There are different ways to look at life, and two of these are captured in a couple of seemingly contradictory sayings. The more famous aphorism is this one: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” but you’ll also hear its converse: “The good is the enemy of the best.” The second expression cautions that we sometimes settle for something that is merely good enough when we should be aiming higher; excellence is certainly something for which to strive.
In today’s blog, though, I’d like to concentrate on the original: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In striving for the perfect thing, we can miss the good. We live in a fallen world, less than perfect. Likewise, you and I are incomplete, unfinished, imperfect. Yet this does not mean that we lack anything good at all or that this imperfect world has nothing to offer.
Being more than halfway through my expected lifespan, I have moved from the perfectionist world of the second saying to the contented world of the first, though each has its place. I have come to understand that contentedness is a very great gift and that true perfection only exists in Heaven.
There is another, similar, saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” Many, believing that life should be a peachy, are resentful to discover that even peaches have pits. Such an expectation is a sure-fire recipe for resentment, discouragement, and depression.
I think this is one of the problems with marriage today. Despite the modern tendency to be cynical about pretty much everything, many still have very high ideals expectations of marriage: that it will always be romantic, joyful, and fulfilling, that love will magically solve every problem.
This is not realistic. Marriage is like life; it has its ups and downs. There are things we like and things we wish were different. There is no perfect spouse and there is no perfect marriage. There are many good marriages that are far from perfect. There are many spouses who, though basically decent, do not act perfectly all of the time.
When people enter marriage with unrealistically high expectations, they may be tempted to focus on the negative things, to magnify them because they are not perfect as was expected; resentments begin to build. It’s sad, really. The marriage may not actually be that bad; the less-than-ideal spouse may not really be so awful.
But the perfect becomes the enemy of the good; decent things are trampled underfoot in the elusive search for the perfect, the best, the ideal.
Indeed, there is yet another related saying about marriage: “Many people want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.”
We do a lot of this: discarding the good as we chase in vain after the perfect. There is always a better parish, a better job, a better boss, a better house, a better car, a better neighborhood, a better deal.
There is something freeing and calming about being able to accept the good, the imperfect, and be content with it. The perfect will come, but probably not before Heaven. In the meantime, the good will suffice. Sometimes we don’t recognize or appreciate the good until we accept that the best, the perfect, will have to wait.
All of this occurred to me as I watched this animated short about a “man” who creates a work of art. At first he loves it, but then, noticing an imperfection, he is driven to try to make it perfect, even as everything else around him is being destroyed in the process. Just before it is too late, he realizes his folly. Clinging desperately to his creation, he learns to love it as it is. To some extent this has been my journey; I pray that it is yours, too.
I. The Place – Jesus journeyed to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd accompanied him.
The name of the city, Nain, means fair (in the sense of beautiful)—and it was, for it sat upon a high hill and commanded a magnificent view.
This is an apt description of this world as well, which has its beauty, its magnificent vistas, and its pleasures and offerings. As men and women of faith, we ought to appreciate the beauty of what God has created. It makes God angry, to quote Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, “when you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” God has given us many gifts and the mystic in all of us is invited to wonder, awe, gratitude, and serene joy.
Thus, we have the first prescription for peace. The world, with all its woe, never loses the beauty of God’s glory. Appreciating this brings serene peace even in the midst of storms. God is always present and speaking to us in what He has made and is continually sustaining.
II. The Pain – Fair though this world is, the very next thing we encounter in the text is pain: As he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. A large crowd from the city was with her.
Indeed, we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. God had made paradise for us, and while we cannot fully understand what that paradise would have been like, it is clear that Adam and Eve were driven from the best of what God had made.
Adam was told that the ground was now cursed on account of him; it brought forth thorns and thistles in a kind of protest. For Adam, work became arduous and sweat-producing; a kind of battle set up, pitting him against the forces of nature in order to provide for his basic needs.
Having simple sobriety about this provides a strange kind of serenity. If we are willing to accept them, there are certain hard truths that will set us free. One of those is that life is hard. Joy will come with the morning light, but some nights of weeping must be endured as we journey to our heavenly homeland where sorrows and sighs are no more.
Accepting the pain of this world is the second part of the prescription for peace in a world of woe.
III. The Portrait of Jesus – When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her. This woman’s sorrow becomes His own. While there is a mystery to God’s allowance of suffering, we must never think that He is unmoved or uncaring.
There is a saying (attributed to various sources) that “Jesus didn’t come to get us out of trouble; He came to get into trouble with us.” Yes, He takes up our pain and experiences it to the utmost. An old hymn says, “Jesus knows all about our struggles, He will guide till the day is done; There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, No, not one! No, not one!”
Note that the word pity comes from the Latin pietas, a word for family love. Jesus looks at this woman and sees a sister, a mother, a dear family member, and He is moved with family love.
Learning to trust in Jesus’ love for us, especially when we suffer, is a critical part of the prescription for peace. We need to pray constantly in our suffering: “Jesus I trust in your love for me!” If we pray this in the Holy Spirit, it brings peace.
IV. The Preview – [Jesus] said to her, “Do not weep.” He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
We have here a directive from Jesus not to weep. That directive is rooted in what He plans to do. This is more than a human, “Cheer up. Don’t be sad” sort of exhortation. Jesus is about to give her back her son. Based on this fact, He says, “Do not weep.”
In a very moving line we are told simply, “Jesus gave him to his mother.”
Do you realize that one day the Lord will do this for you? Jesus will return and restore everyone and everything that the devil and this world have stolen from us. It will all be given back and more than we could ever imagine will be added to it.
In my own life the Lord has given me victories over sufferings and setbacks. I have experienced healings and restorations, as I’m sure you have. These are previews; they are down payments, if you will, on the total restoration that the Lord is going to effect in your life. Whatever you have lost, you will recover it all and far more besides.
What previews have you had in your life? What victories? What healings? What restorations? These are like previews of the promised and more-than-full restoration that is to come. What is your testimony?
It is important for you to reflect on the previews the Lord has already given, for these are another important part of the prescription for peace: the promise of complete restoration and the previews he has already given of that promise.
Here, then, is a prescription for peace in a world of woe:
Make the journey to Nain, a place called fair and beautiful. That is, let the Lord open your eyes to the beauty and blessings all around you. Come to see the magnificence of His glory on display at every moment. It will give you peace and serene joy.
Ask for the grace to accept that we currently live in a “paradise lost” and that life is hard. This sober acceptance of life’s sorrows brings a paradoxical serenity because our resentment that we do not live in a perfect world goes away. Accepting that this world, with all its beauty, also has hardships, brings peace and a determination to journey to the place where joys will never end.
Accept the Lord’s love for you even amidst His mysterious allowance of suffering. Accept that He is deeply moved and just say over and over, “Jesus, I trust in your love for me.”
Be alert to the previews that God gives and has already given you, previews of the future glory that awaits the faithful. Once you have accepted this evidence, this testimony from the Holy Spirit, peacefully accept the Lord’s instruction not to weep and His promise that you will recover it all—and much more besides.
This motet from Night Prayer is by John Shepherd. The translation of the Latin text (In pace, in idipsum dormiam) is “In peace, in the self-same, I will rest.”
Tolerance is often bandied about today with a meaning far removed from its original definition. It has come to mean agreeing with or supporting what someone else is saying or doing; one is deemed tolerant to the degree that he goes along with another’s words or behavior.
However, if one supports another’s position or actions, one doesn’t need to “tolerate” it. We don’t tolerate what we love; we tolerate what we hate; we tolerate people with whom we disagree, not our kindred spirits.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines toleration as follows:
Toleration—from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance, or suffer—generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained .
It goes on to make a distinction that is often lost today.
[I]t is essential for the concept of toleration that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component (cf. King 1976, 44-54) is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation” .
In other words, by definition, tolerance involves putting up something with considered wrong or displeasing but not so wrong or displeasing that it must be forbidden in each and every instance. Tolerance does not imply that we approve of the tolerated thing as something that is good. This essential point is glossed over by those who insist that disapproval is a sign of intolerance.
Tolerance, properly defined, is good and necessary, but like most good things, it has its limits. Tolerance is essential in an imperfect world. Without it, nations might go to war over simple human imperfections. We all have friends and family members whom we like but who have traits that annoy us (as do all human beings). Without tolerance we would be locked in a fruitless attempt to remake each person so as to be “perfect” to us. We tolerate people’s less desirable characteristics for loftier purposes such as harmony, friendship, respect, mercy, and kindness.
However, there must be limits to tolerance. Some things in human relationships that are “deal breakers.” There are things that cannot be tolerated. For example, serious and persistent lies breach the trust necessary for relationships. Behavior that endangers one or both parties (either physically or spiritually) can make it necessary to end relationships or at least to establish firm boundaries within them.
In wider society, tolerance has necessary limits as well. For example, we appreciate the freedom to come and go as we please, and it is good to tolerate the comings and goings of others even if we disapprove of where they go. Without this general tolerance of movement, things would grind to a halt. In order to be able to come and go freely we put up with some of its less desirable aspects. However, we don’t permit people to drive on sidewalks or run red lights. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We also restrict unaccompanied minors from entering certain establishments. In effect, every just law encodes some limit on tolerance. Conservatives and liberals debate what limits the law should impose, but both want some limits to be enacted. Even libertarians, while wanting less governmental interference in general, see a role for some laws and limits; they are not anarchists.
Thus, the modern struggle with the issue of tolerance seems to be twofold:
The definition of tolerance – Many people today equate tolerance with approval, losing an essential part of its definition: that tolerance involves “putting up with” people or things with which we disagree.
The limits of tolerance – In our modern world we are being asked to tolerate increasingly troublesome behavior. Much of it involves sexual matters. Proponents of sexual promiscuity demand increasing tolerance for it despite the fact that such behavior leads to disease, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single-parent families, divorce, and all the ills that accompany a declining family structure. Supporters of abortion demand tolerance of what they advocate despite the fact that abortion results in the death of an innocent human being. Many people of faith think that the limits of tolerance have been exceeded such matters.
Rapprochement? The debate about tolerance and its limits is not a new one, but it seems more intense today when there appears to be so little shared moral vision. One way forward might be to return to a proper definition of tolerance. Perhaps if we stop (incorrectly) equating tolerance with approval, an atmosphere of greater respect can be achieved in these debates. To ask for tolerance is not always wrong, but to demand approval is.
Consider the debate over homosexual activity. Many people of faith, at least those who hold to the biblical view, believe homosexual behavior to be morally wrong. The same is true for heterosexual relations outside the bond of (one man/one woman) marriage, such as fornication, adultery, polygamy, and incest. Because we disapprove of homosexual activity, we are often labeled intolerant (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, and hateful).
Tolerance is really not the issue, however. Most Christians are willing to tolerate that people “do things in their bedrooms” of which we disapprove. As long as we are not directly confronted with this behavior and told we must approve of it, we are generally willing to stay out of people’s private lives. What has happened in modern times, though, is that approval is demanded for behavior we consider immoral, and when we refuse to approve, we are called intolerant. This is a misuse of the term.
Our objections do not arise from bigotry or hatred (as some claim) but rather from a principled, biblical stance. Our disapproval does not, ipso facto, make us bigots or haters. Neither does it mean we are intolerant or that we seek to force an end to behavior we do not consider good. Very few Christians I have ever heard from are asking for police to enter bedrooms and make arrests.
We are not intolerant; we simply do not approve of homosexual activity. According to the proper definition of tolerance, it is the very fact of our disapproval that permits us to show tolerance in this area.
Finally, I offer a thought on who really “owns” tolerance. Opponents of traditional Christianity often claim the high ground of tolerance for themselves, but the paradoxical result of this holier-than-thou attitude is increasing intolerance of Christian faith by the self-proclaimed tolerant ones. Legal restrictions on the proclamation of the Christian faith in the public square have been growing. The exclusion of Catholic charitable organizations from receiving public funding if they insist upon adhering to the principles of the faith is becoming more common as well. In other parts of the world where free speech is less enshrined, Catholic priests and bishops have been sued and even arrested for “hate speech” because they preach traditional biblical morality. None of this sounds very tolerant to me!
Our opponents need not approve of our beliefs, but they ought to exhibit greater tolerance of us—at least the same tolerance they ask from us.
Fear is a complex passion. On the one hand, there are things that we ought to fear such as grave physical and spiritual dangers. The fear of being near the edge of a cliff might well save our life. The fear of serious sin and the punishment we might experience or the offense to God (who loves us) is both appropriate and holy. Sadly, more people lack this holy fear rooted in the possible loss of what is most precious to us: our eternal life with God.
There are also things we fear that we should not, and things that we fear more than we should. These sorts of fears are usually rooted in our disordered and inordinate affections.
A disordered affection is a love for something that is sinful. We ought not to love it at all, but we do; this causes us to fear anyone or anything that interferes with accessing and enjoying what is fundamentally sinful.
An inordinate affection is a love for something that is good in itself, but the love we have for it is too great. Loving it too much causes us to fear the loss of it more than we should. Many things in this world are lawful pleasures, but we come to love them too much. We love things more than people, and both things and people more than God. This is all out of order. We are to use things, love people, and worship God. Too often, though, we use people, love things, and forget about God.
There is also the great struggle that many have called the “sin of human respect,” wherein we fear people more than we fear God and seek to please people more than to please God. When we fall prey to this, we are willing to do sinful things in order to ingratiate ourselves to other human beings, fearing and revering them more than we do God.
Fear is a necessary passion for us, but too often our fears are misplaced and inordinate. Our fears are easily manipulated by Satan and the world.
A major area for spiritual growth is knowing what and whom to fear. Apart from God we will seldom get this answer right. We are easy prey for the devil and the world to draw us into all sorts of inordinate and even foolish fears.
Because a story can often have an impact that mere discourse cannot, I would like to illustrate this teaching with a well-known children’s story.
The story is the basis for two phrases in common use. Most are familiar with them, but some have never read (or have forgotten) the story from which they come. The first is “The sky is falling!” and the second is “Chicken Little” (used as a description of a person).
Both these phrases come from the children’s story Chicken Little. It is a story that speaks to the need to be careful about what we fear and what we do not fear. For indeed, one of the traps of Satan is to get us to focus on what we ought not to fear, or on what is secondary, so that we do not focus on what we should fear, or on what is more important. Aristotle, citing Socrates, said that courage is the virtue of knowing what to fear and what not to fear.
Please take the time to read this story completely. It may seem tedious to us modern folks with limited attention spans, but its conclusion is made more powerful by the litany of details. Please share it with your children as well.
Chicken Little was in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head. It scared her so much she trembled all over. She shook so hard, half her feathers fell out. “Help! Help!” she cried. “The sky is falling! I must go tell the king!” So she ran in great fright to tell the king.
Along the way she met Henny Penny. “Where are you going, Chicken Little?” Henny Penny asked. “Oh, help!” Chicken Little cried. “The sky is falling!” “How do you know?” asked Henny Penny. “Oh! I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head!” “This is terrible, just terrible!” Henny Penny clucked. “We’d better run.”
So they both ran away as fast as they could. Soon they met Ducky Lucky. “Where are you going, Chicken Little and Henny Penny?” he asked. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! We’re going to tell the king!” they cried. “How do you know?” asked Ducky Lucky. “I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear, oh dear!” Ducky Lucky quacked. “We’d better run!” So they all ran down the road as fast as they could.
Soon they met Goosey Loosey waddling along the roadside. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, and Ducky Lucky,” called Goosey Loosey. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “We’re running for our lives!” cried Chicken Little. “The sky is falling!” clucked Henny Penny. “And we’re running to tell the king!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Goosey Loosey. “I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Goodness!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “Then I’d better run with you.”
And they all ran in a great fright across a meadow. Before long they met Turkey Lurkey strutting back and forth. “Hello there, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, and Goosey Loosey,” he called. “Where are you all going in such a hurry?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little. “We’re running for our lives!” clucked Henny Penny. “The sky is falling!” quacked Ducky Lucky. “And we’re running to tell the king!” squawked Goosey Loosey. “How do you know the sky is falling?” asked Turkey Lurkey. “I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “Oh dear! I always suspected the sky would fall someday,” Turkey Lurkey gobbled. “I’d better run with you.”
So they all ran with all their might, until they met the fox, Foxy Loxy. “Well, well,” said Foxy Loxy. “Where are you rushing on such a fine day?” “Help! Help!” cried Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey. “It’s not a fine day at all. The sky is falling, and we’re running to tell the king!” “How do you know the sky is falling?” said Foxy Loxy. “I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, and part of it fell on my head,” Chicken Little said. “I see,” said Foxy Loxy. “Well then, follow me, and I’ll show you the way to the king.”
So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him the sky was falling.
Notice how fearing the wrong thing, and fearing it to excess, blinded them to what was more truly to be feared, what was more truly a threat. Here lies a doorway for the devil. He incites us to fear lesser things like unpopularity, loss of money, poor health, the loss of worldly trinkets, the next election, global warming, persecution, and worldly setbacks, so that we do not fear Judgment Day and the possibility of Hell.
The day of destiny is closing in, but never mind that! The sky is falling: the wrong political party is in power; the planet is overheating; the economy is about to collapse. You might lose your home to a storm; people might not think you are pretty enough, tall enough, or thin enough. Be afraid; be very afraid! You don’t have time to pray and ask God to get you ready for Judgment Day because you are too busy being afraid that eating food X may cause cancer, or that people may be laughing at you because of the five or ten pounds you gained last Christmas, or that the Yellowstone Caldera may blow at any time.
I will not tell you that the aforementioned concerns have no merit, only that they have less merit than what most people never think about or fear: where they are going to spend eternity. Chicken Little and her friends were easy prey for Foxy Loxy because they were obsessed with lesser things and ignored more dangerous (and obvious in this case) things like a fox!
Yes, “Foxy Loxy” has you worried about smaller and passing things. Now you are easy prey. It will take but a moment for him to lead you astray and have you for dinner!
Make sure you fear the right thing. God has a plan to simplify our lives. We are to fear Him and be sober about getting ready, with His help, for the certain-to-come Day of Judgment. If we fear Him, we don’t need to fear anyone or anything else.
Bishop Robert Barron has observed that the three tallest buildings in Chicago are insurance buildings. Fear “looms large” in our culture, but no insurance company can insure you against the only certain threat you face: Judgment Day. Only God can do that.
The sky may or may not be falling. (Personally, I doubt 80 percent of the media’s fearmongering.) But Judgment Day surely is looming. Foxy Loxy (Satan) is waiting for you. Will he get you? Will your fear of the Lord help you to avoid falling prey to his deceptions?
Courage is fearing the right thing and the right one.
In the first reading for Tuesday’s daily Mass there is a description of a remarkable event in the lives of Paul and Silas. Even more remarkable than the event itself is their reaction to it. Let’s pick up the story told in Acts:
The crowd in Philippi joined in the attack on Paul and Silas, and the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After inflicting many blows on them, they threw them into prison and instructed the jailer to guard them securely. When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake (Acts 16:22-25).
It is easy to read this passage and underestimate the severity of what happened. The two were beaten with rods. Such beatings varied in intensity, but because the jailer is later described as having to bathe their wounds, we can reasonably conclude that it was severe. Beatings like this one led to deep bruises and external bleeding, and often caused such things as internal bleeding, broken ribs, and trauma to internal organs.
After this severe beating, likely bloody and in extreme pain, Paul and Silas were bound by leg shackles and cast into the deepest and darkest cell of the prison. The cell likely contained rats and vermin and any water was likely contaminated with human waste.
All this would be enough to lead most people into despair and self-pity. Yet what do we find?
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:26).
Despite a terrible beating, severe pain, and horrible conditions, they were singing and praising God loudly enough for the other prisoners to hear.
Here is a remarkable teaching: happiness is an inside job. Paul and Silas, despite every physical discomfort, had a joy that could not be repressed or taken away. Their connection to God could not be severed.
Too often, we root our happiness in external matters such as money, esteem, and creature comforts. Yet many who have these things in abundance are still unhappy, while many who lack them are happy. Happiness goes deeper than external matters. There is a joy we can have that the world didn’t give and therefore cannot take away.
There are moments of sorrow and tension in every life, including mine, but deep down there is a stable serenity the Lord has given me for which I am overwhelmingly grateful. I have come to discover that deep inner place of peace, joy, and contentment—and it is largely unaffected by external factors.
There is a Greek word, μακάριοι (makarioi), which describes a kind of stable happiness or blessed state. The pagan Greeks used it to refer to the happiness of the gods, which was unaffected by worldly matters. Jesus takes up the verb form of the word in the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. In other words, stably blessed and happy are those who have their treasure in Heaven rather than in this passing and unstable world.
We should seek the gift of inner and stable happiness, the gift to be like Paul and Silas, the gift to bless the Lord at all times and in all circumstances. This, of course, is the “normal Christian life.” As Scripture says,
I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).
Paul himself says,
Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4).
Yes, the normal Christian life is one of joy that is largely unaffected by external events, joy that is accessible even in moments of sorrow, joy in which a consolation, difficult to describe, is always at work.
There are two final things to notein this passage, both of which show how Paul’s and Silas’ joy and confident disposition affected others. There is a saying, when I get better, others get better too. In other words, everyone affects those around him.
The first thing to note is the liberating power. The text says,
There was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose (Acts 16:27).
It is the role of the Christian to exude a joy and a confidence that liberates others from the prison cells of despair, sin, and depression.
Do people see you as a person of hope? Does your joy liberate and give confidence?
Second, note how the love manifested by Paul and Silas moves the jailer to repentance and conversion. The text says,
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
Consider that the jailer may well have been involved in beating Paul and Silas. The average person might be happy to see the jailer try to kill himself. Paul, however, calls out to try to save him, even at the risk of being imprisoned again. So moved is the jailer by this love and faith that he seeks immediate conversion. How has your love and reverence for life won the hearts of others?
Yes, happiness is an inside job. Here is a gift to be sought from God: an inner transformation and peace that is stable and largely unaffected by external things. What a gift this is to us, and to others around us, for when I get better, others get better, too!
There is a tendency today to trivialize and reduce the human person. One of the ways we do this is by claiming that it doesn’t really matter what people think or believe, only that they behave well. For example, we think that if a man is a good citizen, pays his taxes, doesn’t beat his wife, and is kind to children and animals then it doesn’t matter what he believes. This trivializes the man, because each of us was made to know the one, true God. We were made to know the truth and, knowing this truth, to be set free (Jn 8:32). God’s plan for us is more than just that we behave “well” from a human perspective. He offers each of us a complete transformation: a new mind and heart, attained through personal knowledge and experience of Him. This will certainly affect our behavior, but God is offering us much more than just to be considered “nice” by other people.
One of the ways Scripture expresses what God is offering us at a deeper level is the appeal to the mind that so frequently occurs in the New Testament. The very first words of Jesus as He began His public ministry announced the invitation to receive a new mind. Sadly, most English translations do not adequately capture what the Greek text actually reports Jesus as saying. Most English renderings of Jesus’ opening words are “Repent and believe the Good News” (cf. Mark 1:15; Matt 3:2). The most common meaning of “to repent” is to reform one’s behavior, to do good and avoid evil, to stop sinning. The Greek word used in the text is far richer than this. Μετανοείτε (metanoeite) most literally means “to come to a new mind.” It comes from meta (hard to translate perfectly into English but often indicating accompaniment, change, or movement of some sort) and nous or noieo (meaning mind or thought). Hence, metanoeite means thinking differently, reconsidering, coming to a new mind. So, what the Lord is more fully saying is this: “Come to new mind and believe in the Good News.”
Thus, Jesus is not merely saying that we should clean up our act. He is inviting us to come to a new mind, which He alone can give us. If we think differently, we will surely act differently. Metanoeite can and does include the notion of reformed behavior, but it is the result of a new mind. If we think differently (by the new mind Christ will give us), we will start to see things more as God does. We will share His priorities, His vision. We will love what He loves. We will think more as He does. This will effect a change in our behavior.
There is a famous quote (attributed to various sources) that goes like this: “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” Notice how it all begins with the mind. Our mind shapes our decisions, habits, character, and ultimately our destiny.
The mind is the deepest part of the human person. It is not always possible in Scripture to perfectly distinguish between the word “mind” and the word “heart.” Sometimes they are used interchangeably and at other times to mean different things. For the purpose of this discussion, the mind can be understood as quite similar to the heart in that it is at the deepest part of the human person, where thought, memory, imagination, and deliberation take place. The mind is not to be equated merely with the brain or the intellect; it is deeper and richer than these. Using the mind is not simply a function of the physical body but rather involves the soul as well. The mind is where we live, think, reflect, ponder, remember, and deliberate.
Hence, in appealing to the mind, God is offering a transformation of the whole human person, for it is from within the mind and heart that all proceeds. Good behavior is a nice goal, but God does not trivialize us by trying to reform only our behavior. He offers us much more: to transform us.
Thus, what a person thinks and believes does matter. In these hyper-tolerant times, in which tolerance is one of the few agreed-upon virtues remaining, we like to brush aside the details. We are almost proud of ourselves for affirming that people can think and believe whatever they want as long as they behave well. Perhaps a person is free to think whatever he pleases, but we are foolish to think that this does not ultimately influence his behavior. Our dignity is that we were made to know the truth and thus to know Jesus Christ, who is the truth and the only way to the Father (Jn 14:6). Hence, our dignity is not just an outer transformation but an inner one as well. In fact, it is an inner transformation that leads to an outer transformation.
Below are a few more Scripture passages that refer to the mind as the locus of transformation and the main battleground where grace must win. Without a transformed, clear, sober mind we will give way to sin and bad behavior. Transformation begins with the mind. My comments on each text appear in red.
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2). Transformation comes by the renewal of the mind.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. … [For] although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools …. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. … He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them (Rom 1:18 ff selectae). Suppression of the truth leads to a depraved mind, which leads to depraved behavior. It begins in the mind, which is the real battleground.
Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom 8:5). Sinful nature proceeds from a worldly mind. Those who have received the gift of the Spirit and embraced it fully have their minds set on what God desires. The remainder of Romans 8 goes on to describe the complete transformation of the human person resulting from having the mind set on what God desires.
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4). Worldly thinking leads to spiritual blindness.
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way … put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-24). The bad behavior of the Gentiles comes from minds that are frivolous and darkened. The new mind we receive from Christ gives us a new, transformed self.
Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (Phil 3:19). Destruction comes from a mind that is set on earthly things.
This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people(Heb 8:10). God does not merely want to improve our behavior. He wants to transform us interiorly, to a new mind and heart that have his law written deeply in them.
The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). When the mind is divided or impure, behavior is corrupted.
Therefore, gird the loins of your mind; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:13). A sober and clear mind that actively seeks God’s will leads to a self-controlled and hopeful life.
The end of all things is near. Therefore, be of clear mind and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7). In turbulent times it is necessary to have a clear, sober mind so as to be able to control one’s behavior and to be serene enough to pray.
The lyrics of this song (“Caribbean Medley” or “I’ve Got My Mind Made Up,” by Donnie McClurkin) say, “I’ve got my mind made up and I won’t turn back because I want to see my Jesus someday.”
When it was evening, the disciples of Jesus went down to the sea, embarked in a boat, and went across the sea to Capernaum. It had already grown dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea was stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were afraid. But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading (John 6:16-21).
The images in this passage are reminiscent of the journey of life. The disciples have set out in a boat to cross to the other shore. We, too, have set out for another shore in our life. Darkness grows for them as it often does for us. The winds are contrary, and the sea becomes choppy. The must row because the sails are useless. So it is for us also. We would rather let the wind carry us effortlessly to the other shore, but while life has many pleasant moments when we can do this, there are other times when the storms and winds assail us and make our journey difficult.
The disciples are a few miles into their journey when the crisis arises—or is it a blessing? They see Jesus walking on the water. Although He is their blessing, they don’t see it that way. Other gospel passages say that they thought they were seeing a ghost (e.g., Matt 14:26).
Life can be like this. Our blessing, our solution, our healing can be right in front of us, yet we are terrified. I remember one time when my cat was trapped in the attic of the rectory (I have no idea how she got up there). We made an opening in the ceiling to get her out, but she was too terrified to come near enough that I could let her down. It took a long time (and some kitty snacks) to lure her. Although I was her rescuer, she saw me as her tormenter. We are often like this, fearing the very Savior sent to us. We are like children who scream in fright as the doctor approaches with the shot that will cure or prevent sickness. The Lord God once said of us,
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son. But the more I called them, the farther they ran from Me …. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in My arms, but they never realized that it was I who healed them … [who] bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:1-4).
Yes, we often fear the very source or means of our blessing.
The text says, “… and they were afraid.” They are looking right at Jesus, their savior, yet they do not realize it; they do not recognize Him and are afraid. We, too, are like this. Why do we sometimes fear Jesus, the very source of our salvation? Because He does not always heal us on our terms. He talks of strange remedies like the cross. Strangely, He permits storms in our life and we are both fearful and resentful. However, the very cross and storms we fear are often the means by which He saves us! We need some degree of suffering and storms to keep us humble, to help us to grow in wisdom, to trust Him, and to keep calling on Him. Jesus talks of unsettling things like taking up our cross and following Him, losing our life so as to find it and save it. Jesus Himself won the victory hanging on a cross, not astride a war-horse slaughtering His enemies.
We see Jesus coming toward us in a storm, but rather than simply stopping the storm, He tells us not to be afraid. Why doesn’t He just take away the storm? I don’t know; He simply says, Do not be afraid. It is I. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
Jesus wants His presence to be enough for us. He is with us, so why are we afraid? There are going to be storms; that’s a promise—but He will be with us; that, too, is a promise. There’s a saying that’s particularly: “Don’t tell God how big your storm is. Tell the storm how big your God is.”
The gospel passage we are discussing ends abruptly by saying, They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore to which they were heading. Well, what do you know, they finally understand that it is Jesus and they reach the shore!
Note that there is no indication in the passage that the storm ended. The winds may have still been blowing, the seas still rough, but none of that matters once they have reached their destination. One may think that this destination merely refers to the boat docks at Capernaum, but that would be worldly, limited, and erroneous. The shore to which we all sail is none other than the Lord Himself. He is our peace, our goal, our destination.
At times His solutions may involve paradox. The cross is strange medicine to the worldly—but loss can usher in gain, a door may close only that another may open, death can bring life. Do not be afraid; He is near. That is not a ghost approaching you in the storm, it is the Lord! All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).
This is a vignette, an essay on life. Storms will come, but the solution is near: Do not be afraid. It is I.
Help me, Lord, to know that you are the source of my peace. You are always near; Help me to hear your voice, saying, Do not be afraid. It is I.
There is an old gospel song that has these lyrics:
I love the Lord;
He heard my cry;
And he pitied every groan.
Long as I live;
And troubles rise;
I’ll hasten to his throne.
In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Thursday of the First Week of Lent) Jesus says,
If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Lk 11:13)
I received an e-mail once, regarding this verse:
“This line bugs me. I think I know the larger point that Jesus makes here, and/or perhaps it’s poorly translated, but it seems a bit harsh for Jesus to refer to mankind as ‘wicked’. Wicked? That’s tough stuff! But perhaps, to Jesus, we are evil.”
So what is going on here? Why does Jesus call us wicked?
First let’s make sure that the translation from the Greek is a good one. The Greek expression used is πονηροὶ ὑπάρχοντες (poneroi hyparchontes). Poneroi is defined “bad, of a bad nature or condition,” but it is also defined as “full of labors, annoyances, hardships.” Hyparchontes is defined as “from the very beginning” or “being inherently.”
Thus, the translation “you who are wicked” is likely accurate. However, there is a sort of sympathy contained in it as well, implying that this wickedness comes from the fact that we have inherited a fallen nature that is weighed down with the labors and hardships that come from living in this fallen world, this “paradise lost.”
What do the commentaries say? It is interesting that in the seven modern commentaries I consulted, not one of them mentions this expression. However, some of the ancient Fathers did:
Cyril of Alexandria wrote, When he says, “You who are evil” he means, “You whose mind is capable of being influenced by evil and not uniformly inclined to good like the God of all” (Commentary on Luke, Homily 79).
In one of his homilies, Bede had this to say:Any human mortal, weak and still burdened with sinful flesh, does not refuse to give the good things which he possesses, although they are earthly and weak, to the children whom he loves (Homilies on the Gospel 2.14).
Elsewhere, Bede is quoted as follows:He calls the lovers of the world evil, who give those things which they judge good according to their sense, which are also good in their nature, and are useful to aid imperfect life. Hence he adds, “[They] know how to give good gifts to [their] children.” The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Lk 11:13).
Athanasius said,Now unless the Holy Spirit were of the substance of God, Who alone is good, He would by no means be called good, since our Lord [Jesus] refused to be called good, inasmuch as He was made man (Quoted in the Catena Aurea at Luke 11:13).
What, then, can we draw from the fact that the Lord calls us “wicked”?
Jesus seems to be speaking by comparison or degree. He may not mean that we are evil in an absolute sense, rather that we are evil in comparison to God, who is absolute good. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages have fewer comparative words, so the ancient Jews would often use absolute categories to set forth comparison or degree. For example, elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must hate our father, mother, children, and even our very self and that we must love Him (e.g., Luke 14:26). This does not mean that we are to literally despise our family and others. It means that we are to love Jesus more than we love them. Because of the paucity of comparative words available, the ancient Jews used a lot of what we would consider to be hyperbole. In modern English we might say, “If you, then, who are not nearly as holy as God and are prone to sin, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God, who is absolutely good and not prone to sin, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”
However, we ought to be careful not to discount Jewish hyperbole and simply rewrite the words; the point of the hyperbole cannot be completely set aside. Created things may share in God’s goodness, but God alone is absolutely good. So good is He, in fact, that everything else is practically evil in comparison. The hyperbole places the emphasis of God’s absolute goodness. We have no goodness apart from God’s goodness. If we do share in God’s goodness, it is infinitesimal in comparison. Hence, as Bede said, The Apostles even, who by the merit of their election had exceeded the goodness of mankind in general, are said to be evil in comparison with Divine goodness, since nothing is of itself good but God alone.
Even Jesus refused the title “good” for Himselfin terms of His humanity. The Gospel of Mark contains the following dialogue: As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good except God alone (Mk 10:17-18). As God, Jesus is good—absolute good. One could also argue that in His sinless humanity, Jesus is also good; but Jesus, presuming the man merely regarded Him as ordinarily human, rebukes him and declares that God alone is good.
In the end, it’s time for us to eat some humble pie. Jesus probably does not mean we are absolutely evil and have nothing good in us, but God alone is absolutely good. He is so good that we can barely be thought of as anything but evil in the face of His immense goodness. Humble pie doesn’t have much sugar in it, does it!