What is faith?

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“What is faith? How does it manifest itself in a life and not just in theological verbiage? Paul’s oft quoted definition here from the letter to the Hebrews is a pithy and useful place to start, but it requires a lot of theology and philosophy to explain it further. Sometimes, though, it takes a good story to fill in the blanks for most of us who have neither the time, the talent, nor the inclination toward the more academic pursuits of theology and philosophy. The scriptures are a great aid to us for they are full of excellent didactic, or teaching stories. One of the best of those stories that reveal the reality, the cost, and the reward of faith can be found in the Second Book of Maccabees. It goes like this:

“”Most admirable and worthy of everlasting remembrance was the mother who, seeing her seven sons perish in a single day, bore it courageously because of her hope in the Lord. Filled with a noble spirit that stirred her womanly reason with manly emotion, she exhorted each of them in the language of their ancestors with these words: ‘I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of. Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for he sake of his law.'”” (2 Maccabees 7: 20-23)

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Faith, then, is not just a theological musing; it is not a mere passive response to mystery. Rather, it is something more down to earth, something with life in it. It is something that is done, not just talked about. This powerful story that is remembered in this passage reveals faith in its most profound sense, that is, in action. It recalls this mother and her seven sons who refused, even under the threat of death, to go against the laws of God. They could have saved their lives, simply by eating, but they chose, rather, to remain true to the law. Now, if it was just a matter of ‘laws’ this story could be interpreted as nothing less than foolishness on this family’s part. But, in fact, it is about something beyond the law, something much deeper than a mere law. These seven young men and their mother do not just believe in the ‘law’ but, more importantly, they believe in the One who gives the law, and his promise. Indeed, the law is as nothing in comparison to the One who gives the law, whose wisdom is beyond that of human beings. This mother and her seven sons endured what they did, because of their faith and the hope that it inspired in them. They saw in the One who gives the law the ‘substance of what they hoped for and the evidence for what they could not see with their finite bodies.

What strikes me most here is that this story, this famous act of faith is undertaken by people whose hope is in a savior who had not yet come, who was a promise yet to be fulfilled. We Christians have had the immeasurable grace of being witnesses to, and the inheritors of, that promise. Jesus, the promised savior, has come and he has revealed the truth about God’s love for us in the flesh, in and through his suffering, death and resurrection. This mother and her seven sons did what they did out of the hope for eternal life that only their faith could have revealed to them, long before the coming of Christ into the world. This is faith! What they did seems utterly foolish in the eyes of the world. But with the eyes of faith this mother could say to each son as he was being led to his torture and death, and which she was forced to witness each time: “”I do not know how you came to be in my womb…”” She had none of the knowledge that we possess almost without thought today, because of modern science and technology. But her statement here is not one of ignorance, but one of humility. Such wonders, even today, with the knowledge that science gives us, is still miraculous and mysterious. Her humility is revealed further as she goes on to say, “”…it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of…”” And so it is today.

This mother was able to counsel each one of her sons, giving them courage in the faith, because her faith gave her the ability to ‘see the unseen.’ Even though, she did not have the advantage that we do as Christians who have seen the promise come to be in the flesh, she was able to tell her sons, “”Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.””

How does one accept, endure, undergo such suffering and death for something that one has not seen? Faith is the only conceivable explanation. Can you see a scientist willingly enduring such suffering and death for the second law of thermodynamics? Yet this mother and her seven sons did so for their faith in a promise that had yet to be fulfilled. They did so for the One whom they had not seen, but who they believed in faith had ’caused them to come to be in their mother’s womb,’ who had ‘given them breath and life,’ who had ‘arranged the elements they were made of.’ For this reason alone, were they able to ‘disregard’ themselves ‘for the sake of his law.’

We Christians need to hear and to contemplate this story even more today. There are parts of the world today where Christians are confronting this same choice; either submit to a forced conversion, or suffer and die for the sake of his name, the one who was promised and who has come. But even in our own situation, many of us are ridiculed for our faith, and our Christian beliefs are daily threatened and challenged by the powers of political correctness and hatred. We have to ask ourselves if our faith is as rich and deep as that of this mother and her seven sons. Is our faith strong enough to stand up in the face of threat and personal attack? Do we have the courage of our convictions that this mother and her seven sons had? We may not be put to a test as extreme as theirs every day, but we are tested.

We need to meditate on the faith that this story remembers in Second Maccabees. It reveals the reality of faith very clearly. While we may not be threatened with death, we are challenged to help those we are challenged by. The culture we live in presently is more and more a culture of death. We need to challenge it with our clear and evident faith in a God of life and hope. We need to have the courage to live our faith openly and meaningfully. Christians are a people charged with faith, hope, and love. We need to help lead the people back to a culture of life, where life in all of its diversity is honored, respected and protected. We are a people who believe in the natural goodness of all of God’s creation. If we are not willing to suffer, and maybe even to die for these truths, then who will? The world needs us tho have the faith of this mother and her seven sons. Let us pray for the grace to be so. Let us pray that God give us the grace to be his true and enduring sons and daughters. Amen.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.