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Living Faith: Is belief in God the easier or harder road?

Are you familiar with the name Meriam Ibrahim?

She’s the 27-year-old Sudanese woman who refused to reject the only faith she’d ever practiced. She was consequently sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy and sent to prison while pregnant, her toddler son at her side.

Ibrahim, a graduate of Sudan University’s School of Medicine, gave birth to a daughter while in shackles in that cold prison this past May, her legs in chains.

As a mother who has birthed five children, I shudder at the thought of it. It was hard enough going through labor in a warm hospital room with loved ones nearby and medical care at the ready.

Just days ago, she left Sudan under cover, on a wing and a prayer. According to her lawyer there, the complaint filed against Ibrahim forbidding her to travel out of Sudan has not been removed. But last week she was in Rome recuperating from the ordeal before heading to New Hampshire to live out her life in peace.

I’ve been hearing from many lately who say belief in God is the easier road; that many other groups have it much harder and the faithful have little reason to complain.

I’m not arguing that other groups do not suffer. We all do at some point, and we should do everything possible to alleviate it when we see our brothers and sisters in trouble.

But this is more about something else; that is, challenging the perception that believers have it easy, and turning the spotlight on the rampant persecution experienced by believers worldwide every day.

The numbers are going up, not down, and it’s not likely to improve anytime soon.

To some degree, by the very nature of what belief requires, we’ve signed on for at least some suffering. Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote that those who think faith is like a big, warm electric blanket have it wrong. Rather, it is the cross, she said, and there’s nothing cushy about it.

Authentic belief is challenging, no matter the religion.

It means going against the grain of the culture, even when you know you’ll collect stares and even jeers for doing so.

It means being misunderstood, again and again and again.

It means you’ll probably lose some friends, and possibly confront rejection by loved ones – and experience interior torment because of it.

True and deep faith requires self-abandonment and doing away with instant gratification in a culture that presents the quick-fix in intoxicating fashion.

Along with Ibrahim’s story, I’ve been reading lately about other harrowing events affecting the believing world. For instance, a 1,800-year-old church burned to the ground, and with it, tombs crushed with sledgehammers; one of which likely carried the prophet Jonah, whose body has been among us since the dawn of faith.

I’m fairly certain those running for their lives in these places and circumstances wouldn’t call belief easy.

But I’ve heard it said, too, that if faith is easy, we’re doing it wrong.

Living an authentic faith might not always lead to martyrdom, but that doesn’t get us off the hook. There will be sacrifice. There will be times we want to run kicking and screaming in the other, easier direction.

But the good news is that a path guided by faith, hope and charity will inevitably foster a deep sense of inner peace – something for which we all yearn.

I can’t begin to imagine what Ibrahim endured while in that prison, nor during her trial when she stood before a scrutinizing judge, firm in her conviction yet knowing her life and security were on the line.

But this week, I’ve been looking at photos of her walking out of a plane, her husband and little son nearby, her baby daughter in her arms, and a big, bright smile on her face. And I can’t help but claim this image as a sweet reminder that standing solid in belief is the way to true freedom.

In the end, faith is both one of the easiest things because of its benefits and the hardest because of its paradox with the world. But Ibrahim bears witness to the reality that holding fast to hope and trusting in divine love inevitably will bring reward beyond measure.