Promising Without Doing

Everyone dislikes empty promises. However, this is the way we often deal with God. In a sermon titled “Promising without Doing,” John Henry Newman considers the parable of the two sons: one who promises to obey but does not, and the other son who refuses to obey but later repents. (Mt 21: 28-30).

Newman describes the manner of acting of the first son. “He (the first son) said, ‘I go, Sir,’ sincerely, from the feeling of the moment; but when the words were out of his mouth, then they were forgotten. It was like the wind blowing against a stream, which seems for a moment to change its course in consequence, but in fact flows down as before.”

We, too, promise to serve God, but we fail to obey; this is the case not out of deliberate disobedience but “because it is our nature, our way not to obey, and we do not know this; we do not know ourselves, or what we are promising.” We are disobedient and lacking in self-knowledge.

Newman then identifies  three aspects of this disobedience:

First, “... that of mistaking good feelings for real religious principle.” A man “thinks that the characteristic of a religious man is his having correct notions. It escapes him that there is a great interval between feeling and acting.” This is a misunderstanding about religion and a lack of awareness of man’s original sin and his own sinful habits.

Second, there is the self-deception of delaying repentance to a moment later in life. Newman indicates that “there is a greater difference between intending and doing than they know of.” Jesus, Himself had said: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’” (Mt 5:37). Newman writes: “’Deeds, not words and wishes,’this must be the watchword of your warfare and the ground of your assurance.” We are reminded of a locution St. Josemaría Escrivá once heard while comparing himself to some cloistered nuns: “Love means deeds and not sweet words.” (Forge, 498)

Third, Newman points out that we cannot be sure of ourselves in the future, how we will act under new circumstances: “... all, one good deed is scarcely the pledge of another, though I just now said it was. The best men are uncertain; they are great, and they are little again; they stand firm, and then fall.”

The parable points to the difference between dead faith and a real or living faith. “Because” as Newman notes, “there is an immeasurable distance between feeling right and doing right. A man may have all these good thoughts and emotions, yet (if he has not yet hazarded them to the experiment of practice) he cannot promise himself that he has any sound and permanent principle at all.”  

St. James teaches us: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” [James ii. 26.]

Newman continues explaining that we only apprehend “the strange original defect in our moral nature” when we examine ourselves. Only then do we see the depth and deceitfulness of the heart.

It is good to profess our faith, but these professions are prayers which need to be followed by actions.

Newman closes by alluding to the second son, pointing out that we can always repent when, like the second son, we say “I will not go.” He then reminds us of Jesus, the only One “who has said and done consistently; who said, “I come to do Thy will, O God,” and without delay or hindrance did it. He came to show us what human nature might become, if carried on to its perfection.”

To imitate Jesus we need a daily examination of conscience. When we act like the first son, promising without doing, the examination enables us to repent and obey. But do we perform this daily practice? And do we have a set time for it? We don’t want to make empty promises to God. Thus we must look at our hearts and actions every day.


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The world which sees only appearances cannot comprehend the hidden reality of a heart captive to Christ. 

With this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the indwelling of Christ in our souls. Christ is born in us. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, crying out Abba Father, and restores in us the likeness of Christ.

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I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

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“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
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