In the first lesson we examined our ultimate purpose and the true meaning of our life, which is having a good relationship with God. We thought about how God is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect, all good and GOD LOVES US each individually.
In order to grow in the spiritual life it is very helpful to realize that God loves us right now while we are still imperfect and/or sinners (and we are all imperfect and sinners to one degree or another). We do not need to earn God's love by becoming "good enough" first. That doesnt mean that He completely accepts all parts of us as we are, but that He wants to work with us to help us become the best person we can be and as holy as we can be. He wants us eventually to become perfect as He is perfect.
The more we realize the depth of God's love for us and His desire to have a strong relationship with us, the more we will be drawn to love God in return. We just need to accept His love and love Him in return. While we may have to be careful about opening ourselves up to people, with God it is different. We can open our hearts completely to God and He will fill us with his love and will not reject us. In fact, He is waiting for us to come to Him, even with all our wounds, imperfections, faults and sins so He can heal us and help us to become the person He made us to be.
I point this out because some people tend to feel "not good enough" for God's love or think they have to earn it, maybe because of strict teachers or parents, maybe because of guilt for sins they've committed or even as a temptation from the devil. God loves you and me right now just the way we are. Also it is OK to make mistakes as only God is perfect and mistakes are not sins. Hopefully we learn from our mistakes.
In lesson #2 we will review the basics of our faith in order to help us (if we haven't already) make the most important decision we can make in this life and for the next, which is deciding whether we will follow God and what place God will have in our lives. Then in lesson #3 we will learn more about prayer.
||Prayer: Heavenly Father, we ask you to help us realize your great love for us and to help us decide to always love you and follow your will in our lives. Please bless us and forgive us for all our sins. Help us to be all we were meant to be and to make it to our true home in Heaven someday. We put our trust in you and your great mercy and love for us. Amen.
The overall purpose of these lessons is help us grow in closer union with God. To do this it is helpful to have a good understanding of our faith. At the same time we don't want to focus just on learning ideas, but on putting what we learn into practice. The Bible tells us that a faith that is not put into practice is worthless.
God asks that we believe in Him, trust in Him and love Him above all things and to do His will. If we really believe in God we will want to learn all we can about Him so that we can love Him more and do what He would like us to do.
The famous American author, Mark Twain, once said: "Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand." (Just an aside, even though Mark Twain often pointed out the faults he saw regarding religion, he did spend 12 years researching and writing a novel on St. Joan of Arc and considered it his most important and greatest work.) His quote also points out a problem that Bible interpretation is not always easy. As Catholics we are blessed to have the Church as the authentic interpreter of Scripture and the Bible warns about how private interpretation can lead us astray. "Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation". 2 Peter 1:20
Since we don't want to take God and his revelations to us lightly, we do need to take time to study. Here are some essentials for all Catholics to read and study:
I recommend that you bookmark the following websites for future reference:
The Bible: The most important written work is the Bible because it is God's inerrant (without error) word to us. Since it is God's word, it should be the main book we read and meditate on in our lives. Psalm 1:1-3 says: "Blessed is the man who doesnt walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in Yahwehs law. On his law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither. Whatever he does shall prosper." Click here for the Vatican's website online version with a concordance from www.vatican.va: New American Bible.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church: To help us understand what the Bible means, a good summary of our faith and the official teachings of the Catholic Church can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church . I like the search function included with the online version at St. Charles Borromeo's Catholic Church website here. If you have questions on the faith, you can type in a keyword and easily find references. Do you ever hear something in the news, from friends, or even from the pulpit and wonder if it is true or the correct teaching of the Church? The Catechism is a good place to check. For recent statements by the Vatican you can go to www.vatican.va. Don't go by news reports on the secular media to learn your faith as they are often distorted or inaccurate. Go to the source rather than someone else's interpretation and get the official teachings and pronouncements. The media often doesn't tell the whole story and sometimes gives a distorted view of the Catholic faith.
Also the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is online at the Vatican website and can be accessed by the link above. On June 28, 2005 Pope Benedict XVI authorized this document. He wrote, "The Compendium, which I now present to the Universal Church, is a faithful and sure synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It contains, in concise form, all the essential and fundamental elements of the Churchs faith."
||Reading Assignment: Before continuing the lesson, please click on the following link and read Part One, Section One "I Believe... We Believe", Chapters 1, 2 and 3 of the "Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church". (It isn't very long and is located on the Vatican website.)
Some things to consider...
The highest good God can give us is Himself.
God loves us so much that He created us and the Earth for us. He sustains us from day to day and invites us to a loving relationship with Him, but He leaves it up to us to decide if we want that relationship. Love, to be real love, must be free and God forces no one to love Him. It wouldnt be love if He programmed everyone to do loving actions without free choice. We would be like robots and that wouldn't be love. Understanding free will also helps us to understand why there is evil in the world as evil comes from sin and the free choice of men and angels. God hates sin and made us rather to love Him and one another, but some freely choose to not follow God's ways. In fact we have all sinned, the Bible says, and fallen short of the glory of God and that is why we need Jesus Christ who came to save us from our sins.
Free will means that we are free to choose. For example, we are free to love or not to love God and others; we are not forced. We are free to choose what we will treasure, seek and do in this life... either good or evil... the path of life or the path of death. Free will does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want and God will still be pleased with us. It is important for us to come to a realization of what is truly good and true (i.e. God's truth and God's will) so we can choose wisely. But it also involves a decision of our will to either serve God or not to serve. Satan and his followers decided, "I will not serve". People who love God choose to serve Him who they love.
Our Most Important Choice in Life
The biggest realization we can have in life is to discover that God is our ultimate good and ultimate need as God created us that way. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man to teach and guide us and to open up Heaven for us by dying on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. As a good Father, God desires very much that we make a decision to love Him and follow His perfect ways because He wants us to be happy.
For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every man according to his works. Matt 16:26-27
Therefore we have a choice and we should take it very seriously as the most important decision in our entire life which affects us not just now but for all eternity (yes, forever and ever with no end, either for good or bad). Here is our ultimate choice:
Do we accept the invitation from God, our Creator, to accept His love for us and love Him in return, and to obey His commandments, which are for our own good?
I pray that we all have said "yes" or will say yes to this wholeheartedly and decide to put God in the number one place in our lives (with the help of God's grace). When we put God in the top place in our lives, all else will be fall into its proper place as well.
Lets take a moment to ponder this important question
something many of us have already decided to do... which is to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and to make God the top priority of our lives. This isn't just a one-time decision, but a choice we continue to live for the rest of our lives.
As followers of Jesus Christ, as long as we live we are in need of further transformation until we become perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. As someone once said, God loves us as we are right now but He loves us too much to let us stay this way.
Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. Matt 5:48
We do not have to earn God's love, as we already have it. But love is a two-way street. In order to be in a loving relationship with God, we need to love God in return or else it isn't a loving relationship. Also I want to make sure that everyone who has decided to embark on this spiritual formation program has actually made a decision and commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ AND understand what that means. It doesnt just mean that we've said a short prayer and then continue to do the sinful things the way we've always done, or have been baptized and then continue a life of sin, or go to church on Sundays and forget about God the rest of the week.
For example, some say that in order to be saved all you have to do is to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, say a prayer, confess this to others, and then you are saved. While this can be a good starting point, there is more to it. Being "saved" also includes obeying the commandments and doing God's will. It is good to be become a member of the Church... but it is not sufficient to be saved. We need to work on our salvation like Philippians 2:12 says: Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. We need to do what Jesus tells us to do and persevere until the end to make it to Heaven, which is what being "saved" ultimately means.. i.e. getting to Heaven.
Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 7:21
We have God's grace to help us, so we don't do it alone. The Bible says "with God all things are possible" no matter what our weaknesses or past sins. God wants to forgive us for everything, to heal us and wants to be our God and best friend. Jesus is a bigger Savior than we are a sinner. God wants us to come to Him for forgiveness and a new start.
So accepting Jesus as our Lord, being baptized and joining the Church are important steps, but they must be followed by making Jesus the Lord of our life each day. And that includes obeying everything He tells us to do to the best of our knowledge and with the help of God's grace which gives us the power we need. Lip service isn't enough. Yes, we are still in God's grace as long as we do not commit any serious sins (mortal sins). Committing smaller sins (venial sins) does not deprive us of God's sanctifying grace in our soul. But God desires something more for us than just getting by. God desires that we become holy as He is holy. God desires that we become truly happy. As a priest once said, "Why go for the lowest place in purgatory... why not try to become a Saint and be all you can be in the Kingdom of God?"
God gives us the power and ability to do what is right through the gift of His grace. He gives us the gift of his Holy Spirit to guide us to all truth. God will show us more and more of what He'd like us to do as we keep our relationship with Him, pray, study His word in the Bible, and learn more about our faith. He doesn't judge us as guilty for things we don't know through no fault of our own, but we do need to be conscientious to learn what God has said and put these things into practice. Also many of God's laws are written on our heart.
Leaving Sin Behind
If we have been away from Gods grace and living in serious sin, the good news is that Jesus came to save all of us sinners... ("For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23). Since we are all sinners, we all qualify to be saved... and it isn't too late as long as we are alive to change and begin to follow Gods ways.
If we need to make things right with God, lets take advantage of this time of grace and mercy while we are alive to obtain the end for which we were created, which is everlasting happiness with God in Heaven. (And let's not be a gambler with our eternal destiny and or put it off to the last minute. Our eternal destiny is too important to gamble with as we never know when our time is up on Earth.)
Let's also realize that God wants to forgive us from any and all of our sins even more than we want to be forgiven. So lets not let anything in our past lives hold us back now from moving forward on our spiritual journey to God. There are no unforgivable sins if we are sorry and ask God for His mercy and forgiveness. (The one unforgiveable sin mentioned in the Bible is thought to be final despair or rejecting God's offer of mercy and forgiveness.) If we are not sorry we can ask for the grace to be sorry. If we lack anything, we can ask God for it. God's mercy is greater than any of our sins. He is waiting and knocking on the door of our hearts to forgive us and heal our hearts.
"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if anyone hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." Rev 3:20
The Bible says that all of Heaven rejoices when a sinner repents. No matter what sin we've committed, God wants to forgive us and wipe it away. Also once forgiven, God does not remember our sins anymore. We need to put our forgiven sins behind us, and not focus on them or beat ourselves up about them, but rather accept God's forgiveness and give thanks to God for forgiving us. I've noticed that we sometimes have a tendency (or should I say a temptation) to allow guilt for forgiven sins to ruin our happiness. We sometimes keep beating ourselves up for something we did. We should just put this in God's hands and trust in God's mercy. God wants us to have His peace. In fact Jesus came to give us His peace. Trusting in God's mercy is what He desires most. Some people live with guilt that holds them back from the abundant life that Jesus wants to give us even after their sins are forgiven by God. Again, once forgiven by God, we can ask God to give us the grace to also forgive ourselves. We are sometimes tougher on ourselves than God is.
Catholics are required to go to confession and confess any unforgiven serious sins before returning to Holy Communion. It is good to remember the priest has most likely heard it all before. Also we have (or should have) the option of going anonymously, so don't let anything hold you back. To see a pamphlet from the Knights of Columbus website (www.kof.org) on how to make a good confession click here: A Guide to Confession. Another online reference is online at St. Charles Borromeo's website (www.scborromeo.org) here: www.scborromeo.org/confess.htm.
Confession truly is good for the soul. What better experience if we have been living in guilt than to hear from a priest the words of absolution, "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Ezechiel:18:21-24 'But if the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him: in his righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?' says the Lord Yahweh; 'and not rather that he should return from his way, and live? But when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered: in his trespass that he has trespassed, and in his sin that he has sinned, in them shall he die.'
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for his sheep.
As we can see in the photo above illustrating the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus taught that just like a good shepherd the Lord goes out searching for His lost sheep. We can know that God is waiting for us. We can make the decision to seriously follow Jesus and put God first. After deciding to follow Jesus, being completely united to God in perfect love usually doesn't happen overnight, as conversion is usually a process. (As Catholics we do believe that if we are not perfected by the time we die, if we die in God's grace we will finish being purified in purgatory because in order to be happy in Heaven we must be made perfect, like our heavenly Father is perfect.)
First Things First
We can't very well develop the finer points of the spiritual life, if we are living a life of serious sin or even are purposely committing venial sin. The purpose of this lesson is to make a firm commitment to follow God and to seek Him first in our lives, repent of all serious sin if any, and then in future lessons we'll go into more detail later about how to grow in the spiritual life.
So the first step toward union with God would be to decide to follow God, to reject all serious sin, and to return to God's grace including for Catholics going to confession and returning to the sacraments if we are away. St. John the Baptist in announcing that Jesus was coming preached: "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand." If we love God we will love what God loves and hate what God hates, and the Bible tells us that God loves the sinner but hates sin.
"The first decision is to follow Jesus no matter what he asks by deciding to never commit any serious sin and if we do fall to go to repent and go to confession and get back into union with God and the Church. The second decision is to also decide not to commit any venial sins even though we do not lose our relationship with God through them just because we love God and want to please him and not offend him in any way." Fr. John Hardon, The Catholic Catechism
Remember, God's grace is free for the asking so "ask and you shall receive" as the Bible says. If you do feel you don't have something that it takes to believe in God or do what God wants, you can begin by asking God in prayer for what you lack... for the desire to do it, for the faith, for the power and strength. God wishes us to ask for what we need, and He wants to have mercy on us in all our needs.
Freedom from Sin: For more information on how to conquer sinful habits and also to read about St. Augustine's conversion click here.
New to the Catholic Faith or want a Review? I think it is important that those in this class have a good understanding of the Catholic faith and accurate information in forming their conscience. Here is an online Catholic guide to a life of faith for life-long or beginning Catholics recommend it as a good overview located at the Beginning Catholic website: www.BeginningCatholic.com.
Forming Your Conscience:
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican website at www.vatican.va): click here
Statement on the Formation of Conscience (Canadian Bishops) from The Protection of Conscience Project at http://www.consciencelaws.org: click here
Scrupulosity: Living the spiritual life is a balance, but we can get off-balance. We can either be too lax or too scrupulous. We've talked about sin and needing to take God's commandments seriously, but some people have a problem of being too strict with themselves. If you have a problem with feeling guilty about things that probably wouldn't bother other conscientious practicing Catholics, you might be struggling with scrupulosity. For more information what it means to be scrupulous click here.
"Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." 2 Cor. 12:8-10
Taking a Closer Look at the Greatest Commandment
Most of us think we are pretty good people and keep the commandments, but how many of us have really stopped to think about the first and greatest commandment and how well we do this? Basically the first commandment suggests that anything we put above God in our lives is really a little idol and is taking God's place in our lives. Sometimes we think idols are like the golden calf in the Old Testament... and we don't worship a golden calf so we are OK there... but is there anything or anybody we are putting above God in our life right now? We will look at this more in a minute.
"Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets." Matthew: 22:36-40
Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."
Matthew 4:10: "Then Jesus saith to him: 'Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve.' "
Also, it is good to realize that when we seek to please God alone and do what is right, we will also be doing what is best for the people in our lives, even if they don't realize it. If we seek to please people first, then we are not doing what is best for them. Here is a thought from C.S. Lewis about this:
||"When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased." C.S. Lewis
"Decide today whom you will serve"...
Let's ask ourselves the same question Joshua asked the Israelites:
"Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, and addressed them, saying: Fear the LORD and serve him completely and sincerely. Cast out the gods your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.
If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.
But the people answered, Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods. For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed. At our approach the LORD drove out all the peoples, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God. Joshua 24:14-18
The Ultimate Decision:
Summary: The purpose of this lesson is to examine and decide on the most important decision we have to make in this life which is: do we choose God and His ways or not.
If we want what is truly best and the greatest thing, we will do as Jesus instructed in the Bible, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment."
One thing to ask ourselves is, "Who is on the throne of my life (the throne of my heart, mind, soul and strength)?" Who or what do I serve first and foremost? As in the above artwork, is it God, myself or something or someone else?
This greatest commandment is for our greatest good and happiness... so if we want to be happy we will do as our Creator instructs us. He loves us more than we love ourselves and desires even more than we do that we be happy both now and forever as that is what He created us for. Who or what could be greater than God?
"You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You." St. Augustine
God loves us and desires to be united to us in love. He commands that we love Him above all things, because it is what will give us our greatest happiness both here and for eternity. So lets decide today to put God first in all things, in love and obedience to His will as this is the first decision we need to make to progress in the spiritual life... to decide to follow Jesus and obey everything He tells us and asks of us.
God communicates to us today in the depths of our being as well through the Bible and His Church. We also learn more about how God acts with people and how people respond to God through the lives of his Saints. Lets put God first and foremost in our lives and do all that he asks us to do and make that commitment or recommitment right now.
(Deut. 30:19-20) "...I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him..." Which do you choose?
||Prayer: Almighty God, Father, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, today I commit (or recommit) my life to you and decide with your help to love you above all things and to do your will in all things. I realize that you know best and I often don't. I believe in you. I ask you to show me your will in all things and help me to desire to please you in all things. Please give me the grace to love you, to hope in you, and to believe in you above all else. Help me to serve you in this life and be happy with you now and forever. I know that I am a weak human being with faults and sins. I ask you to forgive me for my sins and help me not to sin anymore. I also ask for the grace of final perseverance so that I will persevere until the end of my life and make it to Heaven when my time on Earth is over. If Im in need of the Sacrament of Confession, I ask for the grace to make a good confession, to have a firm purpose of amendment and a firm resolve to leave behind all my sins. I ask for your mercy both now and at the hour of death. I also ask Mary, our Blessed Mother, and the Saints to pray for me and my loved ones. Jesus, I trust in you. Amen.
If you have already made a firm decision and commitment to follow Jesus Christ and seek union with God, you can use the following assignment to examine that once again and recommit in any way that you see some room for improvement. If you have never really made a firm commitment to follow Jesus wherever He might lead, perhaps this can be the time you can decide to make that commitment.