God will give us the tools we need

  • September 28, 2007
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Oct. 7 (Habakkuk 1:2-3, 2:2-4; Psalm 95; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10)

How do we keep our faith and sanity in the midst of violence, corruption and chaos? This is a question both old and new, and Habakkuk’s struggle with it speaks as much to us today as it did to his original audience.

In many respects, it is a rather frightening and gloomy book, pervaded by a sense of despair and impending disaster. The tumultuous and violent seventh century B.C. is the most likely candidate for the time in which Habakkuk served. This was a time of superpowers and empires on the march, and people lived under the constant dread of invasion and destruction. The prophet probably composed this work in the years leading up to the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem.

{sidebar id=2}The prophet’s vivid images of violence, destruction, injustice and corruption resonate with our own time. But the most poignant passages express the frustration and despair resulting from the feeling that God is absent and probably doesn’t care. “Why don’t you do something?” is the prophet’s plea.

That seeming divine indifference has been fuel for religious doubt and atheism for centuries. How can a just and good God permit violence and injustice? But the Lord’s answer is at once sobering and consoling. God does not intervene in human affairs, especially to bail us out of the messes that we create for ourselves. Human beings have to deal with the consequences of their choices.

But God also reminds us to keep our eyes focused on the end-vision. All things, even negative ones, will ultimately be worked for God’s purposes. The show is far from over. God has neither forgotten nor abandoned us, and God will continue to give us the strength and the tools that we need for the journey. It is by faith that the righteous will live and that is the source of their strength.

Despite the later uses of this phrase in the debates on justification by faith, this is not about how to get saved. Having faith — focusing with laser-like intensity on the God who loves us — is how to remain sane, hopeful and faithful in difficult times. If one reads the entire book — and that is recommended — it ends on a joyful note. One can rejoice in God even (especially) when the world as we know it seems to be falling apart.

But having faith in the midst of adversity does not mean just hunkering down and riding out the storm. It is God’s spirit that enables us to be courageous and faithful, for it is not the spirit of cowardice. Power, love and self-discipline — these gifts of the spirit are to be put at the service of God and humanity. Our faith and the gift of the spirit enable us to contribute whatever we can to making the world a better place without succumbing to discouragement, despair or cynicism. It is not a self-help project, but a partnership with God. If we find these gifts lacking in our own life, prayer and opening ourselves to God’s power can rekindle the flame within.

The Apostles sense the precious and powerful nature of faith, which they beg Jesus to increase on their behalf. Jesus makes an astonishing claim: a tiny portion of pure, unadulterated faith can do the impossible. Faith of course is distinct from creed and doctrine. It is the total response of a person to an encounter with God. All one’s energies are given to this response, and all one’s experience is interpreted in light of it.

But what if we discovered that our reward-driven spirituality would not guarantee entry into heaven? What if we discovered there was no heaven at all? Would we still be good and compassionate people? The strange and rather unpleasant parable of the slaves waiting on table illustrates the difficulty of being free of self-seeking in the good that we do. When we dedicate our lives in faith, we are merely doing that for which we were created, and it should not be considered exceptional.

We should not think ourselves better than others, nor should we expect privileges, thanks or praise. A life of compassionate service and walking in harmony with God is its own reward. Living according to our true nature — love — should be our highest aspiration.