A Real Problem—Misplaced Faith

by Fr. Don Thomas

In most religions of our day, it is safe to say that “our faith” is what will determine our salvation. It is surely an understatement to say that there are many and varied definitions of the word “faith”, but most, if not all, would agree that faith is a gift that is rooted in a Supreme Being of some kind. The purpose of this reflection is not to define God, theologically, but rather to consider some of the mistakes made about our faith in our Supreme Being, as each person understands God. In fairness to all, I would like to say that I am referring specifically to Catholics, with whom I would be most familiar. Then, let others decide whether or not this particular consideration raises questions for them or not.

My reason for writing about this topic comes from the second scripture reading of the third Sunday in ordinary time—a reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (1:10-13,17). Some comfort or consolation we can derive from this reflection is the fact the problem we are dealing with existed two thousand years ago, and it is nothing that has popped up in recent years. In this reading, we see Paul urging his brothers and sisters in Corinth to agree, in the name of Jesus Christ, about what they say, and not to allow division to weaken them. He urges them to be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. His warning to them stemmed from a report that there were rivalries among them, based on the divisions that arose when it became known that some were saying “I belong to Paul”, others are saying “I belong to Apollo”, still others saying “I belong to Cephas” and still others saying “I belong to Christ”. Paul knew that originally they all belonged to Christ, but changes of attitude came about. That is why he asked them in his letter “Is Christ divided”? “Was Paul crucified for you”? “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul”? Paul wanted answers to these questions so that truth would prevail. He wanted to share his convictions with them, that Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. Paul was definitely hoping and praying for a community whose faith would produce unity, rather than division. Their faith should be in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had recently died for the salvation of the world.

In this present consideration, I would like to define faith as being “misplaced” when it is not based on or in the teachings of Jesus Christ. As we continue this reflection, I would like to give specific examples of how our faith can easily be misdirected and put in a priest, a minister, a neighbor, a professor in college, or even in one's self.

Positions, opinions and convictions today, in very many instances, are no longer based on the answer to the question “What did Jesus say about that” but rather on what we ourselves or others tell us is right or wrong. It is not uncommon nowadays to note that the faith of many is based, not in God or in Jesus Christ, but in “anyone who determines what is convenient or pleasing to our life style”. Paul would ask many today “is your faith in a priest or in Jesus Christ”? “Is your faith in a TV personality or in Jesus Christ”? “Is your faith in Jesus Christ, or is it in yourself, or is it in your neighbor who seems to be a really nice guy and pretty intelligent”? “Is your faith possibly in the pope”?

My conclusion would be that if your answer is “Yes” to any of these questions, your faith is misplaced. Your faith has to be in God, in Jesus Christ who can use others to represent Him officially. To illustrate, in practically any Catholic Church you have some who believe that abortion is murder, and others in that same church believe it is not. If they say they base their decision on their faith in Jesus Christ, they all can't be right. A circle cannot be square and round at the same time. Nor can abortion be right and wrong at the same time. Or again, millions of Catholics accept the teaching that artificial birth control is a serious sin. Others say it is not. Those who believe in the teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed to us by the church are, therefore, basing their faith in Christ, and the others are not. Their faith is either in themselves or some government official or some friend or acquaintance. Both cannot be right. What about the contradictory positions concerning the sacrament of confession?

Consider two Catholics talking to each other, and one, whose faith is based in Jesus Christ, still goes to confession when it is called for, and the other, claiming to belong to that same catholic church, says that “I no longer believe in confession, as I just tell my sins directly to God”. That person's faith is no longer in Jesus Christ, but in himself or herself. Those positions are contradictory, and, therefore, both cannot be right. Consider also the faith of Catholics who believe that Jesus gave us seven sacraments through which we can share in His grace, the way a branch shares in the life of a vine.

The Catholic faith teaches that a Priest or Deacon must administer the sacraments in ordinary situations. When a Catholic wants baptism you never hear the Catholic say “Get me a minister, or a judge, or a justice of the peace”. No, they want the priest. When a Catholic wants to go to confession, or get confirmed or when they are dying, you never hear them call for a minister, judge or justice of the peace. Again, they want the priest. How is it then, that when it comes to matrimony, the sacrament of marriage, so many Catholics will go to a judge, a minister or a justice of the peace instead of to the priest, and then think they are married in the eyes of God?

No, they are married legally because they have a marriage license to prove it, but they are not married in the eyes of God, sacramentally, because they did not receive the sacrament of matrimony. If those same people were to confess their sins to a justice of the peace or to a minister, they know and believe that it is not the sacrament of confession. Please, please note: we have been emphasizing that we are talking here about “Catholics”. Those whose faith is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ are correct, and those who are listening to others and basing their faith on others are wrong. Again, both cannot be right. These are all examples of misplaced faith.

Finally, I would ask you to consider the scenario that presents itself quite commonly all over the country or all over the world. It is that of the catholic talking like this: “let me tell you, Father, I am a Catholic and I always will be until the day I die. I may not be the best catholic in the world, but I know that I'm a heck of a lot better than most who go to church as hypocrites. That's why I do not even go to church anymore, because of people like that. Don't get me wrong, Father, because I do believe in God, I believe in Jesus Christ and the Ten Commandments, but I do believe I can pray just as well at home as in a church. Another thing I no longer accept is the need to confess my sins to a priest since I know I can just tell God my sins directly. Even the bible tells us that there is only one true mediator and that's Jesus Christ”. Boy, there's a mouthful and a half! Talk about misplaced faith!! Let us proceed to respond to this person.

Keep in mind that this person may be very, very sincere, but our intent is to show how this person is very, very wrong. Having come across this situation many times as a priest, I would praise the person for speaking up, and I would even praise him for the courage to speak up, and I also would point out that he has the right to speak this way and I respect him, but I do not agree with him. Then, as I kept quiet and listened to him, all I would appreciate is that he would keep quiet and listen to me and respect me, even if he disagrees with me. Then, after I am finished with him, he can walk away and do some thinking and draw his own conclusions. I point out to him that all I want to do is go over his own words, so he won't claim I am putting words in his mouth. I usually start off by repeating how he said he believes in the Ten Commandments. He may not go to church, but, boy-o-boy, he believes in God and in the Ten Commandments. Can you name them for me, I ask, and it is the funniest thing how every single person seems to start with the sixth—let's see, oh, yes, do not commit adultery. Do not steal, don't take God's name in vain .... uh, uh, uh...gee I used to know these ....

Yes, he used to know them. What I want to know is how does he know whether or not he is keeping the Ten Commandments if he can't even name them? Tell me, how does he know? Then, again he insists on how he believes in God and in Jesus Christ, yet he never goes near a church anymore. If that is true, and if Jesus said one day that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood in Holy Communion would some day die and go to heaven, if he does believe in Jesus, how does he ever receive communion if he never goes to church? Does he keep it out in the garage, or up in the attic? Tell me about that? And we can go on and on ... if he believes in Jesus and Jesus said that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, how come this guy's three children have never been baptized? Is his faith really in Jesus Christ? Then the part about not going to church is ridiculous. He is blaming it on other people. Even if they were all hypocrites—something I deny strongly—the third commandment is “Keep the Lord's Day holy', and since he claims to be a catholic and his faith is supposed to be in Jesus Christ, Jesus tells us through the Catholic Church that the way we keep the Lord's Day holy is by attending Mass every Sunday and on the holy days of obligation. Even if all the others were hypocrites, he would still have to go, if his faith is in Jesus Christ. No, his faith is misplaced.. He knows where it is. It is in himself. He knows he is making up his own religion and doing what pleases him and what he finds to be convenient.

In conclusion, it is easy to see that in this area of faith, Christ certainly was right on target when He said that He had come into the world not to bring peace, but division.. The topics we could check out are countless. This reflection is simply the tip of the iceberg, as they say .

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