Dear Father John, I recently had two experiences that I can’t make sense out of. First, after a profound spiritual retreat, I became so convinced of my unworthiness, my sinfulness, that I canceled a commitment I had made to do a special ceremony of blessing for some friends (non-Catholic). I just felt that I couldn’t stand in God’s place for that ceremony after what I discovered about myself on the retreat! Second, just a week or so later, I was participating in a secular workshop, and during one of the exercises, I prayed for a special favor from God, a favor for another participant in the workshop. And the favor was granted in a VERY dramatic fashion, so much so that the entire workshop was interrupted and redirected by it. God worked in a powerful way through me. And that’s my confusion! Is it normal for him to do such dramatic (almost miraculous) things through a person so imperfect as myself? I know he does so through saints, but I am in no way a saint! Can you give me some light about this?
Thank you for sending us this question! I think it’s an important one, and the principles at play in your experiences are valid for all of us. So let’s get cracking.
God’s Will or Our Un/Worthiness?
I really think there are two questions (at least) embedded in this one. First, there is the question of how we can discern when God wants us to do something and when he doesn’t. Your decision not to perform the blessing ceremony for your friends seems that it was based primarily on how you felt about your un/worthiness to do it. But, if you think about it, is that really the best criterion for making our decisions? I mean, who would ever say “yes” to a vocation to the priesthood, for example, if that were the standard? Who would ever say “yes” to bringing a new human life into the world and taking on that transcendent responsibility, if our own worthiness/unworthiness were the measuring rod?
A firmer reference point for those decisions, I think, would be whether or not God is asking it of me, whether or not God wants it, whether or not it is God’s will. When God called Moses, Moses resisted because he didn’t feel that he was up to the task, but God insisted, promising that He would be with Moses, and He would make it all happen. Even when Mary received her visit from the archangel Gabriel, she balked, until he explained that what she couldn’t do, the Holy Spirit would do for her, then she accepted her mission. In these cases, and throughout the Bible and the history of the Church, God has asked his children to do things, called them to do things that, strictly speaking, they were really not worthy of. After all, except for Mary, we are all sinners, all unworthy of God’s grace – except for the fact that he is faithful, and he makes us worthy. The real question isn’t whether we are worthy or unworthy, but whether God is asking it of us.
Having God’s will as our standard for deciding things like this is, I think, a sturdier foundation for Christ-centered living. Of course, this opens up the question: “How do I know when something is God’s will for me?” This is the whole amazing arena of what spiritual writers call “discernment.” But that’s a new topic. (I did write about it on our blog a little bit though: https://spiritualdirection.com/2011/06/20/how-can-i-know-the-will-of-god-in-my-life-part-i-of-ii.)
God’s Wonders Amidst Human Weakness
Now onto the second implied question about whether or not God can work so palpably, tangibly, powerfully, and even miraculously, through someone who is still very imperfect. And the answer to that is, absolutely yes! The history of salvation is overflowing with wonder-full and amazing actions of God, actions that he chooses to send into the world through very imperfect people, just like you and me. There is a little book edited by Jeff Cavins, Matthew Pinto and Patti Armstrong called “Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart” – actually, it’s one in a series of books. They collect amazing stories of how God’s grace is at work in very normal people. Not all of them are as dramatic as your experience in the seminar, but some of them are. You might be interested in checking them out. And those are just a few of the thousands of amazing stories. Just talk to any convert, or really anyone who has been journeying with the Lord for an extended period of time, and ask about their most dramatic encounters with God’s grace – usually something along the lines of what you described has been part of their story.
We don’t understand why God chooses to work such wonders in some situations, through some people, in some moments, and not in others. That has to do with how he distributes his gifts – only he knows the reasons. Each of us needs to get to know the gifts we have received, and bathe them daily in God’s grace, and allow him to use them however he wishes every day. With the more dramatic gifts, the gift of miracles or healing, for example, there comes a temptation. The temptation is to begin to think that I am better than other people because I have received this gift. Yet, I am sure you see the illogic in that. As St. Paul said, “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). When we find ourselves swept up into God’s marvelous history of salvation, whether on the receiving end or the giving end of extraordinary graces, the best response is humble, joyful, delighted praise for God and gratitude for his wise generosity.
In part II, we will examine the theology of mediation, and also how investing in the Lord pays dividends.
Art for this post on God’s will : Burning Bush, Sébastien Bourdon, 17th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.