Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. (Matthew 23:27)
Now, the Pharisees were not evil men; they were earnestly striving to be good and to follow the Law. Their mistake was they thought they could perfect themselves through religious practices and man-made spirituality. However, man cannot transform himself into a holy being. As my Irish grandmother would say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” In other words, only Christ can transform sinful people into His image and draw them into the heart of His Father.
Man-Made Spirituality is Pharisaism
After a few decades of dry spiritual exercises, Catholics either become just like the Pharisees who thought they were holy because they acted and looked holy on the outside or if they are honest with themselves, they become so frustrated they lose hope, believing communion with God is only for ancient saints or a few chosen ones. Most settle for a man-made spirituality when God offers all intimate communion with Him. The truth is a vibrant, joyful relationship with Christ is simply the normal Christian life when we learn how to surrender to God and let go of control.
For years, I did not understand the subtle difference between authentic and man-made spirituality. It is not an easy distinction to make; most of us remain in delusion until a spiritual director can shake some sense into us. For myself, I tried to force God to relate to me on my own terms. Since God refused to be manipulated, the harder I tried to grow closer to Him, the more I hit a wall. The experience often brought me to tears of frustration.
What I failed to grasp was with all my striving, I was actually centred completely on my own efforts to please God and win intimacy with Him like it was a prize I had to earn. Once I sought help. a priest teased me by noting that although most people have a spiritual star chart, mine was simply larger than most.
An Egocentric Spirituality
Father Henri Nouwen, S.J. explains the futility of egocentric, man-made spirituality:
For most of my life, I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home. (The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming)
Nouwen finally learned how to take his focus off himself and to look to God, responding and surrendering, rather than performing to earn the prize of intimacy with Christ.
My experience was similar because I was also raised in a society that equates the mere idea of surrender with losing. Society has never liked losers. It glorifies winners who are independent, hard workers. In fact, surrendering goes against our innate competitive natures. So naturally, when we begin our own spiritual journey in earnest, we bring all our worldly notions with us, striving to succeed, depending on our own strength to snatch the ultimate crown of holiness. Inevitably we fall into the trap of concocting our own version of spirituality and it becomes a man-made spirituality.
Stealing Christ’s Job
Although we don’t really understand what we are doing when we tackle sanctity like a chore, we are basically trying to save ourselves with our religious works, with man-made spirituality. The truth is that God is the author of our salvation:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)
When religious practices are not motivated by love and humility but fueled by pride, they damage our intimacy with God. In fact, self-appointed spiritual disciplines that are not inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit are self-centered, not God-centered and can rightly be called man-made spirituality. To put this thought in more shocking terms, when we try to perfect ourselves we are stealing Christ’s job of redemption and sanctification. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life. …
When Christ became incarnate and was made man, he recapitulated in himself the long history of mankind and procured for us a “short cut” to salvation, so that what we had lost in Adam, that is, being in the image and likeness of God, we might recover in Christ Jesus. For this reason Christ experienced all the stages of life, thereby giving communion with God to all men. (CCC 517-518)
Even though the Church teaches us exactly how to be reconciled to God through Christ, it takes a long time to really understand how to assimilate these truths into our daily lives. It took challenging comments from my spiritual director to shake me out of my delusions, “You’re stealing Jesus’ job,” and “You’re working for Satan, not God.” I realized I still had not allowed Jesus to justify me. I was still relying on good works to earn God’s approval.
God Is Always The One Who Initiates
The Father always is the one who initiates, He seeks out and invites the exhausted, the poor and the broken to His Heavenly Banquet. Those originally invited were too busy to attend the wedding feast:
Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. (Luke 14:21-23)
Our spiritual journey is not so much about our efforts to become perfect and connect with God with our man-made spirituality as it is about becoming aware and responding to God’s efforts to connect with us. Our ego-centric viewpoint focuses on our efforts because we are self-centred, not God centred.
Pope Francis reminds us it is always God who acts first, we can only respond to Him. God is always the one who initiates communion with us but somehow we think we are the ones who set out to find God. On Jan. 31, 2016. Pope Francis said:
God comes to meet the men and women of all times and places, in their real life situations. He also comes to meet us. It is always he who takes the first step: he comes to visit us with his mercy, to lift us up from the dust of our sins; he comes to extend a hand to us in order to enable us to return from the abyss into which our pride made us fall, and he invites us to receive the comforting truth of the Gospel and to walk on the paths of good. He always comes to find us, to look for us.
The Catechism explains further:
Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life. Thus we shall consider first that search …, then the divine Revelation by which God comes to meet man …. (CCC 26)
Thank goodness, I can depend on the fact that the desire for God is written in the human heart; man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself.