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Why Is God So Demanding of Us?

February 19, 2019


From a very young age we’re taught the value of accruing knowledge, relationships, popularity, and success—a storing up and clutching onto good things that can help us sail effectively toward a happy life. We’re groomed not to dispense of anything we own or acquire that has value, but instead to cultivate it, protect it, hold onto it with tireless resolve. What we have and collect—our education, gifts and talents, intellect, possessions—we are expected to use strategically to our advantage. We become hoarders so we can navigate the world and be victorious within it.

From a rational vantage point, it makes complete sense. It seems an absolutely necessary mindset to have in order to be successful in the world. These things, in their goodness, can point to God and allow for happiness. When I review the many good things in my life—my family, group of friends, job, health, home in San Diego, access to delicious food at will—sometimes I’m met with an overwhelming sense of comfort and contentment. For me, such a realization invites me to thank God, acknowledging that such things can work as refreshment on life’s journey. These moments, as good and nourishing as they can be, though, also have the capacity to dim my reliance on God. I can easily take comfort in the things around me, becoming resistant in handing them over to God should he ask for them.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me.

—The Suspice, St. Ignatius of Loyola

This prayer from St. Ignatius is one of the most difficult prayers to say. I can muster the effort to rattle off the words, half-heartedly and with shallow earnestness, but to pray them from the heart—to say and mean them in their fullest—is very difficult for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to say those words and truly mean them. There is something inside me that tears when I say them, tempting me to rein in the words.

If we scramble to store up things in this world without a firm anchoring to God we begin to ironically lose these things anyways. Our memory can be held captive by regret and denial. Our understanding can become clouded, darkened by the ceaseless motion to grasp at our own notion of happiness. And our liberty and will—the very vehicles that allow for our freedom and autonomy—can become enslaved to anxiety, worry, and fear. We can replace our authentic selves—children loved by God—with a composite of excess possessions and shallow accomplishments. We may only become what we earned, what we were given by others, what the world says we are after a stringent accounting of our “assets.” The whole becomes buried by its parts.

An article in Psychology Today titled “Is the Intense Pressure to Succeed Sabotaging Our Children?” examines the stress placed on children to do well academically. The article serves as a somber warning against the unmitigated pressure placed on many students today to gain admittance to a good college in order to set themselves up for a successful career and life. Tragically, a failure to meet such a lofty goal can sometimes even result in suicide:

There are so many alternative roads to happiness and fulfillment beyond acquiring wealth and driving a fancy sports car. Why do so many people in our society put a premium on the superficial value of material possessions and status symbols? Everyone knows that friends, family, being healthy, and having a sense of purpose are ultimately the most important things in life and the keys to fulfillment.

This article only highlights stress placed on students in regard to their schooling. Of course, this same mindset that idolizes a harrowing drive toward success spans across all ages and facets of our culture.

Yet Christianity stands athwart the blinded quest to accrue and collect. It speaks instead of returning back to a childlike state of dependence, offering up all we own to a loving Father. It calls for a radically different way of understanding our identity and place in the world.

But how can we expect to give away our liberty, memory, understanding, and will? Aren’t those the very things that constitute our unique being? They are the crux of our identity, the intersecting of those four aspects of our person literally makes us who we are—and give us the capacity to procure a self-directed and happy life. St. Ignatius’ prayer calls to mind the hard-to-swallow words of John the Baptist: “[Christ] must increase; I must decrease.” Some in our culture may be familiar with the phrase—reading it and repeating it with a feathery understanding. However, entering into a state of decrease—a state of relinquishing our freedom, gifts, and very identity—for the sake of God is a monumentally countercultural thing. Of course, the God we proclaim does not exist within a zero sum paradigm. Our loss, for the sake of him, is never truly a loss. It becomes a gain. And as we concede our identity—at least the one we’ve clumsily crafted for ourselves—we learn that he puts the pieces of who we are back together in the right order. We begin to see ourselves as we are: we begin to see we are worthy simply because God says so, emphatically.

The question still remains: Why do many of us struggle to pray and mean the words of The Suspice? If we trust that God will reward us a hundredfold, then where is the holdup? If I’m honest, it’s still a problem of trust. And when I do manage to say the words and mean them, as much as possible, I still struggle to allow God to do with my offering what he wills as opposed to what I will. I can be guilty of assuming that if I give up my understanding, then I’ll receive back my understanding times one hundred in return. It becomes a conditional relinquishing. I’ll do that God, only if you do this.

Of course, maybe he will reward us as we hope, and we can be certain by our faith and understanding of God that he will bless us in some way (as the phrase goes, God will never be outdone in generosity), but the blessing may not come in more understanding. That may only come in the life after this one. Or perhaps, it may come in the form of a deeper faith that doesn’t always question God’s ways—not a blind, irrational faith, but one that accepts the limits of human understanding and the lack of clarity to see what God is really up to.

Although we do not give everything to God and ask for nothing; we still always ask for his love and grace. We find that when we understand what it is we’re asking for, the eternal love of an infinite God and his manifestation in our lives, the exchange is quite unequal—infinitely so. We offer what measly gifts we can to God, measly gifts that we cling onto with furious might at times, in exchange for the whole of God’s being.

St. Ignatius’ prayer remains an invitation to let God bless us even more than he already has. In giving ourselves to him, we allow him to use us as he needs—as his divine instruments, his loving children. It may be in the way we had hoped, or it may come through suffering, but regardless, it will come with tremendous blessings. And as we all know, sooner or later, we all do give up our liberty, understanding, memory, and will at that hour of death. The question then becomes, as Henri J.M. Nouwen reminds us in his book, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, this: When we do lose them and have nothing left to offer to God, will we stand before him with open hands of trust, or clenched fists of fear?

“Dear God,

I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!

 Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?

Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?

Please help me to gradually open my hands

and to discover that I am not what I own,

but what you want to give me.

―Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life