INCREASING OUR FAITH
Fr Luke A. Veronis
“O Faithless generation. How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Mark 9:19)
Imagine hearing those words from Christ! What would we think if Jesus called us a “Faithless generation,” and if he threatened us with the words, “How long shall I put up with you?!?”
These frightening words make us realize that it is possible to utterly lose faith, and as a result, to have Christ lose patience with us. In another Scriptural passage describing the end times, Jesus actually says, “When the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8) And yet, do these words of warning seem so strange in our world today. Our contemporary society, which was formed on a Judeo-Christian foundation, seems to stray further and further away from its roots every day. And especially in our “progressive” Western World, countless individuals are distancing themselves from communities of faith, and from faith itself. Imagine, if Jesus criticized people in his generation and warned them of their lack of faith, what would he say to us today? “When the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on earth?”
Reflect for a moment on how people of faith and especially the followers of Jesus Christ changed the world over the past 2000 years. From a tiny Jewish sect of followers to today’s 2.3 billion Christians, this movement of Christianity has transformed the lives of millions of people throughout history. Jesus Christ and His Church have inspired and cultivated so much beauty in cultures and civilizations, has helped the world to truly understand and acquire divine agape love for all people, has worked for justice and peace while trying to usher in the kingdom of heaven. This movement has offered ultimate meaning and purpose for life itself, and even conquered the greatest evil and fear of humanity, death itself! All of this is the fruit of a living, dynamic, faith in Christ.
Yet Jesus warns his disciples in today’s Gospel story, as well as to all of us here, that even though some people may have had a strong faith at one time that changed the world, faith is not a once and done entity. “When the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on earth?” No one can rely on a faith they once had. Instead, faith is a living organism that grows daily when nourished, yet withers and dies when ignored. Faith is something that no one can say, “I have enough. I’m a strong enough believer.” NO, faith can be sincere and strong, and yet, if we are not nourishing it, and if we don’t live our faith day by day, then we endanger losing it. We risk hearing Jesus say to us, “O Faithless generation. How long shall I put up with you.”
Let me say this very clearly – faith is not something to be taken for granted. Our faith must be cultivated, strengthened, and increased as we grow older. Faith is not simply some knowledge we acquire, but it is a relationship we constantly build. And all of us know that in any relationship, if we don’t give it time, and if we don’t sensitively care for it, we risk losing it. Think of the human relationships each of us have had in our lives. Do relationships stay the same? Are the closest friends we had 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, the same as today? Why do our friendships and relationships change? In similar manner, our faith, if not attended to and nourished, will also change – for the better or worse.
Yet how do we increase our faith? Here is a fundamental question for our spiritual lives. How do we grow in our faith?
Well, in today’s Gospel story, we hear about one important aspect of faith. We heard the story of a father with an epileptic son who comes before Jesus seeking his mercy and help. He had gone to the disciples, and they were unable to heal his son. So the father approaches Jesus in desperation, crying out, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” To which Jesus responds, “If you can believe, all things are possible to the one who believes.” And immediately, the father cries out with tears, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
What a powerful prayer of honesty and humility! “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Here lies the first principle of nourishing our faith. We should understand and acknowledge the Holy Spirit working within us, creating seeds of faith in our lives. Yet, no matter how much we believe, there still remains some part of us that remains in the dark, that may doubt. In order to grow in faith, we need to humbly admit our lack of believe, and ask Jesus to help us. For when we confess our doubts, lay bare our questions and uncertainties, while not abandoning the faith that is already at work within us, Christ will not turn us away. He will take our limited faith, and only add on to it. He will take the little mustard seed of faith, and bless it so that this tiniest of seeds will blossom into a strong, vibrant tree (Matthew 13:31-32). So let us learn to constantly offer up the prayer of this desperate father, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Another example we learn today about how to increase our faith comes from St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder. This is the saint we honor today on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. St John was a spiritual giant who served as the abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai during the 7th century. As the spiritual guide of numerous monks, he wrote the spiritual classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent, one of the greatest books in all Christianity, whose purpose was to help his monks journey up the spiritual ladder that leads into the Kingdom of Heaven. St John clearly understood that even for monks, even for those who have taken vows and lived radical lives for Christ, even for such people they needed to take care in overcoming their vices and nourishing the virtues that lead us to God! If monks need a reminder, and must struggle to grow in their faith and journey up the ladder of divine ascent, what does that say for the average Christian living in a world surrounded by temptations and a spirit that leads us away from God.
Ultimately, we come to Church every Sunday, we participate in Holy Communion and Holy Confession and the Divine Mysteries of the Church, we journey through seasons of fasting like Great Lent, and we strive to live out our faith day by day through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that we can grow in an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ Himself, and thus, increase our faith.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on earth?” Let us take this as a serious warning for ourselves, and let us do all we can to open up our hearts and lives to God’s living Spirit so that we are constantly growing in our love for and faith in God. May we never hear Jesus say to us, “O Faithless generation. How long shall I put up with you?”but instead hear him say, “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you form the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)