The nature of faith
Our soul possesses the amazing ability to sense God. Although this awareness of the Divine presence is weak and hazy in a person just beginning to grow spiritually, it gets stronger and becomes more and more conscious with a virtuous way of life. This, in turn, strengthens one’s faith in Him, so that the inner feeling of God grows to a strong religious conviction. In such a state, the omnipresence of God, His infinite love and fatherly care are continuously felt and become a source of inner peace and strength.
True faith cannot be satisfied with a cold recognition of God’s existence but strives to be in close communion with Him. The believing soul naturally reaches to God, as a sunflower turns toward the sun. In turn, an active relationship with God further strengthens the person’s faith, so that his faith becomes a spiritual guide, based on personal experience. In some particularly gifted people faith grows into an all-illumining and constantly inspiring idea, that leads them from this world of vanity into the transcendent world of eternal life. Among such people were the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, the Apostles John and Paul, and countless saints like Sergius of Radoneszh, Seraphim of Sarov, John of Kronstadt, Herman of Alaska and Blessed Xenia of Petersburg, to name just a few.
The significance of faith in a person’s development lies in that it gives proper direction to all his aptitudes and powers. Specifically, it gives clarity and the correct outlook to his intellect, direction and purpose to his will, it ennobles and refines his senses. Faith brings harmony to a person’s inner world. It frees one from base earthly interests and leads him into a realm of higher and holier experiences.
Faith and knowledge
In our time of many scientific achievements it has become customary to belittle faith in comparison to intellect. Knowledge is regarded as something firmly founded, positive, and completely objective. Faith, on the other hand, is considered to be arbitrary, subjective and unproved. However, both high confidence in scientific knowledge and disdain of faith are pitiable misconceptions.
First of all, to regard present knowledge as absolutely certain, proven and representing the absolute truth is very naive and historically unfounded. Perhaps it is an “ideal” of knowledge but not its state. It would be worthwhile to compare the theories about matter throughout human history—during ancient times, then towards the end of the last century, the middle of this one, and finally the latest discoveries of quantum mechanics—in order to be convinced that scientific ideas radically change with each new generation. Similar “revolutions” can be observed in all fields of science—in physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, etc. That which was considered to be unquestionably true yesterday is rejected today. As new scientists become popular for their discoveries, the old ones gradually fade into oblivion. We may well ponder that if humanity survives yet for a few more centuries, our descendants will discuss ironically the primitive ideas and theories of the “dark” twentieth century.
This fact should convince us that of most value is not knowledge in itself but the ability to delve deeper and deeper into the secrets of nature. And here, the propellant of science is not rationalistic knowledge based on the five human senses but intuitive vision. Many philosophers and scientists have experienced a sudden enlightenment which gave birth to their discoveries and new theories. Intuition, like faith, is a very valuable ability. It resembles faith but is a step below it, since intuition relates to the physical domain, whereas faith to the spiritual.
No one will dispute that the engineer’s knowledge is valuable for practical matters such as designing and constructing something. But if no scientists existed, who by their intuition unlocked the secrets of nature, then engineers would have nothing to study, and human knowledge would be very limited. Thus it is not knowledge but intuition that leads to the progress of science. Let us consider another example. Many musicians are appreciated for their fine performance of musical compositions. But if there were no composers who were gifted with creative genius, the musicians would have nothing to play. The genius of composers, poets, sculptors, artists and others like them, has the ability to transform their ideas into something beautiful, sublime and ennobling. Thus, wherever we look, we see that imagination, intuitive vision, inspiration and creative genius are all spiritual forces which lead to the progress of science and art.
Comparing faith to other elevated human abilities, we see that it, like intuition, broadens human reason. It gives men access to that which is unattainable by corporal senses. Thus, thanks to faith, we come to the conviction that the world which surrounds us is not eternal but came to existence by the will of One Allwise Creator. He created us and gave us an immortal soul so that we may share with Him eternal and blessed life. As a matter of fact, faith was often ahead of scientific discoveries by stating, for example, that our world is not eternal but appeared some time ago from “nothing” (the “Big bang” theory), that its origin is not matter but energy, that it gradually evolved from lower to higher states (theory of evolution), that there is a unity in the laws of nature (modern searches for a unifying force), that there should exist other worlds different from ours (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), and so on.
Thanks to personal contact with God, believers receive a special sense of truth, a faculty to perceive what reason is yet incapable of comprehending. For example, the forthcoming resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, and the beginning of eternal life are all beyond our everyday experience and any possibility of verification, and yet we perceive these future events as certain truths and “know” that they will happen. Thus faith, as a spiritual eye, gives us the ability to perceive what lies far away on the horizon of the future.
However, even the most sensitive eye cannot see without light. Similarly, faith needs the spiritual light of divine revelation. God, in His love for us, revealed through the prophets, the apostles, and especially through His Only Begotten Son, all that is necessary for us to know for the spiritual development and salvation of our souls. Thus, God has revealed to us the mystery of the Trinity and of the Divine attributes, the mystery of the Incarnation and the power of the redeeming sufferings of the Son of God, the significance of His resurrection for our spiritual rebirth and corporal Resurrection on the last day of this world and so forth.
But by saying that the ability to believe is above physical knowledge, we do not wish to exclude reason or logical thinking. On the contrary, according to the plan of the Creator, all spiritual capabilities must be in harmony and reinforce one another. Genuine faith must not be blind nor light. Gullibility discloses laziness of the soul, naiveté of the mind. Reason must help faith to differentiate between truth and delusion. Calm exploration of religious truth makes faith more definite and founded. The Lord Jesus Christ never demanded blind faith from His followers. On the contrary, He advised the Jews, “Search the Scriptures; because they testify of Me” (John 5:39). He also suggested that unbelievers examine His miracles in order to be convinced of His Divine ministry: “Though you not believe Me, believe the works [that I do], that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him” (John 10:38). Likewise, the apostles urged the early Christians to use reason and discretion in questions concerning faith: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In particular the apostles urged their disciples to hold to sound doctrine, rejecting fables and human fabrications (2 Tim. 1:13, 4:3).
Thus, it is erroneous to set reason against faith; they complement and reinforce each other. Reason is for searching out, proving and substantiating. It protects faith from delusion and humanity from fanaticism. Faith, on the other hand, is the driving force that opens new horizons, elevates us to new heights. It can be compared to an engine, while reason to a steering wheel. Without the engine the car will not move, and without the steering wheel it may crash.
Dependence of faith on free will
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). With these words our Savior tells us that He offers to each of us the gift of faith, but it is up to us to accept or to reject this gift.
The Lord is merciful to those who doubt not from obstinacy but due to spiritual weakness and inexperience. Those who seek the truth and lament their lack of faith receive Divine help to acquire faith. Thus, for example, Christ took pity on the despairing father of the possessed youth who cried out: “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) and healed his sick son. He likewise had compassion on the apostle Peter who, having become frightened of the storm, began to sink. Giving His hand to Peter, the Lord gently rebuked him, saying: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:30). Nor did the Lord reject the doubting Thomas, who wished to be personally convinced of the miracle of the Resurrection. The Lord, having condescended to Thomas with His appearance, did not, however, praise him for becoming a believer on the basis of an obvious proof but said to him, “You believe because you have seen; blessed are those who do not see and believe” (John 20:29). In other words, faith based on external experience has little value; it’s actually not faith but ordinary knowledge. True faith is born of inner experience; it demands sensitivity, a spiritual up-lifting, and, therefore, is worthy of praise.
However, we see the complete opposite of such a searching faith in the Jewish scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time. They obstinately and stubbornly refused to believe in Jesus Christ as the God-sent Messiah. Neither the fulfillment in Christ of the ancient prophecies, nor His countless miracles and raising of the dead, nor signs in nature, nor even His Resurrection shook their unbelief. On the contrary, with each new miracle they became still more embittered and hostile towards Him. Thus if even Christ was unable to awaken faith in those who did not want to believe, is it any wonder that in our time there are conscious and adamant atheists? They claim that they do not believe because they see no miracles. But the real reason for their unbelief lies not in a lack of miracles, which occur daily in different parts of the world, but in the negative direction of their will. They simply don’t want God to exist.
The problem of unbelief is closely tied to the sinfulness of human nature. Because the subject of faith is not an abstract theory but a positive teaching that demands certain behavior and imposes definite responsibilities, not everyone is willing to change his life around to adapt to its high moral standards. Faith puts a check on a person’s greed. It calls him to overcome his selfishness, to live moderately, to do good to others, even to sacrifice himself. When a man prefers his passions over the will of God and places his own good over the good of others, then he will do everything he can to repudiate arguments in favor of faith. The Savior indicated that an evil will is the chief cause of unbelief when He said: “For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:20-21).
Being capable of suppressing faith within himself, man is also capable of strengthening it. Turning again to the Gospel, we find in it striking examples of ardent faith. Inspiring in this regard are the examples of the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman, the woman with an issue of blood, the blind men of Jericho, and similar others. The Lord repeatedly called for His listeners to imitate the faith of these people. Consequently, it lies within our power, with God’s help, to gather and direct our spiritual capabilities towards a greater faith. Faith, as everything good, demands effort. That is the reason a reward is promised for it: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).