"You'd Better Not Pout"
by Curtis A. Martin
You've got to love a religion that commands you to rejoice. St.
Paul tells us we should "Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give
thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ
Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
At first glance, he makes it sound easy. Why is it, then, that we
have so much trouble doing something that seems so easy and that
we want to do so badly?
We all face problems at one time or another - some small, others
daunting - and sometimes we can't help being irked by these
problems and by those who cause them. But this article isn't about
problems in life or those who cause them, but about us and how we
should respond to the people and situations that tempt us to be
angry, suspicious, or irritated.
We Catholics have work to do for Christ. We don't have time to
pout and wring our hands about problems in the Church. Acknowledge
them, yes, but we can't let them discourage us. Discouragement can
paralyze us if we don't take St. Paul seriously about being joyful
in the midst of adversity. If we let discouragement get the better
of us, we'll be incapable of helping the Church.
Shipwrecked, starved, beaten, and stoned
Joy is not for wimps. St. Paul's letters show that he was an
intensely joyful man, but he was also tough. Think you face
hardships and opposition in your efforts to live and spread the
Catholic Faith? Look at what St. Paul went through:
"[F]ar greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless
beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the
hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have
been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been
shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on
frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers,
danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the
city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false
brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in
hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And,
apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my
anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
(Let's not forget that after all those hardships, St. Paul's
enemies cut off his head. You and I have it pretty easy, when you
think about it.)
True joy - the kind that doesn't evaporate in the face of
opposition and obstacles - must be anchored in the hope of
salvation in Jesus Christ. The saints learned this secret, and we
must learn it too. It's not easy, of course. Like weeds, obstacles
to cultivating true joy spring up all around us: struggles at
home, problems with finances, illness, failed relationships,
difficulties in the workplace, and, most alarming, confusion,
division, and dissent within the Church itself.
Perfect love casts out all fear
But we can take heart. Christ deals with these obstacles head-on.
"I have said this to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the
world you have tribulation; but take courage; I have overcome the
world" (John 16:33).
For a Catholic, joy in the midst of adversity is not merely a
possibility or a suggestion, but an obligation. Our faith in
Christ and our union with Him through the sacraments should
produce in us a spirit of indomitability. If we really believe
that He has indeed conquered the world, and that we can do all
things through Him (cf. Phil. 4:13), then there's no need to let
troubles and troublemakers get us down.
Pope John Paul II has called Catholics to participate in a "New
Evangelization." This mission has two components. First, we must
individually recommit ourselves to Christ and His Church. Only
through a deep, personal conversion to Christ will we be able to
respond effectively in evangelizing others (we can't give what we
don't have). Second, we must radiate to others our love for Christ
and His Church, sharing it with family, friends, co-workers,
neighbors everyone, whenever the opportunity arises.
To do this, we need joy. Our commitment to Christ, a strong prayer
life, and frequent reception of the sacraments will sustain and
deepen our joy and will bear other good fruit: "love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-
control" (Gal. 5:22-23). The absence of these fruits in our lives
indicates a need for deeper personal conversion and recommitment
to Christ and His Church.
The foundation of abiding joy is the realization that God is our
loving Father, Who allows all the trials and circumstances in our
lives to work together for our good what we commonly call divine
providence (cf. Rom. 8:28). Every difficulty we encounter is
provided as an opportunity for us to demonstrate our trust and
reliance upon our Father. If we truly have confidence in His
loving care for us, why would we allow ourselves to become
discouraged by the troubles that surround us?
Use it or lose it
Don't feel like you're a particularly joyful person? You can do
something about it. Like building a muscle through repeated weight
lifting, joy is strengthened by practicing natural virtues. God's
gift of grace builds on nature, so by developing virtue, the
treasure of divine life (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4) flourishes within our
hearts. But this takes consistent effort. It means we must work to
acquire fortitude, so that we don't give up when things become
difficult; temperance, so that we don't give in to excesses in
pursuing the pleasures of this world; justice, so we may
prioritize and fulfill our daily obligations; and prudence, so
that we may be truly wise and always able to evaluate our earthly
circumstances in light of eternity. Without these natural virtues,
our joy may be stolen from us.
The Church prays in her Liturgy of the Hours, "Through Your Spirit
unite us with Yourself, so that trial or persecution or danger may
never separate us from Your love" (Morning Prayer, Thursday, 7th
week of Easter). Developing our joy in Christ is a lifelong
process, and distractions will inevitably arise that will divert
our attention away from Christ and toward the difficulties of our
daily lives. These distractions are all the more painful and
challenging when they are encountered close to home within our
own families and within the Church itself. And yet St. Paul
exhorts us to "have no anxiety about anything, but in everything,
by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests
be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all
understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ
Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7).
Each of us could compose a long laundry list of all the
challenges, frustrations, and temptations to anger we encounter in
our families and within the Church: Dissent from Church teaching,
liturgical abuses, and division (to name a few examples) exist,
but to become consumed by these problems would be to go directly
against Sacred Scripture, which calls us to let our mind dwell on
good and wholesome things (cf. Phil. 4:8). This doesn't mean we
ignore or deny that these difficulties exist, but neither should
we become preoccupied with them.
We see the problems, yes, but our focus must be on the solutions.
And even if there is no apparent earthly solution, we should
maintain a sense of hope and thanksgiving for the eternal life
that awaits us.
Cry, and the world laughs at you
Besides being an essential characteristic of the faithful
Christian, joy is also a powerful element in leading others to
Christ and His Church. It's been said that the greatest obstacle
to Catholicism is often Catholics. When we come across to non-
Catholics as pessimistic, suspicious, and incessant complainers
about problems in the Church, we aren't going to be very effective
in evangelizing them. In fact, the more we Catholics appear morose
and cranky, the less seriously the world will take us and the
Gospel of Christ. We even run the risk of making the Church and
its teachings appear ludicrous to non-Catholics when all they see
is carping, name-calling, and rivalries among us.
Christ came to give abundant life (cf. John 10:10). When we live
that abundant life, we become walking, breathing advertisements
for the truth and power of Christ's Gospel.
St. Augustine once remarked that "our hearts are restless until
they rest in Thee." This truth is the key to reaching people with
the message of Christ and His Church. People are already seeking
Him, even if they don't realize it. Each person we encounter is
seeking true happiness, but without Christ he is destined to seek
it in places and in ways that will never satisfy what he really
craves - a deep, abiding joy that comes only from Christ.
That's why it's essential that we manifest this joy to those
around us! If the people we seek to evangelize see us as angry,
pessimistic, and unduly aggravated by problems within and without
the Church, why should they want to become Catholic? No. We must
show those around us that, because of Christ, we are joyful,
undaunted, and hopeful, in spite of the problems and obstacles
that may surround us.
Laugh, and the world thinks you're weird
St. Lawrence the Martyr, while in the process of being grilled to
death on a gridiron, is reported to have looked up at his
executioners and said, "Excuse me, I believe I'm done on this
side. You can turn me over now." That's a sense of humor the world
doesn't understand. It flows from the joy of knowing and loving
Christ. A similar sense of humor is necessary in ordinary life.
(On the eve of my wedding, a friend, who had been married for
twenty-five years and had nine children, gave me two pieces of
advice. "First," he said, "be sure to maintain your sense of humor
in marriage. And second, encourage your wife to breastfeed,
because then you won't have to get up at night with the baby.")
Joy in Christ leads naturally to evangelization. And we should
remember that authentic evangelization doesn't mean imposing our
views on others. It means offering in a charitable way what they
are already seeking: the fullness of Truth. God has placed within
each of us the desire for truth. Therefore, "It is in accordance
with their dignity that all men, because they are persons, that
is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing
personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and
bound by moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious
truth" (Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, no. 2).
Invite them, don't incite them
For Catholics who don't cultivate joy and charity, discussions
with non-Catholics or poorly formed Catholics often become mere
debates, futile and frustrating for both parties. But for the
joyful Catholic, these encounters are opportunities for grace -
not attempts to win arguments, but inviting the other person to
the fullness of communion with Christ in His Church.
We will, of course, encounter obstacles, difficulties, and
rejection, but we can accept these as opportunities to deepen our
trust in and reliance upon Christ and prove our faithfulness. This
willingness to endure hardship, criticism, and sometimes even
hatred for the sake of Christ is the same spirit exemplified by
Moses, who chose "rather to share ill-treatment with the people of
God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11:25).
Pope John Paul II, in his recent encyclical on Christian unity, Ut
Unum Sint, tells us that each and every culture possesses certain
God-given truths. These truths are intended by God to lead people
to deeper and more profound truths and, finally, to the fullness
of truth which is found only within the Roman Catholic Church (Ut
Unum Sint, no. 10). Our job as Catholics is to serve as lights in
the darkness, helping people along their way to Christ.
Momentary setbacks and even spectacular earthly failures won't rob
us of our joy, because we haven't placed our joy in the things of
this world. Our joy and hope are grounded in Christ and in the
life to come.
St. Alphonsus Liguori once said, "Those who pray are saved, those
who don't are not." If we constantly converse with Christ through
prayer, we need fear nothing. Think about the joy of the early
martyrs. In one account of early Roman persecution, a Catholic
suffered days of torture as the soldiers tried to make him deny
Christ. The ordeal ended in frustration for his tormentors. An
exasperated guard cried, "There is nothing we will be able to do
to destroy this man unless we can get him to sin!" You and I must
develop the same spirit of perseverance under pressure.
Cultivating joy isn't easy, but it is simple - as simple as one,
two, three. One: "Rejoice always." Two: "Pray without ceasing."
Three: "In all things, give thanks" (cf. 2 Thess. 5:16).
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