A recent Wall Street Journal article bore this headline: “Churches Struggle with Mental Health.” The story told of several evangelical pastors being fired when church elders discovered they are suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems. The article states, “Many congregations still believe that mental health problems reflect a spiritual deficiency or lack of faith.” The article implies that this lack of empathy among church elders for the struggling shepherds of their flocks has driven some pastors away from their church and even toward suicide.
Like the Pharisees of Christ’s day, the hierarchies of many churches choose to struggle with human legalities rather than embrace God’s laws. If they stopped seeking answers in law books and insurance policies, and instead turned to their own Bibles, they might find the answer they seek. St. Paul tells us that his life was filled with many kinds of suffering, but these trials revealed a greater purpose for him (2 Corinthians 12):
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
As that front-page Wall Street Journal article proves, modern humanity has turned suffering into a big business—not only among church clergy, but in corporate and academic circles. Our culture’s advertising is aimed at selling endings to it, and universities promote lectures wallowing in it. Rather than surrender to such empty chatter, this Sunday’s Mass readings invite our heart’s conversion to faith. The first reading from Sirach (Sir 15:15-20) tells us the choice is easy and ours:
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
That’s pure wisdom, which is available to anybody determined to profit from their life’s experiences. Paul describes it further for the Corinthians in our second reading (1 Cor 2:6-10):
We speak a wisdom to those who are mature, not a wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew; for, if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Yet it is through Christ’s sufferings that we have the key to wisdom at its finest—summed up in the 10 commandments—and in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 5:17-37 ).
Whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Using the scribes and the Pharisees as a righteousness benchmark, Jesus set a low bar for entering his kingdom. But he also said that the Kingdom of God must be found among all of us. We can claim the happiness of that kingdom by helping each other through our earthly sufferings. Living such a full life is the opposite of emptiness and the formula for hope.