When people suffer disease or disaster, and do not change

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 15, 2020

Over the past several years, I’ve known of perhaps a dozen people among acquaintances and extended family who have suffered difficult and at times mysterious illnesses—illnesses of a kind which, if they had befallen me, would have prompted me to double-check everything in my life to make sure I was really on the right track toward eternity. You would think there would be nothing quite so “bracing” as the possibility of death ahead of our own imagined schedules.

And yet thus far, all those whom I know who have been in this situation have gone on in the same way. If they have been striving for closeness to God, they have sought to grow closer. If they have been in denial about God and the Christian faith, they have remained in denial. This is (or at least should be) extraordinarily disturbing.

We know that some people do turn to God under duress, and especially under the duress of illness and death. That is fairly easy to explain in purely human terms. What is not so easy to explain is that many people do not do this, or at least do not appear to do it. Instead they seem to grow more determined to resist the Christian understanding of God just when it could help them most. But on second thought, that is also fairly easy to explain in purely human terms. But these terms ought to give us pause, for it suggests that our human refusals become, over time, not so much inadvertent as obdurate.

I freely admit that each of us has a different experience of God—of His reality and of His love—and that experience is often mediated not only through our own personal problems but also through the influence of parents and others by whom we have been formed for good or ill, not to mention various circumstances which have adversely affected us. But both saints and sinners have suffered under bad parents, or bad material circumstances, or natural and human disasters of various kinds, or even spiritually dangerous influences or horrible temptations. Yet some have responded by turning to God in their pain and weakness, and others have responded by turning away.

The same is true of those who have experienced the good things of this world: Excellent upbringing, intelligence and good looks, lucrative jobs, and every conceivable worldly opportunity. Some have responded by thanking God, others by congratulating themselves. Gratitude produces humility and service and above all faith. Self-congratulation produces pride and selfishness and above all the denial of God. Our freedom lurks, for better or worse, at the heart of everything we think and do, every choice and decision we make.

Loss of Freedom

One common problem is that we often confuse freedom with slavery, an ancient trick of the Father of Lies. This is why St. Paul wrote: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). The Pauline—that is, the Christian—notion of freedom is that because of our fallen nature we need to open ourselves to grace if we want to grow in freedom; otherwise, our passions will blind our minds and drag us into slavery to sin. I could describe this process psychologically, but an example will serve.

A particularly obvious example is found, especially for men, in pornography, which is almost always justified in the name of freedom, both personally and legally. But our ability to indulge our sexual appetites against “convention” (and no longer even against convention, at that) is not a test of freedom. To learn this, if we have that bad habit, we need only attempt to refuse to indulge these appetites for, say, 30 days. This experience will teach us that we are not really free at all. We are compelled to satisfy our vices. But it takes freedom to stop.

This is so with all the temptations of the flesh, the ego, and our passions. We indulge our various instinctive appetites not freely but only in response to their demands; but when we cultivate freedom, it means we can deny our appetites in order to devote ourselves to the Good. It takes hard work to convert these difficult daily decisions into much easier habits. Moreover, even the best habits give way to the old passionate chaos whenever they are no longer consistently exercised. How great is our need for grace!

Such exercises in our own muddled lives remind us of the importance of consistent prayer and good example for all we meet, and especially those with whom we have special ties, and also to some degree for all souls. We pray they might continue to grow in Christ if they are on the right path, and that they might turn to Him if they are living in denial, no matter their reasons or their degree of culpability. This attitude to those around us is paramount not just for others but for our own spiritual life. The apostle James explained at the end of his single letter:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save the soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [Jam 5:19-20]

Fear and trembling?

But this loss of freedom—this common obduracy against God—must also be a sign of warning for ourselves. Not for nothing did Paul write to the Philippians that they must “not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phi 2:12). After all, we usually recognize our good habits more easily than we do the vices, or weaknesses, or blindnesses, or little refusals that remain. This is true even for advanced souls: “But who can discern his errors?” asks the Psalmist. “Clear thou me from hidden faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me” (Ps 19 [18]:12-13).

I don’t think we should be making any mistake about the number of relatives and acquaintances we have who are obdurate in their rejection of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, even if they still call themselves Catholics. But let our sadness and perplexity move us not only to prayer, but also to constant recollection. We must plead not only for others but for ourselves. For in at least some “small” ways, each of us will remain until death both blind and vain.

Even with a lifetime of effort, there will always be a bit of the log left in our own eyes. Good as we might become with all of God’s sacrificial help, we will not while on this earth see completely as Christ sees, nor ever love as much as Christ loves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Pointmaster1386 - May. 19, 2020 12:38 AM ET USA

    Fresh moving water the one leaping up to eternal life never stops running we all know the story, with it we are sated only to yearn again for more. Always regenerating and removing the poison cells lost through original sin. Then suffering becomes less and bearable.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - May. 16, 2020 3:53 PM ET USA

    Ouch! Very true. Part of the bitter fruit of this lockdown for me is the realization that I still have deeply rooted within me the same traits, especially faults, that I had as a girl decades ago.