Strongest: 11th Sunday OT

How strong is your faith right now? How's that for an icebreaker, right? But I’m really asking. How’s your faith life? That’s a big question you could think and pray about all month, so for now I’m asking you to just notice your first gut reaction. How’s your faith life, what’s your first gut reaction? But believe it or not, important as that question is, it’s only a lead-in to the question I really want to focus on, which is: how do you know?

Saul of Tarsus knew a lot more than most of us. He had a top-tier education with the great Rabbi Gamaliel. He knew the Scriptures inside and out. He was steeped in the wisdom and traditions of generations of his people. He knew in his deepest guts that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the one, true, and living God, and that every other worship is idolatry. And he absolutely knew that this executed criminal, this Jesus of Nazareth, was a blasphemer and that his cult was a growing threat to the true religion of Israel. Precious children of Abraham were being led astray, and Saul of Tarsus saw this clearly: it must be stopped by any means necessary.

He could see that so clearly… and then one day on the road to Damascus there was a flash of light so bright that it blinded him, as Jesus called his name and spoke to him. And then for three days he couldn’t see anything. 

It’s such a dramatic story that maybe you’ve never thought too hard about this one aspect of it, so let’s really think about that blindness, and try to imagine what this experience must have been like. How long those last miles must have been to Damascus. Not skilled and adept without sight like blind people can become; he’s new at this. Maybe he was mounted, maybe walking. Not knowing how to even move his feet, being led, helpless. He’d hear people passing by but not see them. Maybe some of them asked, ‘is that guy ok?’ He wasn’t. There was no telling if he’d ever see again. How many times did he stumble, stub a toe, trip a little? Step after step, hour after hour, with no sense of where we’re at, or progress being made. I’m sure the companions leading him said things like ‘almost there’ but you know that doesn’t tell you much.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, detail

Then for the rest of three days he sat in blindness. Imagine waking up and it’s just black, and remembering each morning in those first waking thoughts that it might actually be light out, remembering that his sight was gone. Imagine trying to eat his meals, even going to the bathroom, trying to relieve boredom by — what? Walking around the rooms feeling the walls? How long were those hours?

This was Paul’s first experience of being a Christian. This is the first effect that meeting Jesus had on his life. There would be other seasons to come in his relationship with Jesus, very different seasons, but this was his first. He didn’t see more, but less. He wasn’t more powerful and sure of himself; he was helpless and lost. 

And this is the man who told us in our second reading: We walk by faith, not by sight.

There’s an irony in his blindness, because one of the things Jesus told him in that first conversation was “I am sending you to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light.” Paul’s mission to bring the Light began by being plunged into darkness.

How else are we going to learn?… to walk by faith and not by sight. What about you? Are you walking by faith?

— You’ve got a big decision to make, school, vocation, relationship, marriage, work, whether to move, a decision for your family, these big turning-point decisions. And you love God and you want to do the right thing. But you’ve prayed and prayed and still you just aren’t sure. What’s going wrong? Where’s the clarity? Shouldn’t a relationship with Jesus Christ show you the way and light your path?

It might not be the answer you want to hear but the Biblical, Christian answer is: sometimes. Sometimes in life the darkness is of your own making, it isn’t God’s will for you, and you need to repent and go to confession and get yourself a disciplined, regular life of prayer. But if you’ve done those things, sometimes in life you need to stop telling God “You have to shine some light so I can follow You!” and hear Him telling you “I’m asking you to trust me even in the darkness.” To walk by faith, not by sight.

— You’ve had bad news or a bad turn in life. The doctor asked you to sit down and closed the door. The marriage is over, you couldn’t save it, or the one you were sure you’d marry just broke up with you. You’re losing your health and energy and don’t know what to do with yourself or what these days are supposed to even be for. Someone you love with all your heart is in terrible trouble and it’s tearing you apart and there’s nothing you can do but pray. Whatever it is… it’s a hard season, and you want to be a person of faith. You want to take up your cross and follow Him. You want to believe that all His promises will come true and everything will be full of light in the end, but this yoke doesn’t feel easy, this burden doesn’t feel light. It’s hard and it’s heavy and you can’t see how the light will ever shine through, this time. You’re walking by faith, not by sight.

— You used to pray easily and it felt so warm and comforting, you felt God near to you and knew you were being heard and loved. You could pray for something or someone and feel satisfied and confident that you’d really been heard and God was in charge and serenely say “Thy will be done.” But not anymore, maybe not for a while. You try to pray and feel nothing. Your offering seems not to be accepted because it’s so little, you aren’t feeling it, you have that awful sense of going through the motions when it all feels pointless and empty. What happened to the spiritual warmth and comfort you used to feel? What happened to that sense of God being so close to you? Why would He let you feel this way when you’re trying to be close to Him? You’re walking by faith, not by sight.

See, sometimes the story you’re telling yourself about your life, the story you think you’re living, is totally different from the real story that God sees. Your relationship with God cannot be about how you feel. 

We can return to Paul to prove this so clearly. Because Paul, ten seconds before that flash of light, felt so certain of God’s will. He understood with perfect clarity the right thing to do. He felt total assurance about his mission, about where his life was going, and that he was close to God. Paul was plagued by no doubts as he confidently and efficiently went about doing the work… of Satan. Ten seconds later all of that knowledge and certainty and confidence was gone. He was lying on the ground, shocked, blinded, confused, his whole world upside down, his whole life in question, and that was God saving him, loving and saving his misguided servant.

I’m going to repeat that because this could not be more important, and yet it’s such a hard lesson to really learn and understand — I know I’m not the only one! Paul felt most confident in his mission, most sure about his life, most certain about God’s will when he was doing the work of Satan… while in the most grace-filled and salvific moment of his life, he felt more blind and lost and confused than ever before. 

So what’s this hard lesson? Is it that feeling confident and sure is always bad, and feeling lost and confused is always good? No, of course not. The lesson is that how you feel is not a guide to your relationship with God. It just isn’t.

For another Biblical example from a more positive angle, think about the Apostles at the Transfiguration, beholding the glory of Jesus in radiant clarity. I’ll bet if you asked them right then, ‘how strong is your faith now?’, they’d say ‘now we really see, now we really believe, our faith is stronger than ever.’ But that wouldn’t be true. It was a beautiful moment, a gift of sight, but that isn’t faith. Faith is when you don’t see. Faith is when it isn’t bright and clear right in front of you. Faith is strongest when it feels weakest but doesn’t fail.

Faith is strongest when it feels weakest but doesn’t fail.

All the virtues work like this. When do you feel most courageous? Isn’t it when you feel strongest and least afraid? But that’s not your moment of real courage precisely because you feel strong and unafraid. It’s when you feel like your courage is weak, when you’re most afraid but don’t give up, that you’re really showing the most courage.

Now notice this pattern everywhere. You’re showing the strongest courage when you feel the least courageous but don’t give up. You’re showing the strongest generosity when you feel ungenerous and don’t want to let go but you do anyway. You’re showing the strongest patience when you feel the most impatient but overcome it and don’t let it show. You’re showing the strongest chastity when you feel most weak and tempted but don’t give in.

And your faith might feel weakest, but is really at its strongest and most beautiful, in exactly those times when God is asking you to walk by faith and not by sight.