Faith is a very emotive word. “Do you have faith, sister?” is a very loaded question indeed. Whether asked quietly and gently, or demanded loudly by a person with a loudhailer on the street, it is personal. It is a question that delves into our innermost being. And quite frankly, it can feel intrusive and rude and judgemental if it isn’t asked the right way! Do you have faith?
Faith in what? And how do I get it? St Paul is clear that faith is the gift of God. It’s something given to us, not something we have to go and find. But Jesus (and St Paul) also speaks of nurturing and growing faith within ourselves. So, much like the tomato plants I was given the other day, it is a gift. But unless I water and nurture it, it will shrink and shrivel. Perhaps faith could be compared to a muscle. If I use it, it grows strong. If I don’t, it wastes away and is weak.
This Sunday is the feast of St Thomas, famous for refusing to believe without evidence. I always think he gets a rough time of it, being nicknamed Doubting Thomas. After all, I like to think that I engage my critical faculties and ability to think and reason when it comes to God and faith, just as I do with any other aspect of my life. Instinct is great, but it needs to work hand in hand with evidence. Not necessarily empirical or objective evidence that someone else can examine under a metaphorical microscope. My evidence may be in the form of my experiences and my feelings combined with my knowledge of the context of the thing or situation.
And then again, when it comes to faith, we don’t have to get it all right and sorted before God will step in and help. Remember the father who asked Jesus to heal his child, because the disciples had not been able to do so. Jesus told him, all things are possible for those who believe. And the father cries out in desperation, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus helps him. Of course he does! Jesus loves him! He cares! He’s not demanding “advance payment” by how high the man’s belief score is!
I wonder sometimes if these stories point in a different direction to the one we expect. So often, when we look properly, the bible does that! Jesus’ comment about belief was more likely directed at his disciples than the poor father, distraught at his son’s illness. And when it comes to Thomas’ inability to believe the “impossible”, I bet the writers included it to give comfort and help to those who struggle, rather than to have a dig at Thomas.
Faith is hard work. And a very wise person once pointed out to me that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but rather knowledge. If we have objective knowledge, we don’t need faith. We don’t need that gift of God to make the instinctive jump between what we know and see and observe and that which is just beyond the boundary of our human senses and limitations of knowing. Faith can go hand in hand with doubt – ask any of the saints!! Perhaps doubt is to faith what dumbbells are to body-building! We believe, but we’re not sure, so we go back over our experiences and our responses to where God has been in our lives, and our faith is strengthened in the process.
So on this festival of St Thomas, I shall ask you not, “Do you have faith?”, but rather, “Where is God in your life?” And are you happy with where God is, or perhaps is not? Every time I have doubts, every time my own faith wavers or wobbles, I ask myself those questions. And in so doing, my faith in God’s love and provision is usually strengthened.
May it be so for you.