Recently I posted about my experience with a meditation/observation exercise that I found extremely helpful during the early years after my major conversion to Jesus Christ so many years ago.
I look at that now as a taste of the so-called “negative way” of mystics who have approached God with a wordless, naked longing, setting aside thought because our human thought is so finite, so limited it cannot possibly grasp an infinite God.
This was fruitful for me. However, I think had I not been so rebellious and anti-authority and thus unwilling to take anyone else’s word for anything, my spiritual growth would have been ten times faster had I adopted what is called the “positive way” that is choosing to believe what the Church teaches on the Church’s authority, and applying the positive assertions of the faith to my life..
I remember back in the early days of my faith journey, I had a friend who was visited by the Baptist pastor in our town and she accepted Christ as her personal Savior and after that she believed and she lived like she believed. I thought, gee, she is doing it without even questioning. Here I was doing this meditation exercise but still being somewhat of a cafeteria Christian, picking and choosing what I believed based on what I thought God had given me to understand. So I understood to my bones some things about God and some Scripture was alive and spoke to me, but other parts didn’t. She, instead, chose to believe what was given to her in the Baptist framework, basically Bible-believing, and obedient to what was taught in Bible studies and on Sunday.
Because she believed, she committed herself to a regular prayer life and due to her witness, her husband also came to faith in Jesus Christ. My faith life zig zagged and not in a good way.
It wasn’t until more than a decade later, after praying a series of prayers called the Steps to Freedom laid out by Neil Anderson’s Freedom in Christ Ministries, in which I renounced the various false teachings I had been involved in; various occult practices I had engaged in way back when; and chose to forgive anyone who had wronged me and repented of other sins that open one to demonic involvement, that scales fell from my eyes regarding the importance of having an Apostolic faith, that is, believing the truth as handed down by the eye witnesses of Jesus. Anderson advised focusing on the promises of Christ regarding the new identity He has given us through His death on the cross and resurrection, an identity as a beloved child of God we have totally by grace, that we are given but we must work out, yield to by the power of the Holy Spirit rather than allow our sin natures to run amok and rule our lives, keeping us in bondage.
After praying the prayers, I no longer had the nagging negative chatter in my mind. I also learned one did not have to merely watch from an objective standpoint unwanted thoughts or feelings, but that one could command any evil spirits to depart in the Name of Jesus, and one could also resist the devil by replacing the lies of the enemy that might be insinuating themselves into my mind with the truths of Scripture.
I also came to love Galatians 3 in which Paul asks those who are requiring non-Jewish new Christians to be circumcised “Who bewitched you?”
3 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?3 Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so many things in vain?—if it really is in vain. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
In other words, God does not leave us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps to obey the law, He gives us His Spirit so that in believing we have the power to live by that Spirit, fulfilling the law both in its outward requirements but inwardly as well.
Thus it is of crucial importance we believe the truth, rather than adopt a Peanuts comic strip theology of “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.”
This is all a preface to two interesting posts on a recent homily by Pope Francis in which he criticises those Catholics who say, “It’s this or nothing.”
But the “rigidity” of the Law is not that it demands too much, but that those who adhere to it can convince themselves they have done enough—that is, reached the “ideal”—when they in fact have not surpassed what the Pharisees taught. We mustn’t forget that it wasn’t Jesus who wanted a relaxing of the rigid laws about marriage and divorce, but an even deeper embrace of the radical commitment desired by God. And he says so right after the section remarked upon by Francis: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:31-32). Yet Francis, as he has on several occasions, says the apparent opposite: “In addition, these people had seen the rigidity of those scribes and Pharisees and when a prophet came to give them a bit of joy, they (the scribes and Pharisees) persecuted them and even murdered them; there was no place for prophets there.”
Again, the deeper problem for the Pharisees was the failure to fully embrace the all-consuming demands of the Law and to live them both externally and internally, being conformed to the word given by God.
In fact, it is a pet theme of Pope Francis to condemn the “rigid”, often dismissing them as the “doctors of the law”. We can certainly grant (as I think charity demands) that he is referring primarily to our relationships with each other, our tendency to write others off when they do not agree with us, and our constant quarrels over strategy or even over matters of personal style. Nonetheless, even a fifth-grader can see how easily this constant emphasis can (and will) be confused with the very legitimate effort to distinguish truth from error, not only metaphysically but morally.
A colossal misconception
It is patently false to claim that Our Lord teaches us it is perfectly all right to fail to accept the truth or to fail to live in accordance with it. It is also necessary to stress with the greatest possible strength that He never referred to “the way, the truth and the life” as an ideal. Nor did Our Lord ever make a demand He was not willing to help us fulfill! It is necessary to grasp such distinctions.
Jesus Christ showers infinite mercy on all of us, but it is a mercy we cannot receive if we are not open to it. Divine mercy is always a call to repentance. It is God’s willingness to embrace us at the first sign of repentance—as soon, in reality, as we stop shunning that embrace. It is true that He is immensely sympathetic to those who fall but are willing to try again; He established the pattern for this in carrying His own cross. But He also speaks honestly to those who are impervious to mercy, those who do not admit their uncertainty or confusion—those who say, “We see”, and so their guilt remains (Jn 9:41).
It is, in fact, the merciful Son of God who says: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man” (Mt 15:18-20). Surely there is something here that seeks to clarify the difference between good and evil!