Last week I suggested that those who have courage may not feel as though they do. We often imagine that to be brave means that we would not feel fear. This is not true. We act courageously when we do not succumb to fear, rather than because we do not have fear. The same is true about faith. Those with great faith have fears and doubts, but trust God anyway. Is this not the case with love as well? A person of love knows very well that some are unlovable, but they care for them anyway. We practice any virtue only when to do otherwise is a very real and constant possibility and temptation.
Too often we mistakenly think that if we had inner qualities such as faith, hope, and love, or humility and courage, we would not struggle against hopelessness, despair, unloving thoughts, pride, or timidity. Such assumptions are a great hinderance to our progress toward maturity because we keep expecting what will not come to pass. A loving person does not think himself or herself as particularly loving, but is very conscious of how easily they could not love others. A humble individual does not believe they are humble, but rather is aware how fierce their pride can be.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. Philippians 3:12-13
Paul saw himself moving toward all he had been called to be and do, and yet not having obtained or arrived at the goal. This is the irony of spiritual progress: the more genuine progress we make the less we may feel like we are getting anywhere. Rather than growth resulting in a greater sense of our own capability, we are left feeling like we have not obtained what we are striving for.
When we are “distant” from God it is quite possible to think well of ourselves. The closer God draws us to himself, the worse we feel about our own selves even though we are being transformed. God is not intending to make us feel worse, but we become more aware of the reality of our ungodliness in the presence of God’s astounding goodness.
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Luke 18:13
In Jesus’ parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, the one who is far from God, in any real sense, prays confidently about his own maturity. The tax collector is the one who is much closer to God, and his prayer is devoid of any confidence. The man with the virtues of humility, love for God, faith, and hope, looks to God alone and thinks of himself as having nothing. He does not consider himself a man of virtue, and yet he has more than he realizes. Jesus’ point is that he has more than others recognize as well.
Do not trust “feeling” that you are strong in the Lord, nor worry much about being acutely aware of your weaknesses. Since the strength is the Lord’s, do not be surprised that you do not sense having it, but that somehow it shows up as needed.