You’re a hard-working, church-going family man.
On a whim, you buy a lottery ticket and win $50 million.
You’re set for life.
One of your church friends, a single mother of two who runs the parish youth group, goes to her doctor for a routine checkup and learns she has Stage IV cervical cancer.
She’s a goner.
Two people, two very different fates.
When good and bad things happen to the faithful, is it just by random chance? Or is it the Holy Spirit working in some mysterious way? And if so, how can we recognize the Holy Spirit in our daily lives?
“These questions raise the age-old tension between God’s will and our own free will,” said the Rev. Msgr. Arthur A. Holquin, episcopal vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Orange and pastor emeritus at Mission San Juan Basilica in San Juan Capistrano.
“While God, who is all knowing, possesses divine foreknowledge of what may unfold in the course of our lives, does God determine that?”
Holquin and other biblical scholars believe that while God may know what may happen in the course of our unfolding lives, he doesn’t predetermine it. That’s because God implanted into the human heart free will — which, of course, can be both a blessing and a curse.
The Bible is full of passages about how the sinful nature of man and the choices we make can lead to really bad things.
Here’s just one:
You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God (James 4:1-10)
Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 311) has to say about free choice:
Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it.
Msgr. Mike Heher, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Seal Beach, recently wrote in a parish bulletin about the need for Catholics to “test all spirits” because not all spirits come from God.
So, Msgr. Heher asks, how does one test spirits effectively?
“Saint Ignatius of Loyola called it trying to interpret the ‘motions of the soul,’” he writes. “As a young man, he centered his life on all the intricacies of courtly love. In 1521, he was gravely wounded in battle. Bored during his recuperation, he read [about the ] rather mediocre lives of Jesus and the saints but his soul was touched deeply and he came to recognize that courtly love was not what God had in mind for him.”
Msgr. Heher adds about spirits: “Most of the time, a good spirit brings you love, joy, peace and the like. An evil spirit does the opposite: it brings confusion, doubt and disgust. But if you are leading a seriously sinful life, a good spirit may visit you with depression and disgust so you’ll want to change your evil ways.”
So how do Catholics know if what we are doing is in accord with God’s will or not?
Msgr. Holquin cites St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (5:22-23):
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
“Discerning the will of God is invariably connected to reflecting on whether our actions and choices have produced in our heart and mind one or several of the fruits of the Spirit,” Msgr. Holquin said.
“If not, then there’s a very good possibility that the choice we have made may not be in accord with God’s will, but rather a manifestation of a decision that is contrary to the Lord’s intention for us.”
Writing in Christianity Today, Dawson McAllister reminds us of the importance of remembering that the Holy Spirit will not prompt us to do anything that goes against Scripture.
“We need to make sure we’re listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, not the voice of our own desires,” McAllister writes. “And we know which is which by checking this voice against the truth of God’s Word.”
As for why God lets bad things happen, Gary Zimak, writing for Catholic Stand, notes that tragedies result in people helping one another.
“We also see an increase in prayer,” Zimak writes.
Tragedies also give us an opportunity to trust God, he says.
“It is during the dark times that we must truly “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7),” Zimak writes. “When skies are blue, it’s a lot easier for us to trust than during storms. However, storms often give us the best chance to grow closer to the Lord.”