Each Lent it seems I come back to this theme – how do we think about sin and weakness? It’s been helpful for me to examine my own understanding – I can’t make much sense of redemption if I have a distorted view of the sin and weakness that necessitated such a Savior. And an unhealthy view of sin and suffering I think can also sometimes prevent us from fully experiencing the joys of salvation in the here and now.
“According to the design of God, even temptation and sin permitted by Him may bring a soul into His arms. It is for this reason He allows suffering to happen. Therefore, when it does happen, we have no reason to be bewildered or downhearted. On the contrary, our soul should be stirred and turn to God. St. Paul once asked himself why God allowed sin to come into this world and he gives the bold answer, “…that He might have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). He interpreted this statement elsewhere when pondering these great thoughts: “And so I willing boast of my weaknesses instead, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor 12:9).” – Fr J. Kentenich*
What’s an unhealthy view of sin and weakness? Being bewildered, being downhearted. When we painfully knock up against our own limitations, it’s so easy to give in to temptation of despair, of throwing in the towel – or of hiding in shame. What is underlying that unhealthy relationship to our own smallness? In my own life, and in the hearts and souls of my friends and those I am blessed to walk with on this journey – I think I’ve seen that what underlies it is the notion that I’ve got to secure by myself my own salvation. I’ve got to “get it right.” And if I think it’s all up to me, then I’ve got to anxiously guard against falling. And if it’s all up to me, then when I fall, I’ll either hide, or give up. “How did this happen again?” That’s bewilderment, as if I’m surprised I still have a lot of growing to do. Or, “This is so hard, why try?” That’s downheartedness, the temptation to despair as if I’d been given a task that’s actually impossible for me to accomplish.
So what’s another alternative? We’ve got to confront the underlying fallacy that our salvation, our holiness, our love (anything really) is entirely up to me. Yes it is partially up to me in that God won’t save me with out me- I’ve got to give my free “yes” and then participate fully with Him in working out my salvation in fear and trembling, so to speak. But where is the accent? I think the accent should rather be placed on total childlike trust in God as our merciful Father, rather than placing the accent on our meticulously efforts to build from the ground up. In other words, building up from a moral base of do’s and don’ts can be helpful and has had a place throughout history in the Christian faith – but I’m wondering if in these modern times, it might not be much more efficacious, swift and less full of the misery of staring at our belly-buttons to rather be like St Paul, to boast or rejoice in our weaknesses and learn to instinctively fly into the arms of God in response.
“On Holy Saturday, the Church draws our attention to the same thing, this mysterium iniquitatis – the mystery of sin [or iniquity] when she sings, “O happy fault of Adam which has brought us so great a Redeemer!” Temptation awakens a proud sense of weakness in our hearts, deepening our humility. We learn humility far better from humiliations then from meditation… True humility forces man to trust in God’s mercy and the Precious Blood of Our Savior.” – Fr J. Kentenich*
So when we experience a humiliation – an encounter with our weakness or sin – we can be open to that experience as a gift of God’s mercy, and let Him draw us up into Himself, like the suffering child who is swept up into the arms of his mother.“Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands” (Is 49:15-16). Here I naturally think of our Blessed Mother – along with Paul, it seems this was her way to God too, to rejoice in her lowliness. Might that be an entirely different sort of experience?
Furthermore, by recognizing our own weakness we become more patient with the faults of others. In our own weakness we can learn to understand and fully appreciate the weakness and precariousness of others. In this way God arranges everything for our good. St Augustine was right when he used the words of St. Paul, “God makes all things work together for the good of those who Him,” (Rom 8:28) adding the words, “even sin.” The love of God makes itself evident in everything so that from our hearts we fervently return His love.
I think this is my favorite creative result of my own efforts to try to make this shift in perspective about sin and weakness. The more I’ve gotten real with myself about my own struggles, and the more I’ve let myself lean into God in response (rather than anxiously defend, hide or despair), the more naturally I’ve experienced compassion with myself, and as an outflow, compassion for others. Everything works for our good, the good of those we love, the good of all those around us! We are an interrelated human community, the Body of Christ. And in this way, this Lent, our own efforts at working out our holiness with God can be a gift to each other, and a gift to world, to make this world a more merciful place – and join in that great hymn of mercy, if you will, as our dear Pope Francis has so faithfully been calling out for us to join him.
Dear Mary, our Mother and Queen of Mercy, help us to know our limits as you did, as a sign of the mercy and love of God, that we might be transformed into vessels of mercy for others!