Once there was a boy who lived out in the country and whose family owned and operated a sheep farm. One day he noticed that the thorns in a hedge along one of the pastures sometimes tore the wool of the sheep as they passed by, so he begged his father to cut down the hedge to spare the sheep this discomfort. However, the father told his son to sit down and watch the hedge from a distance, and afterwards to tell him what he observed. About an hour later the boy reported back, saying, “Father, I saw birds come down to the hedge and carry off the pieces of wool that were stuck there.” The father then explained, “They were carrying off those bits of wool to line their nests so as to stay warm. The sheep didn’t feel the loss of a few strands of wool, but the wool made all the difference to the birds. Now,” asked the father, “do you still want me to cut down the hedge?,” and his son answered, “No!” (Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples from the Catechism, p. 45). This simple lesson has many applications in life. We see something that strikes us as being wrong or unnecessary or unfair, and we want it to be changed immediately—not stopping to think that the event or situation may play a larger role in God’s plan. Certainly, we’re supposed to do what we can to alleviate suffering and end injustice, and there’s no requirement that we reject changes that would make life better for ourselves and others. Even as we’re trying to improve things, however, we must maintain a spirit of patience and humility—for our ways are not God’s ways, and His loving plan can create meaning and value in the most surprising places.
Our limited human perspective can blind us to the truth—but we can rise above this limitation by being open to God’s guidance. The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent show us three different ways this can be true. First of all, we must remember that God never judges people by outward appearances, but by what’s in their heart. In the 1st Reading the prophet Samuel was very impressed by Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, and assumed he must be God’s choice as king. The Lord corrected him, however, and had him anoint as king not Eliab nor any of the next six brothers, but instead David, the youngest—and through God’s grace, David ended up being the greatest king in Israel’s history and one of the heroes of the Old Testament. It’s quite easy for us to be overly impressed by some people, and to greatly underestimate others; the person we admire for his or her supposed holiness may in fact be a hypocrite or fraud, while the one we take for granted may actually be a secret saint. To avoid these types of mistakes, we must treat everyone with respect, refrain from judging others, give other people the benefit of the doubt, pray on behalf of everyone we know, and seek God’s guidance and aid whenever we have a difficulty or question in our relationships.
A second important lesson in discovering and living the truth comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In today’s passage he tells us to “take no part in the fruitless works of darkness”—that is, any sort of sinful behavior, including gossiping or slandering others, being unkind or uncaring, giving a higher priority to money or material things than to spiritual growth, ignoring God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church, and refusing to admit and repent of our own sinfulness. Not only will we one day be held accountable for these and other sins; they hurt us here and now by blinding us to the truth and making it impossible to see what’s in our own best interests. I’m sure we all some know miserably unhappy people who are their own worst enemies; because they’re rooted in sin and self-pity, they can’t or won’t accept the fact that without a complete change of heart, they’ll never be happy. St. Paul urges all Christians to avoid this type of self-destructive attitude or behavior, and, if necessary, to awake from this sort of moral sleepiness that leads to spiritual death, accepting that light which only Christ can give. If we’re not honestly trying to overcome our sins and grow in God’s grace, we will not be able to recognize and avoid the many spiritual dangers around us, nor be aware of and respond to the numerous spiritual blessings and opportunities that life offers us.
A third lesson comes from the Gospel itself: God’s blessings always have a long-range purpose, namely, to bring us into a deeper relationship with Him that leads to eternal life. Jesus didn’t only heal the man born blind so that he could live a normal life; He wanted the man to accept Him and proclaim Him as his Savior. This the man was quite willing to do; we’re told that as soon as he learned Jesus’ identity, he expressed his belief and he worshiped Him. This spiritually admirable and fruitful response is contrasted with the man’s parents, who stayed neutral because they didn’t want to get into trouble with the authorities, and especially with the Pharisees, who remained trapped in their sinfulness by refusing to admit their own spiritual blindness and by continuing their opposition to Christ. God had blessed the enemies of Jesus in many ways, but these blessings were wasted because they did not lead to holiness and righteousness. If God’s plan is to be fulfilled in our lives, this must never be true of us. Our talents, opportunities, and blessings are meant to be developed, used, and shared in a manner that benefits others and helps us become holier persons; everything the Lord gives us in this life is intended to prepare us for eternal life. This can especially be true of the crosses we carry, whether they’re as insignificant as a few strands of wool lost in a hedge, or as major as blindness or some other physical disability. God doesn’t ask us to recognize or understand His plan, but simply to trust in it and do our best to cooperate with it.
These three important lessons—not to judge by outward appearances, to avoid the wickedness of this world that St. Paul calls the works of darkness, and to use our blessings as an invitation and opportunity for further spiritual growth—can help us grow in wisdom, holiness, and inner peace. Moreover, an attitude of humility, patience, and trust can help us bear our burdens, make sense of our struggles, and slowly begin to understand and appreciate the unfolding of God’s plan. One day, from the vantage point of eternity, everything will make sense. Until then, we’re asked to believe that God truly knows and wants what’s best for us—and Jesus promises that this trust will not be misplaced.