Through the gift of faith, we are enabled to assent fully and freely to the entire content of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
4 March 2016
In today’s gospel (Mk 12:28-34), one of the scribes listening to Jesus poses this question: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels tell us the scribe asked this question to test Jesus (see Mt 22:35; Lk 10:25). Jesus answers the question precisely and correctly, of course, by stating the great twofold commandment to love God above all else and neighbor as oneself, which summarizes the teaching of the Old Covenant with the two injunctions taken from Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18:
The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mk 12:28-31)
Interestingly, and perhaps with a hint of underlying arrogance, the scribe acknowledges Jesus is correct, then restates the first of the commandments, adding that adherence to it is “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33). The gospel narrates that Jesus saw the scribe had “answered with understanding,” then tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34).
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.” I find that statement telling. Jesus implies here that the scribe is close to the kingdom, but not yet in it. That is significant. It is not enough to merely be close to the kingdom of God since “close” does not play out well in eternity. Why might our Lord have responded this way?
I think Jesus gives us a clue that unveils the meaning of his remark to the scribe. Apparently, the scribe has some level of understanding about the great commandment, perhaps even a great deal so, but does he fully and entirely believe what God has revealed? Has he embraced this commandment with his entire being? Or, on the other hand, is the scribe’s belief more an intellectualized understanding than a heartfelt, entirely committed, loving belief based on faith? Perhaps we are finding here, in Mark’s gospel, an account of the difference between knowing on an intellectual level and faith-based belief on an ardent, heartfelt level. It is the distinction between merely knowing about something and giving oneself over entirely to Someone.
It is the goal of life to live in the kingdom of God, not simply draw near to it, for there is no middle ground in the battle between good and evil, life and death. One must choose sides. The goal is to come to know who God really is. To enter into a dynamic, life-altering relationship with Christ is of paramount importance so that we step into the kingdom of God now and continue to reside there forever.
St. Augustine of Hippo had a saying in Latin: crede, ut intelligas, “believe that you may understand.” Following, St. Anselm of Canterbury is noted for his maxim: credo ut intelligam, “I believe so that I may understand.”
What is meant by these sayings? While neither of these two saints is dismissing the important place of reason, nor are they ascribing to “blind faith” (Fideism, the doctrine that knowledge depends entirely on faith), they are, nevertheless, stating what is obvious to the man of faith, yet frustratingly perplexing to the man who lacks it: we must first believe God through faith to receive understanding. God gives grace to the humble and reveals himself to those who love him, but opposes the proud (cf. 1 Pet. 5:5). Trying to understand God (i.e., know God) without first believing in him through faith is impossible. It’s the difference, and a vast one indeed, between some level of superficial knowledge and an intimate knowing and understanding brought about through a loving relationship. Stated another way, the former is an initial assessment, as in a passing acquaintance, the latter a communicative and fulfilling embrace. Consequently, for many, there is a seemingly insurmountable paradox here: In order to know who God really is, we have to say, “I love you,” and stake our life on those very words. They must issue from the depths of one’s heart as true love, not as merely superficial words. Ideally, it’s a step of complete trust and total self-giving toward God, which implies far more than words. However, no one can love God unless God first discloses himself, calls the person in some way, initiates the relationship. Also, although I might call out with love to God constantly, unless he responds a relationship will remain nonexistent.
Which means we are not of ourselves taking the first step in the process. God is. Turning to God in faith is not something we one day decide to do all on our own. To think such a thing is to fall into the heresy of Pelagianism, which is dismissive of the role of divine grace. Also, it is a strong sign of a prideful heart to think that “I choose” God! Jesus reminded his disciples that he chose them; they did not, on the other hand, do the choosing (Jn 15:16, 6:70, cf. 1 Pet. 1:15). Actually, it is God who first gifts us with the grace to turn to Christ in faith. Then, we freely cooperate with this initial salvific grace. God gives, we respond. God calls, we answer. That was the case with the disciples: Christ called, they responded. We see, then, that turning to God in faith is a communicated capability that finds its origin in the loving grace-filled initiation of God himself.
God’s free gift of grace moves us to repent and receive the sacrament of baptism, through which we in turn receive forgiveness, justification before God, and the theological virtue of faith (see CCC 1262-1274). Further, we receive the incomparable gift of the Spirit of God, whose divine guidance enables us to freely assent fully to all that God has revealed through his Son. At the foundation of the gift of faith, we find the action and power of the Holy Spirit. That is why we first believe in order to understand: it is the Spirit of God who himself urges and directs us in the knowledge of who God really is. It is God himself both giving us the ability to know and love him and helping us to do so.
See how beautiful, compassionate and loving God is! We are but weak and insignificant creatures in comparison, yet out of a superabundance of love, God reaches out to us, draws us to himself, instructs us, and begins to lift us toward the heavens! It is God who enables our vision, provides our strength, and shores up our hearts. And what is his intent? Only to share his life with us, if we will but share our lives with him.
Some might take this to mean that God manipulates people like puppets. Nothing could be farther from the truth. God is a loving Father who gives good gifts to his children that are ordered toward the attainment of the highest state of life: eternal communion with him in heaven. Yet none of these gifts remove or subdue human free-will, which is itself a gift from God and one aspect of humanity’s creation in the image and likeness of God. As God is free, so too he created man free. When the human person uses freedom correctly and in accordance with its ultimate purpose, he joins his will to God’s, and thus freely proves his love for God and attains his destiny, which is a life lived in God’s loving embrace forever.
But back to faith. Trying to understand God without faith is like trying to know a person while remaining skeptical of everything he says. A relationship cannot begin until we accept that what a person says about himself is true, at least to some extent. Doubt does not foster a relationship but squelches it.
In the case of our relationship with God, skepticism or doubt should never enter into it, for we have the certain word of God as the foundation upon which it is built. What God has revealed about himself must be entirely, inerrantly true because God is himself Truth. He cannot lie, nor would he have any reason to do so. Creatures imagine some apparent advantage in lying; e.g., to cover up or hide what is true, to protect their reputation or inflate it, to injure someone perceived to be a threat, to seek selfish advantage, and so forth. People lie because they are limited, finite, wounded and sinful. But God is not any of these things. The man who looks to God with an eye of skepticism places his own thoughts, desires, and human knowledge above God’s. The man who doubts God is often a man who seeks to not only suppress or reject what is true about God but also what is true about himself. Such a condition is rooted in the desire to supplant the Creator with the creature. Ultimately, doubting God will end in ruin. To do such a thing is to war against reality.
It is acknowledged that, often, people doubt what they hear about God because of conflicting messages, which is understandable, given the state of contemporary society, Christendom, and the effects of original sin. If a person hears contradictory information about God or Christian doctrine, it is reasonable to exercise critical thinking on the matter and try to find a solution. Indifferently accepting this or that, or whatever seems convenient, is not wise. Nevertheless, people today struggle to know what is really true about God and about themselves. This, of course, begs a few questions: How do people learn what God has revealed? How can they sift through the noise and distortion in the world, and discern what is really true about God?
The answer is the Catholic Church instituted by Christ as the instrument of salvation in the world in which the fullness of God’s revealed truth subsists. The bottom line is this: although men often make a mess out of what they think God has revealed about himself, the Spirit-guided and infallible Church God willed should exist does not suffer from that ailment. Answering these questions in detail is beyond the scope of this article. What is important here, is to grasp the crucial significance of faith and a free and loving response to God.
The above passage from Mark’s gospel implies the scribe is not yet living in the kingdom of God. While he has some understanding of God, he does not yet, through the free response of faith, believe God completely and love him with all his heart. Additionally, he is lacking faith in Christ. It appears that perhaps his understanding of God is limited because it is more intellectual than faith and love filled.
Perhaps you have some level of understanding of God, and thus, like the scribe, are not far from the heavenly kingdom. If you desire to enter through its gates and enjoy its supreme delight, which is God himself, remember that God has first planted that desire within you. What may be lacking is your free-will response through faith that will cultivate and nourish that seed. It is not possible to know who God really is, without giving yourself over to God; otherwise, you treat God as if he is a subject one might study through observation, as a scientist studies the natural world. We do not come to know God by completing a series of experiments. God reveals himself to those who believe in him and love him. And loving God means repentance and following the commandments. It’s a radically different, exciting and fulfilling and new way of life. However, it cannot be a life devoid of trial and suffering, for loving God means also loving the cross of Christ.
Pray for faith in Christ that you may come to know who God really is. Believe that you may understand.
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Photo Credit: Andrea Boldizsar
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.