“How does it feel like to have faith?”
That was the question a young (19 yrs old) Catholic girl asked me in the middle of lunch 2 days ago. Was I surprised at the question? Not at all. It made perfect, wonderful sense. Not all who have a religion also have faith. Religion contains practices, rites, and a set of beliefs. Faith, however, is about deep personal experience.
So how did I answer? I looked at her young countenance, detecting the wounded, searching heart from which the question arose. Filled with a tender kind of awe at the answers my own heart leapt to give to her question, I finally replied, “When you have faith, you wonder how on earth you lived your life before you had it.”
As a priest once shared with me, faith is not about doctrine, ideology or knowledge/understanding. All these can be easily changed, distorted, and even lost. Faith is about relationship – it is the intimate lived experience of love – between human beings and God, but also between human beings as well. When the divine and good in me (which is Christ) touches the divine and good in another person, that is also faith. Faith grows as our knowledge of the person we are in relationship with grows. But this is not the ‘knowledge’ of mere intellectual understanding. Rather, this is the knowledge of intimate, revelatory experience – the kind of knowledge which in biblical terms can denote sexual intercourse because it is so intimate and personal (Hebrew = ‘yada’).
To live in the awareness of such an intimate relationship with God, and to experience my life transformed by this intimate relationship, is to live a life of constant joyful surrender. There are people who put emphasis on knowing about God over knowing God. It is good, of course, to know about God, and indeed most of us begin from knowing about God. But just as knowing everything about a person is still completely different from being in a loving relationship with that person, so it is that one cannot be said to have faith until that loving, intimate relationship is experienced.
If we know God, we will grow in fearlessness. Why? Because perfect love casts out fear.
In love there is no room for fear, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear implies punishment and no one who is afraid has come to perfection in love. Let us love, then, because he first loved us. – 1 John 4: 18-19
When we know God, we quickly lose fear because we realize we can depend on his love completely. This trust, this faith, is so deep that it transcends suffering. People who have faith do not expect to be rich, or healthy, to live long lives, or to be successful. People who have faith are people who, touched by the grace and love of God, have begun to love God and others unconditionally – their love is not contingent on their circumstances in life. People with faith can say, like Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return again. Yahweh gave, Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh!” (Job 1:21)
Faith is a love story. And the best part of it is, we don’t even have to try to find God. He is the one who searches and finds us. He is the ardent lover who pursues passionately, but whose love offers liberation and peace, not entrapment. I found myself telling my young friend that He will find her and let her experience in ever deeper ways a new relationship with him.
It is a grave mistake to assume that Christians and Catholics no longer need conversion. True conversion of the heart is continuous because our Lord desires to know us in ever more intimate ways. Perfect love drives out fear. If we who are Christian still find ourselves anxious and afraid in our lives or unprepared to surrender our lives completely to God, we probably still do not know God.
When we know God and love him truly, we will experience and share the kind of love that God the Father and Jesus have for each other – a love of complete giving and receiving. We will give without holding back, and we will receive everything that God offers us in return, even when it afflicts us. Because of love.
Perfect love does not make sense. It has no self-preservation. It is foolish in the eyes of the world, but it is this love that is the heart of God’s wisdom, justice and mercy. God’s justice is the same as his mercy. To know that is to be able to say like the psalmist, “He knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:14) To experience this is to lose all fear – for we are able to entrust our lives into the heart and hands of a tender, just and merciful Father.