You'd Better Not Pout

Authored By: Curtis A. Martin

"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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