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Father Vincent Hawkswell

Our enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil

Voices May 13, 2019

How can we avoid sin when it is all around us, when everything urges us in that direction? asks Father Hawkswell? For one thing, “God knows our situation.” (Pxhere photo)

5th Sunday of Easter, Year C
First Reading: Acts 14:21b-27
Second Reading: Rev 21:1-5a
Gospel Reading: Jn 13:1, 31-33a, 34-35

In this Sunday’s First Reading, we hear that Paul and Barnabas “strengthened the souls of the disciples” by saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God.”

“Persecution” is not just something that used to happen in ancient Rome, or is only happening today in other parts of the world. We, too, suffer persecution, here and now, from the world, the flesh, and the devil.

We are experiencing pressure from “the world” when we say “Everybody’s doing it” as a reason for doing it ourselves. There is the pressure to miss Mass on Sundays to play sports or keep our job, or to speak or act dishonestly at work or school to keep “in” with the “right” people.

“The world” is clearly in league with “the flesh” in its temptations against purity: to dress immodestly to be fashionable, or to commit other sins against purity to keep our boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses.

And it is not exaggeration to describe as “persecution” the barrage of pornographic pictures as we pay for our groceries, the over-exposure of the body as we talk to our friends, the immorality intrinsic to even a “good” movie, the dirty jokes we hear even from “nice” people.

“It can’t be that bad,” we object. “Everybody does it.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are,” one devil tells another in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, as long as “their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light and out into the nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards will do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

How can we avoid sin when it is all around us, when everything urges us in that direction?

First, God knows our situation. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as we say in this Sunday’s Psalm. “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”

Second, it is only “through many persecutions” that we can “enter the kingdom of God.” In this Sunday’s Gospel Reading, after Judas had left and Jesus knew that now he was facing arrest, condemnation, torture, and death, he spoke only of “glorification.”

Third, the struggle is worth it. God gives us enough time on earth to show him that we love him above everything else; then he will take us to himself. In his kingdom, all things will be new; the old things will have passed away, as we hear in the Second Reading. There will be no more sin, death, mourning, crying, or pain; sin will have been conquered, and everything will be centred on God, for all eternity.

I am not suggesting that we develop persecution complexes or see ourselves as martyrs. That can lead to the dangerous frame of mind in which we view any opposition from humans as approval from God. Indeed, we should not think about ourselves at all; our attention should be fixed on God.

However, I am suggesting that we take stock of our world to see just how it urges us in the opposite direction. For example, most of the public media completely ignore God and his kingdom, as if they do not exist, and the same objection can be made to much of the Internet’s content.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, “It is time to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture.

He wrote, “It is time that the Christian reacquire the consciousness of belonging to a minority and of often being in opposition to what is obvious, plausible, and natural for that mentality which the New Testament calls – and certainly not in a positive sense – the ‘spirit of the world.’” 

It is time, he said, “to find again the courage of nonconformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture.”