‘The unChallenge of Faith’
The children in the playground were challenging one another about what they could do.
“Bet you can’t do this!” one of them stuck out his tongue and rolled it into a tube.
“Bet you I can!” the other said imitating the challenger with his own perfect tongue tube.
“Okay! How ‘bout this!” the boy concentrated, stiffened his face and then crossed his eyes and stuck his tongue out.
“You win! I won’t do that, ‘coz mom sez it’s bad for your eyes!”
“My mommy doesn’t say so.”
“But mom said it might stay that way forever,” he warned his friend.
“Okay, but I still win!” the other cheered.
* * *
Hearing and watching kids challenging one another is always amusing. It naturally comes of age as they become more confident with what they know and learn. It is one way they learn to carve out for themselves who they are and what they want to be.
With the faith, however, it is rather different. When God reveals something to man it appears to be a challenge because it seems to surpass his reason or physical capacity. But when God extends the ‘faith’ to man, He isn’t giving him something to ‘intellectually conquer’ or ‘physically control’. God isn’t challenging man to something but He is inviting man to Himself.
In Scripture, we have numerous occasions where our Lord confronts His own disciples and the Jewish people. Many of the Master’s teachings caught the people’s attention because He spoke as ‘one with authority’ and ‘such teaching has never been heard before’. Whenever someone was before our Lord, he or she encountered His compassion, forgiveness, and healing powers but never any form of ‘challenge’.
When Jesus asked his Apostles to look for food to feed the five-thousand people, to ‘cast the net for a catch’, ‘to go out and evangelize, etc. He wasn’t posing a trifling challenge. It was a divine ‘demand’ revealing how much God believes in man. It was not in what man could do, but whether he was willing to have the faith to trust in what God could do through man.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, says: “In faith, the human intellect and will co-operate with divine grace: ‘Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace.’(No. 155)”
This ‘assent’ or surrender that man makes to God’s invitation cannot be understood as some kind of a defeat on man’s part. The words ‘surrender’, ‘submit’ or ‘abandon’ certainly convey something negative that man’s inborn autonomy tends to either reject or shun. But truth has it that man on his own cannot save himself nor find any fulfilling rational answer to his brief earthly existence without God.
It would be false, therefore, to describe the act of faith as a fearful and blind leap into some dark cold void. I would rather think that more than emptiness there is a person. The leap of faith that man makes –as a child would– is into the God’s loving fatherly arms. Thus, faith is not a challenge but a demand for man to strive more towards trust and love.
Our Lord never challenges us. It is more proper to say that He demands of us. To engage man in a challenge would be waiting to see ‘what he can do on his own’. To demand, however, is revealing to man that by himself he really isn’t capable of anything except to humbly show his trust in God. God’s demand is a way of leading us towards Himself whereas a challenge somewhat sets man apart God.
These days, for example, we are witnessing recent issues –and many more that will ensue– threatening the dignity of the person and the family. These seem to pose an apparent challenge to be more faithful to and defend ‘the teachings Christ has entrusted to His Church’.
Although this is true, we cannot simply reduce living our faith when it is, so to speak, challenged intellectually or by craftily constructed relativistic moral and social arguments (i.e. aimed at deforming the true nature of the family, marriage, human sexuality, etc.).
The more radical stance of living our faith lies in what Pope Benedict XVI says: “one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path. (Jesus of Nazareth Book III)”
This stance, however, is not limited to only facing attacks against Christ’s teachings and His Church. It lies more in our constancy and perseverance in the most menial spiritual and human engagements: punctuality to Sunday Mass or at the office, the struggle to live temperance in the use of material goods, the constant fight against laziness or impatience, and our efforts to avoid judging or condemning our neighbors, etc.
It is for this reason that those who ‘are faithful to the end’ are received by our Lord with these consoling words: ‘good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful in the little things, enter into the joy of your Lord.’ And such a welcoming greeting does not convey any form of challenge. What Jesus seems to say is, ‘I knew you would make it because you trusted in me.’