“How long, Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen; to cry ‘Oppression!’ in your ear, and you will not save?” Experience teaches us that faith, the surrender of ourselves to God, comes relatively easily in good times. When life’s current seems to turn against us, surrounding us with uncertainty and self-doubt, faith comes less easily. Such was the experience of the Prophet Habakkuk, who preached in Jerusalem in the years immediately preceding the catastrophic destruction of the city and the deportation of its citizens.
The prophet had witnessed the moral disintegration of the people and lived through the uncertainty that Babylon’s mounting power held over Jerusalem and its future. His despairing cry – “How long am I to cry for help while you will not listen?” – graphically illustrates the fragility that threatens to overwhelm faith when we are at our most vulnerable.
The response that Habakkuk received was a call both to patience and renewed faith: “Write the vision down, inscribe it on tablets to be easily read. If it comes slowly, wait, for come it will, without fail.”
The detail of the vision was not important. What was important was the call to believe, despite the darkness that lay ahead, that the God of Israel would carry his people through the approaching catastrophe. We are not saved by the robustness of our faith, but by the faithfulness with which we surrender our future to God and his saving will. “See, how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.”
The plight of the Prophet Habakkuk in his troubled times leads into the Gospel and the request put to Jesus by his Apostles: “Increase our faith.”
It is refreshing to discover that the Apostles, no less than ourselves, were only too aware of faith’s fragility. Jesus fully appreciated the vulnerability of our humanity and its sometimes tenuous hold on faith. Such understanding was reflected in his response. “Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.”
Jesus was explaining to his apostles what faith truly means. Faith is not a trust in what we, limited as we are, can achieve. It is a trust in what God can bring about in our lives. However frail our surrender to God, be it as insignificant as a mustard seed, it opens the future to the possibilities of his saving will.
The words that follow Our Lord’s teaching on faith, disturbing though they appear at first sight, illustrate faith’s deepest truth. It is uncomfortable to hear Jesus seemingly indifferent to the labours of a faithful servant who receives no recognition for his labours. In fact, Jesus seemed quite dismissive. “When you have done all you have been told to do, say: ‘We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’”
Instinctively we relate to the patient servant and feel that his labours should be rewarded. Such a mindset, transferred to the life of faith, would trap us into the illusion that we can, from our frailty, earn our salvation! The glorious truth is that we cannot, any more than the servant coming in from the field, earn salvation: it is the Father’s gift to those who entrust themselves to his Son Jesus Christ.