There are many situations in our lives where our faith is tested. Confusion and discord within the Church continue today as they have for centuries. Injustice and a lack of charity are seen even among those who claim to be Christian. Those who place their confidence in Christ and his Church are ridiculed, mocked and persecuted. We are betrayed by those we love, saddened by a world that promotes immorality and struggle in our own battles with sin. Amid adversities on many fronts, a friend told me recently that she feels like everything is falling apart and she was at a loss for what to do. But I reminded her that it is especially in these moments of helplessness, when on the brink of despair, that we need to believe.
Sometimes people may think the phrase “have faith” is simply said to placate others, but this is often due to a misunderstanding of what we mean by the word. One aspect of faith is making an intellectual assent to revealed truths, but it is much more than this. Faith is a gift from God, a free assent of the intellect and will and engages our entire being.
Reflecting on this topic, I recalled the accounts of two unnamed Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew who receive tremendous praise from Jesus for their faith. In Matthew 8:5-10, a centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant and has such confidence he proclaims to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Then, in Matthew 15:21-28, a Gentile woman from Canaan approaches Jesus and exclaims, “Kyrie Eleison, O Lord [Have mercy on me, O Lord]…” and asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Despite the disciples trying to send her away and Jesus telling her his mission was focused on the lost sheep of Israel, she remains persistent. Not only does Jesus perform healing miracles in both instances, but he commends the two in unique fashion by extolling them for their “great” faith. Jesus even tells the centurion he had not found faith like his among anyone in Israel. Jesus draws special attention to the great faith of these two Gentiles so they would be witnesses to his disciples. The Church continues to call these two figures to our mind as we echo their words in every Mass: the words of the Canaanite woman during the Kyrie Eleison and of the centurion during the Communion Rite. This is a reminder we too are called to great faith.
To understand faith, we must first recognize it is a gift from God infused into our soul (Catechism of the Catholic Church 153), and throughout our lives, we can and should ask the Lord to give us an increase of this faith (CCC 162; Luke 17:5). By this theological virtue, we are enabled to believe in God and are given the power to freely assent to all the truths God has revealed, particularly through his Church (CCC 1814). And as we search for the ultimate meaning of this life, faith is a gift of supernatural light God provides to elevate our reason, helping us to come to know transcendent realities.
Man’s Response to God
Faith is also man’s response to God who first seeks us. By cooperating with God’s grace, we are enabled to make an act of faith, which involves a personal adherence to God and a submission of our intellect and will to him (CCC 26, 143, 154-155). We seek to know and do God’s will (CCC 1814) desiring to have what St. Paul refers to as “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). In receiving and cooperating with this gift, it is essential we not only keep the faith but live it, profess it, bear witness to it and share it with others (CCC 1816).
Though we can in one sense compare faith to our human experiences, such as trusting the car manufacturer each time we drive to work or having confidence in the surgeon during an operation, belief in God is vastly different. Our faith in God is entrusting one’s self wholly to God and believing absolutely in all he says. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature” (150). Additionally, faith is more certain than any knowledge we can gain through human means because it is founded on the very word of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived (CCC 156).
The Church also reminds us we must persevere. Though a priceless gift, it is one that can be lost. Faith is given freely without coercion but God allows for the possibility of our refusal. If we reject a revealed truth or choose our will rather than God’s, we are hardening our hearts to the power of this supernatural gift. We also fall away from faith if we allow ourselves to despair or lose trust in God. And though God permits these free choices, the consequences of squandering God’s gift are eternal.
The loss of a belief separates us from Christ and his Church because as the Catechism says, “When it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body” (CCC 162; 1815). St. Paul also warns how we can lose faith writing, “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith…” (1 Timothy 1:18-19). Walking away from faith is destructive because we are turning from light and going back into darkness. Having received freedom in Christ, a rejection of this gift of faith is returning to a life of slavery that provides nothing but empty promises, unfulfilled dreams and an absence of joy. Longing for unending happiness, if we make a shipwreck of our faith, we will never find satisfaction.
It is God who takes the first initiative, seeking each one of us and calling us to return to him. God offers each of us armor, including the shield of faith, to protect us from evil and the wiles of the devil (Ephesians 6:16). But then God waits. Our response to him needs to be all or nothing because in faith we are to fully surrender ourselves to God. It is inauthentic if we believe only when it benefits us, or we believe only when it is “easy” because our life is going well. We should also recognize that the potency of this shield of faith we are given depends on God, but, for it to be effective in us, we must accept it, carrying it with us each day as we battle with the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
If we refuse this gift because we are enjoying the pleasures of the world and living contrary to God’s will, we are not merely rejecting faith but God himself. We should also realize that a lack of comprehension of revealed truths is not equivalent to an absence of belief. By cooperating with the gift of faith, we will be moved to seek understanding and this grace will open our hearts to “a lively understanding of the contents of Revelation…of the totality of God’s plan and the mysteries of the faith…” (CCC 158).
Another threat to our belief is our experience of evil, suffering, injustice, and death. The Church warns us to not let these shake us from faith and, when these struggles arise, the Catechism tells us:
It is then we must turn to the witnesses of faith: to Abraham, who “in hope…believed against hope;” to the Virgin Mary, who, in “her pilgrimage of faith” walked into the “night of faith” in sharing the darkness of her son’s suffering and death; and to so many others: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). [CCC 165]
In addition to looking to Abraham and the Blessed Virgin when faced with temptations or obstacles to our faith, we recall others who have gone before us persevering in faith. The prophet Daniel, trustworthy and faithful yet despised, was thrown into a den of starving lions as punishment for praying to God. Trusting God fully, Daniel was miraculously protected from harm overnight and released by the king the next day (Daniel 6). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Israelite men who refused to commit acts of idolatry and, as a result, were thrown into a blazing furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. Because of their belief, God kept these men unscathed by the fire that encompassed them (Daniel 3). The book of Job is an account of a faithful man who had everything one could desire – a wife, children, many material possessions, good health and great wealth. Then he loses everything even acquiring a horrific disease. Job is saddened by the events and laments that it seems the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer. But the one thing he never loses is his belief in God and, in the end, God blesses Job with many earthly possessions and rewards him with happiness. Many other examples are given to us in the letter to the Hebrews: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Isaiah and the Maccabean martyrs (see Hebrews 11). And we cannot forget the centurion and the Canaanite woman whom Jesus himself honors for their great faith. It is in the dark and difficult times we too must have great faith and look to these heroes who have gone before us leading the way by their examples.
By holding firmly to our gift of faith just like those who have gone before us, God gives us the power to overcome all obstacles. But it is not merely in our trials – we are called to believe throughout our lives.