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I recently read a blog post in which the author asserted that lukewarm Christians seek comfort from religion rather than heeding what Scripture says about the difficult task of taking up our crosses because they’d rather not be reminded of their failings.
To be sure, erring on the side of comfort is a real danger. It’s easy to treat religion as something that is there to bring you comfort and to seek a spiritual and emotional high on Sunday. The obvious problem with that is that as a Christian you are called to holiness. You cannot risk falling into an unexamined life full of self-satisfaction and complacency. Taking yourself to task is necessary. Your relationship with God cannot be one that only serves you.
It seems rather clear, however, that it is very possible to err in the opposite direction.
One of my sisters recently said to me that she fears she won’t achieve holiness or sainthood in this life and I realized that I assume that I won’t. I tend to think that I’m really not a great person and that I will continue to be not a great person, that there isn’t much hope for me, at least in this life. I think that this comes, at least in part, from being afraid of being a “comfort Christian” and that fear pushes me to the opposite end of the spectrum. Such an attitude is obviously no good.
In his book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Father Jacques Philippe says, “We believe […] that to win the spiritual battle we must vanquish all our faults, never succumb to temptation, have no more weaknesses or shortcomings. But on such a terrain we are sure to be vanquished! Because who among us can pretend never to fall? And it is certainly not this that God demands of us, for He knows of what we are made. He remembers we are dust (Psalm 103)” (11-12).
So what are we to do?
What attitude should we take toward our failings?
Excessive pain after having failed is a sign that something has gone wrong. Father Philippe says that it is “a sign that we have put our trust in ourselves — in our own strength and not in God” (58-59). He also says that “We must know that one of the weapons that the devil uses most commonly to prevent souls from advancing toward God is precisely to try to make them lose their peace and discourage them by the sight of their faults” (63).
I think, perhaps, that like an Aristotelian virtue, the proper attitude lies between the extremes. Acknowledge your sins, but be comforted by God’s love, and know that you can change with His help. Be comforted because, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And, as Father Philippe notes, “we must not view our own faults too tragically because God is able to draw good from them” (61).
In The Spiritual Combat, Lorenzo Scupoli says, “When you feel wounded, that is to say, when you feel that you have committed some fault […] address yourself immediately to God and tell him, with humble confidence: ‘It is now, oh, my God, that I can see what I am. For what can one expect from a weak and blind creature like me but wrongdoing and failure?’” At first I thought “wow, that’s a depressing view of the human person,” but having had some time to think about it, I find it very comforting because it points to our need for God and the fact that what we must do to achieve holiness is rely on Him more fully. It actually lessens the burden because you can turn everything over to Him.
I’d like to close with a modified version of the prayer found at the Dominican Shrine of Saint Jude:
Help me know that I need not face my troubles alone. Please send me consolation in my sorrow, courage in my fear, and healing in the midst of my suffering. Fill me with the grace to accept whatever may lie ahead for me and my loved ones, and strengthen my faith in your healing powers.