Dear Father John, why does God chastise us for pride and vanity but demands our absolute adoration? I know that men wrote the Bible. These are vices of the ego. I have studied Carl Jung. Is it possible that our interpretation of God was based on our projection of “power” and our human ego structure? What we thought godlike demands would be? I thought God was ego-less…Why does he want us on our knees?
Thank you so much for having the courage to ask this question. It’s one of those things that, I think, a lot of people have wondered about now and then, but very few have had a chance to find a satisfying answer. And yet, if we can’t answer this question, our quest for spiritual maturity in Christ will barely even be able to get off the ground.
What Else God Wants
First of all, although God does indeed “want us on our knees” (as you put it) in a certain respect, that is not all he wants. He wants us at his side; he wants us in his heart; he wants us in his arms; he wants to share his life with us. As Jesus puts it in his parables, what he really dreams about being able to say to each one of us is, “Come, share your master’s joy!” (Matthew 25:21). Notice, it’s an actual share in God’s own joy!
This is the fundamentally radical change that Christianity brought to religion. Jesus told us, “I no longer call you slaves because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15-16). This was something new in religious history, and it is still something new. Through our faith in Christ, we actually are given a share in the divine life; we are made children of God not just figuratively, but really – we have God’s own life flowing through our souls (it’s called grace), and our Christian journey will have its fulfillment in our entering into the life of the Trinity for all eternity. This is the bigger picture, the picture of our destiny in Christ, of the new life that Christ brings us through his incarnation, passion, and resurrection. We have to keep that in mind. That’s the context in which we can properly understand sin and repentance.
What About Sin?
Your question, I think, is at its core a question about sin. It’s kind of a question about the possibility of sin. Is sin possible? If so, what is the essence of sin? Is sin just breaking some kind of random rule? Is God somehow insecure, and so he gives us some rules that we shouldn’t break? This is key. Because if sin really isn’t possible, then Jesus must be either a myth or a crazy man, because he came to earth to save us from sin, to redeem us from sin, to atone for sin: “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And Jesus’ first exhortation to his followers was to repent from sin: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Unfortunately, the modern world doesn’t like the concept of sin, and as a result, we kind of have a prejudice against it. And it doesn’t help that so much Catholic education is so superficial on this issue.
In its essence, sin is a breakdown in our relationship with God; it’s a lack of trust in God, which leads us to rebel against him, to leave him, to turn our backs on him. Doing that is problematic because we are actually dependent on God for everything. When we turn our backs on him, we destroy ourselves. This is really important to understand. We were created to live in communion with God. God created us to share in his life, and so the whole purpose of our lives and the only place we will find the fulfillment we yearn for is through intimacy with him.
This is the real sticking point. Many people would prefer to be able to make themselves happy, without having to actually be responsible towards someone, towards another person – God. But that’s not what we were made for. We were made for relationship. Our freedom is not by nature absolute; it is a participatory freedom. It involves being in relationship with others, with God in the first place. But this means that true freedom is not simply doing whatever I feel like; it is doing what is true, and right, and beautiful – true freedom is the capacity to choose to do what I in truth ought to do, what will lead me to authentic human fullness and fulfillment. And God, and our relationship with him, is the source of those things. God has created an ordered universe, not a chaos. To live in relation with God, we need to accept the universe as he created it, including our human nature and its limitations.
This is what Catholic spirituality means about humility, adoration, reverence: we humbly and joyfully accept the truth that we are limited beings, created and dependent upon God, and called to live in communion with him through love. Sin is a conscious reaction against this reality. Sin is rebellion against the way things are. When we sin, we reject God’s plan for ourselves and for the universe. We try to achieve fulfillment outside of that plan.
In part two, we will talk about what it means to be rooted in God and what it is to have true humility and true reverence.
Art for this post asking What Does God Really Want of Us?: Kniender Stifter (Kneeling Donor), Petrus Christus, 1450-1460, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.