Returning our Focus to Christ
When our vision is clouded, when our eyes have lost their clarity, we need to go to the light. And Jesus Christ has told us that he is the Light of the world and that he has come to heal the sick.
St. Josemaria Escriva, The Forge, no. 158.
The fact that God can take away any problem he wishes, or hasten the end of some unpleasantness, might leave us imagining a whole ungainly mess of wasted time in God’s providence that could have been much better spent. Why not spare someone the time and trouble of being debilitated, down with illness, missing opportunities, and so forth? Haven’t we all wondered this in the thick of a dark time? Haven’t we all thought, ‘Lord, I’ve learned my lesson. Can’t we move on now?’
Such a line of thinking betrays our lack of focus on what’s worth focusing on. We look to many things, set our heart on many things, as the answer to present suffering or sorrow. As far as short-term solutions go, we are seldom wrong. My fever needs replacing by normal body temperature; my anxiety needs pacifying; my melancholy needs real joy to lift me out of the doldrums. The fact that many people go wrong in seeking short-lived solutions to concrete problems is perhaps more a sign of desperation than vice or evil intent. We just want the problem gone.
But prolonged suffering seems only to absorb time and energy that could be more gainfully employed in some other direction. Again, we are back at the problem of focus. We look to productivity, at getting things done with something to show for it, as signs that all is well with us and the world. But that is a very shallow read on the rightness of reality. There is a type of blindness evidenced here, as Hubert van Zeller suggests, that is entirely manmade, a result of a distorted perspective, “a blindness brought about by staring at material objects seen out of focus.”  When we look at the wrong things with defective lenses, or even the right things with warped vision, we see something that isn’t there, but think it is. And how easily we set our hopes on the figment before us, if it happens to correspond to our immediate need for relief.
As we endure day and night like Isaiah’s watchman, waiting for some sign of something, we need to know what to be looking out for: “Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day, and at my post I am stationed whole nights” (Is 21:8). A sentinel knows the signs of enemy encroachment; a stargazer connects the dots in the night sky. A Christian, who is commanded by the Lord to be vigilant at all times, should be able to read the signs of divine activity in his life, especially when the time is prolonged and monotonous.
If Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, then everything in-between must be his also. This is the truth enunciated by St. Paul, that for him “to live is Christ” (Philip 1:21). Thus our prayerful quest into life’s “in-between,” the seeming wasteland of time and energy and accomplishment, must lead us back to Jesus. And really before going on, we should stop and ask ourselves if we are on the same page as St. Paul. Is Christ my life? If he’s not entirely my life, what fills the blank after “to live is…”? How we answer that global question also decides how we will answer our other major questions about love, suffering, meaning—all of the big questions in life.
If we begin with the principle that Christ is life, that life in Christ is everything, then what befalls us in this world begins to appear as it truly is: means for deeper and deeper union with God in Christ, means for fruit-bearing in him, means for growing in likeness to him. Our problem is that we do not see as God sees, and never will. We formulate a host of needs, preferences, hopes that may or may not correspond to what God wills for us. Hence the perennial need for detachment. Hence the even more urgent need to trust. You cannot regularly hold out your wishes to be contradicted more or less often unless you trust the wisdom of the one who tells you no.
Jesus often speaks in his kingdom parables about small things becoming great over time. Seeds are sown, time passes, and they grow if they are properly cared for. Then comes the harvest. A tree becomes large enough to accommodate “the birds of the sky.” Things come to maturity in their own time, as Ecclesiastes says, “The Lord makes everything beautiful in its time.” It is fairly easy to apply this to the Church, since the Church is the Kingdom of God on earth. Preaching repentance and forgiveness “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” is how Jesus maps out the apostles’ missionary itinerary (cf. Lk 24:47).
But to make it “personal,” applying it to ourselves, is a more complicated business. God also has a plan for all of the small things in our lives—both the ones that try us and the ones that console us, the good and the bad. Not all things are equally important, but all have a place. Nothing is overlooked by God. Not a sparrow falls without his permission. Every hair and every grain of sand is numbered and accounted for. How everything contributes to God’s plan and to our sanctification is seldom clear to us, but it is certain that they do.
Our hope is tested precisely in those areas where we cannot see, cannot have and hold what we want. We do not and cannot see the finished product, the fruit ripe for harvest, but instead we are made to wait. Perhaps inside each person there is a voice that says: ‘I can’t just scatter the seed and wait. I can’t just expect a tiny seed to become a tree.’ Inside each of us is a fallen person who isn’t sure that he can trust in the invisible God. There is a fear of surrendering oneself into the hands of him whom we cannot see. We want to be trusting children of God, but when unexpected or sad events come about in our lives, or when nothing happens at all, being a child might not be our first response. But only those who have planted and waited can say, along with St Paul, that “hope does not disappoint.” That is not a casual, easy comment. It comes from the mouth of one who faithfully went the distance with his Lord.
A very small seed that becomes a sheltering tree, a flat brown field slowly grows into golden wheat: shelter, safety, nourishment. And God’s kingdom is like that. In God’s kingdom little things go a long way. Do we want big solutions to our big problems? How about a small solution that grows over time and heals us in the process? Slow growth over a long period of time, and the growth comes from something very small. And we don’t understand how it happens. Or we don’t see it happening. Doesn’t that all go against our preferences? Wouldn’t we rather see immediate results?
Between the planting and the mature fruit, or the harvest, we have to wait. We have to do certain things over and over again—as the man “would sleep and rise night and day.” Many are too impulsive to wait. They want to get things moving, to have what they want right away. That’s our culture in a nutshell. The Lord most of the time says, No. This slower way of painstaking cultivation and growth is better.
The period I occupy in history must be looked at not in terms of realizing my ambitions and dreams before someone calls time, but walking at God’s pace and following his lead. For every healing performed by Jesus, there was a time lapse that preceded it. And afterwards, those who received their sight or mobility don’t get back the experiences they’ve missed out on. The past does not come back.
They do not get back the years of experiences they might have had, but instead receive a grace the magnitude of which outshines any loss they may have heretofore lamented. This might be a difficult truth to assimilate, that knowing Christ makes up for everything, every loss, every pain, every suffering—without necessarily taking any of it away. Already we can hear St. Paul counting off the things he once considered gain but now considers less than nothing, compared to knowing the Lord:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ…. (Philip 3:8)
People who have experienced the presence of Christ in their lives in a transformative (or saving) way are eager not only to count as “loss” whatever goods they formerly had, but are quite prepared to throw their excess cargo overboard. And they’re in a hurry to do it! Zacchaeus making amends out of pocket, apostles leaving nets behind, a lucrative job in a tax office, family and friends—this is only the beginning of what saints will continue to do unto the present day for the sake of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, their Lord. Jesus has this effect on people who are open to him. And he more than supplies for what we’ve let go, lost, or missed out on. After a while, it all seems like adding zeroes compared to the treasure discovered.
When Jesus compares his kingdom to a single rare pearl worth the cost of all we own, he is making the same point in parable form. All that you lose, give up, or sell is found again in a better way in the one thing which is everything. The things you let go of do not come back, but are superseded by an even greater good—not anymore a variety of personal belongings but one thing only, the one thing necessary (cf. Lk 10:42).
Applying this truth to your own life may be a painful but necessary means to your own inner healing. Of course, if you have not yet entered into a deep relationship with the Lord, all of this may have a simplistic or unrealistic ring to it. But think about the grief behind your regrets. What does it all point to? Regrettable relationships with parents, rejection by peers, a “defect” of body that made you less popular at school, sickness that prevented you from a golden opportunity, a friendship you could never pursue, medications you must take, feeling like you’ve been “typecast” in life, and so on. We’ve barely scratched the surface of human woes, and frankly have stayed mainly on the surface. Deeper wounds require special handling, and yet this does not change the point at hand: Every loss finds its balm in Christ.
And this is because all of our losses and regrets and sorrows point to the same thing: we all want to be loved, accepted, and valued for who we are. Anything that makes us feel rejected or undervalued leaves us feeling incomplete. We need to meet and be loved by one who reveals our true value in terms we never would have thought possible: the broken body and outpoured blood of God. We need to enter into a relationship with one who can cleanse our guilt, set us free, and give our life new meaning and direction. People can get locked into ways of thinking and acting that issue from their woundedness and lead nowhere good. Life becomes all about waiting for the solution to come along or despairing of anything that can make things right. Resentment is ever loitering in the background.
The thought that one’s life can actually take an entirely different direction and assume a fuller meaning is simply not entertained, and yet knowing the Lord makes both happen. You take along with you everything that you are, defects and all, and the Lord sets that person on a different trajectory altogether. Outwardly, life might not change much, but the inner renewal will make your old world seem like a place newly created for living, living a new life in a new way.
The conclusion that all suffering is worthwhile that leads to Christ is not automatically reached by all. To know that our version of darkness is a set-up for a life-changing encounter with him takes much faith. And this is true whether he heals the body or not. Without doubt, bodily healings are very secondary to the work Jesus does in the soul. He is more concerned that we have our sins forgiven than that we run around free; he is more solicitous for a saved world, a world of redeemed and reconciled people, than for a race of healthy, flawless supermen. In the end, his will is that both body and soul be joined together in perfection, but this is to look forward to the blessed hope of the resurrection at the end of time.
For the present, it is important to reflect on the unfulfilled, the waiting, the disappointments, the apparent pointlessness of not getting what we have legitimately longed for in life.
God pushes some people to the point of crisis: Job, Abraham, Jonah the Prophet, and Simon Peter come to mind. They were on the point of going crazy from a feeling of abandonment, feeling like they were on a wild goose chase. They became angry, panicky and fearful—and God allowed them to go through all of that, and they weren’t always equal to the challenge. They suffered unsuccessfully at times. They complained. But to us they are Holy Job, our Father in Faith, Abraham, St. Jonah, St. Peter.
The failures of the saints to endure their trials seamlessly contains important information about God and about the true character of human holiness. We learn that we don’t need to bring back the past, to have another shot at that missed opportunity—nor do we need to have all of our burdens taken away. We need to find God in our mistakes, brokenness, failure, immaturity, impatience, etc., because that is where God meets his friends.
The one who stands day and night on the watchtower waits mostly in silence and inactivity, at least his outward stance would suggest that. But his eyes are open; he is on the alert. He sounds the alarm if trouble approaches or open the gates to an ally. What an image of the faithful soul. “The whole life of a good Christian,” says St. Augustine, “is a holy desire. Let us stretch ourselves unto the Lord, that when He shall come, He may fill us.”
Christian life equals holy desire. And desire means wanting something badly—either something we don’t have or something we only have a part of and want all of it. The one who stands sentry duty, waiting for Christ, cannot afford to be ruminating on past losses, distracting himself from hoping in the Lord. His job is to kindle a fire. Then when his Savior comes he will find his servant not poking dead ashes but fostering flames that reach to heaven.
1. Hubert van Zeller, Approach to Calvary, p. 12.