The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response

"Chapter 15: The Obedience that Is Faith"


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What is the basic reason why we should cultivate obedience/love? If we look at the aspect of obedience, the answer is obvious: He is our Father, and He is our Creator, to whom we owe even our very existence, and continuation of existence. Further, His Son has bought us back at a great price from the captivity of the evil one.

If we look at the aspect of love, the motive will be, clearly, His immeasurable, indescribable goodness, which we have tried to realize even a little in the previous chapters.

There are several types of this motivation. If we start at the lowest, we would find a servile obedience, resulting from even a fear of punishment. Now this motive is not wrong. Jesus Himself in the Gospels speaks strongly of it (Mt 10: 28): "Do not fear those who kill the body and cannot kill the soul. But rather fear the One who can bring to ruin both body and soul in hell."

But the very goodness of our Father urges us to rise higher, while not forgetting the wholesome warning of His Son. We should love/obey because our Father is good. We recall the dramatic teaching of His Son (Lk 18: 18-19): "Why do your call me good?" He said to an inquirer. "One is good: God." Jesus did not deny that He Himself was good-or that He was God. Rather, He wanted to bring out forcefully, as we saw earlier, that the word good when applied to creatures and when applied to God is partly the same, yet very different. God our Father simply is Goodness.

Yet even in this aspect of love/obedience there is a distinction to be made. We could look on our Father as good to us, or, better, as good in Himself. Both are true. The higher motive, the one He deserves, is the consideration that He is good in Himself. The most perfect love, which He deserves, comes from the higher motive.

Can a creature be capable of such lofty love? Yes, with a reservation. As we have already seen, when we love any other human person, our love has a starter: we see something good in the other person. This leads to the reaction: "So good a person. I hope he or she is well off, gets what he or she needs to be happy." But the love of our Father for us had no starter, for when He began-if we may use that word-to love us, we did not exist at all. And when we first existed, He found nothing lovable in us. Really, every bit of good that I am or have or do is simply His gift to me. St. Paul's comment is worth hearing again (1 Cor 4: 7): "What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why brag as if you had not received." If I receive all the good I am and have and do-then it is God's gift. I did not generate a bit of that goodness myself. Really, if I could generate or produce any goodness myself that would be creation, making it out of nothing. Only God creates. So I must recognize my place, and not boast over what I did not produce.

The point here is that our Father's love is the only possible completely generous love. Only He can do utterly without a starter for love. Yet, even though we creatures need a starter, still, by His grace we can be elevated, made capable of reaching at times to such a level as to love Him simply becaue He is good in Himself. Of course it always remains true that we cannot avoid knowing at least in the depths of our consciousness that He will reward anything we do to please Him. So the motive of love because He is good to me is never completely gone, just pushed beneath the surface of consciousness at times.

However, we can and should try to reach such a level of pure love as much as possible. He surely deserves that, even if we are capable of it at all only by His grace. (How this works we will explore in chapter 18.) In this matter we need to strive always for more and more progress, more spiritual growth. For the goal is what His Son set for us (Mat 5:48): "Be you perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." It is only when we finally arrive at our Father's house, heaven, that we will have reached the maximum of which we are capable-not the absolute maximum. Then as St. Anselm wrote, the soul ". . . will love God incomparably more than self and all others with self; [and] so will rejoice immeasurably more over the blessednesss that God has than over its own blessedness and that of all others with it."1 That is, the soul will will good to God-for that is what love means-will Him a good infinitely greater than its own good, for His own sake, because He is Goodness.

Meanwhile, in this valley of tears, we can never say: "It is enough." For we never do reach the goal set for us by His Son, to be perfect as the Father is perfect.

In passing, let us note that this perfection is open to all persons, in every state of life. True, some states of life do offer added spiritual helps.2 But the command of Jesus applies to all, as Pope Pius XI told us, in his Encyclical for the third centenary of St. Francis de Sales. Speaking of the command of Jesus, the Pope wrote: "Let no one think that this invitation is addressed to a small very select number and that all others are allowed to stay in a lower degree of virtue . . . this law obliges everyone, without exception."3 It was highly suitable that Pius XI should write this on the anniversary of St. Francis de Sales, for St. Francis brilliantly explained in his Introduction to the Devout Life (1. 3) that although the practices of the spiritual life need to be adjusted to various states in life, yet all are called to be perfect. And if they are called, it must be possible in every state. That this is true is shown by the calendar of the Saints, which includes men and women from every walk in life.

In what does growth consist? Precisely in this love/obedience. It does not consist directly in multiplying various practices or spiritual exercises, even though these are needed as means to the goal He has set for us. But we must not confuse the means with the end.

St. Francis de Sales tells us that in general God does not let us know the degree of our spiritual progress at any one point, though we may gain some notion from our growth in a most basic virtue of humility-we say most basic, for though love is the greatest virtue, yet humility is needed as a precondition for love, as we shall see in chapter 18.4

Still, there is another scale on which we may make some attempt to gauge our growth in love. Perfect love will exclude all sin, and, so far as prudence advises, even imperfections. This means, in brief, that if love is perfect, one will never at all commit a mortal sin, or even a fully deliberate venial sin.

Here we do well to examine certain aspects of the spiritual life with respect to the nature of sin and imperfection. We spoke of fully deliberate venial sins, since there are also small sins that happen in a moment of frailty. Without a most special grace, no one could avoid all these sins of frailty. We think for example of cases in which a rather advanced, but not perfect, person might "blow off steam" a bit in anger. If one is hard on himself, allowing too few satisfactions, our weak lower nature becomes strained, and can slip on provocations that might not affect a person who is easy on himself. We do not mean we should avoid much mortification-chapter 20 will explore that matter. We mean a certain prudence is required. We need to be a bit patient with ourselves. St. John of the Cross warns us not to try to become Saints in a day.5

Of course, one can break with habits of mortal sin even at one stroke-as the Alcoholics Anonymous show us by their own experience. Many who come to them break with even a long habit of drunkeness in one moment, as it were. They propose many means. The most essential seem to be to realize the need of help-both divine and human-and to develop a powerful motive. That motive is developed in the same way advertisers try to work-by holding before ourselves, in much reflection, the reasons why we want something. Then our will is really strong. For a strong will seems to be one that has a strong motive. It is not that a will is like a muscle, that grows stronger with much exercise-though there is something resembling that to be seen in the growth of what psychologists call a favorable somatic resonance. (We will explore that in chapter 16, and will see that there are some conditions in which a large growth is possible in a short times, though in general, growth by nature must be gradual.)

However, in regard to venial sins, we need to beware of a special trap-what used to be called affection to venial sin. The word is not very clear. It means a gap in our resolve to do the will of God. For example, someone might have an attitude which if put into words would say: I do not intend to commit mortal sin, nor every venial sin that offers itself to me. But I have a reservation or two, e.g., if it gets hard to sustain a conversation without some uncharitable remarks, I will join in on them. Or, given a strong reason, I will lie, etc. If one has such a reservation he cannot really grow much at all. For this is like a clamp on the heart, that lets it expand only to a certain point, and after that shuts everything off.

Something less than even venial sin is called an imperfection. What is an imperfection? There are many kinds and examples. Thus a remiss act, one in which we act as it were sluggishly, at a level below our normal level of love. Or an attachment to merely natural things (we will see more on this later), restless or useless desires, or omissions of good things that are not commanded, but which, considering everything, we could easily perform without excessive strain on ourselves. Are imperfections sinful? A few theologians have thought so.6 That is not true, an imperfection by definition is still good, even though it is a lesser good. A generous soul will go far in avoiding imperfections. But can souls in general resolve to avoid absolutely all impefections? Surely, not all at once-it would put too much strain on our poor lower nature. So one needs to exercise much prudence, and pray for light in individual cases, as to what is the will of the Father. If one is close to our Blessed Mother, she will provide such guidance.

There is, however, such a thing as an attachment to imperfection. This is basically the same as the reservation we described above in regard to venial sin. Those reservations on venial sin are not likely to be fully conscious. Still less are the affections to imperfection likely to be fully conscious-the soul may not even be aware of them. So it is important, especially at a time of a retreat, to search for the presence of such things. Francis de Sales, a Saint noted for his unusually high degree of common sense and prudence, wrote :

We can never attain to perfection while we have an affection for any imperfection, however small it may be, even nothing more than the harbouring of an idle thought . . . and one fault, however small it may be, for which we keep an affection, is more contrary to perfection than a hundred others committed inadvertently and without affection.7

By affection the Saint means the sort of reservation we mentioned above.

St. John of the Cross, a sterner type, uses a dramatic image to bring out this truth: "It is the same thing if a bird is tied down by a slender or a thick cord . . . as long as it does not break it to fly away."8 The cord or thread lets the bird fly only so high, never higher, until it breaks it. However, later St. John admits that some whom he calls "proficient", those who have made quite a bit of progress. may still retain, involuntarily, some of these affections to imperfection.9 Precisely how this happens we will explain further in chapter 19.

In saying these things are we becoming mechanical in our explanations of love, or too meticulous? Not at all. We merely try to put before us what the absolute ideal consists in, so we may grow in self knowledge by comparing ourselves with it, and avoid becoming complacent. There is really a kind of cheapness about deliberate venial sin. We in effect say to our Father: "I do not intend to commit mortal sins; I might lose you, lose my soul. But venial sins? I can get away with them. I know you dislike them much. But that does not matter to me." The pagan Greeks had a valuable motto carved on the oracle of Delphi: "Get to know yourself." This is a precondition for us if we are to grow much spiritually-that is, if we are to try to return the immense love of our Father as fully as He deserves.

Modern psychology agrees with the oracle of Delphi. There are unsearched depths within each of us; we might even speak of submarine motives lurking beneath the surface of consciousness. We need to bring these to the surface, so we can deal with them. For example, suppose I heard an announcement that on an evening a week from now there would be a collection for some charity, and collectors would call at all places and pick up what people would give. I might think it over. And suppose I would decide to give $100-much more than most people would give. What could be my motive? I would like to think it would be 100% charity. Perhaps in a given case it might even be that. But it could easily be a mixture. Besides the motive of charity there could be another motive lurking in the depths, which I am not fully aware of. I might be anticipating with pleasure the big congratulations from the collector-or, alternatively, I might just want to pat myself on the back. There could be any proportion of these two motives, e.g., 40% charity, 60% vanity.

How would this situation affect the worth of my action? Clearly an action done with such a mixed motive would be far less good than one done entirely out of charity. Similar mixtures can occur in things that are wrong-a student might decide suddenly to work really hard in a biology class-in which he had not done very much before-when he came to the chapter on sex. His study motive would be small; surely there would be at least an element of curiosity. And he might be kidding himself, for reasons that are obvious.

Some cynical person has said: Man is a rational animal because he can always find a good reason for anything he wants to do. We can deceive ourselves in this way: We begin by acting out of feeling, or following a course of least resistance, or a lower motive. Then if someone later asks why we did it, we think up a reason, which was not really present at the start. This is another of the many ways we can deceive ourselves.

Another very common way in which people fail to get complete self-knowledge and therefore deceive themselves, is by way of what we might call compartments in their life. We mean this: a person may have one pattern of behavior when he is at his place of work, and a quite different one at home. Yet, the person may be completely unaware that he is acting so differently, so inconsistently. Of course one ought to examine himself to look for these inconsistencies, so they can be corrected.

If we love our Father, something else inevitably goes with it. He wants to give most generously not only to me, but to all others-those whom His Son described as my neighbors. So if I love our Father, I will want, and work, so that He may have that pleasure. That is, I will want my neighbor to be open to these gifts of the Father. I will want this for a double reason: first, to let our Father have the pleasure of giving, as we said; second, out of willing good to my neighbor for his sake. These two things are inseparable in practice. Hence we see why our Lord spoke of a second commandment that is like to the first (the love of God). In practice these are really inseparable.

Can we love neighbor when our feelings go in the opposite direction? Certainly, for love consists in the attitude of will. How this relates to feeling we will explore later (chapter 17). But now we need to notice that we are not called on to have a warm feeling for all men at any time-still less to have such a feeling for enemies. Again, we recall what love is: it is to will or wish good to the other for the other's sake. This lies in our spiritual will, not in our feelings. So we can love even enemies by willing good to them, especially the good of eternal salvation, plus other things too. To this end, at a minimum we will include them in a general way in our prayers. Further, if our will for their well-being is strong as it should be, we will also act, will help others, especially the poor. (Acting on any attitude also strengthens it.) Hence the many exhortations in Scripture to help the poor. If we do so, it not only benefits the poor but helps us at the same time. In this vein, the great prophet Daniel gives the sound advice (4:24) "Expiate your sins by acts of mercy, and your iniquity by beneficence to the poor." And Tobit instructs his son (4:10): "Almsgiving delivers from death, and does not let one go into darkness."

This is a remarkable thought. Our Father has promised mercy to the merciful, in line with both His love of us, and His love of what is good in itself, objective goodness. When we do good to others, thanks to His promise, we establish a title on which He can more fully do good to us, which pleases Him greatly. We could actually say that by His kindness, there is a multiplier: one and the same action helps neighbor, as an act of love, and helps us, creating a title to receive favors from our Father. So there are two titles: the exercise of love of our Father, and the practice of love of neighbor. Both are found in one and the same action, thanks to His generosity. Hence His Son counts these things as done to Him, as the Gospel description of the Last Judgment scene shows.

If we relate this to the rebalancing of the scales of the objective order (recall chapter 4) we see that for us to give up good things we could have had makes up for the sin of taking from the scales things we had no right to take. Hence Daniel spoke of "expiating" sins.

A bit of a warning is in order at this point. Some today so exalt love of neighbor as to completely identify it with love of God, which they seem to say need not be exercised directly, by itself. In this vein a friend of mine once said: "If I were alone on a desert island, I could have no relation with God, for I have that only through people." Sad distortion! Wiping out the first commandment by thinking it the same as the second!

If we read passages in the Old Testament relating to the covenant, we could easily get yet another false impression. For example, in Exodus 19:5 we read: "If you really hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my special people." And again we read in many places: Do this and you will live. So the impression might be that by obeying we earn favors and graces. Is it true that we earn by obeying? St. Paul insists over and over again that we are free from the law, that we do not have to earn salvation. How can we reconcile these things?

St. Paul gives us the needed key when he says (e.g., in 1 Cor 6:9-10) that great sinners will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Our Lord Himself says (Mt 18:3): "Unless you become as little children, you wil not enter the kingdom of heaven." Now if we inherit from our parents, do we say that we have earned what we get? Not at all. They give us good things, both before and after their deaths (by inheritance) because they are good, not because we are good. But on the other hand, since St. Paul says great sinners will not inherit, we gather that while we need not and cannot earn our eternal reward, we could earn or merit being deprived of it, so that we would not inherit the kingdom.

This is a most basic central truth, and it parallels the truth we discussed concerning justification. We cannot earn the kingdom, but we can forfeit it by breaking the law of our Father, a law designed to make us open, capable of receiving what He so generously wants to give to us. Little children instinctively know they do not earn the care of their parents; they also know they can earn punishment by disobeying. There is no conflict between these two statements.

And yet there is a sense in which we do earn, for the covenant seems to say: "If you do this, I will do that." But this is a secondary sense. In the basic sense, no creature can by its own power establish any claim on God, so as to earn. But if God makes a promise or enters into a covenant, then He will owe it to Himself to give favor if the creature fulfills the conditions. In that sense St. Paul wrote in Romans 2:6 that God will "repay each one according to his works." This of course, is earning only in a secondary, not in a basic sense.

From what we have been saying, it is obvious that all perfection consists in aligning our wills with the will of the Father, by obedience/love. Really, there is in me only one free thing-my will. If I could make it completely in accord with His, there would be nothing more that could be done; that would be complete perfection.

But even this leads to a problem. If all perfection consists in being fully in accord with the will of the Father, then could I not go to a chapel, or to some quiet place, and say a prayer expressing complete acceptance of His will, e.g., the beautiful prayer of St. Ignatius: "Take O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my will. . . ." But if I do this with all sincerity, trying to really mean it, am I then instantly perfect? We almost instinctively know that could not be true. But why? One reason is that I could not foresee at one point all that the will of the Father may call on me to accept before the end of my life. The other is that because of our very nature spiritual growth is tied to development in a thing we mentioned above: somatic resonance. Our next chapter will explore that.


1 St. Anselm, Proslogion 25. Cf. also St. Thomas Summa II-II.26.13 and Suppl. 44.3.
2 Cf. Vatican II, On the Church #46 says that the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience "contribute not a little to purification of heart and spiritual freedom, they constantly stir up the fervor of love."
3 Pius XI, Rerum omnium perturbationem, Jan 26,1923. AAS 15 (1923) p.50.
4 Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Spiritual Conferences tr. under supervision of Gasquet & Mackey, Newman Westminster, 1945. VIII, pp. 135-36.
5 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night 1.5.3.
6 E.g. J. C. Osbourn, The Morality of Imperfections Newman, Westminster, 1950. But: the principles determining morality are three-object (nature of thing), purpose, circumstances. In imperfections all three are good. We should not call a lesser good a sin. Cf. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation, Herder, St. Louis, 1946 pp. 428-34.
7 St. Francis de Sales, Spiritual Conferences pp. 130, 131.
8 St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mt.Carmel 1.11.4. BAC edition p. 591.
9 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night 2.2.1.