Discouragement and Faith
by Dr. Jeff Mirus
November 7, 2008
An impressively large number of people around the country prayed hard for the election of pro-life candidates on November 4th. Not only were there vast numbers of people praying privately, but there were innumerable publicly-announced prayer gatherings, novenas, chaplets, rosaries, holy hours and periods of Eucharistic Adoration. These prayers were offered by people of deep faith who knew that we needed a miracle and who relied on God to provide it. But apparently God did not respond. So why do we still believe in Him?
The Bad News First
At the risk of being negative for a moment, let’s get the really bad news out of the way first. While God did not intervene—at least not noticeably—to prevent the deepening of the culture of death during this election season, the reality is actually far worse than that. Western civilization has been on a downward trajectory now for about five hundred years. I don’t mean to argue that the late medieval age of Christendom was a perfect age, or that it did not have severe problems of its own. But from the point of view of the public influence of Christian beliefs and the power of the Catholic Faith to shape culture, there has been a gradual downward spiral at least ever since the Protestant Revolt in the sixteenth century. The progressive rise of relativism and secularism since that time have led, without any lasting reversal, to the utter mess we are in today.
The marginalization of committed Christians has begun. For a long time now the unborn have not been protected by law, and those who vigorously defend the unborn, or the nature of marriage, or even the natural law itself, are being treated with progressively greater contempt and are being accorded a progressively lower legal standing. The free exercise of their rights is increasingly viewed as an attack on society. If they argue that homosexuality is disordered, they are charged with hate speech. If they try to dissuade women from aborting their babies, they are charged with criminal conspiracy. New laws are being drafted (such as FOCA) to ensure that this marginalization continues, and new justices will soon be appointed at every level to ensure that those who uphold anything resembling a Christian moral vision may be deprived of their rights to speech, assembly, employment and financial well-being.
In a phone conversation yesterday, Phil Lawler said that good Christians now have the feeling that “they’re coming after us”. As I see it, those who feel that way are absolutely right. They—the cultural elites—are coming after us, and it does not look like this will change any time soon. That’s the bad news, and the chilling truth is that neither does it appear that God intends to do anything about it, despite our faith and our prayers. So (and please bear with me for being negative for just a moment longer) why do we still place our trust in God?
This question has floated in my mind more frequently since Election Day, and I have no doubt that other discouraged voters have experienced the same thing. The answer is in some ways very difficult, and our experience of that answer is often extremely subtle. I am preoccupied with these difficulties just now, and I can see that I am going to find the answer hard to express. That is why, at this point in my writing, I stopped to say a Rosary, in order to ask Our Lord’s help in saying what He wants me to say.
Now stop. Think about what I wrote in the last two sentences. I am preoccupied with the problem of how we know that God is real and that He cares, and so I stopped to ask God to help me frame the answer. The first clause expresses a difficulty or even a doubt very much on the surface of my mind; but the second indicates a certainty, a certainty operating at a far deeper level. At one level I wonder if I can prove to my own satisfaction, let alone anybody else’s, that a loving God exists. At a deeper level, I simply turn to Him and ask. At one level I am plagued by all kinds of conundrums and vexations attendant upon this adventure we call faith. But at a deeper level, the issue is resolved beyond all doubt. I can raise a thousand questions about God, yet I have not the least hesitation in turning to God for the answers.
In the work of apologetics this juxtaposition between a difficulty and a certainty is very often the last thing to be addressed. We deal first with specific arguments to clear away objections to this or that point of natural religion or Revelation; then we take up all the many motives of credibility (such as the endurance of the Church or the holiness of her saints) which tend to enhance in our minds the likelihood of Christian truth; then we examine what John Henry Newman called the staggering probability that Christianity is exactly what it claims to be. Only after all this is covered do we consider the conviction that faith imparts at the deepest level of our being. As far as apologetics goes, this is as it should be, for unlike apologetics itself, such conviction is not a preparation for faith. Rather such conviction is the fact of faith itself, the gift received, now an undeniable reality.
Strengthening One’s Faith
In some ways, Christianity has within it a Catch-22. We worship the one, the only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Lord through Whom all things were made, the absolute master of the universe whose Providence orders all things, and Who loves us so much that He has saved us from our sins. Nothing could be more perfect, and yet we live in a proverbial vale of tears. Moreover, turning to our God in our troubles, we are assured that all prayers are answered—but that sometimes (perhaps often) the answer is no. That’s maddening, but we can also turn this same paradox on its head. For we experience failure constantly, as did Christ before us, yet we are the most joyful of people, possessing an inner peace that far exceeds anything the most successful worldly person can obtain.
Sometimes, in the face of difficulties or disappointments or discouragement, we need to remind ourselves of all the external reasons we have accepted the Faith in the first place. We need to examine anew the arguments for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, to reassure our minds that acceptance of these things is not irrational. We need to remind ourselves that by far the most reasonable explanation for the empty tomb and the history of the early Church is that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. We benefit from acquainting ourselves more fully with the inner logic of papal authority in a Church that must represent one and the same covenant to the world until the end of time. We do well to probe more deeply into accounts of well-attested miracles that can have no explanation apart from the power of God, and to reflect more deeply on various kinds of miracles that we ourselves have experienced—rare and precious moments in which the action of God was unmistakably visible to our minds or our senses.
Similarly, we are wise to review the particular aspects of Christianity which most move us, each in his unique way, to more easily accept its truth. For one person, the remarkable intellectual consistency of Catholic doctrine over two thousand years provides a strong motive to believe that the Church must be inspired by God Himself. For another, the marvelous fruitfulness of the saints in every form of good work may lead him more readily to trust the Church which mothered them. For a third, the fact that the Church over the centuries has been repeatedly singled out as the chief obstacle to human progress by advocates of one ideological scheme after another (all conflicting with each other) is sufficient to suggest that there is something very special about her. For myself, I find that when I think about what the Church asks me to become as a person, I cannot imagine a pattern better or more noble. This too is a motive of credibility.
The Experience of Faith
It is very important to spiritually nourish our minds in this way, and it is even more important to be zealous in avoiding moral habits which run contrary to our Faith, because if any aspect of our lives long remains unconverted, that aspect can be used as a wedge to turn difficulties and challenges into rejection. When we grow lazy in our acceptance of cultural ideas which undermine Christian principles, refusing to exercise our intellects to see where the truth really lies; or when we grow lazy in our acceptance of worldly habits or vices, refusing to exercise our wills to accomplish what a truly integrated life demands; then we allow things to grow in our hearts that can put even the gift of faith at risk as we increasingly desire to flee from God.
But none of these apologetical arguments, motives of credibility or moral habits is faith itself. None of these things constitutes the deep conviction that comes only through a Divine gift. For faith is not merely a gift but the life of Another, the Trinity dwelling in our souls. In response we gradually learn to converse with God in prayer, lest our hospitality grow cold and we turn Him out. At the very center of our being, then, we come to know God, to sense His presence, and to perceive His work in us. I have already said that this presence of God within us is generally very subtle. But St. Paul puts it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 3:20).
It is important to understand, I think, that faith could not reasonably operate in any other way. Christianity must be so balanced that what we actually see with fleshly eyes is neither sufficient to force our conversion nor a substitution for that conversion. For God has made us precisely so that we may love, and love must always rise above self-interest through a free movement of the will. St. Paul again expresses this extraordinarily well:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:22-24)
The Central Paradox
If it is a paradox to have confidence in things not seen, the astonishing fact is that we believers are certain it is the right paradox, the paradox that at first appears to be the most ridiculous but proves in the end to be the most true, the secret to all the other paradoxes of life. Once again, this is the conviction of faith, the serene knowledge, as Newman put it, that a thousand difficulties do not really make a doubt—the unassailable fact that I know God and God knows me.
Consider St Paul again:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
Now I am not saying that this is the argument you should use to help prepare someone for initial acceptance of the faith. After all, it is hardly an apologetical argument to say that someone else must believe because I am certain (though another may well see in my life that this certainty bears a wonderful fruit which he too wishes to share). What I am saying, rather, is that if you are a discouraged believer who is now considering a few difficulties, I think you’ll find that at a deeper level you have no real doubts at all. You may be puzzled or even annoyed by all the difficulties we face (despite all the prayers that we’ve said), but if you reflect a little more, you’ll find that your awareness of God remains perfectly unruffled, and that even your confusion and consternation are firmly anchored in Him. Thus, at bottom, you are for the moment puzzled by God, annoyed at God, or even angry with God.
This is not irrational. It is because deep inside you simply know. And that’s faith.