Faith and Works
“Never does the human nature put forth itself in such power, with such effort, with such energy as to have faith in God…It is the doing that is everything, and the doing is faith and there is no division between them.”
So preached George MacDonald, a poet and preacher who grew up tilling fields in Northern Scotland. He was born in Aberdeenshire, in a town near the sea. One can imagine, in that climate threatened by constant winds and bitter snows, where MacDonald discovered this understanding of faith. If you worked, you’d survive. If you didn’t, you’d die. So it is with faith.
What is faith?
When I was younger, I thought faith was simply intellectual conviction. “I believe in God. I’ve got the bumper sticker on my car. I can strike that off my list of things to do, and now get on with life.” We can treat faith like our choice of political party. You check a box, ‘republican’ or ‘democrat’, and vote every few years, but for the most part live a life unaffected by your decision. But faith in the gospels is far different.
Faith is an uphill journey.
It requires work, effort and focus. Perhaps, above all, faith requires deliberation, and that’s a word we don’t use enough as Christians. Faith means being deliberate, in all our daily decisions and actions, so that our hearts and souls are steered towards God.
This is what we see in the nobleman who asked God for a miracle.
As we read in our gospel today, an aristocrat from Capernaum had a dying son. He was at his wit’s end, and when he heard about a Jesus, he figured something might come it. So he set off to find out. Capernaum wasn’t exactly close to Cana. He would have walked between 15 to 20 miles to get there, and you can imagine the thoughts that bombarded his head in that span of time. If he was anything like you and me, you can be sure he second-guessed himself. He would likely have had a thousand doubts between the time he set off and the moment he arrived. But he didn’t turn around. He kept pushing forward, and his faith, though immature, was evident in each deliberate step.
He arrived at last and asked for a miracle. But Christ didn’t exactly jump at the request. He responded with a statement, “Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.” He knew the man’s heart. Perhaps he was merely putting into words what the man was thinking. This is often the case when we encounter God. In the light of God’s beauty, we get a little glimpse of our own ugliness. At that point, we might argue with God, we may become irritated or annoyed, or perhaps just leave and go somewhere else less uncomfortable. But the nobleman didn’t argue and he didn’t retreat. He stood his ground.“ Please, come to my house before my child dies.” Christ, again didn’t budge. He didn’t move an inch, but instead spoke, “Thy son liveth.”
The man believed Jesus and went home. When he arrived he found his son cured and immediately asked when it had happened. “The seventh hour,” they told him – the very same hour the day before when Christ said, “Thy son liveth.” The nobleman and his entire household believed in the Son of God (John 4. 46-54).
As you hear this story you have to ask yourself, when did the man believe?
Did he believe when he set off to find Christ? Did he believe when our Lord said, “Thy son is healed”? Or did he believe when he affirmed the hour of the miracle?
We can only understand faith as a process.
“There are stages in faith,” St. Augustine explains, “in which there is a beginning, an increase, and perfection. He therefore had the beginnings of faith when he prays for his son’s health; an increase, when he believes in the word of the Lord saying to him: Thy son liveth. Then perfection, on hearing from his servants.”
Today, I want to focus on the middle stage, because that’s where most of us are, somewhere on that road between Capernaum and Christ.
The man started out with a foxhole faith. He was in trouble and needed help. Have you ever been there? You get to a point in life, not just once but many times, when you don’t have anywhere else to go but God. Your crisis makes you look upwards. Sadly, we don’t always move past that stage. Our relationship with God comes down to us merely wanting things from Him. When we’re suffering we look to God. When life becomes comfortable we forget him. But even there, we have faith, a tiny morsel of faith, and that’s enough for God to work with.
But eventually we have to grow deeper.
If you look closely at this scripture you’ll notice a shift of focus. The story starts out with a man’s need. His son is dying. He’s cured in the end, but that’s not the highlight of the story. The spotlight moves to a new focus: the perfected faith of the nobleman and his household. He started his journey wanting a miracle. He ended it wanting Jesus Christ.
We can spend our whole lives wondering where God is. Why doesn’t he do a miracle? Why is he letting my son die, my job die, my comforts die? Why does God allow us to struggle on the road from Capernaum to Cana, from young adulthood to old age, from good times to rough times? But in the end, all our concerns and struggles are trivial compared to our greater need, a more perfect faith.
"The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
"Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Hebrews 12:1-3).
We’re given this time here to draw deeper in our faith. So how do we do that?
“It is the doing that is everything, and the doing is faith and there is no division between them.”
Faith isn’t a matter of intellect. It’s a matter of lifestyle.
I have a friend who recently announced that he’s become an atheist. While I was saddened by this news, I wasn’t surprised. It was clear, by the way he was living, that something had to go. He wanted God and Christianity and at the same time wanted to live a life of sin. But it doesn’t work that way. Either our sin gives or our faith. In the end, my friend’s love of sin triumphed and he threw out faith in order to justify his lifestyle.
Isn’t that what we all do?
God always reveals himself to us according to the degree that we want Him. But how much do we want Him?
Every tiny decision that we make through the day nourishes or starves our desire for God.
Will we choose prayer or the bed?
Will we react to that annoying guy with compassion or with grumbling?
Will we lay down the ego or will we cling to it?
Our faith in God is built on the habits we build in our life.
But here’s the good news. It’s okay if your faith is small. The nobleman’s faith was small too that morning he set off for Christ. The important thing is to be on the road, and God will do the rest.
In the words of the good Scotsman, “Never does the human nature put forth itself in such power, with such effort, with such energy as to have faith in God…It is the doing that is everything, and the doing is faith and there is no division between them.”