What is faith? What do we mean when we say that we have it?
Having faith means believing in something without any hard evidence. For instance, I do not need faith to know that two plus two equals four because it can be proven to me. However, I do need faith to believe God exists because it cannot be proven.
Faith, however, also means something more. It means trust. It means not only knowing that God exists, but loving him and placing our lives in his hands.
Because faith is both belief and trust, it can be at work in our lives on two levels.
On the first level, we accept certain truths of Catholic teaching. For instance, we believe that God exists, that we should go to Mass on Sundays or that babies should be baptized. This is a faith of the head, an intellectual faith, dealing mainly with doctrines and catechism. It is a faith of belief which is centered on facts and data. Most people have at least this level of faith at work in their lives.
However, there is a deeper level of faith which not only agrees that God exists and that he loves everyone, but believes it so deeply that it changes the way a person thinks, acts and speaks. If the first level of faith is a faith of the head, this second level is a faith of the heart, a faith that drives us to believe with our whole being. People who have been given such faith love everyone because they believe that God loves everyone. They forgive whomever may hurt them because they believe that God forgives all wrongs. This level of faith goes beyond mere belief in God to trust in God. People who have such a gift of faith are willing to stake their lives on what they believe, not just their intellect or their opinions.
It is this second level of faith that James describes in today's second reading. When he says that faith without works is dead, he means that if our beliefs do not lead us to change the way we live, then our faith has no power to save us. If it is not making a difference in the choices we make, then we really do not have it. We all know this from our personal lives. People may tell us they love us. But we know that our true friends are the ones who stand by us in the bad times as well as the good times. It is the actions of our friends that reveal whether or not they have love for us in their hearts. Just so, it is our actions that reveal whether or not our faith is real.
In today's gospel reading, both levels of faith -faith of the head and faith of the heart - are tested in Peter. When Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter alone has the right answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." But when Jesus pushes beyond this faith of the head to see if he has a deeper faith of the heart, Peter flunks. Peter could not accept that being the Messiah meant that Jesus would have to suffer. Though in his head he could believe that Jesus was the Son of God, in his heart he was not ready to accept the consequences.
As with Peter, it is suffering oftentimes which tests on what level our faith is operating. It is natural to want to avoid suffering and even more natural to not want to see the people we love suffer. Sometimes, however, suffering is unavoidable. It is at those moments that our faith is tested. Faith that is merely at the level of the head will not be able to survive the ordeals of disease, divorce or death. It takes a faith of the heart to continue to believe that God loves us no matter what difficulties we or our loved ones face. The good news is that God uses suffering not only to test the faith we already have, but to offer us a deeper faith. If we can accept difficulties with patience, God can make the faith in our head trickle down into our heart. That way, we can learn to trust that no matter how senseless our suffering may seem, God still loves us and can still make all things work for our good.
Suffering is very often an inevitable part of life. Jesus came not to take our suffering away but to suffer with us and to make our suffering an opportunity to have a deeper faith of the heart. And so Jesus says to all of us who want to follow him: "Pick up your cross and follow me. Pick up your suffering and follow me. Pick up your loneliness and follow me. Pick up your broken marriage and follow me. Pick up your failed business and follow me." These difficulties need not be obstacles in following Jesus, but they are the ways God uses to help us grow in holiness and trust. It is the way God uses to place in our hearts a faith that can really save us.