What does it mean to have Faith?

What does it mean to have Faith?

Some years back the Church celebrated the year of faith. We believe that faith is a precious gift of God. Many people equate faith with beliefs. We may be obliged to believe in many doctrines and other teachings; but  we need to understand that beliefs do not save anyone;  that is why Jesus did not leave us any doctrines but called us to faith which is something more basic affecting a person in his/her very being.

 What is that faith?

 Having a Share in ‘God’s eye-view’ of things.

 Indian traditions speak of faith as a “third eye”, implying that it is a new way of seeing reality. In Christian understanding our Faith begins with an experience of God-in-Jesus (1 Jn 1.1-4). This leads to our acceptance of Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and our personal surrender to him. Just as when one falls in love, one begins to see everything through the eyes of the beloved, so too in faith, if we surrender ourselves to Jesus, then the first effect of that faith is to share Jesus' vision of reality, which is God's eye-view of things. Since Jesus sees reality the way God sees, he has a very unique and original view of everything: God, us, others, events and the world.   Jesus spoke of the eye as the lamp of the body, and “If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt 6. 22-23). For our attitudes are conditioned by the way we see the other person or event; for example, if we see someone as our enemy, our reaction is defensive and inimical; if we see that person as a friend or as our brother or sister, our reactions are different.  Jesus enables us to see everything the way God does.

 Ever wonder how this sharing in Jesus’s vision will affects us…

 The first effect of this sharing Jesus’ vision is to relate to God the way Jesus does, namely, as our loving Father/Mother who loves us and respects our freedom.

 This Father is not an indulgent or a critical Parent, but a nurturing Parent, who accepts us as adults and hence holds us responsible and therefore is not paternalistic (doing things for us instead of us). Very often the image we have of God is either of an emperor, inaccessible, distant and hence requiring mediators, or of a paternalistic father who would do things for us instead of us, or of a critical parent sitting in judgement over us, leading us to fear. Jesus did not see his Father that way; Jesus saw God as a nurturing parent, and so Jesus was responsible for the mission entrusted to him by the Father. Trusting this Father/Mother is to accept that God is within us, as an infinite power at our disposal, enabling us to be our own creators, responsible for ourselves and for our world. God wants us to stand on our own feet and not use God as a crutch.

 The second effect of this sharing Jesus’ vision of reality is to see myself as Jesus sees me, as God sees me.

 Hence faith is yes to the real me. God sees me as God’s beloved child, sharer in God’s life, and hence I must look at myself as precious, good, dignified, lovable and love-able.  Faith means to accept, to appreciate, to love and be grateful for the love-gift that I am. I am because God loves me into existence. We say that God loves us, but often we fail to understand that it means basically that God has shared God’s life, love-ability - and that is what we are. God’s love is creative of us. We are carriers of God’s life with the promise of growth into the likeness of God. Faith is to see ourselves as the seed that contains the promise of the tree; the seed is all that the tree is in some way. We have to see ourselves as the fruit bearing branches of the divine tree, entrusted with the mission of revealing God. In this light, if we read what Jesus tells his disciples, namely, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14.12), we might understand that faith is a transforming power.  Jesus also spoke of faith having the power to move mountains (Matt 17.20; Lk 17.6). This is the faith that Jesus praised when he healed anyone. He told them: “Your faith has healed you” – reported so many times in the NT. Faith is a great power.

 The self that I am now is loved, sustained, protected and cared for by the God of love. Hence it is that God says to me, what God had told Israel: “I have called you by name, you are mine, and you are precious in my eyes; I honour and love you” (cfr. Isaiah 43. 1-4). Only when I accept myself as I am, as God's love gift, as precious, good and dignified will I want to enhance it, make it grow. What is not appreciated is not enhanced.            

 But is this the way we normally look at ourselves? We see ourselves through the eyes of others who see us externally: our possessions, positions, achievements, group, actions, appearance and they appreciate or depreciate us. Hence we are constantly competing with others to have more wealth, higher positions, better appearance, etc. We depend on the goodwill of others for our happiness, we dance to the tune of everyone, and we are puppets in the hands of others. Unawares, we are constantly at the door of others begging for approval, acceptance and love. The absence of a faith vision is obvious also in the matter of failures. There is nothing strange in the fact that we, as fallible and limited humans, are prone to make mistakes and sometimes fail. Once this is accepted that failures do not make us a failure or unworthy, then we need not be ashamed of and be defensive about our failures and mistakes. Failures prevent growth only when we are unwilling to accept them in truth and learn from them. Only truth makes us free. "What others will say" is a paralysing fear that stunts growth. So many lives remain sterile, unproductive; they see only their shortcomings, mistakes and at the same time are very defensive about them. One may hold on to all the doctrines the Church teaches, but if one has a poor, negative image of oneself, all those beliefs do not benefit the person.

 Thirdly, faith is to see others as God sees them. 

 All people without exception are God’s beloved children. God tells each one: "You are mine; I have called you by name, you are precious...."  They are God’s word become flesh, God’s word of love to us, and God’s gift to us. God accepts them, lets them be themselves. Faith enables me to look at every person in the way God looks at them and accept them as my brothers/sisters, as God’s gifts, even when I do not approve of what they do. I do not have to force anyone to be any other than what he/she wants to be.

Here too we realize that we do not normally look at others in this way, but we see them, evaluate them on the basis of their possessions, positions, the group they belong to, their qualities, defects, and especially their actions. We do not relate to the person of the other, but to his/her actions, qualities, defects which we either like or dislike, or to the image of the other that we have created. When the other does not live up to that image we carry within us, we reject them.  Whereas when we see others as God sees them, then we shall have the spirit of acceptance and understanding which will lead us to forgiveness and compassion and enable us to grow unto the likeness of Jesus.

 Fourthly, faith is to be yes to life, events, the unforeseen and unforeseeable, as they unfold before me.

 God is present and ‘speaks’ to me in and through life, through every event. So much that is vital in my life is beyond my choice and is given me gratuitously. My birth, my parents, my brothers/sisters, companions, nationality, language, culture, nature with all its riches, Christ, the Spirit, the Church - all these are gifts to me.  Faith is a creative acceptance of life: creative, not passive resignation which is absence of faith. Creative means we do all in our power to change a situation that needs to be changed and accept it peacefully, and we thank God for what we have done. It is in this sense that I understand Jesus' teaching on not worrying about the morrow and not being anxious (Matt 6. 25-34). The creative acceptance of life is searching for solutions to problems which we humans or nature have created. A creative attitude makes us face these as challenges to our creativity, freedom and love-ability. There is no situation that does not have some seeds of growth in them, if we respond to them creatively and lovingly. Many people waste most of their life worrying about what has happened or what is yet to happen and do nothing about either. Many spend their lives regretting the past, cursing others for the failures, mistakes of the past – absolutely useless. Many however face the `accidents’ of life bravely and totally transform their lives, seeing every situation as a challenge for their growth in love, freedom and creativity.

 The fifth effect is commitment to that which Jesus is committed, namely, bringing about of God’s kingdom, God’s rule. 

 Jesus’ mission was to bring about God’s rule by casting out demons and healing people (Matt 12.28). Jesus continues this mission through his followers. We join Jesus in giving flesh and blood to the dreams of God for a world where all God’s children live as equals as brothers/sisters in freedom, love and justice. Hence we too oppose hierarchical divisions among people, exploitation, domination, poverty - whatever dehumanizes and enslaves. Jesus had cast out Satan, but that would mean today freeing ourselves from greed, lust, hatred, fear, attachment, poor self image, and working for a just society where people love one another. Faith and struggle for justice go together.

 Faith calls us to care and to be “active witnesses”

 To have faith, to share in the vision of Jesus is to join in God’s unequivocal no to sin, to injustice in all its forms:

 One cannot exist without the other. Just as God is yes to life and to all that enhances life, God is no to all that diminishes life, freedom, love and humanness. God is opposed to whatever enslaves people: sin, greed for wealth, power, and success, gratification of self, social ostracism, poverty or death. Joining hands with the forces of oppression and suppression of human liberty and rights, uncritical acceptance of authority, mere conformism, legalism, ritualism, etc., are lack of faith because through these various forms of un-freedom are promoted and strengthened. As long as faith is seen as a matter of belief in doctrinal truths, human relations do not matter much; human concerns remain on the periphery. But, looking at faith as a share in the vision of God/Christ, we are drawn into the struggle for life and are committed to what God is committed to. To see many of my brothers and sisters living in inhuman conditions and to say "I have no responsibility for them" is to deny they are my brothers/sisters, to deny God as our Father/Mother. This is atheism, denial of God. Faith challenges us to be committed to the cause of God’s rule of freedom, love and justice, to which Jesus was committed.

 Faith is personal too.

Faith as surrender to Jesus also implies intimacy with Jesus in prayer.

 We have to be ready to spend quality time with Jesus in silence. It is not a matter of saying many prayers, but being attentively silent in the presence of Jesus and  listening to what he has to tell us through the memories of our life when we are silent. Such attentive, alert silence in the presence of Jesus leads us to transformation, as we see in the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19): from being a cheat and uncaring person, he became just and a sharing person. This is a heart to heart relationship of intimate love. Unfortunately, of late we have become addicted to ‘saying prayers’ – and plenty of it. Religious houses, seminaries, formation centres, even families are now affected by this addiction to saying long prayers, which prevents us from being persons of prayer, namely, attentively present to Jesus in silence; only such intimate silent presence leads us to growth in intimacy with him; it enables us to see reality the way Jesus does, and be more committed to God’s kingdom.

 Our faith surrender to Jesus invites us to live by the values, outlook, priorities of Jesus and to have his mind and heart in us (Phil 2.1-5), and constantly to follow his teaching which is not difficult (Matt 11.30). Faith is to do what Jesus did: he healed the sick, fed the hungry, gave hope and a future to the hopeless, and raised the dead to life. His actions enlighten his words: “Love as I have loved you”, “love God by loving the neighbour”, “forgive seventy times seven”, “bear fruit to God in loving”; “feed the hungry...”, “Do likewise”  – simple teachings. But down the centuries, we have filled ourselves with dogmas, doctrines, rules and cultic practices and have forgotten his main message.  The gift of faith is not something that is peripheral to life; it is a serious challenge affecting the whole of our life, every sphere of our life.

 Faith is calling are we strong…

 Hence it is that Jesus often said: "If you want, if you have the courage, follow me". The year of faith invited us to return to the roots, to examine our life in the light of Jesus and mould ourselves into his likeness, so that we become fruit bearing branches of the divine tree and reveal and glorify God.

  (About the author: Fr Joseph Mattam,SJ, a Jesuit from Gujarat, professor of theology, author of seven books and editor of 11 books.")

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