Category Archives: God’s Will

Owning Our Hypocrisy

If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy.  And in a certain sense, he would be right.  There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites.  Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives.  In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves.  We should know when we are posing to be something we are not.  But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed.  Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.

If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention.  To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2).  Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth.  One starts seeing himself as just.  This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.

Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots

Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it.  The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction.  St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy.  That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy.  No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just.  An example might help see the distinction more clearly.  Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance.   The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man.  His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy.  The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why.  This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.

This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out.  It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life.  At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it.  But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in.  A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin.  This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy.  We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.

Counterfeit Hypocrisy

There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well.  It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety.  This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety.  We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing.  For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it.  Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it.  If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it.  Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.

It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker.  Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised.  By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom.  This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them.  With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity.  Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life.  This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps.  “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”


Christian Dignity

There is a certain logic and progression to the Catechism that reveals it to be more than a book of beliefs, but a map for the spiritual journey.  After delivering the content of what we believe (the creeds) and how we are empowered to believe it (the Sacraments), the Catechism examines what being a Christian looks like through an account of the moral life.   It begins with a quote that, at least at first glance, flies in the face of what most of us think of when we consider the moral life of a Christian.  It references a Christmas homily of St. Leo the Great in which the great pope exhorts Christians to “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (CCC 1691).  Of course it mentions “not sinning” but his reasoning for shunning sin strikes many of us as a little off.  He mentions nothing about breaking commandments or risking salvation but instead says sin is beneath our dignity as Christians.  In reading the signs of the times, the authors of the Catechism chose this particular quote because of both its timelessness and timeliness.  We live in an age of defensive Christianity and it is only by embracing our dignity as Christians that we can go on the offense once again.

This last sentence regarding widespread defensiveness bears an explanation.  There are certainly many Christians that live in a defensive stance against the world, trying to protect Christianity from outside influences.  Insofar as that is concerned, this is a good and necessary stance provided it is done with proper moderation.  What I mean by “defensive Christianity” has to do with the stance we take in our individual spiritual lives.  Most of us see a life of grace as one in which we are protected from evil.  Evidence the habit, even within Catholic circles, to focus on “being saved” and “getting to heaven.”  Both are important, but they represent a stunted view of the Christian life.  By placing the emphasis on our Christian dignity and off of merely being saved, we can fly towards Christian perfection and sanctification.


Although this may be slightly tangential, it is worth discussing the concept of dignity.  Many people insist that men and women have an inherent dignity because they are made in the “image and likeness of God.”  That is not entirely true.  Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are not.  Our dignity rests in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  That is, as creatures who have the spiritual powers of intellect and will, we surpass all of material creation in greatness.  This means that we are afforded a certain treatment that we call dignity.

Christian dignity is something more because it restores God’s likeness.   To “be like” God means we have a nature like His, or, more accurately since He is God, a share in His nature.  It is the “likeness of God” that was forfeit by our first parents and, thanks to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, is restored to us in Baptism.  Christian dignity then stems from our restored likeness to God or as St. Leo puts it “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature.”

Of course Pope St. Leo is just reminding of something that Pope St. Peter said in his second letter—“that you may become partakers of the Divine nature” (2Pt 1:3).  Catholics have always called this share in the Divine nature sanctifying grace.  But Catholics rarely reflect on the full impact that this has and what our being “born anew of the Spirit” (c.f. Jn 3:6-7) really means.  Because most assuredly if we did then, at least according to the Saintly Pontiff, it would be enough to keep us from forfeiting it through sin.

Reading the Scriptures with the Head and not just the Heart

One of the obstacles has to do with our approach to Scripture.  We can read it with sentimentality rather than taking it literally.  One might be excused with reading St. John’s letters this way when he says something like “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:1-2).  But one cannot ever read St. Paul in a sentimental manner.  When he says “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17) we should take our sonship quite literally.  This is a repeated theme throughout the New Testament and one of the keys to understanding what it means to be a Christian.  We are quite literally God’s children only because He has given of His own nature to us.  To be adopted by Him means not just that we were created by Him, but that as Father He recreated us by impressing His own nature on us.

There is more to this than simply realizing it.  He gave this gift to us not just as protection from sin (i.e. that we might be saved) but for us to make use of it.  Those in a state of grace are given a super-nature, one that enables them not just to “be like God” but to act like Him.  As the name implies, this supernatural power builds upon our natural power, or more accurately, it transforms and elevates it.  The more we use this super-nature, the more we become like God which only makes us the super-nature more (in theological terms we increase in sanctifying grace).  We become, as Jesus commanded us “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  Notice too how this clears up all the intellectual debates about faith and works and merits.  It is us using God’s nature that He was given us.

This also takes the emphasis off of “getting to heaven.”  Why?  Because we are already there.  Heaven is the place where God dwells and those who dwell with Him enjoy union with Him.  With the gift of sanctifying grace comes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (c.f. Romans 5:2-5).  God comes and takes up residence in our souls so that we may be united with Him.  Again, sentimentality blocks us from understanding what St. Paul means when he says we are “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).  The Holy Spirit truly comes into our souls and dwells there.  With Him come the other two Divine Persons as they cannot be separated, even if their mode of presence is different (like the Incarnation).  That is why St. Paul says we have been given the “first fruits” of heaven through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:22-23).  It is still first-fruits so that the degree in which we will know God (faith versus the Beatific Vision) is different, but not in kind.  Divine grace truly contains the seeds of heaven, growing day by day.  Our focus should not be simply getting there, but acting like you are already there.  As St Theresa of Avila said, “it is heaven all the way to heaven.”

If all that I have said to this point is true, then why would we ever forfeit it for a momentary delight?  There are no “cheap thrills”; each is more expensive than we could possibly imagine.  We would be more foolish than Esau who failed to see his dignity as the first-born son and sold his birth right for a bowl of porridge (Gen 25:29-34).  This is Pope St. Leo’s crucial point—stop and recognize who you are now, Whose you are now; do you really want to throw that all away?  Recognize your dignity Christian.

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

Lead Us Not into Temptation?

In his personal memoirs, the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung described how he finally broke from Christianity because of Jesus’ apparently inconsistent portrait of God as simultaneously “love and goodness” and “tempter and destroyer.”  It is reasonable to think that Jung might not be alone in his conclusion, especially considering that each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask that God “lead us not into temptation.”  The implication is that He has the power to either tempt us or lead us away from it.  Whether we recognize it or not, there is a certain mistrust of God that cannot be totally put away until we deal with what seems like a messy contradiction.  Putting temptation within the proper framework will not only help us to address the intellectual difficulty surrounding the issue of temptation, but, more importantly, help us to see why they are a constituent element in our quest for holiness.

What God Desires

In constructing the frame, we must first start with a proper understanding of what God wants for each one of us.  God is not content with merely bestowing the divine life upon us.  He does not merely want to give us grace so we can go to heaven and be with Him.  No, if you can imagine it, He wants so much more.  He is not looking for test subjects for some cosmic social experiment, but sons and daughters who can stand on their own two feet and run towards Him.  He wants His glory to shine from every pore of our being but He also wants to bestow upon us the dignity of having worked for it.  Eternal life is a free gift, but He won’t cheapen it by asking for nothing in return.

Rather than getting bogged down in an explication of the mystery of man’s free will and God’s grace, we will accept as a given that they are cooperative powers.  When God plants the seed of eternal life (i.e. sanctifying grace) in our souls, He also implants the supernatural virtue of charity.  Now each of our natural virtues as well as the two theological virtues of faith and hope has charity as its center of gravity.  As the virtues increase, our capacity to harness the Supreme Goodness that is God’s life increase with it.  It is, to borrow a principle from St. Thomas, grace perfecting nature.

Grace and Nature

It seems that a digression is in order regarding this important Thomistic principle because it is relevant to a proper understanding of all that I just said.  Often it is paraphrased as “grace builds upon nature.”  This is more than just “saying the same thing.”  If you tell me “grace builds upon nature” I think, “I just need to try harder to be good” and God will give me grace.  It is as if I can achieve a certain amount of natural goodness and then God will give me grace.  In other words it is my hard work that comes first then grace.  Grace becomes essentially a superfluous add-on.  This is just a subtle form of the old heresy called (semi-)Pelagianism which denied original sin and taught that holiness was ours for the taking.

What I have proposed is not “becoming the best version of yourself”, that is a good natural life, but instead a path to an abundant supernatural life.  It is grace that comes first.  No amount of work on our part can change that.  Without the initial installment (ordinarily through Baptism) or a re-installment (through Sacramental Confession), we can never get there no matter how good we are.  Heaven is not the natural result of a good life, it is the supernatural consequence of a holy life.  All holy people are good people, but not all good people are holy.  It is grace at the beginning and then grace all the way through.  Grace perfects nature, not builds upon it.

What we are talking about then is our cooperation with grace through a growth in the virtues and how this is achieved.  The classic definition of a virtue as the firm and habitual dispositions toward the good needs to be examined.  We instinctively get the habitual part, understanding that it requires more than solitary acts that look like virtue to actually be virtuous.  We mistakenly think then to grow in virtue we just need to keep repeating the act.  For an increase in virtue however the first part, that is the firmness, is what needs to be emphasized.  It is only an act done with greater vehemence that wins the increase in virtue.

Temptation from its Proper Perspective

Only when we grasp God’s desire for our personal perfection and what that perfection consists in, we can look at temptation in a proper light.  Temptation is not so much a push to do something bad, but an opportunity to love and do what is good all the more.  It is an indispensable means for a growth in virtue.  Lacking any resistance, we are content with feeble acts of virtue because they “get the job done.”  Virtue is often compared to a muscle with a “use it or lose it” mentality.  But God is calling us to be spiritual bodybuilders, becoming huge in our holiness.  Muscle grows with an increase in resistance and so it is with virtue.  It might not be the only way to increase the intensity of our virtuous acts, but it is the most effective.  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” is not just a mission statement from Jesus, Life Coach, but a command from the one Who always equips us to fulfill it.

Addressing Jung’s objection that I opened with will also help us to see how best to make use of temptations.  It is not God who tempts but instead He is the one Who allows temptations to occur for our own good.  If there is no opportunity for growth then He will not allow it.  This truth is so important to hold onto, especially in the midst of strong temptations.  What you shouldn’t hold onto is the hackneyed Christian maxim that “God does not give you more than you can handle.”  This is not only not true, but also counterproductive.  God absolutely gives us more than we can handle, but He never abandons us, spotting us in our spiritual workouts.  But like a good spotter, He only gives us enough help for us to keep the bar moving and does not pull it off of us.  Even in being overcome, we still have the opportunity to grow.  No saint was devoid of humility, a virtue that only grows with more intense acceptance of humiliations.

Before closing I should mention one thing that may not be clear from what I have said.  It seems that if God has allowed a temptation to occur for my good, then I must simply face it head on.  Fleeing from them means that I will have missed the opportunity for growth.  Fleeing in the face of temptation, especially those of the flesh, is one of the ways in which we grow in virtue.  The rapidity and vehemence in which we avoid what would be evil is exactly what causes our growth.

We can see why it is that God then never frees us from temptation wholly.  As Sirach says, “when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trial” (Sir 2:1).  “To be human,” Aquinas says, “is to be tempted, but to consent is to be devlish.”  We do not pray to be freed from temptation in the Lord’s Prayer, but instead that we may not be led into temptation, that is, to consent to it.    Unfortunately, Jung was wrong.  Temptations come from a loving Father, Who wants nothing more than our perfection.

On Free Will

What do we mean when we say that man has free will?  To address this question, we must first look at man in his totality, both body and spirit.  Man exercises powers of both animals and angels.  Each of these powers is naturally inclined towards a given object.  For example, hearing is naturally inclined towards sound and eyesight towards light.  If you clap beside someone’s ear or pass something before his eyes (assuming they are not diseased in any way), then he cannot help but hear the clap and see the thing.  Our spiritual powers of knowing and willing likewise are naturally inclined towards truth and goodness.  Focusing only on the will at the moment, we can say that the will is fixed towards always choosing the Good.

This is an important point to understand because it often leads to moral confusion.  It is not possible for us to act contrary to the Good.  Everything we choose is because we have perceived it to be good, even if we are objectively wrong.  As a thought experiment, think about the person who commits suicide.  Why do they do it ultimately?  Because they deem it better to be dead than alive.  So too with the teenage girl who cuts herself—the pain of the cut is better than feeling the interior angst.  We could come up with any number of other examples, but the point is that no one can choose something they know to be bad for its own sake.

Given that we are bound by necessity to choose the Good, in what ways can we say that we have free will?  We have free will with respect to individual goods.  This is because each individual good merely participates in the Supreme Good itself, namely God.  Thus it is lacking in some way and we are free to choose it or to choose another (albeit also limited good) in its place.  But this is not the only manner in which we can exercise our free will.  We can also choose the means towards those good and acts associated with them.

For example, because it is a limited good, I am free to choose to become a pianist or not.  Once I decide to pursue that goal, I am free to choose what kind of piano I will buy.  I am also free to choose how I will practice or even if I will practice at all.


This also helps us to understand the question as to how, if we cannot sin in heaven, we could still have free will.  The idea that the will is naturally inclined to the Good means when we sin, we are actually choosing only what are apparent goods and not real goods.  In Heaven because we are caught up in Goodness itself, there are no apparent goods, only real ones.  Therefore, we can no longer sin.

This naturally leads us to wonder about the relationship between our free will and God.  When I said that no one can force our will, this includes God Himself.  This immediately presents a problem in that it seems that God is then limited.  But properly understood this is not a limitation at all because He has the power to change our wills.  While this seems like a mere intellectual sleight of hand, it is an important distinction for us to understand.  God is always the divine pursuer and lover.  He will never force Himself upon us like a rapist but will woo us like a lover.

God can change our wills in two ways.  The first is to create a desire in us for some good that was not there before.  The second is by introducing what St. Thomas calls a “form.”  This could be something like an actual grace in which our minds our enlightened as to what is really a good for us here and now or by strengthening our wills to achieve the concrete good.  In either case however it is still the person who chooses, even if he has had assistance from God in knowing and desiring.

St. Thomas offers a helpful analogy (De Veritate q.22, a.8) that makes the distinction clearer.  He notes that a stone has a natural inclination (i.e. gravity) to fall to the earth.  To throw it up in the air, is to violently alter its inclination.  But God could also change the inclination by removing gravity so that the stone had a new inclination to go up.  In that way, the stone would still be acting “freely” according to its own inclination.

With a proper understanding of free will, not as the power to do whatever I want, but the power to want what is good, comes the ability to act with authentic freedom.  It helps us to see freedom not as an end itself (mere license) but as given to us for a specific purpose, moral excellence.  That is why the Second Vatican Council called freedom “an exceptional sign of the divine image within man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17).  God is totally free not just because He is God, but because He is Good.  His laws for mankind are only blueprints for sharing in His Goodness.  In this Lenten season when we atone for all of our failures of living freedom excellently, may we embrace the true freedom to live as children of God.


Knowing God’s Will

Aside from its self-refuting character, one of the reasons that I find the position of Sola Scriptura untenable is because there are so many places in the Bible where we find seeming contradictions.  Without an authoritative interpreter of Scripture we are left, at best, scratching our heads.  The best interpretive method in this case then is to simply ignore either passage or both.  Most heresies are a direct result of not finding a way to hold two apparently contradictory things in tension.  But it was not the will of God that we should not understand His Revelation even if we might have to wrestle with it.  With the idea of knowing the will of God in mind, I would like to address one of these apparent contradictions today; namely, how it can be that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1Tim2:5) and yet “there are many who enter the gate to destruction” (Mt 7:13).

To begin it is necessary to frame the question properly because people often try to solve it by merely referring to man’s free will. That is certainly as aspect of it, but we need to make sure we keep man’s free will properly situated within the mystery of God’s Providence. The mistake comes about in equating our own free will with God’s free will. But they are different—our free will is contingent upon the good that is present, God’s is not. In other words, if God is omnipotent then He depends on nothing outside of Himself. What He wills, happens. He might will that they be brought about by free will decisions (that He already knew) or He might use other causes, but God is not in any way be dependent on our free will decisions. A God who is dependent is not really God.

While this keeps us from taking a short cut around the problem, it does not address it. To address the problem we need to make a further distinction with respect to God’s will. We can really on St. Thomas to help us with this because as he routinely shows in the Summa Theologiae, he was a master of making distinctions that explained away what many viewed as contradictions. When he addressed the question at hand he made the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will.

Antecedent will is an expression of one’s will prior to considering all the circumstances and facts surrounding a particular situation. Once those facts are taken into account, a judgment is expressed through the consequent will. Aquinas offers an analogy to help us better understand by presenting a just judge who wills that men should live freely. However once an individual man is found to be a murderer, the judge wills the good that the person should be justly punished. It is the judge’s consequent will that all men live freely while it is his antecedent will that a particular man should suffer punishment. This analogy helps us examine St. Paul’s words in that we understand that he is expressing God’s antecedent will rather than His consequent will, which allows some men to be eternally punished.


This distinction allows us to go a little deeper and examine the problem of evil. God’s antecedent will is what He wills for a thing in isolation. He considers only individual parts of His plan (individual men) and not the entire plan. While it is true that God creates out of love is true, it is more accurate to say God creates to share His goodness. It is His goodness that He finds in us that makes us lovable. Therefore His consequent will for creation is to produce the most goodness as a whole and not as sum of individual parts.

What does this have to do with evil?  God will permit evil only in order to manifest His goodness to the greatest extent.  Without the presence of evil, much goodness would be lacking in the universe.  This is so foundational to our faith that we can often overlook it.  Without the evil of Adam’s fall, the greatest good of the Incarnation would never have happened.  “O happy fault, that gained us such a Redeemer!”(*see note below)

This has practical implications for us all. In the presence of suffering and evil we will find good. We all know this, but I think we don’t realize that it is not just generic “good” but very concrete and specific goods. These very specific goods for us would not come about any other way. That is the only reason why any evil is allowed to be there—because there is a particular (more accurately many) good attached to it. If we truly believe this then we do not need to shy away from it but instead look straight at the Cross so that we might pluck the fruit from it. This is not optimism but the very truth of reality. Optimism says “it could always be worse. I could have XYZ instead.” The realist says “this could be worse. I could miss this fruit.” In truth the only truly evil thing is to miss the good that a particular evil has attached itself to. Embrace the Cross and taste the sweetness of the fruit that Our Savior has left attached to the true Tree of Life for you.


**NOTE: I realize there has been debate between Franciscans and Dominicans as to whether the Incarnation would have still happened without the Fall, I would lean towards the Dominican view that the Incarnation would not have happened because everywhere in Sacred Scripture (e.g. Lk 19:10, 1Tim 2:15) suggest that the Incarnation happened solely because man sinned. It may be a speculative question but by speculating on it we see the great love of God Who seeks out the lost sheep while explaining the very reason He allowed us to be lost to begin with.