A friend of mine had a great crisis of faith when her husband died. They were very happily married and active in their church. When he got colon cancer, they and many friends prayed for his healing. Their prayers and perspective were such that they were sure he would be healed. My friend told me, “It wasn’t until the day before Pete died that we realized God wasn’t going to heal him.” The disappointment was devastating to her faith for years.
God continues to miraculously heal today—even serious diseases like cancer. God solves many problems in ways only the Holy Spirit would be able to do. As Christians, when we face serious sickness or problem, we naturally HOPE God will heal us and help us. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled; sometimes we are disappointed because God has other plans.
When God Let Himself be Defeated
In today’s first reading, the Israelites hoped God would give them victory over the Philistines. They had one battle and were defeated. They decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant (God’s Presence) to the battlefield, so that God’s Presence would give them victory. It did not. They were not only defeated; they lost 30,000 men and the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant into their land.
That is when things got very interesting. Read 1 Samuel, chapters 4-7 to get the whole story. Those chapters tell us that when the Philistines put the Ark of the Covenant in their god’s temple, they found their god face down on the floor in front of it. The Philistines were afflicted with hemorrhoids (Yes, you read that right!) and a plague of mice. As the Philistines played hot potato with the Ark, it afflicted town after town it entered. Eventually, the Philistines sent the Ark of the Covenant back. When it entered Israelite territory, people worshiped with renewed faith in God…and the Israelites lived in peace with all their neighbors “for twenty years.”
God had other plans.
As I read the chapters that followed today’s reading, up until tomorrow’s, it strikes me that God had a Plan B. Instead of just giving the Israelites the victory in battle, he wanted to introduce Himself to Israel’s neighbors. He wanted to give them the heads up that he was, indeed, a Mighty God,an Awesome God, a God to be noticed and revered. And he wanted to foster peace.
God had other plans because he had a wider, longer view and perfect wisdom.
God’s plans often do not match ours. When they don’t, we are disappointed. Sometimes we turn away from God. There was a time in my life when God had other plans for me. They were tough times. I never stopped believing, but I did stop hoping. I didn’t see that as a sin then. I thought it was virtuous to hunker and down and still believe.
But I was sinning against the virtue of hope and the First Commandment (“You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”)
What Our Faith Teaches Us About Hope, Despair, and Presumption
In its discussion of that commandment, the catechism says, “When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also th fear of offending God’s love and of incurring punishment. (CCC 2090)
The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption: By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy. (CCC 2091)
There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit). (CCC 2092)
In today’s first reading, the Israelites were guilty of presumption. My friend whose husband was not healed was perhaps guilty of presumption, perhaps simply guilty of not recognizing that sometimes God’s ways are not ours. Later she, like me, fell into despair.
In the Fog
When you are faced with serious, serious problems or illness, it seems to me the virtue of Hope is both very important and very hard. My image for it is that it is like driving through thick fog, only able to see the line in the middle of the road—not quite sure of where you are or even where you are going. It is trusting the line in the middle of the highway, trusting that hope in the Lord will see you through.
I have been distressed this past week because I have learned through my college alumnae office that four of my classmates have recently died. Two were good friends. From the obituaries, neither of them had active ties to faith communities. In college we went to church sometimes, sometimes not. Did we truly hope in God? In a general way, yes. With the serious purpose I hope in him now, no.
But through the years and the triumphs and trials of life, it is easy to lose hope in the Lord. It is easy when we lose hope to lose faith. We fall into presumption or despair. We presume our faith is enough to handle cancer or devastating events at work. We believe our plans are God’s plans, then are suddenly taken up short when we realize that God lets the Ark of the Covenant go away from us. Worship turns flat. Homilies bore us. Church seems a chore.
Where do you find the Ark of the Covenant in your life now? In mass? Adoration? The rosary? Parish life? Work at a homeless shelter? Scripture reading? Confession? Daily mass? Prayer?
Are you taking the Ark of the Covenant for granted—that it will always be there?
Are you struggling because it may be that God has other plans for you?
Hope in Today’s Gospel
In today’s Gospel, the leper is straight-forward: “A leper came to him and kneeling down begged him and said, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately.
No matter how thick the fog or darkness, no matter how filled with disease, doubt, or sin we are, Jesus can heal it and make it clean in an instant.
If we ask with hope and faith…and if it is God’s will.
Yet sometimes, God does not heal, does not miraculously intervene. We are left disappointed.
That is when it is good to read “the rest of the story” that begins in 1 Samuel, Chapter 4. Read through 1 Samuel, Chapter 7. Believe in the goodness of God’s longer view.
Or read carefully all of today’s Gospel. It ends, “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He remained outside in deserted places, and people kept coming to him from everywhere.”
When God heals or does not, solves a problem for you or does not, it is not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t give of Himself. Jesus healed the leper—and ended up besieged. God’s plan that time was to heal. It cost Jesus—but he did will it.
So we pray…and hope…and live by God’s standards…and hope…and pray…trusting that God is God, and His Will is good in the long run.
Lord, I thank you for the gift of hope, for your readiness to give me and others the capacity to trust you when we ask for it. Sometimes I hope, but without the courage to be fully faithful when the fog is thick and the night is dark. Lord, today I have three friends who are facing serious illness or serious problems. Fill them with the virtue of hope. Guard them from presumption or despair. Help them trust you. And help me, Lord, to give the comfort of friendship, the willingness to journey in the fog and darkness, and my own faith that is not so sorely tried just now. Be with us all, Lord, and let us know your Presence.