When we feel cut off from God, battling a losing war with ingrained sin, the only viable solution to our dilemma is to call out to Christ to save us. Instead, most of us strive to be perfect through self-discipline. It was a shock to me when my Spiritual Director challenged this tendency by saying, “You are stealing Christ’s job!” What he meant by this startling statement was, even though I thought I was a committed Catholic, I was actually ignoring the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ and the core teachings of the Church.
The Problem of Ingrained Sin
Mark 7:14-23 focuses on the problem of evil. It would be a depressing Scripture passage if it were not for the reality and power of the Cross because evil is so deeply ingrained in our being, that we really do not have a clue how to eliminate it from our lives on our own.
He said to them, ‘Are even you likewise without understanding? . . . what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.’
After observing how the Pharisees try to purify themselves through dietary laws and religious exercises, Jesus is frustrated, “Are you so dull?” He asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?” Still today, people foolishly tend to focus on outer rules, prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines to purify themselves, just like the religious leaders did in the New Testament. This drive to save ourselves is based on both a fear of God and a desire to impress other people.
Jesus explains the real source of defilement is rooted in our hearts. Since sin springs from the innermost recesses of our being, only Christ can save us; only the power of His Holy Spirit can transform our hearts. It might shock the average Catholic, but the truth is that the spiritual journey through purgation, illumination, and union with God is not some esoteric path for cloistered contemplatives. Every normal Christian, relying on God, should be able to eventually declare as did Saint Paul, “that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” Gal 2:20. Few of us are actually living this out. So what is really holding so many of us back from becoming real Christians?
Every human being is basically blind to their own faults and sins. There are many reasons we cannot seem to die to self and enjoy communion with God – psychological reasons, inherited sin, pride, the tendency to control and other self-defeating behaviors. However, I think the biggest barrier to receiving the Love of God is egocentricity; we are centered on ourselves, on our own efforts to perfect ourselves instead of admitting defeat, taking our eyes off our own efforts, and allowing Christ to work out His salvation in our hearts.
God offers His children the means to become free in Him through the Sacraments, Scripture, prayer, and confession, but the biggest key is the humility to realize we cannot purify ourselves. Obviously, God desires our freedom. Since we are blinded by deep, cyclical attitudes, it takes Divine intervention to humble us and bring us to our knees. We must let go of our old ways of life if we are to be transformed in Christ. Part of this process of renewal is through purgation, which includes a vision of our bondage to sinfulness. Only with the help of grace can we see and destroy all in us that is not God in order to move from darkness into the Light.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains our justification can only come through the power of the Holy Spirit and the work Christ did on the cross:
1988 Through the power of the Holy Spirit we take part in Christ’s Passion by dying to sin, and in his Resurrection by being born to a new life; we are members of his Body which is the Church, branches grafted onto the vine which is himself:36
- [God] gave himself to us through his Spirit. By the participation of the Spirit, we become communicants in the divine nature. . . . For this reason, those in whom the Spirit dwells are divinized.37
1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”38 Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.39
1990 Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God’s merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals.
We probably agree theoretically to this theology of the spiritual life but most of us have to hit bottom and become desperate before we admit we need help, even from God. Suffering finally forced me to ask for Divine help because I was desperate. For years, even though my adult mind desired freedom, deeper levels in my subconscious were afraid to let go of the familiar, let go of control. What really held me back from surrendering to God was self-love and God demands that He be our first love.