Pope St. John Paul II was fond of the phrase, “Do not be afraid!” This should, in many ways, be the motto of anyone who places their faith in the Cross.
There is a reason why the Cross is so central to Catholic spirituality and devotional life. When one looks to the Cross, they see not only a man being tortured and killed. They see not just God being tortured and killed. But they see the greatest paradox of all, one that gives hope to humanity: in taking upon Himself suffering and death, the Almighty God conquered suffering and death. In allowing Himself to be victimized by our sin, He conquered our sinfulness. It is not fallen man’s victory over God, but God’s victory over the Fall.
It should seem utterly strange that Christians take as their primary symbolism of self-identification a torture device. But at work within the Cross is God’s plan of salvation. What looks like a hopeless situation, a situation that should instill within us a sense of complete hopelessness – the Creator of the universe being subject to suffering and death – is in fact the foundation of our hope!
There will come a time when evil and suffering will be no more (cf. Revelations 21:4, 1 Corinthians 15). But, just because evil and suffering still occur doesn’t mean they have the final say. Through His Death, Jesus conquered the forces of evil, which was testified to by the Resurrection, the sign that death cannot keep its grip on Christ, the author of life. Death and sin no longer have the final say precisely because Christ took it upon Himself and used it as the means to bring about salvation.
Christ on the Cross doesn’t promise to make life easier; rather, He takes evil upon Himself, and uses it to bring about good. And this shows us a general pattern: God doesn’t promise that, prior to the eschaton, there will be no pain and suffering, but rather, if Christ could bring the greatest good for man (salvation) from the greatest evil (the death of the Savior), then Christ could bring about any level of good from any level of evil.
Therefore, when confronted with evil or suffering, whether it is something you are struggling with internally, within yourself, or whether it be something outside of you, look to the Cross. The reality that Christ has already conquered evil should not make us fearful in the face of evil. This doesn’t mean that fear is a bad thing, or to deny that it is a natural reaction. But, there are two types of fear. One type of fear is what most people think of when they think of fear – a sense of nervousness or anxiousness about something gone wrong, or about something that may go wrong. Courage doesn’t mean not being fearful, but doing what one ought to do in spite of the presence of fear, not letting fear dictate our behavior. Yet, there is a much deeper level of fear, and that is a sense of existential dread, that fear that paralyzes and overwhelms man, which becomes the center of his thoughts, emotions, and general disposition. The hope and courage which we Catholics derive from the Cross is completely incompatible with such a mindset.
When faced with evil that lies outside of us, there should be no fear, for it has already been conquered by Christ. Evil external to the self should never take away your sense of inner peace, if you trust in Divine Providence. Christ has already conquered this evil, along with every other evil, and is now at work to bring about some good from it, just as He brought about my salvation from the Cross. When faced with evil that lies within us – our own sinfulness and insufficiency – this, too, should not serve as an obstacle to inner peace. We need to look to the Cross and know that, because of it, Christ has offered us a way out of our sin. We need to repent of our sin and turn to Christ.
This doesn’t mean that there will not be spiritual struggle. But, whereas those without the faith and hope that comes from the Cross are constantly conflicted with anxiousness and a lack of spiritual direction, those filled with hope are like Jacob when wrestling with God: he said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26) It is a struggle motivated by the realization that God’s blessing is on the other side. In fact, God’s blessing is not just a future contingent, but it is something that stretches both past, present and future: one can only realize their own sinfulness, or the evil of the world, and resist it, if they already have the blessing of God, and as we continue to struggle, we experience fuller and fuller manifestations of that blessing, and is ordered towards the fullest realization of this blessing in heaven.
The spiritual struggle of the faithless and hopeless is one marked by constant fear, guilt and existential dread. It leads us to either turn in on our desolation and give in to despair. The only other option is to realize that if there is no hope, any talk of meaning is meaningless, and thus to adopt this mindset of, “Who cares?”, followed by a life of hedonism. The struggle of the faithful is a struggle born out of faith and hope, and the recognition that this hope and faith is rooted in a concrete reality, not a mere desire or thought, not a fleeting emotion.
And this concrete reality is that ALL THINGS are, in fact, a playing our of Christ’s victory on the Cross. That is the Christian faith, the foundation of our hope, our beliefs, our longings.