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In My Spiritual Life, How Much is Up To Me?

October 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Holiness, Spiritual Life

In My Spiritual Life, How much is Up to Me?

Dear Father John, I am confused. I keep reading in spiritual books about how, in the spiritual life, everything is up to God. That God is the one who makes us holy, that we just have to let go and let God. But when I read the New Testament, I keep finding spiritual to-do lists. So, which is it? Is it up to God to make me holy, or is it up to me to make me holy?

The typical answer to this honest and essential question is usually too short. It goes like this: “Both.” It’s both up to you and up to God. And that’s true. But it’s not enough. The most destructive heresies in the history of the western Church, in fact, have flowed from a failure to understand the depth of this paradox. And so, I want to take some time to affirm the frustration and confusion that you feel, that any honest Christian will sometimes feel. And then, perhaps, we can look at some practical consequences.

Does Jesus Contradict Himself?

You are right: Jesus seems to contradict himself. On the one hand, he tells us that “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He is the vine, he explains in the same passage, and we are only branches, completely dependent on the flow of sap and life that comes to us through the vine. The word used for “nothing” in the Greek, in fact, is the simple, total negative – nothing at all, absolute zero.

Yet, on the other hand, Jesus looks us in the eye and implores us, “Strive to enter through the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Luke 13:24). Here he begs us to put all our effort into following him, obeying him, seeking him. The Greek word for “strive” connotes struggle, fight, and the kind of intensity that amazes us when we watch, riveted, as Olympic athletes battle for the gold.

What is going on here? How can we reconcile our Lord’s injunction that we are absolutely helpless and dependent in the spiritual life with his command to fight, as it were, to the death in order to achieve spiritual maturity and salvation?

St. Paul to the Rescue?

What a relief it would be if St. Paul were to resolve the dilemma for us. But, this time anyway, he comes up short. He too, it seems, contradicts himself. In defending his Apostolic credentials, he points out to the Christians in Corinth that “…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

Paul attributes all that he is and all that he has accomplished as a follower of Jesus to “the grace of God.” But in the same breath, he claims to have contributed to his Christian greatness by having “toiled harder” than anybody else. The Greek word used for “toil” connotes wearisome, backbreaking exertion. Etymologically, it harkens back to a term associated with the demanding, harsh, and unrelenting work of an agricultural laborer before the advent of mechanized farm equipment.

We can see no light at the end of this tunnel. We are stuck with the paradox: Our Christian life depends entirely on God, yet it depends equally on ourselves. It is a partnership.

Accepting the Reality

Our theologian-pope, Benedict XVI, affirmed this paradox, without trying to explain it, when commenting on our Lord’s parables about seeds: “Every Christian, then, knows well that he must do all that he can, but that the final result depends on God: this knowledge sustains him in daily toil, especially in difficult situations.” The Holy Father went on to quote the cavalier-turned-mystic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, to drive the point home: “Act as if everything depended on you, knowing that, in reality, everything depends on God” (Angelus, June 18, 2012).

How do we do that? Unlike your first question, this question has no short answer. That’s what the spiritual life is all about, in fact. But if we take the time to assimilate this fundamental paradox – that I am wholly dependent on God’s grace, but that God’s grace is dependent on my cooperation – and to accept it in the depths of our heart, we will avoid the jerky movements of an unbalanced spirituality, and our progress in holiness will be quicker and more peaceful than if we just skim its surface and pretend that we understand it with perfect clarity.

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Art for this post on my spiritual life: Raising of Lazarus, Guercino, circa 1619, PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • RobinJeanne

    I had a bad teacher once who only taught half, that there is nothing we can do but wait on the Lord. It always disturbed my spirit, It just seemed like I should be “doing” something. He would insist on we can only “be”. With that kind of thinking I fell into sin, waiting on the Lord to fix my human weaknesses so that I could one day be holy.  Well I stopped following this teacher and went in search of truth and prayed about it. What I believe I’ve learned is (and correct me if I’m wrong)…. that our part, our “doing” is to say “Yes” to the Lord in everything we do. It is our active “yes” that opens up our heart and will to God’s grace so that we can do those thing that can only be done by His power (such as to avoid sin and do good). This teacher would argue that it was by God’s grace we say “Yes” but I think that’s really where he’s wrong…. God gave us the gift of free will and so He needs our “Yes” to enter, He is a gentleman and will not force Himself on anyone. In a day we may have to say yes hundreds of times…. Yes, I will get up now; Yes, I say my prayers this morning; Yes I will be patient with the kids; etc. In giving our yes, God’s graces flow and move us, helping us to grow closer to Him, to grow in holiness. As it says in Acts 17:28a “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’”  

  • $1650412

    Ah! Now this is timely! I have wondered this often as well, because there are plenty of days lately when frankly St. Paul has been on my last nerve, depending on which part of Galatians I was reading; and I can’t stand the phrase so often quoted in my hearing by self-satisfied and accomplished folk (whom I obviously envy!), which is NOT in sacred Scripture, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ I think the key here is, as Father has said, that this IS a paradox. God is sovereign, and I think He has some pretty brilliant strategies that maintain our freewill but overcome its potential tyranny simultaneously. 
    Life in Christ is a relationship. I can give an outline of what a successful marriage might look like in general terms in a certain time and place, but in reality each marriage is going to be completely unique because the people in the  relationship are completely unique. So St. Ignatius’ maxim is a good one, but maintaining peace and confidence in the love and power in the grace of God are not just icing on the cake. The older I get the more I hope that love and grace are everything, but also the more I am inclined to give every human effort I can in cooperation with them- all for the glory of God. I very much appreciate how Father has explained this here- because it is very real world and balances what can seem like opposing realities.

  • LizEst

    Faith can be a great paradox because God’s ways are so far above our ways that we tend to see things in an either/or way instead of as both/and. “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.” (St. Augustine)

    As JoFlemings wrote, life in Christ is a relationship. What builds a strong relationship? Love demonstrated through trust and action. We put our faith in the Lord and demonstrate that in BOTH the degree to which we turn our hearts to Him AND also in how we put that faith into action. It’s the old saying: “Talk is cheap! Don’t just tell me you love me. Show me you love me!” Of course, Jesus has already demonstrated this to us over and above anything we could have imagined (no greater love). It is for us, small though we are, to correspond to that infinite love. God loves us so much that He even helps us with this. But, it is ultimately our choice to do so.

  • Cecilia

    This is the very thing my husband and I were discussing this weekend; i.e. in scriptures Jesus seems to contradict Himself. My comment was that on the surface they contract but one needs to go deeper into them to understand the true meanings. My husband, a mathematician, said that Jesus does not want His teachings to be a system where one can “plug-in” to a formula and obtain an answer. He wants to establish a relationship with each of us & have us look to God, the Father for the answers. Which implies an active prayer life.

  • Thank you, Father John for this illuminating Post.  And to our “Family’s” responses below – having mellowed with age – I humbly add how I endeavour to co-operate with God’s Grace in my daily life. 

    “Heavenly Father, I thank You for the Gift of his day.  May I faithfully seek Your Will as You envision and reveal it to me in the present moment circumstances of this day.  Grant me Your Grace  so that I shall  strive to accept each moment with gratitude and as a purposeful precious Gift from Your Hands and thus fulfill Your Holy Will for Your Grater Glory. Help me, Lord, not to be turned in on myself but to be sensitive and helpful to others. 

    When  night comes, may I look back on this day without regrets and may nobody be unhappy because of anything I have said or done, or failed to do.  Merciful Father, in the unity of Holy Spirit, bless this day for me and for all of us.  Make it a day in which we grow a little more like you Beloved Son Jesus and gentle as Mary, His holy Mother.  Amen”

    • $1650412

      This is so beautiful!!!

      • Thank you, Jo.  We need God’s Mercy every single moment of our lives.

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