It is significant — and no accident — that in the letter where St. Paul has to deal most extensively with “putting on the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians), the apostle finds himself dealing with a fractious and foolish Church that is given reckoning by the light of natural reason unillumined by the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
|We are called to give up earthly loves to follow God's will. Shutterstock
He fights factionalism, worldly thinking, a congregation that gets drunk at Mass, denies the Resurrection, welcomes a guy who is sleeping with his own stepmother, is fighting over who has the coolest charisms, and is taking each other to court — along with a dozen other ridiculous squabbles. Again and again throughout this letter and 2 Corinthians, we will find Paul tearing out what little hair he has left as he pleads with the Corinthians to grow up and start thinking with the mind of Christ:
“We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms. Now the natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone. For ‘who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.
“Brothers, I could not talk to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were unable to take it. Indeed, you are still not able, even now, or you are still of the flesh. While there is jealousy and rivalry among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving in an ordinary human way?” (1 Cor 2:12-3:3).
Elsewhere, he will sum up the difference between the mind of the flesh and the mind of Christ this way:
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth” (Col 3:1-2).
Pleasing God first
St. Paul, as is typical, is not just making this up, but getting it from Jesus, who likewise tells us that we must acquire from him a new mind and a new way of thinking that transcends mere natural human reason since human reason, good as it is, is not ordered toward God apart from the Holy Spirit.
So Jesus will, for instance, tell us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:19-21).
Ultimately, it will all come down to the law of love, of course:
“One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘The first is this: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’
“The scribe said to him, ‘Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, “He is One and there is no other than he.” And “to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself” is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Mk 12:28-34).
Putting aside earthly loves
But the trick is knowing how to obey that law when our intellect is darkened, our appetites disordered and our will weak due to sin. God’s will is often very counterintuitive, particularly since we are inclined to put earthly loves far ahead of the love of God.
So Jesus challenges our love of family, tribe, political allegiance, country and every other earthly tie by saying, “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26).
Obviously, the One who commands us to love neighbor as self does not literally mean by this that we are to wish ill to others. But he does emphatically mean that we are to put to death any desire have to be please others or ourselves more than pleasing God.
Docility to Christ’s will
The other huge challenge Jesus offers us is to be (gulp) docile to his will. And this is particularly challenging since Jesus has chosen to bestow his authority on his Church, despite the fact that his Church is and always has been full of fools and sinners. It was on Simon — the man who denied him and whom he himself rebuked as “Satan” — that Jesus bestowed the name “Peter” and the promise that he would build the Church on him and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
It was to the pack of cowards and dumbbells who deserted him in his most desperate hour that he gave the promise that “in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28).
And, for our sake, it was to them he gave the promise that, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Mt 10:40). These apostles appointed successors whenever they founded a church (Acts 14:23), and those successors were charged with the task of guarding the deposit of faith handed on to them.
The problem is that deposit of faith contains hard truths we don’t want to hear, such as: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).
It calls us to do really hard things like forgive and even love our enemies (yes, even that jerk), take up our cross and follow Jesus.
It calls us to buck popular opinion — meaning the opinion of people we really want to please — and do not merely the right thing according to earthly lights, but the right thing according to heavenly lights. What’s the difference? The difference is between Peter telling Jesus he must not be crucified and Peter following Jesus into the arena in Rome to be crucified upside down.
Listening to the Church
To be docile to Christ’s will means to make a real attempt to listen to and ponder his teaching as it comes to us from the Church. In our culture, hard teachings are typically dodged by the expedient of invoking “primacy of conscience” (among progressive dissenters) and “prudential judgment” (among conservative dissenters).
Yes, primacy of conscience and prudential judgment exist. But they do not mean, “Feel free to blow off the Church’s guidance when it bugs you.” They both presume a real and serious attempt to engage the Church’s teaching and let it challenge your prejudices, presuppositions, loves, hates and fears.
Obviously this does not mean that every syllable some bishop utters is infallible truth. But it does mean that when the Church is teaching from the Tradition, even on non-dogmatic matters, we should listen and weigh, not simply react like Peter chewing Jesus out because he seems counterintuitive.
Paradoxically, docility to the Church is, as G.K. Chesterton noted, the “only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” It requires not “checking our brain at the door” but full and active engagement of the mind — the mind of Christ.
Mark Shea is the author of Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/.