When I first became a therapist, I worked in a program for what my boss called “train-wreck families.” These are families where both parents and children have symptoms of serious emotional or behavioral problems. In that work I ran into the concept of resiliency. Resiliency is the capacity to “bounce back” when bad things happen. Resilient people overcome evil when it enters their lives. I was working with people who were NOT resilient. I became fascinated with how I might help them become resilient.
As I read research study after research study, I saw an undercurrent theme among those who overcame: they focused on SOME GOOD. When studies were put together and compared, the ability to focus on the positive emerged again and again as the determining factor in resiliency. Ability to find a positive sense of meaning was the greatest predictor. A close second was the ability to have at least one positive, supportive relationship. Third was a positive sense of self—a capacity to trust in abilities and/or a sense of respect for self. Other characteristics of a positive thrust followed: intelligence, practical problem solving ability, creativity, emotional and impulse control, sense of humor, values, boundaries, and goals.
So what does all this have to do with our Scripture readings today and Catholic teaching on evil? All three of our readings today talk about the problem of overcoming evil. The evils mentioned in these readings are not specifically moral evils. They are physical evils or evils from “secondary causes”. (CCC 308) Physical evils include such things as storms, forest fires caused by lightning, or volcanic eruptions. Secondary causes include the effects of political or social decisions that affect the lives of people who had no say in the decisions–victims of war, for example. God creates the conditions that cause many of these evils. He permits others. If God is good, how can this be?
Two selections from Jeremiah contrast the evil of exile with the good that God eventually brought from exile. The psalmist prays with hope in the face of evil, “The nations shall revere your name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory, When the Lord has rebuilt Zion and appeared in all his glory; when he has regarded the prayer of the destitute, and not despised their prayer.”
The psalmist names a factor which scientific research on resiliency did not identify—though it would support it. That factor is dependency on God in the face of evil. For the Christian, that is an essential difference.
Jeremiah cried out. His book of Lamentations in the Old Testament is a deep, rich expression of both the pain of the Hebrew people and God’s pain as He determined there was no better way to bring them to their senses than to no longer protect them from the political forces of Babylon.
Many of us today wonder and worry if God might be of a similar mind for our century and our country. Might we incur evil from the secondary causes of contemporary politics?
And so we cry out in dependency on God.
The power of that crying out is clearer and more personal in today’s Gospel reading. The first sentence is very interesting. It says, “Jesus MADE the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds.”
Jesus MADE the disciples get into a boat. Then he went up on the mountain to pray. Jesus is up on the mountain. On the sea winds begin to stir the waters. A few miles offshore, the disciples are tossed about by the winds. While perhaps Peter, Andrew, James, and John—fishermen—are not terrified by whitecaps all around, the others likely would be. They are out in the boat, in the midst of a physical evil caused by the storm.
The Gospel does not say they were praying in the boat. I would be. If I use imaginative prayer to put myself in the boat with them, I would be praying. Would you?
Did Jesus come because they prayed? Or did he set up the situation to teach them about overcoming physical evils and give us a story we can remember and apply to our lives when physical evils come? Whatever the answer to that, Jesus comes to them late in the night, walking on the water.
The disciples do not recognize him. They think he is a ghost and cry out. Interesting now what Scripture says, “AT ONCE Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’” AT ONCE. Jesus doesn’t wait. Then Peter speaks for the others. He is not sure, but he wants to believe. “Lord, if it is you, COMMAND me to come to you on the water.” COMMAND. That’s obedience. Sometimes when we face physical or moral evil, it requires obedience to be able to put one foot in front of the other (even on dry land) to get through the storm of it.
Jesus tells Peter to come. He gets out of the boat, starts to put one foot in front of the other in faith, but he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks down at the waves. Overcome then by fear, he starts to sink in them. He’s almost a goner! But again he cries out, “Lord, save me!!!!!!” Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls him up. They both climb in the boat.
Whew! When I read that in imaginative prayer (that’s where I imagine myself in the boat as one of the disciples), literally, my heart speeds up as adrenaline kicks in! That was a close call!
But when I put myself there it is not hard for me to see how this applies to my life. God is good. God is NOT evil. But our faith teaches us that physical evil is part of creation which is “in a state of journeying toward an ultimate perfection which is not yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call ‘divine providence’ the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection.” (CCC 302) Yet “with physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.” (CCC 310)
Storms at sea, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, and many illnesses and sufferings are part of this “physical evil” which is included in God’s Divine Providence. It is part of God’s plan that such evils be part of our lives.
But God can and does bring goodness out of the physical evil. He is greater than these evils in life. When we cry out to him in the middle of the evil, he answers our prayers and brings good. He brought goodness out of the storm the disciples experienced. Peter walked on the water. The disciples grew stronger in their belief. So it can be for us when storms come in our lives. “We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him.” (Romans 8:28)
For today, questions to ponder are these for me:
- How do I tie my natural capacities for resiliency, which God gave me along with mind, memory, and will, to cooperate with God when I encounter physical evil or I am caught in events caused by “secondary causes” of larger evils in our culture?
- How do I school myself to cry out sooner, rather than later?
- If I feel myself sinking, how can I keep on crying out? How can I put one foot in front of the other until I can feel Christ grab my arm to let me know I am safe?
- How can I help others to do the same?
Lord, today I am in a calm sea. The waves do not roll around me. But I have been there. I expect to be there again. Physical evils are a part of the journey of life. I’m sorry for the times I doubted You in the middle of the wind and waves. Too many times I’ve done that. I’m sorry, too, for the times I’ve not joined others in the waves when Divine Providence has sent them troubles. Help me to always remember that
Lord, You are always willing to come through the waves to the boat in trouble. You are always willing to share in the distress of those who are sinking. Lord, today, take me with You. Let me walk with You into the deep water. Yesterday You took me with You in a way I didn’t want to go. Give me the gift of obedience, Lord, when that happens. And let me not hesitate to walk with You in the wind and waves. You made physical evil, but You do not hesitate to be with us in it, for that is how You bring good out from it. Thank You, Lord, for walking with me. Let me now walk with You.
Link to Todays readings: Jeremiah 30: 1-2, 12-15, 18-22; from Psalm 102; Matthew 14: 22-36.
A study of Catholic teaching on the presence of evil in our world and how both God and we are called to respond to it will continue each Tuesday through August.