by Cameron Daly
This reflection was taken from the Sunday Mass Readings of May 17, 2015–the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord:
“These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages. They will pick up serpents with their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mk 16:17-18).
For practical reasons among others, this is not a passage you want to misinterpret.
When we read it, it is important for us to keep in mind another verse: “You shall not put the LORD, your God, to the test” (Dt 6:16). In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus wasn’t telling us to make spectacles out of ourselves by guzzling gasoline or sticking snakes up our nostrils and pulling them out our mouths (the latter of which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve actually seen done on television). Our Lord doesn’t want us to make fools out of ourselves trying to be magicians.
It ties in with what I’ve mentioned in a couple of past reflections–the concept of really “believing” in Jesus, and how doing so takes more than believing that He exists, died for us, and is all-powerful (which are great things to believe in themselves, there’s just more to it). To truly be one of “those who believe” that He spoke of, we have to act on our beliefs. It does us very little good if we believe that He Sacrificed Himself so that we could have a chance at salvation, yet we do little beyond Baptism to accept that offering of salvation.
We need to believe not only in God’s power and existence, but also in His will, and His wisdom. Even if we do have complete faith in His power, we should not expect Him to grant us miracles if they aren’t in accordance with His will. His wisdom is infinite, and He could have any number of reasons for not granting a request of ours–even if it seems like it would be just what He would want, or if we can’t see any possible reason why He wouldn’t grant it. To quote a question posed by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker said in their book Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God, “What is it like to be a purely spiritual being, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, who understands immediately and completely all the ramifications of any action throughout all time and for eternity, and takes into account in any decision, all these ramifications, including the physical and spiritual good that would result, not just in regard to any single person praying, but in regard to everyone and everything in the present and the indefinite future who would be affected?” To give a short answer to their question–there is no way we could really know, unless we were such beings ourselves (which we clearly aren’t; if we were, we wouldn’t have to ask that question).
I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t pray. It’s very important to pray. I believe that asking for God’s will to be done is one good way of exercising our own free will. Our Lord Himself said, “Ask and it will be given to you.…For everyone who asks receives” (Mt 7:7-8), so He’s clearly indicating that we should “ask” in the first place.
Neither am I trying to underplay the importance of having faith in God’s existence and power. For some, believing in those can be difficult enough on its own. Consider this passage from Matthew 17: “When they came to the crowd a man…said, ‘Lord, have pity on my son, for he…suffers severely…I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.’ Jesus…rebuked [the man’s son] and the demon came out of him, and from that hour the boy was cured. Then the disciples…said, ‘Why could we not drive it out?’ [Jesus] said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’” (Mt 17:14-20). This passage shows quite well that there’s no question of the importance of believing in God’s power; if we believed in only His will and wisdom, then even though we would be on the right track in our morality, we would not give any credit to His divine power, and would therefore have very little faith in anything we asked for–and would therefore not accomplish much in our prayers.
The key is to believe in God’s power, and at the same time remember that He’s not going to do anything contrary to His will with it; He’s more than willing to use it to help us, but only to achieve ends that are objectively good. It’s important to remember that our prayers are never unheard, and they are never unanswered. If we really trust in God, we should acknowledge that He knows best, and understand that sometimes He has to answer “No” in our best interest.
We should strive to be strong in our faith in every way, and from every angle. We must believe in God, in all that He is and in all that He wants for us, and act accordingly. God may do great things for us, and He may do great things through us; yet how can we think to ask for either one, if we never do anything even remotely great (like obeying His will) for Him?
We can’t expect God to grant us every single thing we want. We can’t necessarily even expect Him to grant them to us at times when they seem to us to be the best option. What we need to do is have faith in God’s plan for us, and pray that His will be done. Miracles have occurred and prayer requests have been granted, and they doubtlessly will be in the future; but they are done on His terms, not ours.
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came and, to test him, asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He said to them in reply, ‘…An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah’” (Mt 16:1-2, 4).
These people had no real faith in Jesus whatsoever. Learned as they were, they should have been able to see the logic of His reasoning, but their pride kept them from acknowledging His truths–including the truths he revealed about the hypocrisy of many of the Pharisees and Sadducees themselves.
Does God always reside in grand, glorious mountains? Does he not sometimes choose the form of a still, small breeze? Sometimes, the greatest miracles that God grants us may seem like the most trivial things, and yet at the same time they might carry more weight in His eyes than mountains–and we may never even know it.