Yesterday, I got a powerful lesson in reality. For the third time, I stood up a dear friend of mine whom I’d promised to help. Despite all the reminders I set for myself, I forgot about it. The trouble is that I have a condition that makes it extremely difficult for me to remember those kinds of commitments, even with the best of intentions. Obligations like this often vanish from my consciousness until it’s too late and I’m confronted with my mistake. I’m not a bad person; I’m not personally at fault for failing to remember. It’s my condition. The problem lies with my refusal to accept my limitations and not take on commitments that’ll put me in that kind of situation. In fact, it’s a refusal on my part to accept reality.
Much of the pain and sorrow people like you and me experience in this life has its source in just that: a refusal to accept reality as it is. We pretend that things are as we want them to be, rather than the way they actually are. Of course, we find it upsetting when our illusions lead us to failures. Yet, to a certain extent, all of us find at least some part of reality unacceptable. How often do we try to exercise talents and strengths that we don’t have, but wish we did? Or how often do we try to ignore the limitations we have and just try to power through? As I mentioned, the results of our behaving as though reality were different from what it is are predictable: unnecessary pain and sorrow. We don’t seem to learn. We continue to find aspects of life unacceptable, and even go so far as to project this delusion onto God. But God finds nothing in the real world unacceptable.
Consider this from this morning’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom: “For you [Lord] love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you could not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” The lesson here is that you don’t need to become different for God to accept you. Change isn’t a prerequisite for God’s love. After all, God didn’t create a perfect universe, he created an evolving one. God doesn’t love and care for the universe any less because it’s not perfect, and that goes for you and me as well. The universe is called into being to become perfect—as we are—but neither the universe nor we will ever achieve it. That’s just reality.
Spirituality is never static. We don’t ever become spiritual. Spirituality is a process—a growth process—that takes us from where we are in reality toward where, by the power of God’s grace, our potential suggests that we’re being called to go. Saint Paul is praying for us when he says in our second reading, “We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith, that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him…”
Change is not a prerequisite for God’s grace. It’s a consequence of it. There’s nothing we can do to make ourselves more acceptable to God than we already are. The people who we are right here and right now is our reality. Unlike us, God is in love with our reality, not our potential. God’s grace reaches us where we are, not where we think we ought to be; and one of the effects of God’s grace is to allow us to see ourselves as we really are. When we become upset that we’ve failed to live up to our own standards—like I did yesterday—we would do well to remember that the disappointment and frustration we may be feeling are just our ego’s reaction to grace bringing us back to reality.
The point here is that there’s nothing we can do to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace. The good news is that we don’t have to. God’s grace always meets us exactly where we are, so long as we’re open to it.
In older translations of today’s gospel, it sounded to me like Zacchaeus was justifying himself in front of Jesus and the crowd. What I heard was, “Half of my possessions I give to the poor and, if I have defrauded anyone, I repay it fourfold.” It seemed that Zacchaeus was saying, “Look folks, I’m the bad guy you thought I was.” So, I double-checked back to the original Greek. Our translation is correct. The verbs in the words attributed to Zacchaeus are in the future tense: “I shall give half of my possessions,” and “I shall repay it four times.” He wasn’t justifying himself; he was pledging to change. Because Zacchaeus, the money-grubbing tax collector, expended the effort to seek out Jesus, the Lord came to him right then and there without hesitation. The change of heart—the metanoia—that Zacchaeus had was his response to grace. Jesus didn’t require him to change before he’d come to him. The Lord’s acceptance of Zacchaeus unconditionally was the force that motivated his change.
Make no mistake about it: staying real is hard. It’s probably the hardest thing a spiritual seeker can do. Being brought back to reality hurts. Yet, in the long run, it’s a good hurt, a healing hurt, because it’s only in reality where we can encounter God. God doesn’t exist in the world of “if only.”