Over the past three or four weeks, I’ve experienced a fair amount of disappointment. From the trivial (watching a favorite sports team’s season go up in flames; giving up on a failed video project after many hours of work) to the substantial (realizing that major parts of my internship year plan are no longer possible; attending a heart-wrenching funeral), and everything in between (being yelled at by parishioners on separate occasions over the election; having plans to see close friends cancelled because of hurricane Matthew; feeling a few close relationships slip away), it has been a difficult month at times. While there have been some tremendous moments as well, and overall, these moments of disappointment pail in comparison to the tragedies that many have to go through each day around the world, there is no denying that the lows for me lately have been lower than normal. Having been shaken out of the normal routine and forced to deal with unwanted situations instead, there is a strong sense of uneasiness in my life now as I walk on uneven ground.
And yet, in this same time, I have also experienced a sense of confidence and clarity that I haven’t felt in a long time. When many things around me have wavered, my prayer life has flourished.
As many of you know, I am someone with great ambition. I am wired in such a way that I am constantly looking to the future, setting goals, and finding ways to accomplish things that are important to me. As much as I know that the world is absolutely not a meritocracy, there is something deep inside me that believes that I can accomplish anything I want with enough effort, and that, because I’m a “good person” and work hard, my life will ultimately be filled with success and good things. In essence, I can control my fate if I work hard enough.
When said like that, such a sentiment is obviously ridiculous. Of course I can’t control my own fate. Of course I need God in my life because God is my all and the reason for everything good in my life. And yet, when things are going well, these things are easy to forget. My faith formation classes are successful because I’m a good teacher. Duh! My relationships are healthy and fruitful because I’m mature and self-giving. Naturally! Things in my life go as planned because I think ahead and work hard. If only others were like me! Even though there’s not a one of us who would say that God is not the most important part of our lives and the ultimate reason for our successes, when things are going well, it’s very easy to see oneself as the impetus of one’s success, and not turn to God with the same longing.
Not in times of trial. Not over the past three to four weeks for me. No, when standing on uneven ground, when the world has been shaken up and we find things well outside of the norm, the focus and intent of prayer changes dramatically. We begin to actually believe what we say, realizing that there is no one greater than our God, no good thing that doesn’t come from Him, and truly nothing else that matters.
I think St. Paul captures this sentiment perfectly in his second letter to the Corinthians in describing his many trials:
“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. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
The beauty of this passage is not that he prayed to God and God gave him what he needed, it’s that he came to realize that faith in God is not dependent on one’s current situation, good or bad. Sometimes God not answering his prayer to remove his suffering sounds harsh, but it was probably the best thing for him: had God simply answered his prayer and took his suffering away, Paul might have continued to judge the sufficiency and meaningfulness of his life on the things around him. My life is good because things are going well. Instead, having to deal with weakness, he came to realize that his life was good because God has given him grace… because the power of Christ dwells in him. It is this, not the external blessings or hardships, that makes one life meaningful. It is in giving up one’s desire to be Lord, that futile attempt to control everything, that he came to realize who was really in control and had the strength he needed.
This has precisely been my experience of late. By no means has my life been worthy of its own Lifetime Original Movie, but there has no doubt been a little turbulence. My plans have not exactly panned out the way I had hoped and I have come to realize (once again) that I am not strong enough to make everything go well in life. And I’m extremely happy because of this. In having to face disappointment and accept that there are things outside of my control that I will just have to deal with, my dependence on God and commitment to this relationship has strengthened considerably. Taking these issues to God in prayer—the trivial, significant and everything in between—I have begun to care less about the issues themselves as a gauge for my life, and begun to gain much more satisfaction in the one who truly matters, our God. I know that I cannot control everything (or anything) in life, but I surely know that God’s grace is enough. It is only with a thorn in one’s side that we can truly know this.