Saint Teresa of Calcutta famously said to her Missionaries of Charity, “God does not call us to be successful but to be faithful.” Really, these words provide a panacea for anyone tempted toward perfectionism as well as a stimulus for those who habitually throw up their arms in defeat. Following Jesus and answering the call to be a saint is a high calling, entailing commitment and personal transformation. But it would be a mistake (and a dangerous one at that) to think that the burden for answering Jesus’s injunction, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48), rests solely on our shoulders. The saints show us a healthier approach—one as realistic as it is relentless.
St. Augustine (the “Doctor of Grace”) encourages us to model our spiritual advancement after that of King David. Yes, David, the notorious sinner! It was David whose sincere humility and contrition eventually made him Israel’s greatest and best-loved leader. His modest upbringing as a shepherd, his loyalty even toward Saul, who sought his life in jealousy, and his dedication as leader of Israel’s rag-tag army win our sympathy. Yet it is after David accedes to the crown with all its luxury and commits impassioned adultery and heinous murder that we discover what is most compelling in this man: In his hour of sad failure, David learned that to please God meant to beg pardon for sin and ask Him for a “contrite spirit . . . a clean heart” (Ps 51). This conversion, effected by the sheer generosity of God’s merciful love, transformed David into one of Israel’s most admirable and true leaders. What is the salubrious lesson Augustine derives from the beloved David? “Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg pardon.”
How many of us have thought at some time that we’re basically good human beings, but then go on to find a plenitude of faults in the people or the society around us? Or, on the flipside, have we ever decided that to strive for “the best” would be “inauthentic,” and so instead we fill our time in lackadaisical pursuit of our “real identity”? Both of these attitudes are recipes for let-down and dissatisfaction. God condemned David for the injustice he committed in not living up to his call in life as royal protector and arbiter of justice (2 Sam 12), but God also had unconditional love for David and gave him strength and blessings even after David misstepped. David responded, for his part, by turning to God in trust (2 Sam 7). God invites us to unrelenting contrition, because He is always ready not only to expunge our sins by His grace, but to build our lives up in virtue as well. Such reconciliation actually makes us more perfect as His sons and daughters and marks a true success worthy of admiration.
Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense . . .
O purify me, then I shall be clean;
O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow . . .
That I may teach transgressors your ways
And sinners may return to you. (Ps 51)
Image: Eugène Siberdt, The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David