“Why did you become a priest?” That’s a question I am asked pretty regularly and, though my answer may vary a bit, I’m used to talking to people of faith about why I serve the Church. Recently, however, I met with someone who asked an even more basic question. She said she had lost her faith and wanted to know why I still had mine.
The person I met with was referred to me by a therapist friend and is someone whose life has been hard from the start. Now facing Stage 4 cancer with the prospect of only months to live, her struggles go back to her childhood where she received the constant message that she wasn’t good enough to expect much from life. The Church piled on, further convincing her that hardship in life is symptomatic of a lack of faith. “If only you were better, life would be better for you,” is the message this person grew up with.
Faith is easily misunderstood. Overall the Church has probably done more harm than good with our teachings on faith. Our extremists have hijacked Jesus’ message of trust and made faith out to be something we accomplish. Faith for them is more a head thing than a heart thing and, if you have the right kind of faith they say, you won’t get hurt. It’s like a life-preserver or a magic key and it all comes down to you. God is ready to reward you, if only you believe in God. If you don’t you’ll be left out. God wants to give you good things but it all depends on you. If you’re good enough, God will be good to you. It’s vending machine theology: God’s got all the good stuff behind the window but you’ve got to put in the right payment.
“My therapist suggested I come see you and said you don’t believe what all those preachers told me,” she said after we talked a while. “If you don’t believe what they say, what do you believe? Why do you have faith?”
I still have faith not because I see good things happening to people who believe. I have faith because daily I watch the worst case scenario being played out in peoples’ lives. The life of a priest isn’t particularly demanding physically but emotionally it’s a wringer. People I care about are getting beaten up by life every day. State 4 cancer is going to hit someone. We’ll go a few weeks without a funeral but another one is coming soon. Marriages, even some of the couples I have married and thought were so very compatible, disintegrate into hateful battlefields. Addictions take good and wonderful people and dash their lives on the rocks. That’s where my faith starts, I find after all these years: the worst thing I can think of is going to happen to someone today. If ever I thought that there was some way to get out of suffering, I’ve been shown time and time again that bad things are inevitable. Yes, people are our own worst enemies and much of our suffering is needless, but my faith starts with the notion that life is going to be hard.
I still have faith because, when we get hit with hard stuff and see we’re totally out of control, life doesn’t go away. The sun comes up. Trees bloom. Seasons continue. Laughter pops out. Even when my life ends, life itself continues. My faith starts with the experience that we’re going to hit bottom over and over again. My faith continues with the experience that there is a bottom that catches us. . Your death doesn’t destroy me; my death doesn’t destroy you. Death doesn’t defeat life.
“Why do you still have faith?,” she asked. “Basically because things turn out better than they have a right to,” I told her. The world is dangerous and full of evil, but still good somehow. People are no damn good but we are changed into something better than we really are. Horrible things happen and yet something good develops. Life is full of death but life ultimately wins.
“So how can I believe in God?”, she asked. “What’s going to happen to me if I don’t believe?” “God either is or he isn’t,” I said. “Us not believing in him doesn’t make God disappear. If you don’t believe in God right now, that’s okay. Faith isn’t knowing there is a God; it’s facing what we have to deal with even when we don’t think anything good can happen. God being faithful doesn’t depend on us believing in him.” Sometimes the only way to get to belief is to see that unbelief doesn’t stop God.
I don’t know what will happen with this person I met with. I really don’t think our time solved any of her struggles. I’m used to that. Not knowing how things are going to turn out is part of life. It’s part of faith. Maybe it is faith.
So why do you have faith?
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.