Friday, April 20, 2018

“Depart from me, O Lord!” Confronting Unworthiness in Our Response to Christ

"...they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:6-8).

Confronted by Holiness

A significant obstacle for many of us in our life of faith, in the process of conversion in general and in our response to our vocation in particular, is our awareness that we are not worthy to approach God. This was Peter’s response when he first encountered Jesus and His divine power: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). When we first encounter God in a unmistakable way, for example, on a retreat or in a moment of deep prayer during Eucharistic adoration, our initial response of excitement can be tainted by shame and disbelief. We think to ourselves, “Wow, this love is so intense, pure, and sincere, and here I stand in my brokenness and sinfulness! How can it be that God loves me?” Faced with the holiness of Christ, or even that of other Christian men and women whom we admire on the one hand, and our own sinfulness and shortcomings on the other, thoughts of unworthiness can immediately put up a wall:  “No, not me. He might be able to imitate Christ that way, or she can leave behind worldly concerns to pursue that vocation, but not me. That way of life is only possible for certain, special people. I’m too average, too weak, too damaged, too half-hearted, too doubting, too anxious, too afraid––too whatever.” And so it is that we talk ourselves out of the very experience that is meant to elicit our joyful and generous response to God. As is true of many elements of Christian discipleship, our sense of worthiness before God has a certain paradoxical nature to it, and it is only when we learn to embrace this paradox that we can move beyond fear, doubt, and self-disqualification and begin to make real progress.

I myself have experienced all the above-mentioned emotions and doubts at various times over the last several years of my life. The two most pronounced times that I was held back by feelings of unworthiness were 1) when I first returned to Christ and the Church at around age 22, and 2) when I began discerning my vocation to the priesthood a couple years later. However, thanks to God’s grace and the advice and witness of several loving people in my life, I was able to break out of the cage of unworthiness and respond to Christ’s call. I can clearly remember how I felt when I first thought about the priesthood. I almost laughed at the idea of me being a priest. It seemed too good to be true: “Me? Ha, yeah right! There must be a million guys out there who are much holier and better-qualified. God would never call me to do that!” Even after entering seminary, I was often tempted to compare myself with other seminarians whom I considered much holier and more fit for the vocation than myself, and to think, “Wow, maybe I don’t really belong here.” This was especially the case when seminarians whom I greatly admired decided to leave seminary. I thought, “Wait––if he isn’t called to be a priest, then how can I be?”

Pride in Disguise

As strange as it may seem, such thoughts and feelings of unworthiness are, more often than not, rooted in our own pride. But how can it be that feeling unworthy comes from pride? Is it not rather humility that makes us feel unworthy and unable to draw near to God and follow Jesus? No, not usually, because if we were truly humble then we would allow God to decide whether or not we can approach Him; we would allow Him to judge whether or not we have what it takes to do whatever particular thing is He is asking of us:  overcoming this habitual sin, giving up this destructive influence in our life, ending or starting this relationship, marrying this person, welcoming this child into our lives, applying for or quitting this job, entering this seminary or religious community, etc., etc. True humility demands that we live the reality that God is God, that He is in charge, and that He knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us more than we love ourselves. If we really believe this, then the fact that we are not worthy of anything by our own merits becomes quite irrelevant. In the spiritual classic Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand stressed this aspect of humility. He writes:
…this is precisely the test of true humility, that one no longer presumes to judge whether or not one is too miserable to be included in the call to sanctity but simply answers the merciful love of God by sinking down in adoration. The question of whether I feel worthy to be called is beside the point; that God has called me is the one thing that matters. Having abandoned all pride and all craving for being something of my own resources, I shall not doubt that God, from whom I receive everything, also has the power to lift me up and to transform any darkness into light: “Thou shalt wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow” (p. 168).
God Qualifies the Chosen

It is Christ Himself who makes us worthy to respond to Him––NOT our own efforts or will-power. Recall what He said to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (Jn 15:16). Christ’s call is not an ordinary command or invitation; it contains within it the power and the grace we need to respond to it. In fact, we explicitly profess our belief in this at every Mass when, just before coming forward to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, we pray:  “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Are we worthy to approach God? No, not of our own abilities or merits. Do we have what it takes to accept and follow Christ’s invitation? Again, by our own strength, absolutely not. However, when the King Himself calls us, it is not for us to say, “No, Lord, you must be mistaken––I can’t follow you.” There is a wonderful line often used to reassure men discerning the priesthood that speaks to this: God does not choose the qualified––He qualifies the chosen. In this regard we must imitate Saint Matthew, the tax collector whose response to Christ is not recounted with any words, but simply his actions:  “And he left everything, and rose and followed him” (Lk 5:28).

I think all of us can benefit from reflecting on the ways, big or small, in which we allow feelings of unworthiness to cripple us and hold us back from making a full and free response to Christ. Let us not disqualify ourselves on account of our brokenness, wounds, and sins, but instead exercise true humility and allow Christ’s call be enough for us. In addition to this, we should not wait for some overwhelming and miraculous evidence of this call, but rather be willing to receive this call through others in our lives whom God uses to speak to us, as was the case for the blind man, Bartimaeus:
And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; rise, he is calling you.” And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus (Mark 10:49-50).

Thanks for reading and God bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer