Steering Fluid, Grace, and Conversion

Faith comes not through pondering but through action. We never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting.  Tito Colliander

“It’s too hard to steer,” my teen daughter complained. “I can’t do it.”

Nobody likes my decrepit Honda. Among other things, it leaks power steering fluid like a sieve, and so it can be tough to muscle the wheel in traffic. I’ll splurge from time to time and fill up the reservoir. It’s a treat, and it works like magic: When the reservoir is full – voila! – smooth sailing! But after a couple days, the fluid starts to dwindle, and turning the steering wheel can be like arm-wrestling with a titan.

“Try releasing the brake and moving forward a bit,” I tell her. “The wheel will be a lot easier to turn.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. We’re already close by the curb, and there’s not a lot of room to maneuver, so it seems like we have to get the car heading in the right direction before we get moving, not after.

My daughter grimaces. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she says, but I insist. And, sure enough – lo and behold – it works! She releases the brake, the car starts to inch forward, and she directs the car away from the curb with little effort.

This is not a story about a dad being vindicated in his wise, fatherly counsel – although that would be nice. It’s also not a story about why that steering trick works. I imagine it has something to do with force and torque and complicated formulae, but I’m no physicist.

Instead, my Honda’s power steering problem got me thinking about grace and conversion. Here’s why.

In our day-to-day lives, we know that we have to get a move on or nothing will get done – an obvious notion, but so painful to learn when we’re first on our own. Laundry piling up? Sink clogged with dirty dishes? Empty fridge? Second (and third) notices from creditors? Once mom and dad aren’t around to handle such matters, we discover real quick that not acting – acts of omission, in other words – have very real consequences, and so we develop habits of action.

This goes for the workaday world as well, beginning with obtaining a job in the first place. Normally, employment doesn’t fall in our laps – we have to get out there and search out who’s hiring, groom ourselves and our résumés appropriately, and take the risk of putting in an application. I say “risk,” of course, because there’s no guarantee that the job will pan out. Still, to sit back and try another video round of zombie-killing will probably not lead to an income. Sooner or later we have to hit the bricks to find an occupation.

But what of the spiritual life? What of conversion and holiness? It’s all grace, right? We’re hypersensitive, we Catholics, to the charge of “works righteousness” – that we’re somehow “earning” our salvation through our good deeds and pious acts – and so we might be extra cautious about claiming any credit for our efforts. Much safer, we might be tempted to think, to scrub our role altogether. God not only gets top billing in that case, but he becomes a one-man-show.

That’s not exactly how it works though – and it might let us off the hook inordinately with regards to our own responsibilities. St. Paul, after all, speaks of working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), implying that we do have a role to play and we’d better take it pretty seriously.

This was a big problem for me in my Presbyterian youth. If all faith and conversion was through God’s grace alone, and we had none at all to begin with (as I was taught), then it was just God’s whimsy as to who’d be saved and who’d be damned. Reformed apologists might argue with my simplistic characterization of Calvinist doctrine, but it really did seem like double-predestination – God’john-wesley-1wes planning ahead for the eternal destination of all the souls he created, whether to heaven or to hell – was an inevitable and unenviable conclusion. If that was Christianity’s God, then I was ready to bolt.

Enter John Wesley. Although I was raised a Calvinist, I ended up at a Methodist college and studied theology there. Naturally, Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, figured prominently in my studies, and it was through him that I encountered the idea of prevenient grace. This was a common form of grace that a loving God gave to all that all might be saved. Thus, Wesley taught thateveryone shared in the very life of God in a tentative way as a preparation for and prompting toward the fullness of that sharing in sanctifying grace.

In one of his most lucid treatments of this idea, Wesley unpacks St. Paul’s words about working out our own salvation and describes a grace that “prevenes” (precedes) the grace that actually saves us. Prevenient grace, according to Wesley, includes…

the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God.

That made sense to me! If indeed “God so loved the world,” as St. John asserts, and God gave us Jesus that “whoever believes in him” should be saved, then it must be possible. Prevenient grace fit the puzzle pieces together: We’re still saved by grace alone, but everybody is born with a measure to start off with.

Imagine my surprise years later when I discovered that this is a Catholic doctrine, including the language. The Council of Trent took up the idea in the sixteenth century, but the Council of Orange dealt with it a thousand years before that. Reaching back even further, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine from the fifth century on the subject:

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.”

Catholics don’t generally call it prevenient grace now, and instead lump it in with other forms of actual grace – the grace we receive to act, as opposed to sanctifying grace which saves. But no matter the terminology, the idea is the same: God gives us all that we need to be saved. Grace surrounds us and infuses us even before we know we desire heaven. I like the way St. Catherine of Siena put it: “All the way to heaven is heaven.” We just have to do our part.

So, back to my car’s steering problems.

The simple solution, of course, would be to replace the steering fluid reservoir, but my mechanic, Gary, assures me that it wouldn’t be cost-effective. “You’ll probably just have to get used to driving it without the fluid,” Gary said. So be it. Like I said, occasionally I’ll go wild and top off the reservoir, but it seems so indulgent. For the next day or two, driving seems downright decadent, and so I’m thinking I might purchase a case of Honda power steering fluid for the daughter when she gets her license. She can drive the Accord without it – and even a case won’t last too long, I know – but, at least for a while, it’ll make her driving experience so much easier.

For our spiritual journeys, too, we have all we need to get to our final destination. Prevenient grace gets us going; sanctifying grace fills us with God’s own life; actual graces keep us on the path toward home. What we don’t always have is the fluidity of emotions that we’d like to have along the way – those positive feelings and “movements of the sensitive appetite,” as the Catechism calls them, that give us warm fuzzies in our prayer and spiritual experiences.

Not to worry. We can still steer. The fluidity comes and goes, we have to remember, and we are grateful for it. But when it’s not there, and it seems like our steering is stuck? Release the brake, get moving, and the forward motion will facilitate maneuvering the soul toward heaven again. “The soul only enters freely into the communion of love. God immediately touches and directly moves the heart of man” (CCC 2002). We inch forward with little direction – and often with no warm feelings either – and he grabs us and pulls us along.

Counterintuitive, I know, but – lo and behold – it works! It’s as if he designed it that way.

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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