Monday, August 29, 2011

Are we Christian disciples or would Jesus call us Satan?

As I was reflecting on yesterday’s gospel passage, it was the fact that Jesus called Simon Peter ‘Satan’ that seemed become a point of prolonged contemplation. Jesus, we know, had a real soft spot for Simon Peter, but at the same time, when it was clear to Jesus that he really missed the point of what Jesus was all about, Jesus did not hesitate to say it as it was, even to the extent of calling him ‘Satan’. It’s not that Peter was satanic by a long shot, but it was precisely that he missed the point of Jesus’ very purpose, which was to usher in the kingdom of God.

Peter had his own take on what the kingdom of God was about. For him, it was something that could not, should not and must not entail suffering of any kind, let alone being killed in the most gruesome and cruel way.

But I think this was not just Peter’s problem alone. In fact, there are a lot of Peter’s in the world. We are Peters whenever we want a plain sailing Christian life, and have a notion that the Christian life is one in which suffering and pain and anything that reminds us of the cross should be vanquished from our lives the moment we become baptized.

When I was in Singapore ministering as a priest, I often encountered many converts to Catholicism from the Taoist or Ancestral Worship background, and often, it was clear to me that though they had gone through the RCIA journey and had received the sacraments of initiation and were sacramentally living the Catholic life, in hidden reality, their view of God was still rather Taoist or steeped in Ancestral Worship categories.

It is most convenient to have God at our beck and call, and to have him answer all of our human needs. Perhaps the background that some had come from gave the idea that God will always answer prayers, especially if one were to ‘jump the hoops’ or do whatever one was instructed to do to appease the gods. When insufficiently catechized, the convert to Catholicism may be totally unaware that they have brought those categories of how god operates, and as it were, simply changed the face of their former deity to now have a Jewish appearance of Jesus, albeit with some Palestinian facial images, as would be expected of someone coming from Jewish stock.

This then becomes problematic when as a convert, God does not seem to answer prayers as ‘powerfully’ as when one was in one’s former religious belief. And I can fully appreciate the confusion and perhaps even disappointment one can experience when in the throes of suffering and pain and seeming hopelessness, one looks at the heavens and with fists clenched in rage, shout out “you are not as powerful as I thought you were, Jesus!” Indeed, in some of the responses to last week’s blog, there were some rather disappointed and pained Catholic converts who came to that conclusion that being Catholic turned out to be a disappointment that they had never anticipated.

In the gospel text of yesterday’s liturgy, Simon Peter clearly didn’t get it. For many of us, the process of catechesis and formation tries to help us to get it, to fully embrace the reality that God’s kingdom is really a process that involves a necessary struggle and a training, as some spiritual masters have put it. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the phrase ‘cheap grace’, when he reminds us that the grace of God requires a sort of a suffering on our part. This must be the cross that Jesus is speaking of. But we, unfortunately, want cheap grace.

In almost all areas of our lives, there is suffering and a carrying of some cross in some form. Think of the mother who sacrifices much for her family, or the artist who goes through blocks and blocks of marble to come to that block that finally enables him to carve out the perfect image in his mind; or the athlete who goes through months and months of rigorous training, enduring mind-numbing pain to be able to at the Olympics break a record and have that opportunity to stand at the top podium of the Gold Medalist; or the student who goes through the daily grind of study discipline and diligent work to finally make that breakthrough in understanding tough Theological arguments and concepts in order to make them real and relevant for the laity. These are sufferings, and it would be tempting to want to have them cheap.

I believe that many may want baptism to be the key to the magic door that makes everything smooth and easy, and all things to come our way. But when we think this way, unfortunately, Satan may be our hidden middle name.


  1. I'm always uncomfortable whenever I hear testimonies about miraculous healings. They inevitably end with "Praise God!!!" & the like. But that does not mean that those who are not healed are not blessed, & that God shouldn't be praised in those circumstances.

    Someone very close to me is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatment. She is a Protestant Christian & she has a lot of people "storming heaven to claim the miracle healing of the Lord" on her. Her mother & her Christian friends told me that they "believe the Lord will heal her of the cancer." I now listen quietly because it's so difficult to point out the grace of suffering & that she is beautiful, like Christ on the Cross, because she is still constantly generous with her love & concern for others despite enduring the riguers of chemotherapy. I did say once & was met by looks of disbelief at my supposed faithlessness in God & insensitivity towards her.

    & I pray that I'll learn to accept from the depths of my heart with "Why not me, God?" instead of whining "Why me, God?" & submit like Christ's "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  2. Dear Father,

    True masochists are few and far between. Whether or not influenced by the devil, it does make sense that no one wants to suffer for nothing. When faced with a difficult proposition, the pragmatist in me first says ‘And why am I doing this?’ And today your sharing seems to make not wanting to suffer in any way seem like a bad thing.

    I think people get angry at God because heaven is so often equated with perfection, beauty, love and angels. And people are suckers for miracles and miraculous healings. I suppose these type of notions contrast with the sad reality of our existence that each and every one of us has a cross to bear. And we make choices to bear that cross after some cost benefit analysis. It may be an extreme choice to accept God’s will that one is not destined to have children in this lifetime; or a choice to go overseas in hope of a better income so as to support a family; or even a choice on whether to pursue one’s career at the expense of children and family time.

    When faced with difficult choices, I find that discerning God’s will is a rather elusive exercise, so it’s boils down to basic common sense to me that we make our own beds and lie on them. There is no cause for complaint and maybe we should reduce our expectations that God is somehow going to intervene and make it all good because experience tells us that that the chances of that are improbable with only the tiniest margin of possibility. And as is the law with choices, two wrongs do not make a right. Seems like suffering is the way of the cross and the way to go. Though it seems quite anathema to me that we take Satan as our middle name when we want things to come smooth and easy. Feels like I have a multiple personality disorder with a devilish tendency that I have to keep trying to suppress. Sigh.


  3. Mathilda Chua, OLSSAugust 31, 2011 at 6:09 AM

    Dear Fr Luke,

    Don't despair - it's only meant for discussion, right? With prayer and a sense of wit and knowledge of topic at hand; you can make tough theology sound simple...

    Last week was a tough topic - IVF. I knew of a colleague who went thru' it and was successful. She told me of her struggle after sterilization and she remarried and how her 2nd hubby wanted a child with his surname. The injections were painful - needles were huge.

    Anyway, I will not judge her or Celine Dion. I will just pray for them to make the best of their lives on earth and that God will bless their souls and their children.

    But Fr - I didn't know the impact of IVF morally before your blog. Was sharing with my daughter and she asked what happens if naturally one conceives, doesn't the other eggs get wasted too. Menses is the crying of the womb when eggs are not fertilized. I suppose when it is natural - it is ok as God has his plans...

    Fr, please carry on to make life's choices simpler and morally sound for our future. I suppose our generation and the one before us had to decide on receiving the govt fund if couples stop at two. And just to get financial aid when it is thrown at you is a tough choice to make for some....

    Regarding AP's dilemma on working abroad - I believe there are horizons to be explored..take in the sights and experiences...I had an offer to work abroad and my boss deterred me saying that culture and parting were the toughest hurdles. Anyway, the award was shelved and I didn't have to make that choice. But we do look back wondering what will happen if I were to take up the challenge..It's all good food for thought.

    Regarding BE's predicament, it was nice of him to voice out - I think whatever is said is never wasted - deep down or when moments pass, his friend will cherish his compliment or what was intended...

    With God's love and blessings, take care Fr Luke.
    -Mat.(OLSS just spent a day to go thru' the revised roman missal - looking forward to bridging closer the relationship with God during worship & praise...)

  4. Your post gives much food for thought – surely suffering cannot be good in itself?....or is suffering to be pursued rather than avoided ? What then is ‘’good’’ in suffering ? Some say – it arouses compassion among the spectators and leads to acts of charity/mercy...and for the sufferer –a submission of the will to the will of God ....a great beauty of spirit results.....but a story in Children’s classics comes to mind - what I believe is a simple but profound truth......”Suffering makes you more real.” Here’s an extract : -
    ( The velveteen rabbit- (in story of that title )was more real than newer toys. Why ? Because it suffered. Suffering makes you more real.)
    “Real isn’t how you are made,”said the Skin Horse. “ It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”
    “Does it hurt ?” asked the Rabbit.
    “ Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
    “ Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, “ he asked, “or bit by bit ?”
    “It doesn’t happen all at once,”said the Skin Horse. “ You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. “
    Thank Fr Luke for your sharing . God bless you

  5. Dear Tessa,

    This is the first time I'm exposed to "The Velveteen Rabbit". The story is just so apt & so beautiful.

    I also want to add that I've been following Father Luke's blog for nearly 2 years now & I've come to eagerly anticipate your comments as much Father's entries each week.

    Thank you for your sharing.

  6. “Get behind me, Satan!” says our Lord.

    Our Lord is saying this to me on countless occasions. He is saying this to me on those days when I forget to thank him and to believe my success and prosperity are created by my own hands. He is saying this is to me on those days when I idolise him as a warrior and king who I am counting on to do the battles for me, be it about my work, the people I dislike or even my health. He is saying this to me on those days I choose to hide my little crosses because they are small sins which I am sure Jesus will not bother to look – He died on the Cross for bigger things. He is saying to me on those days when I truly believe my way is better than the Church’s. The occasions when I don’t get who my God is, are countless.

    Fr Luke, I am a convert. And I did mistaken my God as idols I pick from my when-in-demand shelf. On good days, I pray for idol-luck. On bad days, I pray to the idol that will relieve me from suffering.

    Returning to your question, what then would make us disciples and for Jesus not to call us Satan in moments when we are supposed to be carrying our crosses? I believe the answer is stewardship. It is not just being a good steward to the talents God has bestowed on each of us. A good steward recognises that every moment is a gift. Even in moments of suffering, we have to trust that the Lord, who is not the cause of this suffering, is using that moment to create a greater good. A good steward is to see God and to thank God in every moment. Wasn’t it not too long ago that Jesus stood on the Mount and taught us how to live such moments? He told us that he saw blessedness in all of us in all situations. He is still telling us. He is the King who doesn’t give us immediate answers to our brokenness, our mourning, and our meekness. Instead, he joins us in our anguish and taught us to see blessings in these moments.

    Hence, “Get behind me, Satan” serves a reminder to all of us that in our moments of despair and suffering, it is easy to forget the blessedness inside us and to forget who our God really is.