We don’t hear much about faith nowadays, except faith in ourselves. Ours is a culture of self-reliance and self-determination. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we are all burdened with a measure of self-doubt—not necessarily the unhealthy kind of self-doubt, but an acknowledgment that we cannot always do whatever we set out to accomplish.
A New Testament writer tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). Just what does this mean? The catechism makes clear distinctions between faith and hope, telling us that faith is belief in divine truths and hope is trust in God. The Bible does not seem to understand these religious sentiments in quite this way. In fact, if we look carefully at passages that speak of faith or hope, we will find that faith means reliance on or confidence in God, and hope is expectation of a better future.
The readings for today offer us three glimpses into what the Bible means by faith. When the apostles ask Jesus to “increase our faith,” he gives them an example of the power of faith. He claims that even a little bit of it can work marvels. But what it is we are not told. The story that follows is meant to encourage faithfulness, not faith itself. However, there is a connection between being faithful to one’s responsibilities and living by faith. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” then perhaps faithfulness means that we continue to live this assurance even in difficult circumstances. Faith, then, is the foundation of faithfulness; and faithfulness strengthens faith.
In the second reading, Paul admonishes Timothy to remain steadfast in his testimony to the Lord. The faith of which he speaks is acceptance of Jesus as fulfilment of the promises of God. While there is definitely assurance in this kind of faith, it is more than assurance of things hoped for. It is assurance in what has already taken place, namely, the resurrection of Jesus. This assurance is the basis of Christian commitment. It is because of such assurance that Paul can say, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” In other words, faith not only enables us to be faithful; it also strengthens us to be courageous.
The vision of the prophet Habakkuk is one of terror and destruction. The people are already close to despair. The prophet exclaims in agony: “How long, O Lord? I cry out and you do not listen.” There are no words of comfort in this passage. Instead, the prophet is told to write down the vision to be preserved for future generations. Perhaps they will learn from the suffering endured by their ancestors. The reading ends on a cryptic note: “the just one, because of...faith, shall live.” The Hebrew word probably refers to faithfulness. The prophet maintains that the righteous or just one is steadfast in faithfulness, even in the midst of violence and destruction, and this faithfulness assures life.
Taken together, these readings speak to that part of us that knows that we are not really self-sufficient. They assure us that we are not expected to be. Despite the remarkable abilities we may possess, we are really only limited creatures, unable to manage completely the world in which we live. But the readings do not suggest that we do nothing and simply wait for God to take over. On the contrary, it is precisely in the face of our limitations that we must rely on God as we work to fulfil our responsibilities. St. Augustine told us to “pray as though everything depended on God, and work as though everything depended on you.”
The prayer found in the responsorial psalm captures these sentiments as well. There God is characterized as a sturdy rock and a caring shepherd, surely worthy of our confidence. We are reminded of how our religious ancestors in the wilderness failed to trust in God, despite the marvels that God was performing for them. Today is our day. Will we listen to the voice of God? Or will we too harden our hearts?
The readings demonstrate how faith is indeed “assurance of the things hoped for.” In Jesus, God has already fulfilled the promises, promises that unfold as we live out our lives. Though we are often caught up in violence and destruction, we must be courageous, because our lives give testimony to the faith in Christ Jesus to which we are committed. We may not live to see the tension around us resolved, but we cannot succumb to the cowardice of despair. With the help of God, faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot mighty trees, can dismantle the engines of war, can reconcile warring parties. If we cannot accept this, it might be because we really do not have this kind of faith. Only total reliance on God and unstinting commitment to the responsibilities of life will guarantee us the blessings that God has promised.