“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4-5 RSV2CE)
Whenever times are difficult, especially when one has doubts about the morality of the choices involved, we need to ask ourselves, “What is so important that we would rather die than compromise over it?” The martyrs knew the answer to that. When it came to a choice between compromising on their faith or accepting suffering and death, they put their faith over saving their lives. That should make us think. If the saints preferred martyrdom over betraying their faith, how much more should we be willing to prefer lesser suffering rather than compromise our own faith?
I think this is where Catholics in affluent nations are being most tempted. We’re so focussed on our comforts and rights—so afraid of losing them—that we’re tempted to compromise on the faith to protect them. We might not literally commit idolatry, but it often happens that situations tempt Catholics to say about Church teaching, “Well that’s not as important,” when we’re offered the choice to compromise to escape hardship. We try to find excuses that justify compromise to avoid what we fear.
What this means is we’re often choosing silence in the face of real evils, downplaying them in favor of our political or cultural values in order to escape discomfort. That’s exactly the choice we’re forbidden to make if we profess to be Christians, and there are consequences in making that choice.
Now, it is natural to want to avoid unnecessary suffering, and Christians have never been obliged to seek out martyrdom. But if the time comes where we have to make that choice, then we have to ask ourselves what is most important. We need to ask whether our love of comfort is interfering with seeking our greatest good—salvation. If we know God wants us to behave one way, but that way is at odds with our desires, we have to sacrifice our desires to do His will.
God loves all of us—even those we are tempted to despise—but we have to respond to that love. That response is not just saying we love God. It means we have to do what He wills (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21-23). If we decide that God will save us in spite of ourselves so we can do as we will, that’s the sin of presumption. Yes, God does forgive sins. He provided a Sacrament with that express purpose after all. But if we’re not sorry for our action and if we’re willing to do it again if the situation arises, then we are refusing this forgiveness—we’re demanding that God legitimize our sin. If we refuse His forgiveness, we will not be forgiven.
Going a step further, if we refuse to ask if we might have gone wrong, we won’t repent, we won’t seek forgiveness, and we will not receive forgiveness. That isn’t injustice on God’s part. That is facing justice after refusing mercy.
None of us can save ourselves. We need God’s grace, which is a gift. None of us can claim it as a right. He is always willing to give it, but all too often we don’t want to give up our wrong desires in exchange. We want cheap grace and resent having to give up anything in exchange. In fact, we think it is unreasonable. But if we don’t give these things up, if we think they “don’t really matter,” then we’re not turning to God. We’re demanding He turn to us and accept us on our own terms. We’re not pleading for grace, we’re demanding a handout. I think here, we should consider the words of St. Alphonsus Liguori:
We, in a word, are merely beggars, who have nothing but what God bestows on us as alms: But I am a beggar and poor. The Lord, says St. Augustine, desires and wills to pour forth his graces upon us, but will not give them except to him who prays. “God wishes to give, but only gives to him who asks.”5 This is declared in the words, Seek, and it shall be given to you. Whence it follows, says St. Teresa, that he who seeks not, does not receive.
Alphonsus Liguori, The Great Means of Salvation and of Perfection, ed. Eugene Grimm, The Complete Works of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori (New York; London; Dublin: Benziger Brothers; R. Washbourne; M. H. Gill & Son, 1886), 27.
We need to ask for, not demand, the graces God willingly gives.
Keeping this in mind, we need to examine every situation we face in life and ask what a Christian in need of salvation must do to remain in God’s graces and to bear witness to others through our words and actions. Bearing witness is vitally important. Modern society accepts evils as if they were good, or tolerates them in the name of expedience. To people in this society, Christian teaching seems like a hardship. When they find something difficult, they’ll want loopholes and they’ll seize on Scripture quotes or fragments from Church documents that seem to permit their behavior.
Knowing this is the world we’re called to evangelize, we need to realize how we respond to similar situations is a witness to how seriously we take the faith we proclaim. For example, if we won’t obey the Church when it comes to a minor inconvenience, do we really think we’ll have credibility when we ask people to do what seems difficult—like reject contraception which they see as a “safety net”? If we would have others be faithful in potentially life changing events, we should show we are willing to do the same when things seem difficult for us.
So, if we’re tempted to misuse Scripture and Church teaching to deny the importance of a Christian obligation, we have no right to be shocked when others misuse them to justify a different evil. It’s only when we completely open ourselves to God and say, “I want to follow You no matter how afraid I am of the consequences, please help me to do Your will,” that we effectively witness to our faith and let others know Him.