Sometimes when I have conversations with people about their spiritual lives, it emerges that they feel unworthy or unwelcome because they don’t feel like they have faith. When I ask for further clarification, I often discover that what is meant by faith is a feel-good faith and an undying sense of joy and excitement. There’s this idea if you’re really a Christian, life should be good and joyful and a person never, ever, ever has doubts. It makes sense people feel this way; Christianity is full of feel-good faith. A key example is the Prosperity Gospel, which suggests that the result of true faith in God is financial security and worldly/other-worldly blessings. There are also multiple feel-good songs (I’ll Be A Sunbeam, What a Friend we have in Jesus.) Even where people – especially in Catholic tradition – acknowledge that suffering exists, there’s an “offer it up” (and don’t talk about it) kind of mentality that can hide our suffering and make it seem non-existent.
This week’s scriptures collectively remind us that the meaning of faith is not, in fact, rainbows and unicorns and good times had by all. In fact, I think today’s readings lead us to consider some understandings of faith that directly involve and account for doubt, trouble, and real problems that result from practicing faith.
Today’s reading from Jeremiah is a case in point. As we can tell from both the princes’ response, and the King’s wishy-washy response, people did not particularly find Jeremiah’s words from God to be joyful. In today’s scripture, we can see princes making political moves against him, trying to find a place to hide (and harm) Jeremiah so that his words are no longer in the open square. While ultimately the princes do not succeed in this story, it’s clear that speaking God’s word has direct consequences and they are not joyful. Jeremiah himself is not exactly the picture-perfect prophet either.
We Christians do often make out Jeremiah’s prophecy to be this beautiful, joyful thing by quoting the words God speaks when he calls Jeremiah:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (1:5)
We also like Jeremiah as an example for our youth and young adults because he was living his faith as a young person. God says to Jeremiah:
“Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.”
These are indeed beautiful. Yet Jeremiah knew, experienced for a fact, that following God’s call could be treacherous indeed. In chapter 20, we read:
You seduced me,Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
All day long I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
8 Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage I proclaim;
The word of the Lord has brought me
reproach and derision all day long.
Indeed, Jeremiah even tries to leave behind his prophesying work many times, has doubts in his own ability and in God – and yet he continues the work and the life. This, I would argue, is a robust life of faith: to have the moments of doubt, to experience joylessness and even mocking, but to know that nonetheless this is the life to which Christians have been called.
In the rest of this week’s readings, then, we have some sustenance for living out faith in the face of difficulties. The author of Hebrews reminds us to persevere in spite of burdens and opposition. In the Gospel Jesus tells us: following him will not necessarily look pretty or unified; sometimes there will be deep divisions even between those we love and know best.
In today’s culture, with its heavy divisions, derisive language, violence against each other, and more – I think these scriptures offer us a bit of hope. Our lives right now are not rainbows and unicorns but the mark of faith is not those things anyway. The mark of faith is following Jesus regardless of all the rest of what life throws at us.