Faith in God’s providence can help us reflect with clarity on the evil of the war in Ukraine, and on all evils we confront in this life. The Old Testament story of Joseph illustrates the importance of faith in the midst of human evils. Joseph the son of Jacob, after accomplishing a reconciliation with his estranged brothers, looks back on his life of tragedy and subsequent rise to prominence in Egypt and says to his brothers: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Wrapped in the wickedness of envy, Joseph’s brothers threw him into a well; he was brought to Egypt as a slave; and was cast into prison due to the vengeful lust of Potiphar’s wife. But he was raised out of those depths to advise Pharaoh and, by God’s gift to interpret dreams, provide for the entire land and surrounding nations through years of famine. Even directly malicious actions, over time, can begin a series of events ordered by God’s providential goodness.
But even before the ‘happy ending,’ it is important to be sustained by a lively faith, from start to finish. In his fourth meditation for Good Friday, Newman reminds us that Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of faith, the origin and the climax, the alpha and the omega. This is an important reminder since, for the Christian, Good Friday is the worst, most evil, most calamitous day in all of history–the day that our sins crucified our loving Creator, Lord, and Savior. But what we intended for evil, God turned into good–literally, his death became the source of our life, for time and eternity. In Christ all things will be “gathered up;’ he is the master and goal and summation of all history, personal, national and global (Ephesians 1:10). To have faith means that we actively find ourselves within this grand story. As children of the family of God, we must trust that God is in control, and that his benevolent providence will always outlast, conquer, and transform even the vilest of human or natural evils. Life rarely gives us circumstances that we expect: failure, misery, suffering in body and mind, disappointment, or death. We rarely anticipate the amount of effort it will take to truly overcome discouragement. But an active faith is the “instrument” of our salvation, God’s appointed means by which we can accomplish the good of His Will for us, which often looks, in this life, like patiently bearing with evil and wrong.
Faith is a gift from God. He gives it, sustains it, and perfects it. Faith is not a “blind trust,” but is a type of “reasoning” that makes a willed judgment to trust based on the authority and past actions of the person being trusted (Oxford University Sermon 12). Faith is not fideism or quietism or doing nothing as we wait on God to intervene. Faith is perfectly compatible with obedience (Lecture on Justification 1; cf. Romans 1:5, 16:26). Who would say that a child trusted in, or was faithful to, her parent while she disobeyed? Faith is a certain assurance that God is who He is, and that the situations He has given to me are for my ultimate good, ordered to my salvation, and a part of His holy and mysterious Will. Faith is a full submission of our wills to God’s will.
Faith is a unique kind of judgment, but not opposed to reason. Newman calls it a reasoning “upon antecedent grounds;” faith is not a kind of reasoning that is formed from demonstration or testing of hypotheses or absolute knowledge of the future. Faith is a kind of assumption, but a good assumption: an assumption that a good God will remain good, a just and merciful God will bring about justice and mercy, an all-powerful God will one day make all things new, and that he orders all things to this end. By God’s grace we are not left without proof of this: the Scriptures record God’s faithful ordering of events in the midst of infidelity and calamity, Church History displays His providence in history, and our own minds, given time for reflection, can rekindle in us memories of times gone by when God’s work or faithfulness was evident in people, circumstances, and happy little coincidences.
While God remains faithful, our faith can fail. Faith can err into faithlessness on the one hand or superstition on the other. Faith is not trusting ourselves to the exclusion of God, but it is also not trusting God to the exclusion of moral action in the world and in prayer. Faith is not a way to magically manipulate God to bring about favorable circumstances according to our own wills. Newman’s wonderful, but dense, Oxford University Sermon 12 draws this out: the highest virtue of love secures faith from falling into these extremes, because kindling a true Love for God and neighbor will awaken in us a full trust in His holy Will and true desire to carry it out despite the costs and difficulties. A man truly in love with his wife will not only honor and do what she says, but will do so in the face of all odds, difficulties and dangers. Shakespeare has it right in his Sonnet 116: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds…” Just so, faith is not faith that quails when it faces trials.
Yet if we sin against faith, whether through faithlessness, despair, superstition or presumption, God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It is in this spirit that Newman concludes his meditation with a prayer for unbelievers, for forgiveness of those who “know not what they do,” who think truth is error and error is truth. Maintaining our own saving faith in God allows us to authentically, in accord with God’s Will, pray for that same faith to be extended to others.
God permits, but does not directly cause, evil because of some greater good it may bring about. The war in Ukraine is unjust; it is against the will of God. And yet, by God’s will, one can imagine the thousands or millions of suffering and fleeing peoples who, perhaps, when faced with such temporal uncertainty, will seek and long for a greater eternal certainty. Who knows what kinds of conversions may take place in the midst of such an upheaval? Who knows in what unexpected ways the Church may–as she has done through countless calamities in human history caused by evil rulers–be transformed from ashes, rubble and blood into something even more glorious? Let us pray first for our own lively faith to be fully nourished, and then also for the people of Ukraine and Russia, and all who suffer from oppressive violence, that they too may be given the gift of faith in God’s mercy.