Trusting God is an act of the will

Avatar

I’m a cancer survivor, although mine was more of a “skirmish” than a battle. It was brief and relatively easily treated. But one long term consequence of even a cancer skirmish is that the doctors are hyper vigilant about new cancers, so periodically they see something suspicious and I spend an uncomfortable week waiting for test results. I haven’t had a cancer scare in several years. But it will most likely happen again.

When I’m healthy and my life is going great, I read about people courageously facing illness and I think “I would do that — I’d be brave and trust God and put a big smile on my face.”

And then “it” — or even the vague threat of a possible “it” — happens, and I crumble like stale coffee cake.

I’m not generally a worrier. But when it looks like something big could be wrong — well, sometimes I am. It turns out that I, with a brain wired for overthinking and a first-born’s penchant for control, apparently have a very difficult time just “letting go and letting God” when the stakes get high.

When the rubber actually hits the road, this whole “Jesus, I Trust in You” thing is much easier said than done.

I try. I read all of those lovely Bible verses about being not afraid, and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all. Nope, still afraid. I pray surrender prayers — the ones that talk about how if we would stop worrying and surrender to him, he would take care of everything. Then I worry that he won’t take care of everything because I am still worrying.

Of course, in the rational parts of my mind, I know that God loves me, and that he has a plan and he works good out of everything. I know that he is my loving, all-powerful Father, and thus eminently trustworthy.

And still, it can sometimes seem impossible to stop worrying and just trust. I can say the words, but it’s a lot more difficult to make the emotions follow suit.

Not long ago, I stumbled upon a tiny little book by Father Jacques Philippe about St. Therese of Lisieux, entitled The Way of Trust and Love. He writes, of course, about the Little Flower and her incredible, childlike trust in God. The kind of trust that makes the rest of us feel like sinners and heathens because we can’t seem to manage to emulate it.

But he also goes into great detail about her insistence that God knows and understands our weaknesses, and that “the good God does not demand more from you than good will.”

Good will? I think I can do that!

Good will doesn’t mean being satisfied with mediocrity. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try because God loves us just as we are. It simply means that, despite our weaknesses and our humanity, if we are doing the very best we can to follow Christ, and to do what he calls us to do, God will honor that.

Which, in this case, means doing the best we can to override our natural human fear and trust him during a difficult time.

Trusting God is not primarily about our feelings. It is an act of the will. Our emotions — influenced by neurotransmitters controlled by everything from our heredity to what we had for lunch — are often out of our control, and cannot be reliable indicators of our holiness or lack thereof. But we can still decide that, no matter what our emotions may be doing, the rational part of our minds, the part that can freely choose, is choosing to trust God. Making that choice doesn’t automatically mean that our anxiety magically and immediately disappears. It just means that we are choosing, to the extent we are able, to trust him.

As we continue to override our fear and surrender to God despite the anxiety, frequently something beautiful will gradually begin to happen. We will begin to feel a sense of peace that overcomes the fear. When that happens, it is beautiful. But it is not our doing. We are utterly incapable of making it happen. It is his action, his Spirit moving in our hearts, overriding our hormones and our emotions to allow us to begin to experience that “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Ironically, the most notable time I have experienced that peace was when I actually had cancer. It came the night I was waiting for my final diagnosis, when I was praying in the Blessed Sacrament chapel and I said “Well, I guess if you want me, I’m coming.” In acknowledging my complete powerlessness and dependence on him in the midst of an actual crisis, he gave me a deep sense of peace that lasted throughout my treatment.

So I know it can happen.

If there is one thing that is certain in life, it is that difficult times will come — for me and for all of us. When they do, I highly recommend, even if your anxiety is off the charts, repeating over and over this line from the Novena of Surrender: “Jesus, I surrender all to you. Take care of everything.”

And, in the ways known only to him, believe that he will.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash