Please see part 1 here.
Did you ever try to talk yourself out of sadness or depression by “counting your blessings”? I don’t mean to disparage this important exercise in gratitude, but it doesn’t usually work for me. For one thing, I may be in the kind of mental state mentioned in Part 1, where external blessings seem irrelevant; or I may be in such a difficult stage of life that it seems impossible to find blessings meaningful enough to outweigh my troubles. But the core of the problem is that even when I do feel blessed and happy, it doesn’t always reassure me of God’s love. Where was he when I was unhappy? Where is he when others are suffering?
Fr. Jacques Phillipe, in his short and wonderful book Searching for and Maintaining Peace, gently reminds us not to lean on our blessings–or lack thereof–to answer the question of God’s love. Because happiness is so fleeting, we must place the source of our peace in something deeper, something that remains true beneath the cycle of sorrow and joy. He later asserts that peace can only be found in contemplation of the Cross; but I never understood what that meant until now. (I hope to post more fully on Fr. Phillipe’s book later this week!)
Here, as far as I can figure it out, is the answer: God proves his love for us by sending his Son to save us from Hell. Everything else is extra. We don’t have to rely on mental contortions to try to justify the apparent imbalance of God’s blessings; instead, we can rest assured that the only truly necessary thing–salvation–is given to everyone. Dayenu.
This also helps me deal with the paradox of the Bible’s promises. How can God promise peace, happiness, prosperity, and freedom from fear to the just man, when we see good people suffer all the time? These promises only make sense when they are interpreted in the light of eternity. They do not promise peace and happiness according to earthly definitions, but heavenly ones. I think this must be the secret to the serenity and happiness of the saints even in the face of torture and martyrdom.
Most mornings I pray the Canticle of Zechariah, which contains a long list of God’s promises to
save us from our enemies…to show mercy…to set us free…to worship him without fear…to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)
Usually I find this comforting, but sometimes it is very hard to believe. I know so many people who are at the mercy of their enemies and feel no peace. But as I read the Canticle more closely, I noticed that it provides a specific answer to this problem: God will “give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” The shadow of death may be more present at some times than at others, but in this life it will always be there. The only remedy, the knowledge of salvation, is guaranteed to us by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This is the certainty we were looking for at the beginning.
The next time you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, I pray that God will send you comfort and aid. But if he doesn’t, remind yourself that, although you have nowhere else to go, everything you really need to prove God’s love and to bring you ultimate happiness is already there.