How can one be a faithful Christian amidst a godless culture?
It’s a question that presses upon us today with renewed urgency. But it is not a new question. It is one that confronted the earliest Christians in the waning years of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine tackled the issue in his magnum opus, The City of God. Centuries later, great saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas were still grappling with it.
Society seems to always be sliding away from God, even those that are nominally Christian. The challenge is thus one that all of us must always face anew—whether in a society of apostates, atheists, or idolaters.
The ancient Israelites also struggled with the same fundamental problem of how to be faithful to God when the surrounding society had turned its back on Him. The problem was no less acute for Daniel and his three companions living in exile in Babylon than it was for Moses dealing with the faithless and idolatrous Israelites during the exodus. Their examples offer us fresh new ways of thinking about our calling as Christians, equally applicable to those who live in cloisters as those who work in cubicles.
How can we live out our faith in society? Here are five Old Testament models.
1. The man in the breach. Moses was many things to the ancient Israelites. In Psalm 106:23, he is described as the man who “stood in the breach,” preventing God from destroying the Israelites after they had worshipped the golden calf (Douay-Rheims). Moses acted as an intercessor on behalf of the Israelites, pleading with God to spare their lives in spite of their sin. The metaphor of the breach is an apt one: intercessors do not merely intervene on behalf of another. They stand in the gap, so to speak, between those being saved the one who has the power to save or destroy. By so doing, they bring the two closer together. This is, after all, what the ultimate mediator, Christ, did: He saved us by bringing us into communion with God.
Following the example of Moses, how can we be intercessors for others today? For some, it may mean praying for another. For others, it may involve active works of mercy—staging an intervention or warning someone against a poor choice. Sometimes it may simply mean bringing God’s presence to a person’s life. Whatever it is, all of us have opportunities to be the man (or the woman) in the breach.
2. The disturber. Elijah was not very popular in the court of Ahab, the Israelite king who married Jezebel and started worshipping Baal. We first meet Elijah in 1 Kings 17, where he proclaims a drought upon the land. In the next chapter, Elijah challenges the 450 priests of Baal to a sacrifice-off: both would sacrifice bulls, Elijah would call on God and the priests would invoke Baal. Whoever responded with fire, Elijah said, would be God. The priests call on Baal. No response. Call louder … perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened, Elijah taunted them. The priests whip themselves up into such frenzy they even start cutting themselves. Still nothing.
Of course, when Elijah calls on God, fire storms down from the sky, consuming the whole altar—in spite of the water he had poured over it. It’s hard to imagine a more annoying figure to someone like the idolatrous Ahab. No wonder the king addressed him 1 Kings 18:17 as “you, you disturber of Israel” (NAB, Rev. Ed.). In a sense, we are all called to be ‘disturbers.’ The Catholic faith in one true God, Who became fully man while remaining fully divine, Who died on the cross and then was resurrected, Who founded one true, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—these have always been ‘disturbing’ truths.
3. The watchman. Ezekiel 33 describes the role of a watchman in an ancient city: he stood guard, presumably on the outer wall, keeping an eye out for a coming attack. When the watchman “sees the sword coming … he should blow the trumpet to warn the people.” If they ignore the warning, they are at fault. If, however, the watchman fails to sound the trumpet, he is responsible. God then tells Ezekiel: “I have made thee a watchman to the house of Israel: therefore, thou shalt hear the word from my mouth, and shalt tell it them from me” (verse 7, Douay-Rheims). But Ezekiel’s task was not to warn of coming invaders. Instead, he was to speak out only when he heard the voice of God warning the wicked they would die. Ezekiel’s task was to call them to repentance. In other words, he was called to be a spiritual watchman, as one commentator puts, keeping a look out for sin and warning of its consequences. We may not be prophets, but all of us, in a sense, are called to be “watchmen” for others—whether for our families, friends, or others who fall under our care.
4. The dreamer. When his brothers called Joseph a “dreamer” (Genesis 37:19), they did not mean it as a compliment. Joseph had just had two dreams that had less-than-flattering depictions of his family. In one, Joseph and his brothers are binding sheaves in the field when his sheaf rises while theirs bow down to it. In the other the “sun moon and eleven stars” bow down to Joseph. Today, we remember Joseph less for his dreams and more for the suffering he endured—his brother’s plot to kill him which ended instead with his sale into slavery and his later imprisonment in Egypt after being falsely accused of adultery.
While in prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of two of pharaoh’s former officials. In time, this led to an audience with the pharaoh himself, where he interpreted his dreams as well. Eventually, when famine struck, his brothers came to him begging for food—fulfilling his dreams from so many years before. Joseph endured hostility from his own house and spent much of his adult life alone in exile in a foreign country. Through it all, Joseph faithfully listened to God’s voice, even if it could only be heard in through the fog of sleep. For Joseph, to be a dreamer meant trusting in God’s vision for his life even when nothing in his life and his surroundings seemed even close to that vision.
5. The wanderer. Sometimes, the answer is to leave society, to start anew, to build from the ground up. This is what happened to Abraham, who was called to leave his city in Genesis 12. Throughout much of Genesis, Abraham never seems to really settle anywhere. He is not even a city-builder but a tent-dweller and he is often described as “wandering,” “journeying,” or “sojourning” in Genesis (depending on the translation). In Deuteronomy 26:5, when the Israelites are told to identify their “father” as a “wandering Aramean,” there is good reason to believe that the epithet is a reference to Abraham—so central is wandering to his identity that he needn’t even be named. Abraham had been promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and the sands of the seashore (Genesis 22), but he never really got to see any of it. In Genesis 24, before his death, we see Abraham’s family still living in tents.
Abraham thus had to have complete faith in God’s promise. It is this kind of total unquestioning faith in God and His goodness that was famously on display when Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham is also remembered for his hospitality to the three mysterious men who showed up in front of his tent. As recounted in Genesis 18, Abraham pulled out all the stops for his guests preparing an instant feast for them. His unbridled hospitality stands in sharp contrast to the rapacious hostility with which the two angels were received in the city of Sodom in the next chapter. Today, we may not wander as much as Abraham—at least not in a physical sense—but regardless of where we are in our journey, the example set by Abraham’s faith and hospitality are worthy of our continued reflection and emulation.