“Sometimes I struggle in understanding God or some of the teachings of the Church. Does this mean I’ve lost my faith? How does one lose faith? Can faith be restored if it has been lost?”
If understanding certain aspects of the Faith is a struggle you are certainly not alone. As a matter of fact, you are in very good company indeed! Blessed John Henry Newman’s “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt” has become quite famous, and follows faithfully in the tradition of spiritual and intellectual giants of the Faith no less than St. Anselm whose motto was “faith seeking understanding” – which is to say, any genuine belief in God, or even a desire to believe in God, will necessarily seek a deeper knowledge of God.
Let me present a few ideas that may be helpful at least when considered in relation to one another.
As small children we learn to understand things largely by imagining them. The pictures we form ‘in our heads’ serve to demonstrate to our understanding ‘how things work’ or what a thing is ‘like’. The time comes however when our mental picturing making ability is no longer adequate to deal with more and more complex ideas. Imagining how “2 dots plus 2 dots make 4 dots” is very easy to mentally picture, and being able to picture the equation satisfies our understanding. But how about 734 dots plus 388 dots? You learn how ‘to do the math’ – but you can’t picture it accurately anymore. When our minds are asked to deal with the abstract or the spiritual our imaginative powers are only that – our imaginings.
When imagination fails as it eventually must, we are left with the need to understand things by experiment and our own experience – or by faith. When I was in Fourth Grade the class memorized the Gettysburg Address and we recited it every morning. We were told that President Lincoln originally delivered this short speech on November 19, 1863. None of us had any doubt about that date, and while we may have taken it for granted that our teacher knew this because she was there for the original (or so innocent fourth graders believe), the fact is she had complete confidence in this date just as we did, in spite of the fact that she certainly was not there. She had ‘faith’ in her reference books. And the authors of those reference books had faith in their sources. In real life we take almost everything by faith. Life would be unlivable otherwise. In cases like these we are talking about a natural faith in the credibility of other human beings. God’s credibility, the authority of His Revelation is of an infinitely higher and we believe His Word not after we have ‘proved it to ourselves to our own satisfaction’ – but based on His infinitely greater reliability. Faith seeks understanding. Faith is not the same thing as understanding – Faith is taking God’s word for it because He is worthy of belief. As the Catechism so well puts it:
What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” So “that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.” (# 156)
There is a great deal that we can gradually understand by study – but the mysteries of faith are revealed truths that surpass the powers of natural reason, and therefore they always continue to be ‘beyond us’ as well.
Losing faith? I don’t think it gets lost. I think it shrivels away from neglect and malnourishment, or dies of abuse. Faith is malnourished when we neglect to ‘seek understanding’ by study – however informal, and living in accord with our faith. Faith is being abused when we willfully refuse belief for our own perverse reasons “in spite of external proofs and internal helps”. Fortunately, however, the grace of supernatural Faith can be restored to life by God in the confessional.
Protecting faith? Accept mystery and your own limitations. Accept the need and duty to grow in faith by sincere study and ‘faith-filled living’.