The Gospel reading for this Tuesday of the 4th week in ordinary time (Mark 5:21-43) presents us with an unmistakable and inescapable message from Jesus: Have faith. Really. It’s all about faith.
As Mark tells the story of Jairus, the synagogue official whose daughter is ill and dying, wrapped around the story of a widow whose hemorrhages have resisted all attempts at treatment for 12 years, we hear Jesus say it twice: First, he tells the widow, “Daughter, your faith has saved you….” and then, he tells Jairus, upon hearing that Jairus’ daughter has died, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” St. Paul, in the first reading for the day (Heb 12:1-4), reminds us likewise to keep the faith, “running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”
That seems simple enough. Just have faith.
Well, all of these things are simple when we are sitting quietly, reading the Scriptures and reflecting and praying on them. When it comes to dealing with real life, our human nature with all its distractions and worries and plans and expectations has a tendency to get in the way of the simplicity. And not the least of the issues our human nature creates is this tendency to think that the more complex a thing is, the more worthy it is of our attention and focus and energy to figure it out and understand it. By extension, the simpler something is, the less it engages us and requires our focus and energy. We just don’t regard “simple” things as being all that worthy of our time and attention.
I’ve said it before, though: Life in this world is complex and complicated. Faith, on the other hand, is very, very simple. Apply a very simple thing to solve a very complex and complicated problem? Now there’s a novel concept….
….And it’s the only concept that really works.
Let me reflect a bit deeper on Jesus’ invitation to us to “just have faith” and on His promise to the widow that “your faith has saved you.”
What is faith, anyway? Dictionary definitions range from general references to “complete trust or confidence in something” to a more specific “strong belief in God or the doctrines of a religion” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith). Scriptural references are summarized by St. Paul in Heb. 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And it is in this definition from St. Paul that we start to see how faith intersects and interacts with the way we experience the world and the way we experience God.
We’re trapped here, you see — the only place we have to live in is the world. It’s a tough place, because its inhabitants, like all of us, are sinful beings, many of whom seem to be singularly uninterested in letting God into their lives, much less walking the path that Jesus laid out for us. If all there was for us to know was that the world is inhabited by sinful people who do evil, rotten things, we really could have no hope for anything good in the present, much less the future. And without that hope, there’s really no way to go on, is there?
That’s where faith comes in. And when I write about faith, I recognize fully that theological experts with minds much greater than mine have done so, and that atheists and others with equally great minds on the other side have refuted these notions in their way. I’m writing about faith merely from my own small human experience of it. And here’s what I think:
First, it’s a gift. I received it in baptism, and it was later confirmed in me through the other Sacraments. I did nothing to deserve this gift; I could not earn it, but it was freely bestowed by God Who created me out of His great love for me. That’s personal.
Sometimes this gift is given later in life; people come to recognize both something missing in their lives and something like a seed planted that waits to grow, and that’s the seed of faith, and they come looking for baptism and the other sacraments so that the seed can grow.
Second, faith is both a need and a choice — and not necessarily in that order. It’s part of the human condition that we have a need to believe in something (Someone) greater and stronger than ourselves. The choice comes in when we realize that the need is for Someone, and we choose to adopt and exercise the gift that He first gave us. The choice is necessary for two reasons, I think: first, He never forces His gifts on us, but simply offers them; and second, if we do not choose to live in faith, then by default we are choosing to reject that gift.
Third, faith is a living, growing thing. Given that God plants the seed, given that we have a deep need for it and given that we (hopefully) choose to live in faith, we are called and compelled to nurture it and give it room to grow. We are called and compelled to express it, and we are called and compelled to share it.
The fourth and most wonderful thing about faith, I think, is how the Holy Spirit works in us. The Holy Spirit rejoices along with the Father and the Son at each step of our journey in faith: When the seed is planted in us, when we acknowledge our need (which truly never goes away!), when we choose to welcome this gift, and when we seek and nurture its life and growth in us — all along the way, the Holy Spirit rejoices. As with the gift of faith in the first place, He never forces Himself into our lives — but, oh, how good He is at whispers and nudges and suggestions! The more aware we become of how our faith impacts our daily lives, the more He whispers and nudges and suggests.
And that brings me to the active part of faith: Faith is an active listener. When we are listening for those whispers and nudges and suggestions, when we become aware of them and respond to them, then our lives become faith in action.
Faith is the foundation of our spiritual and prayer lives. It is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” — the absolute confidence that the same God Who promised us His love and care and salvation is the God Who will keep that promise.
I absolutely cannot explain faith from the perspective of a life lived only in this world. I need one foot firmly planted in the next world for faith to make any sense at all. And when I have myself so situated that I live fully the life God has given me in this world, while recognizing that my real home is in the next, with Him — then I’ve given the gift and the seed of faith a place to fully live and grow.
Finally, seeing faith as complete trust and confidence in God leads me to the best place I can be in this life He has given me. When I pray about faith, I pray to always have the grace to meet each obstacle, each difficulty, each unexpected or painful experience, each joy, each gift, each moment of wonder that life brings me, with the strong confidence that God is with me in it — with me in all His creative, redemptive, and sanctifying power; with me to show me His presence in the people He calls me to serve; with me to keep my faith alive and growing, with its roots both here where I live now, and in heaven where I will one day see Him for eternity.
When I look back over what I have just written, I feel like I’ve poured out my heart, and yet that my words are woefully inadequate to express the deep joy and abiding peace that come with the knowledge and certainty of my faith. I think I need to conclude in this way: Just take a few seconds, if you will, to recognize God’s gift of faith in your own life; tell Him you are grateful for it, and ask Him to grow it in you.
I have complete faith that He will. You see, there is no escape. God’s love is everywhere, and it is expressed most wonderfully in the gift of faith.