By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Aug 25, 2009)
The following is part 2 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
"The branch cannot bear fruit by itself" (Jn 15:4)
In 1985, an international concert called "Live Aid" raised millions of dollars to feed the hungry of the world. Celebrity singers and performers donated their time and talent. The event's theme was contained in its closing song, "We Are the World." You probably know it. Its chorus is:
We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day so let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true, we'll make a better day just you and me.
The message of this song is simple: We can do it! All we have to do is let go of our selfishness, band together, put in our best effort, and the world really can become "the one big family" that it was meant to be. "Love is all we need."
There is only one problem: It isn't true.
These "Live Aid" concerts were a noble effort indeed, and they accomplished much. Nevertheless, today there are probably as many people chronically malnourished as there were back then. Meanwhile, the pop stars and the celebrities have mostly gone back to their concert tours and their photo ops. Most people do not even remember "Live Aid."
What went wrong? Nothing, really. It went as right as it could, for the most part. The problem was not in the idea or the intention. The problem was people. It simply cannot have escaped the notice of anyone who is a close observer of humanity's past and present that the finest, best-intentioned efforts to "make a better world" don't always accomplish very much lasting good. It's not that the initial plans are flawed. There seems to be something in humanity as a whole — and in each one of us in particular — that cannot sustain such efforts over the long haul. Moreover, such efforts often become undermined by pride, division, and rancor.
The truth is, our best intentions and our best efforts, on their own, will never be enough to make a big difference in this world. We need something more. We need Someone's help. We need to be remade from the inside out.
In the Old Testament, the Lord took notice of this:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
I, the Lord, search the mind and the heart ... (Jer 17:9)
The Psalms are equally blunt:
The Lord looks down from heaven
upon the children of men,
to see if there are any that act wisely,
that seek after God.
They have all gone astray. They are all alike corrupt.
There is none that does good,
No, not one (Ps 14:1-3).
In the New Testament, St. Paul looks into his own heart — even after his conversion, and after serving the Lord as the world's greatest missionary for decades. He is forced to admit that he, too, falls well short of the ideals of Christian discipleship:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very things that I hate ... for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. ... So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin, which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:15-24)
These words of St. Paul are important. When we discuss why it's so difficult for humanity to "make a better world," we are not just talking about the obvious, deep-seated evils of racial, ethnic, political, or religious hatred or about the influence of criminal elements on society. We are talking about what infects even the best efforts of relatively good, well-intentioned people (like most of the people reading this, no doubt).
Why do we so often fall far short of our ideals?
In fact, one of the words for "sin" in the original Greek of the New Testament is hamartia, which means literally "falling short," like an arrow not reaching its intended target.
It follows that if you want to try to "make a better world," as the song puts it, and you are willing to give it your best effort — to follow Jesus' teachings to "love your neighbor as yourself" — and hoping that "all we need is love," then best of luck to you. You are going to need plenty of it! For it is likely that all your efforts will result in one or more of the following scenarios:
1. You will exhaust yourself struggling against the callousness, indifference, lethargy, and judgmental opposition of others. Sooner or later you may become discouraged and "throw in the towel." You may even become bitter and angry about it all.
2. You will fall into despair at your own continued failures and shortcomings. You will probably scale back your efforts.
3. You will delude yourself into thinking that you are succeeding in making the world a significantly better place — or that you would be making a big difference, if only there were more people like you, more who agreed with you on how to put things right, and more people willing to lend you a hand. So you may become filled with pride. Perhaps you and some like-minded colleagues, in an effort to further your agenda, will attempt a take over or split from the organization you are in.
4. You will become so taken up with whatever outreach project or good cause you serve that everything else in your life begins to fade away into insignificance. You wonder why your spouse and children don't appreciate how important your work really is and how indispensable you are to it.
What is the problem here? The problem is that to make a difference in this world, the first thing you have to realize is that you are totally incapable of doing it by your own human efforts. Trying hard is not good enough. The Bible says so. Your experience of the world says so. And, if you are honest with yourself, your own heart says so, too.
In short, it is not true that "all we need is love." The first and most vital need of the human heart is not to be loving, but to be loved. Only people who are deeply and truly loved — people who have experienced God's infinite love — have the confidence, strength, and hope to serve the needs of their families, their communities, and the whole world in a way that makes a lasting difference. These are the people who know they are loved, know they are forgiven when they fall short, know they are aided by grace to do what is right, know they are guided by divine light when perplexed about the way forward, and know they are invited to entrust all their efforts into the hands of a wise Providence. Only people who are transformed and continually refreshed by the merciful love of Jesus Christ — people living "through Him, with Him, and in Him" as His true disciples — can really change the world.
"We can do all things through Him who strengthens us" (Phil 4:13). That is what the next part of our series will cover.
1. Talk about the times when you were part of volunteer civic or charitable groups that, despite good plans and good intentions, never accomplished what you had hoped — or worse, collapsed from divisions and disagreements.
2. At times we have all made seemingly fruitless efforts to correct one of our own faults or shortcomings. Share just one example of that kind of frustrating experience with the group.
3. We all know of major, well-intentioned efforts in history to reform or revolutionize the Church, the government, the economy, or even the whole world. These efforts did not always result in lasting improvement, and sometimes made things worse. See how many of these you can name. (Note that not everyone will agree with whether each of these efforts was for the best.)
A Prayer Given to St. Faustina by Jesus Christ Himself (Diary, 1211)
Most Merciful Jesus, whose very nature it is to have compassion on us and to forgive us, do not look upon our sins but upon our trust which we place in your infinite goodness. Receive us all into the abode of Your Most Compassionate Heart, and never let us escape from it. We beg this of You by Your love which unites You to the Father and the Holy Spirit.
A Hymn (Rev. Ray Palmer, 1830)
My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
O hear me as I pray,
take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day
be wholly Thine.
May Thy rich grace impart
strength to my fainting heart,
my zeal inspire.
As Thou hast died for me,
so may my love for Thee
pure, warm, and changeless be:
a living fire!
When ends life's transient dream,
and death's cold, sullen stream
shall o'er me role;
then, Savior, blest in love,
fear and distrust remove,
O bear me safe above,
a ransomed soul!
Read Part 3: The Five Loaves and Two Fish Principle.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).