In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
Bills to pay. Hours to work. Relationships to sort out. You strain to finish every task that you need to accomplish. If, at some point, you seem to catch up with things–yet another problem pops up on the horizon…
Jean-Paul Sartre was a proponent of the philosophy known as “existentialism.”
Thinkers in this 20th Century movement were especially interested in the problems of ordinary life. While philosophers in the past debated the meaning of abstract ideas like “form’ and “substance,” existentialists focused on the many stressful aspects of the human situation.
So Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about what he called, the “force of things”—the way in which the burdens of life tend to pile up until they seem to press down on us like an invisible force.
And sometimes, it’s not the size of the problems that bothers us. It’s simply the way they keep propelling themselves at us in a never-ending stream.
You have an annoying cold that lingers on, day after day, or there’s a bothersome little task that your job requires you to carry out every morning; you never get used to doing it—the chore never fails to annoy you.
Of course, Jean-Paul Sartre wasn’t the first person to call attention to the force of things. Another “Paul,” St. Paul, writing 2000 years earlier, would have recognized what Sartre was talking about.
For as St. Paul traveled throughout the Mediterranean, preaching the message of Jesus, he was beset by all sorts of issues. In today’s first lesson, he lists some of them: “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.”
Paul also mentions a mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” which was particularly troublesome. Paul naturally prayed that God would deliver him from this affliction. He writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me…”
Apparently, though, the thorn in the flesh wasn’t removed. Instead, God replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So Paul had to put up with his constant suffering. He even goes on to write, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” He would bear his problems for the sake of Christ, “for,” he said, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now Paul’s Christ-centered approach to the human existence is clearly different from a non-religious approach. A motivational speaker, for example, might say that we should learn to be tough—she would claim that we will be made perfect in strength, not weakness.
To be fair, Paul’s view of faith also assumes that our faith will help us solve the various problems that confront us. And Paul would agree with the motivational speaker that whatever “weakness” we feel, we should still strive to do God’s will in the face of life’s obstacles. We can’t give up when the force of things bears down upon us.
But Paul presents his own version of self-help. For him, “strength” comes from what the world regards as “weakness.” Indeed, it is in the failure of human power that God’s power is revealed. The grace of God becomes manifest at precisely those times when we are unable to be “tough.”
So, one way we can learn to withstand outside forces is to look for grace within ourselves. We can then depend on this interior strength to give us the power that we need.
Some of you may have enjoyed reading Hilary Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall. This historical novel describes the events that led to the English Reformation in the 1500’s. One of the characters in Wolf Hall is Sir Thomas More; he was the Lord Chancellor of England who opposed King Henry VIII’s multiple marriages.
Mantel’s portrait of Thomas More shows the failings in his character. More didn’t hesitate to persecute people who disagreed with him. He could bend church rules just as King Henry did. And despite later being made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, he may not have been a very nice person!
Yet one could also argue that, in many ways, Sir Thomas More was an admirable Christian. He showed the ultimate courage of his convictions when he refused to compromise with Henry, after the King assumed control of the Church of England from the Pope. He paid with his life!
So as he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, More became an example of the power of God becoming manifest in human weakness. Rather than give in to the pressure from the King, he looked within himself for the strength to witness to the truth as he saw it.
More’s spiritual courage can be seen in a prayer that he wrote while he was in the Tower prison, just before he was beheaded: he prayed “Lord, give me patience in tribulation, and grace in everything to conform my will to Thine, that I may truly say: Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven.
The good things that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for. Amen.”
As we face much lesser pains for our beliefs, we can be encouraged by the faith of Christians like Paul and Thomas More. To begin with, we can remind ourselves that human existence always includes unpredictable threats. Thorns in the flesh may appear and we can’t make them go away.
Whatever we might do to insure a calm, predictable future for ourselves, it’s impossible for us to hold back the tide of challenging events. As another philosopher—the American William James–remarked, “Life is one damn thing after another.”
Then, second, having reminded ourselves of those “damn things,” we can resolve to stop brooding about them. After all, this is the human situation. We shouldn’t be surprised when a relative is irritating, or a neighbor is loud, or the boss assigns a project for the weekend. Nor should we be amazed when more serious crises occur.
Instead, we should look within ourselves for the divine power to sustain us. It’s hard to believe, but we may be most likely to find that power when we feel most worn down by life.
I don’t know why, but we often find this to be true. Maybe we just need to have our defenses battered a little, so we remember that, “it is only with God that we dwell in safety.”
For then, instead of brooding on the force of things, we can hear God speaking to us, as he spoke to Paul:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
As you sit, let us pray.
And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.