What Use is Faith?
by CJ Lam on November 30th, 2002
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This is one of several entries my friend CJ from Hong Kong wrote in my guestbook...
When the Christian missionaries first came to England they sought permission of the Saxon king, Ethelbert, to preach Christ to his people. While the king was hesitating what answer to give the missionaries a strange bird, having entered by an opening flew across the council chamber and out into the open on the opposite side. As the king stood in deliberation a bard arose and said: "Sire, thou hast seen this bird of passage as it winged its way across the room. Whence it came we know not, nor do we know whither it has gone. We, like that bird of passage, are here for a brief space. Whence we came, or whither we go, we know not. If, therefore, these strangers can tell us, as they affirm, whence we have come and whither we are going, I say that we should welcome them and their message." On hearing this, Ethelbert permitted the missionaries from Rome to begin the preaching of the faith which eventually made Britain a Catholic land.
The importance of faith is that it gives us definite knowledge of our origin and our destiny, and of the way to our destiny. It tells us, moreover, much about God and heavenly things, of which we should otherwise be in ignorance. As we look up into the sky in daytime we see a canopy of blue. It is only with the coming of night that we may perceive the countless stars that fill the firmament. If it were perpetual day we should never know of the myriads of heavenly bodies which stud the sky, and which only the darkness of night reveals. Likewise faith reveals to us ever so many consoling and valuable truths which we should never be able certainly to know otherwise.
Faith is concerned with spiritual or heavenly things. It does not deal with agriculture or commerce or geography or with any earthly matters, except incidentally when it employs these things by way of parable or illustration in order to explain supernatural truths.
The late Cecil Chesterton said, in a public lecture, that concerning what was vital to man there was more knowledge in the first page of the penny catechism than in all the books of philosophy ever published. And he had read more widely than most men. As a young man he had renounced Protestantism, the religion in which he was brought up, because of its inconsistencies. As Protestantism was the only Christianity he was acquainted with he thought that in rejecting it he was rejecting Christianity. He became an agnostic, but a restless one, ever seeking a solution to the great problems which concern the origin, condition, and destiny of man. He ran the gamut of religious belief, taking up one system after another, only to reject each of them in turn. He finally came to the stage where he concluded that it was useless to try and get an answer to not a few paramount problems of life. He remained in this condition for some years, but never at rest. Meeting a Catholic priest while traveling in a railway coach, he casually touched upon one of the subjects which was uppermost in his mind, the existence of moral evil. The priest gave him the answer of faith. It was like a flash of light in a dark cave. It revealed what was hitherto a mystery. The priest told him that faith taught that God in creating man made him free. In order to be free man must have the power of choice between good and evil, otherwise he would be necessarily good. If there were no evil in the world there would be no choice between virtue and vice. God allows moral evil but does not approve of it. He permits the good and the bad to exist alongside each other, and to go on to the end, when He will reward the good and punish the wicked. This was the first time that Chesterton received a satisfactory solution of the problem of evil. It led him into further investigation of Catholic faith with the result that he became an ardent Catholic. It was after this and similar experiences that he declared that the penny catechism contained more philosophy than all the merely philosophic books of the world.
The existence of evil is, it is true, a mystery, even with the light of faith thrown on it. But it is a mystery of God's providence, not of the existence of evil as such. God could, if He wished, give us the full explanation of His dealings with mankind. But He has not seen fit to do so. Because He does not reveal everything about Himself is no reason why we should not be grateful for what He does reveal. He tells us, by faith, that He is the Creator of the world; that He made all things out of nothing; that He made man like unto Himself, immortal and free; that He gives man the period of this life in order to test his allegiance, that He does this by permitting good and evil, commanding him to do good and avoid evil; that man's destiny is to share the life of God Himself if he prove faithful to God; that He so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son as our Redeemer and example; that to as many as prove true to the precepts and example of His Son, Jesus Christ, He will give the power to become the children of God; that in order to help us if we fall through weakness, or even malice, He has instituted the sacraments to restore us to spiritual life and His friendship.
All these and other truths, not acquirable by human study, faith teaches us. Faith thus gives the solution to the problem of life. It tells us that we have not here a lasting city but that we seek one which is to come. It proclaims that this life is not solely enjoyment but probation, and that this world is not the goal but starting point of man. Not to mention other truths of faith, what we have enumerated show us the great value of faith. It explains life, which is otherwise a despairing problem. It gives a motive for patiently bearing the vicissitudes of life, which otherwise might crush us. It is a light guiding our steps unerringly to our home beyond, where our destiny is to become members of the divine family.
The most consoling and valuable thing about faith is its certainty. It is based on God's veracity. God can neither deceive nor be deceived. Heaven and earth may pass away, but His word will never fail. Consequently, people of faith never doubt about what faith teaches. They may not understand the mysteries of faith but they believe them on God's word. We do not understand how it is that the world rotates, and whirls through space with incalculable speed, but we believe it on the word of astronomers. Not one person in a million understands the processes of higher mathematics which convince astronomers of what they teach us. But though we do not understand these matters we have faith in men of science and on their word believe their teaching. We believe that the earth is round, yet most people do not understand how it is that those on the opposite side do not fall off, nor how it is that they stand toward us feet foremost. Scientists, of course, give the explanation, or what they call the explanation, namely gravity, but what gravity is neither they nor we understand. There are incomprehensible things in our own selves. We do not know how the bread we eat becomes our flesh and blood. All the chemists in the world cannot change bread into living flesh. But it is done by the marvelous chemistry of our own human laboratory, by a process all unknown to ourselves, and without our being aware of the transformation that is taking place.
If nature presents mysteries we should not be surprised that nature's God should also disclose mysteries. If we do not understand our own bodies, and what is going on in them, we should not be surprised that we do not understand Him who made us. Hence when God reveals to us something about Himself, the fact that we do not understand it should not concern us. If God only required of us to believe what we understood, He would be asking of us no more than what one man may expect of another. But He is God. He is the Author of truth. He is Truth itself. He is also our Creator, He gave us our love of truth, and our reason by which we discern the truth. He wants us, therefore, to show Him the respect and consideration and reverence and trust of believing Him, simply because He declares a thing to be so.
It may be asked why does God want our faith. He wants it because it is the highest homage we can pay Him. By faith we sacrifice on the altar of God's veracity our noblest faculty, our judgment. By sacrificing what is our most precious possession we show homage to God. Hence it is that God says, "I will espouse thee to Me in faith." Faith thus becomes the close bond of union and love between the Creator and the creature. It is the wonderful connection between God and man by which, as the Apostle Peter tells us, "we may become partakers of the divine nature." Of course the faith that thus lovingly unites us to divinity is not mere believing, but the living in accordance with the belief. Faith without works is dead. The truths of faith are so beautiful and consoling that every one would believe in the if it were not that belief implied conduct in accord with belief. People readily believe what Plato and Aristotle and other sages teach, because belief in these men entails no obligation to live as they prescribe. But if we believe in Christ, we acknowledge Him to be God, and that we must obey Him as God. That makes people apply a rule of belief with regard to Christ which they do not use with any other personage of history.
Everything about Christ and His claims is better attested than are the facts concerning any other historical person. But since faith in Christ means to acknowledge Him as Lord and Master, many reject the grounds of belief regarding Him which they accept for everything else. By faith the most comforting and sustaining truths are conveyed to man. What, for instance, could mean more to mortals than this truth, "To as many as receive Him He gives the power to become the sons of God." What a wonderful destiny that is! To reflect that in the warfare of life, and life is warfare, we may, by being true soldiers of Christ, win a divine inheritance which will make us children of God! There are some people who enthuse over those truths of faith which tell of the goodness and love of God, but reject those which tell of His justice. They are willing to believe in a Christ who would let them live as they like, but not in Him who says, "If thou wilt enter into eternal life keep My commandments." In other words these people have a wrong idea of faith. They are willing to believe in themselves, not in God. They would believe in God if He would serve them, but they reject Him because they must serve Him if they believe in Him.
That is why Christ is judged by the world by a different standard from that applied to others. But to those who in sincerity seek the truth, Christ is indeed Truth itself. Hence when He says, "Amen, Amen, I say unto you, he that believeth in Me hath life everlasting," we of the faith know that by living as He directs we shall share in His blessed and eternal life.
It is a wonderful comfort for us to know from the very mouth of God that this life is not all of our existence, but only the first stage of it. Without revelation man might have attained a knowledge of immortality, but the fact is that it was a hazy and unsatisfactory notion of future life which prevailed outside the sphere of revelation. By faith we know that our destiny is to share in the glorious life of God. "That we may become partakers of the divine nature." By faith we also know that God is not merely a distant Creator, the First Cause of all that exists, omnipotent and omniscient, but that He is our Father, that He loves us, and that He manifested His love for us by giving His Only-Begotten Son, for our eternal welfare.
The Only-Begotten Son manifested His love for us by giving His life for us after enduring privation and suffering for us from the manger to the cross. Beholding how Christ suffered for us we are prepared, if need be, to suffer for Him. Hence, when for the sake of keeping His law we must put up with inconvenience, hardship, or downright suffering, we are strengthened by His example, and for love of Him to do manfully, and to bear with patience if not joy whatever the following of Christ entails. That is the life of faith. It is not academic belief in an abstract truth, nor an acceptance of some fact of history which does not personally affect us, but the firm conviction that what Christ, or His accredited Church, teaches, is a living truth which has a bearing on the conduct of life. It is thus that faith not only tells us that in God there are three Persons, but that the Second Person became man for our salvation. It shows us the infinite love of God the Father who gave His Son for us, and also the immeasurable love of God the Son, who died for us, and that of the Holy Ghost who sanctities us by grace and enables us to attain a share in the blessed life of the Trinity. Faith manifests Christ to us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the way to eternal life, by His precepts and example; He declares the truth about ourselves and our destiny; and He is the life, the very life of God, which He desires us to share in. It will thus be seen that faith gives us that incentive to virtue which is so necessary in a sinful world, and that certainty about life which is so comforting in a doubting world. Catholics never doubt about the truths of revelation. They are as certain with regard to them as they are of their own existence. Difficulties they may have. But as Cardinal Newman has said, ten thousand difficulties do not make a doubt. We have difficulties about the nature of electricity and radio and other natural phenomena, but we have no doubts as to the reality of those things.
If there were no difficulties about faith, if everything that faith reveals were clear and agreeable to us what merit would there be in believing? If a soldier has faith in a general only when the general demonstrates the wisdom of his orders it is hardly faith at all. Soldiers show faith in a commanding officer when they follow him because of the confidence they have in him that he is worthy of their trust no matter how incomprehensible to them his orders may be.
God is the Commander-in-Chief of mankind. He can neither deceive nor be deceived. He wants us to trust Him and to obey Him because He is God. He does not explain Himself or His ways to us, because to do so would be to act not as Creator but as creature. Faith in Him, therefore, means the firm conviction that in being guided by Him we are being directed aright. It is not opinion, no matter how strong, or persuasion, or the highest probability that constitutes faith, but a conviction which is stronger than anything that reason can give, which constitutes faith. Hence it was that the martyrs laid down their lives in torments rather than prove false to the faith. It was the same firm conviction that inspired myriads of Christians in every generation to forego the most imperative cravings of nature, and to consecrate their lives to heroic service for God in the cloister or on missionary fields.
It is the same faith today which is the incentive for so many to live honestly and purely in a dishonest and impure world. If faith were not necessary, God would not have enjoined it. But the Apostle tells us that "without faith it is impossible to please God." Living faith of course is meant, according to the same Apostle "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision: but faith that worketh by charity."
There are some persons who are known to profess the faith, but whose lives are a contradiction to all that faith teaches. These do real harm to religion. Their account is with God, who will hold them directly responsible for the great harm they do. Quite often this class of people make use of their faith as a means to attain some worldly object. In proportion as they proclaim their faith they live unworthy of it. The worst enemy of the true faith is that person who is known to profess it, but whose conduct belies it. Many a seeker after truth has been repelled from investigating the true faith because some of its adherents have given him a false notion of it by their lives.
Christ has said, "Not they who say Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but they who do the will of My Father." Faith, unless lived up to, will not avail unto salvation. Faith is all important, but an active faith which manifests itself in right living. For, after all, faith is not the end but only the means. St. Augustine said, "God who made us without our cooperation will not save us without our co-operation." We must do our part. If we do, we shall receive the reward of faith, which is so inexpressibly great that "eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive what God hath prepared for them that love Him." It is no less than companionship with God Himself, a share in His immortal blessedness. "But they that shall be accounted worthy shall die no more, for they shall be as the angels and are the children of God."
Sometimes one hears a person say that it is undesirable to have the faith because it imposes so many obligations. As well that it is undesirable to have the expert prescription of a medical specialist in a serious malady because it imposes certain restrictions and remedies.
Christ is the Physician of the soul. By faith He has prescribed for eternal welfare. Blessed are they who trust Him and live by Him, for He conducts all who follow Him to the blessed end of life and joy everlasting.