Strengthening Our Faith: on the Beginning of the Apostles’ Fast

If you ask: ‘What would you say is the worst sin?’, one person will answer murder, another robbery, a third cruelty and a fourth treachery. But in fact the worst sin is lack of faith, because that is what gives rise to cruelty and treachery and adultery and robbery and murder and any other sin you care to name.

Sin is not an act; an act is the consequence of a sin, just as a cough is not an illness, but a consequence of it. It very often happens that a person has not killed or robbed anyone, he has not done anything cruel and so has a high opinion of himself, but what he does not know is that his sin is worse than murder, worse than robbery, because he lacks the main thing in life.

Lack of faith is the state of the soul when you do not feel God. It is connected with a lack of gratitude towards God. It is not only those who completely deny God’s existence who are infected with it, it is all of us. Like any mortal sin, lack of faith blinds people. If you ask someone a question, shall we say, about Higher Maths, they may answer: ‘That’s not my speciality, I don’t know anything about it’. If you ask them about cooking, they may answer: ‘I don’t even know how to make soup, it’s not one of my skills’. But when the conversation turns to faith, then everyone has an opinion. One says, I think this, another says, I think that. One says: ‘You don’t need to keep the fasts’. Another says: ‘My grandmother was a believer and she did like this, so that’s the way you need to do it’. And everyone starts judging and ordering, even though in most cases they do not understand anything about anything.

When it comes to matters of faith, why is it that everyone has to try and put forward some silly opinion? Why is it that people suddenly start to become experts in such matters? Why are they sure that everyone understands and knows about faith? Because everyone thinks that he believes to the extent that he needs to believe. In actual fact, this is not at all the case and it is a very simple matter to prove it. The Gospel says: If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move hence to yonder place’, and it will move. If you cannot see this, it means that you do not even have faith like a grain of mustard seed. Since people are blind, they think that they believe enough, but in fact they cannot even do such a little thing as move a mountain, which cannot be done without faith. And all our misfortunes come from lack of faith.

When our Lord walked on the water, Peter, who loved no-one on earth as much as Christ, wanted to walk over to Him and said: ‘Bid me come unto Thee’. The Lord said, ‘Come’. And Peter also walked on the water, but then he was afraid for a moment, doubted, began to drown and called out: ‘Lord, save me, I am perishing’. At first he gathered up all his faith and insofar as that was enough for him, he walked, but then when his reserve had dried up, he began to drown.

And it is the same with us. Who among us does not know that God exists? Everybody knows that. Who does not know that God listens to our prayers? Everybody knows that. God is everywhere, wherever we are. He hears every word we say. We know that God is good. Today’s Gospel has even confirmed this and our whole life shows how He is merciful to us. Our Lord Jesus Christ says that that if our son asks for bread, surely we will not give him a stone, or if he asks for fish, surely we will not give him a serpent. Who among us could do such things? Nobody. And yet we are bad people. So surely God, Who is good, would not do such things?
And yet we are always complaining, always moaning, never agreeing with this or that. The Lord tells us that the way into the Kingdom of Heaven passes through many sufferings, but we do not believe it. We always want to be healthy, happy, we all want to settle down and be happy on earth. The Lord says that only those who follow after Him and take up their crosses will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so once again we are discontent, again we want our own way, even though we think we are believers. Purely theoretically, we know that the Gospel contains the truth, however our whole life is against it. Often we have no fear of God because we forget that the Lord is always with us, always watching over us. This is why we fall into sin so easily, we condemn so easily, wish others evil so easily, neglect others so easily, insulting them and offending them.

In theory, we know that there is an omnipresent God, but our heart is far from Him, we do not feel Him, it seems to us that God is somewhere out there, in endless space and He cannot see us or know us. Lack of faith is not only the domain of those who deny God; it penetrates deeply into our lives. This is why we are often depressed, why we panic, we do not know what to do; tears choke us, but these are not tears of repentance, they do not cleanse us from sin – these are tears of despair because we forget that the Lord can see everything; we are angry, we moan, we are indignant.

Why do we want to force all those close to us to go to church, to pray and take communion? It is from a lack of faith, because we forget that God wants the same. We forget that God wants everyone to be saved and looks after everyone. It seems to us that there is no God, that everything depends on our own efforts and we start to persuade, to tell, to explain and only make things worse because only the Holy Spirit can attract to the Kingdom of Heaven, and we do not have Him. Therefore all we do is annoy people, keep on at them, bother them, bore them, torment them, on the pretext of doing good we make their lives hellish.

We destroy the precious gift that is given us – the gift of freedom. With all our pretensions we want to remake everything into our own image and likeness, and not into the image of God, we restrict the freedom of others and do our best to force them to think as we think – this is not on. We can reveal the truth to those who ask about it, if they want to discover it, but we constantly force it on them. In this there is no humility at all, it means there is no grace of the Holy Spirit. And without the grace of the Holy Spirit there will be no result, or rather there will be one – but the opposite of the result we wanted.

And it is always the same thing. The reason lies in lack of faith – lack of trust, lack of faith in God, lack of faith in His good Providence, in the love of God, in the fact that He wants to save everyone. If we did believe in Him, we would act differently, we would simply ask Him. Why do people go to fortune-tellers and psychics? Because they do not believe in God, in the Church, they do not believe in the power of grace. First of all, they do the rounds of all the magicians, wizards and psychics and if they don’t help, then they turn to God: perhaps that will help. And then the most amazing thing happens – it does help.

If somebody kept on neglecting us and then started asking us for things, we would say: you know what, this is wrong, all your life you have treated me like dirt and now you come asking for help? But the Lord is merciful. The Lord is meek, the Lord is humble. This is why, whatever the path we have pursued, whatever the mess we have made, if we turn to God from our hearts, if, as they say, the worst comes to the worst, the Lord will still help us because He is just waiting for us to pray to Him.

The Lord said: ‘Whatever you ask the Father in My Name, He will give you’, but we do not believe it. We do not believe in our own prayer, or that God hears us, we don’t believe in anything. This is why we feel so empty, why our prayer does not seem to work, it is not only that we cannot move mountains, we cannot guide anyone at all. If we really believed in God, then we could direct people onto the right path. And the ability to direct people onto the right path is possible only through prayer, because that shows love. Prayer to God is a mystery, there is no violence in it, only supplication: O Lord, guide, help, heal and save.

If we did things this way, then we would be very successful. But we all rely on talk, that somehow we will guide ourselves, that we will keep something back for a rainy day. He who waits for a rainy day will certainly find it. Whatever the case, without God, we will never achieve anything, which is why the Lord says: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all this will be added unto you’. But we do not believe this. Our lives are not directed towards the Kingdom of God, they are directed towards people, towards human relations, towards how we can settle down in the here and now. We want to satisfy our own pride, our own vanity, our own ambition. If we were aiming for the Kingdom of Heaven, then we would rejoice when we are oppressed and when we are offended, because this is what helps us ascend into the Kingdom of Heaven. We would rejoice at illness, but instead we complain and dread it. We fear death, we all strive to prolong our existence, but again not for the sake of the Lord, not for the sake of repentance, but because of our own lack of faith, from fear.

The sin of lack of faith has penetrated very deeply into us and we have to fight it very hard. We talk of ‘the exploit of faith’, because only faith can inspire us to real exploits. And if when there come up in life certain situations which give us the opportunity to act either in God’s way or else in man’s way, if on each occasion we act with courage, according to our faith, then our faith will grow, it will be strengthened.

If we pick up a weight ten times a day and after a month measure our muscle, we will see that it has increased in size. After a year it will be bigger still. It is the same with faith: if we do something every day, not because of our feelings, not because of our reasonings, but from our faith, then faith will grow inside us. Someone annoys me with his stupid behaviour, I am absolutely fed up with him. What can I do? I want to avoid him or say something nasty to him, something which means he will never bother me again. As a sinful person, that is what I want to do, but how must I act according to faith? In faith I have to think like this: Why does the Lord send me this person every day, why has He given me this cross? Why does life oblige me to come up against him all the time? So that I can learn patience, so that I can obtain humility through patience. This means that I will bear with it for a year or two, or three, or four, or ten, until I become completely humble, until I stop being annoyed by this.

And if we always act according to faith, refusing to express our annoyance, but on the contrary we keep the feeling inside us and we ask God: O Lord, help me, give me the patience to hold it in, not to be rude or abrupt, somehow give me the strength to bear this little trial, if we do this for a day, a week, a month, a year, or for ten years, then just as the muscle is strengthened and becomes more powerful, so our faith will be strengthened too. And when some really serious trial comes up in life, then we will be able to resist through faith; we will not reject the Lord, or faith, or the Kingdom of Heaven.

If a sportsman who has been training his body his whole life is attacked by robbers and runs away from them, the robbers who smoke like chimneys and drink like fish will only manage to run after him for a few yards before they give up. The man has been saved – the fact that he did a lot of sport has come in useful. This is why when we put up with, say, something that annoys us, or we constantly fight against our greed or carry out some other act which demands willpower, we are not acting according to our feelings, but according to our faith, to the way a Christian should act, it is not in vain. We are preparing ourselves for a more serious test, the main trial – death. Before death we face many trials and as our faith grows, so they will grow.

At University you have to take exams at the end of each year and they get harder and harder. Then you have to take your final exams before you get your degree. These final exams are our death, but even before them we have to pass a great many other exams. And the more our faith grows, the more it will be tested by God, because how else can a person be known?

There was an incident in the life of St Spiridon of Trimifundis: he arrived at the Cathedral, but the caretaker would not let him in. He said: ‘Why won’t you let me in? I’m a bishop’. But he was dressed as a simple shepherd because his job was to look after cows, that was how he earned his living. The caretaker hit him and Spiridon turned the other cheek. The caretaker said: ‘Now I see that you are a bishop, you can go in’. That was his pass. It was immediately clear that he was a Christian. You do not need any documents to show that you are a believer. You need no document to say that you are a Christian, no photo with a beard and a moustache or a stamp. A Christian’s identity can be proved without a document.

The only document is whether people live according to God’s commandments or not. And isn’t that difficult! Some simple layman smacks a bishop around the face. According to the canons he who hits a bishop is excommunicated. In other words Bishop Spiridon could have excommunicated the man for his insult to his position in the Church and nobody could have objected to it. But he meekly forgave him straightaway, turned the other cheek and entered the Cathedral and everything turned out well and he healed the man and he repented. This is a Christian act. And our Christian life and our faith will be strengthened, but only if we act in a Christian way.

For the moment none of us is a Christian, we are only disciples and we are only trying to live in a Christian way. But if we want to become Christians, then we constantly have to carry out Christian acts in word and thought and deed. A thought comes into your mind, if you are not a Christian, and you pursue it until the next one comes. Usually if you are not trying to live a Christian life, some sort of cinema is constantly going on in your head: first you thought this, then you thought that, then you looked at this, then at that. You see someone who is well-dressed, you feel envy. You see someone in a car, you think how he’s polluting the air. You see a beautiful face – that means some other thoughts. And so your mind keeps drifting off the whole time. But the Christian must constantly fight these thoughts. Whenever we cut off a sinful thought, we are committing a moral act. Nobody sees this act, except our Father Who is in Heaven. And, seeing what is hidden, the Lord will always reward us with something that can be seen – He strengthens our faith.

It is not so hard to cut off a thought, this is a minor exploit, but you have still bent your arm, you have still exercised the muscle of your soul, the muscle of your faith. Only in this way can you strengthen your faith. As any sportsman knows, however much you show off your muscle, if you do not train for a year, then everything disappears. Those who take up a sport must go on with it to the end of their days, otherwise they will turn into huge, sluggish hulks and their livers, lungs, blood vessels and hearts will be ruined. It is the same thing in Christian life. God forbid that anyone attempt the experiment of starting and then stopping praying in the morning and the evening even for three or four days. On the fifth day reading your prayer rule will be forty times harder than when you were tired and then gave up, all because your soul has grown feeble.

Therefore, if we are to strengthen our faith, we must constantly exercise ourselves in prayer, in reading the word of God. We constantly have to force ourselves. Tirelessly, whether I want to or not, whether I can or can’t, I have to force myself to go to church. Tired or not, busy or not, a certain time has passed, so I have to force myself to prepare for communion and partake of Christ’s Holy Mysteries. Whatever the situation, however much you want to commit a sin, you have to force yourself to act in a Christian way, regardless of what you feel and think. God’s commandment exists – do it. And gradually we shall see that it becomes easier and easier to live by the commandments, and then we will feel that it is impossible for us to commit a sin: we have grown so used to living by the commandments that it has even become hard for us to sin, we will even be unable to force ourselves to do it – the habit of living a Christian life has grown up in us. This is how our faith develops.

Each of us has to be a rock. The Lord called Peter a rock: in Greek ‘petros’ means ‘a rock’. ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church’. It is the same with us. If we want to be temples of the Holy Spirit, houses of God, then we must of necessity strengthen our faith and constantly battle against the lack of faith in our souls, not relying on others, but only on the One God Himself. We need to turn to Him constantly. Only in such a way can we save ourselves from this destructive sin of lack of faith, which is in each of us, but is present so faintly that we cannot see it. And that is why it is so extremely dangerous. Amen.

Translated from the Russian.

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