How Does One Persevere in Faith?
Dear Father John, I have returned to the Church after many years of not attending, but I was never away in my heart. I was very enthusiastic when I came back and I’m faithfully doing all the Church asks. Sometimes, it feels like I am just going through the motions and I want to quit. How do I keep going?
IT’S ONE THING to make good choices, to use our freedom to grow in love, as we are called to do, rather than forfeiting our freedom to the slavery of attachments and sin. But the power of the human will isn’t exhausted by only choosing to follow the right path in isolated moments. Loving God with all our strength also means persevering on that path. Our Lord left no room for doubt on this: “But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). And just to make sure we understand, he illustrated this fundamental truth with a visual metaphor: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
Levels of Maturity
Babies are immature; their will is undeveloped, just as are many other of their natural powers. They have no conscious awareness or control over their emotions, their whims, their passions, and their drives. Their spiritual freedom is in an embryonic state: They are completely dependent on the care and education of others. Just as they need to be potty-trained, they also need to be feelings-trained; they need to learn how to integrate their passions into a harmonious, mature personality under the guidance of their intelligence and their will. In the meantime, they are overly swayed by the pleasure and whim of the moment, by their biorhythms and their moods.
Adolescents are usually more mature. They can make independent, creative plans, and they can follow through on them, if they like them and feel the immediate rewards—just think of how much dedication a boy can put into mastering a video game. The will has grown and developed and can be directed toward achievements that take time and perseverance. But adolescents usually remain inordinately attached to immediate gratification, to easy pleasure. Even physiologically, certain areas of the brain that enable more mature judgment are still developing until we reach our twenties. The will, too, is still developing, and still needs training. This is why it is often so hard for adolescents to persevere in tasks where the reward is distant or in jobs that they simply don’t enjoy. They need help to discipline themselves in those areas where they feel less immediate gratification and where overindulgence in pleasure can cause them moral or emotional damage.
The adolescent may or may not show up to fulfill his commitments. He will begin grand projects on a whim, in the wake of an emotional high, and then leave them half-finished. The adolescent can make excellent and numerous resolutions for personal, academic, extracurricular, or spiritual improvement. But those resolutions will quickly fizzle out, and they will be replaced by another set of resolutions, which will also fizzle out, and the pattern continues. This is the activity of a will that is still immature. A person with an immature will would like to do many worthy things, but in actual practice, the “I would like” may never upgrade itself to the full, mature “I will.”
Mature adults have developed the capacity for self-governance. They are able to navigate the ebb and flow of emotional energy and maintain a steady, determined pace in pursuit of worthy goals. They are responsible, dependable, and persevering. Without denying their real and legitimate needs for healthy pleasure and gratification, mature adults are able to keep their internal stature ordered and secure, so as to continue worthwhile pursuits over the long haul. They are able to envision how much effort certain commitments or objectives will take, and so they make their decisions with sufficient reflection, knowing what will be required of them. They are committed enough to follow through even though it will be costly, because they have maturely judged (intellect) and maturely decided (will) that the endeavor is worthwhile.
The Cost of Discipleship
Jesus described this steadiness, this healthy realism, this capacity of perseverance, with two of his vivid parables. He emphasized how essential mature willpower—a will liberated from inordinate attachments that inhibit the freedom to love fully (renouncing all possessions)—really is for Christian discipleship:
Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers should laugh at him and say, “This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:28–33)
It is possible to have reached adulthood physiologically and to still be an infant or an adolescent as regards the maturity of one’s will. In this case, even full-grown, worldly, successful adults may be unable to love God as much as they really want to, because a lot of that strength is simply not yet
available to them; in some senses, they are still babies. But growth in this area can happen very quickly, once we plug in to God’s grace and make a firm decision to follow him more closely each day.
It is also possible to be a child or an adolescent physiologically and have already developed a relatively mature will. But maturity doesn’t mean that love has reached its limit. As the mind and soul continue to grow in “wisdom and in stature, and in favor before God and man,” the “all” of a person’s love for God will also continue to grow (Luke 2:52, RSV).
Whatever our current level of spiritual maturity, we do well to remember that love is intrinsically dynamic, and it will always have room to keep on expanding. Obeying the command to love God with all our strength, therefore, is a lifetime project.
Editor’s Note: This is another excerpt from Father John Bartunek’s new book “Seeking First the Kingdom” filled with “practical examples and down-to-earth wisdom which will show you how to bring Christ into each facet of your life”. Click here to learn more about the book…or if you wish to get it for a friend or relative who doesn’t read on line.
Art: Pflügender Araber mit Dromedaren in abendlicher Landschaft (Ploughing Arab with dromedaries in evening landscape), Gustave Guillaumet, by 1887, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; Jerusalem Poort Van Jaffa en Toren Van David (Jerusalem Jaffa Gate and Tower of David), Frederik Willem Conrad the Younger, 1859, PD-US; both Wikimedia Commons.