God the Father wants to strengthen our faith today. But, in order to strengthen it, let’s first think about what weakens it. Our faith can be weakened when our faith is tested. Typical trials include hurt in our marriages, sickness, when we lose our job or don’t know what will happen in the future, watching someone we love die, and when children are sick.
Generally our faith is tested when we have false expectations. For example, when our faith is tested by cancer, it could be because our subconscious expectation was that we’d never get cancer. Fr. Glenn Dion once shared how a woman who got badly sick asked him, “Why me?” to which he responded, “Why not you? So many people get sick all the time. Why did you think this would never happen to you?” When we ask, “Why does God let my children suffer?” it could be because a part of us has the expectation that our children wouldn’t suffer.
The three readings today show us what a strong faith looks like. How many people here are 75 years or older? I ask because this is the age when Abraham was called by God to leave his home and go to a foreign land, living as a nomad. Imagine if God asked one of us to leave our home in Vancouver and follow Him to South America. We’d say, “But I’m retired. This isn’t how things are supposed to go.” But the second reading says, “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive… and he set out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb 11:8).
Three times the second reading says, “By faith.” Abraham and Sarah followed God in difficult matters. Why? Because Sarah “considered him faithful” (Heb 11:11). Even though He asked things she didn’t expect, she knew He wasn’t trying to hurt her; she knew He would take care of her, and so she trusted.
In the Gospel, forty days after Jesus is born, St. Joseph and our Mother Mary take Jesus up to the Temple to present Him to the Lord, and when Simeon takes Jesus into His arms, he celebrates! And then he gives Mary difficult news: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:34-35). Did Mary object, “What do you mean a sword? How could God allow anything to happen to my son?” No, she knew that suffering comes to everyone, even those who follow God. God never promised us an easy life. So, this is the question for you and me when life gets difficult, “What did you expect?”
Last week, Connor Gray became a Christian here at our parish. Now what should Connor expect from God now that he’s a Christian? More importantly, what did God promise Connor? Here’s a list based on the Bible, what I call my “Top Ten List of God’s Promises.”
1. Forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9)
2. Hope: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17).
3. Fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
4. Joy: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11).
5. Peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27).
6. Acceptance: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me” (Jn 6:37, NAB).
7. Plan: “I know the plans I have for you… plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11).
8. Needs taken care of: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11).
9. Love: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love” (Jn 15:9).
10. Eternal life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
But he never promised us an easy life, financial security, job security, or quick improvements. Actually, Jesus said that we’re going to have difficulties in the world (Jn 16:33).
So, God didn’t promise Connor or us there’d be no suffering. But, here’s the thing: What religion does and can actually deliver? Does atheism guarantee a suffering-free life? If we were to leave our Catholic faith, would that give us a better life? The world can only give us pleasure, for just a moment, but it’ll take away our peace, love, and soul.
Both Catholics and non-Catholics get cancer. Catholic children and non-Catholic children sometimes die early. Catholics and non-Catholics lose their jobs. The whole world suffers. But who explains suffering coherently? Our culture doesn’t try to answer these questions because it has nothing to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, gets right to the heart of the matter, saying, “You were created for more.” Suffering forms character and gives us an opportunity to become more than we are, to unleash love into the world. (More on this in a minute.)
On this feast of the Holy Family, the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we want to think about how we give our children the right expectations of faith. How do we teach them what God promises and what He doesn’t?
A helpful thing to do is to avoid a mentality of entitlement. We live in an age of entitlement where we’re used to getting everything we want now and getting it easily; kids get what they want if they complain enough. Everything we get is new, everyone gets a reward, even if it’s just for participating; we don’t give grades because we don’t want anyone to feel badly; we don’t correct people because people can’t handle it.
And we project this entitlement onto God. We expect Him to give us whatever we want, when we want it.
But He loves us too much to give us what we want. He knows that getting what we want and having an easy life doesn’t make us happy. As Simon Sinek, who isn’t even a Christian, whose video we showed in October, said, “You take [people who are entitled]… they graduate school and… get a job, and they’re thrust into the real world and… they find out they’re not special, their moms can’t get them a promotion, that you get nothing for coming in last and, by the way, you can’t just have it because you want it. And, in an instant their entire self-image is shattered. So we have an entire generation that is growing up with lower self-esteem than previous generations.”
If we get everything we want, we become spiritually and morally weak. In 1978, the famous Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, went to Harvard to give a commencement address, and most expected him to criticize Communist totalitarianism, but instead, he criticized our Western culture, noting our decline in courage and willpower, our lack of self-restraint, and moral mediocrity. He said that through intense suffering Russia has now achieved a spiritual development of great intensity. People in the West have become weaker, while people in the East have become firmer, stronger and deeper, because of their advanced spiritual training.
This is why Jesus never promises us an easy life, because it makes us spiritually and morally weak. On the contrary, He promises us everything we truly need to become spiritually and morally strong: love, forgiveness, peace, acceptance, and His presence.
One thing we can do as parents is say “no” more often to ourselves and our kids. As the Vitamin N video we showed in March suggested, we should give our kids protection, affection and direction; and 100% of what they truly need, but only 25% of what they want.
Let’s also talk to our Mother Mary today in prayer, who is the perfect embodiment of faith (CCC 148), and ask her for a stronger faith and to help us in suffering.
Connor said he knows life will be difficult as a Christian. But he said he knows there’ll be joy and peace. What really drew him to Catholicism is joy, peace, acceptance, and that God has a desire and plan for him, one that secular society could never give him.
When Fr. Peter Chiang, 2 years ago, got lung cancer, he said, “My reaction was quite calm; it did not come as a surprise! In fact I even told myself, ‘Why not me?’ I accepted it very easily and willingly. I did not complain, nor was I afraid, because I know Jesus really loves me.” He’s a strong man spiritually and morally.
God the Father didn’t promise us an easy life; He promised what’s good for us.