There comes a time in perhaps most parents’ lives when they understand that — even if their offspring are still legally children — those children need to start being granted some of the freedom and possibilities of being an adult. In other words, no parents can expect their children to thrive if they continue to treat their offspring as if they were toddlers, until the moment they turn 18 and then they’re given the full freedom of an adult.
Part of that freedom includes the freedom to be wrong . . . perhaps even in ways that are dangerous or include the chance to affect the rest of their lives. Giving a teenager access to a car at the age of 16 leads to the possibility of speeding, reckless driving, or worse. Sure, parents may “forbid” such activity and do what they can to punish a young driver they catch acting outside their edicts, but ultimately parents have to allow that freedom to act wrong; the alternative is constant surveillance and micromanagement, which is unhealthy and doesn’t lead to growth or true freedom.
All of that was on my mind when I reflected on today’s readings. The first reading — from the Letter to the Hebrews — talks about the idea of discipline and our parent-child relationship with God: “God treats you as his sons. For what ‘son’ is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
The parental relationship between God and humanity is emphasized here . . . but it seems to be a relationship that is more like the one I described earlier, where the Father is willing to let us make mistakes — perhaps even grievous ones — rather than compel our every move. Obviously God is powerful enough to ensure we never make a mistake and do exactly what He wants, if He were so inclined; He’s God! But He also feels it’s vitally important — like in a parent-child relationship — that we make our own mistakes . . . hopefully to learn from them, so that we may better grow closer to God.
And one of those — perhaps dire — mistakes is in disbelief. In today’s Gospel selection from Mark, Jesus went to Nazareth — his native home — to preach. But those who heard him were incredulous, disapproving of his wisdom because they knew him (from his childhood) and his family. And the Gospel shows the repercussions of their disbelief: “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.”
In other words, God is so committed to our ability to make our own mistakes — and hopefully learn and grow from them — that our active disbelief can be enough to cut us off from God’s miracles. Obviously we know this from our own dogma; a willful disbelief is a good way to ensure we are denied that most miraculous of God’s gifts — the promise of eternal life. But what other “mighty deeds” might we be cutting ourselves off from through our mistakes?
In the same way that I can’t help my child understand and grow from his mistakes until he takes the first step of recognizing that he has erred, so too can the rift between God and our own lives be difficult to heal until we recognize our own mistakes.
How much are we supposed to struggle in our efforts to do what is right, to grow apart from sin? The first reading makes a striking comparison: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.” Shedding blood! Perhaps it’s an overstatement, but it shows the severity of the idea.
Some people have kept from saying spiteful or unhelpful things by biting the inside of their cheeks, sometimes so hard that they cause the inside of their cheeks to bleed. Imagine that same commitment to keeping ourselves from sin, to our own discipline, to learning what God wants us to.
Let us recognize, then, the destructive power we have in turning away from God . . . and with it, let us also recognize the power we have to submitting to God’s wisdom and discipline. In the same way that I don’t expect my child to be perfect but strive ever more to be better, so too do I imagine that God wants us to do ever better in opening our hearts and minds to His will. If you’ve strayed, rejoice that God’s discipline — coupled with the discipline of periodic sacramental confession — can help put you on a better path. If you feel good about where you’re at spiritually, ask yourself to what extent you have resisted sin to the point of shedding blood. And, above all else, let us trust in God.