Faith: The Size and Strength Tests

Is your faith big enough?

Is it strong enough?

The size test: Most of us have faith – we trust – in certain people. When I say “big” enough, I mean: if those people, for some reason or no reason, weren’t there for you, is there something bigger – wider, more encompassing – in which you could trust that would sustain you through difficult times?

Cognitively, we know that the universe is one big system of interconnected parts. All the parts are changing. If I say I have faith in the system as a whole – reality in its widest sense, encompassing all things seen and unseen – I don’t mean that I expect things to turn out well (“in the long run,” whatever that may mean). My own concepts of “well,” “better,” and “good” are products of my time, culture, and finite brain. Even if I could see the future a thousand or a million years hence, I don't imagine my limited concepts would be adequate to assess it. Still, it feels right to affirm the process, even if I don’t know where it’s headed. Reality is unfolding in a way that somehow feels good, even when its products don’t correspond to my conception of “good.” In this sense, I have faith in the universe.

This faith I described meets the size test. It’s big enough to withstand whatever disappointments, betrayals, and losses may come my way. I'd assess my faith as big enough -- and that's not something that's been true throughout my life. But is my faith strong enough? I don't know.

The size test is mostly cognitive: what do we tell ourselves about our own largest context of faith? Cognition is important and helpful – but limited.

The strength test. When the chips are down, we’ll need something more than cognition. We’ll also need a resilient limbic system. The limbic system generates our emotions and operates in ways often beyond conscious control. We’ll need the limbic system trained in the habits of faith: peace and an abiding capacity to sincerely love what is, whatever it is. The cognition learns quickly, but the emotions learn much more slowly. Moreover, the emotions aren’t very good at taking orders from the cognition: we will have limited success at trying to tell ourselves what to feel. Re-wiring the emotions may require therapy, and, in some cases (though probably not as many as we are often led to believe), may even need the assistance of prescription medications. One thing that helps all of us – whether we also go in for therapy or not – is spiritual practice. The daily exercising of faith strengthens the neurons that can’t be reached by rational thought.

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