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Life is good; life is hard: Christianity’s saving paradox

cross heaven joy sorrow both and

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Tom Hoopes - published on 09/11/23

He said to expect the cross — not once in a while, not in certain seasons of our life, but daily. But the trick is to notice the graces as much as you notice the needs.

At Benedictine College in Kansas I have contact with religious and lay people, married and single. Twice recently I had to share a lesson I had to learn the hard way: If life is going wrong, you can’t necessarily expect it to get better; but if you stop and look, you will realize that life is beautiful even when it’s at its worst.

First, a consecrated religious shared with me how hurtful the cross of religious life can be. I said: “That sounds like married life!”

It turns out that religious obedience to a sinner-superior can be as hard as mutual submission to a sinner-spouse.

In both religious life and married life, you are struck with a painful paradox at the very heart of your vocation: You have given your all to a perfect God, through formal vows, but that perfection is available to you only through a deeply flawed, even hurtful, human vessel. That makes life a series of disappointments that are worse than disappointing: They seem to strike at the core of your being.

You find yourself saying: “God, I gave everything to you so that I could live only in your grace, relying on you alone to buoy me through life, and instead of Yourself, I ended up with a leaky lifeboat that is constantly taking on water and is by now all but sunk. How is this okay?”

Students face the same problem.

At Benedictine College I also meet a lot of lay people, students and professors, from secular backgrounds who crawled into the Catholic faith like thirsty desert travelers who have found an oasis. The problem is, some of them now worry that maybe it’s just a mirage. 

They think that maybe they found a fuzzy, fake church, not the real, strong Church that Aquinas and Chesterton described. Or maybe it’s all just a kind of Live Action Role Playing game of people pretending to be something they aren’t, like a worldwide Renaissance Festival with pews.

They wanted faith to secure them, but now they struggle with the Church instead. They had great hope, but now strongly fear that they have misplaced their trust. They longed for love, but now feel more unloving than ever.

My advice is always the same: “I’m sorry. The Christian life doesn’t get better. But please notice that it is already amazing.”

To understand why life in Christ is like this, you have to understand what Jesus is doing. I like how the poet Milton summed up Satan’s attitude in Paradise Lost: “It’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” That attitude made Satan reject God — and drove him to earth to convince us to join him.

Now we echo his attitude in our lives, saying: “I don’t trust God and his Church. I know I’d be better off doing things my way.” To win us back, God has to do two difficult, contradictory things simultaneously: He has to win our trust and break our pride. 

So that’s what he does. To show us we can trust him, he promises bliss, starting now, saying: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened … and you will find rest for your souls.”

To break our pride, he tells us to expect heartache and sorrow, starting now, from whatever is not him — including our homes and our homeland. He warned that his followers will be sold out by our families, and that our nations will set us against each other. He said to expect the cross — not once in a while, not in certain seasons of our life, but daily

Jesus said following him means building on rock, and that following him means facing constant storms.

Look for it and you find this message on every page of the Gospels.

It started at Jesus’ conception, which brought the joy of Mary’s fiat — and the jarring decision by Joseph to leave her. Then, his birth attracted the loving veneration of foreign Magi — and the hateful vengeance of the local magistrate. And so it went from there — constant joys and constant sorrows. The Father’s voice at the Jordan River brought Satan’s voice in the desert. Followers revered his miracles but rejected his message. Crowds cried “Hosana!” one day and “Crucify him!” another.

It was the same way for his followers: They got Pentecost followed by persecutions; we get great graces, and great needs.

The trick is to notice the graces as much as you notice the needs. God is good: Open your fridge, and you’ll see more than the “daily bread” you asked for. God is beautiful: Open your front door, and you’ll see beauty unrivaled by any art museum. God is truth: Look in a NASA telescope or an electron microscope, and you’ll see a perfect order, everywhere. And all of it means “God is Love.” 

And yes, he gives you the cross, too, each day without fail, like the sun rising.

So, while the “bad news” of Christ is really bad — your life will be hard — the Good News is way better: Your Trinitarian life will be beautiful, fulfilling your most fundamental needs, starting now and lasting forever.

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