The Bible contains a story, a love story, the story of man’s relationship with God. This story includes the story of sin—of man’s rejection of God’s love—destroying our relationship with God, enslaving is to selfishness and pride, damaging God’s gift—nature—and our relationship with others.
But the Bible also contains the story of God’s Word—God’s Word of Truth—who takes on our flesh in order to set us free from the slavery of sin. It is thus the story of God’s mercy, which restores man’s ability to love, to truly love both God and other men again.
God’s Merciful Response to Man’s Rejection
The Bible can be a source of moral reflection if we recognize it as a love story. This story begins with creation of Adam and Eve, and with God’s invitation to join him freely in a covenant of love; Adam and Eve rejected that covenant, preferring to seek happiness independent of God. In effect, all sin—all moral evil—repeats this seeking happiness independent of God and of his love.
The Bible continues with the story of God’s response of mercy to man’s rejection, promising Adam and Eve a redeemer—of Eve’s seed—who would conquer the deceiver who led them into sin. The Bible tells us of God’s covenant with Noah, then with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally with Moses, where God gave us the Ten Commandments.
These Commandments are a father’s instruction to his children, teaching us about the demands of love. It teaches us to put our Love—God—first, having no other loves before him; to respect the person we love in word and the weekly anniversary of our covenant of love; to honor those who represent our Love, to remain faithful, to respect the life that flows from that Love, and to treat Love’s gifts and expressions in ways that always reflect that faithfulness. Such are God’s paternal admonitions to us.
Yet it is easy to treat those loving instructions as requirements to keep our Father God off our backs—to avoid his wrath and any nagging threats of punishment. Such childish (minimalist) behavior reduces morality to fulfilling the commandments so as to avoid (eternal) punishments.
But Jesus tries to raise our eyes higher, to get us to go beyond doing the minimum. That is why he gave us the Beatitudes: blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit… the pure of heart… the merciful… If our actions arise from love and reflect love, it will make us truly happy and lead to seeing God in the eternal life of heaven. Beatitudes challenge us to give ourselves truly beyond the minimum.
The Beatitudes do not wipe out the Commandments, but help us to fulfill them, as our Lord says—after giving us the Beatitudes:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them… Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17,19).
Ultimately, all our moral actions boil down to love, which fulfills all the Commandments:
“And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’” (Matthew 22:37-40).
So, this love story doesn’t stop with the death of the last apostle, but must continue with each one of us: our response to God’s invitation to love is essential; to love him with all our heart and our neighbor out of love for him. This is what the Bible teaches us about morality.
Fr. John R. Waiss
As Christ hung from the Cross he cried out, “I thirst” (John 19:28). He thirsts for love, for our love. In our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-44), he asks her: “Give me to drink.” Again, what he really longs for is her love.
But she does not feel loved, telling our Lord: “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” She won’t even give our Lord a cup of water because she sees just a Jewish male and not her God, her Lord, her Love. This reminds her of how she has been treated throughout her life: how Jewish men would look down on women as subservient creatures with no inherent dignity; how Jews in general were racists against Samaritans and treated them as lesser beings; how perhaps her mother, overwhelmed by the burden of so many children, treated her eldest daughter—this woman—more as a servant girl than as a daughter; how she sought love by marrying one man after another and how her husbands had divorced her because she never lived up to their expectations for a subservient wife.
This Samaritan woman presumes Jesus Christ sees her the same way, which is why she refuses his request for a drink. She thinks that he is talking to her because he just wants some “thing” from her, not because of who she is as a child of God.
Jesus can fill her every need as well as he own needs: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” God doesn’t need her; he doesn’t need us. He chooses to love us. In fact, God loves us into existence; he loves us just as we are, with all our defects and imperfections.
But he thirsts for a response of love, to give him a little bit of water, a little bit of love: “whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42). All Christ wants of us is a little bit of our time, our small Lenten sacrifice, our alms… a little bit of our love. Then he will give us everything we need. This is why Jesus Christ came to die on the Cross… he thirsts for our love and wants to reward that response by providing for us.
How did the Samaritan woman come to feel loved? She felt loved—perhaps for the first time in her life—when Jesus revealed her sins to her:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, I have no husband; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly’… So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’”
The woman felt loved, because Christ revealed how her actions affected their relationship—her sins. Christ also revealed that God forgave her of her sins, that she is loved by him with all his heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Knowing that God forgives us—that we are loved just as we are—transforms us. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so powerful. Let us take advantage of this Sacrament to experience God’s love this Lent, so as to transform our lives; invite your friends and family too.
Fr. John R. Waiss
Temptations are wonderful opportunities to manifest our love and deepen our relationship. The way we react to the temptation can and should affirm our love.
One way to show our love is to avoid occasions of sin (=persons, places, things that easily lead to sin). For example, if an alcoholic finds it impossible to resist the bar on a particular street, because he cannot resist going in, getting drunk, coming home angry, and mistreating his family. His love is to avoid streets he knows have bars.
To successfully fight temptation and manifest our love for God and our loved ones, let’s focus on what we can control. An alcoholic cannot control his passion for alcohol, but can control which streets he chooses to use to get from one place to another. By taking control of the occasion he keeps the temptation in check and avoid the evil that results. His love for his family and his fear of possibly losing what is dearest to him can move him to affirm those relationships by the free decision to avoid occasions of sin.
This is what our Lord advises for the person with a lustful eye:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out… if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).
Our Lord is concrete and practical, showing us that love can move us to do what is in our control: avoid movies, shows, or computer games with objectionable scenes or avoid parties where improper behavior or drug use would likely occur. Asking for guidance when we go to confession or spiritual direction can help us with ideas on how best to identify and avoid occasions of sin out of love.
We cannot control the devil, but we can control how much we pray. Prayer—appealing to God’s grace—always helps to overcome temptations, especially those of the devil. Prayer is an act of humility where we admit our helplessness and the strength of God’s power. Prayer affirms our faith in God’s love for us and his desire for us to become saints. Many find it helpful to receive the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance frequently, as these are the means by which God communicates his love and mercy tangibly.
Training our passions, feelings, and appetites is also in our control. Like an athlete who trains his body so he can push himself further, we can mortify our senses by fasting, getting up on the dot at a set time each day, avoiding snacks and eating between meal, etc. This was St. Paul’s strategy:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
May we follow the example of the saints in reacting to temptations with love.
Fr. John R. Waiss
St. Paul laments: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). How often we feel the same, especially when we experience the weight of our passions and temptation. We feel dirty and we are reminded of our past falls into sin.
But temptations and the passions are not sins, even though they feel like they are. It is our response to temptation and to the passions that are sinful (if we give in) or an act of love (if we say No to them).
We know that Jesus—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity—was tempted by the devil, but without sin. The devil tempted him with bodily satisfaction, public acclaim, and worldly power (cf. Matthew 4:3-11; Luke 4:3-13). Later, Jesus experienced great sadness in the garden of Gethsemane; the fear of the incredible human suffering he was about to endure overwhelmed him to the point of asking the Father to remove the cup of suffering from him (Matthew 25:36-46). Yet Jesus affirmed his love for the Father by obeying him, saying No to these temptations.
Adam and Eve were also without sin when the serpent tempted them in the Garden of Eden. With the delight of the fruit attracted them, baiting them to doubt God’s love and to disobey his commandment (Genesis 3:1-7). This original sin spoiled their innocence, unleashing their bodily and emotional desires (passions are feelings, emotions, or sensual movements that incline us to some real or imagined good or away from some evil. See CCC 1763).
Once the passions and feelings have been disordered, they draw us to sin. Each of us, as descendants of Adam and Eve—with the exception of the Virgin Mary, who was conceived without sin—is also born with this disordered tendency to sin.
But these temptations are not sins even though they feel sinful. Temptations are really like hurdles for a runner. Hurdles are obstacles for the runner unless he is properly prepared to jump them. If he surmounts them, he runs with facility toward victory. God’s grace helps us overcome these temptations and achieve the victory over sin and death.
We are tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Although God created the world—people, places, and things—as good, a gift to help us fulfill our mission here on earth. But the world becomes a temptation when we turn to it for our ultimate happiness, turning it into a kind of god. We all know people who seek happiness by pursuing money, power, popularity, honor, and fame… even Facebook friends! But things don’t make us happy; people who have them may seem happy, but really they are not—if you don’t believe me, try living with one.
The flesh refers to our legitimate desires for pleasure but which are weakened by original or personal sin. This includes desires for food, drink, sex, drugs, or other sensual pleasure. The pleasure itself is not sinful, but the disordered seeking of pleasure for its own sake is. We all know people who are enslaved to some pleasure-addiction: pornography, alcohol, drugs, or even food. Such slavery prevents them from having the freedom to love with their whole heart, mind, strength, and soul.
Finally the devil and his minions tempt us with arguments and excuses to doubt God’s love and to think that we can do things better, urging us to find exceptions to God’s law.
But temptations can be an opportunity to affirm our love for God. Jesus said No the devil’s temptation and embraced the Father’s will out of love. This love moved him to overcome the fear of suffering and death to affirm that “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
May we take advantage of our passions and temptations to love Christ as he has loved us, saying No to ourselves and Yes to him.
Fr. John R. Waiss
God created man to be free, putting us into the hands of our own counsel (cf. Sirach 15:14), so that he might freely seek his perfection by loving his creator. As the Second Vatican Council explains:
“God willed that man “of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint” (Gaudium et Spes 17).
Eternal beatitude requires love, and we can only love if we are free.
But freedom does not mean the right or ability to do or say anything we want to (see CCC 1747). Freedom is the ability to love, which means to seek the good of one’s beloved and to unite oneself to him. The more one does what is good the freer one becomes. To disobey, to be unfaithful, and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (see CCC 1733).
Actions can only be evil if they are free. We wouldn’t think of punishing an asteroid for slamming into the earth and killing someone. Nor would we punish a man-eating shark, although we may kill it to prevent future attacks. We punish murderers and hold them responsible because they are free human beings.
“The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good. This good is established, as the eternal law, by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end…. Acting is morally good when the choices of freedom are in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person towards his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness…. Only the act in conformity with the good can be a path that leads to life” (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 72).
Actions that are pure impulsive or reflex reactions can only be evil if the impulse or reflex was freely chosen, as when we deliberately give in to a habit that we know will lead to sin. For example, if we know that when we drink it leads to surfing the Internet and to falling into to compulsive pornography then choosing to drink would be the sin. Likewise, if we know that watching football will lead to angry outbursts and violent reactions, then to turn on the football game is the sin. Having a sinful dream in the middle of our nighttime sleep is not freely willed and therefore is not a sin.
Cultivating virtues—habitual acts of doing good—and overcoming vices increases our freedom to love and to do good.
Freedom and Responsibility, Grace and Law
Each of us is responsible for his acts to the extent that those actions are voluntary (see CCC 1734). Ignorance (of a child, for example), duress and manipulation, fear and other psychological or social factors can reduce or even eliminate our ability to make free decisions (see CCC 1746). Such factors coerce us into doing what we do know want to do (see Romans 7), thus reduce our responsibility. So to overcome ignorance, manipulation, and fear increase our freedom to love and our responsibility to pursue the good of the one we love.
God’s grace also increases our freedom because it gives us an ability to love. Grace is God’s love for us—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Knowing that we are loved by God—grace—gives us an opportunity to love God the Father and God the Son in return. This is “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Through the grace of the Holy Spirit working in our life through faith in Jesus Christ helps us to grow in our inner freedom, giving us the strength and confidence to endure periods of trial (see CCC 1742).
As God’s law is a gift—a grace—that guide the use of our freedom by directing our actions in ways that lead to union with God and the pursuit of the good of our beloved. That is why Pope St. John Paul II tells us:
“God’s law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom: rather, it protects and promotes that freedom” (Veritatis Splendor 35).
So, let’s embrace a life of grace, law, and freedom that we can truly be free to love as God so created us.
Fr. John R. Waiss