Providence and Realism
In his Angelus address for February 27th, Pope Benedict noted how important it is to trust in God’s providence, and how wrong are those who think that such trust is somehow “unrealistic”. The Holy Father did not elaborate much on the point, but it seems to me to be tremendously important.
If we do not trust God, two very damaging results follow. First, we are inevitably left to our own devices. If we trust other people, we will soon realize that the results of such trust are spotty at best, meaning that such trust will become provisional, a trust that may or may not be rewarded. Thus we learn that, in the last analysis, we are on our own, just as if we trusted nobody but ourselves—and if we’re reflective, we aren’t so sure about ourselves. Unfortunately, this generally has two enormous consequences. On the one hand, if things are going well, we develop an exaggerated sense of our own importance and abilities. On the other, if things are going badly, we doubt our own self-worth. Or we may project this doubt onto others, believing that everyone else is out to get us, which amounts to saying the same thing.
Either way, our own self-image depends far too much on how others respond to us, and so on how we make our way in the world. Because this self-evaluation depends so strongly on particular circumstances and invariably skewed perceptions, it seriously limits our real opportunity for personal growth.
The second damaging result arises from the simple fact that a refusal to recognize Providence is actually a sort of blindness. This is also true in two ways. Not only do we fail to appreciate that the presence of God in the world is the bedrock reality on which alone can be built a constructive life, but without God we also evaluate everything we see and experience incorrectly. For example, we fail to see the potential for good in painful situations. We think things are bad simply because they don’t advance our way in the world, or that things are good simply because they do.
So what we have in a world that fails to recognize Divine Providence is a huge collection of very nervous people who are incapable of properly assessing what is going on around them, and who spend far too much time seeking things that are bad for them, while avoiding things that are good. This is not highly theoretical. It is born out by the ever-increasing freneticism and the ever-deepening underlying sadness of modern life.
How different is the perspective of those who understand the fundamental reality of God’s love acting everywhere. First, they do not depend for their own feelings of self-worth on the fragile and mostly unpredictable responses of others. Second, possessing at least a rudimentary understanding of good and evil, they are not afraid to pursue worthy ends for their own sake, for they are confident that they are in the hands of a loving Father who will bring whatever good is best out of their sincere efforts. Third, they do not fear to give themselves in sacrificial love—through which, indeed, they are certain they will draw closer to God and enhance their true happiness.
In this way, those who trust in God become a great source of help and even basic stability to many other people, especially those who have not yet acquired this habit of trust, and who necessarily depend so heavily (as I have said) on the responses of others. In a person who trusts God, they will find someone who actually reflects their true worth because those who trust God try to see with God’s eyes. This produces a kind of continuous testimony to the reality of Divine love and the presence of Divine grace, which heals, reorders, and nourishes everything it touches.
There are, in effect, two choices. Either the world is an essentially incoherent place, which provides no means for us to pursue anything but the pleasures of private indulgence and public acclaim, so that we might ignore for a little longer our state of utter hopelessness. Or the world is governed by Divine Providence, and so the world provides a means for us to participate with God in bringing the purposes of His creation to fulfillment. On the one side lies personal fragmentation as we remain locked between the triumph of glamor and the failure of despair. On the other lies a healthy sense of self-worth, and a progressive growth in integrity, courage, perception and peace.
This argument, by the way, is self-validating. Psalm 34 invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord!” Trust in Providence is the ultimate realism simply because it makes all the difference in the world.
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