In the course of my life as a priest, I have often worked for brief periods with people going through crises in their lives. Some were grieving over a bereavement or a broken relationship, or terrified by self-discovery, or astonished by the realisation of a vocation. Some were lost and lonely people, searching for meaning to their existence. It is a privilege to be invited into the lives of others, to listen to their stories, to share insights, to pray and entrust them to God. If they go away and never again make contact, it is tantalising to be left with no idea of the outcome of their crisis. Entrusting someone to God, however, means doing just that, letting go of them in the belief that, "All things work together for good.Ē (Romans 8:25)
Trust in God's good will and purpose for all people is essential to the teaching of Jesus and the church. When we are aware of being loved and trusted, we become more loving and trusting. God's good will generates good will in us, and engenders in us a special attitude of hope. Christians do not believe the myth that human progress is inevitable, like those who see evolution favouring only those who make the best of life's challenges and opportunities. Christian hope is not a bold optimism which marches relentlessly towards a planned future, trampling on truth and ignoring the cost. This kind of optimism has been shaken hard by sinister events in the twentieth century.
Twentieth century science, technology and medicine have improved life all over the world. Yet, humankind has not learned from two World Wars lessons that maintain world peace. Despite the work of the United Nations and the efforts of the world's politicians, many devastating local conflicts have broken out during the past fifty years. The condition of total war, engulfing civilian populations, not just armies, costing the lives of many more civilians than soldiers is now what is accepted as normal. Twentieth century violence has given substance to the word 'genocide' on several occasions. Pictures of third world children firing powerful deadly weapons in real battles indict the failure of moral progress to keep up with technical advances in the modern world.
Do wars eliminate those least able to make progress through evolutionary adaptation? Can evolved populations find better, safer ways of resolving conflicts? Some analysts think so. Yet, even in societies not at war, crime and violent means of resolving disputes are on the increase. Means for peaceful conflict resolution exist, but are sparsely used. Wars eliminate some who are weak, but many more people are weakened by economic ruin and social collapse reversing the progress of development. Wars may bring about an upsurge in technical innovation and certain kinds of economic activity, but rarely do masses of people impoverished by war benefit from this long-term. The imbalance between poorest and richest continues to grow.
After the Second World War the world's industrial elites developed and maintained enough nuclear weapons to wipe out life on earth many times over. The doctrine of 'mutually assured destruction', preventing war through arms deployment on this scale, was meant to guarantee security, and maintain the status quo in the confrontation between Eastern and Western blocs. It was based on the presumption that peace could only be secured through the deterrent fear of annihilating violence. In the long term, nuclear deterrence proved un-affordable. The East-West superpower confrontation ended because of the economic and political collapse of communism.
The process of arms reduction is under way, but a legacy of belief in nuclear deterrence threatens our future. The lethal potential of contamination of the environment by nuclear or biological weapons cannot be un-invented. The problem of radioactive pollution due to ageing redundant nuclear warheads and power plants will be around for centuries to come. This does more to put the continued evolution of our species at risk than any other factor since the dawn of recorded history. Learning and technical skills in themselves are not to blame for this, rather the motivating belief and the will applied at the outset by world leaders to questions of how to resolve conflict.
In the 'global village', a local power struggle can have unforeseen effects far and wide. The overspill of terrorism, the problems of refugees and asylum seekers, and worst of all, the pollution and environmental damage of modern warfare, threaten the quality of life and security far beyond the battle zone. Even when a large part of the world's population lives in relative peace and security, the entire planet and its people are diminished, endangered by injustice and the conflicts of others, wherever they occur. Hope for the future without regard for the global picture, ignorant of the interdependence of everyone, or based on belief that human progress is inevitable and always good, has proved itself inadequate.
Christian hope does not rest upon unquestioning confidence in human capabilities. It neither underestimates nor ignores the problems and contradictions overshadowing the future. Rather, it seeks to approach all obstacles in a spirit of openness. It views creation as a unity whose inter-related components tend towards ultimate resolution, harmony and unity in Godís will and purpose. It trusts God's invitation to all people to share in remedying the damaging effects of human ill-will, and create a world order free of inequality and injustice. This global vision arises from a positive attitude to creation and material existence, inherited from Judaism.
However discouraging the disorder and ills of the world may be, there is no reason to write off the world as beyond rescue. The first Biblical story of creation (Genesis 1) speaks of God commanding order from primordial chaos. God regards the result of His work as 'very good'. Everything begins with this divine blessing. Only after this does the story set out to account for the fact that bad things happen in the world made to be good. The story of human origins in Genesis 3-9 depicts the spread of evil, misfortune and death due to the refusal of our archetypal ancestors Adam and Eve to obey and accept the life God has provided.
We are created free to choose, and in this freedom exists the potential
to refuse to do what is best. Good and evil are not created together, but the
possibility of evil emerges from what is good. For better and for worse, freedom
is essential to God's creation. This ancient story of rebellion represents the
emergence of human freedom, self-awareness and will, and the accompanying sense
of guilt, shame and fear which entraps human beings. Awareness of God and a
longing for intimacy with God remain, yet a gulf exists which no human effort
can bridge, plus a dread of losing identity, of losing life itself as the final
tragic consequence of estrangement. This describes the universal condition of
sin, the motivating source of all behaviour that causes offence, injury and
In biblical thought the basic distinction is made, not between the spiritual and material realms, but between what is holy and what is sinful, i.e. that which reflects the rule of God and that which does not. Genesis does not provide us with a precise analysis of the mess we have made of the world. We can do that for ourselves. Rather, it paints for us a picture of how human relationships become corrupted and chaotic It offers insight we need to recognise and apply in our own experience. Evil has acquired a life of its own because of sin. Contradictions to divine will and purpose are real, dangerous, and to be taken seriously. It gives us the broader vision that evil is allowed to exist within God's purpose, so that good finally triumphs freely over its alternatives.
Evil and un-necessary suffering persist because of sin and estrangement from God. Human beings since the dawn of time have reached out in search of divine help and protection, wanting but never really succeeding in bridging the gulf between themselves and their creator. But, Christians can speak of being liberated by God from slavery to guilt shame and fear, out of an experience of love reaching into the heart of lifeís dangers and difficulties, imparting inner strength and confidence to triumph over the worst that can happen. This experience of being seized from beyond ourselves by power we cannot conceive or grasp begins a transformation. Those who know themselves to be freed by love from the power of sin are also invited to share in re-ordering what sin has thrown into disarray. Christians are called by God to become partners in dealing with evil and suffering.
In the effort to make a difference to life as disciples of Jesus, inexperience and failure can sometimes be discouraging. Hope is possible, by being realistic about how the world is, yet positive towards people and the world, because of our knowledge the divine mercy and graciousness will prevail. Hope is sustained in the company of those who practice love and forgiveness in the spirit of Jesus. All is not lost to failure. Even through our human weakness God acts for the good and rejects nobody. Disciples of Jesus may find strength in each other, but their greatest strength lies in the unfailing good will of God.
It is no wonder the first Christians believed the end of the world was imminent. So many extraordinary things happened among them. The church grew quickly, people were converted and healed. The intense hope implanted in them by the resurrection of Jesus was reinforced by the sense of his invisible presence when they met for worship. When the end of the world did not come as soon as expected, hope did not die but was re-focused on a gradual rather than immediate transformation of the world in conformity with God's will and purpose. This tells us that their hope was resilient, able to survive changing circumstances. The positive and original perspective on life shown them by Jesus was not wedded to his moment in time, but meant for all ages. It was grounded in their relationship with Jesus himself.
St Paul maintained that the scriptures were given "for our own instruction, in order that through the encouragement they give us, we may maintain our hope with fortitude." (Romans 15:4) He was referring just to the Jewish scriptures he possessed. We have the Gospels, letters and other books of the New Testament as well. Together they give a basic perspective on the realm of history within which God is at work, ordering all things for the good. Pope Gregory the Great, lamenting on the tribulations and responsibilities of high office, spoke of receiving grace "to see things whole". This gift is available to all who seek through prayer to understand the way the world is, within Godís will and purpose.
More than one contemporary teacher of faith has spoken of the importance of coming to prayer with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other - trying to understand each in the light of the other. The effects of sin and ill-will are evident in the world. They drive us to perplexity today, as they did the prophets of three millennia ago, who were confounded by the prosperity of the wicked. They did not argue with themselves, nor did they think that God should be spared their miserable thoughts. They harangued him with questions, doubts, fears, anger and resentments, sometimes to a point of insight and resolution, sometimes to the point of despair.
Prayer that fuels a broad perspective on hope is ruthlessly honest. It accepts that God knows the worst about us and that we can be ourselves with Him. We easily open our hearts to him in wonder at the beauty of creation or in the joy of love. But, God is there for us too in those experiences of being human so painful that we can do no more than groan and wail before Him. The struggle for personal authenticity in prayer clears the way within us to receive what we need to strengthen us in powerlessness to see beyond current circumstances that weigh us down.
Prayer is a venture that is not without risk. We may approach it without particular expectations, neither exalted nor downcast in our feelings. We read the Bible, we ponder, we pray, and insights come. These can be a mixed blessing. They can enlighten us and raise our morale. Or, they can bring us to dismay as they shed light on the faults, lies, weaknesses or ill-will we were unable to admit to ourselves. Becoming aware of sins and failings, of the areas of dis-grace in our lives, is an uncomfortable experience. Our first instinct may be to reject what seems to threaten our well being, to deny what we are. The truth and the attraction of God's patience eventually persuades us to do what we can to set things right. Scripture holds a mirror to our consciences, but it also offers us the unconditional mercy and pardon of God.
But what if we are unable to turn back to God? Some people stop praying because they cannot handle what prayer is revealing to them about themselves, and the change it requires of them. Think of St Augustine in his life of decadence, praying: "O Lord, make me a Christian, but not just yet." Some are discouraged because they believe God is asking too much of them. How we pray is all too easily conditioned by false ideas of God. Stumbling blocks are the belief that God is vindictive, merciful to others but not to us, demanding to the point where we are made to fail. Such perverse thinking can ruin us, affect our health and sanity. For some people a journey through false beliefs and disastrous errors, a life of exile from God, is a necessary part of finding the truth of divine love and mercy. God is patient with slow learners. It's worth remembering this whenever we feel stuck.
Memory, so important a factor in making and retaining our identity and enabling us to pray, is vulnerable to the suffering of sin and evil. Like any other injured part of the body, wounds of memory need to be healed. The inner pain of guilt and shame, of failures in relationships, of mistakes and tragedies which have swayed the course of our lives can be treated. In opening and sharing our secret selves with God, we find that the healing process is a partnership with him, working to make us whole by the same grace that enables us to 'see things whole'.
The maxim: 'Think globally, act locally', summarises the universal need for broader vision to be matched by focussed commitment. We understand that curbing environmental pollution, or the predominance of violence in resolving disputes, begins now with the choices we all make about actions in every corner of our lives. Either the consequences matter to us, or we remain part of the problem. When I was dragged down by the experience of trying to pray aright during the Bosnian war, eventually I learned that engaging with a broken and sinful world, even indirectly, highlights our limitations and exposes what is not right about ourselves. If our prayer and our actions are to make a difference, we must be set free from the effects of the evil and sin.
Activism alone without self-purification leads to spiritual exhaustion, impoverishment, and ultimately to corrupt deeds. Urgent though the need may be to find solutions to world problems, we have an equally urgent need to work on ourselves to become whole. The old saint's prayer: "Lord convert the world - beginning with me" reminds us that the need to remember God and take his will into account in our decision making never goes away.
As Jesus taught, we need to be able to face God, to be at home with him for himself alone, as well as serving him in the love of our neighbour. It is not an 'either - or' option, but 'both - and'. Here, in maintaining this balance, lies the secret of living with hope in extreme circumstances that are capable of undermining faith and destroying our humanity.