Outcome-Based Spirituality

What difference does Jesus Christ make in your life? This is the make-or-break question we all have to ask ourselves. If faith in Jesus Christ were a crime, would there be enough evidence in our lives to convict us?

There are many ways to explain how our Christian faith must inform each and every aspect of our lives. Scott Hahn suggests that our faith must even affect the way we brush our teeth! One of Curtis Martin’s favorite lines from his Campus Crusade days is, “If Christ isn’t Lord of all, He isn’t Lord at all.” He isn’t a part-time or situational Savior, a spiritual “resource” we call upon only when it seems expedient.

Sometimes we have to get back to basics and consider the lordship of Christ over our entire lives. Our happiness depends on our turning to Christ, hearing and obeying Him in and through His Church, and allowing His Holy Spirit to make us saints — and not merely “nice” or successful people. This is how we experience the “abundant life” (Jn 10:10) our Lord in His goodness and mercy desires to give us.

We hear all the time about classroom sex-education programs designed to impart detailed, graphic information to our children about AIDS, contraceptive devices, homosexuality, and related topics. One of the justifications typically given for such unspeakably offensive programs is that “information is power.” Surely there is some truth to that statement. We do have access to more information than ever before, and this empowers us to accomplish much more than past generations. What’s the problem?

It can be said that access to a loaded gun or an Indy car is power. Yet, more is needed. If we tried to use these things without adequate training and maturity, we’d likely hurt ourselves or others. Similarly, our televisions are now able to pick up dozens of channels, but they don’t come with instructions as to which programs we should watch. Today, we’re long on information and power, we’re short on formation and wisdom. We know more than ever about trees, but as a people we’re less equipped than ever to navigate through the forest. We desperately need a compass.

Archbishop Chaput wrote a remarkable book entitled Living the Catholic Faith in which he emphasizes that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), and not merely “the way, the facts, and the database.” The Lord Jesus teaches us to use the things of this world wisely and equips us to do so through growth in virtue and grace. More to the point, our life in Christ makes all the difference, and without Him everything else is raw data. Bringing faith to life, Jesus did not come to establish the “First Baptist Church of Galilee,” but rather His purpose was much more ambitious in scope: He came to gather all peoples and nations into one universal (i.e., “catholic”) Church. And in this Church, everyone is called to discipleship, to follow Christ unreservedly.

Truly a great fruit of the Second Vatican Council has been the renewed emphasis on the legitimate role of the laity — our call to holiness, to evangelization, and to ordering secular society in accordance with God’s will. But where do we start? The “one thing needful” (Lk 10:42), the most important thing, is to know (and love and serve) Jesus Christ. Therefore, prayer and the sacraments must permeate all that we’re about and not simply be something on a “to do” list that we check off. Our discipleship must be reflected in a simple, ongoing lifting up of our hearts to Him throughout each day.

One thing I find striking about our Lord’s final instructions to His Apostles is that His disciples are called to observe all that He has commanded. Interestingly, He says we should observe all the commandments. He doesn’t say we should merely “learn” the commandments or observe only those commandments that work for us. Again, is He the Lord of our lives or not? How many Church teachings can we reject and still claim to be faithful disciples? Rather than choose to go our own way, we should echo the words of Simon Peter: “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68).

Like St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Mass ends with a commissioning, as we’re sent to bring the light of Christ to the entire world. We’re not supposed to keep our faith to ourselves or under a bushel basket, but instead it is given so we can give it away. Faith, without words, without actions, is dead (cf. Jas 2:17). Such a faith is not making “all the difference.” As Archbishop Chaput says, it’s not an accident that the book of the Bible is called “Acts of the Apostles” and not “Pious Sentiments of the Apostles” or “Good Intentions of the Apostles.”

I used the following riddle to teach three of my daughters recently. Three frogs are sitting on a log. Two of them decide to jump into the water. How many are left on the log? The answer, of course, is three, because there’s a huge difference between deciding to jump and actually jumping. Good actions come from good intentions, but are not their necessary consequence. Sometimes my daughters will very sincerely tell me they’ll clean their room or be attentive at Mass, but something is lost in the execution. At that point, I tell them to be “wet frogs,” and they finally begin to put their good intentions into action. Jesus warns all His disciples, both through parables and explicit exhortations, that one doesn’t dabble in Christianity. If we’re truly with Him and His Church, we must jump off the log and bear witness to Him in word and action.

One management principle that has a significant application to the spiritual life is distinguishing outcomes (which are out of our control) from behaviors (which we can control). Let me explain. Each day at the CUF office we hear about scandals and abuses of authority as well as tragic stories of loved ones leaving the Church and many other heart-wrenching concerns. Any Catholic with a pulse would want to do something about these problems, but what? We can’t make scandals go away. We can’t make a bishop or priest address a particular problem in the Church. We can’t make our loved ones return to the fullness of the Catholic faith. These are all desirable outcomes which through our cooperation with grace we can influence. But in the end, these outcomes are largely outside our direct control. What we can control — and what has, in the long run, the greatest salutary effect — is our own response to the call to holiness. Saints are not as glamorous as gunslingers, but even our Lord’s recommendation for the really tough situations are prayer and fasting (cf. Mk 9:28-29), two of the more powerful weapons wielded by those who really want to be of service to the Church.

As Christians with the mission of bringing the Gospel to the world, the principal outcome with which we must be concerned is the continual transformation of our own hearts, allowing Christ to make all the difference in our lives. If we seek first the face of Christ and the life of holiness, then we’re equipped to be His agents in today’s world.

Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is leon@cuf.org.

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