I had a conversation with a friend once. It was well past midnight and we were sitting outside a bar patio along a sparse, urban street. My friend was talking about what he wanted to do for a living, and specifically, what he hoped to accomplish professionally this next year. He knew he needed a good job and that when it came to plucking one of those the harvest wasn’t particularly abundant. He was worried, unsure of his ability to be successful competing against a swath of qualified prospects just like him.
“Well, at the end of the day, I have to have faith.” He continued, “But not faith in God, or something like that…but faith in myself. I have to trust that things will just work out.”
As human beings, many of us feel compelled to believe in something—anything—in order to secure a remnant of comfort. Even if we believe in nothing, we make a decision to claim that vision of existence for ourselves and then live in it with a vague sense of understanding, expectation. We choose to believe something, igniting a torch that gives light to our reality. If we choose to believe in God, we believe in a world infused with meaning, intentionality, and love, even when it glares back at us. If not, then we have to confer our own sense of meaning in order to get by.
“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
– Saint Augustine
Even though Saint Augustine is clearly speaking of faith in a Christian God, his words—if “faith” is taken in the literal understanding of the word as opposed to the theological virtue—apply to those with any faith, even a faith in one’s self. We do indeed see what we choose to see. There is just enough gray area, enough black pooling into white, to decide where we place our faith.
“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
– Blaise Pascal
Yet, even if we choose to have faith in Jesus based on reason, experience, knowledge and gifted grace, it’s still difficult to continuously live within the space of that choice. It’s always harder to form our will to his Word than it is our will to our world. It’s in the challenging moments—the ones beset by suffering, hardship and doubt—that we come to realize how difficult the life of a disciple is. Everyone suffers, and through it we are constantly presented with the option to choose how we respond. We can still choose, despite the suffering, to believe that God is present; that he is working. It’s in faith that we don’t change the visible world when we’re stuck solidly in its mire, but defer to God to draw fruit from it according to his own, mysterious methods.
“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.”
– No Country for Old Men
This quote from the Cohen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men, —as cynical and amusing as it is—hints at a deep human truth. It speaks to a need that all of us have—to believe that when things go bad, maybe we have some reason to still be grateful. Maybe we can choose to believe that forces surpassing our limited field of awareness are moving to my advantage. We can hope, maybe even trust that things “happen for a reason,” even though we don’t know what that reason is, or necessarily believe in a guiding mind behind it. However, if we ultimately only believe in ourselves, the bad luck in our lives can lead to despair. As Christians, we say that our “bad luck,” by trusting in God’s loving providence, hasn’t merely saved us from “worse luck,” but rather has allowed for a great good. For we believe that all things work for good for those who love God.
It’s precisely why believing in one’s self—an actual, fully formed belief that one can master his external world and create lasting happiness (not so much the encouraging figure of speech we use to instill confidence)—has the potential to create a rupture, a disappointing and frustrating collapse. We can believe in ourselves, and through hard work and a little bit of “luck,” be met with success. Yet, what about when our world refuses to wilt to our wish? What happens when we’re met with suffering, trouble, hardship and—inevitably—failure?
“It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself.”
– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
It’s been a faith in myself in the past that’s led to failure, disillusionment and a general sense of loss. I know, from personal experience, that I can’t save myself. Faith in myself only would be wasted.
As Victor Frankl posited with his theory of Logotherapy, and what our faith tells us regarding our relationship with a loving, intentional Creator, we were fashioned to live meaningful lives. Meaning matters. And in order to slake our inherent thirst for it, we all must trust that the world will, somehow, someway, work out for us. We have to believe in something. Or someone.
Christianity offers the option to choose a life infused with grace—to accept Christ and his meaning for us in our lives. It’s in this way we can move forward with a faith in something far greater than our own trivial efforts. It’s a type of faith that is at times difficult, yet possible and worthwhile. It’s a faith that can sustain us even when we don’t ever see the fruit of our efforts. It’s a faith that can—and does—cause even the Son of God to marvel.
“Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks…It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit. This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive, and unquantifiable.”
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium
The faith that Christianity offers is one that frees us from the burden of having to prove to ourselves that we are worthwhile and have meaning by solely securing visible results and wresting external affirmation. It’s one that asks us to see the good in everything—and when we can’t—to choose to believe that the good is still there hidden from view. It’s a faith that loves, even when it’s hard, even when we don’t feel it. The faith God asks of us isn’t easy. Some days we wake up sure of God’s presence. Other days we wake up feeling not so sure. It requires nothing of us to affirm what our fluctuating feelings and emotions reveal. It requires everything of us to believe and act—despite feelings that undulate from affirming God to doubting him—as if God is present and producing fruit, without exception.
Faith is sitting in front of a loved one who has lost everything—his personality, his body, his mind—and simply asking him questions. It’s in nodding to everything he says, and says again and again, with the same enthusiasm and interest you showed the first time. It’s in affirming his worth, his value, his life, one instance at a time with only your presence in the room. It’s in acknowledging that in your utter helplessness you have the most to give. And even though he won’t remember this moment in a few minutes—and you might not in a few months—that God will. And in that moment of helplessness, of two people—one sick and one healthy—sitting in a room on a forgettable afternoon, fruit is abounding in limitless measure. Where sickness, loneliness, and death loom outwardly to eyes without faith, the hand of God is fully present, fully working, fully alive, to those with it.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.