Not too long ago, I came across two seemingly different perspectives on the relationship between God’s action in our lives and our faithfulness. This question had been on my mind lately. After four years of infertility and now some roadblocks in the process of adoption, I’m starting to wonder “What gives?” I’m sure it’s a reflection of my pride (but I’m sure it’s at least understandable) when I question God why that person has a baby. (By that person, I usually mean someone who is ostensibly not living as righteous a life as I am. As I write this, I am aware that the Gospel for the past week was about the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector. I guess I know who I am in that story). In any case, if even “that person” is blessed with a child, why not us? What are we doing so wrong? Why have we not found favor with God? Why have all of our prayers for a miracle apparently gone unanswered? And now why all the setbacks regarding adoption? What did we do to deserve this? And what can we do to win God’s favor?
So there’s the question: What is the relationship between God’s action in our lives and our faithfulness? But let’s be honest. What I am really asking is “How can I manipulate God to get what I want?”
And that’s where these two readings I encountered come in.
The first, from the Office of Readings in the Divine Office, is from the first chapter of the prophet Haggai. The people have returned from exile, but instead of setting to rebuild the temple, they’re more concerned with rebuilding their own houses and wealth, and have forgotten about the house of God.
Here you have God’s chosen people, focused on their own concerns, forgetting about God, and being miserable for it. They focus on food, but are left hungry; on clothing, but are still cold. The spiritual lesson is readily apparent: if we fail to focus on the Greatest Good, even the other lesser goods will lose their savor. It’s a principle C.S. Lewis called “First and Second Things:” “You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.” Can’t we infer, then, that if we place God first, all these other blessings and good things will be ours as well? Didn’t our Lord teach as much? (Mt 6:33).
So there’s my answer: if only I would focus on God and His will, we’ll be blessed with a child. (Theologically, this is a form of Pelagianism – that I can win God’s favor through my own actions, unaided by grace. It is a heresy.)
Then, on the same day I also came across another writing, this time from St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul.” Thérèse desperately wanted to enter the Carmel monastery at a very young age, and she ran into all kinds of roadblocks. She asks for a miracle to enter the Carmel, and no miracle is forthcoming. What gives? The Little Flower explains:
“To those whose faith is like that of a mustard seed He grants miracles and moves mountains in order to strengthen this faith which is still small; but for His intimate friends, for His Mother, He works no miracles before having tried their faith.”
Isn’t that the exact opposite of what the prophet Haggai was saying? Thérèse seems to be saying that it is precisely the faithful, those who are most dedicated to God, who will hear only His silence!
Well, there’s a theological no win situation. Be faithless, no blessings. Be faithful, well, same story.
So, what is the “solution” to this apparent quandary? I think first off it confirms that our Pelagian tendencies are truly misplaced. I cannot earn God’s favor; God’s favor is freely bestowed according to His good will. (1 Corinthains 4:7)
It also tells us that God is beyond our little manipulations. Of course He is; He’s God. Imagine a God that could be swayed to change His eternal will due to my petty machinations. That is certainly not the God of the great Catholic theological tradition. God is beyond our ready-made categories of either/or. Will God grant the request of the faithful or will he provide a miracle instead for the one lacking faith? The very question betrays the misplaced attempt to categorize and control the essentially mysterious, indefinable, infinite God.
So what is the poor sinner left to do in this situation? St. Therese gives us the answer in one word “Abandonment!”
Abandonment is the fundamental conviction that God’s providence extends to all aspects of life. Nothing ultimately escapes His plan. As Cardinal Newman said:
“Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
Abandonment is the choice, animated by grace, to say that God is God, that His plan is perfect, and though I cannot see it, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Abandonment is an act of the will to accept as good from the hand of God whatever befalls us, either as willed by Him out of love, or permitted by His love to bring a greater good. Abandonment says both, “If God blesses us with children, blessed be God,” and equally, “If we never receive that gift, then, still, blessed be God!”
This is easy to write yet hard to do. But what’s the alternative? Job’s wife gave him the alternative: “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Abandonment is the conviction, above all, that God is love, His universe has meaning, and God’s providential care extends to even the minutest aspects of our lives.
Abandonment is the conviction that, though I cannot see the perfect good which God’s eternal wisdom has ordered, nevertheless I trust in His goodness and wisdom. True abandonment would even cultivate a sense of gratitude that our sufferings, the defects we suffer, contribute in some way to the perfect, universal good God has planned.
Some may not be consoled in their suffering by such theology and speculation. But why not? Theology is not just an academic endeavor to be confined to the classroom or church. Theology is about reality, even the most fundamental reality. And our vision of reality and our understanding of God will inevitably effect how we understand out trials, and how we approach life. Curse God and die, or abandonment to Divine Providence? With God’s grace, I choose the latter.