Transforming Grace

Transforming Grace

Some years ago a Christian in India named Sundar was walking with a Buddhist monk on a mountain trail high in the Himalayas. It was late afternoon, and growing very cold; the monk warned him that if they did not reach their destination, a Buddhist monastery, by nightfall, they were in real danger of freezing to death. As they crossed a narrow path above a steep cliff, they heard a cry for help. It was a fellow traveler who had fallen into a ravine; his leg was broken, and he couldn’t walk. The Buddhist monk warned Sundar, “Do not stop. God has brought this man to his fate, and he must work it out by himself. That is our tradition; now, we must hurry on before we perish.” Sundar replied, “It is my tradition that God has brought me here to help my brother; I cannot abandon him.” So the monk hurried off while Sundar climbed down to the wounded man, made a sling out of a blanket in his backpack, hoisted him on his back, and painfully crawled back up to the path. Then he struggled along as night drew on and snow began falling. It was difficult and exhausting for Sundar, but he persevered, and after what seemed like hours, he saw the lights of the monastery a short distance away, with its promised warmth and safety. However, as he continued on, he stumbled over an obstacle in the path: the frozen body of the Buddhist monk who had left him behind in order to save himself. Sundar immediately recalled Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it” (William J. Bausch, More Telling Stories, Compelling Stories, p. 95). It goes against our human nature to put the needs of others ahead of our own—but that’s what Jesus did, and truly following Him means trying to imitate his example.

It’s not always an easy thing to do the will of God; sometimes it can be quite difficult and unpleasant. That was the experience of the prophet Jeremiah, who quite often had to speak dire words of warning and condemnation that were usually angrily rejected by the people. That’s why the prophet voices a heart-felt plea to God, even complaining of being duped by Him. Jeremiah feels unappreciated and unfairly treated, and says he’s had enough—only to discover that his calling is like an inner fire, overwhelming him and almost forcing him to speak out. Most likely our experience of discipleship usually isn’t nearly that intense, but in the Gospel Jesus makes it clear that following Him is not meant to be something easy or casual. Christianity is a religion of sacrifice, with immeasurably great rewards for those who remain faithful to Christ—but being faithful demands a true effort and commitment. Peter didn’t understand this truth at first, and when, with the best of intentions, he tried to talk Jesus out of His mission, he received a severe rebuke for thinking in human terms—something the devil could easily use to manipulate him. As St. Paul says, we must not conform ourselves to this age, but instead be transformed by the renewal of our minds, discerning God’s will and learning what is good and pleasing and perfect. This is how, through God’s grace, we will be able to take up our cross each day and follow after Jesus—and in this way we will truly find ourselves.

Sundar, the Christian in India, saved the injured man by risking his own life to carry him to safety in the monastery. Year later Sundar eventually made Christian converts and disciples of his own. One day he was asked, “Master, what is life’s most difficult task?” He answered, “To have no burden to carry” (op. cit., p. 96). We see this so often in our society, which emphasizes getting ahead in life and taking it easy and fulfilling one’s dreams. What so often happens, however, is that people who manage to escape a heavy burden are then unsure what to do next, or even find life to be empty and unsatisfying. Some retirees are bored and listless because they no longer have the order and purpose provided by going to work each day. Some adults whose lives centered around caring for elderly relatives find themselves lonely and lacking direction once those relatives die. Some people who finally achieve their dreams after years of trying discover that doing so wasn’t the secret to true happiness after all, and find themselves disappointed and disillusioned. We might think it would be a wonderful thing to win the lottery, quit our jobs, purchase everything we’ve ever desired, live a life of leisure and self-indulgence, and devote ourselves to having as much fun as possible—in short, trying to have the world revolve around us. More than a few lottery winners have sought to do this—only to discover that their lives actually became less happy and more stressful than before; indeed, some of them came to realize winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to them.

To have no burden to carry can make life too easy and meaningless and empty, and when that happens, we don’t have the chance to grow in strength, develop our talents and abilities, gain the satisfaction that comes from sacrificing on behalf of others, learn first- hand of our need for God, and allow His grace to transform us. The Lord has fashioned a cross for each one of us, specifically designed for our own unique set of circumstances, weaknesses, and strengths. Rejecting or ignoring it is the worst choice we can make; accepting it, and carrying it or even dragging it along each day will make us holy—and in the process, we’ll also discover, perhaps to our surprise, that we have a deep happiness and peace in our hearts.

Jesus knew what He was talking about when He told Peter and the other apostles not to look for the safe or easy path to travel. The world doesn’t understand or believe in the importance of sacrifice, but we as Christians aren’t supposed to make that mistake. Those who live for themselves end up losing everything; those who deny themselves by putting God’s will first, especially when it comes to helping others in need, find themselves truly blessed in this life, and richly rewarded in the next. This is part of the Good News of salvation, and we’re supposed to put it into practice each day in all our choices, no matter how small or routine. The decisions we make form habits; the habits we follow shape our character; and our character determines our eternal destiny. Jesus took up His cross without counting the cost—and while our sacrifice is far less than His, it is still important and life-changing, and if we embrace our cross and do our best to carry it, it will help us follow the Lord to the eternal warmth, safety, and love of His Kingdom.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper