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Suffering to sanctity

July 30, AD 2012 16 Comments

If it causes pain, it cannot be true.

This principle, it seems to me, is an unspoken premise underlying the general public’s passionate opposition to many of the Church’s teachings. The same-sex marriage movement, for example, decries the Church’s position on the subject because it causes emotional pain and anguish to gays and lesbians. Abortion advocates constantly bring up the physical pain, financial difficulty, and psychological challenges that many pregnant women face, the implication being that their struggles make abortion a tragic necessity.

Yet the same conviction outside the Church — that a moral precept that causes pain cannot be true — is present inside the Church, too, and probably in our hearts. On one Catholic blog, a female commenter said her (Catholic) husband was struggling to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception because natural family planning (when used to postpone childbearing) requires abstinence at the peak of a woman’s sexual desire.

So if any given ethical principle requires some degree of sacrifice, pain, or unpleasantness, it’s unfair and probably untrue.

Obviously, when it’s stated like that, almost everyone would reject it. Those of us who theoretically accept all the Church’s moral teachings would definitely reject it. But how much of the (unavoidable) pain of obeying Christ’s moral teachings are we actually willing to bear?

Are we willing to give our money and attention to the poor? To accept correction humbly? To criticize our own political parties when they fall short? To forgive those who have hurt or slandered us? To acknowledge the authority of flawed Church leaders? To face rejection for proclaiming the Gospel?

Does some internal resistance to sacrifice prevent us from accepting the full ramifications of following Jesus Christ?

Just some questions I’ve been pondering.

Because if Flannery O’Connor is right about sanctification — “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” — and you’re not encountering pain in your efforts to live virtuously, you may be doing something wrong.

About the Author:

Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things magazine, a former Collegiate Network fellow at USA TODAY, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College.

  • Abigail C. Reimel

    An timely message in today’s world, and a very important one. After all, the Cross did not feel “good”, but it certainly was true. Indeed, we have not been called to spiritual highs and perfect bliss while on Earth. Heaven is the place for that, and may we all continue to bear our sufferings here so as to enjoy perfect happiness there.
    God bless you for this thought-provoking post.

  • richard

    Yes. Proclaiming the Gospels to the letter is certainly going to require of us an acceptance of rejection; even from within our own families.

  • “…and you’re not encountering pain in your efforts to live virtuously, you may be doing something wrong.” Despite my better judgement, I have chosen to respond to this post which I personally regard as metaphysical solipsism.
    I care for a totally disabled son who is 26: all day, every day. He nearly drowned 14 years ago after being under water for 25 minutes. Every need must be provided for, and I mean every need. I consider myself a very moral and very ethical person because I know unrequited love. I do everything in power to avoid pain for myself and my son.
    I do not need pain to live virtuously, I choose my life. I do not need god nor do I recognize and anthropomorphic rendition of a god. The concept has no value to the reduction or expansion of pain and I do not need the concept to explain anything. Love and virtue exist because they are the energetic nature of mankind and predate the existence of the RC Church. BTW, most of my son’s therapists (the most loving and kind ones) are gay men and women whom the church considers as “disordered”. It is organized religion which generates pain; the rejection of organized religion gives one true freedom.
    I am sure many on this site will disagree with great vehemence…so be it!

  • Phil,

    God believes in you and loves you.

  • @Brent

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof!

  • Phil,

    Can you give me one example of a “proof” you would accept?

  • @ Brent,
    Sure, I would settle for something quite simple for a God but rather extraordinary for me: “the release of spasticity from my son’s arms and legs.” An all-powerful, all-merciful, all-knowing God could accomplish that in a flick of his wrist. It would not be anything to benefit me, so it’s not a selfish request; it would result in a small diminution of suffering for the sake of a pure spirit…and no, I reject the notion of a “victim soul”….The dictum of “ask and you shall receive” is absolute, not a qualified statement. So, if someone asks on his behalf, t should be!

  • I, for one, am grateful that I don’t get to choose when God blesses me, nor how. Yes, of course it would be a flick of His wrist, but we are not deities. Saying something along the lines of “if only God would do exactly what I tell Him to do” wouldn’t be proof of a Godly God, would it? It would be proof of an obedient God.

    I wouldn’t want God obedient to me.

  • “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof!”

    No they don’t. Claims, unique or not, simply require the same proof that is specific to its nature.

  • @Elizabeth
    “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Matt 7:7…sounds to me like God wasnts to be obedient and attentive to our requests…He says so!

    I do not have a clue about claims requiring proof specific to their nature….if the nature of God is all powerful, all knowing, etc. there should be proofs available to every man that this so … like intervention in suffering and oppression because he is all-merciful?

  • *Ask. You could ask me to run around naked but I’d be much more likely to put a Theology of the Body book in your hand and keep my clothes on. God still gets to decide when and where He helps us. Faith is the process of understanding that the One who created us knows better what we need.

  • Hi Phil. I hope you’ll bear with me while I join this civil debate.

    First, I agree with what Anna said: and [if] you’re not encountering pain in your efforts to live virtuously, you may be doing something wrong. She did say MAY which means that sometimes the natural virtue we have in us leads the way. But as a Christian, when I try to overcome the vices in my life (like my tendency to over eat or to lose my temper) that is painful, or frustrating, or just really hard – however you want to say it. I would guess that the virtues you describe in relation to caring for your son are natural virtues for you, and I am sure that there have been other areas in your life where you have had to discipline yourself to grow in virtue.

    Second, you said, “The dictum of “ask and you shall receive” is absolute, not a qualified statement. So, if someone asks on his behalf, [i]t should be!” As Christians we pray, “Thy will be done…” This is the primary prayer and it shows a trust in God and a belief that He has our best interests in mind. I can ask for anything I want but I should first ask that His will be done. This isn’t a stupid way to explain why we don’t get what we want when Jesus clearly said, “ask you and you shall receive”. As a Catholic Christian I TRULY want to follow God’s will for my life. Or, as I wrote when my son was one month old and in the NICU, “I can and will keep asking for a miraculous full restoration. But in the meantime I also have to be prepared for God wanting James to be who James is, not who I want him to be. And who he is, is someone with brain damage.”

    Lastly, you wrote that for you to believe that God loves you you would need to see the miracle of “the release of spasticity from my son’s arms and legs”. I totally agree that your request isn’t selfish at all and I even see how you’re not asking God to be obedient to you. I understand what Elizabeth is saying and I think she speaks truth, but I also think there’s many facets to this. Just this morning I told my husband that since he loves me I would like him to be more vocal about his appreciation of the clean house more frequently. I’m not asking him to obey me, I am telling him what I want and how I would like to see his love expressed.

    For me, the interesting thing is that “the release of the spasticity from my son’s arms and legs” is one of the many things God did do for my son. (My son was a stillborn, without a pulse for over an hour. When he amazingly came back to life it was expected that he would die again very soon or at most live a short life even more disabled than your son.) I don’t know why God gave my family this miracle but I do know it’s not because He loves me more than you, nor because I prayed the right way. I can tell you, though, that the miracle did not prove to me that God loves me, exists, or is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. I already knew those things about Him. So maybe it was my faith in Him and my love for Him that allowed the room He wanted to do the miracle.

  • @Phil

    “I do not have a clue about claims requiring proof specific to their nature”

    Indeed. Neither did Hitchens. This is why “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof!” is begging the question.

    “if the nature of God is all powerful, all knowing, etc. there should be proofs available to every man that this so”

    There are. See Aquinas, Augustine, et al.

    “like intervention in suffering and oppression because he is all-merciful”

    Non sequitur. The fact that He can does not mean He will. God, by virtue of being all powerful, cannot be “obligated” to do anything.

    The problem with your objection is that it draws the line arbitrarily. Your question is not, “How can we prove God?” but “Why can’t I prove God’s existence in this way?” There is no logical connection between the existence of God and the test imposed.

  • douglas

    @ Phil
    Proof of God? What does that mean to you? Can it mean information and a question, where the question has only two possible answers, one there is a God, two there may not be a God? No other possibility?
    Starting point. There can be no reason for an absolute, objective moral order where some actions are absolutely morally right and good, and absolutely should be done; whereas there are other actions or inactions that are absolutely, morally wrong and evil and should be avoided; there can be no such absolute moral order if there is no Creator God to bring everything into existance and to so ordain and reveal such order.
    Phil, what reason can there be for such an absolute, objective, moral order to exist if there is no absolutely, all-powerful Creator God who is the only reason for creation to have true inherent meaning and therefore the only possible source of an absolute objective moral order?
    Do you say there are no such absolute moral do’s and don’ts?
    Do you disagree that to say that would require someone to say there is nothing absolutely right and good /about a parent caring for a small child, or a spouse caring for a disabled spouse and contrarywise, they would have to say (to be consistant) that there was nothing absolutely morally wrong and evil with a parent feeding their small child to a horde of hungry rats or there was nothing morally wrong with a president of the united states deliberately starting a world war in an attempt to become world emperor

  • @ douglas
    I will try to answer your question respectfully. I, and I speak only for myself, do not need an anthromorphoic deity to explain any morality, creation or absolutes in the universe. I, as previously mentioned, care for a totally disabled son who is now almost 27 years old. I have no time for any vice although a few would probably make my life more exciting.
    The very nature of my humanity calls me to be the best I can to other members of my human community and all life around me. I condemn evil acts especially evil acts like indifference to disability which many people would not consider “sin.” I am a good man and I do not need a god to be a good person or a virtuous one.
    You cannot prove to me that god exists, neither can I prove to you that he/she doesn’t. I do know that there have been 30 dying, rising, virginal birth “gods: which all have the same storyline beginning with Horus 2000 BC in the Eqyptian Book of the Dead. Most organized religions were astrotheological in nature and have a basis in the mystery religions of Egypt in the schools of Alexandria. Many myths, all similar, all exhort man to be good…concepts like natural law are man made constructs. Only that which flows from the heart is real. I have no investment in proving god exists and reject Aquinas’ solipsism.
    Much as I would enjoy this conversation this blog is probably not the appropriate place. If you wish to continue a discussion, let’s do it privately. My e-mail is at my website. Warm regards…

  • Phil, you are welcome to have a discussion in this forum. This is a Catholic website, but we welcome non-Catholics as long as they are respectful. You seem sincere and respectful.