It seems natural to begin each day with the expectation that our day will go according to our plans, that we will finish the work we have on our desk, that our conversations with our families and coworkers will be sweet, that none of our equipment will break down, and so on. By the end of the day, we wonder how we could have been so foolish to think this way, and yet we do it again the next day. It is our Lord who tells us in the Gospel that we will have tribulations in this world, and it is Blessed John Henry Newman who echoes His words in his sermon, “Obedience the Remedy for Religious Perplexity.” In this message he suggests that we accept the fundamental state of confusion, doubt, and suffering in our lives and so urges us to develop the patience and trust that can only come from a life of obedience.
Obedience is an act of trust, because we do not understand fully, and sometimes barely at all, what God asks us to do. St. Joseph’s decision to marry the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of complete surrender, despite confusion. The icon in this reflection shows St. Joseph puzzling over God’s words to Him. Like St. Joseph, if we let it, obedience can deliver us from doubt, which many fall into through overconfidence, overvaluing others’ opinions, and despair.
We need to have a clear vision of ourselves if we are to make sound judgments, especially those involving trust in God. Blessed Newman explains how often this isn’t the case: “Many are misled by confidence in themselves. They look back at the first seasons of their repentance and conversion, as if the time of their greatest knowledge; and instead of considering that their earliest religious notions were probably the most confused and mixed with error, and therefore endeavouring to separate the good from the bad, they consecrate all they then felt as a standard of doctrine to which they are bound to appeal…” Just like we naively believe our day will go as planned, we do not look at the reality of our faith. If all could be easily understood and confusions dissolved, then there would be no need for faith. A man of mature faith is careful not to boast in his knowledge and is aware of how little he knows. Obedience helps us trust in God, not in ourselves.
Blessed Newman points out another way doubt creeps into our lives: “But, leaving the mention of those who err from self-confidence, I would rather lament over such as are led away from the path of plain simple obedience by a compliance with the views and wishes of those around them…They begin religion at the very end of it, and make those observances and rules the chief means of pleasing Him, which in fact should be but the spontaneous acts of the formed Christian temper.” What looks like obedience is really a clinging to set rules that help this type of believer resolve the tension that comes with a living, fluid relationship with God. We were not given a manual of how to please God, but the very Word of the Father Who is communicated to us in a relationship. Here again, obedience is an opening of ourselves to God, Who is not a task; He is our beloved.
Finally, obedience can deliver us from despair. Blessed Newman points out that there are some who see how far they have fallen from grace and despair of God’s mercy. They do not have any hope, so they remain agitated, anxious, and depressed. This is a very sorry state, because who can go on without hope? Newman argues that when we obey, we see a way through this state. He argues, “Supposing their state to be as wretched as is conceivable, can they deny it is their duty now to serve God? Can they do better than try to serve Him?” Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” [Job xiii. 15.].” By moving our minds from our state of being to the acts of loving God, there is a way to move forward. We will not resolve the questions of our eternal destiny by thinking anxiously about them. Instead, let us look to love God and we may begin to see Him as the merciful, gracious God that He is.
The uncertainties and difficulties of life are here to stay. Now is the time to abandon ourselves to the God who is greater than our doubts and lack of knowledge. If we get to know Him, perhaps beginning again after a bout of overconfidence or despair, we will be able to trust Him in the midst of these trials. To love Him is to know Him, so let’s get on with it.