To Act or not to Act? (2/9/20)

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by William Deatherage, Executive Director

Today’s Readings:
IS 58:7-10
PS 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
1 COR 2:1-5
MT 5:13-16

“Pray about it and let God do the rest!” “We are called to set the world on fire!” These tidbits of conventional wisdom seem rather contradictory at first glance. Are we called to lives of contemplative prayer or charismatic action? Of course the answer involves a medium between action and restraint, but where this middle ground lies has boggled the minds of prophets and theologians since the dawn of Salvation History.

The readings today reflect this struggle, as God tells us “You are the light of the world. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” The imagery of light is noteworthy, since light comes from a source, yet it permeates objects that passively allow it to flow through. Likewise, the goodness that Christ calls us to participate in does not come from human hands, rather it emanates from God’s mercy and grace. Sometimes our conscious actions reflect the glory of God, whereas other times they obscure it. Think of the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen”. Sometimes, we might think we are doing the right thing or helping a cause, when instead we should wait for God to instruct us through silent reflection. In the kitchen of Christ, it is surprisingly easy to act in a way that negatively impacts his cooking staff, the Church. Sometimes it is indeed better to pray for wisdom, while other times God requires us to act swiftly. In a similar vein, God’s grace is also found in quiet prayer and self-reflection, but too much hesitancy can result in an unhealthy passivity.

One of my favorite examples of this challenge is the story of Abraham. Time after time, Abraham and his family were presented with the fundamental question “is it time to act?” In the twenty-five years Abraham and his wife, Sarah, had to wait for their promised child, they frequently revisited this dilemma. Were they supposed to do something to bring about the birth of their son? Perhaps this is what motivated Sarah to ask Abraham to sleep with her servant. Such tests of action versus inaction were also present in their Egyptian escapades. Was Abraham supposed to tell the Pharaoh, who was attracted to Sarah, that his wife was his sister to escape death (some interpreters conclude that Pharaoh would have killed Abraham if he admitted she was his wife), or would God protect him? Perhaps the ultimate test of action came from the binding of Isaac, during which Abraham was asked to sacrifice the very son whom he had waited twenty five years for. One can only imagine Abraham’s thought process on his journey to the sacrificial site. If two things are certain about Abraham’s adventures, they are that God’s call to action is difficult to discern, and there are consequences for acting out of place.

How can we let God shine through us without inadvertently blocking his radiance? In our daily lives, the immortal question of prayerful reflection versus immediate action is a difficult one to make. We are met with an array of complex moral conundrums all the time, often without an awareness of them. Should you really have given twenty dollars in cash to the homeless man who is addicted to drugs? Was it wise to vote for free health care if it comes at the expense of religious institutions? Did you really bring the Atheist closer to Christ by threatening them with the fires of Hell? These are situations we are met with on a daily basis, and it is comforting to think that moral absolutes can help us in every situation. In reality, this is far from the case because the magnitude of every minuscule action impacts the lives of countless others, regardless of our awareness of them. Yes, there are rules and limits to action, but we are also called to be slow to anger and careful with judgments. The virtue of prudence must constantly be appealed to, since it is this crucial for acting when God calls us to. It is for this reason that prudence is considered by many as the most important virtue. Without it, we will never be lights for the world to see.

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