feature image by Yongsung Kim
I have faced difficult situations countless times, finally learning to surrender control to God after playing god becomes too exhausting. Often He has surprised me with bonafide miracles, miracles even skeptical teenagers could not explain away. One would assume I would be experienced enough to stop trying to control but I am still weak.
So these past few months, I have been chastising myself for my failure to cope with the stress of a family crisis. Surely I should be mature enough spiritually to rise above my circumstances, rest in the heart of God, and facilitate unity as the calm, benevolent matriarch of my huge family? Instead, I keep trying to control the whole mess. I waffle between brief moments of joyful reassurance from God before sinking into much longer, intense periods of panic and anxiety imagining the worst.
Setting the Wrong Standards?
Most of us rate our success in living out our Christianity by a worldly set of standards. Even those who select candidates for the priesthood look for strengths, not weaknesses. They look for good grades in philosophy and theology classes, confidence in social situations, efficient managerial skills, financial acumen, flair as a public speaker, and psychological stability.
Perhaps a better yardstick for assessing potential success as a priest or as a member of the priesthood of the faithful is how weak a person is. Have they experienced confusion and doubt? Have they been broken and lived through depression and anxiety? Have they tasted failure and defeat? Do they realise their tendency to sin?
I heard one prominent Protestant ministry only accepts people for leadership roles if they have been broken, experienced true failure and humbly draw on God’s strength. The most effective Catholic leaders rely on God, not on their own gifts and strengths. Perhaps those who are proud and confident of their own accomplishments do not fully live in, through and by the Holy Spirit.
When I am Weak
Christians tend to rate their level of sanctity by their success in service and prayer. We would be thrilled to share in Saint Paul’s mystical experiences, assuring us of our sanctity. Yet Saint Paul upsets our worldly notions of spiritual success in his second letter to the Corinthians:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Unlike most of us, Saint Paul is wise enough not to brag about his spiritual prowess but only brag about his weaknesses. God made sure Paul understood clearly who he was and why he needed a saviour:
On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn I was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:5-12)
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Do we really understand what Paul is talking about?
The Mystery of Strength
The mystery of strength made perfect in weakness is the power of the cross. The cross is crucial; it is the basis of our Catholic faith. Consider the words you utter at every Mass where you proclaim Christ as your Saviour:
A: We proclaim your death, O Lord,
and profess your Resurrection until you come again.
B: When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord,
until you come again.
C: Save us, Saviour of the world, for, by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free.
Christ can only save us and set us free when we are weak. We do not readily admit we need a Saviour. A practical illustration of this truth is the case of a drowning man; the best time to save him is once he has exhausted himself. Then he does not have enough strength to fight the lifeguard. If a drowning man is not weak enough, in his panic he can pull the lifeguard under with him.
Similarly, Christ often waits until we have exhausted ourselves and are weak enough to realise we are desperate to be saved from ourselves. Only then do we not put up a fight. When I feel strong, I cling tenaciously to the little life I have constructed. Everything in my psychological make-up forces me to cling to control, even though it is destroying my inner spirit. It seems most of us must hit the proverbial rock bottom before we are ready to change. I know for me, only when I was weak and shattered, only then did I resign and give God back His job. Only then did I surrender an egocentric point of view and embrace the fact that I need salvation.
We cannot find Him unless we know we need Him. We forget this need when we take a self-sufficient pleasure in our own good works. The poor and helpless are the first to find Him, Who came to seek and to save that which was lost. Thomas Merton,
Living day-to-day reality as if God is not in charge is definitely absurd, but I only saw this fact after I surrendered and let go of control. I thought I was a committed Christian, but I could not find what is really important in life in self-created delusions. I could only discover the truth as I learnt to live in harmony with a bigger universe than the one I created.
Even when I try to be a good Catholic, I am still stealing God’s job. Unfortunately for me, this whole process of redemption is not a one-shot deal. It is a process which delves deeper every time I go through it. Once again, I struggle against accepting and relaxing in my weakness and trusting in His strength, even in the darkness.
Conclusion: Allowing God to Be My Saviour
When Jesus says I must die to myself, He is not speaking about some pious self-sacrifice that makes me look holy; He is talking about giving God his job back. Basically, that means allowing God to be my Saviour rather than trying to save myself with pious good deeds and heroic acts. Like many Catholics, I missed the point when I talked about carrying my cross and acting like some self-appointed martyr.
To know the Cross is not merely to know our own sufferings. For the Cross is the sign of salvation, and no man is saved by his own sufferings. To know the Cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ Who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. It is, then, to know Christ. Thomas Merton,
Jesus has something much more radical in mind than simply asking me to live a life of ascetical self-denial. The kind of inner transformation Jesus desires shatters my worldview; the worldview that places me at the centre of the universe. Actually, God is not supposed to be just the centre of my reality, He is reality, He is my life when I accept the truth that I am weak and He is strong.