Faith in the unknown

Published on 09 Aug 2019
A woman looking into the distance.

The unknown elements of our pilgrimage are as important as the known ones, writes Peter Gallagher SJ. He helps us reflect on the equal parts played by faith and uncertainty in our journey towards the city of God.

Abraham set out without knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11.8). The pilgrimage towards God is sure of its ultimate destination but has many uncertainties before that goal is reached. We are returning to God: this we know. How precisely he will draw us to himself, we do not know. The unknown elements of the pilgrimage are important. Our grace-driven efforts, although resolutely God-focused, must cope with the details, the twists and turns, as they emerge. God reveals himself to us in his providence by gradually unveiling for us our many unknown, intermediate destinations.

The city of God

They lived there in tents while he looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God (Hebrews 11.9-10). Abraham looked forward to living in the city of God, confident about its amenities. In that city all would be as God decrees. On the way to this delightful city, Abraham was content to make do with a tent. Heading towards his goal, he knew that tents were the only shelter on the road. In due course, his faith assured him, he would reach the city of God where the best kind of life could be lived. In the meantime, for Abraham, there was much that was unknown. It is the same for all persons of faith. The faithful do not revel in uncertainty. We are seeking knowledge of God and are very grateful for the understanding that has already been conferred on us.

Like Abraham we look forward to living in the city of God. There is a heavenly kingdom ahead of us.  Even now, our life is structured by obedience to the commandments and to the teachings of Jesus Christ. We are already founded, designed and built by God. Even in pilgrims’ tents, the manners of the city of God are already establishing themselves. Our faith is apparent in the way we organize our life: it is present in our families, households and communities; it is the vigour of the church.

National and local politics can appear to pay little attention to God, yet the ways of his city are not easily ignored, at least by us. He has created us. He has called us back to himself. It is natural for us to turn to him. Furthermore, our journey to God is not solitary but undertaken with others. The love, mutuality, justice and the hope of goodness which characterise the city of God are present already in the way we are trying to live as we wander with our tents. We do not know everything, but we are listening out for the directions and enlightenment being given to us along the way.

A life of watchfulness

Divine providence presides over our progress. God has a plan for us throughout the journey. The timing of our arrival in the holy city is under his control. We know that his providence underpins everything even as its details sometimes baffle us. There is a time for pilgrimage and for searching for God. There is a time placing our trust in our maker and for living in the tents of uncertainty. There is a time also for arriving at our destination, for finding God and for settling in his city. The Lord is with us throughout the whole progression. He guides us when we falter or are unsure. He also strengthens us in the truth. Our faith in him is the framework for our knowing and for our not knowing.

Jesus teaches us to be alert. For what are we on the watch? We are eager to hear God’s command for today. We gratefully catch his encouragement to press on towards our goal, the holy city. The Lord urges us to understand this mixture of knowing and not knowing as a life of watchfulness for his own return. The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Luke 12.40). One day he will return as judge. Meanwhile, he comes to our attention many times a day. He prompts our goodness. He accompanies us on the journey.

Trust in the unknown

The awaited moment when Christ will return definitively is prepared by the many welcomes to him on ordinary occasions through life. The final arrival at the city of God is anticipated by our continually acknowledging in the most practical ways that we are founded, designed and built by God. We do not know when the Lord will return but we do know that his return is certain. Happy those servants the master finds awake when he comes (Luke 12.43). Our being awake is shown by our living in accordance with what we have discovered to be true. Part of this truth, however, is our not knowing the day or hour of the great return.

We are learning all the time how to live in obedience to God. This knowing shapes our desires and our priorities. Where your treasure is there will your heart be also (Luke 12.34). We do not always know quite how to deal with the desire which arises in us sometimes to disobey God. We know the commandments of Jesus’ teaching but we do not know how to cope with that in ourselves which sometimes rejects the best understanding. At such moments, the vigilance required from us is an alertness to the arrival of a master who hurries towards us not only at the end of time but also right now in this crisis. The one we seek and need walks beside us.

The journey, undertaken in vigilant dialogue with our Lord Jesus Christ, is bringing us to the city of God. This road cannot avoid Calvary. However, if suffering and death are inescapable so also, if we keep close to our saviour, is glory. We know that he died and rose again. We know also that he is now with the Father and that the Holy Spirit is being sent to us. Beside this firm knowledge is all our fragility and the unreliability of our response. Even at our most hesitant, however, we know that faith frames both our knowledge and our uncertainty. The One who founded, designed and built us is drawing us to himself. The unknown One reveals himself. We trust him especially when we do not know. Our faith carefully encompasses both what is known and that which is as yet unknown.

Peter Gallagher SJ