Faith as the foundation of hope
Trials and sorrow are inevitable in this temporary life. At difficult moments only faith can give a person the necessary spiritual strength. When a person with a weak faith despairs during misfortunes, feels defeated and complains bitterly, the believing person more strongly turns to God for help. He disperses the tide of despondency with hope in God, having learned from previous trials that “whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33).
Sorrows are the “rainy days” and “storms” in our life and are meant to test our faith. During fair weather every sailor can fantasize about his skills, but it is during a storm that the genuine mariner is unveiled. Reading the Holy Scripture or lives of the saints, one becomes convinced that righteous people displayed their faith more obviously during persecutions and sufferings than during calm and normal conditions. When the Apostle Paul refers to the Old Testament righteous, he specifically mentions their difficult moments as examples of strong faith. He thus concludes his overview of their lives: some of them “were tortured, not receiving deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trials of mocking and scourging, of chains and imprisonment. Some were stoned, some were sawn in two, others were tempted and slain with the sword. Some wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented. Of whom the world was not worthy, wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth … Therefore—concludes the apostle—since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every burden of sin (which so easily ensnares us) and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Instead of the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame. Now He sits at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. chapters 11-12).
Although faith helps man to face suffering with fortitude, the question remains: why does the Lord permit the righteous to suffer? The answer is not obvious at all; “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has taught Him?” (Isai. 40:13). Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul explains that “all things work for good to them who love God” (Rom. 8:28). The word “all” includes sorrows as well. Actually, having himself experienced innumerable trials during his missionary journeys, Saint Paul shares with his disciples what he has learned: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distress for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong; for the strength of God is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Sorrows convince man of the instability of life’s blessings, remind him of God the Rescuer, of eternal life, and teach him patience. They develop fortitude and constancy in good deeds. When man can expect help from nowhere, he turns to God with all his strength. And while he is troubled from the outside, in his heart he finds Divine peace and consolation. Such direct awareness of God is greatly beneficial to a man’s faith. Thus, on the one hand, faith helps a man to bear sorrows, and on the other, sorrows strengthen the faith in him. For this reason Saint James taught Christians: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2).
Probably because faith gives man fortitude at difficult times and serves as a bulwark for his spiritual life, our Savior named it a rock, saying: “On this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Indeed, it is impossible to enumerate all the persecutions of Christians in the two millennia of the existence of the Church. While so many empires and powerful governments fell and have completely disappeared from the face of the Earth, Christ’s Church, founded on faith in Him, stands firm and will remain invincible until the end of the world.
Faith as the key to God’s treasures
Faith draws a person into a living communication with God in heartfelt, concentrated prayer. When a person comes into close contact with the Almighty, then, according to the words of the Savior, everything becomes possible to him: “Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive … If you have faith as (small as) a mustard seed, and you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 21:22, 17:20). Thus even the smallest faith can work wonders provided it is wholesome and healthy like a mustard seed. The great miracle worker Saint John of Kronstadt, speaking from his own experience, called faith “the key to God’s treasures.”
True faith has nothing to do with self-confidence. Greatly mistaken are those who confuse faith with ordinary auto-suggestion. Some sectarian preachers teach that one must convince oneself of whatever one desires, for example: in health, success, or well-being—and that is enough to obtain it. These auto-suggestions resemble a game in which a child imagines that he is sailing accross the sea or riding a horse while he sits on the floor in his room. Faith built on self-suggestion leads to self-delusion and a spiritual catastrophe.
True faith acts not by the power of imagination or self-hypnosis but in that it joins a person to the ultimate Source of all life and strength—to Almighty God. Faith is like a vessel with which one scoops up from the Divine fountain, and prayer acts as an arm with which one reaches into it. It is important to take recourse prudently to the power of faith. Because only God knows what is best for us, in praying one should be less concerned about pressing one’s own desires and more about understanding what is the will of God. After all, prayer should not become a monologue but a two-way conversation. And in every conversation one must learn to listen as well. When we sincerely pray to God, He replies to us in our heart and in subsequent external circumstances.
Turning to the Gospel accounts, we see that those people who possessed an exceptionally strong faith as, for example, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman, the friends of the paralytic, and others, were all very far from any elation or pathos. Actually, they all were extremely humble people (Matt. 8:10, 15:22, 9:2). The combination of strong faith and humility is not accidental. A deeply believing person feels, more than anyone else, the greatness and the almightiness of God. And the more he realizes it, the more keenly he becomes aware of his own limitations and deficiency. The great miracle workers such as, for example, the prophets Moses and Elisha, the apostles Peter and Paul and those like them were always distinguished by profound humility.
Faith acting through love
Is there an interrelationship between faith and good works? Some ask: is faith alone sufficient for salvation, or are good works also necessary? The fact that many contemporary Christians oppose faith to good works reveals how impoverished and distorted their concept of Christianity has become. True faith extends not only over man’s mind but over all the powers of his soul, including the heart and will. Many contemporary preachers have narrowed the concept of faith to a rational acceptance of the Gospel’s teaching. They declare: “Only believe, and you will be saved.” The error here, just as with the pharisaic approach, consists in the formal and legalistic understanding of salvation. The Jews in Christ’s time taught justification by fulfillment of the Mosaic Law, while Protestants since Luther’s times teach justification by faith alone, independent of good works. Traditional Christianity, however, calls for complete spiritual re-birth: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Salvation is not only the resettlement from earth to paradise but the grace-filled state of man’s renewed soul. According to our Lord: “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In this renewed state a complete harmony is established between internal convictions and external behavior. Here good works become fruits which naturally grow on a healthy tree. And on the contrary, lack of good works testify of an ill and dying soul.
Now, spiritual re-birth is not achieved instantaneously. Christ’s words to those who believed, “Thy faith has saved thee,” (Matt. 9:22) refer to that crucial turning point made by those who have decided to break with the past and follow Jesus Christ. Without this radical change in thinking, any improvement and spiritual progress are impossible. Naturally, after a person has chosen the right path he must subsequently walk on it, i.e., apply its high principles with patience and perseverance. All New Testament books speak about working on oneself and becoming more like Christ: “We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). What is needed here is not abstract faith but that which acts through love (Gal. 5:6).
The Apostle James firmly rises up against those who separate faith from good works, saying: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, `Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? … But someone will say, `You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble!” Further, the apostle gives examples of righteous men and women of old who proved their faith by their works, and he draws the following conclusion: “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? … For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:14-26).
The Apostle Paul likewise does not recognize faith without its fruit: “Though I have the gift of prophesy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3). Therefore, correct understanding of faith dispels all doubt as to which is more important—faith or works. They are inseparable, like the light and warmth of a flame.
How to strengthen one’s faith
Thus, among the many talents and faculties of the human spirit, faith is the most precious of the Divine gifts. Faith broadens man’s horizons and gives him a proper outlook, reveals to him the purpose of his life, encourages him during hard times and gladdens his heart, empowers his prayer and gives him access to a multitude of God’s treasures and mercies.
Sadly, however, our life of plenty and well-being weakens our faith, and God’s goodness gets forgotten. As faith grows dim, a man’s inner condition becomes increasingly disordered: he loses clarity of thought and purpose of life, his spiritual strength leaves him, emptiness and despondency firmly set into his heart, he becomes irritable and dissatisfied with everything. After all, the soul cannot live without faith, just as a plant cannot live without light and moisture. No matter how intelligent and talented he might be, with faith extinguished a person descends to the level of a cunning animal, or even a predator.
In order to escape such a “shipwreck of faith” (1 Tim. 1:19), one must seriously concern oneself with the renewal of his soul. But how? We know that all talents require exercise: to preserve a sharp mind, it must be engaged in mental work; so that fingers maintain their flexibility, it is necessary to practice on a musical instrument; to have the body remain limber, it is necessary to do gymnastic exercises; and so on. If people expend so much energy and money to develop and preserve their physical abilities, should not we Christians strive to strengthen our spiritual capabilities?
Specifically: to strengthen our faith, we must live spiritually. This includes regular reading of the Holy Scripture, meditation about God and the purpose of our life, fasting and prayer. When praying, one must make an effort to concentrate on the meaning of the words and feel the presence of God. It is also important to repent sincerely for one’s sins, go to Confession and take Communion on a regular basis. Finally, one must try to live not for oneself alone but for the good of one’s neighbor and one’s church. The heart of one who loves is warmed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Of course, in trying to lead a Christian life one cannot avoid battles, trials and difficulties. At times it may seem that the whole world is armed against us. These are unwanted but precious periods in which we are given the opportunity to grow spiritually and become better Christians.
In striving to strengthen our faith, let us always remember that ultimately faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul testified to this: “The fruit of the Spirit is: joy, love, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, kindness, faith” (Gal. 5:22). Let us, therefore, ask God for faith, that great spiritual treasure. As Jesus Christ has promised: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7). And as faith grows, it will bring with it peace of mind, joy, and a foretaste of final triumph over all evil. “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).
Poems on Faith
Oh, wondrous holy Faith,
You are a miracle streaming current,
You are the door of the soul to the abode of Paradise,
You are the dawn of the future life!
Burn in me, lamp of Faith,
Burn more clearly, do not go out,
Be everywhere a faithful companion to me
And enlighten the path of life for me!
—K. R. (1852-1915)
* * *
Oh, my God! I give thanks
For Thine having given my eyes
To see the world—Thine eternal temple –
And the earth, the sky and the dawn. . .
Let torments threaten me, -
I give thanks for this moment,
For everything which I understood with my heart,
Of which the stars speak to me. . .
Everywhere I sense, everwhere
Thee, Lord: in the night silence,
And in the most remote star,
And in the depth of my soul.
I wish my life to be
Unceasing praise to Thee;
Thee for midnight and the dawn!
For life and death—I thank!
—D. S. Merezhkovsky (1866-1941)
* * *
Blessed is he who with holy faith
Raises, inspires his spirit,
And strengthens his heart as with steel armor
From the storms of life.
For him trials are not terrible,
Nor is remoteness, nor the depth of the sea;
Grief and sufferings are not terrible,
Nor is the power of death terrible.
Poems translated from the Russian by Dimitry J. Hicks Hloboschin 30/XI/1998