The Apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Their request comes immediately after the Lord’s teaching on scandals in the Church and the need to apply the healing balm of fraternal correction and forgiveness (cf. Lk 17:1-4). Perhaps the Apostles are afraid that scandals within the community may shake their faith, or that correcting and forgiving an errant member will take more faith than they have.
Whatever the case may be, Jesus’ reply to their plea is indirect. He does not speak about faith as a theological virtue infused into our souls directly by God (cf. CCC 1813-14). Faith in that sense is already at work in them. Even the request for an increase of faith is evidence of the presence of the virtue of faith. Jesus, however, chooses to emphasize the need to put faith into practice. He likens faith to a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds. With even a tiny bit of faith, he says, the Apostles already have the capacity to do amazing things – like uprooting a tree merely by saying the word. This is not an instruction about trees but a colorful illustration of the extraordinary power of faith, which far surpasses human power.
By likening faith to a seed, Jesus reveals that for our faith to increase, we must do our part in nurturing it. Seeds have their own capacity to grow into plants; our responsibility is to till the soil, plant the seed at the right depth, and water it at the proper time. As it grows, we must regularly tend to the plant to ensure that pests do not devour it and that it maximizes its yield. The activities by which we support the transformation of a seed into a flourishing plant have their parallels in the work of increasing our faith. Faith is God’s gift, but it is also our responsibility; it is both a grace and a human act (cf. CCC 153-4). Faith is not a matter of idly waiting around for God to act. As believing disciples of Jesus Christ, we must actively seek to know and do God’s will (cf. CCC 1814).
How can we actively seek to know and do God’s will? What steps must we take to cooperate with God in increasing our faith? The second part of the Gospel points us to one important way: dedicating ourselves to a life of service. By faith we acknowledge and willingly submit ourselves to God, as faithful servants of a good Master. In all our actions, we should strive to serve him above all. In the practical example that Jesus gives, we learn not to make demands but to remain in the Lord’s service. After working in the field, we find joy in serving at his table. The tasks of “plowing or tending sheep” represent our active service in the world, where we serve the Lord in our brothers and sisters; the table of the Lord is a symbol of the Eucharistic banquet, where our “work” is to listen to the word of the Lord and wait to be fed.
The reading from the prophet Habakkuk tells us that for our work and prayer to produce an increase in faith, we must persevere in hope. Habakkuk expresses some exasperation in prayer. He has asked for God’s help, but it seems that God is not listening. Problems are not being solved – at least, not according to how Habakkuk wants them solved. In his moment of frustration and desperation, he cries out to God – and at last God gives a clear answer which he is told to write down “so that one can read it readily.” The way of faith requires waiting for God to fulfill his promises, with confidence that his plan “presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint.” If we feel disappointment now, it simply means that we must still persevere in faith. The Lord points out the difference between a person who is “rash” and one who is “just”: “the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
Our Psalm today points out for us another way to “increase our faith”: through docility to the Lord’s word. Faith tells us that God is constantly communicating himself to us, even when we are not aware of it. We increase this faith as we allow his divine self-communication to transform our hearts. The worst obstacle to faith is a “hardened heart” – a heart that is closed due to rebellion or stubbornness. When we “bow down in worship,” kneeling “before the LORD who made us,” we actively resist the disordered inclination to harden our hearts. Docility increases our faith because it shifts our focus rightfully from ourselves to the Lord, our first love and the center of our lives. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
St. Paul, through his instruction to Timothy, gives us more practical tips on how to increase our faith. First, he tells us to “stir into flame” this precious gift that comes from God through the Sacraments – indicated by Paul’s reference to “the imposition of my hands.” This means that we must treasure and nurture this “flame” with “power and love and self-control,” neither letting it die out by our neglect, nor blowing it out by our excessive activism. Second, he exhorts us to courageously testify to our faith without shame or fear of hardships. We increase our faith when we share it with others. Third, he instructs us to seek “the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.” The Spirit is himself a living flame of faith and the giver of spiritual gifts.
Our readings today, then, give us clear and rich instructions on how to “increase our faith”: through work and prayer, perseverance and hope, docility, through stirring it into flame, and courageously testifying to it – all by the power of the Holy Spirit. To fully complete this instruction, we need a role model. The best example of faith is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the lowly handmaid of the Lord, who shows us and supports us in the way of faith.
How has the power of faith affected my life? How often do I till the soil of my soul to enable the seeds of faith to grow? When have I experienced that nothing is impossible with God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.