What is faith?

As many of you know, I am facilitating an ongoing discussion/reflection on Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, by Matthew the Poor (aka Fr. Matta El-Meskeen) at the blog, Here to Pray. Since the topic of faith seemed to me to be of broader interest, I am posting this reflection for those who may not be following the book. When I am summarizing Fr. Matta’s ideas, I type in blue. My own ideas or comments are in black.

To understand what faith is, we begin by looking at what faith is not. It is not a feeling or an emotion. It is not a blind call to leap into mystery. It is not something we force our souls into so that we feel the existence of God and all that is unseen. Faith is not an attempt to deceive my mind so as to convince myself that salvation and everything related to it is true. It is not a repressing of the doubts that make certain issues hard for our materialistic minds to understand or accept. It is not a private opinion. Faith is not something we become convinced of after analyzing, drawing conclusions, or comparing all of the possibilities. It is not the result of scientific investigation.

Some of these statements seem more obvious than others. What is a bit disconcerting, however, is how long and comprehensive the list is. If faith is none of these things, then what is it?

First, the mind must “declare its resignation”, and accept the truths of Christianity without resisting, without investigating. The mind surrenders its powers gladly and lovingly to God in a spirit of obedience. Once this is done, the Holy Spirit begins to reveal to the mind everything that relates to these truths. No one but God can reveal or explain these facts to us because they are not of this world.

But, but… my mind stammers. This is backwards. I need to understand first. How can I surrender to someone or something that I do not understand? And yet, I must concede that, if my mind could, by its own powers, determine the nature of God or whether Christianity were absolutely true, that nature and those truths would have to be pretty limited in scope. Looking at the vast beauty and complexity of the universe, I suppose it is absurd to expect that my mind or any human mind could comprehend its Creator…

God, of course, knows how limited our minds are when it comes to knowing any of the facts about Him, were He not to help us. And that is why He has undertaken the revelation of Himself and everything about our relationship to Him. If we keep His commandments, He will make up for all of these imperfections in our faith and understanding and will “manifest” Himself to us (John 14:21).

The concept of revelation is not new to me. I was taught that God revealed Himself to Abraham, Moses and so on. But there are so many religions on earth – how can I know that this is the one in which the true God reveals Himself? If God wanted to reveal Himself, why didn’t He make it more obvious? And why must we keep commandments in order to receive this “manifestation”? Why doesn’t He simply manifest Himself to everyone everywhere rather than making it so hard?

The word “faith” in the Church is generally used in two ways, one objective and the other subjective. Objective faith has to do with the facts and creeds as expressed in the Bible and recorded in the canons of the Church (based on the Councils and Church Fathers). “The faith” in this sense is not alterable except by the intervention of God’s grace. Subjective faith, on the other hand, is the heart’s ability to respond directly to God in submission and love (though not without conformity to the creeds). Objective faith requires our reason and logic – but also grace. Subjective faith is based on love, obedience and intimacy, relying on God in complete surrender. So absolute is the surrender that this faith is not stopped by apparent clashes with reason or “reality” as humanity might perceive it.

Hmm…So this subjective faith involves love – and that, of course, involves a choosing. If there were only one obvious “truth” that no one could refute or deny, there would be no choosing and therefore no opportunity for love. But I thought faith was a gift. If it is a gift, how does my choice enter in? What if I am not given the gift of faith?

Faith is both a gift and a virtue. The truths of objective faith involve gift: the incarnation and the resurrection are gifts, “supernatural” occurrences. While all of nature is a gift, this redemptive entrance of God into our nature is the greatest gift among the truths of the faith. Because, as fact, it goes beyond our human understanding, it also requires some gift that enables our minds to conceive of “supernatural”. Yet faith is also a virtue because we must want to have it. We must have a desire to believe and a willingness to submit, though we cannot accomplish either without grace. And so it is that God’s grace and man’s will work together – as long as we say yes. 

Even if this is true, I must say that this idea of keeping commandments sounds rather difficult and dull to me. I’m not terribly fond of the notions of obedience and submission either. It sounds like a burdensome life, more like enslavement than anything I would choose. However, the idea of love is appealing. I don’t see how all of these things fit together…

We have been discussing ideas. But there is another element here: redemption and faith in the Redeemer Himself. Before Jesus came to earth, people had the law to follow and prophets to teach them but they did not know God as person. Faith was an attempt to reconcile man’s will with God’s will. It seemed nearly an impossible task on our end. But God continued to pursue us – to the point of entering our human state in Christ, shedding His blood and overcoming the death that our disobedience caused. Out of this was born a new direction for faith – one of love. We are pursued by One who has given Himself completely out of love for us. The law is now written in our hearts and is “spirit and life”, not simply a set of rules on stone tablets. No longer is the goal just to reconcile the will of man with the will of God. Rather, we are made anew so that we may be brought into union with Him, so that the divine may pervade us. The “yoke” of obedience now is not only tolerable but something “easy”, something we love. 

But I don’t know how to begin…

I resign my mind… it is so.

I submit totally… it is so.

Teach me… it is so.

I desire faith… it is so.

I need grace… it is so.

I am loved… it is so.

And now I love… it is so.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.


(For those who follow the book discussion at Here to Pray, more on this section will be posted there soon. Anyone is welcome to join.)

5 thoughts on “What is faith?

  1. albert

    You are a good teacher, Mary. The alternating questions and quoted passages worksbetter than simply commenting (which usually includes paraphrasing, summarizing, and applying) I like the way the passages speak for themselves. They are short enough to comprehend, whereas reading them in the book, surrounded by other important passages, might lead to skimiming, or simply to loss of concentration. This whole post means a great deal to me. Gratefully,

  2. mary Post author

    If I do anything well, it is only because the Spirit guides and teaches me. But I thank you for this feedback, Al. I spent a lot of time writing these short paragraphs and, when I got to the end, I wasn’t sure it said anything. (Sometimes that happens after looking at something for too long…)

    One of the things that particularly struck me after I had stepped back from the writing of it was the truth of how only God can teach us about God. If I don’t turn myself over to God for His Spirit to instruct me inwardly, I may be ever stuck in the maze of my own thoughts.

    Of course, this will never be a totally individual process. We are not meant to be alone on the journey and the Spirit instructs the Church as well. This is where we get the “objective” truths of the faith, the creeds and teachings. We should not try to reinvent these.

    But, for the ‘subjective” faith, the Church cannot do that for me – though it can support me and offer me guides along the way. I need to surrender my entire self to God and allow His Spirit to teach me “in my inmost being”. In this way, the elements of faith that I cannot understand become understood.

    Even more importantly, I enter intimate relationship with God as He instructs me. I cannot tell you all that that entails – personally, I’m still learning about surrender. But if we look to the saints, we can begin to fathom the depths of what we may be given within this intimate interaction.

    Praise Him.

  3. albert

    Surrender. Yes, that is an apt word. Give up fighting. Listen instead for the greeting, “Peace be with you.”

    I think I read once that the name “Israel”means fighting against God, or maybe just wrestling. But that may have been seen as both a positive trait and a detriment. For me it’s more the latter.

    Another word that I read about many years ago is “abandonment” (to God’s providence–http://www.ignatius.com/Products/ADP-P/abandonment-to-divine-providence.aspx.)

    Unfortunately I spend more time “reading about” than I do “doing.” But I like Fr. Stephen’s story about what monks do all day — Fall down. Get up. Fall down again. Get up. Fall . . . That gives me courage and hope.

    It’s good to talk. And listen. Peace,

  4. mary Post author

    And I probably spend more time “writing about” than “doing”!

    But don’t you think that each of us, in our own way, is working it out through our readings and writings? God is moving in our souls…

    Peace be with you!

  5. Pingback: Chapter 7 – Faith and Perseverance (part 2), pp. 159-168 | Here to pray…

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