Only God Can Help Us to Remain in His Grace

As someone who has been a confessing Christian for several years, first in evangelical-charismatic churches and then in the Catholic Church since 2004, I’m delighted to report that most of the friends that I’ve made over the years have kept the faith and are serving Christ in some capacity. At the same time, I’ve seen a smaller minority who have shipwrecked their faith (I Tim. 1:19).

I can identify with Christ’s words to St. Faustina in the First Day of the Divine Chaplet about “the bitter grief into which the loss of souls plunges me.” Ships go down for different reasons: some founder on rocky shoals; others, like the Edmund Fitzgerald, have their main hatchway cave in during a major storm with gale force winds; still others, during war, sink because they’re torpedoed and/or bombed heavily from aircraft above.

This essay will, for the most part, explore some of the more overlooked reasons for a person’s fall from grace. As the apostle Paul said, if we are ignorant of Satan’s schemes, he can easily gain the advantage over us (II Cor. 2:11).

Names, places, and other details have been changed in this article to protect the identities of the people involved. They provide a cautionary tale: we can learn how to remain in a state of grace by learning from those who fell away.

The Perils Of Becoming Offended

Sometimes people enter the kingdom of God with unrealistic expectations. Instead of seeing this Vale of Tears as a soul-making world where God is getting us ready for heaven by conforming us to the image of his Son through diverse and many trials and tribulations, they see God as a Means to an End, and that End is a world where all their dreams come true.

White picket fences, balmy breezes, and storybook endings. Many people, instead, see their affliction increase after their conversion, or, as one man said, “When I was baptized and entered the Catholic Church, I was not only baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ; I was baptized into trouble.”

In the missionary journeys of Paul and Barnabas to different cities, they sought to strengthen the souls of the disciples by “exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22) When people enter the kingdom of God with false expectations and encounter a soul-making world, they often become offended and sometimes return to their former way of life.

This is what happened to the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings. When they encountered different trials, they wanted to return to the pleasures and conveniences of Egypt, a type of the world we leave in our conversion.

When Jesus shocked his audience by telling them that unless they “eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, they have no part in him,” many disciples became offended and deserted him (Jn. 6:66). In the parable of the sower, he talks about the seed sown on rocky ground that initially receives the word with joy, but, because “he has no root in himself… endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20, 21).

This should be a sobering parable for “cultural Catholics,” who only attend Mass weekly because they are of Irish descent from Albany, New York, and that’s what their family has done for generations. This parable should also cause “cafeteria Catholics” to examine the depth of their roots and query if they’re more American than Catholic, if they’ve been more formed by the surrounding culture than the teachings of the Church.

In a marriage, when one of the spouses is remaining faithful to their faith and the other has fallen away and gone back into the world, it wreaks havoc in the union. The apostle Paul talks about this being “mismated” or “unequally yoked” (II Cor. 6:14).

The Story Of Karen And Dave

“Karen” came into the kingdom of God with unrealistic expectations and was not ready for the soul-making world that awaited her. Her husband, “Dave,” a devout Catholic, had graduated at the top of his class in his MBA program at a respected university.

After graduation he got a job at a major company in the Pacific Northwest and began to quickly rise in the ranks. But, with the recession of 2008, his ascent stalled amidst cutbacks and changes in the business climate.

The culture in the company became toxic so he left and decided to launch his own business. After five years the couple, now with three kids, finds themselves living check to check and taking on more debt with each passing year.

This is not the script that Karen wrote for their lives. She becomes simultaneously offended both at her husband and God for not making her dreams come true.

She decides to take a break from weekly Mass attendance and stops praying the Rosary in the morning. She tells herself and Dave that she needs a break from formal religion and wants to find God in everyday life.

Unfortunately, the god she finds ends up looking a lot like her.

She starts to go out drinking more and more with a couple of her girlfriends who are also going through a mid-life crisis. Many factors are working to erode the intimacy she once experienced with Dave.

Even as her offense with him begins to diminish, she finds that the more and more she is out in the world, the more distant she feels towards him. She can’t seem to love both the world and Dave at the same time.

She eventually has an affair with someone she meets on the dance floor who “makes her feel alive.” She used to be submitted to the Magisterium on such matters but is now more influenced by the dopamine and oxytocin that course through her brain whenever she’s with “Mitch.”

She will go back and forth over the next couple of years but eventually she will make the transition from following Church teaching to “following her heart,” being guided by “her truth,” and listening to the god within as the book Eat, Pray, Love encourages. Ross Douthat argues that “the god within” isn’t a divine voice at all, but an amplified human voice that caters to our self-love.

Karen has also, over the years, bought into an erroneous concept from American culture of what it means to have a soul mate. At first it was a healthy desire to have the same religion, values, and a few other things in common, but it crossed a line where she began to demand more and more that Dave become like her, that she would look across the table and see…Karen!

This dynamic was rooted in the fact that Karen came from a family with an emotionally distant father and a passive-aggressive mother. Intimacy felt like it was rationed with an eye-dropper so hence the overreach in her relationship to Dave.

Here, we can learn a lot from Mother Angelica, who, although she suffered great material and emotional privation in her childhood, eventually was able, by God’s grace, to get her emotional needs met through her relationship to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Mother of God, intimate friends, and in sacrificial service to the Church. Rather than trying to control and manipulate the people around her to accomplish some selfish agenda, she was able, as de Caussade exhorts, to abandon her concerns to Divine Providence

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 80 percent of the divorces are initiated by women. I’m convinced that a false concept promulgated by our culture of what it means to have a soul mate, has contributed to this trend.

If it feels like I’m picking on women in this essay, please know that I’ve known many men who have fallen from grace. For example, in general, men are more likely than women to cheat: 20% of men and 13% of women reported that they’ve had sex with someone other than their spouse while married, according to data from the recent General Social Survey(GSS).

The practicing Catholic is filled with the fullness of grace through their faith, and then, in a healthy balanced way, secondarily through their family, friends, and work. Out of this fullness, they turn to serve their spouse rather than turning in emptiness to have their spouse fill them.  

God is our Primary Source while people are secondary resources. When we reverse the two, we find out that people make lousy gods.

May we all become acutely aware how desperately we need the supernatural, sanctifying grace of God each day in order to remain in a state of grace. Without it, we become just another story of a shipwrecked faith, another cautionary tale of a ship that set sail with hope and promise but did not return safely to the harbor.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Avatar photo


Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is a contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of "Letters from Fawn Creek," a volume of spiritual direction. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. A self-confessed “mediocre fisherman,” he is known to wet a line now and then in the creeks, rivers, and lakes of northeast Washington.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage