PRAYER: Faith And Beliefs—The Heart Of Faith by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Faith And Beliefs—The Heart Of Faith by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Faith is trust and courage.  Its opposite is fear – or, rather, fearfulness, unhealthy fear.  What, do you think, is the most often repeated commandment in the Bible?  Think twice.  It is this: “Fear not! – Be not afraid!”  If it is the courage of faith that makes us perfect, what we must most urgently get rid of is fear.  Faith courageously sets out toward the Promised Land, but fear holds on to anything it can get hold of, and so it weighs us down, slows us down.  Faith is courage to let go.  Fear clings.

There is something healthy in this clinging of fear.  Doctors or midwives sometimes test a newborn baby by shaking the table on which it is lying or by causing it a little fear in some other way.  If it is a healthy baby, it will, in its fear, reach up with arms and legs and make a grabbing gesture, reaching instinctively for the mother.  This reflex is an ancient one.  It goes back in our phylogenetic history to a time when we were still living in the trees and had to hang on for dear life, as soon as we were born, to our mothers, who were leaping from branch to branch.

Because our instinct to cling when we get frightened is so ancient, it is deeply ingrained in us.  As newborn babies we reach out for our mother; later we hang on to her apron strings, and even as adults, when we panic, we find ourselves instinctively holding on to the next best thing we can grab, even to a complete stranger who might be standing next to us.  But this is only the bodily expression of a psychological clinging.  The moment we get frightened our mind, too, grabs for anything that promises stability, and clings to it.

From this angle, we might get a clearer view of the relationship between faith and beliefs.  Faith, at heart, is fearless trust.  When we lose heart, faith weakens and fear mounts.  But a fearful mind will compulsively cling to some support.  Religious beliefs are readily at hand.  They seem to be more stable than anything else we could grab.  And so, as faith grows weaker, we clutch our beliefs more and more tightly, more and more rigidly.  Sometimes you meet people who seem so compulsive in their effort to convince everyone else of their beliefs that it makes you wonder about their faith.  It sounds too much like whistling in the dark.  A person of genuine faith can afford to be far more at ease.  Genuine faith holds its beliefs firmly, yes, but ever so lightly.

This is how Abraham, our Father in Faith, held his beliefs.  We read about this in Chapter 22 of Genesis.  What a marvel of storytelling that chapter is, quite apart from its message!  God calls Abraham and sends him on an errand.  Now, this time, it is not merely a call to go forth in trust that God will, later on, fill in the details.  This time the decisive point is spelled out so precisely that it makes me shudder each time I read it.  God orders Abraham to go and sacrifice his son as “a whole-burnt-offering.”  The message is clear.  No margin of error is left.  There can be no doubt about the identity of the selected victim: “Take your son.”  (Abraham had two sons at that time.  There was room for doubt, then.)  “Your only one.”  (When it comes to sacrificing a child, that child is “the only one” in the parents’ mind, no matter how many others they might have.)  “The one you love.”  (That cuts to the quick, but there is still a flicker of hope, until the name is out:)  “Isaac!”  (It must have hit Abraham like a sword blow.)

This time Abraham’s faith is given a definite content.  This time faith demands both, believing in God as well as believing something, something almost unbelievable: Isaac must be sacrificed.  Abraham believes that.  And yet he had already been promised by God that, through that same Isaac, his offspring would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore, as numerous as the stars in the sky.  And Abraham believes that, too.  Had Abraham’s faith been no more than the sum total of his beliefs, he would have been shipwrecked on their apparent contradictions.  But his faith was simple trust in God, who is simple.  All contradictions sank into the fathomless simplicity of that faith.  He was able therefore, to find support in his belief that God would give him abundant offspring through Isaac, while holding lightly, for the moment, to his belief that this same Isaac was doomed to be sacrificed.  His simple faith gave him courage enough to hold both beliefs firmly and trust enough to hold them lightly.

And then comes that incomparable passage, that spine-chilling dialogue between Abraham and Isaac on their way up the mountain of sacrifice.  This son carries the firewood for the burnt-offering on his shoulders.  The father carries the fire and the knife.  “And the two went together.”  Even the story teller seems to have a lump in his throat, as he repeats: “They went together.”  Who is without memory of a bus terminal, or a hospital room, where all of life seemed to hang on being “together,” as the moment of parting came close?  “So, the two went together.”  The old man walks in silence.  What could he possibly say?  But the boy speaks up: “Father.  “What is it, son?”  And now he questions Abraham, not about his faith, but about the content of that faith; not about his trust in God, but about his belies; about something which God had spelled out all too clearly, yet something which is apt to shake Abraham’s trust in God.  Abraham’s faith is tested by his beliefs.  This is a crucial moment in the history of faith.

Like any bright boy might do, Isaac points out to his father: “Look, here is fire and here is wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  There is no way out for Abraham.  Now he has to prove his faith by confessing what he believes.  The son was bright enough to shy away from mentioning the knife in Abraham’s hand.  Will the father be brave enough not to shy away from making clear to Isaac what God made clear to him?  At this crucial point, our Father in Faith rises to his full stature: “God will provide himself a lamb, son.”  It is as if Abraham were thinking: “As far as I can see, God has left no doubt who that lamb will be.  But I trust that there may be infinitely more to God’s message than I have understood.”  Abraham’s faith is so strong that he need not cling to his beliefs.  His trust in God is stronger than his trust in his own understanding of God’s word.  In faith he raises his eyes above the horizon of his beliefs.

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes.”  There is the key word.  He does hold his beliefs firmly.  He acts on them.  But he does not allow his beliefs to become a ballast that weighs down his faith.  He looks up.

The story describes in gruesome detail how Abraham binds Isaac’s feet together, lays him on the altar, and stretches out his hand to seize the knife to kill his son.  All this had to be spelled out, point by point so as to prove: Abraham acted on God’s word; he did believe.  But he had more than belief; he had faith.  Believing, he reached down for the knife, but in faith he looked up.  “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold! a ram caught by its horns in a bush.  And Abraham went and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt-offering instead of Isaac, his son.”

What does “instead” mean in this context?  It has a twofold significance.  Outwardly, it means that the lamb was substituted for Isaac, but the inner meaning is that the lamb represented Isaac.  In that sense, Abraham did sacrifice his son.  Must we not assume that the inner act of sacrifice had already been completed in his heart, when his hand was able to reach for the knife?  And so, what Abraham believed did come true, in the end, but on the level of the unbelievable.  Only faith can rise to that level, a faith that is not mere believing, but, above all, trust.

Abraham’s faith, his trust in God, was able to uphold even beliefs that seemed contradictory on the level of mere intellectual reasoning.  He raised the eyes of his heart to a higher level and, in the light of God’s faithfulness, his heart “reasoned that God was powerful enough to even raise from the dead,” as the New Testament (Hebrews 11:19) will interpret this event.  That is why, still at the foot of the mountain, Abraham was able to say to his servants, “We (both of us!) will return to you.”  He was able to say this in faith.  For, on the third day of the journey (the resurrection day), Abraham had already “lifted up his eyes,” we are told, and had seen the place of sacrifice from afar.

Forgive me for dwelling on this story at some length.  I did so, partly because I am so fond of it, I admit.  But the insight it offers into the relationship between faith and beliefs is decisive.  It makes us realize the priority that faith as courage and trust has over faith in the sense of beliefs.  If we get that priority wrong, beliefs may even get in the way of our faith.  But if we get it right, we have direct access to the heart of the matter: the heart of faith is the faith of the heart.

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