Every day we are invited by God to allow him to have a bigger hand in our lives
Pope Francis holds a Holy Book of Prayers as he celebrates a Mass on the Sunday of the Word of God at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on Jan. 23. (Photo: Filippo Montefort/AFP)
A philosophy teacher I had more than three decades ago believed the most important question in that discipline was asked by an English "bobby" — a uniformed policeman — on his beat in London. He asked a miscreant: “What do you think you’re doing?”
The bobby was asking the question in the hope that the person might incriminate himself. But whether the prospective criminal did or did not incriminate himself, the answer to the question was both important in giving the policeman vital information about the person he was interrogating and also making that person self-conscious.
This question can be asked by self-important people seeking to promote their significance to us. Or we can ask ourselves the same question. Sigmund Freud created a whole industry — cognitive psychology — by asking it. And it’s been the source and center of wisdom for the human race since Socrates declared that to know ourselves is the most important piece of knowledge we can get and then, once known, being true to our own selves.
But as questions go, asking who it is that I am answering to and what question I am responding to in my own internal dialogue is basic. At the most elevated and mature level, answering that question explains what I intend to do and can also open the door to that other crucial piece of self-knowledge: my motivation.
In all too many circumstances, our motivation is basic. Do we want to achieve a goal, gain a reward, appease some specific interests? Do we want to mollify, to escape a challenge, ward off a threat? There can be a host of other such self-protective goals and self-enhancing purposes. Perhaps the biggest and most recurrent motivation is to find approval from those we invest with significance and whose approval matters mightily.
But no matter what the circumstances, we are interacting with one or many significant others whose identity and significance shape our actions and purpose. And one of those significant others is God.
Generally speaking, we aren’t much good at identifying and naming the presence and invitation of God as the one with whom we are interacting
Now “God” can assume an abundance of forms and our appeasement of God can take a great variety of forms. We can seek to satisfy God as the ultimate authority — or what we assume is that — in our lives. We can see God as the creator of the rule book of life and seek to appease God the rule giver. And there are many other surrogate forms God can assume in our lives.
Generally speaking, we aren’t much good at identifying and naming the presence and invitation of God as the one with whom we are interacting. Some people and politicians used to do this by claiming “God is on our side.”
The catastrophic consequences of this gross and simplistic overplay — just look at the First World War for the most recent and disastrous use of this piece of nonsense — have made resort to this use of the God Card far from regular in the West at least.
But such instances are gross and completely miss where we are doing this on a mass scale every day because every day we are invited by God to allow God to have a bigger hand in our lives and for us to cooperate with purposes and in actions God wants us to share in.
Just think of the number of times you have found yourself asked to let go of control of a situation and allow a sequence of events to flow that could bring benefits to many or become a complete disaster unless it is permitted to happen and helped by your actions to occur.
Or at a more intimate level, recall the number of times you have recognized that you can give in to your worst anticipations and conclude “it will never work” and, instead of backing off, recommitting to a pathway or a project or a person only to see the fears not realized in failure but in the blessing of success.
These are all moments of decision and of choice where we are invited to take risks. These are moments of challenge to our faith and hope and our partner with whom we are interacting is the mysterious One who reaches beyond our strength and capacities. These are moments when we encounter our own limitations and, in the midst of them, give ourselves into the hands of the infinite mystery we sense beyond our reach and control.
That One is not “God” whom we trivialize as the mystery we need to appease, who has us looking over our shoulder in fear, who gives us rules and regulations we must comply with. But this One is our companion and guide, fulfilling what St. Paul said of this God — the one “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20).
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