Opening the Word: Responsibility of faith

“Precisely because faith-knowledge is linked to the covenant with a faithful God who enters into a relationship of love with man and speaks his word to him, the Bible presents it as a form of hearing; it is associated with the sense of hearing,” wrote Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), his recent encyclical on faith.

This doesn’t mean that having faith is simple or easy. The prophet Habakkuk is a good example of how difficult it can be to have faith, especially in the face of injustice and destruction. Like many of the psalms, the book of Habakkuk opens with an anguished question: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen!” We can certainly appreciate this statement, even if the prophet’s culture and situation were quite different from our own.

Yet Habakkuk asked his questions in faith; he believed in the Law and the covenant, and he also believed God is all-powerful and all-knowing. “Are you not from of old, O Lord,” he asked in rhetorical fashion, “my holy God, immortal?” (Hb 1:12). Having responded in faith, the prophet asked his questions in faith — not with a blind and shallow faith, but with a deep desire to hear God and to understand why God sometimes is silent in the face of human cruelty.

The prophet’s brief book, likely written shortly before King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 589 B.C., is like a three-act play, although the drama is very real. It opens with Habakkuk’s questions, while the second chapter contains the Lord’s response, which begins with this beautiful statement: “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.” That final statement was clearly a favorite of St. Paul, for he quoted it in his epistles to the Romans (1:17) and Galatians (3:11); it also appears in the epistle to the Hebrews (10:38). The final chapter is a canticle by Habakkuk that acknowledges God’s power and just anger, concluding with a declaration that “God, my Lord, is my strength.”

In sum, the prophet grew in faith, not by avoiding the tough questions, but by grappling with them while calling out to and listening to God. True faith does not shrink in the face of darkness, for as St. Paul explained to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice ...” (2 Tm 1:7). Adhering to the Good News means there will be hardships, but God provides strength, especially through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Christ told the disciples that scandal and temptation would come. Among those would be the temptation to reject Jesus as the Messiah, to fall away from the Gospel. The disciples asked him to help their faith increase. They already possessed faith, but faith is never static; it is either increasing or decreasing. Faith, by its nature, seeks to grow, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted: “Faith does not quench desire, but inflames it.”

Faith is a gift that demands cooperation and hard work. “Faith,” wrote St. Cyril of Alexandria, “partly depends on us and partly is the gift of the divine grace.” Yes, everything we have is a gift, yet we have an active role in what we actually do with all that has been given to us. This means listening closely to God and responding to him. For God, Pope Francis reminds us, “is an eternal dialogue of communion, and he allows us to enter into this dialogue.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.