In the Gospel today we hear the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. They understand the first lesson that faith is necessary but we presume because they feel that they do not have very much faith they want to know how to increase it, and in this they are probably not too different from us. Like them we too often feel very keenly that our faith is completely inadequate and that we could do with much more of it.
At first sight, in the actual text presented to us today Jesus doesn’t seem to offer his disciples very much help. You might think that Jesus would have given them some tips or tricks as to how to increase their faith. You might think that he ought to help them to come to an insight as to what faith actually is and how to strengthen it. But he doesn’t do any of these things. He gives them absolutely no idea as to how to increase their faith.
Instead what he does is tell them that if their faith were the size of a mustard seed they could uproot mountains. He tells them that if their faith was so tiny that it would be hardly even possible to detect it then it would still be sufficient to perform mighty deeds. This tells the Apostles that faith is not like anything else that they know. It tells them that faith is something that belongs to quite a different order of things.
With almost everything else, the more we have the better off we are. The more money you have, the better health you have, the more self-esteem you have, the more anything that you have in general terms then the better off you are. But this is not the case with faith. With faith there is no possible way that you can increase what you have. You are stuck with the amount of faith you’ve been given. But we should not think that this is a negative thing because, as Jesus tries to tell us, even the tiniest amount of faith is sufficient for anyone.
According to Jesus, even the merest hint of faith is enough for anyone’s needs. And this is so for one very good reason and that is because faith is essentially a gift from God. If it is a divine gift then, by definition, it is a gift without limits; it is a gift which is completely sufficient for the person to whom it has been granted. And in recognising that faith is a divine gift we are acknowledging that it is not something that we can find by ourselves. Neither can we give it to anyone. The bestowing of the gift of faith is entirely God’s work.
Yes, we can do all the right things to hand on our faith to our children, for example; but the one thing we cannot control is whether God actually gives them the gift of faith. This is something which is entirely in his gift and we cannot begin to fathom the reasons why he gives this gift to one person and not to another. We teach our children to believe in Jesus, we teach them how to pray and how to live decent moral lives but at a certain point they have to believe in God by the exercise of their own free choice.
Going back to ourselves, even when we acknowledge that faith is a gift from God, we may still feel rather inadequate about our own faith. But we should understand that this is a very common experience for human beings, even the greatest of saints lacked faith. It is said of St Therese of Lisieux that she experienced only darkness in her last years and frequently had deep doubts about her faith in God. If this can be true of such a very great saint then we should not lament over much our own apparent lack of faith.
When I say that faith is a gift from God and that we can’t do anything to increase it by our own efforts or an act of the will or anything like that, I’m missing something out. What I am missing out is that we can put ourselves in the way of faith. We can do the things that believers do; we can pray, we can frequent the sacraments, we can act justly, we can keep temptation in check. If we do these things then we are thinking and acting like a believer; and perhaps if we do them often enough then God may reward us by gifting us with an increase in faith.
In the little example Jesus gives us about servants performing their duties, Jesus is telling us that in terms of faith we too simply need to do our duty; we simply need to do the things we have been taught by the Church over many years. By thinking and speaking and acting like a Christian we might find that we become more of a Christian. We may not think that we are doing anything exceptional but by living our lives in this way we are obeying God’s commands and acknowledging him to be the Lord of heaven and earth. This is in itself an expression of deep faith.
In response to these words of Jesus our best response is to simply do what he tells us and leave the rest to him, just as the servant in his example merely does what he is told by his earthly master.
So, if you experience doubts and crises of faith then fall back on the basics that you were taught in your childhood; carry on loving God as best you can, say your prayers regularly, go to mass as often as you can and, most important of all, place your complete trust in God. You might feel that you are going through the motions but God sees this and knows that this is a real expression of faith and trust in him.
We mere humans do not see the whole picture but God certainly does. We do not see the impact on the world of our faith, what little we have of it, but certainly God does.
We are completely incapable of increasing our own faith or of transmitting it to others. These are all things best left to God who pours out his gifts on whoever he chooses and according to his own divine purposes.
Our task is to trust him, to pray, and to work as hard as we can for the building up of the Kingdom here on earth. Everything else belongs to God.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket