God knows we are weak and wants to strengthen us
Discouragement is an enemy of discipleship.
There are times in the life of every Christian when we come face-to-face with our human frailty, our incapacity to act as we ought, our incompleteness, our failure to meet expectations, our lack of understanding, our infidelity to Christ, our hurt, our anger, our lack of progress, our inability to pray as we would like, and the superficiality of our faith — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Every Christian also confronts disappointments caused by others or by the world itself (they failed to act as they ought, they did not meet our expectations, etc.). Life as it is can be frustrating, and hard as we try we are incapable of changing others or the circumstances around us. Why aren’t things different, we might ask ourselves. But deep down we recognize, perhaps to our dismay: That’s the way it is.
Needless to say, any of the situations I have mentioned, especially sin, can in themselves be obstacles to living as true disciples. However, it is good to recognize that the discouragement caused by them can be the greatest obstacle of all. We should always be wary of discouragement.
When I am discouraged by failure — mine or someone else’s — and allow that discouragement to paralyze me or tempt me to give up, I am unwittingly assuming that I am something other than I am. I am a child of God in need of his redeeming grace, not a self-sufficient ruler of my own universe. Though it does not seem so, when I let discouragement overtake me, I am unwittingly assuming that I ought to be able to do everything on my own, that I ought to be able to fix myself, that failure should never happen if I am really serious about being a Christian, that I ought to be able to do everything without anyone’s help and even (here is the most dangerous part) without God’s help. I mention that we hold these assumptions unwittingly, and it takes a few moments of prayerful reflection to recognize them for what they are.
The onset of discouragement is a prime opportunity to understand God’s grace and mercy. It is not in our nature to be self-sufficient — we are whole only when we allow God to work within us, for he is life itself. Just as we did not create ourselves, we cannot re-create ourselves, forgive our own sin, or repair ourselves. That is God’s work, and he is more than anxious to provide everything we need — and more — including the grace to lean unto him when we confront our frailty and the brokenness of the world.
God knows we are weak and wants to strengthen us. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. … I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)
Our failure and sin, and that of others, can leave their scars on us. The hard knocks of life put calluses on our hands, the injuries that beset us on the roads of daily life leave us limping, and anxiety over family and friends draws lines on our faces. But these are also opportunities for letting God be our strength, our healing and our hope. He reminds us to hope not in ourselves but in him, for he will never abandon us, even if we have failed miserably. Like the Good Samaritan, he bandages our wounds and makes us whole. He forgives us, loves us and sets us on our way again.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a beautiful commentary on Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He encourages us to stay always on the way who is Jesus, even if we are tempted for whatever reason to abandon his way:
“If, then, you are looking for the way by which you should go, take Christ, because he himself is the way. … It is better to limp along the way than stride along off the way. For a man who limps along the way, even if he only makes slow progress, comes to the end of the way; but one who is off the way, the more quickly he runs, the further away is he from his goal.”
Perhaps we want to run when we should walk. Perhaps we jump off the way because we think we know a better way or a shortcut. Perhaps we allow the public embarrassment of our limping to stop us in our tracks.
But God loves the limping, frail and fractured who own up to their disfigurements, because in them he has vessels receptive to his grace.
Discouragement is unhelpful, unnecessary, and hazardous. It is one of Satan’s tricks to trip us off the way. Run from discouragement and hope in God.
Read the Spanish version of this column.
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2019