How do we respond to God?

Question 25.

Here we consider Q 25. of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "How do we respond to God who reveals himself?"

 Q 25. How do we respond to God who reveals himself?

See also Catechism 142-143.

1. Obedience: A Balance of Receptivity and Action

Since it is the Lord who reveals himself, the appropriate response is receptivity; surrender to the will of God. This means no assertion of human autonomy, just a simple attitude of obedience. Yet God reveals himself also in order to call us to cooperation with God's plan. This receptivity does not mean something passive, rather, in Jesus, God also asks us to respond.

Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mt 19: 21-22).

So we find that obedience involves a balance between receptivity and activity. We are called to obey both by listening to God’s word and by using our God-given abilities to respond, putting Jesus’ call to follow him into practice. Yet this obedience God asks of us is motivated only by God’s care for us. It is not a punishment, but a method that is necessary for our salvation. We need this attitude and stance of obedience.

2. Willingness and Discernment

In order to live this obedience we need both willingness and discernment. We need the receptivity to believe that God intends only what is best for us, and the discernment to work out in detail what we need to do in response to God’s call. In practice we can find it difficult to get the balance right. In a sense, we are tempted to decide what God is asking us to do before God has had the opportunity to ask us himself! Receptivity involves patience and trust. But as we have seen, God now has to reveal himself to us through ‘static’, like a radio not tuned in to the exact wavelength of the signal God is transmitting. So we can be confused about how much and in what ways to wait and trust, and how much to get on with what seems to be the task at hand.

3. Trial and Error

This demands discernment, which requires both trial and error, and balance. We need to explicitly foster both the receptive and the active aspects of obedience. A particular individual might be stronger in habits conducive more to one than the other. One comes more naturally. So we need to counterbalance this strength by developing that aspect which is less developed. But in general, people have more difficulty with a total receptivity of surrender. Especially since God also gave us talents to use – why should we let go of good things? Yet we need to let go of the good for the sake of the better.

4. Experiences of Failure

The obedience of faith is a journey, and failure consists in the abandonment of this difficult attempt at balance. If we overshoot the mark a bit one way or the other in trying to work out how to get the balance right this is not failure. God expects it. But it is easier to run with our strength alone instead of allowing our weakness to reveal to us more important lessons. If we only cultivate the active side of obedience, focusing on all that we are doing for God, we lose the receptivity that draws us back to the centre, and keeps us on target.

5. Privilege Trust in the Church

By seeking to use only our own strengths in order to respond to what we think God, or life, is asking of us, our actions tend to become more about ourselves than about God. Failure intervenes to teach us. If we are honest enough with ourselves, we eventually recognise that our plans often lack wisdom, and our means rely overly much on human strengths. We can use the lesson of failure to look more deeply, and critique ourselves, not for lacking strength and will, but for things like, not taking others sufficiently into account, not depending more on others, thereby allowing them to contribute, not depending more on providence than planning, and so on. Like the rich young man in the Gospel, we would prefer to think we could do good things for God using our wealth, whatever form it takes. Then when we think we hear Jesus calling us to step boldly out of our comfort zone we go away sad. If we never hear challenging calls we are not really listening to the Gospel, but to a lesser form of it.

One of the crucial means God uses to call us to obedience is the teaching of the Church, and the urgings of the Pastors of the Church. We can more easily mould ideas to our own image, but other people are resistant and awkward for our plans. The Church is people. Both the leaders and members of the Church have a call on us as fellow Christians. God often uses the uncomfortable words of others to challenge us. In the Gospels Jesus himself told the religious leaders that well-known public sinners were closer to God than they were. We do not like to be told that either.

6. Just Tell me What To Do

Obedience would be a lot simpler if we could just turn our minds off and follow a list of duties. We could stop wrestling with the complexities of discernment and just ask for detailed instructions. But God does not send us an email everyday with a list of chores. But the overall shape of our lives, interdependent with other people, does generate a lot of guidance, so it is not as though we are paralysed every day for want of direction. But when it comes to more obviously spiritual things we can be inclined to take comfort in pleading ignorance about God’s plan. I will just get on with my chores and if God has something to tell me he can get back to me.

Yet God has given us the dignity of being co-workers with Jesus. This is not only on the ‘shop floor’ but we are also called to the role of 'management' as well. Each of us is delegated some of these spiritual management responsibilities as part of our vocation. This aspect of obedience is grounded in prayer. It is the receptive aspect that needs to balance the active aspect. After all, God could be trying to ‘get back to you’ but you never check your email! Although God does not usually send emails with daily lists of chores, he does send some, though they are often a little cryptic. And many get shunted to our ‘spam’ filter, almost sight unseen, for they include things like ‘take up your cross’, and ‘sell your possessions’. Obviously they could not be really from God, could they? They might contain viruses like ‘commitment’, or ‘sacrifice’!

7. My Yoke Is Easy

One of the main reasons we often do not check back in with God on a regular basis is this fear that we are the willing donkeys God has earmarked for beasts of burden; the only poor suckers still trying to do the right thing, hence being overburdened. Our avoidance of the receptive aspect of obedience, of really listening for God’s voice, is based on wanting ‘plausible deniability’ for not doing what we imagine are all the hard things God has planned for us. If I do not listen too closely maybe I will get away with just a rap over the knuckles, pleading ignorance.

Yet Jesus said:

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mt 11: 28-30)

At times this is hard to believe. But it is precisely the lack of quiet listening for God’s voice in the stillness that makes it hard to believe. We build up a head of steam doing good works for God, or things of which we are sure God would approve, and find it hard to stop and let go. Prayer seems like another chore, so we shy away from it. There is really no solution at that point except to take obedience seriously and just stop and pray, regardless of feelings.

You might also need discernment and assistance to learn how to pray in such a way. Although prayer can at times legitimately feel like a chore that we have to push ourselves through, it is not meant to consist mainly of that. Unless we actually experience some significant prayer time as an ‘easy yoke’ and ‘rest for the soul’ we need to seek some advice, for this is not what God intends. Although there is some measure of slackness we are meant to overcome with a certain amount of will, this is not God’s normal plan for our spirituality.

8. Carrying God's Burden

If we never learn to experience obedience as life-giving we will stall a long way short of the spiritual goals God has for us. The more that it all seems like hard slog the more we tend to fixate on using our own strengths. At least I can rely on myself for what I am good at. But obedience is fundamentally about trust. It is not about being commanded but about being trusted. This is the deeper lesson in the systematic need we have to learn obedience. God wants to trust us.

Practising obedience is practising trust. This applies to both the receptive and active aspects. For some people the active side is the most difficult. They are prepared to trust God but not other people. But what does trust in God mean if we trust no one else? It implies that no one else is trustworthy but me. So I must put my head down, grit my teeth and struggle towards God on my own. But it is not God who is constantly testing us to see if we are trustworthy. God already acts on the assumption that we are. What God wants is for us to trust ourselves enough to trust each other. This is what we learn through obedience to God. Without it we find no deep happiness within ourselves or in our world.

7. Failure as Success

The solution to this is actual failure, not because of one's own defects, but through the purity of one's intentions - when the world persecutes you because you are good. If we view Jesus’ life as an attempt to be a successful preacher, we see that he failed. Even without any personal failures on his part the world put up a resistance to his mission. So we can see that failure is the condition of the world. But if we view Jesus’ life as self-sacrifice for our sake, we see that he succeeded. This reveals that God uses weakness and failure to confound the strong. God has redefined failure as success, so how can we fail! Only through lack of obedience. Jesus’ supreme act involves something that was done to him, not an action of his own. His act was complete surrender to the will of his Father. If we get out of the way, God's plan has a chance of success.