I’m a Sinner in Need of Grace: Mission Sunday
By Susanna De. A.
One of the biggest dangers in being a missionary is spiritual pride. “I must go because I know so much, and those people know so little.” “I must help people ascend to my heights of spiritual awareness, poor things struggling at the bottom of the mountain.” Some people involved in missions might be there because they want to feel important, feel like they are the gracious saviors of those who are ignorant and spiritually impoverished. Or sometimes those involved in overt missionary activity or ministry feel like they are the only ones who have ‘got’ Christianity, and ALL other Christians are ignoring Jesus’ call.
No wonder so many people regard missionary activity with suspicion and distrust. If you’re going to a third world country to tell the ‘natives’ that you are right, and they are wrong… about everything, then yes, maybe we should just stay home. If your only involvement in missions or ministry is to tell everyone else that they are not being good missionaries, or Christians, then maybe you’re missing the point.
Now, there IS a seed of truth in some of the statements above. If you are living in luxury with much more than you need, then it is not ‘pride’ to say that you need to share that with those who are living in desperate need. Likewise, it is a fact that there are many people both in the third world, as well as the first world who have NOT experienced the saving love of Jesus, which many of us HAVE experienced. It IS true that there are many Catholics who have not realized that God is calling them to more than a comfortable, self-centered life. Obviously, there is a place for prophetic and challenging words…. BUT how do we do that without talking down to people, or acting like we’re better than them?
I write about all these attitudes, because I have fallen prey to them. Often they insidiously attach themselves to some fairly pure motives: “I want to change the world.” “I want to do God’s will.” “I want to live for others.” But once the pride creeps in, all my efforts have lost their power.
So what is the solution? We want to share with others, but we don’t want to act like we’re better than others. Because we’re not.
Of course the remedy for spiritual pride is HUMILITY.
Ah ha! One of those lovely words that sounds great in theory, but impossible in practice. As my sister said once, “As soon as I admit my fault, I have a self satisfied feeling that I’m being so humble.” Or something to that effect.
I think that we need to allow TRUTH to sink into the deepest parts of our heart and mind, because once our hearts and minds change, so will our attitudes, and the ways that we communicate with others, the ways that we live out our mission.
But what is the truth?
In a recent RCIA team retreat, our team was role-playing our future candidate’s ‘Rite of the First Acceptance of the Gospel.” The priest or catechist was to ask them, “Do you acknowledge yourself a sinner in need of salvation?” And they answer, one by one, “Yes, I am a sinner in need of salvation.”
What? How many Catholics fully believe that? Do you fully believe that? Do I? Am I fully aware that I am a big, fat sinner who really has no business feeling like I’m doing better than anyone else? If I am NOT sinning, it is only because I have come in contact with the saving grace of Jesus! If I have met Christ, have access to the sacraments, and am aware of WHAT sin is, and STILL sin (which I do), then I am most likely more culpable than those who sin out of ignorance.
Should I not be a missionary because I am a sinner in need of grace?
Not at all! Once I KNOW I’m a sinner, I’m much more likely to be an effective missionary. Like John Paul II said in Catechesi Tradendae, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses”
People’s lives are not usually transformed by theories, or even apologetics, or well-reasoned arguments, or even necessarily impassioned speeches. They’re looking for witnesses. “Oh, so Jesus saves people from sin? How does that work exactly? DOES it work? Has it worked for you? What difference has Jesus made to YOUR life?”
Humility is the key to effective evangelization. If you think back to the Christians who most powerfully impacted you, and revealed Christ to you, they were most likely the ones who spoke authentically from the depth of their knowledge of their own sinfulness, and their even deeper knowledge of the mercy of Jesus. “He who has been forgiven much, loves much.”
Here are a few practical tips on allowing humility and authenticity to shine through your efforts at evangelization:
- Witness, don’t preach: Use your own experiences to communicate the truths of Christianity. If you want to call people out of complacence, talk about YOUR struggles with complacence. If you want to teach about repentance, talk about how God called YOU to repentance. “I struggled with that too. I know where you are.”
- Listen before talking: I love to talk. I want to jump in with advice, or opinions, or answers, as soon as someone asks a question or expresses a doubt or a need. But quite often I need to wait, listen to what they’re REALLY saying, and enter into their experience and feelings.
- Allow the Spirit to guide you: Breathe a prayer before getting into a discussion, answering a question, speaking into someone’s life, or even writing a blog post. Maybe the Spirit will lead you to the right words, the right experience to share. Or maybe the Spirit will lead you to shut up, and hold back because it’s not the right moment. Whichever it is, the prayer will allow your interaction to communicate more of HIM and less of you.
- Acknowledge the ways God is already working in other people: When I started off as a missionary, I was scathing in my denunciation of the missionary efforts in India. I felt like I was introducing the concept of missions to India. Yeah, yeah, I know. Pride and stupidity. (St. Francis Xavier was laughing at me.) Ms. Genie warned me before I left on my first mission to look for the ways that God was already using people in the parishes. And both in the Philippines, and in India, I was humbled to meet people who had been faithfully and without fanfare preaching the Gospel, loving the poor, bringing Jesus to all, and who didn’t constantly talk about the holy call to missions… but just lived out the call.
- Be quicker to encourage and see the good than to denounce and challenge: God calls people to different ways of living out His call to them. At the same time, everyone is called to ongoing cnversion. It’s so much easier to see people’s weaknesses and areas where they need to change. But it is rarely effective to point that out (especially immediately). Whether we are speaking to an agnostic, an ‘only social justice’ Catholic, or another Christian in ministry, our first impulse should be to acknowledge the good we see. “You have such a loving family!” instead of “Haven’t you ever considered that subjective morality doesn’t make sense?” “It’s wonderful that you are involved with helping the poor” instead of “What’s the use of social work if you don’t have Jesus at the centre?” “Your ministry seems to be helping so many youth” instead of “Why doesn’t your ministry have more emphasis on the sacraments?”
This Mission Sunday, I believe God is calling me (and us all) to take a good look at our own sinfulness, an even better look at the mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ, and then to “Go, and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” with humility and authenticity.
By Susanna De. A.