Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to Build Unshakable Faith

Some people think that having faith means believing that God will protect them from pain and suffering. When tragedy or difficulty does occur, they question, “Where was God?” Shallow faith that is dependent on God meeting our expectations is easily uprooted by the inevitable whirlwinds of life. Our Creator never promised a pain-free life, that is not the purpose of this world. In contrast, with unshakable faith, we can skillfully move through any challenge, emerging stronger and with a deeper connection to our Father in Heaven. We can embody the verse (Psalms 112:7), “Of evil news – he is not afraid. His heart is steadfast, trusting in God.”

We build unshakable faith by maintaining balance in three key areas. (1) Believing that all our challenges are from God, for our ultimate good; without veering off into blaming Him, others or ourselves. (2) Knowing that we have the God given ability to handle whatever He gives us, by making reasonable efforts and perhaps asking others for help or advice; without veering off into acts of desperation or making no attempts at all. (3) Asking God to guide us and trusting that He will; without veering off into thinking that we are alone or do not need Him.

Each one of these three keys, which lay the foundation for rock solid faith, can be illustrated by the metaphor of life as a symphony conducted by God, the Master Composer. (1) He lovingly wrote the melody to heal the souls who play its notes. (2) He gave you a part which brings out your abilities and (3) He is guiding you throughout. Occasionally the music is scary, at times sad, other times joyous, but always sublime – in a manner beyond our ability to comprehend.

Our instinctual response is to look at the immediate cause of difficulties in our lives, e.g., ourselves, family members or others, and lay blame at their doorstep. The reality is that the Creator is the ultimate cause of everything: Our successes, failures and challenges, all come from Him. Nothing and no one can harm or help us without our Creator’s permission.

God not only created us, He continually creates our experiences. King David urges us (Psalms 118:24), “This is the day God has made; let us rejoice and be happy on it.” When we believe that God makes every day of our lives – that each one is custom made for us to reach our highest potential – then we will be able to rejoice and be happy throughout our lives. Yes, there will be times of sadness and sorrow, but those times will be amidst a backdrop of feeling cared for and loved by our Father in Heaven.

Whatever occurs, whether seemingly due to circumstance, our own efforts, or those of others, is in truth the will of God, for our eternal good. As Jeremiah said, (Lamentations 3:37), “Whose decree was ever fulfilled, if the Lord did not will it?”

The more we believe this, the less we will be bitter over the past, dissatisfied with the present or worry about the future. We will be able to accept a situation without being angry with others or berating ourselves over normal human error. We realize that God is guiding our lives for our highest good; the actions of others and our own mistakes are just the implements He uses to bring about His desired result. (At the same time, we are held accountable for the consequences of either sinful or neglectful behavior.) People of faith live with peace of mind. They forgive the past, accept the present and look forward to and plan for a better future.

When we believe that our successes come only from God, we will not engage in dishonest acts to try to get ahead. Such behavior is not only forbidden, it is foolish and self-destructive; whatever gains people ascribe to underhanded actions, they will either eventually lose or they would have received any way through permitted means. In addition, because they utilized forbidden methods, unless they make amends, they stand to lose even that which they were destined to receive (Chafetz Chayim, Kuntres Sfat Tamim). Ironically, the very ill-gotten gains which people ran after, later become the instrument of their suffering and misfortune.

It is far better to have only “kosher” assets – even if they are few – than to temporarily have more assets which are “treif.” A person will see no lasting joy from ill-gotten gains; they only leave harm and destruction in their wake.

When we trust in God, we will not act out of desperation and try to force an issue to improve. (This frequently only worsens the situation, or we end up spinning our wheels and get burned out and bitter.) We understand that making more than reasonable efforts will not help us, e.g., we will not find a job or marriage partner faster, earn more money or recover from an illness quicker. God has a timetable for when we will receive our blessings – provided we do our part and ask for His assistance. A poor job market, few potential dates, a sluggish economy or lack of access to top medical care, will not hold Him back from giving us what is in our best interest.

Our efforts do not bring success; God brings success. He requires that we make reasonable efforts as a condition for receiving His blessings. Since our efforts have no direct bearing on the results God gives us, we engage in those efforts calmly. We do not frantically try to control the course of events, as the outcome of our efforts is completely in God's hands.

The potent tools of repentance, prayer and charity

If making more material effort than what is expected of us will not help, is there anything we can do to improve our situation?

The Sages say yes, by engaging in repentance, prayer and charity. How do these work if we believe that our current circumstance is for the best?

One answer given is that yes, all is for the best – for our current state. But we can upgrade our ability to receive Divine blessing. Perhaps these three practices enable us to receive greater abundance because they teach us three crucial lessons:

(1) We learn from repentance – correcting our missteps – that our blessings must be used with the guidelines outlined by the One who gave them to us. (As opposed to using them in ways our Creator has forbidden.)

(2) We learn from prayer that all blessings come only from God. (As opposed to thinking that our superiority is the source of our success.)

(3) We learn from the requirement to give charity that abundance must be shared with others. (As opposed to thinking that to preserve abundance, we have to hoard it for ourselves.)

Every act of repentance, prayer and charity is never wasted and will stand by us in this world and/or the World to Come. There are times when even after strengthening our ability to handle Divine gifts and making material efforts, the blessing we seek is not forthcoming. This is either because the right time has not yet arrived, or our Creator has decided that it is not for our highest good.

With this in mind, we make reasonable efforts to bring blessing into our lives, while at the same time realizing that if we do not have a specific blessing, by definition it is not currently needed to fulfill our life’s purpose. Even if we do not receive a particular blessing in this world, we will receive what is truly good for us in the World to Come.

Common pitfalls
There are a number of pitfalls to be wary of when working on strengthening our faith. One is getting caught up in wanting a specific end result. For example, we may think, “I have faith in God that this job, doctor or date will be the one for me.” That is not having faith in God; that is having faith in our limited intelligence. How do we know this is the right one? When we put our hopes in a specific result, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Faith is acknowledging that only God knows what is best for us. We do what we can and accept as His will the outcome of our efforts. When we let go of attachment to a specific result, realizing that whatever happens will be for the best, we achieve equanimity.

Being dissatisfied with our current life circumstance can be a sign that we need to strengthen our faith. Be wary of thoughts that begin with, “If only…” Or, “I wish…” It is important to plan and set goals for a better future. At the same time, people with strong faith unconditionally accept and embrace their current situation, making the most of it and trusting that right now this is the optimal circumstance for them.

We often think of building faith as a purely intellectual exercise, that if we learn enough about faith, we will eventually have it. But when it comes to faith, the question is not how much do we know, it is how much have we internalized?

Faith is mainly in the heart. An example of faith and trust is what is felt by children toward their parents. They may not even be aware of this trust on an intellectual level, but they feel it in their hearts.

Moses highlighted the importance of the heart when he said (Deuteronomy 4:39), “Today, you should know and bring it into your heart, that Hashem is God in heavens above, and on the earth below. There is no other.”

Each day, pick at least one challenge and using the exercise below, speak to yourself words of faith. Then, through the grace of God, one day it will dawn on you that God really is guiding your life; that in the end, everything really will work out. When you have this shift in perspective, you will feel a sense of release, a letting go, a lightening of a burden you have been carrying for a long time. You will realize that you can, “Cast your burden on God, and He will carry you…(Psalms 55:23)”

Addendum: Faith building exercise

Pick a difficulty in your life – start with a mild one. When you think about this challenge, contemplate, or speak out loud to yourself, the following points:

1. This is from God for my eternal benefit. Part of fulfilling my life’s purpose is doing what I can to overcome and grow from this challenge.

2. This will work out in the end; either in this world or in the next.

3. God is with me, giving me the strength and courage I need to triumph.

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