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

"Chapter 18: Is it Good to Pray: "O God Help Me"?"


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The answer to our title for this chapter is: Of course. But the language is rather weak, as we shall see. For our dependence on God is much greater than such language suggests.

The problem we are to explore now is that of humility. And indeed it is a problem. For we say, rightly, that love is the greatest virtue. Yet humility occupies a unique position.

If we read the Gospels attentively, we will notice this: Jesus, of course, shows remarkable mercy to sinners. Some were even scandalized at His reception of the woman caught red-handed in adultery, to such an extent that some manuscripts of St. John's Gospel simply omit this incident. Even so, there was one kind of sinner that more than dried up the font of mercy: The Pharisees. Those who think of Jesus as always being "nice" to people, like a sort of Casper-Milk-Toast, may be surprised to hear the way He spoke to the Pharisees (Mt. 23:33): "Snakes, brood of vipers! How can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?" And (Mt 23:27): "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outside seem beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead bones and all filthiness!"

What was their crime, so great that it could turn Mercy Incarnate against them? It was simply pride, hypocritical pride. St. Peter, who heard these words, later echoed them strongly (1 Pet 5:5): "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." These words are positively frightening. They do not say that God gives less grace to the proud, nor even that He gives no grace to the proud. What they say is that God actually resists the proud! If God Himself is against one-there is no rescue possible, except to stop the attitude that so disgusts Him.

How can this be? Is not love the great virtue? There are two answers, one of which we can see easily now; the other must wait until the last part of this chapter, when we will see that pride amounts to a claim to be God!

To turn to the first answer: Even though love is the greatest virtue, the relation of humility to love is such that without humility there can be no love at all. In fact, there is even a proportion: a great love is possible only if there is a correspondingly great humility. St. Augustine gives us a helpful comparison: "The greater the superstructure [of a building] will be, the deeper one digs the foundation."1 So then love does remain the greatest virtue, for on it depends the law and the prophets. Yet humility is needed to make room for love : It is only in the measure in which we are empty of self that there is room for the selflessness of divine love.

Of course, one may seem to have great love even without humility-but pride is the great mimic. It can give the appearance of all virtues, yet the soul may in reality be void of them. St. Augustine brings out this fact brilliantly in his masterwork, The City of God. He explores why it could have been that the Romans were given so great an empire by Divine Providence. He finds the answer in the words of a pagan Roman historian, Sallust. Speaking of the early period of Roman history (up to 265 B. C. or even, to a large extent, up to 200 B. C.), Sallust says that the Romans practiced great virtues, to such an extent that people conquered as recently as ten years before would then be willing to fight with, not against Rome, in a new war. But, sadly, the mainspring of those virtues was that they were "eager for praise, generous with their money; they desired immense glory."2 St. Augustine comments: "This [glory] they loved most ardently, for this they wished to live, for this they did not hesitate to die; they suppressed other desires out of their great desire for this one thing."3

If we stop to think about it, it is obviously true that pride can mimic all virtues. What virtuous act can we think of that a person might not do out of desire to be praised? In fact, pride can even imitate humility: a man can act humbly so as to be praised for his humility!

The Mother of Jesus surely imitated His humility. At the very moment when she had been raised to the highest honor of any mere creature, the divine motherhood, which as Pope Pius XI wrote, was "a dignity second only to God" and in fact, "a sort of infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is"4-at that very moment her response was: "Behold the slave-girl of the Lord" (for St. Luke's Greek doule more commonly means slave-girl, not just handmaid). Nor did she tell others, to seek recognition from men. Rather, moved by the Holy Spirit (as we will see later in chapter 23), she remained silent to such an extent that even St. Joseph, her husand, needed a special visit of an angel to keep him from thinking her guilty of adultery.

But now a great problem arises: Many Saints, out of humility, spoke badly of themselves. Yet the Church has canonized them and praised them highly. Could it be that humility consists in self-deception, in this world, which can be dropped later, so that a person must tell himself now he is worthless, but later on will be able to admit he was spiritually great? In fact, how could Jesus Himself be "humble of heart"? How could His Mother speak of herself as a slave-girl?

We notice at once that no virtue could be a virtue if it required a person to lie, to say he was worthless when he really was very good, So then humility must be based on truth. But then: Could I say to myself: "I must face the truth. I of course admit I am not Saint. But neither am I an evil person. Really, I am a rather nice guy, somewhere in the middle." And soon my hand creeps around to pat myself on the back.

Not even that will solve the problem. For the Saints really did speak ill of themselves, and yet were spiritual heroes. Both points must be true. How? In any complex problem we must begin by making distinctions. Only then can we find the means to reconcile seeming opposites. So there must be two aspects to a holy person, such that when looking at one, he can speak badly of himself, but when looking at the other, he can admit he is very holy.

We start this exploration by noting that there are two very different levels on which I can speak of myself: the fundamental level, and the secondary level. On the fundamental level I ask: What good am I, have I, or do I accomplish that originates in me, and does not come from anywhere else, not even from God? On the secondary level I consider: What good is there that I am, or have, or do in virtue of God's gifts to me?

We turn first to the fundamental level, and at once St. Paul meets us and says (2 Cor 3:5): "Not that we are sufficient to think anything by ourselves, as from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." The Second Council of Orange in 529 A.D. taught,

If anyone asserts that we can think any good that pertains to eternal salvation, as is needed, or choose [any good] or consent to the saving preaching, that is, the preaching of the Gospel, without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit . . . he is deceived by a heretical spirit and does not understand the word of God in the Gospel saying, "Without me you can do nothing" and that passage of the Apostle: "Not that we are sufficient to think anything by ourselves as from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God."5

So it is defined doctrine that of ourselves, without the Holy Spirit, we cannot even get a good thought that leads towards salvation.

But: Could we say that after God gives us the good thought, we can think over what grace proposes, and then make the good decision (act of will)? Surely we are free? The answer is: Yes, we are free, but yet, St. Paul also tells us (Phil 2:13): "It is God who works in you both the will and the doing." If we study this statement carefully, we find that the word "works" must mean that God actually produces or causes in me even the good act of my will that comes before doing anything good. The New American Bible translation tries to soften the strength of these words by speaking not of will but of desire. Could we accept that, so as to say: "God gives me a good desire, but it is I who produce the goodness of a decision or act of will?"6 No. The same St. Paul stops us again (1 Cor 4:7): "What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why boast as if you had not received?" That is: Whatever good you are or have or do is simply God's gift-you have received it . Had you not received it, but instead had originated it of yourself then you could "boast." But as it is, there is nothing to boast or brag of: You have received all the good you are or have or do from God.

In fact, to say God causes only the good desire, but we cause the good will, would be the heresy of Pelagius.

St. Augustine puts the matter with devastating impact: "When God crowns your merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."7

We can begin to see now how, on the fundamental level i.e., considering what good I myself originate and do not receive from God, the Saints could find no good in themselves. In fact, we could speak in an even worse way. Suppose we think of a ledger, with a page for credits, and a page for debits, for me, all on this fundamental level. On the credit side, what can I write in to my credit? Not a thing: For there is utterly no good-not the good that I am, not a good thought, not a good decision of will, not the carrying out of a good decision-that is mine in this basic sense. Hence I write in zero. Now: What measure of self-esteem matches this zero? Obviously, zero self-esteem.

But then I must fill in the debit page. There I enter a number to indicate what evil I have done, my sins. We each have different numbers, but we all have them: we are all sinners. And now comes the frightening thought: If the credit page took me down to zero self-esteem, the debit page, with my sins, takes me below zero! I am, strictly, literally, worse than nothing. I not only have produced no good in the basic sense: I have done much evil. No wonder the Saints could say dreadful things about themselves, and say them in all truth. If the mentally sane person is the one who sees things as they are, instead of thinking he is Napoleon, or imagining people are after him, then the sanest of men are the Saints, for they have seen the shattering truth about themselves on this basic level.

But it is psychologically important for us not to have too bad an image of ourselves. Some react more strongly to such images than others. We think of the old saying: "Give a bad dog a good name and he will live up to it." The reverse is true: A bad self-image can lead a person to act badly. So therefore we must look on the secondary level. There we find a totally different picture. We need only recall it now, for we saw it fully chapter 2, on Sons of God. For that is what we are by His grace. We are not only adopted by Him-adoption in human affairs is a thing that is kind, but still only a legal fiction-but we are given a share in the divine nature itself by grace!

Suppose a delegation from Podunk came to the White House, and gave the President a scroll saying: "The good people of Podunk have made you Honorary Dogcatcher of Podunk." Being a good politician, the President would smile, and hand the document to his secretary. But when those people had left, he would say: "What do they think? I am the President-and they make me Honorary Dogcatcher!" Clearly, his new title would not go to the President's head. But to be made President or King after already being made partly divine involves an even more gaping distance. No human dignity can compare to ours; and no earthly honor ought to distract us from our true worth.

So we are creatures of incredible contrasts! On the primary level, we are nothing, really, worse than nothing because of sin. No matter how much good we may do later, God still "loses money on us". For our good works cannot make up for our sins, or rebalance the scales (which we saw in chapter 4). Yet, on the secondary level, we are wondrous, with a dignity that far eclipses all human honors. St. Augustine says well of human honor that it is "smoke without substance."8

But we have not yet finished. We would still like to know precisely how to reconcile what we saw from St. Paul with the fact that we are free. Namely, on the one hand, St. Paul insists we cannot even get a good thought, or make a good decision of ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, we know we have free will. This is clear all over Scripture, and St. Paul himself wrote (2 Cor 6:1): "We urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain." So, in some way I must be able to control whether or not it comes in vain. Similarly, all Scripture urges us to repent, to turn to God. . . .

Just how can we fit these two facts together, our freedom, and our total dependence on God? Neither Scripture nor the Church has told us. So we must fall back on our own speculations.

Some theologians9 have simply said this: When a grace comes to me, it at once gives me the previously missing power to make a good decision. This may be possible, but there seems to be a better way, one that fits more closely with the words of St. Paul.

This other view begins by considering at first only two possibilities for me when a grace comes to lead and empower me to do a certain good thing right now. The two are these: to decide to accept that grace, or to reject it.10

But: to decide to accept is a good act of will, and the words of St. Paul in Phil 2:13 tell me I do not have such a power: "It is God who works in you both the will and the doing."

Of course, I can reject grace. But if I had only that one power, I would not be free. There is no freedom with only one option.

So there must be another possibility, one within my power. That, clearly could only be this: to non-reject. Someone will say: "Does not that amount to the same as deciding to accept?" We answer: It has the same effect, but uses a different process to get it.

We notice further that this process of non-rejection must not include an act of will or decision. If it did, Phil 2:13 would stop us.

So that non-rejection must consist merely in this: When grace has come and given me the good idea, and a favorable attitude (not a decision)-suppose that at the very point at which I could reject-I simply do nothing, no decision. To do nothing is of course in my power. But yet, that doing nothing, at the very point where I could reject can serve as a condition. When that condition is present, God causes His grace to move ahead, so as to "work both the will and the doing." The idea is really very simple: At the precise point where I could reject, I merely make no decision against grace. Then it works both the will and the doing.11

Does this seem to make me totally passive? Not really, for two reasons: first, I omit rejection at the very point where I could have rejected; second, we notice something additional about the second stage (that is, the stage after I have nonrejected). At that point, I am both being moved by grace, and moving myself by power currently coming from grace. It is obvious that our proposed theory fits neatly with every statement of St. Paul.12

A further consideration on non-rejection is still needed. The very framework of that nonrejection-a situation in which I have felt the attraction, given by grace, of the good, is a precondition for that non-rejection. For grace at the start produced in me a favorable attitude-not yet a decision-to the good thing it proposed. This favorable attitude as it were supports the very possibility of non-rejection of the grace. Further, my previous spiritual condition which leaves me open to this non-rejection is, in turn, owed to many instances of graces, with the process we have just described. Our indebtness reaches back endlessly, infinitely!

The early Fathers of the Church often made use of a philosophy to deepen their understanding of divine revelation. They used Plato, with much profit. But St. Thomas Aquinas began to use Aristotle in the same way, with even better results. We are going to sketch some ideas of Aristotle to help us to penetrate more deeply into what we have just seen from St. Paul.

Aristotle noticed that if I am at one place on the earth, and wish to travel to another, before going, there must be the capacity to go. If the trip is made, that capacity will be filled or fulfilled. Aristotle liked to name these two things potency and act or actualization. We would not have to use his words, but they are convenient.

But next we notice that this same matter of capacity and fulfillment (potency and act) also appears any time there is any change made. Before the change, there is the potency, then if it goes through, that potency will be actualized.

We need to note this too: at the top of the rise from potency to act, there is more or higher being on hand. For before the change, there was an empty capacity, which would like to be filled. Therefore we ask: Where did this extra, added being come from? No one can lift himself from the floor by pulling his shoelaces; or, no one gives himself what he does not have. So where, again, does the extra come from?

Perhaps some other part of me (if I am the one causing the change) has the needed extra. But even so, where did that other part of me get it? It had to move up from potency to actualization too. So I must look outside myself for a source for the added being-in some other cause. But where did that cause get it? It too had to arise from potency to act.

We could put as long a chain of causes in place as we might wish-but we have not solved our problem at all, of where, finally, the extra being comes from, until we see that there has to be a Being that does not have to go from potency to actuality-a Being that simply is actuality. Aristotle called that the First Cause-sometimes he even used the word God, which is obviously right.

Now we are in a position to make a tremendous discovery: even when I get a good thought, that involves progressing from potency to act, and I need the First Cause to bring that about. Even more surprisingly: even when I make a free decision of my will, that too involves going from potency to act-which means I need the First Cause, God, for that. But this is precisley what St. Paul said: "It is God who works in you both the will and the doing . . . we are not sufficient to think anything of ourselves as from ourselves: our sufficiency is from God."

When the First Cause (God) has caused me to see a thing as good and to be favorably disposed, if at that point I simply non-reject (i.e., make no decision), His movement goes ahead, as we said above, and actualizes the potency of my will to make a good decision.

Just ahead of the words we quoted from Phil 2:13, St. Paul said: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who works in you both the will and the doing." This does not mean servile fear and trembling; rather the phrase had come to mean "with reverence." So I must act with reverence. Why? Because when I do anything good, it is His power that is at work in me. But-even more strikingly and fearfully-when I do evil it is also His power that is at work in me . Not that He causes the evil orientation-no, I do that,13 but the power of added being still comes from Him, without whom I can do nothing (cf. Jn. 15:5). It is indeed a fearful thought that I really handle the power of God, using it as I please-for good, or even for sin! No wonder St. Paul calls for reverence!

We notice too that our ability to do good comes to us from God in two phases as it were. A comparison will help here. Imagine I am standing in a TV store, admiring a set, priced at $500. The storekeeper comes to me: "I see you like that set. Why not buy it?" I tell him: "Yes, but it is $500, and I don't have any money." He replies: "Here, I give you $300." But I still do not buy-I am short $200. A day later I am there again, looking at the same TV, and the owner comes again: "I see you like that set, why not buy it?" I reply: "I have only $300, and it costs $500." "Do not worry," he says," Here is another $200." So now I put together the $300 and the $200, and pay him. I can really claim it is mine, since I have paid for it. But yet, I have paid him with his own money.

Somewhat similarly God gives us at the start of our existence our body, soul, faculties, our permanent equipment as it were. But that is not enough-new or higher being appears at the time of acting, as we said. So He must supply more at the time of acting. He does it. Every bit of good I am and have and do is His gift, as we said before (cf. 1 Cor 4:7). I pay Him with His own money. Yet I do pay Him, and so, in a secondary sense I have paid, and the act is mine. My faculties, as it were, do churn it out. So there is strong temptation, which I need to fight against constantly, to think the good is mine. It is mine only in the secondary sense, not in the basic sense. We recall what we said above about how we are in the basic sense: we produce no good, only evil. Yet in the secondary sense, we pay Him with His own gifts. So St. Augustine is right, terribly right, when he says: "When God crowns your merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."

This does not, of course, mean that I am a mere robot: my own faculties, which God gave me long ago, really do produce good, even though they can do it only under the divine motion. We recall too, that in the second stage of the process (described above) we are both being moved by grace, and moving ourselves by power being received at that very moment from grace.

To pursue the TV store comparison again: why do I not, on receiving the final installment of the money, go and do something else with it, instead of what the storekeeper had in mind? As we said above, it is the attraction of grace that makes possible our very non-rejection-plus our more general spiritual condition, which in turn, is the effect of many encounters with grace on the pattern we decribed above.

When, however, I acquire and even accumulate merits through good works, this fact is a great ground of hope for me-not because I have produced any good by myself. No, the hope rests on the fact that His giving me these claims or tickets, as it were, proves His love for me.14

We begin to see now why Jesus could not stand pride: pride implicitly claims to be God. For if I really could produce, could originate any good, I would have to have infinite power, for this reason: If I produced some good, that good before I acted did not exist. Yet it came into existence. What power is required to start with nothing and bring good into existence? The rise from nothing to some good is an infinite rise-it is, literally, making something out of nothing-it is creation. So, if I could really originate any good by my own power, that same power-being infinite-would also enable me to create a universe. Perhaps, then, when I am tempted to be proud, I should ask myself: How many universes have I created lately?

It is tremendously helpful spiritually not to merely know these things, but to meditate on them constantly. For as we said, since our faculties do turn out good things at times, we get the impression that the good comes from ourselves. We can see from St. Paul, and from Aristotle, that the good does not really come from us-only the evil orientation comes from us.

Should we say, on seeing another sinning greatly: "There but for the grace of God go I!" There is danger here. It is true that every bit of good we are or have or do is simply His gift to us. But it is also true, as we saw, that in some way (which we tried to explain) we do control whether or not a grace comes to us in vain (cf. 2 Cor 6:1). In depreciating ourselves, we must not also depreciate God: If it were true that grace was the sole reason why we are not as sinful as someone else we may see, then we would be blaming God.

It is important in trying for humility to watch out for a sort of "chesty feeling" when we do something good.15 That sort of feeling can serve as the somatic resonance (cf. chapter 16) to pride, the deadliest of all vices. Again, pride logically implies a claim to be God. Only He can produce the "higher being" in good actions in the basic sense. Yet the sinner feels and thinks he produces it.

We should watch out too for something like the submarine motives we mentioned in chapter 15. The Saints knew they were doing great good-yet realized it all came from God. But the Pharisee in the Temple (Lk 18:11) prayed: "O God, I give you thanks that I am not like the rest of men. . . ." And he enumerated his good deeds. His lips said he gave the credit to God. But, at least subconsciously, he was grabbing credit for himself, as if he produced the good in the basic sense. Hence Our Lord said the Pharisee went home unjustified.

Jesus also said (Mt 6:3): "In giving alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Of course, our hands have no knowledge. But Jesus seems to mean: Beware. Do not think much on the fact of doing good-to avoid the subconscious grabbing of credit we saw in the Pharisee.

There is a special way in which we may be tempted to think ourselves better. A young child sometimes, on seeing his brothers or sisters misbehaving, takes pleasure in the thought: "Now Mother will think more of me." No. Each must stand on his/her own deserts, and not want to grow by others' losses. This is a lack of both love and humility.

So, we need to pray much for humility, to meditate much on what we saw in this chapter. And we need to act on our own knowledge of our powerlessness in good, but our ability to do evil. Action tends greatly to strengthen our interior beliefs,16 and God is ever ready to put both the will and the action into us.

Jesus said (Mt 18: 3): "Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Children know they do not earn their place in their Father's house-they get it not because they are good, but because He is good. It is humility that teaches us to live in this awareness.17


1 St. Augustine, Sermon 69. 1. 2. PL 38. 441.
2 Sallust, Catiline 7
3 St. Augustine, City of God 5. 12. PL 41. 154.
4 Pius XI, Lux Veritatis, Dec. 25, 1931. AAS 23. 513. Citing St. Thomas, Summa I. 26. 6. ad 4.
5 Canon 7, II Orange. DS 377. Special approval by Pope Boniface II made the canons like canons of a General Council. Can. 4 DS 374.
6 There is a Semitic pattern in which something is attributed to direct action of God, when He really only permits it, e.g., 1 Sam 4:3. That pattern could not be had here, for if it were, we would have Pelagian heresy. NAB would claim to depend on Greek thelein for desire. In 5th century B. C. Attic it did have only that sense. But in 1st century A.D. koine it has also often the sense of will. If it meant only desire here, we would have Pelagianism.
7 St. Augustine, Epistle 194. 5. 19. PL 33. 880. Cf. words of St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars when someone asked how he could stay humble with all the applause. He replied: "I once asked for it [full knowledge of his own wretchedness] and obtained it. If God had not upheld me, I would have fallen instantly into despair." He told Frère Athanase that God left him enough insight into his nothingness to make him understand that he was capable of nothing. He was only a tool in God's hands. Cited from: Margaret Trouncer, Saint Jean-Marie Vianney, Sheed-Ward , NY, 1958, p. 249.
8 St. Augustine, City of God 5. 17. PL41. 161.
9 This is the view of the Molinists. On it cf. Most, New Answers to Old Questions ## 9 and 328-29.
10 Most, ibid. ## 336-84.
11 Even our non-resistance or non-rejection is made possible by grace. For we have the inclination to evil or sin from original sin, and that inclination increases with personal sins. Grace, by showing God's will as good to our mind, compensates for these inclinations, and so makes non-resistance possible. Yet there is freedom, because this work of grace does not determine whether or when the will will non-resiSt. Cf. also St. Thomas Summa I-II. 111. 2 ad 3.
12 It fits easily with 2 Cor 3:5-since God causes the good thought; with Phil 2:13-since God moves the will; with 1 Cor 4:7-since all the good we are and have and do is His gift. Cf. DS 1554.
13 There is a philosophical problem with rejection, since it involves a decision, a passage from potency to act. We solve it thus: At the start, God actualizes the potency of my mind to see a thing as good and partly actualizes the potency of my will-not as far as a decision, but as far as a favorable attitude. Suppose then, when these things are in place, the picture does not please me. Then the favorable attitude of will drops back from actuality to potency-we do not need God to drop. That serves as the condition. When it appears, He actualizes the potency of my will to reject. He supplies only the power in the order of being; the rejecter supplies the evil orientation, by the drop described.
14 Cf. St. Thomas, Summa I. 19. 5. c, which says that God "vult hoc esse propter hoc, sed non propter hoc vult hoc." That is: God wants one thing to be there to serve as a title for another thing, even though the title does not move Him. The titles He gives me serve His love of objective order, and His love of me. His promise, "Ask and you shall receive" serves both purposes similarly.
15 We distinguish a feeling of "chestiness," which can be resonance for pride, from a mental satisfaction at doing some good, which is not such a resonance. Even so, we need to be careful pride does not creep into the legitimate satisfaction.
16 The experience of being rejected of course helps humility, and increases our likeness to Jesus, if we accept it as such: even though I may not deserve this particular slight, yet my sins deserve more than the equivalent. Persons in positions of great power-such that others fear to tell them anything unfavorable-gradually lose their bearings, like the men who were put into experimental space capsules at the beginning of US space program. They lacked light and sound, and had only bland temperature inside. So they all got hallucinations. People with great power, since they do not have the correcting input normal people have (criticism from friends and enemies) grow able to accept even outrageous flattery.
17 In the basic sense, God needs no creature-He did not need to create any at all. But in a different sense, He can need us. For though He could do anything directly, by omnipotence, yet that would often involve use of extraordinary or miraculous power. He should not make the extraordinary ordinary (else someone could ask why He made laws He intended to violate regularly). Hence He uses us to do in the ordinary way things He could do only in the extraordinary mode. Angels serve a parallel purpose. They can do things for us without a miracle that God would need a miracle to do, since their nature has great powers, greater than ours.