Hardships and the path of righteousness: Human view vs. God’s view

I have a question about the connection between a burden of righteousness, if you will, and a person’s relative luck, ease, and success in life. Does an extra burden of righteousness fall upon those who face relative hardships and challenges beyond their control, particularly in their faith journey with God?

Here are a few hypotheticals to get the discussion going…

Example #1: Imagine two men. The first one was a cradle Catholic, grew up in an extremely Catholic home, and went to all Catholic schools. He doesn’t stray from his path in the faith, has a strong parish community that his family has been connected with for a few generations, and is able to get involved in a number of ministries due to his family’s connections in the parish. He finds his vocation in life relatively young and is well-supported by others in his community throughout his journey. He has his moments of doubt but is surrounded with a supportive and loving network of fellow Catholics. The second man grew up in a completely agnostic home and went through public schools where the Lord was practically a four letter word. He was involved in a number of sinful activities in his youth, but had no knowledge of what sin was at the time. When he is in his thirties, he has a conversion. He loves God, his faith and the Church but has no network of associates within it. His own family barely even talks to him anymore and most of his former friends have drifted away from “that wacko”. He also begins discerning his vocation but due to living in an isolated area with limited resources and contacts, he struggles a lot. Now both men are in their 40s. The first is one of those “on fire” Catholics—always joyfully praising God in everything and living out his vocation in full. The second one is less sparkly, so to speak. He’s a faithful Catholic, but he never gets to that point where he is “on fire” for God. He has a sense of what his vocation might be but has met with a lot of resistance in pursuing it. The first man often recounts how fortunate and blessed he’s been in life. The second man does too, but if he’s honest with himself, he sometimes wonders whether or not something’s wrong with him since he never quite gets to that point of being 100% “on fire” like the other.

Example #2: Two couples. The first, both cradle Catholics, met when they were seventeen years old. The man pursued the woman, who wasn’t interested at first, but eventually she comes around. Very soon, it became clear to both of them that they were to be married. Both of them were virgins when they met and remained virgins throughout their courtship. They marry in their early twenties and proceed to have children right away. The second couple is a cradle Catholic woman and a convert man. The woman grew up in the faith and committed to chastity from a young age. When she was in her mid-twenties, however, she went through a crisis of faith following the death of both of her parents in a tragic accident and within that period, abandoned her promise. A couple of years later she has a reversion experience and recommits to chastity. The man grew up in a Protestant home but never received the same teachings on chastity, and so he ended up falling into sin at an early age, though not without remorse. Both the man and the woman sense that they may have a vocation to marriage from their late teens, but they both struggle for years with regards to whether or not their vocation will be fulfilled. When they are both in their late thirties, they meet and, within a couple years, are married. Today, the first couple has six children and is well loved in their parish community. They are often held up as an example of the ideal Catholic couple. They minister to young couples preparing for marriage in the little free time that they have. It is clear that God has bestowed great graces on their work and ministry. The second couple struggled with childbearing for a few years, an experience that threatened to strain their marriage, but they pulled through. Eventually, they gave birth to two children. They still attend Mass faithfully every week but some gossip in the parish about their relatively small family size has caused tension between them and other families. As a result, their involvement in parish life and ministry has been limited.

The reason that I’m asking this question is that while I know that our faith is not supposed to depend on our circumstances, I also know that we are only human, and…let’s face it… experiencing immense blessings in life does tend to have an impact on the degree of our faith. I know that being “on fire” is not the only true manifestation of faith but again, we’re human and tend to judge others’ commitment based on these external factors, often without knowing the circumstances behind them. I know “fair” is not a word that we like to use with each other past a certain age, but is there any theological writing or meditation on the relationship between circumstance and righteousness? On how God might look at these two scenarios? Is He saying “try harder” to those who suffer?

But the one who did not know his master’s will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.
Luke 12:48

Having “good luck” (I hate that word, luck), many material goods, worldly success, all of these are “good” in the eyes of the world, not in the eyes of God who requires far more from those who love and serve Him.

I do not know why some people fall into circumstances which bring great anguish, grief, sorrow, even persistent illness and pain; I know that all the saints suffered, not one was spared. So suffering has a purpose, one God knows and uses, one we can only guess.

If I had passed through life relatively unscathed by sorrow, tragedy, loss (and yes, even horror), I would not (most likely) be as close to Jesus as I am. I look forward to the moment where I am face to Face. And I might be a tad worried, also: how come I have feasted on the fatted calf without strife? Jesus said he came to bring a sword, not peace; He told us His requirements for following Him and they are quite difficult. Self sacrifice, constant awareness of His presence and watchfulness in your life, the struggle for obedience and the greatest struggle (especially in the face of great emotional pain): TRUST, these are not simple nor easy things. It is quite difficult to pick up your cross and follow Him but the comfort and love you receive in return are well worth it.

There is no relationship between circumstance and righteousness. Our righteousness depends on us laboring in the Lord’s vineyard at the end of the day. Whether we’ve been there since dawn working hard all day, or just showed up at the last minute and put in a miniscule amount of effort, is irrelevant in determining whether or not we are righteous. Whether we appeared to get there only through a great struggle, or everything appeared to go our way, is likewise irrelevant in determining whether or not we are righteous.

God does not tell those who suffer to try harder; he simply tells them to persevere. If we focus on what someone else has that we do not, then we have given in to sin. One of our deacons has a child with severe physical disabilities. He could be angry at God and ask why he’s being treated unfairly, but instead he says that having a disabled child is a blessing because he never knew before then how much of himself he could give for the sake of another. My wife and I have no children at all. I could be angry with God and ask why I’m being treated unfairly by not being blessed with children, but instead I say that I have been blessed with time and resources to be there for others to help them with their children. And honestly, until I had that perspective and began to act on it, I also did not know how much of myself I could give for the sake of another.

The focus should always be outward toward others, not inward toward the self. To compare our own apparent shortcomings to the apparent blessings of others requires us to focus inward. An inward focus warps our perspective tremendously.

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