It is easy to talk oneself out of faith. A lifetime of experience can present abundant evidence that Christ is not at work in our lives, at least not in the ways we would like him to be. The process is subtle but malicious. The memories of fiascos and failures line up at the very edge of our consciousness, and the narratives they produce conceal whispers that Christ is not interested in the problems we face, not powerful enough to overcome the obstacles in our way.
‘He was amazed at their lack of faith.’ (Mk 6:6)
What subtle messages do you use to talk yourself out of faith?
How can the long-term struggles of your life be a call to deeper faith?
These quiet voices can be alluring. For some, their appeal comes from brief but enjoyable illusions of control. There is a pleasure in thinking oneself the cause of one’s own success, even when God and neighbor have obviously had a hand. For others, gratification comes from the belief that they stand alone against life’s challenges. Imagining oneself marching in solitude against a host of opposing forces can confer drama and purpose on even the dullest existence.
Knowledge of Christ gives no protection from these quiet voices, for knowing about Christ is not the same as knowing Christ. This was the trap that Jesus’ neighbors fell into in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. They had seen him at home and at work; they knew his family and they thought they knew him. Although they had heard of his mighty deeds and witnessed his preaching, this encounter could not dispel the quiet whispers that echoed through their minds.
A similar encounter with the God of Israel likewise failed to stir Ezekiel’s audience. His message, addressed to the political and religious leadership of Jerusalem just before the city’s destruction, met with indifference or outright hostility. These leaders knew a great deal about God, but they did not know God in the visceral way Ezekiel did. When their faulty knowledge led to catastrophe, they found in Ezekiel’s writings the path back to faith. Through Ezekiel, all Israel found the strength to survive the Babylonian exile and, generations later, rebuild a broken nation.
Paul famously avoided the trap of these subtle whispers, as this Sunday’s second reading demonstrates. His lack of deliverance from his “thorn in the flesh” only led him to deeper faith. Although we will probably never know what this “angel of Satan” might have been, Paul makes it clear that it was some problem that Jesus could have overcome. When he did not, Paul took this not as a sign that he was on his own, but rather as a call to deeper reliance on God. The struggle was itself an opportunity to cooperate with Christ, and through it, Paul found a path to deeper faith and richer grace.
Paul’s vigorous faith helped him avoid this trap. Just so, we have to remain vigilant if we are to avoid talking ourselves out of faith in Christ. The Lord’s power is not magical but relational. He might speak a liberating word, but we need to believe and act on it before we experience our freedom. Christ will not be able to perform any mighty deed in our lives until we place our faith in him and see in our struggles a call to greater cooperation with grace.