The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for June, 2005

The Peace of God and the God of Peace

In just a few verses of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:4-9), we learn how to acquire the peace of God as well as communion with the God of peace.

To get the peace of God you need to do four things: Rejoice, give up anxiety, pray, and give thanks. These may not always seem to be easy to do (especially giving up anxiety, right?), but there is grace at hand to help us, for he says, “The Lord is near.” That awareness alone ought to be enough for us to begin practicing the four things in earnest. And the word of God bears within it the Spirit of God, so that it is able to accomplish what it says. If you still have anxiety, then go back to the third thing: pray. But you have to pray with thanksgiving, for the Lord is near. If the Lord is near, that is cause for rejoicing. And if you are rejoicing and praying with thanksgiving, then there is no place for anxiety, is there? Therefore “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”

Only two things are required to get the God of peace to be with you: think and do. Those are pretty general things, so the Apostle tells you what you ought to be thinking about and doing. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is righteous, whatever is pure, whatever is worthy of love, whatever is gracious; if there is any excellence [literally, virtue] or anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” Reflect upon the things that tend to fill your mind. Do they fall into the above categories? If not, then you are keeping the God of peace away from you. God is found where truth, honor, righteousness, purity, love, virtue, etc, are found. So think about these things, rest your mind in them, let them strengthen and purify and ennoble you—and let go of all the base, corrupting, superficial or ungodly rubbish that is always being offered as junk food for our minds. We were made for greater things.

If you are thinking the right things, what should you then do? “Whatever you have learned and received and heard” through the writings of the Apostles and the teachings of the Church and your meditation on the good and true and beautiful. Act accordingly, and the God of peace will be with you.

It is perhaps a rather challenging discipline to do the four things and the two things. Yet it’s not all that difficult. You just have to really want to. You have to be willing to make the effort to give up what is not of God and to embrace what is. It’s really good for you, after all, and it will (as you’ll notice, if only little by little) even make you happier. You will have the peace of God and the God of peace. So rejoice!

Satirizing Idols

The Old Testament is full of prophetic denunciations of idolatry, which God evidently regards as one of the greatest sins against Him (unfortunately, one of the most frequent as well). In some places, the prophets employ a kind of satire to expose the ridiculous folly of worshiping idols. Here are a couple examples.

“Half of [the wood the carpenter cuts] he burns in the fire; over that half he…roasts meat and is satisfied; also, he warms himself… And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it and prays to it” (Isaiah 44:16-17). In the Letter of Jeremiah found in the Book of Baruch, we read: “These gods of silver and gold and wood cannot save themselves from rust or corrosion… their eyes are full of the dust raised by the feet to those who enter [the temple]… They do not notice when their faces have been blackened by the smoke of the temple. Bats, swallows, and birds light on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them” (Baruch 6:11-23).

These may seem rather humorous, and are meant to be, but for a good reason—to open our eyes to the absurdity of idolatry. We may laugh at people worshiping carved or gilded idols in pagan temples and say, “What does that have to do with us?” Well, as I indicated in a previous post, idols come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not we carry them in our hearts. You don’t literally have to pray to something for it to be an idol for you, only to give it inordinate attention, especially if that somehow detracts from the worship and service due to the true God. When you engage in some behavior (especially if it is habitual) or promote some position or agenda that is forbidden by God, then you are practicing idolatry.

Everyone has their idols, of one sort or another, because everyone has their sins. Why do we never learn, why are we so easily seduced by the lies of the demons who offer a wide variety of idols for our worship and service? There may be as many answers as there are unique individuals, but in many cases it may be reduced ultimately to this: we do not believe the word of God. God has revealed Himself and communicated his grace through the Church: the Scriptures, the Sacraments, etc. It’s all there: the Truth and the grace to live it; the Love and the offer to enjoy it forever. If we still choose what God has forbidden, or simply do not choose what He enjoins, then we’re saying, in effect, we just don’t buy it. We’ll make our own way, thank you, we’ll just do what seems pleasurable or profitable at the moment. Laughing at the satires against pagan idols, we fail to acknowledge the existence of our own little pantheon, while the demons compose satires about us.

Perhaps, though, we should laugh—at our own idols, be they interior or exterior ones. To see (at last!) how ridiculous it is to choose anything but what God has ordained for our salvation and happiness will make them seem less formidable or attractive. To unmask the deception is to take away the idols’ power (which is only what we give them). Suddenly we wake as if from a dream or stupor, and we see things clearly.

So do not fear (i.e., stand in awe of) them, says the prophet. They are not gods but silly and mute shells without substance or strength, whose devotees eventually become like them. Let us pray that the veils be lifted, the deceptions laid open, that we see all idols for what they are, and the true God for who He is. Then we’ll know whom to worship and serve. Then we’ll stop believing lies—and the joke will no longer be on us!

All the Words of God

When we read Holy Scripture, we have to make sure that we do not take a selective approach. Taking a passage out of context, or in isolation from other texts on the same subject, can easily lead to error and to the strange irony that one can use the infallible word of God to go astray.

For example, you may think that Christ abides in us only through faith after reading “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). But Jesus Himself said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him” (John 6:56). You can’t hold one (honestly, that is) without holding the other as well, for it is all the word of God. Perhaps you think you have the secret to answered prayer when you see that Jesus has said: “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Just think, whatever you want, simply tack “in Jesus’ name” at the end of your petition and it is yours! But notice that He also said: “If you abide in Me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Those are two very important conditions He gives, but the ultimate one is found in First John: “if we ask anything according to his will, He hears us” (5:14). So, abide in Him, let his words abide in you, and if what you ask is in keeping with his will, you will receive it. That is the teaching of Scripture.

A rather startling example of what I’m saying is found in the following texts: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), and “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). This shows that the first text is incomplete without the second, and the Lord gives the reason why in the second half of the verse: “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Calling on the name of the Lord must be coupled with doing his will, or it will be an empty prayer and certainly will not save you. This is one example (among many in the Scriptures) that shows how it is impossible to be saved by anything alone, not faith alone, not works alone. If St Paul says we are saved by believing in Christ, and Jesus says we are saved by doing the will of the Father, then we are saved by faith and by doing the will of the Father! Scripture must be taken as a whole, as a unity, for it ultimately derives from the same Source.

So, hear the words of the Lord—all of them! Call on the name of the Lord, but make sure you also do the will of the Father. Ask in Jesus’ name, but make sure you’re abiding in Him and asking according to his will. We will ultimately be judged not by our fidelity to the few texts of Scripture we happen to like, but “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

If Only You Knew

When someone receives a revelation from a saint, or hears from someone who has had a direct vision of the life to come, be it heaven, hell, or purgatory, the urgency of it is often preceded by: “If only you knew…” If only we knew what they know, if only we could see what they see, how different our lives would be!

Our Lord has said the same thing to the Samaritan woman at the well: “If only you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is speaking to you…” (John 4:10). The problem is, we don’t know, or at least we don’t know as fully as we’d like to know, and sometimes that hinders us from giving ourselves completely to God and to the carrying out of his will. Yet, as I wrote in my last post, our faith requires us to live as if we did know, as if we saw more clearly than we actually do.

But do we really not know? It’s true that we don’t have the unmediated vision of God that the blessed enjoy in heaven. Yet I think that more has been revealed to us than we’d like to let on, and so we try to hide behind the excuse that the Mysteries of God are opaque and inaccessible, so we just live according to our own lights. One commonly misunderstood Scripture text seems to put the heavenly revelations of God beyond our grasp in this life: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1Cor. 2:9). But read the whole sentence: “That which no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him, God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” So there is much we do, or can, know if we sincerely seek the face of God.

It remains true, however, that there are some things we will simply not know through direct experience in this life. Faith has to carry us. But our constant meditation on the word of God and the mysteries of eternity should keep our thoughts and behavior at the level of one who does know, who knows enough, anyway, to live with a heart set on eternal communion with Lord and not on the passing vanities of this life.

Our desire to know should simply come from a longing to love Jesus more perfectly, and not from curiosity about miracles and extraordinary supernatural phenomena. In the same chapter of John quoted above, Jesus sighed, not without a bit of exasperation: “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (4:48).

In summary, then, realize that God has already revealed much, so there is still much that can be known in this life. Accept that some things are reserved for the next life, and humbly carry on in faith. Seek God not for the sake of extraordinary manifestations, but only to love Him more, and to receive the grace to enter eternal communion with Him. If only you knew how much good this would do for you…

Persevere As If Seeing

The are two very small but very important words in the Christian vocabulary: as if. We are called to live by faith, not by sight, but to live truly by faith we have to live as if it were by sight. Moses gives us an example: “he persevered as if seeing the One who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). To persevere as if seeing is to live by faith.

In this, God asks quite a lot from us, but evidently it’s the only way to prove our love and to be found worthy of his heavenly kingdom. St Peter exhorts us: “Love Him without having seen Him; believe in Him though you do not now see Him” (1Peter 1:8). For those of you who are more advanced, the Greek can also be translated as a declaration of fact: “Without having seen Him, you love Him; though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him.”

This was the essence of Pascal’s famous wager: Live for one year as if you fully believed all that the Scriptures and the Church teach, and put it into practice diligently the whole time, and I’ll bet that at year’s end you will in fact really believe and will freely and lovingly put it into practice thereafter.

Much of our spiritual life, whether we like it or not, has to be lived on that “as if” basis. We don’t see, we don’t fully understand, we have numerous unanswered questions, we have struggles with things that we’d really wish could be some other way. But we believe and trust in God, so we live as if we had the answers (which means we live as the Gospel directs, without excuses, procrastination, or rationalization). This is not easy, but it is what a life of faith requires.

Look again at Moses, at the context in which it was said that he persevered as if seeing: “he chose to share ill-treatment with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Anointed One greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward… he was not afraid of the anger of the king…” (Hebrews 11:25-27).

Persevering as if seeing is hard work, but its benefits will be eternal. We will have to sacrifice certain ideas, opinions, activities, pleasures, and worldly behavior for the sake of living by faith in the Invisible One, who promises eternal life to those who believe in Him and do his will. After all, faith is about believing and embracing “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). So don’t let it be an obstacle for you that the Mysteries of God are so profound as to be invisible or intangible or not subject to scientific verification. Persevere anyway, as if

A Capacity for Joy

Charles Williams wrote of a character in one of his novels: “her incapacity for joy admitted fear, and fear had imposed separation. She knew now that all acts of love are the measure of capacity for joy; its measure and its preparation, whether the joy comes or delays.” I’ve never heard before that acts of love are the measure of capacity for joy, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but perhaps you’ll permit me here to think aloud just a bit.

First of all, it seems clear enough that where there is no joy it will be easy for fear to fill that void. Fear always imposes some sort of separation from what is feared (if only a hoped-for separation). Such a separation will not only refuse to admit joy, but love as well, since love is about union, not separation.

But what about love and joy? What about the capacity for joy as the basis for acts of love? There is certain good sense to this, since joyless love would be something of a contradiction in terms. Perhaps a capacity for joy is a capacity for life, the abundant life that Jesus came to give. So if we are walking in the Holy Spirit and trying to live the Gospel of Jesus, to live is to love, and to love is to rejoice.

But are acts of love always carried out in joy? Often enough, to love is to suffer (or to sacrifice, anyway), and the personal cost of acts of true love can be quite high. Williams didn’t say, however, that “feeling happy” is the basis for acts of love, but a “capacity for joy.” Joy has to find room to dwell within us, like peace, which may dwell at a very deep and almost imperceptible level. The feeling of joy may “come or delay,” but in order to be able to act with love, we must be able to rejoice. True joy–which is not the same thing as the experience of pleasure or of other things we have been taught to associate with happiness–is really more akin to true love than we may have thought.

In the Kingdom to come, perfect love will have cast out all fear, and love will be full of joy, and joy will be full of love. In the meantime, why don’t you pray for a greater capacity for joy? You may discover that acts of love come much more easily. What have you got to lose?

Believe into Jesus

What does it mean to believe in God? Is it believing that He exists, that He has said and done certain things in human history, and that they are true? That is only the bare minimum of faith, and it is not even true faith, really, not the faith that saves. To believe in the true God, and in the One whom He has sent, Jesus Christ, is more than believing facts or propositions about God. It is, in a common biblical phrase (which is usually not translated literally), believing into Him.

In what is perhaps the most famous New Testament verse (John 3:16), we read: “For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son, that whoever believes in Him (literally, “all who believe into Him”: pas o pisteuon eis auton) should not perish but have eternal life.” What can we understand by “believing into” Jesus?

The expression connotes a personal engagement and communion, not a mere intellectual assent. Our faith is “into” Jesus, that is, it connects with him personally and establishes a relationship (or ratifies the relationship God has established). Personal relationship, engagement, and communion are not static concepts, but suggest a dynamism of growth, maturation, and fruitfulness. That is why a legalistic “once saved, always saved” approach to Christ can never really be a believing “into” Him.

Some time ago a young fundamentalist Christian man asked me to give him the Catholic position on justification, for a paper he was writing for his Bible college. I obliged him, and he wrote back, thanking me but “correcting” me here and there according to his own interpretation of Scripture. Then he went on to say, as if it were something to glory in: “I will never be closer to God than I am right now,” evidently meaning that he believed he was confirmed in righteousness and that he would remain in that state forever, for he must have thought that such a state does not admit a need for spiritual growth. I thought to myself: How sad! This young man has only recently begun his Christian life, and he thinks it a blessing that he will never get any closer to God than he is now! He completely misunderstands believing into Christ: entering into a relationship that continually grows through our faith, prayer, efforts to overcome sin and grow in love for Jesus, with the help of the Sacraments and God’s ever-flowing and deifying grace. If anyone thinks he will not (or somehow cannot) love Jesus more tomorrow than he does today, he is the most pitiable of men!

Hey, I’m into Jesus, that is, I believe into Him. You can, too. Get beyond merely believing things about Him, and realize how inadequate are the static formulas of mere acceptance of “salvation.” Rather, abide in Him as He desires to abide in you. Grow in Him as his presence grows in you. Enter into a communion with Him that increases and deepens all the time. Believe into Jesus and you will find yourself entering into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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