There is a lie that is often told people outside of the Christian faith in an attempt to reel them in—and by “Christian faith”, I don’t necessarily mean “Catholic faith”. It’s a lie that becomes easily exposed once they are in the fold, and it’s this: the promise that once you become a Christian, everything will be fine.
You can define the word “fine” however you like. Maybe some think their financial debt will magically disappear. Some may think their problems will become easily manageable. It’s not that Christianity doesn’t bring comfort. It does. But because they get fed this, many fall away after taking only a sojourn through the faith.
For those who stay and keep believing the lie, however, there is another outcome that can be just as frustrating. They begin to think they are the weird ones because God didn’t clean up their lives as quickly as He seemed to have done for others. The old drugs are still tempting. The old girlfriend still calls. The old life still nips at the heels. Or maybe life, in a general sense, is still so hard.
This lie didn’t engulf my faith, but it did touch it. Jesus is supposed to bring us peace, joy, and love, right? So what about the days I want to strangle my coworker or need coffee before I can even say “good morning” to the children?
Possibly the most liberating thing the Catholic church teaches in answer to that is this: the truth that life is supposed to be a struggle. We hold these two truths, one in each hand: 1) God is everything you could ever need or wish for in life, and 2) life is still difficult. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. And considering the way we are and the way the world is, that’s perfectly normal.
It’s so normal, in fact, that the Apostle Peter, in a letter to one of the churches, talks openly about both sides of that coin.
“His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and devotion, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and power. Through these, he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.”
There’s the victorious Christian life for you! God has bestowed on us everything—literally everything—we need for us and our Christian walk. We’re given the promise of eternal life and glory with Him. But right on the heels of that, he goes on with this:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with devotion, devotion with mutual affection, mutual affection with love.”
In this, so tightly packed together, is one of the most perfect descriptions of the our struggle to be holy, and it’s worthwhile to unpack it.
Peter begins by saying what every Catholic knows: faith isn’t enough. If all we have is a bald belief in God, what is that worth? As another writer in Scripture puts it, even the demons have that kind of faith – a whole lot of nothing that accomplishes for them. Faith must be supplemented by virtue. Faith, if it means anything, has to be accompanied by the pursuit of a morally good life.
But what is virtue without knowledge? A person may have zeal—like an archer firing straight and true at her target. But if it’s the wrong target, then all the zeal in the world will do her no good. Our consciences need to be informed. What feels good in the moment isn’t always good, just as what feels chaotic or frustrating in the moment is not always bad.
But once we have a right understanding of virtue, filled with right knowledge, it must lead to actual control of our lives—the voluntary and often brutal surrendering of ourselves to God on a day by day, moment by moment basis. Self-control is the fruit of a pursuit of holiness inspired by faith.
And yet, that self-control must not be spotty. It’s one thing to give yourself over to God in the moments when the time is right and the circumstances are convenient. Self-control must endure to the end. It is those who persevere who will be saved.
And yet, even so, a stoic submission to God’s will isn’t the final answer either. God doesn’t want slaves – even perfectly obedient slaves. He wants friends. I can’t help but think that there was a twinge of delight in Jesus when He spoke those words to the disciples: “I no longer call you servants… I call you friends.” Ideally, as we walk with God over the months and years, our hearts melt. They melt to God who we grow in devotion to with greater and greater sincerity, and they melt towards our neighbor in whom we begin to see the face of God.
And this brings us to real affection—a real joy in serving people and serving God. We feel the warmth of the community, and we warm the community with our own small light. We experience a real joy at seeing and serving our friends, family, and neighbors that isn’t plastic or contrived.
And if all goes well, if we persistently seek to supplement our belief in Jesus with all these things, we one day realize that we really do love those around us. It’s not out of a cold obedience or crass pursuit of God’s reward, but from a pure and sincere heart. We awaken to the fact that we truly love our neighbor. There is a sense in which you could say God’s love is what inspires us to begin the journey altogether. And love hopefully wiggles it’s way into every step along the path. But perfect, unadulterated, disinterested love does not come without making “every effort.”
That is the real Christian life. It’s not easy. It’s an adventure. But we’re not alone in any of it. God is with us enabling us to take the next step, to put forth the next push into a deeper, more profound life of faith. He ignites the heart and stretches us beyond what we thought we were capable of. It’s messy, crazy, glorious and beautiful all at the same time, but our reward in the end is nothing less than Heaven.
©2018 Jon Holowaty
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