Faith – The Strength to Do What Needs to Be Done
The word faith is much abused, because religious discussion speaks often of faith without making clear what we are supposed to have faith in or to be faithful towards. There have been many evil people in history – Cotton Mather, Jim Jones, Osama bin Laden, and thousands of others other large and small scale abusers – who have tried (too often successfully) to convince others that faith means believing whatever they are told, so long as the manipulative person in question is the person doing the telling. For this reason it is especially important that children learn from an early age what the concept of faith really means in the Christian context.
To understand the concept, it is only necessary to look back to the principle of alignment with God and our example of the three children asked to clean their room. Angela derives pleasure from the task of cleaning her room – a task which offers no pleasure in itself – because she has faith that it is the right thing to do. The faith does not lie in her believing that cleaning her room is good. That belief is based on logic, experience, and moral reflection. We are not required to believe that something is “good” just because someone in authority says so, if our own logic and experience say otherwise. The faith involved is her deep, emotional acceptance of the idea that doing what she logically believes to be the right thing is the only acceptable choice for her. She is not troubled by thoughts such as “maybe it’s good, but it’s no fun – I want to go watch T.V. instead.” She is convinced that the virtuous choice is the only choice for her, and so she feels good about doing the right thing even if it’s not inherently fun, and she would not enjoy shirking her duty by going out to play instead. Christian faith is simply faith in the proposition that virtue is its own reward. Such faith, once acquired, is difficult to shake, for by truly believing that virtuous behavior is a good thing without regard to material rewards or appreciation from others, the faithful person acquires the ability to feel pleasure in virtue under all circumstances. For her, virtue is indeed its own reward because she believes it to be true.
Stubborn Stuart and Contracting Connie haven’t yet found this key to heaven. Stuart makes his own and his mother’s life miserable because he is convinced that he should always do exactly what he wants, rather than thinking he should want to do what is right. Connie thinks that she should receive a material reward for a virtuous act, and so not only fails to take pleasure in the act, but leaves herself open to having no pleasure at all if the material rewards ever stop. Angela’s faith, her ability to feel good about doing the right thing just because it is good, is a treasure that the others lack. By definition, no one can achieve the bliss that is heaven without such faith, for without it one is incapable of feeling that bliss.
The value of such faith in achieving heavenly bliss is clear. Faith is the force that provides immunity against the pain of doubt and despair. It frees us from the need for material rewards and satisfactions. Most importantly, it protects us against the form of desperate desire that characterizes sin. Stubborn Stuart really suffers when he cleans his room, because he is convinced that he by rights should be doing something else, and is absorbed in his unfulfilled desire to be elsewhere. He cannot feel good about performing the task. Angela does not feel the desire to be elsewhere, or at least not in the same way. If she thinks about it she may wish that she had a room-cleaning robot, but she knows that she would not enjoy doing something else while the necessary task remains undone. This prevents her from focusing on wanting to do something else, and immunizes her against that unfilled desire. Her virtue shields her from unpleasant feelings, leaving her mind free to enjoy her accomplishments. Further, it helps to immunize her against the kinds of anxious feelings that can lead to despair.
Faith is subject to many tests, for life is filled with material distractions and many of them are subtle. The admiration and thanks of others are particularly effective decoys from the pure joys of virtue. It is easy to believe that if others admire you, you must be doing good things. However, virtue and applause are not the same thing. A very good person working to help unknown poor people in some rural county is unlikely to be as widely known and admired as some basically selfish football player who gives a check to charity. A person who gets caught up in seeking applause will be easily discouraged from virtuous tasks. He may find the heart to be a hero when television cameras are pointed his way, but his courage will fail when he is alone. “Why should I help those ungrateful people?”, he will think. “Why should I speak out against that evil if all my neighbors will think I am a nut or a troublemaker?” When he does do the right thing, his joy will be measured by the applause meter, not by the goodness of the act. If his neighbor helps in the cause and gets more attention for it, he will be jealous, rather than feeling joy in the virtue of his neighbor. By allowing himself to be distracted from the conviction that virtuous action is worthwhile simply because it is virtuous, he will lose the joy that pure virtue brings. Further, he will lose the strength that faith should bring, the strength to feel good about himself and his choices even when others disapprove. To enjoy the benefits of faith, then, we must clearly understand its role and work to purify our faith against such subtle attacks. We must learn to enjoy virtue purely for the sake of the good that it does, and not for the sake of being perceived as virtuous by others. As I will discuss in a later article, prayer can be a useful tool for distilling faith in this way.
(I should add at this point something that will be covered further later. We are not called upon to be perfect angels, and if one makes that mistake it will tend to undermine faith and replace it with inappropriate guilt. Angela will feel good about cleaning her room rather than making her mother do it because she does not want to burden her mother, not because she feels a compulsion to keep her room pristine. If we are following the principle of connectedness, we will recognize what is important and what is asking too much. Another writer has made this point well. )
Christ’s suffering was necessary for him to provide an example of perfect faith, free from the taint of vain distractions. He did not face the cross in the context of a hero. The people of Jerusalem turned against him and reviled him. They tormented and humiliated him and called for his blood, choosing to have him executed in preference to a common killer. His own disciples betrayed or disowned him. Despite this, he accepted his assigned fate, firmly believing that he simply had no other valid choice. Despite his words on the cross, he was not forsaken by the Father, for he was spared the torment of doubt. Without that torment, anything is bearable. Christ proved this, in the form of a man who knew fear, pain, and abandonment, and who was given the chance to avoid his fate, but yet never wavered from doing what he knew he should do. Adam’s original sin was the pride that gave humankind the pain and danger of a choice between doing good or doing evil. Christ purged that original sin through his demonstration of a faith so perfect that the pain of choice was eliminated – the virtuous course was the only course for him. For anyone else who follows Christ’s example in faith, sin will be swept away. They will not be tempted to stray from virtue, and will not feel the pain of doubt in the face of adversity. This is not to say that they will not have to make difficult choices, for the path of virtue is often obscure, but they will choose knowing that their objective is to do the right thing. They will feel joy in their virtue, and they will be spared from wondering: “Am I a fool? Is this worth it?” For such a person, bliss is not difficult to find.
This brings us to another one of the hard questions. Most Christian children have heard that one must have faith in order to get to heaven. On hearing this, they will often ask what happens to children in other countries who have not been raised in “The Faith” – are they automatically condemned to hell? I hope that the above discussion shows why this is a misguided question. One does not need to be raised in “the Christian faith” or to believe in any of the details of Christian doctrine to have the kind of faith that one needs to find heaven. Those who think so have been confused by the many different uses of the word “faith”. The faith that counts is faith that virtue is its own reward, that a person should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. A person raised as a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist can all have that type of faith, they can all be good people, and they can all find the bliss that comes from such virtuous faith. Christ did not sweep through cities in a blaze of fire and glory, making everyone believe without question that he must be divine. His body was not removed from the cross by a glowing angel as proof to the onlookers that he was the son of God. Instead, he walked the earth as a man, talking to people, and he suffered ridicule, torture and death to give an example of perfect human faith for other people of faith to follow. When Thomas, after being a disciple up through the crucifixion, still doubted, he was not cast into a lake of fire; he was given reassurance to help him to find the faith to do what had to be done next. This is not, in short, a religion that demands uncritical, unthinking acceptance of particular teachings. Rather, it is a religion that asks us to seek to build the faith within ourselves that will help us to want to do the right thing, and to build the wisdom to figure out what the right thing is.
In the next article I will address the power of faith, and the hazards that come with that power.
Faith is the deep emotional conviction that the virtuous course of action is the only acceptable one. It makes alignment with God possible.
Faith is the deep conviction that one should and must do the virtuous thing
Faith frees us from the pain of doubt, sin and despair
Christ’s life and death gave us an example of perfect faith
Adam and Eve brought the choice of good and evil, Christ showed faith removes that burden
A common movie theme is the ordinary person who becomes a hero because he or she is emotionally unable to choose the other path. They have faith. In Angels With Dirty Faces, James Cagney does the right thing at the cost of earthly “honor”, through saving faith.
Integrity – Doing the right thing for the right reason