Recently I saw a furniture store that sold only unfinished furniture--at reduced prices, of course, since the customers had to stain and varnish the furniture themselves. All of the customers were aware that a task awaited them in order to make the furniture usable, or at least presentable. In the sight of God, we are all in some way unfinished furniture.
Almost all serious-minded Christians, even while aware that “God’s works will never be finished” (Sir 38:8), still feel disheartened by this feeling of being unfinished in many facets of their lives, but the most serious threat that discouragement proposes is in the realm of the spirit. This is consternation because of their failures to cultivate a closer relationship with God--that is, failure to grow in prayer, virtue, acceptance of his will in suffering, and so on. These souls find themselves confessing the same sins and faults time after time, with little or no sign of improvement, and often they experience not just spiritual stagnation but also backsliding. In extreme cases, such discouragement may devolve into hopelessness or outright despair, which, Disraeli said, “is the conclusion of fools.”
Under the deadening influence of discouragement, people’s trust in God will also tend to shrivel up. Their self-recrimination may echo the words of the angel to the church in Ephesus: “You have forsaken your first love; remember the height from which you have fallen” (Rv 2:4-5), or the angel’s words to the church in Sardis: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (Rv 3:2).
To the extent that their deeds are not complete, such people feel like unfinished furniture, as it were. They need to remind themselves repeatedly to trust our Lord to finish the job--with their own cooperation, of course--for he alone is the ultimate “‘finisher’ of our faith” (Heb 12:2). This proclivity toward discouragement in the face of endless fluctuations between our successes and our failures in virtue may well continue throughout our earthly struggle.
Just as a car needs periodic maintenance checkups to stay in good condition, we need periodic checkups and reconditioning--a refreshing of our former enthusiasm for things of the spirit--not once, but again and again. (An annual or semi-annual retreat may provide a structured solution.) The problem of discouragement is an area where attaining and maintaining trust in Jesus as the “finisher of our faith” is most challenging. Pray for the grace to rely on him cooperatively, not just for salvation, but also for growth in holiness.
The same difficulties that discourage a trust-weak person will protecta more trusting soul against drooping spirits. The same sun that melts wax can harden clay. The same boiling pot that softens a potato can hard-boil an egg.
This excerpt is from the book Pathways of Trust, by John H. Hampsch,C.M.F., originally published by Servant Publications. It and other of Fr. Hampsch's books and tapes can be purchased from Claretian Teaching Ministry, 20610 Manhattan Pl, #120, Torrance, CA 90501-1863. Phone 1-310-782-6408.