We Catholics have a problem. A faith problem.
Disclaimer: this post may feel a bit like a post-reformation schismatic attack. It may seem like I'm leaving out a major, important factor, but I'm not. There is no part two for the sake of this blog, so if you need a Paul Harvey to give you the rest of the story and put your pious soul at ease, you will find it here (James 2:26).
I'm a cradle Catholic, but I grew up in a predominately evangelical non-denominational Christian community. My childhood faith is landmarked by Bible churches, backyard clubs, summer camps, youth retreats, lock-ins, FCA...all of it. I could tell you several moments where I encountered Christ and entered deep relationship with God, and almost all of these encounters were outside of R.E. (CCD, CFF, CCE, whatever letters they put together that stood for classroom catechesis or "definitely not as cool as your best friend's youth group"). In short, I had (yes, HAD) a youthful deep appreciation for Jesus Christ as my personal Lord, and Savior. (It saddens me that even typing that combination of words now seems superficial and cliche, but back then it was the real deal.)
As my faith matured, it became something much more Catholic. My spirituality was nourished by the Sacraments and I read a ton of the writings of Saints who lived very devout relationships with Christ; something so authentic that I had seen in my Protestant friends and mentors, but hardly ever in the witness of a Catholic. In zeal and a desire for more in my relationship with Christ I saturated myself in theology and mission and now, years later, have arrived at a new problem. Let me cut to the chase...
Recently I've been listening to a lot of mega-church pastors on the radio, mostly from California, a lot of them trendy hipster, with bold, Francis-like simplicity. One of my recent morning commutes, in the death trap that is IH-45 South, brought me back to the faith of my younger years. The pastor wasn't saying anything superbly original for a non-denom. He was talking about faith as a free gift from God and grace which we don't and can't earn for ourselves. He spoke of Christ's salvific sacrifice, which was once and for all who believe. As I listened to his words I honestly found myself becoming frustrated by his message. This is the same recycled stuff that Protestants use over and over again and it never goes any deeper, it never really requires action. It engages people to a rallying point of emotion so they keep coming back. They keep coming back because their hearts are stirred by the message and they want more of Christ. Oh wait, is this a bad thing? Their preaching effectively makes people, including myself, desire Jesus, and I'm frustrated by it? And here I encountered my heart problem, the problem for many Catholics, especially those like us in a living relationship with Jesus. We are too afraid of faith without works that we miss the point of faith. We Catholics have a faith problem. Follow me...
I'm often a performing orphan when it comes to my relationship with God. The world after college often pushes me to live like this. I feel the need to do things, to pray more, to love people, to give more generously, to suffer with joy, IN ORDER FOR GOD TO LOVE ME. These things that I'm not doing enough of, or could do more, make me feel like God is only my Father if I perform well and am pleasing to Him. I'm fatherless, unless I choose Him. It's a normal battle for the Lord to remind me that I'm His child and it is who I am, not what I do, that defines His love for me. This pastor's words struck the same chord.
I think that too often we don't take the time to really think about salvation, grace, and faith because we are afraid that the works part will be tossed out. It's like, 'faith and grace are free, Salvation in Jesus is free, but...' Because of this, the true power of Christ's sacrifice and love isn't given enough time to permeate and we are too quick to jump to talking about works, the requirements of relationship, need for prayer, call to action. We say that true Love demands a response without sitting and wrestling with how true, passionate, UNCONDITIONALHis love is. The demanded response becomes our focus and now the free gift, the greatest gift we've ever received, is diminished. The thing is, this 'doer' faith hijacks our view of who Jesus is and what He did. He subtly becomes the distant God with the laundry list of maintenance you need to get close to Him, and is no longer the man who risked everything, and fought relentlessly unto death to be with you for eternity. Suddenly, a simple faith becomes complicated because when we get Jesus wrong, we get everything else wrong. Who is Jesus? What is so great about what He did? What does it mean for us? What can we do to deserve it? What is faith? These are the questions anonymous pastor was answering with such inescapable fervor that my frustration was broken through and broken down in surrender to the immeasurable, relentless love of God. Here is the truth:
Jesus is the Son of God who sought out those who were sick, dead, broken, exhausted, alone, ignorant, addicted, buried in shame and sin a chose to heal them, forgive them, look them in the eye and hand their dignity back to them--a dignity he gave them in the first place, which was never lost, just misplaced. He reminded them who they were, just as he tells us who we are. "Are these things insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?" (CCC 457). The reality is we all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Every. One. No one in this world is good enough for heaven. No one has done enough good works, or prayed enough, or brought enough people to Jesus, or attained a certain level of virtue that merits heaven. In a success minded world, we'd like to think we've earned it, like we've done our part to be good people, just good enough to earn heaven. But we can't earn it. Nothing we could do could make Him love us less, but nothing we could do could make Him love us more. Salvation cannot be bought by us. It was bought by Him for us.
We all are charged with grave sin, but we stand like Barabbas, knowing what we deserve and praying for freedom with Jesus at our side stepping forward to take the place for us. We had no hope until He died the most brutal death man can imagine. He did it for me. He is the only reason we have hope of the eternal now. Let it sink in and don't move past it. We need to stay here. Stay in the place where we acknowledge God's love in sending Jesus, to live and to die, rejected and betrayed by us, and to rise, so that in His rising we may also rise from our sin each day and rise at the end of days. If it has become cliche then we are missing Him pouring out His aching love for us even now in this moment. If we stay here in gratitude we realize the only thing we can do is to accept it. Accept Jesus and all he has done as more than enough for all of our needs, accept that we can't earn it and that faith isn't merely human action (Hebrews 10:5-7), but believing and receiving this gift, His Son (Romans 3:24). Faith is simply emptying your hands of whatever things you try to bring to God to prove your worth to Him, and coming to Him with absolutely nothing, and receiving His free gift of faith--His free, unmerited, entirely sufficient grace. This grace is for now, and for us to be saved.
"Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation...since without faith it is impossible to please [God]" (CCC 161).
"Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man" (CCC 162).
How glorious and marvelous this gift of His Love is! Who can compare to Him? Who would reject this gift upon knowing it and seeing that it is entirely free? Do we believe His love is free?
Rest here. Stop here. Jesus Christ died for you to be with Him, and you don't have to do anything or be anyone else to be His. Nothing. No catch, or "only if you live this way from now on". Is that what you believe? Do you see His love as entirely unconditional? I know I still have to sit with this because of all of my own conditions. He harbors no conditions. (Ephesians 2:8)
P.s. I'm praying for all of you this Thanksgiving and I hope it's a day of gratitude for this grace and faith given to us by our loving, provident Father.