This week, someone had occasion to remind me that I am human.
Off and on in the course of my life, people who cared about me and were trying to be of help have issued similar reminders.
I have often found this curious. I have never had any doubts about my status as part of the group called homo sapiens. Is there something that parents failed to tell me?
As best as I can discern, these loving individuals were actually trying to communicate a concern about how much I expect of myself – with the implication that my expectations were perhaps a bit high.
While I certainly cannot fault these compassionate people for making such an observation, there is something paradoxical about considering any expectation “too high” in the realm of the Spirit.
What self-expectation can be considered excessive, when the Lord Christ Himself commanded us, “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)?
Are the issuers of these reminders encouraging me to accept as inevitable that I can be nothing more than a half-hearted Christian?
Of course not.
Whether they were consciously thinking of it in these terms or not, what these kind people were actually doing was gently pointing out my sinfulness and need to repent.
What they could see (and I could not) was that my expectations of myself were built on a foundation of pride.
There is something subtle enough here that it merits further discussion.
Let’s suppose that someone has dealt me an offensive blow in the course of my professional life. And let’s suppose I feel really, really angry with this person and the systems or individuals who have turned a blind eye to this injustice.
Let us further imagine (since this a hypothetical scenario) that I am versed in the Gospel and call to mind Christ’s command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5: 44).
I take seriously this clear instruction from the Lord but I am faced with a dilemma. How can I possibly love these “enemies” whom I recently discovered I have? Or even pray for them – when I cannot stop my mind from reviewing over and over how wrongly they behaved?
At first glance, it may seem that I have only two options: either I suppress my anger and rage, hiding them beneath a cloak of piety, or I give in to it, acknowledging that I cannot love this enemy, for I am “only human”.
The former course is likely to make me ill, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, it has done so in the past.
The latter course seems to suggest that it is all right for me to disregard the Lord’s instructions in some circumstances because, after all, I am human. I cannot expect so much of myself.
It is, indeed, a good thing that there exists a third path.
Both of the options above contain an element of truth.
In the first case, I am recognizing an essential tenet of the Faith and making an effort not to let my anger run amok.
In the second case, I am accepting that I am weak and cannot carry out the Lord’s directives on my own.
In the third option, these truths come together.
My human weakness can never be an excuse to disregard the teachings of Christ. He would not instruct us to do something that is impossible for us.
On the other hand, nowhere does Jesus say or even suggest that it will be through our own strength or virtue alone that we will be able to carry out His directives.
In fact, He tells us quite the opposite. Let us listen in as Jesus gives His final discourse to the apostles before His death.
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (John 14: 12-18)
The Lord Jesus promised His followers then and promises us now all the support we could possibly need: the Advocate. He knows that we are neither strong enough nor wise enough to even remember His instructions, much less carry them out without the Spirit of truth among us.
For me to try to do otherwise is, quite simply, one more dimension of the pride that so often infects my soul.
So what does this mean for me if I am to embrace both the Gospel and my humanness? What do I expect of myself lest I fall into one trap or the other?
St. Paul gives witness to what he was told by the Lord when he was faced with a similar dilemma:
Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9)
And so I expect myself to be weak.
This is not permission to sin or disregard any aspect of the Gospel. Rather, it is an expectation that I accept the truth about myself.
This is the very heart of humility. And, ironically, part of this acceptance of my weakness is the knowledge that I cannot even become humble without the intervention of God’s grace.
Yet I also know that my Savior never forces His help upon me.
So I also expect myself to be obedient and to pray for His help. (Knowing, of course, that I can be neither obedient nor prayerful without the aid of His divine mercy.)
Is there anything else I expect?
Yes. Yes, indeed, there is…
I expect myself to stumble and fall. I expect myself to make mistakes. I expect myself to lose control. I even expect myself to sin.
I expect myself to fear and to question and to doubt. I expect that some days I will hear not a whisper from the heavens and my heart will feel like a heavy stone lodged in my body.
I expect that some days I will not want to pray – or that I will forget – or that I will pray mechanically as my mind wanders to everything from troubles to trivia. And I will feel helpless as it does so.
I also expect that, at other times, I will feel hopeful and joyous and very good about myself and my life – only to discover that I have once again fallen into self-admiration rather than having truly turned my heart God-wards.
I expect myself in times of hurt or heartbreak to cry, to sob, to wail. To pound on the floor, with tears streaming down my face, as I scream “Why?” at the ceiling.
Then I expect myself to fall in a heap at the foot of the Cross and beg Him to forgive me, to be merciful, to help me.
And then I expect that He will come to me, wrapping me in His love and mercy, wiping my tears away…
And then, I expect we will repeat this process many, many times over as He purifies my heart for love alone.
Knowing who and what I am, I cannot expect that He will succeed. This can never be an “expectation”.
But I can trust. I can trust that, in the end, His love will be far stronger and more powerful than any weakness or sin that I can lay before Him.
And so it shall be.
All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit…