It seems like the closer God comes to us, the harder it is for us to receive Him with faith. God as an abstract idea which may or may not exist is something most people are willing to consider. God the distant Creator who set order, beauty, and perfection in the natural world is still fairly safe and edifying. The God who reveals by His words the same standards of justice and righteousness that we agree with is comforting. The God who openly rebukes and condemns wrongdoing by the mouth of His prophets arrives at an uncomfortable level of proximity however – especially when we ourselves are guilty. So long as a prophet is personally removed from the people to whom he addresses God’s Word, a comfortable level of anonymity can still be maintained. But when the prophet is God Himself, and the people He is sent to – preaching and teaching – were His equals and superiors throughout His childhood that is mind blowing. Any degree of separation between religion and human life is destroyed. Immediate religion is offensive – especially when we lack faith. It is offensive because the holiness of the invisible God seems to require some degree of separation between what we are and what God is. Immediate religion is even more offensive when we lack faith because it forces our conscience out of hiding and sets before it a Word or judgement whose authority we would like to reject but cannot do so comfortably.
If we have faith on the other hand, if we believe in the divine origin of this Word that penetrates to the core of our being, we can humbly welcome the messenger and discover that He also approaches us with humility and meekness. The prophet of the Gospel does not have a message of doom and judgement, but one of forgiveness and mercy. The prophet of the Gospel is a friend to all, especially to sinners. Faith in his message removes the separation and apparent distance between what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. If, by faith, I welcome the prophet who collides offensively with my real life, either because of where he’s from or what he says, my soul become a friend of God.
GREGORY THE GREAT:
The divine voice commanded the prophet as he lay and bade him rise. But he could in no way have risen if the Spirit of the Almighty had not entered into him, because by the grace of almighty God we can indeed try to perform good works but cannot carry them through unless he who commands us helps us.1
The right to tempt a man is granted to the devil … whether God or the devil initiates the plan or for the purpose of the judgment of a sinner, who is handed over to the devil as to an executioner. This was the case with Saul. “The spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled and stifled him.” Again, it may happen in order to humble a man, as St. Paul tells us that there was given to him a thorn, a messenger of Satan, to buffet him, and even this sort of thing is not permitted for the humiliation of holy men through torment of the flesh, unless it be done so that their power to resist may be perfected in weakness. The apostle himself handed Phigellus and Hermogenes over to Satan so that by being chastised they might not blaspheme. And so you see that, far from possessing power in his own right, the devil can more easily be granted it by the servants of God.2
Paul is testifying that God makes provision for those who have done well, while at the same time he allows them to be cast down by various trials. This is both so that they shall not be deprived of the fruits of their labors and that they may be enriched by their trials so that they may have even greater eternal rewards.3
Therefore, in these trials which can be both our blessing and our bane, “we don’t know how we should pray,” yet, because they are hard, because they are painful, because they go against the feeling of our human weakness, by a universal human will we pray that our troubles may depart from us. But this need of devotion we owe to the Lord our God, that, if he does not remove them, we are not to think that he has deserted us but rather, by lovingly bearing evil, we are to hope for greater good. This is how power is made perfect in infirmity. To some, indeed, who lack patience, the Lord God, in his wrath, grants them what they ask, just as, on the other hand, he in his mercy refused the apostle’s requests.4
Thus also the apostle Paul, after shipwrecks, after scourgings, after many grievous tortures of the flesh and body, says that he was not harassed but was corrected by adversity, in order that while he was the more heavily afflicted he might the more truly be tried. There was given to me, he says, a thorn in my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me lest I be exalted. Concerning this thorn I asked the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And he said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you: for power is made perfect in weakness.” When, therefore, some infirmity and weakness and desolation attacks us, then is our power made perfect, then our faith is crowned, if though tempted it has stood firm.… This finally is the difference between us and the others who do not know God, that they complain and murmur in adversity, while adversity does not turn us from the truth of virtue and faith but proves us in suffering.5
Not everyone who spares is a friend, nor is everyone who strikes an enemy.… Love mingled with severity is better than deceit with indulgence. It is more profitable for bread to be taken away from the hungry, if he neglects right living because he is sure of his food, than for bread to be broken to the hungry, to lead him astray into compliance with wrongdoing. The one who confines the madman, as well as the one who rouses the lethargic, is troublesome to both but loves both. Who could love us more than God does? Yet he continually teaches us sweetly as well as frightens us for our good. Often adding the most stinging medicine of trouble to the gentle remedies with which he comforts us, he tries the patriarchs, even good and devout ones, by famine; he chastises a stubborn people with heavier punishments; he does not take away from the apostle the sting of the flesh, though asked three times, so as to perfect strength in weakness.6
“I will gladly boast of my weaknesses.” Not only, he says, do I no longer seek to be rid of them, but I even boast of them with greater satisfaction. Do you see his grateful spirit? Do you see his love for God?… So we ought to yield to the Creator of our nature, and with joy and great relish accept those things that he has decided on and have an eye not to the appearance of events but to the decisions of the Lord. After all, he who knows better than we what is for our benefit also knows what steps must be taken for our salvation.7
When some infirmity and weakness and desolation attacks us, then our power is made perfect, and our faith is crowned if it has stood firm through temptation.8
The more one easily conquers, the less one needs combat. But who would fight within himself if there were no opposition from self? And why is there opposition from self if nothing remains in us to be healed and cured? Therefore, the sole cause of our fighting is weakness in ourselves. Again, weakness cautions against pride. Truly, that strength and virtue by which one is not proud in this life where he could be proud is made perfect in weakness.9
For the weak things of the world are chosen by God that the strong may be put to shame, and the foolish things of this world to put to shame its wisdom. Thus even evil may be used that justice may be glorified when evil is put to shame.10
Humility like this does away with frailty.11
Paul wanted to be delivered from these things, but when God told him otherwise he accepted it and was even glad about it. There is consolation in affliction and grace in consolation.12
How can he be said to go out and to come in, whom no space can enclose? What country can be his, who made, and who possesses, the whole universe? In truth, Christ goes out and comes in not of himself, nor for himself, but in you, and on behalf of you, until he recovers you from your exile, and calls you home from your captivity.13
And perhaps, as in the case of metallic substances there exists in some a natural attraction toward some other thing, as in the magnet for iron, and in naphtha for fire, so there is an attraction in such faith toward the divine power according to what Jesus said: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, ‘Move to another place,’ and it shall be moved.” Matthew and Mark wished to present the all-surpassing value of that divine power as a power that works even in those who do not believe. But they did not deny that grace works even more powerfully among those who have faith.14
If the faith of those who bring them or of the sick is lacking, it may prevent those who possess the gift of healing from exercising it.15
- HOMILIES ON EZEKIEL 1.9.2. Stevenson, K., & Gluerup, M. (Eds.). (2008). Ezekiel, Daniel (p. 17). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FLIGHT IN TIME OF PERSECUTION 2.7. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 304). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON PAUL’S EPISTLES. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 304). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TO PROBA 130. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 305). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- MORTALITY 13. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (pp. 305–306). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Letter 93, To Vincent. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 306). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILIES ON GENESIS 30.16. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (pp. 306–307). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MORTALITY 12. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 307). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- AGAINST JULIAN 4.2.11. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 307). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FLIGHT IN TIME OF PERSECUTION 2.1. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 307). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- LETTER 1. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 308). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 26.3–4. Bray, G. L. (Ed.). (1999). 1–2 Corinthians (p. 308). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMONS 49. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 74). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 10.19. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 76). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SECOND CONFERENCE OF ABBOT NESTEROS 15.1. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 76). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.