I was reading the Summa (Ia-IIae 40, on the irascible passions, for those keeping score at home), and was reminded of one of Thomas’s stunningly beautiful phrases: “an arduous good.” It’s philosophy as poetry, succinctly compressing a wealth of meaning into a simple phrase.
An arduous good is a good that requires struggle. A good that is worth fighting for. And a good that inspires fear and hope and endurance in the face of adversity.
Lest you think too highly of me, perusing Thomas Aquinas is not something I do often. I cannot recall the last time I looked him up (but it was there linked on my favorites for one reason or another). Thomas is not an easy read and his Summa is a great read for someone suffering from insomnia. But every once in a while I am proven wrong (okay, a lot more often than that). This is one of them. I have to admit that arduous good is fast becoming one of my new favorite phrases.
Now, in the object of hope, we may note four conditions. First, that it is something good; since, properly speaking, hope regards only the good; in this respect, hope differs from fear, which regards evil. Secondly, that it is future; for hope does not regard that which is present and already possessed: in this respect, hope differs from joy which regards a present good. Thirdly, that it must be something arduous and difficult to obtain, for we do not speak of any one hoping for trifles, which are in one's power to have at any time: in this respect, hope differs from desire or cupidity, which regards the future good absolutely: wherefore it belongs to the concupiscible, while hope belongs to the irascible faculty. Fourthly, that this difficult thing is something possible to obtain: for one does not hope for that which one cannot get at all: and, in this respect, hope differs from despair. It is therefore evident that hope differs from desire, as the irascible passions differ from the concupiscible. For this reason, moreover, hope presupposes desire: just as all irascible passions presuppose the passions of the concupiscible faculty, as stated above (Question 25, Article 1).
I posted the full reference just to prove I know the source of the quote.
One of the great failings of preaching today is that we fail to speak of good as something that requires effort, sacrifice, and work. We preach as if good were something easy enough and rewarding enough that people would be good if they would just try it. Try it. You'll like it. Not so. I have tried being good and it is the hardest work I have ever done. I daily give up on the pursuit of that which is good, right, and true. It is for this reason that forgiveness is so much a part of my hope as a Christian and a part of my life and piety in the practice of the faith I profess. The good that the Spirit works to teach us to desire is an arduous good. Virtue is not easy -- impossible for man and possible only for God at work in us.
Whether stewardship (try tithing, you'll like it) or chastity (try it, you'll like it) or even going to church on Sunday morning (try it, you'll like it), we act as if the only problem is that folks do not try it. But that is the rub. We have tried it and found that tithing means I have to give up money I would spend on myself and give it to the Lord. We have tried it and found that sexual purity means saying a painful no to desire that seems to know how to press all my buttons. We have tried it and found out that worship can be tedious, boring, and leave us wondering why we even bothered.
I am not a big fan of Thomas but he hits the nail on the head with the term arduous good. Good is not easy, it does not come without sacrifice, and it always costs us something. Only the Spirit can teach us to seek this good and only the Spirit can enable us to seek it. If we achieve it, we cannot claim credit for it is always Christ in us who makes it happen. But it is this work to which we have been called and set apart in baptism.
Scripture speaks of the paradox of the treasure found where you least expect it and treasure that requires letting go of every other treasure in order to possess the one all surpassing treasure of Christ. You know it... a treasure buried in a field, the pearl of great price, for which we will gladly sacrifice everything:
Life is already hard. Sin took care of that. Christian faith does not make it easier. It makes it even more difficult. It requires us even more to depend upon the Spirit and to trust in something other than ourselves. Faith brings with it the awareness that the world is not our friend, we cannot trust the voice of our sinful flesh, the devil is all around us telling us the lies we want to hear, and there is good worth giving up everything for and sacrificing self and desire for. We need to stop deceiving our people with false pictures of how easy, rewarding, and self-satisfying Christian faith is. Like Peter, we come to this arduous good because we have looked for options, we prefer another option, but where else can we go? Christ alone has the Word of eternal life.
Once someone asked me a personal question about my financial stewardship to the Lord. When I answered honestly the person was shocked and admitted "I could not afford to do that." Now that person's income was much higher than mine so it was not a matter of possibility. It was a matter of arduous good. Later the person asked me if it got easier to give "that much." I was honest. No, it never gets easier because I could always find something to spend that money on but it does become a good habit and a good work that accompanies faith because it is formed by the Spirit and is faith at work. And if it were easy, then something would be very wrong.
Yup. Arduous good. That says it about right. Now if we can only keep ourselves from saying that it is good worth the effort and cheapening the cause all over again... Somebody once complained to me that Christian life is one darn sacrifice after another. Yes, it is. But these sacrifices are made possible by the one, all sufficient sacrifice that none of us could make and which Christ made for us as gift and blessing. Christian life means being called into His sacrificial service. And we all know that sacrifice starts at home. Suffering... sacrifice... patience... service...
We rejoice in our sufferings, for we know that suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character hope; and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)