DRIVEN BY FEAR OR BY FAITH
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ IS 7:10-14, 8-10; PS 40:7-11; HEB 10:4-10; LK 1:26-38 ]
During this season of Lent, many of us are focused on intensifying the spiritual exercises of prayer, penance and mortification; and works of charity. This is indeed in the right spirit but we must not forget that these are the means, not the ends in themselves. Otherwise, performing all these spiritual exercises can make us fall into spiritual pride and self-righteousness. What is more important than merely performing these external exercises is that it must lead us to offer our entire being for the service of the Lord. We are called not to merely offer our good deeds and works to the Lord, but to give up our body as a living sacrifice to God. The author of Hebrews says, His “will was for us to be made holy by the offering of his body made once and for all by Jesus Christ.”
The giving of our body is expressed first in the soul when we choose to do the will of God. It is not enough to make sacrifices unless we are motivated by love. Before we can offer up our body as a living sacrifice, we must first be willing to surrender our mind and heart to the Lord. Doing God’s will is extremely difficult, especially in the face of challenges. It is normal for us to fear the unknown, especially when we think of the possible suffering ahead of us. We want to rely on ourselves and our strength. Indeed, when we face an illness, admit a mistake we have made, a crime we have committed, a difficult decision, or to break a relationship, we fear that we might not be able to handle the situation.
This was the case of King Ahaz. He was driven by fear. He was facing an imminent onslaught from Israel, the Northern Kingdom which was in league with the King of Aram. Hence, he was afraid that his kingdom would be swallowed up by them. It was a military miscalculation that it would be more expedient for him to join forces with Assyria by being its vassal state. He failed to see beyond the immediate implications for the kingdom’s future under the influence of Assyria. Indeed, it was because of the influx of the Assyrians that Judah became weaker eventually. It was for this reason that God sent the Prophet Isaiah to advise him not to proceed but to trust in His divine providence. But he lacked faith in the Lord. Instead of trusting in God, he preferred to rely on his own judgement even though God gave him a sign. Isaiah said, “The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the maiden is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us’.” Ahaz was not even open to the Word of God and to further discernment of God’s will. He was adamant and fixed on his decision to form an alliance with Assyria.
In contrast, we have Mary who was not driven by fear but by faith. Admittedly, she too was fearful when the angel came before her with not just the good news but unimaginable news, “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” The evangelist noted that “she was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.'”
But instead of rejecting the plan of God for her life, and insisting on doing her own will, she was receptive and open to discerning the will of God. Mary said to the angel, “But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?” She was humble enough to inquire. She did not immediately say “yes” to the angel’s message but looked for verification and assurance that it was really God’s will. We too are called to do the same. “You wanted no sacrifice or obligation, prepared a body for me. You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin; then you said, just as I was commanded in the scroll of the book, ‘God here I am! I am coming to obey your will.'”
To be obedient to God’s will does not mean that we need not discern His will. On the contrary, God’s will is not always expressed so clearly and discernment takes time. Like Mary, we need to ask and search for the will of God. It is this humility to remain open to God’s will that determines our sincerity. Seeking out the will of God is necessary, lest we mistake our will and fears for His will. So the first step in doing God’s will is to verify what is His will for us and not fall into presumption and hurt ourselves and then blame God.
Yet, God’s will is never clearly spelt out so clearly. Even though the angel explained to Mary how it would come about through the overshadowing, that is the power of the Holy Spirit, he did not explain exactly how this would happen. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God.” The details of the unfolding plan of God were not revealed to her. Only what was essential for her to know, namely, the plan of God’s salvation for humanity through her Son. The rest was dependent on her faith. She was called to walk by faith, not by sight. The angel did not explain to her how Joseph would accept the news of her pregnancy, how her family and relatives would react as well, how she could explain to the neighbours, etc. And this is true for us as well. If God’s will is so clear, things would be easy. But God wants to respect our freedom and our intellect in responding to His call through the events in our lives and the people that He sends to us.
However, after all the discernment, we need to make an act of faith once our soul is at peace. All the angel asked of Mary was faith. “Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people call barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.” The sign given was the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth in her old age. So in faith, Mary said “yes” and consented to be the mother of the Saviour, not fully understanding the full implications of her decision. We too must make an act of faith even when we do not fully understand all the implications.
Following the act of faith, we must then live faithfully for the rest of our life. Faith is more than just saying “yes” to God. Ahaz claimed to have faith in God by refusing a sign, for he said, “I will not put the Lord to the test.” In truth, it was because he did not have faith in Him and therefore did not want to confirm the message of the prophet. For Mary, when she said “yes” to the Lord, her entire life, like our Lord’s, was given to the service of the gospel. She had to bear all the misunderstandings, loneliness and struggles in living out her call to be the mother of the Saviour. She was not only consistent with the faith she proclaimed but she was faithful to the decision that she made. She shared with Jesus in offering her entire soul and body for the service of the gospel, first by giving birth to Jesus and then surrendering Him on the cross for the salvation of the world. This was perhaps the most difficult part in the life of Mary, to accept the will of God in seeing her only Son unjustly condemned, scourged and crucified on the cross.
For us too, we are called today in faith to cooperate with the plan of God in our lives. His will might not be clear at times. This is what Mary meant when she said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me.” In other words, we must not place obstacles for the Lord to work in and through us. But we walk one step at a time. We must respond as best as we can in each situation of our lives. God does not give us foresight of everything but if in faith and sincerity, we seek to do His will, He will guide us through the trials and joys of life, purifying us in love and in our service to Him. Through our daily life, we continue to offer our bodies as a perfect sacrifice to God. But we must not allow our fears to prevent us from acting courageously. We cling to our faith that God is with us as the Emmanuel in Jesus. He will give us the strength to do all things in Him.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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