptural heroes who did great deeds and obtained great promises by their faith, then says of them:
"These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country...they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13-16).
What a beautiful sentiment! Paul is admonishing us to be like these spiritual giants who "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" and, by faith, saw the city for which they had been striving "afar off." It's the same sentiment that Eliza R. Snow expressed in her beautiful hymn, O My Father:
For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.
It's that kind of longing that's so hard to recapture in a world that, as Wordsworth put it, "is too much with us."
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!*
A sordid boon indeed, Paul says--for the Heavenly City awaits those who feel that longing for "a more exalted sphere" that causes them to realize that they were created for greater purposes than those that now occupy their days. When we forget our divine nature and eternal destiny, it's easy to get bogged down in the comings and goings of mortal life. But when we look forward with an eye of faith, and glimpse the glorious promises, though still "afar off," the Spirit whispers that we were created for another world, a "more exalted sphere," a greater purpose, and that the things which occupy so much of our time here are of secondary importance, for we are only "strangers and pilgrims" here, never meant to be permanent citizens of this fallen earth. We begin to feel a celestial homesickness, a longing for our heavenly home, and though we "cannot behold with [our] natural eyes, for the present time, the design of [our] God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation" (Doc. & Cov. 58:3), we are "persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
And all this by faith--the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Truly it is a principle of great power, as Joseph Smith proclaimed:
"Man...spake by faith in the name of God, and the sun stood still, the moon obeyed, mountains removed, prisons fell, lions' mouths were closed, the human heart lost its enmity, fire its violence, armies their power, the sword its terror, and death its dominion; and all this by reason of the faith which was in them" (Lectures on Faith 1:22).
The knowledge that such a power is available to us is immensely comforting. I want that power, that longing, that assurance, more fully in my life. For each time I catch a glimpse of the glorious plan of our merciful God, and the power by which it operates, I am led to plead, with the apostles of old, "Lord, increase [my] faith" (Luke 17:5).