Much of our thinking revolves around a work and reward system. If I work hard, I’m rewarded. If I don’t work hard, I deal with the consequences. We generally believe the work/reward system governs life – or should. If the work/reward system doesn’t work, we experience injustice. If we don’t get something we’ve worked for or someone else gets something they didn’t work as hard for, we believe it to be unfair.
The work/reward system also gives us the “imposter syndrome”. We’ve worked hard and get rewarded, but more reward than we believe we deserve. We see our shortcomings and wonder when everyone else will find out we’re an imposter (even though we’re not). We don’t believe we’re everything others believe us to be. This may be shame-based thinking, but the mindset is still the work/reward system.
The Judeo-Christian tradition, up to a point, accepts a work/reward premise. If we do right, God will bless us. Read Psalms. Read Proverbs. Read the book of Job. This is why Job was confused: “I lived right and now I’m suffering.” This was also the mindset of Job’s friends: “Bad things are happening to you, therefore you must have some sin.” Repent! We ultimately find at the end of Job, there were more complex things happening than the simple work/reward system related to Job’s behavior.
So if we follow Christ, live right, and our motives are right — we will be blessed. Right? Probably. But here’s the caveat. We will also suffer and this doesn’t fit neatly into the work/reward system. Teresa of Avila has an interesting observation about our blessings (“spiritual favors”). “Thus I hold for certain that these favors are meant to fortify our weakness . . . that we may be able to imitate him in his great sufferings.” So my very blessings from God may also be his way of strengthening me for future suffering (which in turn brings blessing, renewal, and redemption to others).
Teresa appeals to the biblical saints and their suffering. Mary, mother of Jesus, was blessed, but suffered. The Apostle Paul was blessed with visions, but suffered. And Peter, Teresa says, “Went straight to his death. And it was no small mercy from the Lord that Peter found someone to provide him with death.”
Let’s dig deeper into Mary’s blessing and suffering. In Luke 2, “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'” (Blessed) Later in the birth narrative Luke introduces Simeon: “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple . . . Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God saying” this child would ultimately become “a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Blessing, renewal, and redemption.) Simeon continues: “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them . . .”
But then, Simeon says to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. (Mary, there will be an immense amount of chaos and opposition around your baby.) The blessing of Jesus comes with suffering. Simeon concludes by saying to Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
If you follow Jesus, you will be blessed (i.e. it will be worth it). But, like Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.