The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Chapter 14: Saved by Faith"
For thirteen chapters now we have tried to see and understand somewhat the truths about the approach of our Father to our race, in marvelous goodness and generosity. We have seen that He pursues two goals simultaneously: love of us, and love of what is good in itself (objective goodness or objective order).
From neither of these pursuits does He gain anything at all. Even though we sometimes speak of Him as acting for His "glory," even that is no benefit to Him. He cannot gain anything at all. St. Augustine rightly remarks that honor from creatures is "smoke without substance".1 How true! We gain nothing from such a thing as honor; neither does our Father. Yet He wants honor, simply because objective goodness requires that creatures honor their Creator, and so that He may be able to give to them in such a way that they can receive (for His commands are instructions on how to be open to His gifts). In one and the same act, as we said, He works for what is objectively good, which His Holiness wills, and for our good.
So, now, having come to realize to some slight extent His wondrous Love/Holiness/Generosity, we obviously should ask: What should our response to Him be? It will turn out to be a matter of emptying so as to be able to be filled: emptying of self, by humility, mortification, meditation, so as to be filled with His love and love for Him. Our chapters too thus far have shown the importance of getting the help of the Mother of God, the Mother of Jesus. For although the Father did not need her at all-He needs no creature-yet He freely chose to put her everywhere in His approach to us. He gave her an all-pervading role in His plans.
Clearly, if we wish to imitate His ways-and nothing could be better or higher-ideally we would give her a correspondingly all-pervading place in our spiritual lives, taking into account in this, of course, individual spiritual differences among people.2
If we begin by asking what is the central, the most basic feature of our response to Him, we encounter a puzzle. He has chosen to deal with us by way of Covenant, Old and New. Within the covenants, as we have seen, we humans receive favor on condition of our obedience to the covenant conditions, that is, to His law.
But yet, Jesus Himself told us that the center of all is love. After replying that the first commandment is "To love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole mind" and the second is like to it, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," He added: (Mt 22:40): "On these two comandments depend the whole law and the prophets."
Yet St. Paul insists that we are free from the law, and the condition of salvation is faith. Over and over again Paul insists (Rom 3:28) "A man is made just by faith without the works of the law." Of course we know without looking that no statement in Holy Scripture will contradict another statement there, for all are written under inspiration, so that strictly, as Vatican I taught, "They have God as their author."3
The answer is not hard to find. We have already seen that love, when directed to God, amounts in practice to obedience to Him. For since He cannot gain anything, we cannot wish Him well, or wish that He may get what He needs; it is only love of creatures that consists in wishing well to them for their sakes. But Scripture shows He is pleased when we obey, because thereby we are made open to receive what His Generosity loves to give, and, at the same time, objective goodness is satisfied, which tells us that creatures should obey their Creator, children their Father. Hence Jesus Himself said explicitly at the Last Supper (Jn 14:21): "He who hears my commandments and keeps them, he is the one who loves me."
So, even though in theory there is a difference; in practice, love of God and obedience to Him are the same thing.
As to faith, if we understand the word the way St. Paul himself understands it, we find it is a very comprehensive virtue. It really means total adherence of a person to God, so that if God speaks a truth, we believe it (cf. 1 Thes 2:13); if He makes a promise, we are confident He will keep it (cf. Rom 4:3); if He tells us to do something, we obey. Hence St. Paul can even speak of the "obedience of faith" (cf. Rom 1:5)-a phrase in which the word "of" is an "equals" sign: faith is obedience. All of which is to be done in love (cf. Gal 5:6).4 Hence Vatican II rightly tells us that faith is the virtue "in which a person freely commits himself entirely to God, giving full adherence of mind and will to God who reveals; and freely assenting to the revelation given by Him."5
So whether we say that the basic condition of our response to God is love-or obedience-or faith-in practice, all come to the same thing, even though technically one could draw lines. Really, this equation is not strange-in God Himself, because of His absolute unity, all virtues-even justice and mercy, which seem opposed to each other-are identified with His divine nature, and therefore, identified with each other!
So we begin in this chapter to explore love/obedience/faith. After that we will look into the conditions mentioned above for carrying these out, a process of emptying of self to make room for being filled with love/obedience/faith.
We take up first the adherence to God in that aspect of faith in which we believe His words, and trust in them. There are many dramatic incidents in Scripture in which this is brought out forcefully. When Abraham was 99 and his wife Sarah was 90, and had been sterile all her life, God spoke to Abraham, and promised that he would have a son by Sarah. Abraham believed, and did have a son, Isaac. But later, when Isaac was still a little boy, Abraham showed even more remarkable faith. For God spoke again and ordered him to take Isaac to a certain mountain and there offer him in sacrifice. At this point Abraham could have very reasonably spoken to God and said: "My Lord, you told me I would be the father of a great nation through Isaac. So I must believe that, and I can believe. But now you tell me to kill him in sacrifice, preventing the fulfillment of that promise. So please tell me your holy will, and I will do whatever you wish."6 But Abraham did nothing of the kind; he just went ahead, believing the impossible, until God told him to stop and not sacrifice Isaac. Here was a magnificent faith, a faith that held on in the dark, when it was impossible to see, when it seemed impossible to believe.
Not only Abraham, a great spiritual man, but the entire people of Israel was, it seems, put in a similar situation of having to believe the impossible.7 For most scholars think that probably the people of Israel had no clear knowledge until about the middle of the second century B.C. that there was any reward or punishment in the future life. They did know there was survival, but reward and punishment would be something added to that. On the other hand, they knew it had been revealed that God does reward and punish justly. We, who know clearly that the future life makes everything right, have no problem. But imagine the plight of those who had to believe everything is made right in this present life-when their senses inescapably reported that many times the wicked prosper to the end, while the good are afflicted even until their deaths.8 To have to believe God rewards and punishes justly, and not to know there is future retribution-this is to be asked to believe the unbelievable. Yet they were asked to hold on, in faith, in the dark.
We already saw the difficult demand on the faith of Mary on the day of the Annunciation. She is the greatest model of this aspect of faith, for her Son, being divine, never had to mentally hold to something He could not understand.9 But she had to believe there is only one God-and yet that the Father is God, and her Son would be God.
After that day she had also to contend with a constant clash of what her senses told her, and what her faith said. Her faith knew He was the Son of God. Yet as she handled Him as an infant, fled into Egypt with Him, spent years of very ordinary life with Him at Nazareth-in all these, her faith and her senses did not agree, they clashed. So she had to believe. And that she did, most perfectly. She might well have been tempted to wonder too, when He waited until He was 30 before beginning His mission-would it not have seemed, humanly speaking, that He was not going to do anything special at all?
We might be inclined to suppose that between the best of Sons and the best of Mothers everything would be sweetness and light. But what of His way of acting when He stayed behind in the Temple at the age of 12? St. Luke (2:50) reports that she and St. Joseph did not know what to make of it, or of His explanation. This need not mean that they did not know of His divinity. But, even knowing that, they could be puzzled over the strange departure from the ways they had seen in Him for so many years.
Still more difficult for her was the scene at the wedding at Cana. Seeing the wine running out, she, in a demure and quite feminine way, did not directly ask, but just hinted to Him to do something, saying: "They have no wine." But He replied in a line which causes much trouble to translators, as the variety of translations proposed testifies. The literal Greek reads (Jn 2:4): "What is it to me and to you, woman?" This expression occurs a few other times in Scripture,10 and where it does, it always has a tone of rejection. Further, the word "woman," though it was an honorable title, yet it seems at least cold. The outcome, His working of His first miracle, shows it was not a rejection. And the word "woman" could even be the Evangelist's word, not that of Jesus, used to point out that Mary is the woman foretold in the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, of enmity between her and the serpent, and likewise the "woman" at the foot of the cross. For John has Jesus say to John (Jn. 19:26-27): "Son, behold your mother." But then, instead of the naturally matching expression, He says to her, "Woman, behold your son."
Further, Revelation (Apocalypse) 12:1 has a "woman clothed with the sun," who is probably both the Church and Mary under one image.11 So the word woman, whether by John or by Jesus, could be meant to point out that she is the woman of these crucial Scriptural passages. But even so, would she know at the time? Surely it was a strain on her faith, but she held on in the dark, and confidently told the waiters at the wedding (Jn 2:5): "Whatever He says to you, do it."
St. Luke groups together three puzzling sayings of Jesus; we do not know if He gave them all on one occasion. First, someone said to Jesus (Lk 9:57-62): "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." This was not very encouraging, though realistic. The second saying is more of a problem. Jesus said to another one: "Follow me." That person replied: "Let me first go away to bury my father." Jesus told him: "Let the dead bury their dead, but you go off and announce the kingdom of God." This would of course seem shocking: respect for parents is commanded in the fourth comandment, and Jesus seems to ignore it. Of course, to omit attendance at a funeral would not, strictly, be a violation of the commandment. Some commentators think the man really meant he wanted to stay at home until his father died, at an indefinite future time. Next, another man said he would follow Jesus, but first he wanted to say goodbye to his people at home. Jesus replied: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Jesus is probably using a popular proverb. But again, it sounds almost harsh.
What goes on in these three incidents? It seems to be part of the same pattern we have been seeing, a pattern of calling on souls to believe without being able to understand, in the dark.
We recall too the occasion we have already seen, in chapter 13, in which His Mother was at the edge of a crowd, and it was announced to Jesus that she was there. Instead of giving her a warm welcome, He pointed to the disciples and said (Mt. 12:48-50): "Who is my Mother, and who are my brothers? . . . Behold, my Mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and Mother." He was, of course, teaching a profound lesson, that the dignity of adhering to the will of God is even greater than being physically the Mother of God.12 Pope Pius XI taught that the divine motherhood is a "dignity second only to God" and he quotes St. Thomas Aquinas saying it is "a sort of infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is."13 She was at the peak in both categories, dignity of position, and adherence to the will of God. Yet His words must have been a trial for her, for they surely seemed strange.14
In chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel we have another striking incident. Jesus had announced (Jn 6:51) : "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever, and the bread which I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." The Jews began to wrangle, and with reason. To eat someone's flesh could mean, in the language of the day, to slander him. That could not be it. Otherwise it would sound like proposing cannibalism. But Jesus did not explain, He merely repeated (Jn 6:53): "Amen, Amen I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you." At this point many in the crowd began to leave Him. Far from explaining, He turned to the Twelve and said: "Are you going to leave too?" It would have been so easy for Him to say: "Hold on, please, do not leave. I mean no cannibalism. I will take bread and wine and say over them: 'This is my body . . . This is my blood' That is not so difficult iis it?" But instead, He demanded absolute faith, faith that would hold on in the dark, without being able to see.
We have noticed that He acted this way even to His own Mother, who on so many occasions had to show magnificent faith. At the cross, she had to believe that this wretched failure-for so it seemed to others, and even the Apostles except John had fallen away-was the salvation of the world. And when He gloriously appeared to many, first to the ex-sinner Mary Magdalene, Scripture does not report He came to show Himself to His Mother. Did He omit it? We simply do not know. What we do know is that this kind of treatment, insisting that people, even His Mother, hold on to faith in the dark, is the best way to cause them to grow spiritually.
Mary was, of course, full of grace, as the angel had said on the day of His conception. In fact, as Pius IX told us, from the first moment of her own conception, her holiness was so great that, "None greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it." Yet, even though full of grace, she could still grow. A crude comparison may help: we think of several glasses of different sizes. Each one may be filled with liquid. Yet some will hold more than others. Grace, of course, is not like a liquid-it is the radication of God's power in the soul. It is possible for a soul to grow in its capacity for that radiction, and hence, there can be a fulness of grace at each stage, yet that fulness can increase in this sense: this is a relative fulness, the fulness in Mary. Of course if one has the absolute fulness of the God-man himself, there is no room for growth. But in Mary, there was room for growth, room for greater enjoyment of eternal happiness. To will that greater happiness for someone, even if it costs some difficulties, holding on in the dark for a while-that is love, great love. For love means willing good to another for the other's sake. His love for her, then, led Him to act this way. His love for all of us means He will at various times put us into such straits. Then we must either grow greatly, or fall back. If we imitate His Mother, we will grow, grow greatly, and be capable of taking in more of that infinite vision and love that God offers forever.
We do not wish to give the impression that we can cause ourselves to grow in faith. That would be a mistake. Faith is God's gift to us, even though it is the condition on which we are saved or not saved. So St. Paul told the Ephesians (Eph 2:8): "By grace you are saved through faith and this [faith ] is not from you [it is] the gift of God." (How it can be a condition of salvation, when it does not come from us, is a fascinating problem. We will explore it in chapter 18.)
Even though we cannot make ourselves grow in faith, since faith is a gift of God, we can do something in that direction, to make ourselves open-strictly, non-resistant15-to that gift in greater measure. Most obviously, we can pray for more faith. We can also welcome the difficulties of life, especially those in which we must hold on in the dark. For acting on faith makes us open to increase in faith. Faith tells us that, compared to the unending, unimaginable goods of the life to come, the things of this life are worse than worthless. We do not deny that they are good; God made them good. But we mean that when compared to eternal goods, things of this world seem to be no better than dung-that is St. Paul's word, in writing to the Philippians (Phil 3:7-9) "The things that were gain to me"-at first he refers to the privileges of being a Jew-"these I consider loss, on account of Christ. But I therefore consider all things"-not only Jewish privileges-"loss on account of the outstandingness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have taken the loss of all things, and I consider them dung, that I may gain Christ."
We called these things even worse than worthless in this sense: They can tempt us to forget the higher goods, and so put us in danger of losing them.
We need to realize-not just to know in a notional way-these great truths. One way to realize them is to meditate much, another is to act on them. How to act on them we may partly surmise already. We will see more fully later.