There is a real danger that whenever we pray for something, God will actually give it to us. For over a year now, I have prayed for God to make me more humble, to strip me of the pride I take in my own natural ability. I have always been quite satisfied with my own natural virtues. Although I have always been aware that even the natural virtues can be considered gifts from God, I have always had trouble considering them as such. After all, we can cultivate the natural virtues on our own power. The harder we work, the more we grow in virtue.
Despite the wisdom of the philosophers, I think there is a sense in which the natural virtues are a stumbling block to grace. The natural virtues are “fair”: if we just act in the right way, we can obtain them no matter what our status in life, no matter what our histories are like. Grace does not work that way.
I am reminded of Matthew 20, 1-15, the parable where the generous vineyard-owner gives the same wages to those who worked the whole day and those who started work at dusk. How can God give the same wage to each one of us? The answer is that grace has nothing to do with fairness, but everything to do with mercy. No one deserves grace, but God gives it anyway. No one can achieve grace through his good works, but only in cooperation with grace can he do good works.
The problem with naturally virtuous people is that it is difficult for them to relate to the idea of being completely at another person’s mercy. Their natural virtue blinds them to the fact that they are actually helpless before God. I was sent to Washington DC to study philosophy because I was one of the guys that could handle it, one of the guys that could do the things that others can’t do. But in the last month, I have spent more time on my knees begging for the clemency of others than I have at any other time in my life. I have begged for those things that I felt entitled to or that I took for granted.
But isn’t that the purpose of the Gospel? That those who are the worst off are those in most need of a savior? How much happier will those people be when God gives them every good gift. But until that time, we must accept the lessons he gives us, hard lessons about suffering and self-denial.
Maybe I’ll take comfort in knowing that Job had it much worse than I do. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.