Monday, December 19, 2005

Sufficient Grace

There’s a rather famous passage in St Paul’s letters that I’ve referred to from time to time, and whenever I come across it again, as I just did a few days ago, I seem to need to reflect on it again, to get some fuller understanding. It’s a word from the Lord at once disturbing and consoling, peace-giving and perplexing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9).

This seems to be the most common answer to my prayers, at least those concerning myself. I tend to want to pray in hope that God’s grace will be sufficient, but He’s telling me that it already is. My next move is to pray that it will be manifest or experienced as such! Then He sends me back to the “is” without further comment.

Sometimes I think that if the Lord would have consulted me first about how to deal with “thorns in the flesh” or other weaknesses of human nature or character, we would have come up with a more satisfying solution. But since He chose to bypass my input, I have to conclude that He has foreseen something in His infinite wisdom and serenity that I may have missed amid my frantic cries for immediate deliverance.

Probably most of us have some “tragic flaw,” some sort of besetting temptation or sin, some nagging weakness or vulnerability that we’d like simply to be rid of once and for all. We don’t know what St Paul’s was, but he described it metaphorically (I hope that’s all it was!) as “a messenger of satan to beat me.” So then, looking at our own problems, things could be worse. All the same, we do experience inadequacy, the inability to be vibrant with virtue in flawless fortitude and unflagging faith. Somehow it seems, though, that this is precisely what God has come to expect from us—at least in this present life before we are to “shine like the sun in our Father’s Kingdom.”

Not that God wants us to wallow in sin or to give up efforts to overcome our failings, for indeed He hates evil and loves holiness, but He wants us to learn something first. He says his power is perfected in weakness, a weakness that is translated as utter dependence upon divine mercy and assistance. So his grace is sufficient, though He may not choose to wipe out every trace of our weakness, but He will carry us through with equanimity and trust, as we learn to walk with Him one step at a time, learning the necessary lessons along the way. Human beings tend to get proud and arrogant if they have no humiliating weaknesses of body or soul to serve as reality checks.

Still, we wrestle with the mystery. Paul repeatedly begged the Lord for deliverance but received only the “My grace is sufficient” response. As we progress in the spiritual life, we may go through many stages of knowing and “unknowing.” We may come to know God in a certain way, and then later realize that He is not really what we thought, or that He is, but much more, or in a different way. Life will always be a struggle, but with divine grace it will be a rewarding and enlightening one. An old monk from Mt Athos was once asked if he struggled with the devil. He replied: “I struggled with the devil for many years, but I no longer need to do so. Now I struggle with God.” That means that he had succeeded in overcoming temptations, but now he was hurled headlong into a Mystery beyond all comprehension, without any compass but radical faith and trust. It was as if he were learning about God all over again, only at a much more profound level.

We see, then, that it is not acceptable for us (at least in the long run) to ask God merely to fix what is broken, heal what hurts, or pull out those painful or humiliating thorns in the flesh. Jesus has some perfecting of his power to accomplish, and our weakness is his workbench—just as his Cross was his Father’s. “He was crucified in weakness, but he lives by the power of God.” Life is not so much about personal perfection as it is about letting Christ live in us. “Do you not know that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2Cor. 13:4-5). God has mysteries into which He would lead us, but we have to learn how to trust and abandon ourselves to Him absolutely, even while apparently hamstrung by our defects. He has taken everything into account.

So turn the reins over to the Lord. He will meet the insufficiency of your will and efforts with the sufficiency of his grace. Then, because of his loving care for your life and salvation, and despite all appearances (or even agonies), all manner of things shall be well.