90,000 Miles to Me

34,902 Miles • On Trust and Skepticism

At catechism class today, our priest was answering someone’s question about spiritual warfare. To oversimplify his answer, he was saying that there are three things we have to battle against:

First, the world. Not the world as in God’s creation, but the systems of this world, to the extent that they are not wholesome.

Second, the flesh. Not the flesh as in God’s creation, but the passions that are perversions of what is good.

Third, the demons.

This topic rubbed right up against something that has been bugging me for years, and which I’ve only recently been able to formulate into an intelligible question, which I then asked him.

How can I know whether any particular circumstance in my life, or the world around me, is one of these things that needs to be fought against, or whether it is a circumstance from God that is meant for healing and spiritual edification?

A situation looking good or bad is no guarantee that it is actually good or bad. Like how Job did nothing wrong but still needed to learn and grow in his faith and so God allowed trials to teach him.

Or like that old Chinese story about a farmer. The farmer’s horse ran away and the villagers said that’s bad. Then the next day the horse came back and brought three wild mares with him, and the villagers said that’s good. Then the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the mares and was thrown and broke his leg, and the villagers said that’s bad. Then there was a war and all the young men got drafted except the son because his leg was broken, and the villagers said that’s good. How can I ever tell whether any individual circumstance is good or bad?

Countless times, I’ve heard people talking about how something in their life worked out just perfectly, like the sale of a house where everything fell into place, or in starting a new business venture, that the right people were there at the right time and everything worked out. They emphatically tell anyone who will listen that it is a sign that it was blessed by God.

And then when things are a constant struggle and everything seems to be falling apart, they take that as a sign that it was not meant to be and, when possible, they get out of that particular situation, because of course it is not blessed by God. If it were, everything would be easy.

I have fallen into this trap plenty of times as well, but a lot of the time I’m cautious about leaping to either conclusion, or skeptical of both of them, or maybe I’m just not fully able to trust yet.

So I asked in class today how to tell the difference. How can I know whether I should stop trying to fix a bad situation or invest even more into it? How can I know whether I can enjoy it when everything is going well, or whether I should not get too comfortable?

This has been bothering me for years. Sure, I like it when everything is good, but I still worry excessively that it isn’t in fact a sign of God’s blessing but some devil trying to trick me into complacency or into going down the wrong path. Or that it’s just circumstances that worked out nicely and not a sign of anything at all.

And then when times are hard, of course I don’t like that and want things to be easier, but I also worry excessively about whether or not I should press on because maybe the situation is there to teach me something that I need to learn. Or perhaps it is a sign that this is not what I should be doing after all and I should give up. Or maybe it’s just random circumstances or bad luck and not a sign of anything.

All of these possibilities have been driving me nuts and preventing me from really being grateful to God for what He has given me, because I keep wondering whether it’s actually from Him or not.

And since we so often don’t know, and can’t know, what is really behind each circumstance, I feel confused and skeptical a lot. 

What I got from class today gets around the problem with what is probably the only response that would possibly satisfy me.

Rather than worrying about who is behind each circumstance or what its ultimate spiritual meaning is, since that’s impossible to know with any certainty, do not even entertain that question. 

Rather, in every circumstance, whether easy or difficult, ask ‘what in this circumstance is preventing me from deepening my relationship with God,’ and address that. And ask, ‘what in this circumstance is helping me draw closer to God,’ and encourage that.

Under all circumstances, draw close to God, close to the center, stay in communion, and keep true to the heart of the faith. Then none of the other questions will matter. 

Like so much that I have been learning lately, it is about the relationship, not the problem, not the circumstances—even the happy, easy circumstances.

I think that before, I would have found this response unsatisfying because it doesn’t directly answer the question and I like direct answers to direct questions. But I’m also learning that sometimes the question is coming from a frame of reference that isn’t applicable to the situation.

What I’ve been going through lately has been reframing how I think about circumstances and people and the world. And from this emerging point of view, what he said makes perfect sense and is deeply satisfying.

Our priest also made a side comment that he didn’t get into much, that we live in a society with a prosperity mindset.

He said that, as a society, we praise, value, and hold up as laudable anyone who has wealth, regardless of how they got that wealth. We may criticize them for it, and complain about it, and deride them as a person, yet we still seek their favor and their attention and are willing to overlook a great deal of genuinely nasty behavior from anyone who has wealth, and by extension, ease.

With this kind of constant messaging in our news, entertainment, and daily conversations, much of it quite subtle, it is no wonder that I’ve picked up the associations between easy/wealthy and good, and difficult/poor and bad.

Now that I am more consciously aware of that, and now that I am more receptive to this new kind of relationship-oriented thinking, I will be more intentionally approaching situations, and decision making, with the mindset of, ‘What in this is helping me draw closer to God,?’ ‘What in this is preventing me from deepening my relationship with God?’

This is a much more fruitful avenue then trying to divine some unknowable spiritual plan out of every situation.

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