“The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works. Ps. 33:15.
I’ve been promising myself more time with the Psalms for longer than I would like to admit, so when our Bishop’s evangelization challenge for this week involved praying a Psalm every day, I was in! And when I prayed Ps. 33 a couple of days ago, verse 15 jumped out at me and called me to a deeper reflection.
To be well known by the one who fashioned my heart: This seems to me the most comforting and at the same time the most terrifying way to live. And the reference to “works” is not lost on me.
The debate over faith vs. works has been a familiar one in my life. I spent several years worshipping in a Lutheran church which subscribed to a very conservative Protestant theology. It sometimes felt as though the pastor was fixated on preaching that faith alone saves us and that our works have nothing to do with our salvation.
This preaching disturbed me, for on some level I was certain that James was correct in his epistle – faith without works is dead (James 2:26). It seemed to me, even while I hewed to the theology of my adopted church, that if you had true faith, your actions would show it. When I brought my questions to the pastor, he first assured me that the epistle of James did not say what I thought it did; from there, his explanation started with, “What you have to understand is….” I think I knew then that my time in that congregation was limited. I had long since learned that an explanation that starts with those words is less an explanation and more a justification of flawed thinking. So I continued to ponder, and it wasn’t long before I wandered off into the land of the unchurched, where I would spend the next 25 years or so.
When I returned to the Catholic faith in 2012, it was in what I’d call a “calm explosion” of the power of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning, I was content to attend Mass, receive Holy Communion, and listed prayerfully to the readings and homilies. Soon, as my soul began to heal from the beatings I had given it over the years, He led me deeper. And as I joined Bible studies and began to re-explore the faith of my birth, I began to understand some things about “works.”
The light began to grow when I realized that many of the activities I used to think of as rituals and duties to be gotten through were, at their best, ways for me to respond to my faith and both live it and reflect it in my daily life. They were “practices” in the very best sense of that word. If I truly believed what I said I believed, my belief would be carried out in the way I acted. Going to Mass was not merely an obligation, but an opportunity for grace. Understanding this truth made receiving Holy Communion an entirely new and intensely emotional experience. (Note: I came to understand the experience of emotion as a “bonus” – nice when it happens, but not essential to the worth of the encounter with Jesus.) Praying the rosary was not a daily duty but yet another opportunity to reflect on the wonderful things God has done. Even going to confession (and I admit, this one came slower, took longer, and was more challenging) was, rather than an obligation or duty, another open channel of grace.
It was in reflecting on the way my activities thus reflected a response to my faith that I began to understand that any profession of faith is empty – yes, dead – unless it is given expression in actions. That’s where free will comes in, and that’s the part that always bothered me about “what I had to understand” about the Lutheran argument that faith alone saves us. Now, I’m not here to provide some ultimate final answer to the age-old debate, or even to argue the proper interpretation of James’s words. I’m here to talk about my own journey.
And my journey has brought me to a place where I realize that with the gift of faith comes choice – a choice first to profess that faith or deny it, and second to live in response to it or just let it lie there.
A gift, ignored, can do nothing to bring joy to its recipient. A gift, unused, cannot fulfill its purpose. To hide a gift away is to deny gratitude for it. If I do not live in response to my faith, I’m really telling God that I don’t want His gift. In realizing this, in struggling to put it into words, I finally understood what James meant when he said that faith without works is dead. God gives us a living faith, but He does not force us to keep it alive. Rather, we do so when we accept His grace to live in response to that faith.
God fashioned our hearts with the most amazing ability to receive His gift of faith and respond to it, and He knows us better than we know ourselves. Let us live our lives always open to the workings of grace, for grace will shape our works to be pleasing to Him. As we listen and respond, our fear gives way to wonder. And I think we can live with that.