Don’t Not Pray to Be Spared Hardship!
Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s easy not to notice this, but for five Sundays in a row — the past two Sundays, today, and the next two Sundays — our second readings are all from the same chapter: one of the best known, most magnificent chapters in the entire Bible. It may be the second best-known chapter in the New Testament, after St. Paul’s great chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, that we hear at so many weddings.
These five readings over these five Sundays all come from the 8th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans — the first of St. Paul’s letters in canonical order in the New Testament, after the four Gospels and the book of Acts; the longest of St. Paul’s letters; maybe the most important; and written to the most important local church, the church at Rome.
In this letter St. Paul offers the most complete statement of his teaching, especially in the first seven chapters, where he builds a complicated, sustained argument about salvation by faith, not by works of law.
Romans comes to a climax in chapter 8, which opens with the great declaration:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
That’s where the chapter starts. Next Sunday the second reading opens with famous words that we’ve all heard so many times:
All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
So many people paraphrase those words: They say “Everything works out for good” or “Everything works for the best,” leaving out the part about loving God and being called according to his purpose!
And then two Sundays from now comes the great crescendo at the end of Romans 8:
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us…Neither death, nor life, nor angels…nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Triumph and Defeat
These words seem so triumphant, so uplifting — and they are! All things work for good for those who love God. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
But if we look just a bit closer at these five readings, if we look at them all together (easy not to do when we hear them spread out over five weeks), we’ll see that this glorious chapter of triumph is full of defeat, suffering, and weakness.
Let’s connect the dots. (And let me say in passing what a helpful practice it is to read through the Sunday readings each week, perhaps on Saturday afternoon or evening. If you Google “Mass readings,” they come right up at the US bishops website, USCCB.org. I’m not giving you homework! But God speaks to us here in Mass through his Word, and we hear the Word differently if we prepare our hearts beforehand.)
Two weeks ago, the first of these five readings told us:
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also.
Jesus triumphed over death. That triumph will be shared with us — if his Spirit, which we received in our baptism, lives in us.
That was two weeks ago. Last Sunday, the second of the five readings opened with the breathtaking words:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
What glory is that? The glory of our resurrection. “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” Our Lord says in the Gospel. Not only that, it’s the renewal of the world: a new heavens and a new earth. That’s what’s coming.
In “this present time,” though, we suffer. We groan within ourselves, St. Paul says, as we wait for the redemption of our bodies — and all of creation — this dying world that we live in — groans with us.
That was last Sunday.
Too Deep for Words
Today, in the third of the five readings, this theme of suffering and weakness comes into sharpest focus. Not only do we groan in suffering, the Spirit within us groans — interceding, praying for us in our suffering in prayers too deep for words.
Why? Because sometimes we don’t even know what to pray for.
Have you ever been there? The problem seems so hopeless. It could be illness or employment problems. It could be family trouble of some kind. It could be our own failings sabotaging us again and again. (St. Paul talks about that in Romans 7.) It could be problems in society, in our country, in the world — that may seem never to get any better, or might even be getting worse.
It could be the failings of Church leaders not dealing responsibly with sin and corruption in the Church — with the weeds that grow alongside the wheat in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel. Sometimes Church leaders are the weeds! God will separate the weeds and the wheat in the end, but in “this present time” weeds flourish. That can be hard to take.
What is it that eats away at your heart? The pain you almost can’t imagine really going away?
If only God would dissolve these problems in some dramatic, miraculous way! Maybe we’ve prayed for that miracle over and over. Sometimes miracles do happen! But what about when they don’t?
When Christ is Closest
I’d love to tell you that there’s some prayer you can pray, some novena or devotion, that never fails to bring about the good thing that we pray for. But that wouldn’t be prayer, it’d be magic.
Prayer doesn’t work that way. St. Paul didn’t always get what he prayed for. Even Jesus didn’t! Think of the Garden of Gethsemane. Neither do we.
What do we pray for then? What would God have us pray for? Sometimes we don’t know.
Who does know? The Holy Spirit. The Spirit knows, and within us he intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Just bringing our confusion and disappointment and pain to God is a prayer even when we don’t know what to pray about it. The Spirit knows. Our Father understands.
Did you ever notice how sometimes when things are bad, when we’re at our lowest, and we most want to feel God’s presence, it can feel like he’s a million miles away? Like he’s abandoned us? When in reality Christ is never closer to us than when things are bad, when we’re at our lowest, when we don’t feel his presence.
There’s a reason St. Paul tells us that anguish and distress and all kinds of bad things can never separate us from Christ — because sometimes it doesn’t feel that way! We can abandon Christ — through despair, through mortal sin — but Christ will never abandon us, least of all when we suffer. Suffering is the last thing that can separate us from him.
Don’t Not Pray to Be Spared Hardship!
We may face anguish and distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword. We may face disappointment, discouragement, depression, grief, sorrow.
We hope not. We pray not! Have you ever heard people say things like “Pray not to be spared hardship, but for the strength to endure hardship”? Don’t listen to that! Pray for strength to endure hardship, but also pray to avoid it if at all possible.
It’s right there at the end of the Our Father: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The word “temptation” means not just temptation to sin, but also any kind of trial or testing; “evil” means not just sin but also anything bad. We’re literally praying “Please don't let bad stuff happen to us.” That’s a good prayer.
This is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
When we ask to be delivered from the Evil One, we pray as well to be freed from all evils…of which he is the author or instigator. In this final petition, the Church brings before the Father all the distress of the world. Along with deliverance from the evils that overwhelm humanity, she implores the precious gift of peace and the grace of perseverance in expectation of Christ's return. (CCC 2854)
Pay attention today after the Our Father to the words of the prayer that the celebrant says afterward (the embolism, it’s called, because of how it’s inserted between the Our Father and the doxology):
Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil; graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress…
From back pain and high blood pressure and arthritis; from car trouble and expensive appliance repairs; from housing and employment worries; from identity theft and fraud; from isolation and loneliness; from depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide; from miscarriage and stillbirth; from illness and pandemic; and from all other woes in this valley of tears: good Lord, deliver us and all your human family.
Pray for deliverance, but when evils come and it may feel that God is a million miles away, trust that Christ is never closer to us than when we’re at our lowest. Trust him! Suffering is the last thing that could ever separate us from Christ.