There is a popular TV show called ‘What Would You Do?’ where unsuspecting people are recorded on hidden cameras reacting in what they think are real life moral dilemmas. Here is one scenario that I am pretty sure we will never see on that show: You are worshiping in your local church when suddenly a group of heavily armed masked men appear at all of the building entries and exits keeping anyone from leaving. The leader of the group announces that in order to leave with your life you must stand up and publicly denounce God. You must say that deep down in your heart you never believed in God, Jesus Christ as the Son of God or the Holy Spirit, in essence, that you are an atheist and always will be. He then says that those who do not make this proclamation will be summarily executed. To make his point he immediately shoots the priest and attending ministers.
Now this is a pretty extreme demonstration, but scenes like this have occurred throughout history. Religious persecution has been around for thousands of years – the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch burnings, and before he was transformed, St. Paul was actually a Jewish Pharisee and spent years hunting down and persecuting early Christian believers, some to death. To this very day Christian believers throughout the world are persecuted. We only hear about the more dramatic cases, like Archbishop Oscar Romero, but,
‘…According to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the official martyrology contains the names of 132 Catholics who have died for the faith since 2001. But this is not a complete list. Its 2005 report acknowledges that there are “many more possible ‘unknown soldiers of the faith’ in remote corners of the planet whose deaths may never be reported.”
Now if you call yourself a Christian you have certainly recited the Apostle’s Creed, in which there are a series of statements of belief that we attest to including the last two: The resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. (Amen.) Similar professions of faith also include acknowledgement of a life in the world to come – like the Catholic Creed of Nicea. So how many of us would recite those creeds with a gun to our head knowing that if we did, it would be the last thing uttered from our lips? Boy, that’s a real tough one. But countless others have done it (as 11 of the 12 Apostles died horrible deaths as martyrs) and do it to this day.
So what is the difference between us and them? What separates us from the saints and martyrs? Very simple it is a matter of fear and faith. Inside each of us there is a little meter that is always measuring the level of our fear versus our faith (or trust, or belief). I picture it as a formula where Fear + Faith = 100%. So the ratio between the two is such that as one increases, the other decreases. At the time of their deaths the saints and martyrs may have had a ratio of 10% Fear and 90% Faith, whereas on a really good day – like after a Lenten retreat my ratio might be 49%:51%. Get it? As Christians we are ever working to get our Faith Factor higher than our Fear Factor. Think of all of the things you first did based solely on faith: riding a bicycle without training wheels, going down a playground slide, swimming, or getting on an airplane or boat. That ratio of faith has to be just a little more than fear for a skydiver to jump out of a plane. Same thing when it comes to our greatest fear – death. I pity those that have 0% Faith Factor and are facing a grave illness or death itself. It must be agonizing. I mean, even Jesus expressed his own fear of death three times before he was crucified. Imagine those who have no faith at all!
It also explains our obsession with healthcare in this country; where close to a third of every dollar spent is spent on trying to keep us healthy or prolonging our lives beyond a reasonable quality of life. This is really telling for a country where approximately 75% of Americans say they believe in a life after death – a bit of a conflict in those numbers. So what are we so afraid about? What are we hanging on to? It’s the uncertainty. It’s a bird in the hand (this life) is worth two in the bush (the next). It’s the newborn baby crying as it leaves the comfort of its mother’s womb. It’s the true measure of our Christian belief.
So how do we get that Faith Factor up? Well, no big news here, just common sense. How do you become better at something? You practice and develop self-discipline over a significant period of time. You allow yourself to be changed. You learn all there is to know about the subject from its source (the Bible) and from experts. You hang around people that are more informed than you are on the matter. You avoid things that don’t get you to your goal. When you fall you get back up and start again. You stay focused. And most importantly, you ask for help. You ask for help from people who have what you want. And then you ask God. You pray and you pray some more and know that He is your God. Your prayer can be as simple as, ‘Lord, please help me with my non-belief.’ And do these things consistently over time and watch the hand of your Fear/Faith meter move ever so slightly towards the peace that the saints knew as they faced the end of their earthly existence.