August 21, 2019

God’s Grace is Always With Us

It’s always been regarded as certain that St. Thomas the Apostle eventually ended up preaching the Gospel in India, where he was a powerful and successful missionary for many years, before dying as a martyr—but that doesn’t mean he answered his missionary calling with enthusiasm at first. An ancient manuscript called The Acts of Saint Thomas the Apostle to India, which dates back to the 3rd century, tells an interesting story in this regard. When the apostles realized, a few years after Christ’s death and resurrection, that it was time for them to leave Palestine and begin proclaiming the Gospel throughout the larger world, they tried to decide where each of them should go. Thomas was assigned the land of India, for even though it was not part of the Roman Empire, there were well-established trade routes that led to the Far East. However, Thomas protested, saying, “I cannot go to India, for the journey will be too long and exhausting, and besides, the people there will not be able to understand when I speak to them in Hebrew.”

The other apostles tried to convince him to go, but in his customary stubbornness Thomas refused; a little later, when Thomas was alone, Jesus Himself appeared to the apostle and asked him to go, but again Thomas complained about the difficulty, saying, “Lord, I wish that You would send me into another country, for I cannot go to India.” Soon after this Thomas happened to meet a merchant from India named Abbanes, and as they were speaking, the Lord Jesus appeared to them both and said to Abbanes, “This is My servant Thomas; I now sell him to you as your slave,” and then disappeared. Thomas finally got the message; he went to India as a slave in accord with Christ’s will; when there, he was soon freed, and spent the rest of his life fulfilling his mission (William McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles, pp. 123-124). St. Thomas is best known, of course, for doubting the Lord’s resurrection at first, but this didn’t keep him from becoming a great saint. In the same way, the Lord is able to use each one of us, in spite of our initial doubts, our reluctance, and our weaknesses. No matter how sinful and unworthy we may be, Jesus promises that we will reach our goal of Heaven if we follow Him one step at a time.

God has the power to speak just one word, or, in effect, to snap His fingers, and make everything wonderful and perfect in the blink of an eye, instantly revealing His glory and confronting everyone with the need for an immediate decision on whether to accept, or reject, His grace. This is not His way, however; in a concession to our human limitations, the Lord reveals Himself very gradually, and gives us many—though not unlimited—opportunities to repent of our sins and respond to His love. This means all of us can play an important role in His saving plan, in spite of our sins, doubts, and hesitations. Jesus was not angry or offended when Thomas disbelieved in the resurrection at first; He did not punish or exclude the unconvinced apostle, but gently called him to let go of his doubts and instead believe. The Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35) describes the wonderful community life experienced by the early Church, but that situation did not come about easily and automatically; the apostles and their converts had challenges to overcome, questions to resolve, and controversies to work out. Human beings—even saints—make mistakes, experience hurt feelings, and are subject to misunderstandings. Perfection awaits us only in Heaven; life on earth is marked by many sacrifices, burdens, and uncertainties. What matters is our willingness to believe in Jesus, even if we have difficulty believing in other people and especially in ourselves—for as St. John (1 Jn 5:1-6) assures us, “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

When the 14th century mystic St. Catherine of Siena was undergoing a long period of spiritual dryness and severe temptations, she cried out, “Where have You been, Lord? I have been having terrible thoughts and feelings!” She heard God answer her, “Catherine, I have been in your heart all this time. It was I Who was giving you courage and strength to keep going each day!” This is how the Lord normally shows Himself to His servants: not through great miracles which make everything easy, enjoyable, and unmistakably clear, but through simple moments of grace, fortunate coincidences, encouraging encounters, occasional signs that others do appreciate our efforts, and sometimes just the unexpected ability to persevere even though it’s not easy, putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one day at a time. A faith that isn’t occasionally tested by doubts, difficulties, and discouragement will never become a mature and truly Christian faith, and the religious believer who always finds it easy and pleasant to follow Jesus will never bear witness effectively to someone whose life is filled with suffering and despair.

If we’re tempted to say, “Lord, I’m not worthy to serve You,” He responds, “True, but it’s My grace, given through the sacraments of My Church, that makes you worthy.” If we say, “Lord, answering Your call is too difficult; please choose someone else,” He responds, “I have chosen you, and fear not—for I will be with you every step of theway.” If we object, “Lord, I have doubts,” He responds, “As long as your heart is open, I will give you faith.” We must remember that there is an important difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is an attitude of “I can’t believe”; unbelief says “I refuse to believe.” Doubt is honest; unbelief is obstinate. Doubt is a sincere desire for light; unbelief is a smug preference for darkness (Henry Drummond, quoted in Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 243). Jesus severely criticized those who sinfully and stubbornly refused to believe, but He always welcomed those who—in their weakness and doubts—came to Him sincerely seeking the truth.

As Our Lord says in the Gospel of John (20:19-31), all who believe in Him without seeing are truly blessed—and if we haven’t yet experienced this for ourselves, one day we certainly will. Whether faith comes easily to us, or whether we’re sometimes a bit more dubious or skeptical, like Thomas, as long as we’re willing to do what we can, taking one step forward at a time, God’s grace will be with us, and one day we will successfully complete our journey home.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper

REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.

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Written by Fr Joseph Esper
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