What Faith Is by John Powell, SJ

                What Faith Is by John Powell, SJ

All the passages below are taken from John Powell’s book “The Challenge of Faith,” published in 1998.

  Then Simon Peter spoke up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” “Good for you, Simon, son of John!” answered Jesus. “Because this truth did not come to you from any human being or from your own human resources. It was given to you directly by my Father in heaven.  (Matthew 16: 16-17)

Faith is a pure gift of God. I say “pure gift” because every attraction to faith and faith itself must be the result of God’s action in us.

I used to ask my students: “Can God put an idea, a conviction in your minds?” If God Call put an idea or conviction in the human mind, then indeed faith is a “reasonable submission” to the action of God. On the other hand, if God cannot do this, I see no reason for calling this submission “faith.”

But first let me try to distinguish between mind and will. These are the two highest faculties or powers of human beings. It is these two faculties that distinguish us from brute beasts. The mind or intellect is the power by which we know. The three powers of the mind are 1) getting ideas 2) putting together or separating ideas: judging 3) linking one idea to another: reasoning.

The will is the faculty in us which chooses, is attracted to something or someone, which is perceived as “a good.” As far as we know the will is a blind facultyThe mind perceives the alternatives of a choice, and the will is attracted to the “goods” proposed to it. If its choice involves a moral good or bad, it is said to be a moral choice. For example, I find your wallet. It contains much money. Now immediately I know through my mind that I can give it back to you or keep it. My mind presents the benefits of each alternative to my will. My power of choice (my will) attracts me to give back your wallet or to keep it.

I may choose to return your wallet. But if I choose to keep it, the will thrusts back on the mind the onus or burden of rationalizing my choice. The mind then proceeds to justify the choice. “After all, it was good old Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I am only doing what Robin Hood did.”

In the matter of faith, the process just described here is reversed. In this case, the first grace of God is extended to the will. I am attracted to believe. How? It depends on my personal inclinations. I may be attracted to God as the source of order or beauty. I may be attracted to God in other people, or the love of others. There are many ways to be attracted to God.

The second and more decisive grace is given to the mind which makes the act or judgment of faith. The God to whom I am attracted gives my mind the power to believe. God says to the human being: It is true that I care for you; it is true that I have a destiny for you in my house. It is true that I have spoken to you through the patriarchs, prophets and psalmists of the Old Testament. And it is true that I have spoken to you though my Son. When a human being answers this call of God by saying, “I believe” it is the blind leap, or as the philosopher Kierkegaard once put it: “the absolute paradox.” It is the discovery of the pearl of great price.

Ordinarily, when we assent to a truth, we demand proof first, and then we are convinced. In faith, we believe because God, who cannot be deceived and will not deceive us, has enabled us first and simply to believe whatever God says or has said. Then we proceed to try to understand what God has said. In fact, St. Anselm of Canterbury defined as “faith in search of understanding.” I believe so that I might understand. In my own trials and tribulations of faith, I have looked for a comparison. Is there a human experience in which faith and commitment precede understanding?

I think that one comparison is the faith that husband and wife have at the moment of their vowed commitment. If the woman were to ask the man, “Will you be a good husband?” he could only reply, “I’ll try.” She has to believe this. She has to believe in him. And vice versa. Their commitment to each other will take them to places they do not dream of at the moment of their vows. It is like getting into a boat for a voyage over uncharted waters.

Marriage and faith in God are similar in this respect. Both demand commitment at the beginning before proof is available. Faith has also been compared to a stained glass window. From the outside the beauty is not available. From the inside, with the sun streaming through the window, the beauty is undeniable. So it is with faith. When one stands only on the outside of faith, the peace and power of believing is not available. On the inside of faith, the presence and peace of God come streaming through.

Faith has also been compared to a new pair of glasses. Through the eyes of faith, everything looks different. One sees the value of everything more clearly through the eyes of faith. While others scratch and claw for the things of this world, the believer is largely spared this competition. The believers know that it profits persons nothing to gain the whole world, but suffer the loss of their own souls.

So how do things look different? For one thing the motive of a believer is love. And the love is reserved in the believer for other human beings. The late Mother Teresa is a good example of this. She said quite openly that the face of Jesus was visible in the faces of the needy and homeless. And obviously if things look different, the choice of things will be different. Consequently the motivation of the believer, the reason why we choose this or that, is different from non-believers.

At the beginning of Chapter Two, we said that no one believes 100 percent. I have a congenital disease of the eyes called retinitis pigmentosa. I was in my twenties when the disease, which is inherited through the genes, was first diagnosed. The poor ophthalmologist looked very sad as he informed me that “someday you may well be blind.” I have since had his diagnosis confirmed by other eye doctors. I used to say, as my eyes remained unchanged, “if God wants my eyesight,” I have told God: “take it, it’s yours.”

But now, as God does seem actually to be taking it, my reaction is quite different. I am now legally blind. If I step back far enough from my emotional reaction, the whole situation becomes very interesting from the standpoint of faith. It is something like “putting your money where your mouth is.” As my eyesight grows weaker, I hear distinct echoes of “take it, it’s yours.” Everyone has a similar situation. The question which the situation asks deep within a person is this: Do you really believe? How deeply do you believe? No one believes a hundred percent. I realize now how fragile my faith offering was in my twenties. Somehow I feel more real about faith now.

I suppose all suffering poses these questions. Suffering is a gift which no one wants. Very few of the saints among us ask for suffering. Yet when it comes into our lives, we do ask questions which we had never asked before. It is possible to think that because we have faith this God-given knowledge answers all questions. But this does not seem true in the extremes of pain and suffering. In actuality, we grow in faith to meet these new challenges. I suppose that this is one of God’s reasons for allowing us to suffer: we grow in faith. We trust that the goodness and love of God for us are operating for our benefit, precisely through our suffering.

In other words, God is asking through suffering: How much, tow deeply, do you really believe? The ultimate challenge to faith, of course, is death. When death comes to each of us, as indeed it will, we will be asked: “Do you really believe? Do you really believe in an after-life, that I have a destiny for you? Do you really believe that I love you?”

I recall driving an elderly priest (now deceased) in my community to see his family. Believing as I do that the only time you really get to know a person is when you share what is deepest, I asked him, “Do you think we really believe? I have rarely seen anyone jump for joy at the announcement of death.” He paused for a moment and then reflected, “The will to live is the strongest instinct in us. There are many other instincts in us, but by far the instinct to live is the most powerful. As one gets older, of course, death becomes more congenial. But all the old instincts still live on in us. Besides, everyone has some fear in change. Death is a permanent change, leaving behind everything that we have known. The passage into eternity is made just once.”

Then there are those who take a different view of death.

I was reminded of the young man in class, who professed that he wasn’t afraid of death. I remember he said that “It will be interesting to see what happens. Naturally, I don’t want to die yet. I want a profession and a family in this life. But when my time comes it will be oh so interesting to see what God has in store for us.”

A psychologist once wrote a dissertation about whether faith was a comfort in the moment of death. His conclusion was that faith is a comfort when it has been integrated into daily living, but faith is not a comfort when it is a matter of pious celebrations of Easter, Christmas, and so forthGod does not wait well in the wings of the stage of life. If a person has to think a long time to remember the last thing he or she did because they believe, faith probably has not been integrated into life. It is a matter of the old question: “If you were tried for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Of course, there is much about what is accepted by faith that I do not fully understand. I remember meeting a woman who once said to me: “You know, when I die and meet God, what I want to ask Him?” Naturally, I said: “No, what do you want to ask God?” Her answer was: “Everything.” Today our culture demands independence of us. We are supposed to be able to deal with anything. We’re supposed to have everything “under control.” And yet faith asks submission of us in matters we do not fully understand.

A famous psychiatrist of our day once said that the three parts of love are: kindness, encouragement and challenge. Kindness tells the beloved: “I am with you. I am on your side. I am in your corner. Whatever I do or say is an act of love.” Encouragement means giving the beloved courage in him or herself. A common temptation is doing for others what they can do for themselves. There is always the danger of what is called “co-dependency.” The true lover says: “Believe in yourself, in the gifts that have already been given to you.” The third part of love is challenge: “Find a way to do it! Just do it.”

God seems to love us in all these ways. In the beginning of my life, I sat in God’s lap. God was very kind to me. God told me in indelible language that I was loved. I knew then I could accept myself as I was. Then God encouraged me to believe in myself, in the gifts that had already been given to me. When things go wrong or at least as I had not planned them I think God is testing me. God is then challenging me.

Quite naturally, there is much I do not understand about faith. It remains the “blind leap,” the “absolute paradox.” I believe that God is attracting me to a deeper and more trusting faith. Things look quite different when they are transformed by looking through the eyes of faith. I recall what the late Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, once wrote: “On the day I first believed, the world made sense to me, and life had a new meaning for me.” [55-64]

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