In just about any activity that is worthwhile, there is always room for improvement. When we rest content with our past performance in anything, we will never get any better at it. Only those who know their own imperfection and strive to overcome it have much chance of reaching a higher goal.
If that is true in our daily work and hobbies, it is far more the case when our goal is to participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. On this fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. John Climacus, who wrote the book The Ladder of Divine Ascent to guide monks step by step to a life of greater holiness. Now only two weeks from Palm Sunday, the Church reminds us that we must all must move upward on that ladder if we are to follow our Lord to His Passion, to His death on the cross, to His descent into Hades, and to His glorious resurrection on the third day. But the first step upward requires what seems like a step downward, for it is the step of humbly acknowledging our weakness, imperfection, and corruption. Without that honest confession, we will never develop the spiritual strength necessary to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation through the great offering and victory of our Savior.
In today’s gospel text, the father of the demon-possessed young man stands as a model of the honesty that we must cultivate in order to unite ourselves more fully to our crucified and risen Lord. When Christ told him that “all things are possible for him who believes,” the man “cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’” The disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but in response to this anguished cry from the heart, the Lord Himself healed the young man. It was by acknowledging the imperfection of his faith, even as he begged for mercy, that the father’s prayer was answered.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are full of opportunities for us to become more like that broken-hearted, honest, humble father. Sickness, family difficulties, economic hardship, persistent personal problems, and so many other common challenges reveal the weakness of our faith and the sickness of our souls, for we never respond to them perfectly. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and other spiritual practices that reorient us to God, help us catch a glimpse of how much room we have to grow in the Christian life. And if we ever think that we are the only ones for whom they are a struggle, then we should think again. None of us does them perfectly; indeed, it is beyond our ability to know what it would mean to do them perfectly, for our goal is to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48) In comparison with that standard of infinite holiness, who does not have more room for growth than we could possibly imagine? But the more we embrace these disciplines and acknowledge our own weakness before life’s daily challenges, the more aware we become of how far we are from sharing fully in the life of our Lord. The more we grasp our own sinfulness and brokenness, the more we must cry out from our hearts, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
Lent is a time to stop hiding our true spiritual state even from ourselves. It is a time to confess our failings to the Lord and hear in spoken words an assurance of our forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, if we are truly repentant. It is a time to turn away from the illusion that we have already arrived spiritually and that prayer, fasting, and confession are only for other people. It is a time to see ourselves in that brutally honest father who, even in the midst of his heart-broken love for his son, told the truth about the weakness of his faith. The more we become like him, the better. The more that we pray, fast, and otherwise humble ourselves before the Lord, the clearer our spiritual vision will be and the more we will see the infinite chasm between the holiness of God and our own wretchedness.
There is good news, however, for all of us who have fallen short. Thank God, the God-Man Jesus Christ has bridged that gap. Through His death and resurrection, He makes it possible for each of us to grow in holiness as we see ever more clearly how far we are from attaining the fullness of the glory for which He created us. Ironically, it is by knowing our own brokenness and imperfection that we become aware of the true mystery of our salvation, of why our Lord offered Himself on the cross, descended into Hades, and rose again on the third day. Paradoxically, we climb up the ladder of holiness by lowering ourselves through humble repentance.
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” That is the only confession that will enable us to prepare for what is to come in the weeks ahead as we enter into the deep mystery of our salvation. As our Savior said, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”