Arts and Culture

Caution: Don’t Worship Your Ability and Will

Sixth in a series

THERE IS A section in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “Rejoice and Be Glad,” in which the Holy Father comments on the heresy of pelagianism, the heresy that states that we can save ourselves by our own efforts without the help of God’s grace. There are several points that Pope Francis makes that I find both interesting and important. I suspect that there are few people who would consciously defend the errors of pelagianism but there may be many who are unaware that they are allowing the heresy to influence their relationship with God. Reading the Holy Father’s comments has caused me to examine my own tendency to think that I am completely in control of my relationship with God. To surrender to that tendency would be to put me first and God second.

Believing that we depend on the Holy Spirit in our journey through life should not lead us into the heresy which seems to be the opposite of pelagianism. I am referring to the heresy of quietism, the heresy which claims that we do not have to do anything, that God will do everything. It may help us to remember that the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives does not make us less free. The Holy Spirit’s presence can lead us to a deeper freedom.

Stressing that we must depend on God in our journey toward holiness, Pope Francis writes the following:

“Still some Christians insist on taking another path, that of justification by their own efforts, the worship of the human will and their own abilities. The result is a self-centered and elitist complacency, bereft of true love. This finds expression in a variety of apparently unconnected ways of thinking and acting, an obsession with the law, an absorption with social and political advantages, a punctilious concern for the Church’s liturgy, doctrine and prestige, a vanity about the ability to manage practical matters, and an excessive concern with programmes of self-help and personal fulfilment. Some Christians spend their time and energy on these things, rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love, rather than being passionate about communicating the beauty and the joy of the Gospel and seeking out the lost among the immense crowds that thirst for Christ.”

There are three phrases in this excerpt that speak strongly to me. The first is “justification by their own efforts.” It is embarrassing to admit how often I think of my life as though I am completely in charge. How ready I am to give my back a congratulatory pat. This is a mindset that can be disastrous. It involves misunderstanding myself and misunderstanding the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. The interaction between the presence of the Holy Spirit and our freedom is a profound mystery but what is profoundly true is that we cannot grow in holiness without the Holy Spirit’s presence. Remembering that can help us from being proud.

The second phrase is “the worship of the human will and their own abilities.” I believe that to deny that we have talents that we know we have involves a false humility. It is being dishonest. We should be joyful about any talents that we have. Whatever our talents are they can be used to help build the Kingdom of God.

The third phrase is “rather than letting themselves be led by the Spirit in the way of love.” I am thinking about what it might mean to let the Spirit lead me in the way of love. What is necessary as a first step is to believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in my life, trying to lead me in the way of love? If I believe that deeply, I think I inevitably will be trying to discern what the Spirit wishes me to do at this point in life. This may take time and prayer, but if I believe that the Spirit wishes the best for me and desires me to become holy, then I should be confident that my effort at discernment will be successful. The Spirit is not trying to deceive me. Believing in the Spirit’s presence in my life should help me to place my trust in my heavenly Father. Because of the Spirit’s presence, I am never alone.

It seems to me that Pope Francis, more than any recent popes, stresses that the good news of God’s love for us should cause us to be joyful. That joy can be very attractive and can draw other people to Christ.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his 24-part lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.

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