Monday, November 24, 2014

What Weakens Faith?

Here are ten things that can weaken your faith from Life in Faith by Pope Shenouda:
  1. The Self
  2. Domination of the Senses
  3.Submitting Faith to the mind
  4. Associating with Doubting people
  5. Yielding and having a weak personality
  6. Fear
  7. Lust
  8. External circumstances
  9. The Devil's deceptions
10. Doubt
The Self: 
When I think of the self it seems natural to think about my own ability to assert my will for this or that. I sense that it is very strong and does not want to give up this ability easily.  It definitely protects itself and its freedom. Pope Shenouda says this part of us is the greatest hindrance to faith. Jesus affirms this when he told to his disciples, If anyone desire to come after Me, let him deny himself (Matt 16:24). He also says, He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matt 10:39). Faith is based on a trust in God instead of our self. So each time I rely on my own reasoning without seeking help from God, I am denying my faith in Him, and saying that my intellect and my will are better than God's. I can see why my faith is weak as I reflect on this. My own will is very strong and not willing to give up much control. I can see how critical it is to deny oneself but it's not at all clear how I am to do this and place total reliance on God. Based on my experience it seems to b a gradual process.

Domination of the Senses:
Our senses are the main way we know the reality of this world. Our eyes are sensitive to a small band of wavelengths that our brain translates into images allowing us to make a vivid moving picture of worldly reality. We add to this our ears which are sensitive to another narrow band of wave movements in the air.  From this we discern different tones and can hear sounds when the air is disturbed. Our nose also picks up an narrow range of smells, or a sensation of different chemical particles that are in the air. And with our ability to touch and taste we pick up a few more clues about reality. How our brain takes all this input and creates something that we see as a complete picture and totally real is mystery even to scientists.  But we know there is much more to the reality of this world that we cannot pick up with our senses. We have developed instruments to aide us in learning that there are other wavelengths of radiation that we cannot see. With a certain kind of goggles or computers that translate these invisible wavelengths into visible ones, we can see what is not visible. Our senses are definitely limited and tend to make up the totality of what we believe to be real.
How does our reliance on our senses weaken our faith?  It constrains our knowledge of God's Creation to what we can pick up from our senses. Using these we are also blind to the entire spiritual realm. The Apostles had the advantage of being with God in flesh. Even so Saint Thomas could not believe in the Resurrection unless he used his senses to touch and see. But now we must believe without seeing, without using our senses. This demands faith in a reality that is beyond the ability of the senses to capture. If we rely only on our senses we will not know God in a way that affirms His presence and builds within us the faith we need to place our total trust in Him, to give up our self.

Submitting Faith to the Mind: 
Our minds are also very limited as are the efforts of science to understand things that are not available to our senses. If we limit ourselves to our senses only, or to our man made logic from our intellect, we will deny miracles as told in the Bible. We will deny the work of the Holy Spirit and God's grace. We will be limited to only what we can determine from our senses and our own rationale. We will be blind to the whole spiritual realm, limiting ourselves to what will fit a human logical system. With Faith coupled with a surrender of self we are able to open up a greater sense in our soul, to become exposed to a divine logic, to receive divine grace, where we can have in intimate relationship with God. In our Heart where He resides we can call on His grace, the Holy Spirit, that is not physical or measurable to work though us enabling us to become like Christ and do His will. The Church Fathers affirm that with faith and humility we can experience His energies which are very real, but are beyond the understanding of our mind. So to submit faith to our mind reduces it to a faith that is human centered and primarily based on physical attributes of reality. It becomes a self-centered faith.

Associating with Doubtful People: 
If we have a weak faith and we continue to associate with others who have doubts or even do not believe in a God, we will be influenced by them. Saint John tells us, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2John 1:10)  It makes sense to develop a circle of friends who have a strong faith and are striving to develop their faith like yourself.  This is the nature of the Church, the Ecclesia, the faithing community.

Yielding or Having a Weak Personality: 
I find there are many times when I have sat back and said nothing because I knew it might bring ridicule among those I was with. I was week and succumbed to man-pleasing behavior instead of one that was God-pleasing. I often find myself not able to stand strong like Paul and the other Apostles who were not afraid even to lose their life to speak their faith and I find myself sometimes worried about possible ridicule or rejection. We see in Scripture that even Mary Magdalene had a weak personality. She had been with Jesus and heard his teachings. But when she went to the tomb and saw it was empty she said, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2, 3, 13, 15). After being with Christ and being prepared by Him for this eventuality, she did not have faith in His Resurrection. She could only think that someone had taken His body and put it somewhere else. So we can see that this weakness is not uncommon and can be overcome as she later became a strong voice for the spread of Faith in Christ.

This is similar to the above item. We see that the Apostles before they received the Holy Spirit after Christ's Ascension on Pentecost, were very weak. They ran and hid at the time of the Crucifixion because they feared that they too might be subject to such cruel punishment. But later when they had developed a stronger faith, they had no fear of death, trusting totally in Christ. All except John faced a martyr's death standing firm in their faith. One who has a strong faith does not have such fear and his faith is strong enough that He relies on the promise of the life to come in Paradise.

Our earthly desires keep us attached to what is of this world. With them we do not want to give up our earthly pleasures to follow all His commandments.  James tells us, Whosoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God (James 4:4). And Jesus tells us, No one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). I do not think this means we cannot enjoy the pleasures that God had provided for us in this world, but we cannot become attached to them. When we face death we will feel like they are being taken away from us and we will be more focused on trying to retain them rather than being born into a new world where we will find true joy in union with Him.

External Circumstances:
We can easily be overtaken by circumstances that are beyond our control. It cases such as a natural disaster we often forget to call on God for comfort and help, knowing that He is good and wants us to rejoined with Him. When the situation of our circumstance overwhelms us we can lose our focus on God and our faith.

Devil's Deceptions:
Especially in our dreams we can easily be deceived by the Devil. We are told in Scripture to be wary of dreams and false prophets. Jesus says, false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders (Matt 24:24). Jesus prepared His disciples for these deceptions He knew they would encounter. So too we must be attentive, watchful, for any thought that is leading us to a temptation to abandon God's teaching.

This is the method used by the devil. When he deceived our first parents in the Garden of Eden he planted doubt when he told Eve that God did not really tell them they would die. When we encounter doubts, which we surely will, we must remember that these come from the devil. We have to have a strong faith so we will not let them linger and lead us away from God.

Developing faith takes our concentrated effort. If we are aware of the above points we can avoid what will weaken our faith and work against our efforts to develop a deeper faith.

Next: Tests of Faith

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III

Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Strengthen Faith

Most of us struggle with the question of faith. We often realize how weak our faith is when we are challenged with a death, serious illness or other difficulty. We know that faith is essential for us to enjoy the promise of a Christian faith in the Gospel, but how can we strengthen our faith? Pope Shenouda III in his book, Life of Faith, gives us some suggestions.

      1. Have confidence in God's qualities
      2. Have confidence in sincerity of God's promises
      3. Look to God and not your surrounding circumstances
      4. Read the stories of Faith
      5. Have humility of heart and mind
      6. Cultivate an experience with God
      7. See God in every matter
      8. Build a relationship with God
      9. Pray for a stronger faith.

Have confidence in God's qualities:
We must always remember that God is Love and a doer of Good. Tell yourself as Saint Paul says, All things work together for good to those who love God. (Rom 8:26) We must also remember that God is a good father who treats His children with tenderness and gives us all we need without asking. Also, we must remember always that God is all powerful and can do anything. Think about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the wonders He did for them. Finally we must believe that God's judgment is good and whatever he wills for us is for our benefit even if we can't understand it.

Have confidence in the Sincerity of God's promise
Think about the promises that God makes in Scripture. He promised Abraham he would have many descendants when he and his wife were childless in old age. He promised the Israelites their freedom from bondage in Egypt. He promised Elijah help in time of famine. And He promised He would send His Spirit to all the people.  All the things He promised He did. So have confidence in the hope of eternal life He has promised us. He told us, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matt 28:20)

Look to God and not to the surrounding circumstances
Think about the Israelites before they were to cross the Red Sea and how difficult was their circumstance. They were pursued by the Pharaoh's army and the sea blocked their escape. Moses said to them, Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you... the Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace. (Ex 14:13-14) God then parts the waters for them to escape and then allows the waters to submerge the pursuing army. Think about David as he faced Goliath. He trusted that the Lord would empower him to defeat Goliath. Like Moses, the Israelites fleeing from Egypt and David as he faced a unbeatable enemy, look to God when you face what seems like an insurmountable difficulty. Look above so that faith will enter into your heart in such times.

Consider the Stories in the Bible
Remember when Jesus told His followers in His Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field... even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If He clothed the grass of the field like that, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matt 6:28-29) Have confidence that He will provide what you need with your cooperation with His grace.

Develop Humility of heart and mind

If you have humility you will not be stuck with a proud mind that thinks it knows everything and dosen't need God. One who has humility accepts all that comes from God with satisfaction. But one with a proud mind discusses, argues and discounts what does not please his own mind. We must accept that our mind is limited and that we cannot fully understand God an all His ways. He says, Give me O Lord the faith of children and not that of philosophers. (Lk 10:21)

Experience God

Do not stay trapped in the limits of your own mind. Try to live and rely on God, seeking Him regularly instead of relying solely on you own mind's view. Experience His love and power.

See God is all matters
Do not try and find a reason for everything without mentioning God. We now have great power derived from scientific exploration that it seems like we can know everything and do anything based on our own will. Do not be deluded by this scientific view. When a person is ill and is cured do not credit only the drug or doctor, but instead thank God that He healed the sick and used the hands of the doctor and the know how of the druggist. Relate every power, every miracle to God. Take time to also admire His work in nature. Look at the flower in your garden and do not analyze it, but reflect on the wonder of its Creator who gave such beauty to us for our enjoyment.

Build a relationship with God
When you have a daily dialogue with God through prayer you will find you can talk with Him without fear. When you accept His friendship and love you enter into a deeper faith. You will share all your secrets with Him and ask for His help often. With this loving relationship you will also want to make sure you do not disappoint Him and will be motivated out of your love for Him to follow His direction and all His teachings.

Pray that your faith will increase
Pope Shenouda III gives us this prayer:
Give me O Lord, that I believe in You with full faith. Give me that I love and have confidence in You in everything, and to believe that You do me benevolence even if the world is dark in front of me. Let me feel that my mind is much smaller than what is required to understand your wisdom and judgment. I know that You are a doer of benevolences, that You are living, that You see everything and that You are capable of doing everything, and in spite of that my faith often weakens, so help my weak faith.
For me who prays every day that the lord will strengthen my weak faith, the most important thing is to remember God in everything you do. Mastery of the Jesus prayer is most helpful in this regard. And always remember to thank God for each blessing you receive throughout the day. Do not wait until the end of the day, but make you daily life an ongoing dialogue with Him. Your life can become an ongoing prayer. See his power in all things. Seek His help and give Him thanks.

Next: What weakens faith

Reference: Life of Faith, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church

Friday, November 7, 2014

What is Faith?

It is essential for a Christian to understand the true nature of faith as it is through faith that we are united with God. But what does faith mean?  Does it mean we that read the Creed and willfully accept what it says?  Or is it about something more than this?

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church wrote a beautiful book titled Life of Faith. Reading this book a few years back I was moved to think about faith in a much deeper way.  I want to share with you some of his teaching and my learnings from them.

I used to say, "I have faith, I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God." But then I would have trouble with many passages in the Bible, miracles and the numerous stories of those of faith we also find there. Jesus says, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain "Move from here to there, and it will move." (Matt 17:20) As I understand it, faith of a mustard seed means that even the smallest amount of true faith can "move mountains."  I knew I did not have this kind of faith. I interpret the phrase to "move mountains" means that there is no limit to the powers that God can work through a person if one has faith. So faith must be something greater than believing, something much more than mentally affirming a belief in the Creed.

Jesus tells us that faith involves more than just having reverence for Him. He says, Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt7:21)  He also says faith means more than calling on His name. He says, Many will say to me that in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matt 7:22-23) From this we can say that the faith required is about knowing Him and trusting in Him to following His teaching.

Faith is beyond belief. It must be about a life based on a living relationship with God, one where you trust in Him totally, and do what He instructs you to do. Scripture gives us the example of Abraham who was tested by God asking him to take his son to be sacrificed. Abraham trusted totally in God, knowing that in such a sacrifice only good would come from it for him and his son. He was obedient based on a full faith. He had total trust in God.

Faith can be examined based on what we do, how well we follow what He has taught.  Evangelist John records, He who  says, "Know Him," and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1John 2:3-4). But we know that this means more than following a set of rules like the Ten Commandments.

How about the Apostles? How did they demonstrate their faith in God? When Jesus called James and John, sons of Zebedee they immediately left their boat and their father and followed Him. (Matt 4:22) They believed and had trust in Him so they harbored no fear of leaving their livelihood and even their father to follow Him. We also have the unending examples of the martyrs of the Church who willingly gave their lives without fear knowing they would be cared for by Jesus in the heavenly realm. 

For me these were sobering thoughts as I pondered this little book. My faith was not on par with these stories and teachings. It was a faith more based on the tradition of my family and a mental belief, a simple affirmation. But did I trust my whole body, heart and soul to Christ? No, I had too much pride in my own self will. I still trusted mainly on my own intellect and will. I found I was still too much like Adam.

If we have faith, we cannot fear death, because this means we do not trust in what is to come beyond death. Apostle Paul says about faith, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)  So what are these things hoped for? This is a life after death where we have hope in a life with the angels and the saints and to see the Lord in Paradise. We have hope in being resurrected and taking on a new spiritual body free of suffering and decay. We must have a faith that gives us total confidence in these realities even though we have not seen or experienced them.

I realized that faith is something that involves a trust in realities beyond any understanding of things of this world. It requires a trust in what is beyond our sensual knowledge and beyond any mental concept we can imagine. It involves a surrender to Spirit, to the Triune God. It is more than methodically being a good person who identifies a set of rules from Scripture and tries to do them. Of course, if we do have the kind of faith that Scripture talks about, we will live the virtues with the help of God's grace without much effort. We will be united with Him and out of the love of this intimate relationship we will do what he directs us, knowing that if we follow Him we will find rewards in the life to come. This is what I found faith to mean. A total trust in and a surrender to His will.

The truth is that with faith in the power of God, we are confident that He will be with us forever. With faith we become willing servants of His will. With faith, even if we stumble or fall, we know He will be with us to help us recover. With faith His unlimited power is there for us whenever we need it. Saint Paul says, To this end I also labor, striving according to His working in me mightily (Col !:29) and also, To Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. (Eph 3:20) He further says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)

It by this full faith, faith beyond belief, that we are able to go beyond the level our senses and intellect and trust in Jesus Christ as True God of True God, Begotten not created, of one essence of the Father, through Whom all things are made. Our destiny is to be united with Him in heaven with eternal life, but only if we have the kind of faith described in the Scriptures. We must go beyond mere belief.

The important question is how to gain this kind of faith.  Later.

Reference: Life of Faith by Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church