We think we know what matters most to God. What if we’re wrong?

Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Have you ever stood in line, say, at a county treasurer’s office, waiting to register a new car? You have gone online, assembled all the documents that you are required to present. At least, you hope so.

A woman, 15 spots ahead of you, has just turned away from the counter because one of her documents refers to her by a different surname. She is in new car purgatory, banished from this line to some other. Who knows where she is going and what she must prove in that other line by way of documentation? You pray you have got it right, but you will not know for another half hour when your turn at the window comes.

Whether you think of the final judgment as something God pronounces or as something that is evident to all, even to yourself, when that extraordinary moment finally comes, either way, some criteria of suitability for the kingdom of God will be applied to you. So let us ponder what matters to God, the criteria Christ taught us.

Clearly, all of us who say that we believe are living according to some perhaps unexamined notion of what matters to God and what does not. Decide which of them you think will count for more in the end.

What if my priorities about what matters to God are wrong? After all, I am a sinful person, aren’t I?

And no cop-out by saying, “You just need to be a good person.” That is a tautology. Our question is, “What makes a person good?”

I have set aside sins. We can disagree endlessly about them, but we all agree that they should be avoided. Consider instead this list of positive criteria. The Catholic Church teaches that all of these are essential to our lives as disciples, though not equally so. Rather than debate them, just rank them for yourself in terms of importance. Try, really try, to refrain from arguing for your opinion.

I have started with the works of mercy and included the commandments of the church. Together they seemed to cover the scriptural exhortations that came to mind. And even if you are not Catholic, I suspect your own denomination has similar expectations of you.

  1. The corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor.
  2. The spiritual works of mercy: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowing, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.
  3. Attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and resting from servile works.
  4. Observing the days of abstinence and fasting.
  5. Confessing your sins to a priest at least once a year.
  6. Receiving the Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season.
  7. Contributing to the support of the church.
  8. Obeying the laws of the church concerning matrimony.
  9. Participating in the church’s mission of evangelization

Even when God is revealed to us in Christ, we still struggle to understand, to prioritize and to comply. We read in Wisdom:

Who can know God’s counsel,
Or who can conceive what the Lord intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
And unsure are our plans (9:13-14).

Blaise Pascal famously proposed that it was better to bet on God’s existence than nonexistence. His reasoning was simple enough. If God does not exist, observant Christians will still have lived rather happy lives. On the other hand, if God does exist and you have done nothing to respond to God, you have got a lot to lose.

Here is a variant. What if my priorities about what matters to God are wrong? After all, I am a sinful person, aren’t I? Therefore, I am somewhat blinded by sin, prejudiced in all my judgments. I may be a good person, but I certainly cannot command the wisdom of ages. Nor can I completely step free from the culture in which I have been raised. I also tend to associate with those who share and reinforce my judgments. What if I am in the wrong group?

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
Cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
Does not first sit down and calculate the cost
To see if there is enough for its completion? (Lk 14:27-28).

Here is a thought, perhaps, timely in a culture and a church that continue to erect walls between us, who are right, and others, who are wrong. What about resolving to reexamine the criteria listed above, paying special attention to those that seem to you to be less important? Perhaps in prayerfully pondering them, even trying again to observe them, they will come to seem more important, even quite important. You never know. And that, of course, is the point. None of us do. “Who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wis 9:17-18b)

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b Philemon 9-10, 12-17 Luke 14:25-33

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L Hoover
1 year 4 months ago

I am aware of Catholic doctrine on sin but I think about sin as having more to do with who we are within, and the choices we make from moment-to-moment. Do we show love of God and neighbor? When we sin we distance ourselves from God, and we sin when we interact in ways that push others away from God.

We might sin when we:

Fail to appreciate what God has given us.

Break a trust or fail to respond with love, towards family, but ultimately towards anyone we have dealings with. (Some days we are less sinful than others!)

Nurse attitudes of accusation, of harsh judgment, rather than advocacy/helpfulness. I am fairly certain that we sin, not when we challenge others to learn and grow, but when we hurt the Spirit in others.

We sin when we interact in ways that bring out the worst in people. We walk with God when we appeal to the better angels of other’s nature.

Fail to use the gifts God gave us for some greater good.

We are, each of us, at different stages in the life cycle and have had different life experiences that brought us thus far. Perhaps some people can be at their best when they agree with all aspects of Catholic doctrine and follow all the “rules” of church membership. They can become great defenders of a Church and “selling” Catholicism might be their calling.

Some might engage in unsavory behavior but it's possible that God knows this is the best they can do at the time. They will not be expected to do as well as a person with greater capabilities but will nevertheless be helped along towards greater holiness, if that is what they desire. If we ask, we shall receive.
God is pervasive, in all that is good. Our greatest obligation, as I see it, is to try to bear good fruit (by loving God and neighbor).

Patricia Robinett
1 year 4 months ago

Excellent article! Excellent question!

From my humble experience, I have come to understand that Jesus' commandments are few - and they lead to God, not mere empty promises. "Love the Lord thy God... thy neighbor... Judge not... Forgive..." Relinquishing judgment and forgiveness help clear the mind for something more - something glorious - to enter - God Himself.

Something called "Knowledge" is mentioned several times in the bible, so in my mind, I find it helpful to read "knowledge" as "Knowledge of God". "Seek... Find... Ask... Listen... Knock... You will know the Truth..." and to me, God IS Truth, for God is always and forever faithful and true, breathing us, living us, giving us Life. Many synonyms refer to God, which IS Love, IS Light, IS Life, IS the answer to every prayer of the heart.

To me, God's direction is clearly to seek and find Him.

We seek to know God, for without that direct connection, we cannot turn off that judgment machine between our ears; without having a heart full of the Love that IS God, we cannot truly love our brother Jesus, our Father or our neighbor, as we love our Self. How can we be truly wise and know what is important to God if we are not in communion with Him? I believe that the most important thing to God is that we know Him more intimately than we know our own face in the mirror.

Verses that speak to this approach: from Proverbs 2:3-5 - "Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God." And many more beautiful, inspiring quotes can be found at https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Seeking-God - There are so many clues in the bible.

Robert Landbeck
1 year 4 months ago

Judging by the title, I think you meant to say: What if the 'church' is wrong? The question has become this: could two millennia of scholastic exegesis, tradition and the faith of at least a billion people be wholly in error? No more than a theological counterfeit! And no longer just a rhetorical question for mud slinging between atheist and religious, re-examining the foundational claims of the ‘church’ is under way, and using ‘new’ scriptural discoveries, we are on the threshold of discovering that answer. And the ‘church’, theology and tradition as we know it could be facing extinction!

LE Kieley
1 year 4 months ago

Agree with you 100%. But will the church ever reform in ANY capacity if they are wrong?

Antony P.
1 year 4 months ago

“We think we know what matters most to God. What if we’re wrong?”

If we are wrong, how would we know for sure, that in all our past knowledge about God, we were wrong? And, more importantly, how would we know that we are right now? By human experience? It is as reliable now as it was 2000 years ago ... By someone claiming divine status today? If it failed once, why would it not fail today? Remember: Jesus claimed that not even an iota will be lost from the Law (from what is ‘old’). In short, the question does not make sense.

Tia D
1 year 4 months ago

The church does not teach that the "good people" get into heaven. You cannot be saved by being a good person. That's Pelagianism. We are saved by the mercy of God, which does not depend on our own goodness. Yes, we need to accept the mercy of God and live it out in our lives, but even terrible people may go to heaven if they accept the mercy of God.

Michael Bindner
1 year 4 months ago

If I saw Christ in others and society and acted accordingly, he will know me. If I depended only on myself or the magic of the clergy, he won't.

Antony P.
1 year 4 months ago

@ M. B.: What exactly do you mean, by “the magic of the clergy”? I cannot think of anyone I know, who lives and practices his or her faith in everyday life, this to be a valid concept.

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