The last few weeks we have looked in different ways at how it is so easy to get our relationship with God round the wrong way. That is: it is a constant temptation to judge God. We want to call God into question. God must fit into my worldview. God must do what I want and say what I say. We can often act as though God who is Truth can be called into question, rather than realising that it is Truth that calls us into question. It must be Truth that judges us.
(Indeed, our society often forgets this. This in fact is one of the key responses to the false dichotomy of faith versus science. Science presupposes faith. To ask questions, one must first believe in Truth.)
We saw this temptation to judge God in a number of ways over the last few weeks. We saw it in our brief look at God’s answer to Job two weeks ago. That same week, we saw that in the disciples’ accusation that Jesus does not care when he was sleeping through the storm. Last week, we imagined Jairus’s frustration when Jesus stopped on the way to heal Jairus’s daughter to deal with the woman who was bleeding. We imagined Jairus second-guessing Jesus’s decision to wait, to delay helping his daughter.
Each of these moments then in some respect deals with the freedom of God. God’s freedom is absolute. God is free to create the universe however God wants. God is free to make us in a particular way. God is free to speak to us or not and to say whatever God wants. And we believe that God has exercised all of this in Jesus Christ. God has spoken a particular Word to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and we cannot ignore or change God’s word.
This mystery of divine freedom is worth praying and thinking about. Many gospels centre on this mystery. Indeed, it can be a very fruitful way of praying about scripture. In this respect, I would like to consider our second reading in this way.
In our second reading, St Paul famously talks about the thorn in the flesh he experiences. Many people have wondered what this means. Perhaps a physical ailment. Perhaps a recurring temptation that he cannot shake. Perhaps it might even be the memory of his participation in the killing of St Stephen and the temptation to deny God’s forgiveness. However, what is more important is his spiritual insight into the meaning of this ongoing problem. He sees this weakness as his strength. How might we think about that? I would like to suggest one way, which deals with that idea of freedom. And it is precisely the freedom found in relationship, the freedom of another person.
Our world privileges strength and independence. Each of us is supposed to be perfect. Each of us is supposed to be invulnerable. Failure and weakness are frowned upon. However, failure and weakness can be powerful moments of revelation. What do I mean by this?
If we are not talking about simply giving up, then failure and weakness are typically experienced when we realise we cannot do something ourselves. We need help. We might need a lot of help. Indeed, we might need saving. And what happens when that in fact takes place? What happens when someone does help or does save us? At such moments, we experience overwhelming gratitude. And when we analyse that gratitude, we realise that the solution is greater than the problem. It surpasses what is needed in a special way.
In being helped, not only have we passed through our struggle, now we also realise that we are not alone. We realise that we are loved. We experience the revelation of another person’s care for us. This gift of self, made by another person to us, is the greatest gift one can make and one can receive. A gift that far surpasses any weakness we might have. Thus, it is precisely when we need relationships that we are made able to recognise their centrality. In our poverty, we realise the richness of other people. Our vulnerability opens us to connection. We are made to realise that we need love more than anything.
The French writer, Charles Peguy, has a great poem on hope. In that poem, he talks about the confident weakness of children. They see their need of their parents not as something limiting but as something freeing. They expect help, and feel no shame in that. This is just what being human looks like.
St Paul then I think is right to highlight his weaknesses. In realising he cannot save himself, he can once more enter into the mystery of the God who comes to get him. St Paul is again able to realise more profoundly God’s love for him. This is the real mystery of divine freedom. Its truth is love. Its exercise is gift of self. It looks like the Eucharist. It is found in relationships. Real relationships, truth that goes all the way to the heart.
Let’s pray then that we too like St Paul can see our lives as opportunities for the glory of God to be revealed. Let us confidently turn to our Father to help us, and through these moments, gain the faith in God that we can share with our neighbours.