Seeking Expert Advice
Ash Wednesday. Fr Simon Gaine considers the three-fold treatment for sin proposed by Christ our Healer.
More and more we seem to be worried by experts — can we trust what they say or not? We have no choice, though, but to trust experts in a complicated society like ours, where there are so many things we need to make judgements about. And this means that a great deal of our lives depends on trusting other people, on trusting their particular expertise. It can’t be any other way.
Doctors are just one case in point. If the doctors advise you that you need an operation to save your life, and you want to live, what else can you do but rely on the advice of experts and have the operation? I can’t think what else I would do. Maybe ask for a second opinion? But what is that other than turning to another expert? Even if we distrust one expert, it may well be because we are putting our trust in a rival expert. Experts are something we simply can’t do without.
Now when God speaks to us, his is an unrivalled expertise. This means that if we deny God’s expertise and ignore what he has to say, we do so at our peril. And God speaks this unrivalled Word to us in Jesus, a message of Good News for sinners, passed on to us through the Scriptures and Tradition of his Church.
Our situation as sinners, people who turn away from God, is in some ways not very different from the situation of those who are sick. Even if we can tell on our own that we are sick, we need the advice of others as to what the remedy is, what the particular medicine is that will heal our sickness, what kind of exercise we need to get us back to health. When I had a bad back a few years ago, the right prescription of pills and exercise worked wonders!
And for the spiritual sickness of sin, God presents us with a doctor of infinite spiritual power to heal. The perfect human life of the Son of God has become the source of our healing from the spiritual sickness of sin: our lives can be healed through his cross. And he applies this saving power of his life, death and resurrection to us through baptism, when he washes away our sin and unites us to himself. We then become closer to him still in Holy Communion, when we eat his body and drink his blood, and are blessed with this ‘medicine of immortality’.
But ordinary healing isn’t just about having a remedy applied externally to the skin or swallowing something that’s good for you. Exercise can be important too for regaining health, just as it was in the case of my bad back. Spiritual exercise then becomes an important part of Christian healing, both the exercises given to us by the priest when we return to God in the sacrament of confession, and the exercises we undertake for ourselves at other times.
And in the Scriptures, our Lord prescribes a threefold remedy for sinners: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, three forms of spiritual exercise through which Jesus can restore us to spiritual health through the saving power of his death and resurrection. It is these which the Church particularly recommends to us during Lent.
By prayer, then, we turn back to the God from whom we turn away. By fasting we learn self-control and so learn to love ourselves in a healthy and balanced way. And by giving to the poor, we turn to our neighbour whom we must love as ourselves. It is remedies such as these, spiritual forms of healthy exercise, done in sensible and not excessive amounts, by which Jesus continues to bring his healing to us.
And so it is God in Jesus Christ who is our spiritual doctor, our unrivalled expert in matters of spiritual health, medicine and exercise. We cannot doubt God’s expertise, because he is our maker and the source of our forgiveness and healing. He cannot be deceived by anyone about what is good for us, and he doesn’t deceive us about what is good for us, because he is perfect.
What he prescribes are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Do we doubt his expertise or will we just ignore his prescription? We would be fools if we did.