“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. …Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13, 16b TNIV)
I heard about a study where researches offered young children the choice between getting one marshmallow now and waiting for a few minutes to get two marshmallows. Some kids took the single marshmallow while others waited and received two. As the researches followed the lives of the kids, they discovered that those who waited generally did better in life. This is the principle of delayed gratification and it is a very important life skill.
Delayed gratification is also an important spiritual skill.
Those heroes of the faith already listed in Hebrews 11 (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham) all practiced some sort of spiritual delayed gratification. They gave up the temporary pleasures of this world to wait for the eternal rewards that only God could offer.
There are serious limitations in comparing the example of delayed gratification above with the spiritual delayed gratification practiced by our fathers in the faith.
In the example of the marshmallows the kids waited for one thing to get more of that same thing. Those whole live by faith, however, gave up something of one kind (visible, temporary, the result of disobedience) for something of a different kind (invisible, permanent, the result of obedience). For that reason, they were always restless, living as aliens in the land, looking for a land of their own.
The other problem with the comparison is that the likes of Abraham and Noah never fully received the promise of God while they were living. “They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” They did receive a glimpse. Abraham had the son of the promise and Noah and his family were saved from the flood. But their ultimate reward was not to be found in this life.
The last words of this passage are sweet. “Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God.” Enoch, Abel, Moses, and Abraham lived by faith because they understood just how sweet those words really are. Because they grasped the greatness of the promise – friendship with God – they were able to delay gratification for the present to receive an eternal reward.