Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, for Freedom
The day before yesterday I spent several hours reprogramming our main Catholic World News page, which is the section page you should bookmark if you visit CatholicCulture.org primarily to catch up on Catholic news. We had some new ideas about how to display information on that page, and to get what we wanted I had to work out some complex database queries. I bragged to other staff that I could do this “very quickly”, but of course it took much longer than I expected.
In the end, though, the page in question does exactly what we told it to do. It is meticulously coded down to the last detail. I suppose that, though far less complex, it is in the order of nature remotely akin to a plant or an animal. It receives certain inputs, and it responds to them precisely as its creator desires. It is incapable of doing anything else. It does not think about what it is doing, nor does it have the capacity to choose to act differently. It is not like me, and it is not like you.
Now, if you think this little introduction is irrelevant to anything significant, I ask you to consider the kind of conversation I’ve overheard more than once over the past few weeks—conversations about why God permits certain unpleasant things to happen. If He wants people to be happy and turn to Him in love, why does He make them suffer so much? Wouldn’t it be better to draw the line somewhere? Shouldn’t God rule out famine and war, for example, or dementia, or intense interior disorders, or rejection of a child by a parent—or damnation? These questions place us on the brink of the mystery of freedom.
Freedom is an attribute which cannot exist without both intellect and will; therefore, it is an attribute which only man possesses among all earthly creatures. We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14), which presumably also explains why we have been bought at such a great price (1 Cor 6:20). The Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes 24, expresses well a fundamental tension which marks the life of each human person, a tension which freedom alone has the capacity to resolve: Man “who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” This text is footnoted to Luke 17:33, which expresses the same truth as a paradox: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it.”
Several books could be unpacked from these brief sentences. Unlike other earthly creatures, man possesses a “self”. He is aware of himself; he guides himself. He reflects; he chooses. But how he reflects and what he chooses make a tremendous difference, for man is designed with an end which transcends his natural being, a supernatural end of union with God for all eternity. He achieves this end precisely through his decisions, by making “a sincere gift of himself”. Thus what Pope John Paul II and many others have called “the law of the gift” lies at the core of our being. It is a law which cannot achieve its purpose without freedom. We are made for love. That is, we are made to love.
Freedom inescapably includes the possibility of both the sublime and the terrifying, and perhaps the sublime itself is sometimes terrifying. We are, again, “fearfully” made. In another translation, it is God who is “fearful and wonderful”, for He too possesses freedom. He too can both choose and judge.
But where shall we draw the line of freedom and still be free? Where shall we draw that line and still be capable of love? If we, through our freedom, have broken the link between nature and the will of God, at what point can we demand the restoration of that link in order to be protected from the spiraling consequences of our sins? It is the very nature of freedom that we cannot be in only for a penny. For freedom to be itself, we must be in for a pound. By a dim analogy, we may see here one reason for the modern world’s partial flight from freedom into the arms of the nanny state. We do so wish to be protected from the consequences of our liberty. But too often we wish this only selectively, on the terms of those who attempt to save their lives only to lose them.
But if we are made fearfully, we are also made wonderfully. There is a mystery here which insists on being counter-intuitive. Even at the natural level, we see this mystery at work. An easy life, or what we might call a pampered life, so often leads to selfishness, sin and destruction—the withholding of the gift, of our gifts. Yet suffering so often bears the rich fruit of deeper self-knowledge, the beginnings of courage, and the fruitfulness of generosity—the flowering of the gift in sacrificial love. Of course, the adjective “sacrificial” is redundant. To love is to will another’s good, and as there is always the prospect of using such energies for ourselves instead, authentic love always contains an element of sacrifice.
At the supernatural level, of course, there is so much more that we can see. Here we are initiated into the world of grace and redemption, and the very economy of salvation. We know by nature that sufferings can purify; but we know by faith that they can save. Whoever loses his life, even with a little help from what we perceive as the slings and arrows of “fortune”, will save it. But losing our life is not to be understood only physically. We must lose it in the sense of letting it go, of subordinating it, of no longer clinging to it through the priorities of our own selfishness.
Moreover, this economy of salvation operates mysteriously among everyone. The prayers and sacrifices we may choose to offer today can ameliorate the suffering and even save, in the deepest sense, someone around the globe or across the centuries. By a marvelous condescension, all free creatures share in the custody of the grace of God, which is the custody of Pure Freedom. There is no material or spiritual evil too great to be countered by this grace, which men and women no better than you and I can treasure up and apply. Sometimes it will be applied through our own specific intentions, but it will always be applied in the mystical harmony of the will of the God who, in the counter-intuitive perfection of Divine Liberty, loves us all to the point of death on a cross.
We would be fools indeed to insist that God draw the line of his permissive will here or there in an effort to protect ourselves from the consequences of our freedom, especially when we are privileged to contribute something to the economy of salvation, to participate in the very mystery of that utterly surpassing freedom which brings good out of evil. We are rather called to enter more fully into this freedom, to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:11). Indeed, it is “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:11). And in the end, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21).
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Posted by: koinonia -
Jun. 23, 2012 9:29 AM ET USA
Nice reflection."For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." Gal 5:13 It's important to be properly oriented, always. By living in concert with God's grace we may properly enjoy our freedom. The Catholic life involves the harmonious union of intellect, will and action with God's grace- divine charity. In this way not only might we be saved, but we might also become true participants in God's love.