7 … Therefore, to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelation, a thorn (skolops) was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Cor. 12:7-9, NRSV)
St Paul might have lived in a world way apart from us, but his issues remain just as relevant today. We have the same issues; so we struggle just as he did. So long as we are human and alive, we all have what the Chinese call the “seven emotions and six desires” (七情六欲). But what is St Paul saying here? Continuing from the previous post, we shall draw other pointers for spiritual reflection from Paul’s experience:
- God does not always give what is asked for. He gives something else, better – divine grace and divine strength.
- What do we boast about, usually? Instead of being full of himself and his religious experience, Paul is aware that his own weakness, his emptiness, is the occasion for the presence of the living Christ.
- Observe people in sickness. They often seem less “competitive”. They may seem to have their spirit eclipsed but oftentimes what we notice is that they tend to quiet down, become more humble, and are more approachable. It is not at all difficult to conclude that such sick people are closer to God during their times of sickness, their humbled state having done the trick.
No wonder St James suggests we count our trials in life as “joy”, for the testing of faith produces steadfastness so that “you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
- Gratitude and generosity are two virtues that admit we are not all strength and independence, but also basically weakness and dependency. They prepare us for better adjustment in situations of loss.
- Pope Francis: To be able to show mercy to others, we need first to bravely admit we need God’s mercy and to humbly receive His mercy.
- While our culture may idolize strength in adversity and tough self-reliance, “courage” has another side that many may not have thought about much. It includes the courage to be weak, the courage to admit our need for and to accept grace, and the courage to be humble.
The topic of humility can never be adequately addressed without taking into account the deep insight of Pope Francis. He says: “There is no real humility without humiliation.” This is a tough saying, but one born of life experiences and decades of reflection on the humiliation the Lord Jesus suffered for the sake of saving humanity from its death-bound condition. Three stories immediately come to mind.
- In the 90’s there was a really good, studious and top-performing seminarian. With his naturally friendly and personable character, coupled with a humble disposition, he was really well liked by all. It was therefore quite inexplicable that the in-house formators of the seminary would certify his clearly “lesser” peers for ordination, but detained him for one more year of “formation” at the seminary. He was devastated. He felt humiliated by the official decision. He cried in shame and despair. A visiting lecturer consoled him thus: Look, you are young. Time is on your side. You have already surrendered your life to God. Your time belongs to God now. On that score, you are not in competition with anybody. Furthermore, turn to St Paul’s counsel in Romans 8:28 – “We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” You love God. All things work for the good. Forget about the humiliation. You don’t have to feel down at all. Go on and enjoy your holiday. And come back to spend another year. All will be well in God’s time. He wiped off his tears. Grace lifted his spirit.
- A young bishop was humiliated by a young priest whom he felt had just insulted him by acting very insolently towards him. The young priest had been interfering with matters in another diocese. Not too happy about it, the bishop there reported the matter to the young bishop who then reprimanded the young priest and instructed him to stay away from the other diocese. In anger, the young priest uttered some nasty remarks to his bishop in contempt of the reprimand. Feeling humiliated, the young bishop wanted to pay back in equal measure, to teach the young priest a deserved lesson. We cautioned otherwise, suggesting that he turned his humiliation into strength. Look, this young priest may be high-strung at this time, but he is intelligent, hard working and capable. In a word, he is a potential asset to your diocese and can be of great assistance to your ministry. But if you respond out of humiliation and anger, your response to his outbursts may turn an asset into a liability. If, however, you humble yourself and absorb the humiliation, you have a chance of turning him into a real asset. You lash out at him in retaliation now, you may lose him for good, and he will be hell for you to handle in the future. And the two of you have a long journey to go in this ministry. The young bishop saw the point, acted wisely, and was able to celebrate their reconciliation over a joyful meal. Humility ate humiliation. Grace won.
- Peter Chung, archbishop emeritus of the archdiocese of Kuching, had a few projects close to his heart and he worked tirelessly to see them through. In the end, he managed to get some projects up and running, but a few other projects which he dearly wanted to put in place did not even get a lift off. And yet, on the eve of his retirement, he candidly announced to the people that even though he was disappointed, he realized that those projects that he vigorously pursued but failed to have them implemented were not projects the Holy Spirit wanted and that he was at peace with that. Our old Archbishop taught us a valuable lesson – that a grace-filled life is first and foremost humble. Here’s a leader who resonates the psalmist: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” [Psalm 127:1, NRSV]. True greatness resides in humility. We know why he is esteemed by us all as the “local spiritual giant”.
- Our contemporary culture stresses personal autonomy and social advancement. To be sure, it is important to encourage children to stand on their own feet and be proud of themselves. What we also need is to balance that and more directly conform our mindset to the gospel of our weakness. In fact, the more vulnerable we realize that we really are, the more open we make ourselves to the presence of God, and the deeper our faith and spirituality may progress. Conversely, the more we try to protect ourselves, to control our lives, and to avoid pain and weakness, to posture a competitive edge, the more we cut ourselves off from the presence of God.
The emotional story of a lady crying alone at the pier late at night hopefully gives colour to this point.
- She is a successful business manager. A single-mother surviving in a highly competitive business world, she may be successful, but she is also exhausted coping with demands from all fronts. One night, the pressure got to her. She could cope no more. She felt so alone and desperate. She felt like it was the end of the road for her. Her wine has run dry. It was just too much to bear and she crumbled. After a drink which did not help, she drove alone to the water front and walked all the way to the end of the pier. There, all by herself, she threw her arms into the air, raised her face to the sky and begged heaven: “Lord, help me, please! I can’t do this anymore.” Suddenly, it happened. With the breeze blowing in her face and combing her hair, she felt an indescribable embrace of love and mercy enveloping her entire being. She vacated her ego; she surrendered her control; she gave up her competitive spirit; she humbled herself. She opened the floodgate of God’s love and care that has been waiting for her, if only she would ask and receive it. She was so overcome by that unearned, unmerited and wholly gratuitous grace of God that she stood on the edge of the pier for a long while in the semi-darkness, crying her guts out. This time, the tears were of joy and peace such as she had never experienced before. She has been healed. She will be alright. She can face the future again, with revised vision of what life is all about. Her new journey began when she let go, and let God come in.
The same theme of “let go, and let God” permeates our final story – a story from Richard Rohr, OFM and a charismatic community.
- A charismatic community, of which Rohr was spiritual director, was locked in a meeting on a project implementation. Ideas differed and personalities appeared entrenched in their views. After spending an entire morning talking with no consensus in sight, Rohr suggested that instead of resuming the meeting in the afternoon, all should gather in the chapel for an extended silent prayer time. Emerging from that prayer, the meeting reached consensus within minutes, their attention having turned to Christ and what He would have wanted, rather than what their respective treasured opinions wanted. Grace won the day when hearts of self-importance found their way back to God.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2020. All rights reserved.
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