Growing in Faith
How strong is your faith? Have you thought about how your faith has changed over the years? Have you nourished it and has it grown over, say, the last 10 years, or has it weakened and withered and become more uncertain? Of course, for you who come to Church, you obviously have nourished your faith to at least some degree, and that’s why you’re here on a Sunday. How sincere, though, are we in cultivating a living, vibrant faith and relationship to God? Our faith is about understanding our dogma and belief, as well as about practicing our faith as a living entity, like a plant or tree, that either grows and becomes stronger, or withers and dies. Faith is all about a vibrant relationship with a living God, and that relationship is either getting more intimate and passionate, or growing cold and dead..
Today, on this 4th Sunday of Lent, the church draws our attention to this theme of faith, and challenges us to reflect upon whether we are nourishing or ignoring its growth.
We have two reminders of how to look at our faith today. First, we remember on the 4th Sunday of Lent St. John Climacus. St. John is often called St John of the Ladder because when he was the abbot of St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai, back in the 6th century, he wrote a classic treatise on the “Ladder of Divine Ascent.” In this writing he described the spiritual life as a journey up a ladder, which leads into the Kingdom of Heaven. One has to wisely understand the challenges and dangers of climbing this spiritual ladder. What are the virtues that we must cultivate in our lives, and what are the vices we must take care to avoid or weed out!
To nourish our faith, his ladder of divine ascent offers advice on living a life of truth, detaching oneself from the cares and anxieties of this world, living a life of constant repentance and remembrance of death, nurturing a joy-producing mourning, and ways of overcoming anger, greed, pride and self-righteousness. He also shares much wisdom on developing a life of prayer, stillness and humility.
St. John covers a wide range of subjects that we could focus on for weeks to come, but what I want each of us to take away from him today is simply the fundamental idea that in order to nourish and grow our faith, we must be proactive about it! Only by being attentive to how we live each and every day, by focusing on what we do each hour of the day – with our words, thoughts, in our actions and inactions – only in this manner can we struggle to journey up this divine ladder. It won’t happen by chance, nor if we approach our Christian lives in a lackadaisical manner.
Along with the example of St. John’s Divine Ladder, we also have a special Gospel story that describes a growing faith. When the father in today’s Gospel story sees his son suffering from epilepsy and some form of demonic oppression, he approaches Jesus for help. When our Lord tells the father that this miracle depends on the faith that he already has, the man cries out, “I believe Lord; help my unbelief.”
Faith and doubt live side by side within each of us. Of course we all believe. But along with belief lurks doubt and unbelief. We believe, but what don’t we believe? We have faith, but what do we struggle to accept?
The presence of belief and unbelief in the same person points to the fact of a living, growing faith. And to increase a living faith, we cannot simply read more books to obtain more information. Spiritual reading can surely help us, but authentic knowledge of God involves something more. In Biblical language, to “know God” means to experience Him in an intimate manner; to come in contact with Him in a dynamic, life-changing, transforming way. To know God implies opening our hearts and souls to His Spirit, and allowing Him to dwell richly and fully in us! And when Christ’s Spirit truly lives in us, He then directs our actions, our words, our thoughts, and our very being.
As sincere Christians, we can never rest on any spiritual laurels, thinking that we are “good enough.” Despite whatever knowledge, whatever experience, whatever faith, whatever union we have with God, we must ask ourselves, “What am I concretely doing here and now to increase that faith and to grow in that experience and union.
In the Christian life, one is either going forward or falling backward, we’re either going up the mountain of faith, or falling down it. There’s no such thing as simple maintenance. If we stay in neutral on a steep incline, what happens? None of us should dare to imagine that we have reached the top of the mountain, resting secure in the knowledge that we have finished the climb. Foolishness! That’s the deception the devil wants us to believe!
When the disciples question Jesus about why they couldn’t help the father and his son, our Lord answered, “Because this kind can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.” Of course, the disciples did pray and fast. Jesus, nonetheless, was teaching them something foundational in the spiritual life. “Yes, you pray and fast, but now you have to go to the next level! What was fine at the beginning of your spiritual life, isn’t enough now. You must increase your faith, strengthen your union with me, deepen your understanding and experience of me!”
In our own lives, we must ask ourselves, “What are we concretely doing to increase and strengthen and deepen our relationship with God? Are we maintaining a childish understanding of faith or maturing in our faith? Do we still hold a Sunday School level of devotion? In our education, in our careers, in our marriages, and in many parts of our lives, we have struggled to grow and learn and mature. Stop and evaluate your own journey of faith and its progress towards maturation. How does your faith journey compare with where you were 10 years ago? five years ago? one year ago?”
We see no self-satisfaction and no self-contentment in the lives of the saints. They understood their spiritual journeys as a continual climb up the mountain, and through God’s grace, they struggled to reach new peaks which displayed completely unseen and breathtakingly new visions of God! They never remained content.
I believe; help my unbelief! May this desperate, yet sincere cry of faith become our own, as we never remain satisfied with where we’re at, but constantly continue in our journey of sanctification, our process of deification, and our complete union with our loving God.
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