The Standard Expected of Me

“Living God, stand by me. Hold me up. Be my strength when I am tired, my inspiration when I am bored, my life when I am listless. Living God, I cannot always meet the standard expected of me, cannot always be the personality I am known for. Abba when I fail, Abba when I stumble, I will rest in your presence.”

—Edwina Gately[1]

This is a lovely prayer. I certainly relate to calling on the Lord to “be my strength when I am tired, my inspiration when I am bored, my life when I am listless”… and to calling to my Divine Dad when I no longer can hold myself up as an adult “when I fail…,when I stumble,” and I need to crawl up and rest in His lap.

However, the sentence that caught my attention was: “Living God, I cannot always meet the standard expected of me, cannot always be the personality I am known for.” Am I always playing up to “the standard expected of me,…the personality I am known for?” And who is doing the “expecting” and “knowing”?

Three possibilities present themselves: God, others and myself.

 

God:

The sentence starts by a petition to the “Living God.” Thus, one would expect that He was the one setting the standard, measuring the personality. But is this the case?

Certainly, Hebrew Scripture testifies that God knows us intimately:

  • Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. (Jer 1:5) [2]
  • It is you alone who know the heart of every human being. (1Kgs 8:39)
  • The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works. (Ps 33:15)
  • The LORD knows the plans of man; they are like a fleeting breath. (Ps 94:11)
  • He searches out the abyss and penetrates the heart; their secrets he understands. (Sir 42:18)
  • I, the LORD, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds. (Jer 17:10)
  • LORD of hosts, you test the just, you see mind and heart. (Jer 20:12)

Jesus certainly did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well. (Jn 2:24-25)

And, indeed, we know that God set standards for us to meet. Being created in His image and likeness, one of His most frequent analogies is you shall make and keep yourselves holy, because I am holy. [Lev 11:44] In case we didn’t get the message, He repeats its it in the next sentence: you shall be holy; for I, the LORD, am holy [Lev 11:45] and later in the same book, when outlining the rules of conduct: The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy. [Lev 19:1-2] and, in case we missed it: you shall be holy; for I, the LORD, am holy [Lev 20:26] Finally, in case we don’t read Leviticus, the Holy Spirit has Peter in the New Testament state in his First Epistle: as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I [am] holy.” [1Pet 1:15-16]

More generally, He expected us to obey Him because we love Him. Love the LORD, your God, therefore, and keep his charge, statutes, ordinances, and commandments always. (Deut 11:1)[3]

So, God knows me intimately and sets standards for me…Is He the one to which the author of our prayer refers? Certainly a viable candidate. But before answering that question, we ought to at least look at the other two candidates: myself and you.

 

You:

The you is really the “we,” the society in general. We certainly set standards…for just about everything, from how green and weed free my lawn can and, by implication, should be, to what insurance I should carry if I am smart and wish to save money. Everything from the underwear I “should” be putting on in the morning to the pill I “should” be taking at night to be better in bed is standardized, set out for us to admire and approve. Note that in each advertisement to which we are subjected, the implication is that if I don’t choose this particular product, I am behind the times, not in with the in crowd, certainly not too swift and definitely, definitely not to be invited to the next do, whatever that is.

We even package the news so that I will (a) hear only about certain events we consider important and shaping the future of the world in which the “we” have determined that they do, and by implication, everyone else should, want to live and (b) hear only the interpretation or spin on those events which we deem to be the “right” or “left” one, depending on our political persuasion. Of course, by implication, if I do not listen to the formatted news, believe without question the highly edited edition they dole out, follow their norm, the guidelines set by the majority of society or at least a “non-discriminated against minority” of society, I will, forefend, not “always meet the standard expected of me.” Horrors!!! How much different than the freedom of conscience, of will, of choice, of action, preached by the Pope…[4]

The same, of course, goes for “the personality I am known for.” If, according to you, I can’t quite make the grade, ah, too bad, I guess I’m just not quite with it, not texting with the in crowd, not surfing the “in” sites, not smiling with perfectly aligned ivories. Of course, coming up to this standard personality is what society doles out pills for, either to ease into the grade or to escape from the reality that imposes such stringent models to mimic. Little depressed, need something to take that cutting edge off of society’s scalpel for a while. We have an Rx for that. Aren’t quite jolly enough, high enough, enjoying yourself enough, we’ve got something for that too…not quite legal, but hey, everybody’s doing it…so how about me? Is that the personality I wish to be known for?

 

Me:

Well, society certainly has standards it expects me to reach, keep, whatever. But does it truly know me…do you truly know me. “Indeed I do!” comes the indignant reply, “I can pigeon-hole you precisely: you are one of 7.325 billion people on this planet, of 320.09 live in the United States, and of 625,741 in Vermont. Of these, you are one of the 596,292 that are Caucasian, and of the 293,649 that are male. You are one of the 9,391 who are between 70 and 74,…etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum…”until society and you come down to “You are Paul who live at this address with this wife and these dogs and you do such and such….” But do all these statistics, individually or combined, define me? Would the equivalent define you? My point exactly! So, you haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins or circled my earth in my capsule…been through all my sorrows and joys, all my sins and all those guilt driven repentances, etc.

But this is not the exterior that you may imagine you see.

“I give you the impression that I’m secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without, that confidence is my name and coolness my game, that the water’s calm and I’m in command and that I need no one, but don’t believe me. My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask, ever-varying and ever-concealing. Beneath lies no complacence. Beneath lies confusion, and fear, and aloneness….I’m afraid you’ll think less of me, that you’ll laugh, and your laugh would kill me. I’m afraid that deep-down I’m nothing and that you will see this and reject me. So I play my game, my desperate pretending game, with a facade of assurance without and a trembling child within…A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls….Who am I, you may wonder? I am someone you know very well. For I am every man you meet and I am every woman you meet.”[5]

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to know me. As Finn points out in his poem, your “glance is precisely my salvation, my only hope, and I know it. That is, if it’s followed by acceptance, if it’s followed by love. It’s the only thing that can liberate me from myself, from my own self-built prison walls, from the barriers I so painstakingly erect.”

 

You and Me….

Of course, part of my problem is that the very standards to which you and society expect me to adhere are the ones that I assimilate, acknowledge and attempt to abide by. You and I set them up and therefore you and I are both the judge and the judged.

But if, simultaneously, you are “my only hope” and I am yours, we are caught between a rock and a hard place…you will judge or accept me and ditto for me judging or accepting you, and we may scorn one another when we “cannot always be the personality…[we are] known for” or we may love each other as we are which is what we do to our family, friends and relatives, but not necessarily or at least not automatically to anyone else, especially our enemies.

Realistically, being human, we will probably do both, accept and reject each other, love and scorn each other. But as Jesus points out, this is a cop out: if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. [Lk 6:32-33] Since we are sinners, He has our modus operandi pegged perfectly. From Cain and Abel onward, even blood brother has turned against brother. You and I do not always love each other as neighbor as ourselves. But that’s nothing new. Neither do I love myself as I should nor probably do you love yourself unreservedly. And that is something with which we will have to live. “Following God’s commands is rarely a cakewalk. Love my neighbor? Has God met the guy next door?”[6] This doesn’t mean we can’t strive against judging and for loving. Just means that the striving doesn’t always win out.

The problem is that our personal striving is also played out in society, between the right wingers and the left wingers, conservatives and radicals, coal miners and conservationists, legals and illegals, white and black. And on the international stage between Palestinians and Israelis, Russians and Ukrainians, ISIS and anti-ISIS, USA and Russia, the insurgents and the entrenched, the rebels and the governments.

So, we seem to have exhausted the possibilities without coming up with a satisfactory solution. “We often do not know why God brings certain events into our lives. When circumstances are tough to bear or people are hard to love, we might ask whether God has our best interests at heart.”[7]

 

St. Paul’s answers

So, how can we answer whether God has our best interests at heart. And more to the point, do those best interests can address this stupid, unrealistic, unattainable standard expected of me, this personality for which I am known but which is, in reality, not really me?…St. Paul offers two answers to this conundrum: weakness and faith.

Weakness:

We know from Paul’s writings that he continually battles the temptation of pride: And I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter. About this person I will boast, but about myself I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. Although if I should wish to boast, I would not be foolish, for I would be telling the truth. But I refrain, so that no one may think more of me than what he sees in me or hears from me because of the abundance of the revelations. [2Cor 12:3-7] He is dealing with the reality of his blessings, the “revelations” which are the “truth,” and he knows he himself is “this person” about which he might “boast.” But he knows deep down in his heart that equally real is the fact that these are not truly “his” accomplishments, but God’s, that he did nothing to merit them, that they were a completely gratuitous gift which were given from God’s Providence, not earned by him.

God, however, helped him cope with this temptation, again through His Providence: Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh[8] was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me. [2Cor 12:7-8] This bears reflection that the bad things that happen in my life are probably there through God’s Providence, for a purpose.

And God even explains to Paul why He is leaving the affliction: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Two reasons: (a) God never asks us to do anything for which He does not give us sufficient grace to accomplish, Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God [2Cor 3:5] and (b) the second part of the sentence makes more sense if we add identifiers to “power,” and “weakness”: for God’s power is made perfect in my weakness.”[9] The Greek is: “for My, i.e. God’s, power is being perfected in [your, i.e. Paul’s] infirmity with the greatest relish[10].” Paul says the same thing slightly differently in another famous verse: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Phil 4:13]

I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. [2Cor 12:9] Thus, for Paul and for us, weakness, failure, the ever present lack, the emptiness, is what is glorious, it is in what he exalts, he relishes, he boasts about. Why? Because, then whatever good is shown forth, whatever love is demonstrated for all to see, whatever wisdom, charity, humility is on display in his words, his actions, his life, is not from fumbling feeble, finite Paul but the direct result, a potent witness to the power, the grace, the justice and peace of Christ dwelling in him shining forth.

He can then say without being completely nuts, over the top or irrational: Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ. [2Cor 12:10] Why? Because in all these seeming failures, these inabilities, these setbacks, these obstacles, his own finiteness is blazingly evident; but the fact that they all ultimately lead to advancing the cause of Christ, spreading the Kingdom, witnessing that there is more at work here than just mortal powers, means they were indeed done for the sake of Christ, His Kingdom, His Word, His Glory, for they were done by His power, the power of His Spirit working out the salvation of the world through, with and in the limitations of mankind. Thus, Paul can say without hesitation, without need for explanation or interpretation, as a statement of reality: for when I am weak, then I am strong. [2Cor 12:10]   As he says in another place: But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. [2Cor 4:7]

Thus, that “standard by which I am to be judged,” both by myself and by God, if not by the world/society, is not success, glistening teeth and a plastic smile, but weakness, obedience to the best of my limited and finite ability, regardless of the outcome, regardless of whether either what I undertake or I myself am a success or failure, remembering that even God’s only begotten Son’s crucifixion was evidence of the greatest failure in history before the resurrection. I will therefore trust in God that He has the outcome which is most loving, most caring, and ultimately will lead to my greatest happiness. That personality for which I am known, the persona I drag around with me and haul out whenever I am confronted with the same “society,” that stage mask I flip on in public, is no longer necessary, can be junked, and I can just let all of the real me hang out…for that is who God lovingly created, who God cherished and died for, I am who God loves.

Faith

What about faith as an answer to false standards and pseudo personalities? Perhaps the answer is at least hinted at in the last line of the prayer: Abba when I fail, Abba when I stumble, I will rest in your presence. Weakness certainly has to do with failing, with stumbling, but how about faith…is that resting in Your presence, God?

Let’s look at faith as freedom from the law[11]. Paul dealt with this conundrum in Romans. He first points out, using the example of covetousness, that the law is what identifies, defines, makes explicit, what thoughts, words and deeds are sinful: What then can we say? That the law is sin? Of course not! Yet I did not know sin except through the law, and I did not know what it is to covet except that the law said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetousness. [Rom 7:7-8a] He even goes so far as to say that apart from the law sin is dead, [Rom 7:8b] that is, sin requires the law to define itself, to give it existence, potency, essence.

While normally when Paul speaks of the law, he is usually referring to the Mosaic Law, he does not let those who did not know that particular form of the Law off the hook: For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus. [Rom 2:14-16, see also Heb 10:16; Jer 31:33]

Thus, Jews and Greeks, Judeo or Christian, Believer or non-Believer, we all are hard-wired to know right and wrong through the law that is written in our hearts and conscience.

So, how are we to get out of this conundrum? As soon as I recognize the law within and/or without, I become subject to it and, if I transgress it, I sin. I once lived outside the law, but when the commandment came, sin became alive; then I died, and the commandment that was for life turned out to be death for me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it put me to death. [Rom 7:9-11]

I am then caught up in a moral Catch-22: We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. [Rom 7:14-17] I know that the Law is spiritual, that the Law is Good, that I want to follow the Law. But somehow the signals get bollixed up inside me and I do the opposite. I am just like a teenager, if there is a curfew, it gnaws at me until I test it; a boundary I am not “allowed” to cross is like a red flag waiving in front of a bull, it is there to be charged. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.[12] [Rom 7:22-23]

But there is hope and that hope is in our faith, our belief in Jesus Christ, that He is our salvation, our justification. Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have achieved it, that is, righteousness that comes from faith; but that Israel, who pursued the law of righteousness, did not attain to that law?[Rom 9:30-31] Christ is the end of the law for the justification of everyone who has faith. [Rom 10:4]

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. [Eph 2:8-9] It is not the works of the Law, the keeping of the Law, that we will be saved; for as we have seen, that is impossible, since Law revealed the boundary which we transgressed, the sin in which we are mired. However, if we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. [1Jn 1:9]

On the other hand, faith as shown in works, not of the Law, but of the Lord, the works of charity: If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [James 2:15-17] Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [1Cor 15:58]

So the standard expected of me is not the standard of the world, it is not the standard even of myself, it is Jesus’ standard of charity by which we will be judged: Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. [Mt 25:34-36] For whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. [1Jn 4:20]

For if Christ may make His home in your hearts through faith, [Eph 3:17] if I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me, [Gal 2:20], then truly whatever I did for one of these least brothers of mine, I did for Jesus, Himself. [Mt 25:40] This is the standard that, unfortunately, I cannot always meet.

And what about “the personality I am [suppose to be] known for:” if Christ has made his home in me, if I am crucified with Christ, that is, if I have died to self and I no longer live but He lives in me, then it is His personality which I should be known: I have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator…heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. [Col 3:10, 12-14]

Unfortunately, as Mahatma Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” So I “cannot always be the personality I am known for.” It is at that juncture, that oft occurring fall from grace that we must continually pray the rest of Edwina Gately prayer: “Abba when I fail, Abba when I stumble, I will rest in your presence.” Have mercy on me. Amen.

_______________________________

[1] Quoted from “Prayer,” “First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, Mt 8: 23-27,” Daily Inspiration from JesuitPrayer.org, June 30, 2015

[2] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[3] The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with this if/then refrain, i.e. in return for loving and obeying Him, God will… Dt 7:12–14; 10:12–13; 28:1–14; Lv 26:3–5; Jer 5:24; Ps 104:14, is but a sample.

[4] “Be free people! What do I mean? Perhaps it is thought that freedom means doing everything one likes, or seeing how far one can go…. This is not freedom. Freedom means being able to think about what we do, being able to assess what is good and what is bad, these are the types of conduct that lead to development; it means always opting for the good. Let us be free for goodness. And in this do not be afraid to go against the tide, even if it is not easy! Always being free to choose goodness is demanding, but it will make you into people with a backbone who can face life, people with courage and patience…. Be men and women with others and for others: true champions at the service of others.” – Pope Francis, “The Culture of Good,” The Church of Mercy: His First Major Book: A Message of Hope for All People, 135-136

[5] Charles C. Finn, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying,” September 1966; poetrybycharlescfinn.com/pages/please-hear-what-im-not-saying

[6] Brian Harper, “God’s Good Grace,” “The Lord will provide.” Gn 22:14; Daily Inspiration from JesuitPrayer.org, July 2, 2015

[7] Ibid. “That said, most of us can also recall instances that, while painful, led to unforeseen blessings. In Abraham’s case, a demonstrated willingness to follow God at all costs brought new depth to his faith.”

[8] “Variously interpreted as a sickness or physical disability, a temptation, or a handicap connected with his apostolic activity. But since Hebrew “thorn in the flesh,” like English “thorn in my side,” refers to persons (cf. Nm 33:55; Ez 28:24), Paul may be referring to some especially persistent and obnoxious opponent. The language of 2 Cor 12:7–8 permits this interpretation.” Note on 2Cor: 12:7 New American Bible, revised edition [NABRE] (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., 2010), as posted on the USCCB site: http://www.usccb.org/bible/2corinthians/12#55012007-1

[9] See Ps 28:7-8; Is 12:2; 33:2; 40:29-31; 41:10; Hab 3:9; 2Tim 1:7; Acts 1:8; Heb 4:16, etc.

[10] “with the greatest relish” is normally seen to modify Paul’s boasting in the next sentence and is translated most gladly. However, while I do not know Greek, at least the juxtaposition of the adverb to “is being perfected” may raise the wonderful possibility, if remote, that it is to God’s enjoyment of perfecting us that ἥδιστα refers. To me, this makes more sense, for it seems more in keeping with God’s love and concern shown in His explanation to Paul.

[11] Note that the “law” can also be the mores of society, those written, but especially those unwritten codes by which we navigate our way in our world.

[12] And we are all in the same boat: All have gone astray; all alike are perverse. Not one does what is good, not even one. [Ps 14:1–3; Rom 3:10–11; Ps 53:2–4; Eccl 7:20.] John puts the nail in our coffin when he says: If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [1Jn 1:8]

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