Note from CM: One of the writers I met on our Writers’ Open Forum a couple weeks ago is Ryan McLaughlin. He blogs at The Back of the World. He describes his own spiritual journey like this: “It’s taken me a decade to finally come to this. I walked away from a Charismatic/Evangelical upbringing, ran full steam ahead into Calvinism, broke down and stumbled into Anglicanism, and at long last I’m home in Rome. My family and I were received into the Catholic Church at Easter.”
One theme Michael Spencer and I talked about and about which he wrote was the lack of community traditions and resources for spiritual formation in evangelicalism. In this post, Ryan McLaughlin describes how he found help and assurance in a Catholic practice.
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How the Sacred Heart Healed Me from Sovereign Grace Ministries
by Ryan McLaughlin
June is the month that the Catholic Church devotes to honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Devotion to the Sacred Heart has healed me from many wounds, and continues to renew my confidence in my friendship with God, so I am excited to write about it. Some scars never really fade, and old memories still hurt after many years. But if the truth about the past stings, the Love of Jesus and His Sacred Heart are made all the sweeter.
I remember countless nights spent lying on my back, staring at the ceiling in the darkness of my room. “Maybe God just doesn’t really love me. Maybe He simply hasn’t chosen me.” I had sinned again, and each new sin brought with it doubt about whether I was really loved by God, and every doubt brought with it a reminder of the theology I had bought into: if I wasn’t really saved, then their was truly nothing I could do about it.
As I’ve written about before, my college years were spent heavily involved in a group of churches known as Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM). SGM teaches a brand of what’s been called the “New Calvinism“, central to which is a belief in predestination: before time began, God chose some people to be saved from eternal damnation and passed over others, for no reason other than it was His will to do so. Human free will plays absolutely no part in God’s choice, so if you aren’t part of the “elect” who were chosen to be saved, there’s simply no way around it: you’re on your way to Hell. Many SGM pastors, in keeping with the Puritans, believe that there is no way to know with absolute certainty in this life that a person is part of the elect, but one may gain some confidence and hope through sanctification. That is to say, if one sees a gradual increase in personal holiness, and an increase in ability to resist temptation, one can be grateful for the “evidence” that he or she is really saved.
When I was a little boy, I believed with great confidence that God loved me. My parents and pastors taught me that Jesus loved me so much, and came to Earth to make it so that I could spend eternity with Him. And as I became more involved in SGM and read more about Calvinist theology, I still believed that God loved me… at least, He probably did. But I slowly experienced a change in the way I thought of God and how I related to Him. He became, in my eyes, less loving and kind and more austere, distant, and -dare I say it?- arbitrary and just a little bit capricious. I realize now that I was afraid of God, and certainly not in the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” sense.
These doctrines and the feelings they engendered were not without consequences, both in my life and the lives of my close friends in SGM. Despite the fact that we ostensibly believed in “grace”, we had an obsessive and unhealthy fear over our sins: we used to sit in circles in “accountability groups” and confess to each other, in graphic detail, every sin we could recall. We also confronted each other with sins we perceived in that person’s life, and a guy unwilling to see how he was sinning (according to his brothers in the Lord) was quickly labelled as “prideful”. The fact is, though, that despite the unhealthy vigilance, nothing seemed to work: we kept right on sinning just as badly as before.
And so I lay awake at night, wondering if I was really “elect”. I was frightened half to death, and ironically too scared to admit it, even to myself. I had never felt more distant from Jesus. I also slowly watched many of my friends walk away from the faith entirely, too bruised and beaten by the church and its teachings to believe that there was a God behind it all. And as I eventually rejected SGM and left the church I was attending, I had a new-found loneliness: the vast majority of my friends from SGM, including guys who had been groomsmen in my wedding and who I thought would be there for me forever, simply stopped talking to me.
How could I believe in God’s love?
Nothing is new under the sun, we’re told. It turns out that there’s nothing original in the errors that SGM teaches: in the early 17th century, a heresy known as Jansenism raged across Western Europe, especially in France. Jansenism bears some striking similarities to the brand of Calvinism that SGM teaches, particularly with regards to predestination and total depravity. It was very quickly condemned as heresy by the Church, but retained a strong foothold until the the early 18th century. It’s legacy was wounded Christians who viewed God as a capricious, harsh task master whose love is arbitrary and whose ministers don’t know the meaning of the word “compassion.”
Into the midst of all of this, Jesus reminded the Church of His Sacred Heart and the love that overflows from it.
The Sacred Heart devotion had been around for several centuries, but it was not terribly wide-spread. Towards the end of the 17th century, a woman named St. Margaret Mary received a vision of Jesus, in which He showed her His Sacred Heart, and instructed her to make it more widely known. The Sacred Heart is usually shown as Christ’s human heart, bleeding and wrapped in the crown of thorns, with fire pouring out of the top.
In this picture, the most wonderful truths we know are brought home to bear: Jesus loved us so much that He became a man, so the heart is therefore a human one. But His love did not stop there: thus we see the wounds he bore on the Cross for us, His beloved. Not everyone knows about this love yet, however, and so His heart is aflame with passion for the evangelism of the world: the message of His infinite love must go forward, even unto the ends of the Earth!
Thus the Sacred Heart is proof positive that, as the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes makes clear, “Each one of us can say with the Apostle [in Gal. 2:20]: The Son of God loved me, and gave Himself for me.”
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My friend Mary Alice gave me a book as a confirmation gift called “I Believe in Love,” by Father Jean C. J. d’Elbee. I found this absolutely remarkable passage in it about the Sacred Heart in the context of early modern France:
“Thus, sixteen centuries after the Last Supper and Calvary, the most satanic of all heresies, Jansenism, was able to appear and spread — a heresy which turned a God of love, saying with open arms, ‘Come to me, all of you, come because you are unworthy, come because you are sinful, come because you need to be saved,’ into a God whose arms are raised to strike, a demanding God, a vengeful God. Under the pretext of recognizing our unworthiness, Jansenism diabolically led souls away from Jesus.
Thus, no longer willing to endure this heresy, Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary at Paray-le-Monial and through her gave His Heart to the world. ‘Here is the Heart which loved men so much that it spared nothing, to the point of being emptied and consumed, to give them proof of that love.’ Before Paray-le-Monial, Jesus could think, ‘I have given them everything. I have given them my sweat and fatigue on the roads of Palestine; I have given them all my Blood on Calvary; I have given them the gift of my beloved Mother; I have given myself in the Eucharist. What more can I do that they may believe in my love? I know: I shall give them my Heart; I shall give them the source of all these follies of my love…”
This is beautiful and true: Jesus, the Lover of our souls, relentlessly pursues us. He will do anything to prove just how much He loves us, including giving us His very Heart. His Heart is shown to us as being literally on fire with His love for mankind.
How can we then say that there is anything arbitrary or capricious about His love? How can we doubt the famous words of John, that “God so love the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”?
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I don’t remember when I first started to be attracted to the Sacred Heart, or even when I first read about it. By no later than the Summer of 2010 (still a ways away from becoming a Catholic myself), I would occasionally light a candle in front of a depiction of the Sacred Heart in Catholic Churches. But slowly and ever so surely, I fell in love with the Sacred Heart. I began to stop and admire every picture I saw of it. I would smile to myself every time I heard a school or parish mentioned that was named “Sacred Heart”. I began to treasure prayers written to the Sacred Heart and incorporate them into my devotional life. I even went so far as to get a rather large tattoo of the Sacred Heart (and yes, my wife approved of it beforehand…). Before I fully realized the depths of what it meant, the Sacred Heart had lovingly barged its way into the very center of my relationship with God. I began to realize, through being drawn to the Sacred Heart, that I wanted to believe, once again, what I had known with such confidence as a little boy: that I can know without a doubt that Jesus loves me.
Slowly but surely, Jesus’ Heart changed my heart.
I can’t say that I always believe in His love for me. I can’t say that the old doubts and fears don’t sometimes creep back in. But I can say this: His love for me is more real to me now than it has ever been. His presence is sweet to me now, where before it had grown bitter. Each time I come forward to receive the Eucharist now, I come forward to meet my truest Friend. Confident that my God loves me enough to give me His very heart, I once again believe that I can trust Him with mine.
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To all of my friends who still carry unmended holes in their hearts:
“To whom can I turn if not to You, Whose Heart is the source of all graces and merits? Where should I seek if not in the treasure which contains all the riches of Your kindness and mercy? Where should I knock if not at the door through which God gives Himself to us and through which we go to God? I have recourse to You, Heart of Jesus. In You I find consolation when afflicted, protection when persecuted, strength when burdened with trials, and light in doubt and darkness.”
- From a Novena to the Sacred Heart