Obedience the Remedy for Religious Perplexity

The New Year is a time for resolutions and new beginnings, which we welcome as Christians, we who know our faults and are ready to begin again and again. The Saints speak of examining ourselves at the end of each day, taking stock of our gains and losses, and resolving to begin again with new vigor and virtue the next day. But there is a danger to our drive for self-improvement, be it physical or spiritual. Our inspired efforts can lead to great falls if we do not take into account the measure of the task and the means needed to achieve it. Many despair in the face of the difficulties of life. Cardinal John Henry Newman prescribes a remedy: he instructs all who are perplexed, struggling, and feeling weak and wounded, to wait patiently on the Lord, and to do so by simple acts of obedience.

Unanswered questions, doubts, struggles, and sufferings are the fate of man in the world. Despite advances in science and technology, we have many more questions, some precisely because of these advances. Questions of cloning, for example, are questions unique to modernity. Likewise in the spiritual life, though we have received the revelation of Jesus Christ, and have much greater revelation than our spiritual ancestors, the Jewish people, we are still in a state of darkness, and this revelation brings new challenges and questions. But Revelation, says Blessed Newman, was given us to become better men, not “satisfy doubts.” In fact, since “our faith is variously assailed by doubts and difficulties, in order to prove its sincerity,” paradoxically if we are not perplexed, it is doubtful we are trying very hard to please God.

To know and accept our condition is the first step in our rehabilitation. We cannot work out our salvation “without a deep settled conviction of the exceeding difficulty of the work. That is, not only shall we be tempted to negligence, but to impatience also, and thence into all kinds of unlawful treatments of the soul, if we be possessed by a notion that religious discipline soon becomes easy to the believer, and that the heart is speedily changed.” Naturally, we want to know what more we can do besides accept the trials and hardships of life and the difficulties of following our Lord. Blessed Newman invites us to consider Psalm 37:34: “Wait on the Lord, and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee to inherit the land.” Newman’s commentary is as simple as the Scripture: “Under all circumstances, whatever be the cause of [your] distress,—obey.” Both Scripture and Newman’s commentary are a wonderful challenge to our understanding: we are to wait patiently by obeying. How odd this pairing! To wait patiently in modern language means “to sit still” and to obey means “to do one’s duty.” But Christian patience is not passive, nor is Christian obedience drudgery.

Christian patience is a deep and abiding trust in God, which gives life to every action. Josef Pieper, a Thomistic philosopher, says that “to be patient means not to allow the serenity and discernment of one’s soul to be taken away.” Impatience is a primary cause of sadness. Blessed Newman explains how it can seep into our spiritual practices surreptitiously: “impatience leads us to misuse the purpose of self-examination; which is principally intended to inform us of our sins, whereas we are disappointed if it does not at once tell us of our improvement.”

Obedience – the loving embrace of the little, everyday duties of life – this, ironically and reciprocally, brings patience and peace to the believer. Newman explains that “The more [a person] ] makes up his mind manfully to bear doubt, struggle against it, and meekly to do God’s will all through it, the sooner this unsettled state of mind will cease, and order will rise out of confusion.”

So then we find a principle at work: that the duties of the Christian are rooted in one’s reliance on the Father, and the patience of the Christian depends upon the fulfillment of his duties in love. Why this is so, and how obedience and patience can deliver us from overconfidence, overvaluing others’ opinions, and despair, will be the subject of next week’s reflection. Until then, after we have committed our many petitions to our Father – and doubtless we have many if we are relying on Him – let us get down to the business of obedience in all the small things of our day.

An examination at the end of our day will reveal our mistakes, but we will offer these to Him as well. And “may the God of hope fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit [we] may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

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