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I compose and post these articles with only one desire in my heart: to praise God and to offer modest help on your spiritual journey.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Test of Faith

The author of psalm six presents us with a person tormented, psychologically, physically, socially and spiritually. In simple words, the psalmist describes the profound suffering to which this person is subjected. His outcry is soul rending: "How long, o Lord--how long?" (6:3) This person is experiencing an extreme test of faith. The psalm ends with this suffering person reaffirming his faith in God and hoping in salvific divine intervention.

Almost every believer at times undergoes such a test of faith. I will, therefore, try to outline in this article, some great figures from the bible and history, underlining their attitude in such extreme experiences, hoping that they can be role models for each one of us.

Abraham is the first person, that comes to mind, when I think of this subject. The story of his test of faith (GN 22) is known to all of us. In their old age, Abraham and Sarah are granted a son at a time when they thought this would be absolutely impossible. We can imagine how much Abraham and Sarah were attached to this child, whom they considered God's gift. One day Abraham hears the call of God, who asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as an offering to him. Abraham makes all the preparations and starts his trip to the top of the mountain Moriah. Origenes, an Alexandrian theologian from the Third Century C.E., in his commentary on the chapter has majestically pointed out the drama that encompasses Abraham and his son Isaac. The questions of the child Isaac to his father Abraham are gradually increasing in emotional intensity, which is heart-wrenching for Abraham. "Daddy, behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" (GN 22:7). Reading the comments of Kierkegaard and Derrida on the episode, one can better understand that Abraham is treading in the territory of the impossible, that he is somewhere lost in the icy lands of inexorability. Whatever he would do, it would be unethical. We find here a perfect illustration of Plato's ethical dilemma presented in his dialogue, Euthyphro, "Is it holy because God calls it holy, or God calls it holy because it is holy?" Here God stops Abraham from offering his son on the alter he built on the mountain Moriah, which is also an indication that the God of the bible rejects human sacrifices. The chapter ends with God praising Abraham for his unshakeable faith in him. "Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you" (GN 22: 15-17).

The next great figure undergoing a test of faith is Job. At the beginning of the book, we see God leading the divine counsel amongst those present there is Satan (the adversary). At some point, God praises Job for his faith in him, for his great loyalty. Satan however, has also something to say about Job. He claims that Job, the man from Uz, is faithful to God and behaves righteously because God has showered him with enumerable blessings. He asks God's permission to put Job to the test. God agrees. And so Job loses his livestock and his wife asks him to rebel against God. His words are "The lord gave and the lord has taken away" (Job 1:21) Next Job loses his family, each member of it dies in horrible accidents. In spite of that, he still remains faithful to God. When the divine counsel reunites, God praises again Job, for his faithfulness in times of tragedy. Satan however is not ready to give up. He protests by saying that Job has not been tested enough. All his losses were external to him. He will succumb to unfaithfulness when his own skin will be touched. God grants again permission to test Job even more severely. And so we see Job hit by a terrible skin illness. To get an idea we should think about leprosy. He is ostracized and from the respectable person he once was in the community, he is now just a sick man sitting on a pile of garbage outside of the city. Even his friends accuse him of cryptic sinfulness. In spite of his unimaginable psychological and spiritual suffering and social rejection, we hear Job saying the prophetic words "I know that my avenger, (Hebrew: Goel) lives and in the last days I shall see him with the eyes of my body." (Job 19: 25-26). Eventually Job will revolt against God, yet when God approaches him, confronting him with the magnificence of creation, and the mysterious nature of his plans, Job bows his head in faith and adoration before God.

Lastly, I'd like to mention the instance of the test of faith of Jesus Christ himself. After terrible humiliations and beatings, he is hanging on the cross dying. He feels intensely God's dereliction, abandonment. And using the words of Psalm 22, he cries out "God, God, why have you forsaken me?" (Job 22:1). In the end though, after forgiving his tormentors and murderers, before expiring he entrusts his soul into the hands of God. "Father, into your hands, I entrust my soul." [Luke 23:46].

All these personages of the scriptures are facing impossible situations that test their faith in God to the extreme, yet all of them, reaffirm in all awareness their faith in God, even when it seems that there is no trace of God anywhere.

The Christian mystics talk about "spiritual drought". It is a period when God retracts his presence and consolations from the soul and lets the soul experience his total absence and silence. The soul is "lost" in the desert. The advice is that in such times the soul has to be patient, frequently renew his faith in God, and to not make any important spiritual decisions. See for example St. Theresa of Avila. A more contemporary of the test of faith, St. Theresa of Lisieux, who made the center of her spirituality "confidence of a child in God", dying at the age of fifty of tuberculosis, had undergone terrible temptations of faith. Yet, up to the end, she continually without any lapse affirmed her faith in God and her love for him. In the 20th century, we find the Nazi concentration camps, which have become the supreme symbol of the abyssal evil of the human heart, and of suffering of the innocent. In these camps, we find innocent Jews subjected to torment and death that defy human imagination. We find parents that, unlike Abraham, had to see their children taken away from them, knowing that they were being led to gruesome torments and deaths. And yet, in spite of God's silence to their outcry, many of them maintained their faith in him to the end.

Each one of us at some point face some kind of test of faith, a tragedy, a loss, horrible injustice, and the list could go on. Looking at these people, who preceded us, who walked along the path of impossible to affirm their faith in God, even when tested to the point of disbelief of God's existence, remained always faithful. We also have to find courage when God conceals his face from us and we undergo a radical test of faith. Why does God do this to his people? Most likely because he is, as he says in the book of Deuteronomy, a "jealous" God (Deut. 6:15). In the perspective of the test of faith we may also find the key to the vault to the understanding of the paradoxical, mysterious plans and providence of God.

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