Pentecost - Ninth Sunday After (17 Sunday in Ordinary Time)
By Rev. H. G. Hughes
One of the enemies, and a very dangerous enemy, against which a Christian must ever be on guard, is discouragement. How many people there are who wish to love and serve God, but become discouraged and lose heart in face of the difficulties that are inseparable from the Christian life. It is, indeed, a favorite trick of the Evil One to make us discouraged, to make us think it is no good trying; that we are not getting on, or that being good is really too hard; or at least that the best we can do is just to manage to get into heaven after a good deal of purgatory. The devil tempts with discouragement especially sinners, those who have fallen, and perhaps fall often, into mortal sin. He tells them that it is of no use their trying to be any different; that they are too bad ever to hope to become really good; that their temptations are too strong to be resisted. It is a dangerous disease, this disease of discouragement. It is dangerous to those who are trying to be good, yet who have faults and sometimes fall into sin - it is dangerous because it takes away from them that joyous confidence which would lead them securely along the way of holiness; it is dangerous because it might even lead them to give up altogether and give themselves over to sin. And in the case of persons who have to struggle with habits of mortal sin, the devil knows that discouragement will simply stop them from making any real effort to rise to a better life.
So, then, whatever happens, even should we have the misfortune to commit mortal sin, we must not let ourselves be discouraged.
Discouragement is not fair to God, and it is not fair to ourselves.
First, it is not fair to God, for it is simply another name for want of confidence in Him, want of trust in His infinite fatherly love, and in the unlimited power of His holy Grace.
And if we are wanting in this confidence, we are really depriving God of some of the worship we owe Him, for we are bound to worship God by faith, and hope, and charity - and confidence, trust, in part of the Christian virtue of hope. Listen to some words written by that great saint, Peter of Alcantara. They occur in a small treatise which he wrote for persons aiming at Christian perfection; and he is telling them how to act when they have fallen into any fault. After describing the faults to which such persons are liable, he says: "Should you have incurred all the miseries above described, and as many more as you please, one loving turn of the soul towards God prevails and gains more than all the sadness, reflection and examination imaginable concerning the fault or guilt, especially in venial and ordinary sins. . . . Nay," he adds, "I will be bold to go further and affirm that this loving confidence in God is necessary not only after venial and daily sins, but also after great ones, yea, though we sinned frequently and not through frailty, but malice; for contrition and affliction alone will not raise us up if we have not also this loving confidence and confiding love in the goodness and mercy of God."
Then, discouragement means some want also of faith; it means that we do not really believe, as we ought, in God's immense love, and mercy, and grace.
Yet our dear Lord has done all that He could to persuade us of His love and mercy - much more than He need have done. "What is there," said the prophet, speaking in the name of God, speaking of the work of our Divine Redeemer: "What is there that I ought to do more to My vineyard, that I have not done to it?" (Isaias v, 4).
My dear brethren, when we think of all that our blessed Lord has done for us, when we remember that it was for sinners that He became Man and lived and died; when we remember His loving words of promise to all who come to Him, how He has pictured Himself as the Good Shepherd, going into the wilderness to seek and save the lost sheep, and has told us that there is joy in heaven over the repentant sinner more than over the just, who need no repentance; when we look at the Church, with all her great and abundant means of grace and pardon, and reflect that this is God's great machinery, if I may use the word, for the rescue of those sunk in sin, for the raising up of those who are brought low by sinful habits, when we realize the grand truth that Jesus still lives on in the Catholic Church, now, as when He walked on earth, the living, loving and effective Savior of all who come to Him, what place can there rightly be for discouragement, for anything but great hope, a joyful, confident hope in our good and merciful God? Does not discouragement often come from this, that instead of looking upon God as our most kind and loving Father, who, when He forbids sin, is forbidding only what He knows must make us miserable; and in commanding virtue, is commanding what will make our lives joyous and noble - instead of looking upon Him, I say, as our truest, most faithful Friend, whose love far, far surpasses that that of the most tender mother for her child - we look upon Him as a hard taskmaster, always ready to catch us in a fault, putting burdens upon us heavier than we can bear, setting us tasks that we can not accomplish? In the Epistle of this day St. Paul tells us, "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able, but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it" (I. Cor. x, 13). But when we allow ourselves to be discouraged, we forget this, and take a hard and unjust view of our dear Father in heaven, of our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thus is discouragement unfair to God. It is also unfair to ourselves; it does not give us a chance; it does not give God's grace a chance with us. For, dear brethren, amongst other evils, it takes away our vigor, makes us unwilling to try; it fills us with false ideas, such as these - that God is not loving us; that our temptations are worse than other people's; that God is withdrawing His help, that virtue is out of our reach, that we shall never be any good.
Thus, we prevent even God Himself from doing what He would for us; because, when He offers us His Grace, instead of rising up manfully and trying our best, we sit down and complain with folded hands, and weakly give way at the first assault of temptation. thus, instead of using the grace God offers to us, we let it pass y unheeded. Sometimes this comes from an erroneous notion about grace itself.
People are apt to make a mistake about God's grace and the way it acts. I am speaking now, not of sanctifying grace, but of helping grace; that Divine assistance which is ever at hand at the moment when we have any difficult work to do or any temptation to resist.
Some people seem to think that this Divine grace ought simply to work a miracle for them; that it ought to do everything, without any effort on their part. But grace does not do this; it does not dispense with our efforts, but crown them with success; it does not take away the struggle and the conflict, but it strengthens us to overcome. God's grace is with us to complete and carry to successful issue our poor endeavors.
Discouragement, my brethren, comes from ignorance and pride together. We forget that we are fallen men and women; that spiritual progress is slow, that we must mount step by step the ascent that leads to heaven. We expect too much from ourselves, and this is really pride. Discouragement simply means that we have been depending too much upon ourselves and our own efforts, instead of throwing ourselves with loving confidence upon God.
We must, indeed, distrust ourselves - utterly; but we must not forget that we are not left to ourselves. God expects an effort, but He does not expect that effort to succeed without His help; and that help He never will refuse to those who trust in Him. Our mistake is that we trust to self, and do not stretch out our hands to God. The proper course has been put thus by one of God's saints: "Strive and work as if all depended on you; trust and pray as if all depended upon God." Brethren, we must not doubt our dear Lord's love, nor His will to help us, nor the power of His grace. St. Paul assuredly did not trust himself, yet he said, "I can do all things through Christ strengthening me." This is the remedy for all discouragement, the persuasion of this truth, divinely taught, "I can; I am able; nothing is impossible; I can do all things, not, indeed, in my own strength, but through Christ strengthening me. And He will strengthen me if I trust Him and go to Him and earnestly beg of Him the help I need."
We must have a loving confidence in our Divine Lord, in His grace, and in His love, and especially in temptation. There are two ways of meeting temptation. There is the way of those who have not this loving confidence in Jesus. They meet temptation with a disheartening persuasion that they are sure to fail. I know I shall give way, they say, forgetting those words of the Apostle: "I can do all things through Christ strengthening me." If they do say a prayer or two, it is with no heart, no confidence. But he who trusts in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, meets temptation bravely, joyously, confidently; he says not, "I shall fail," but "I will win, in the strength of my loving Lord and Master."
Listen to these words taken from a spiritual book which St. Francis de Sales made use of all his life: "Suppose a soul to be heavy-laden with sins, to have every possible fault and every imaginable defect, and to have tried, by every possible means and every kind of spiritual exercise, to forsake sin and to practice holiness. We will suppose this soul to have done all this, and yet to have failed in making the smallest advance in holiness, nay, on the contrary, to have been borne the more strongly towards evil.
"For all this she must not lose her trust in God, nor give over her conflict or lay down her arms, but still fight on resolutely, knowing that none is vanquished in this spiritual combat but he who ceases to struggle and loses confidence in God, whose succor never fails his soldiers, though He sometimes permits them to be wounded. Fight on, then, valiantly; for on this depends the whole issue of the strife, for there is a ready and effectual remedy for the wounds of all combatants who look confidently to God and to His aid for help; and when they least expect it they shall see their enemies dead at their feet" (The spiritual combat). Past failure, then, my brethren, is no cause for discouragement. In failure, in temptation, in discouragement itself, turn to our dear Lord, confidently, lovingly, familiarly, and say to Him: "Dear Lord, You see what I am. I will no longer trust in my own strength, I will depend on Thee. I know that I can do all things by Thy grace."