One of the most withering indictments our Lord meted out to the religious leaders of His day was a simple phrase that dismantled their exalted self-image. When presented with a legalistic challenge concerning the hypothetical case of a woman who had married seven husbands. He took those perversely proud men down a peg by telling them that they had totally missed the point: You are badly misled because you fail to understand the Scriptures or the power of God (Mk 12:24). Ouch! Nothing infuriates arrogant men more than being told that they are clueless. But cluelessness was not their real problem: their deeper problem was presumption.
The Sadducees to whom the comment was directed (and by extension the Pharisees, scribes, lawyers, etc.) had every means of sanctification available to them as stewards of God’s blessings to the Chosen People: Moses, the law and the prophets, the Temple, the history of divine grace and favor, etc. Jesus even advised people to heed their words (but not their example). They had it all, yet they rejected their Messiah as He stood before them! How is that possible?
It’s possible because of the sin of presumption.
Presumption happens. When you think you own the truth and are only slightly – or not at all – open to being taught by anyone, you’re presumptuous. When you believe that God’s mercy allows you to keep sinning or that you’re incapable of serious sin, you’re presumptuous. When you believe that you are entitled to benefits without costs, you’re presumptuous. When you think you’re better than anyone else, you’re presumptuous.
During Lent, let’s carefully consider the immense spiritual gifts we have received and rein in our natural human tendency toward presumption. Here are five anti-presumption exercises that any Christian can perform on a daily basis:
- Cultivate a habit of immense gratitude. Nothing shatters the spiritual sclerosis of presumption more than being thankful for what you have. A daily, relentless habit of counting our blessings is the best way to soften a heart in danger of becoming hardened by the trials of life, the failures of men, or the sinister attitude that God owes us something. In fact, start right now! Look around. Everything in the garden of your life is a gift, even the crosses that Christ has planted there.
- Drink deeply of the Church’s life of grace. Consuming grace is the antidote to consuming “all that is in the world. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the world, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). It takes good soil, disciplined cultivation, and months of favorable weather conditions to bring a crop to harvest. So with the virtues of your soul. When secular pursuits, basic laziness, and a pervasive entertainment mindset replace the daily feeding of your soul, you can look forward to a harvest of weeds. Only a long-term commitment to grace through the sacraments – primarily the Eucharist and Confession – will produce long-term fruits of the Spirit.
- Avoid pop culture fads of all types, especially the most noxious variety. How many Catholics and other Christians have read salacious, presumptuous, tabloid trash dressed up as sophisticated literature such as The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey? Even if these aren’t temptations for you, the world provides plenty of other soul-killing fads to pierce the veil of sanctity that should shield all souls and families against the devil and all his works and all his empty promises. Out with them! Eat the red meat of faith and not the popcorn of pop culture.
- Be a devotion hound. Doctrine is the “hardware” of two thousand years of solid teaching. It is a necessary, solid foundation for our faith life. Devotions, however, are the spiritual “software” programs that infuse life into our souls and make it possible for us to benefit from the sacraments. All the great saints of Church history have sought to enliven faith, hope, and charity through heartfelt devotions that give meaning and fervor to the more arid dimensions of our religious practice. Be a devotion hound, and strengthen your soul. If you’re not sure where to start, here are my top five: Eucharistic Adoration, Scripture reading, the Rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet, the lives of the saints. Stick with these and they will burn away any presumption that tries to accumulate in your heart.
- Invest in faith. It’s a cliché, I know, but we only appreciate that for which we make sacrifices. If the salvation of your soul isn’t worth making a serious daily sacrifice, then nothing is. Tithing to your parish or charitable organizations, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, instructing your kids (and their friends) in the faith, etc. – these are not extraordinary practices. They are a matter of Christian living, and if they are lacking, it’s time to look at your spiritual investment portfolio and start making some deposits. Being a spiritual investor is the other side of the coin of being a grateful person. Like the dutiful stewards in Parable of the Talents (cf. Mt 14:25-30) you show gratitude best by giving back.
Gratefulness, grace, sacrifice, investment, devotion are all antidotes to the sin of presuming too much on God’s goodness. He does, after all, deserve our undying gratitude for everything!