This delicate lover: God rarely embraces us by force
In thinking about Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection this year, I was struck by the extraordinary delicacy of God’s efforts to make us obedient to His will. I don’t mean to say that the crucifixion was particularly “delicate” or that His miracles should have been more stupendous. But God has a habit of quietly reaffirming His love for us, rather than “forcing” our love for Him.
The reason may be obvious. It is exactly the same reason that God allows evil so much latitude in His Providence. Indeed, this is a perennial complaint against the very idea of God—that if God existed, He could not possibly be idle in the face of such great suffering and evil. Catholics typically respond to this argument by pointing out that God has created us for love, and that it is in the very nature of love to depend on freedom—to depend on a free personal decision and effort to put the other ahead of the self. An offer of love always includes the possibility of both evil and suffering.
The same inescapable logic governs God’s refusal to act in ways which makes it impossible for us to deny His active presence in our lives. After all, Our Lord could have announced a program something like this:
I will instruct you over a period of three days. On the first day, I will reverse the properties of earth and sea so that you suddenly find yourselves treading water while your boats are stuck fast on dry land. But just before you drown, I will change things back. On the second day, I will strike every person with an extraordinarily painful illness. But just before you give up and attempt to commit suicide, I will heal you. On the third day, I will make it impossible for you to complete any ordinary task without asking for my help. But when you ask for my help, the task will become immediately both simple and satisfying. Then I will line you all up between a pit of flames and a land flowing with milk and honey and give you the choice of leaping into the flames or acknowledging that I am the LORD.
What would we do in response to this program? The vast majority of us would acknowledge God, enter into this earthly paradise, and then immediately look for ways to pursue whatever illicit desires we hold dear. A small number would choose the flames out of sheer pride, refusing to submit themselves to God. An even smaller number—perhaps actually the very best of us all—would say to God as they would say to a tyrant: Kill me if you like, but I will not permit my will to be determined by mere power.
But how many would discern God’s love, and respond in kind?
The vast majority of us have not personally witnessed miracles which admit of no other explanation. Almost anything in this line that we witness can be ascribed to unusual circumstances, causes that we do not yet understand, mere chance, or even the failure of our own senses to give us an honest report. Moreover, it is symptomatic of both Christianity and Judaism that the most spectacular miracles tend to have been witnessed in other times and places, a factor that dramatically reduces the credibility we ascribe to those who have reported them. For these reasons, we recognize only too well that we can always find a reason to deny that Divine agency is at work. Indeed, many of us are prone to trust our own experience of the absence of God—even if it is we ourselves who have driven Him away—more than we trust the testimony of others concerning His Presence.
In other words, the miraculous rarely compels our assent. Moreover, if it did compel our assent, most of us would respond to miracles simply because we had no choice. More often than not, ours would be a surly and external compliance, lacking entirely in the love which leads us to holiness as we share more and more in the life of God.
Surely this is the reason that Our Lord typically leads us by small steps, employing tiny miracles of grace—little seeds which almost invisibly take root in our souls and grow, enabling us to recognize God because we have received His love, and then learning gradually to make this love our own so that we can love Him in return. The mystery of human freedom lies at the heart of this interaction with grace. We find ourselves prompted in delicate ways, and our will has the freedom to instruct the intellect to rationalize, spinning out reasons to reject any given overture. But if we raise no barrier, more grace is given to enable us to carry through. By many little steps, then—frequently by many little and faltering steps—we learn how to recognize and respond to grace.
Grace is synonymous with love. If we are docile to grace, we become habituated to it. For most of us this is a long and relatively slow process. The miracles of which we have heard, and the various motives of credibility with which we are familiar, serve us well as reasons to stay on track, confirming us against occasional doubts, strengthening the rational grounds of our Faith, and teaching us, as St. Peter put it, to frame an answer to those who question the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15). But if we look back, we are unlikely to find any absolutely decisive moment in which we were compelled to believe. What we find instead is a growing awareness, often through many struggles, of the simple and very quiet fact that God is at work within us.
Consider how the Lord instructed the great prophet Elijah when he fled for his life, hiding himself in a cave:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?... Go, return on your way.” [1 Kgs 19:11-15]
Our Lord and Savior rarely touches us with gales, or earthquakes or fires which are manifestly from His own hand. He will of course permit us to be cured of our hubris through suffering. But He always prefers something more intimate. The master of sweet somethings, He prefers to reveal His astonishingly delicate Presence in our hearts.
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