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For Man, It is Impossible

Several weeks ago, I suggested here [1] that some priests seem to be trying to get rid of the hardest part of their jobs:  namely, dealing with sin. In response to something I had read in the British journal The Tablet about priests who were “scandalized” by “the increasing distance between theory and practice in the Church,” I admitted that in my own life that there was a rather large gap between theory and practice. I call it “sin.”  The theory is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  In practice, I act like a selfish jerk. So yes, I know it’s difficult to deal with sin. I have to deal with it every day. That’s precisely why I need a good priest who is willing to go through the hard slog with me.

A priest friend – an Italian, with all the old-world wisdom and charm that implies – suggested to me that perhaps these priests weren’t struck so much by the difficulty of dealing with sin as they were with the impossibility. Priests are often struck by the gap between the health and flourishing envisioned by and embodied in the teachings of the Church, and the hopelessly convoluted lives of sin with which most Catholics struggle from day to day. 

Say that you have sitting before you a teenage girl who is unmarried and pregnant.  She has rarely (if ever) been called upon to be either brave or self-sacrificing, or to take real responsibility. It’s nearly impossible to imagine such a young woman having the strength of character necessary to resist the easy temptation to “flush away” her problem with an abortion and embrace the heroic task of choosing to give birth in such circumstances.

You would be asking her to act totally out of character; to exhibit virtues never before displayed; to show real strength from moral muscles never before even moderately exercised. It would be like asking a rabbit to act like a grizzly bear. Even to ask, let alone require, that sort of heroic virtue can easily seem to be not only naive, but cruel. You appear to be requiring the impossible. Such priests don’t want to be accused of being like the Pharisees Christ criticized for “binding up heavy burdens for others to carry.”

There is something to this. Paul warned us about what happens when the law is separated from grace:  it is “death-dealing.” So let’s admit the obvious:  for humans, such things are impossible. Without the sacraments, without the Mass and confession and the prayers of friends, neighbors, saints, and angels, without God’s grace, where would we be? Catholics shouldn’t allow themselves to be forced into the role of delivering the “bad news” – you can’t do that! – without delivering the “good news”:  God doesn’t give you any challenge He won’t send you the grace to handle.  If you’re faithful to His calling, you will survive; you will thrive; you will know beatitude.

        Easter Vigil by Edwin Long (1871)

We should be careful not to push the prohibitions in people’s faces apart from the message about the supportive elements that make following those teachings possible, even joyful:  the virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, prayer, the life of the sacraments. With God, all things are possible.

That sounds nice. But we all know there’s a catch:  We walk by faith and not by sight. The transformation we seek, and need, will not take place before we begin. It will usually only take place as we act. We don’t magically become brave before the battle, like Cinderella transformed before the ball. Rather we become brave in and through the battle. We become brave by entering the battle as though we were brave, even if inside we suspect (often, on good evidence) that we’re not. 

The real existential fear in such circumstances is often not so much the fear of death as it is the fear of having been tested and found wanting; of “not measuring up”; of not being all you had hoped you would. In such circumstances, it is tempting to say (in what will often seem like a great act of self-honesty): “I know I can’t do it.” But of course, you know no such thing. If you did, there wouldn’t be anxiety. There would be simple certainty:  what you feel if someone asks you to jump 400 feet in the air.

When someone asks you to act heroically, the anxiety comes, not from the certainty that you can’t do it, but from the lack of certainty that suggests you might succeed if only you tried. And if it’s possible for me to do, then what will it say about me if I fail? The “good news” is that it’s not wholly up to you. But the “good news” also involves the way of the Cross.

Turning Christ into a “nice” man, a gentle spiritual teacher, brings with it this problem: not everyone is nice. In fact, deep down, no one is really nice. When Jesus becomes no more than an ancient Gandhi, you run right smack dab into the crisis of sin:  people fail, people suffer. Now what do we do? We need something more than what mere sentimentality can provide. We need what only Christ’s eternal victory over sin and death can provide.

And yet the catch is that we are creatures who exist in time. God’s dealings with us will often occur, not in an instant, as we often expect, but over time. We pray:  “God, take from me these sinful thoughts.” We look up, and the sinful thoughts are still there. You ask:  “Well, God.  What about it? Where are you?” 

He’s there, all right. He is at work. You wouldn’t have been praying if He weren’t. But he’s not a short-order cook. He’ll do things on His schedule, and not a moment earlier. The process takes time. It takes effort. It requires faith. But the final results are not in doubt:  God will make what seems impossible possible.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.