Tuesday, June 4, 2013

God's Preference: For or With?

It is my conviction that God does not like to do things for us, but much prefers to do things with us.

This observation colors my understanding of prayer, of ministry, of spiritual life, of Church.

The Bible supports my conviction. God created human beings in his image and then commissioned them, "Be fertile and multiply...fill the earth and subdue it...have dominion..." (cf. Gen 1:28).

As biblical history unfolds we see God calling people like Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and sending them out in his name. He accompanies them on their mission but he expects them to act, to be the instruments of his saving grace. Jesus' calling of disciples and sending them out verifies the divine preference; he could do it all on his own but he prefers to work with and through fallible human beings. The incarnation proves the rule; God became a human being and in that humanness worked out the Father's plan of salvation.

My conviction about God's preference to work with rather than for may seem to challenge the insight that "it's all grace." In fact, it complements it. God gives us the ability to choose, the inspiration to make good choices, and the confidence that when we do his will we are helping to make his kingdom come!

Dorothy Day saw it perfectly. In an article she wrote in May of 1954 she said, "Our life of grace and our life of the body go on beautifully intermingled and harmonious. 'All is grace,' as the dying priest whispered to his friend in The Diary of a Country Priest (by George Bernanos). The Little Flower also said, 'All is grace.'"

Grace provides the direction and energy for us to do the things of God. Grace builds on nature.

Many a grandmother invites her grandchild into the kitchen to help her bake cookies. She could do it by herself more efficiently, more cleanly, but she wants to share the experience with a beloved child and create a bonding moment. The messiness of allowing the child to add ingredients, stir the mixture, and press out the cookie dough is a deeper form of love than simply handing the child a cookie and saying, "Run along now, and don't get crumbs all over the floor!"

God's patience trumps his efficiency. God allows his beloved to get crumbs all over the floor, much preferring to do things with us than for us.

This divine attitude explains the practice of prayer, especially prayers of petition. When we ask God for something we are neither informing the Father of something he does not already know nor are we trying to cajole him into doing us a favor. God already wants what is best for his children. Our prayer of petition is our participation in the divine will. We pray with the conviction that God's will should be done even if it is contrary to our own.

I wonder if sometimes things don't turn out the way we want simply because we didn't participate, we didn't add anything to the mixture. Our failure to become involved, to do our share, does not nullify the divine plan (Judas Iscariot's failure to "get with the program" did not stop Jesus' great act of love) but it may in fact create an obstacle that must later be overcome. Prayer sensitizes us to God's will, not the other way round.

This divine attitude helps explain why God has routinely called people to ministry. We have to believe that God could do things far more efficiently without our help, but his preference for our involvement and cooperation demonstrate a genuine "hands-on" kind of love and patience.

"Calling people" is a prime characteristic of salvation history. Hilaire Belloc once famously noted our puzzlement in God's calling the sons of Jacob to be the foundation of his chosen people: "How odd of God to choose the Jews."

Still more puzzling is why God has chosen us to be heralds of the Gospel and participants in the saving work of the Church.

Our awareness of the divine attitude of relying on people helps us assess our spiritual lives. There is meaning to our existence, even if we are not likely to bend the course of history or always be faithful participants in the program. One's spiritual life is to be a concerted effort to be open to God's call, to focus upon the divine will, to hold ourselves in readiness for whatever God may ask next.

Thomas Merton once summarized that consequence in a prayer:
            My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead my by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen. 
The Second Vatican Council restored our awareness that the Church is a communio, a community of people, a community of local churches. It is this insight that urges the active participation of all the people in liturgy and in the mission and ministry of the Church. By virtue of our baptism we enter into the priesthood of Jesus Christ and all the baptized are to exercise that priesthood "by the reception of the sacraments, by prayer and thanksgiving, by the witness of a holy life, self-denial and active charity" (Lumen Gentium, #10).

It's my conviction that God does not like to do things for us, but much prefers to do things with us. And that observation makes a lot of difference.

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