Romans 15: 13
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
My favorite book of devotions is “Through the Year with Thomas Merton – Daily Meditations on His Writings”, edited my Thomas P. McDonell. For January 4, the reading is entitled ‘The Road Ahead’ and includes the following well-known prayer, written by Merton:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Merton, a man of deep faith and a Trappist monk devoted to daily prayer, solitude, and the work of the monastery, confesses his uncertainty about his direction in life and his understanding of God’s will for him. He also proclaims his trust that God will lead him on the right road in the future.
I believe that this prayer is one that we can all offer, as we continue to live in the time of COVID and the other events in our lives right now. Many of us are struggling with the continued suffering, isolation, and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. Many of us are struggling to understand the contentiousness, violence, and turmoil that we have witnessed in our nation’s capital and the broader division that contributed to these events. Others of us are uncertain about the direction of our individual lives and wonder if we are doing enough to serve God and follow God’s will for us.
We live in a world that rewards certainty and achievement. We are conditioned in this world to be strong, to “rise above” the challenges of the day, to get things done, and to be successful. We are conditioned in this world to know our direction, to have goals, and to achieve that which we set out to do. We are taught that if we work hard and give our best effort, the results will follow.
If we are not careful, we can transfer this mindset to our faith lives. The temptation to develop a works-righteousness belief system is strong. By “works-righteousness” we mean a belief system that says that we earn our salvation through our own work, and by being ‘better than the rest’. The works- righteousness idea tempts us with the belief that God rewards those who achieve, that God pays more attention to those who are gifted and successful, and that God somehow cares less for those who don’t put forth the effort to do better. In the achievement-oriented, works-righteousness belief system, what matters is not only “what I have done”, but “what I have done lately.”
The works-righteousness mindset is subtle and, although we do not usually articulate it, even to ourselves, we feel it. It can result in a sense of failure and inadequacy, and we can be tempted to wonder if, in the end, we measure up to what God desires from us.
Each January, as we begin a new year, we often evaluate ourselves. This January, right now, as we evaluate ourselves and look ahead to this year, we have the opportunity to hear the good news that God is not a works-righteousness God.
Scripture teaches us that we do not earn extra favor with God by being more successful. Rather, God’s favor is given to all, as a free and unmerited sign of God’s love. As we are motivated to achieve, to give, and to serve, we can do so without the temptation to believe that we must do so to earn God’s favor. We can do so knowing that we are good enough.
These days, this is a word of grace for us all. My prayer for all of us this January is that, echoing Merton’s words, we can confidently say to God: “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.”
I try to keep that belief close when I evaluate myself and seek direction from God. For me, when I consider my failures, of which I have many, both in things I have done and in good things I have failed even to attempt, I take comfort in these words. When I seek to make decisions about the future and commit myself to do more and do better for God and am tempted to worry that I will give up or fall short along the way, I take comfort in these words. When I think about how I can live a life that God wants me to live, I remember that God is pleased simply by my desire to please Him.
A hymn for today is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” written by Charles Wesley. The lyrics say:
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit Into every troubled breast! Let us all in Thee inherit; Let us find that second rest. Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.
Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be; Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee; Changed from glory into glory, Till in Heav’n we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
For today, take comfort in knowing that the desire to please God is sufficient. Set your heart at liberty and rest in the peace that God gives us. His grace is sufficient. Amen.