I highly recommend Peter Kreeft’s book How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint. Kreeft is a professor at Boston College and has written many books about the faith. I’ve liked all the ones I’ve already, but How to Be Holy might be the best: it’s concise, deep and practical, and features Kreeft’s ability to explain complex topics in easy to understand terms. Kreeft says it’s his most important book, since the whole purpose of our lives is to become holy, as Our Heavenly Father is holy.
To be holy is to surrender your own will, and to abandon yourself to the will of your Heavenly Father. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than that.
Is it scary to abandon ourselves to God’s will? Yes. But growing in holiness means growing in trust in the Lord. There’s a profound passage in the book where Kreeft talks about choosing God’s way – that is, choosing love and joy – compared to choosing our own way – that is, the way that sooner or later is going to make us miserable. Why would anyone choose misery over joy? Kreeft says it is “because you can understand and control misery but you cannot control joy.”
Choosing to do God’s will is an adventure. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were fishing by the lake when Jesus called them. They had no idea where He was going to lead them. They lived rich, dramatic, adventurous, heroic lives. (Read Acts of the Apostles. It’s the story of twelve nobodies, led by the Spirit, who conquered the world.)
And choosing to do God’s will is going to come with temporary suffering and setbacks, as it did for the apostles. Those moments call us to fully put our trust in God. There is a passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans that frames Kreeft’s entire book. Saint Paul says:
For those who love God all things work together for good. (Romans 8:28)
Even the bad things in our life, Paul is saying, fit into God’s master plan that leads to our sanctification, and our joy.
Can we believe that? Well, to believe it we have to believe three things about God:
- God is all-knowing.
- God is all-loving.
- God is all-powerful.
Can we believe those three things?
- Look around you. Look at the stars. Listen to the roar of the ocean. Feel the wind on your face. Can you look at everything that God has made, in its wondrous beauty and intricate complexity, and doubt that he is all-knowing?
- Look at the cross. Who responds to hatred with love? We hate God when we sin, but God loves us so much that He was willing to suffer and die, at our hands, so that we might be redeemed. There is no greater love than this.
- Look at the Resurrection. Nothing can bind God: not evil, not sin, not death. His love and mercy always win.
We can believe that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, and we can then with humble confidence put all our trust in Him.
So how do we be holy? Mary explained it to the servers at the wedding at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.” Easy, right? Of course, it’s not always easy because our selfish natures want to do things our way, and not God’s way. The good news is that just by making the effort to be holy, Jesus is going to send His grace to us. Even our sins have a role in God’s master plan that leads to our holiness. Sins are bad, but God always makes good things out of bad ones. As Kreeft notes, it’s often our sins that help us avoid the trap of the greatest sin, which is pride.
Another question to ask is how can we know God’s will? Two suggestions from Kreeft. We have to live in the present moment, and recognize God in the present moment. We can’t live in the past or the future (although our minds can spend a lot of time there). We have to live in the present, and trust that each moment of our lives is willed by God for our good. We need to be receptive to what God is sending us and what He is telling us to do, and we need to be active in doing His will.
“Do your obvious duty as if nothing in the world existed except God and you.” (1) There’s a remote chance God is calling me to martyrdom today, but it’s more likely that He’s calling me to make sure the kids get on the bus, contribute during that meeting at work, fold the laundry, and do fifteen other things, all of them with great love. “Do small things with great love,” Saint Therese of Lisieux said. God put you where you are today for a reason. Respond to His call, respond to your neighbors (His children) with great love. And thank Him for everything He gives you. This is the road to Heaven, the pathway to holiness.
- The quote above is from Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s book Abandonment to Divine Providence, which is a primary source of inspiration for Kreeft’s book, and a great little book in its own right.
Image: Marriage at Cana by Gerard David (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).