The Word Among Us

Jan/Feb 2015 Issue

Grace and Nature

We Really Can Become Like Christ

Grace and Nature: We Really Can Become Like Christ

Of all the characters in the Gospels, no one seems to be singled out more than St. Peter—and not always in a good way! It was Peter who tried to walk on water, but ended up all wet.

It was Peter who promised that he would die with Jesus, only to end up denying him a few hours later. And it was Peter who tried to convince Jesus not to go to the cross, moving Jesus to tell him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23).

This may be one of the key reasons why Peter is a hero to so many people. We can identify with him precisely because of the many times he “got it wrong.” We take comfort from the fact that the man who became the first pope made some of the same kinds of mistakes that we make. If someone like Peter could become a great saint, surely we can too!

So let’s take a look at the different ways Peter grew and changed during his time with the Lord—how he learned to cooperate with God’s grace. If we look at his example, we’ll discover ways that we too can welcome God’s transforming grace into our lives.

Grace Builds on Nature. According to a famous statement by St. Thomas Aquinas, grace builds on nature. It doesn’t destroy who we are. It doesn’t make us into completely different people. It doesn’t just cover up our sin. No, God’s grace takes all of our talents and gifts, our hopes and dreams, even our unique quirks, and lifts them up. As we accept his grace, God leads us to use our gifts for his glory. He takes our personalities and uses them to reflect aspects of who he is. So if we tend to be forceful and energetic, his grace teaches us to channel that energy toward evangelizing or working for justice. If we are gentle by nature, he refines that gentleness so that it increasingly reflects his own compassion.

In Peter’s case, God took his passionate nature and used it to build his Church. After the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell to his knees and cried out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). It was a quick-tempered, rash statement from Peter, asking Jesus to leave him alone in his sins. But of course, Jesus would have none of it. Instead, he promised that Peter would spend all that passion “catching men” (5:10). Again and again, Peter continued to show himself to be a bold man, eager to do whatever he thought was the right thing.

Then on Pentecost Sunday, filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter demonstrated what his passion could look like when placed under the guidance of God’s grace. With strong words and deep conviction, he proclaimed the risen Christ, causing about three thousand people to repent, be baptized, and give their lives to the Lord (Acts 2:40-41). Then, in story after story in the Book of Acts, we see Peter devoting all his energies to preaching the gospel and building up the Church. Grace redirected Peter’s excitement, his conviction, and his emotions. It didn’t make Peter passive—not at all! If anything, it made him more determined and more willing to follow through on what he promised.

So God’s grace shaped Peter. It sanctified, elevated, and renewed him. It made him into the best version of himself that he could ever become.

Divinized by Grace. But it wasn’t enough for Peter to become a better human being or a nicer man. God did so much more in his life than this. He divinized Peter. It may sound like a New Age concept, but the idea of divinization is as old as the early Church. Athanasius, a fourth-century bishop, wrote, “The Son of God became man so that man might become God.” In the same way, in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men Gods.” And even today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature” (CCC, 460). All of these theological messages point to the highest goal that God has for us. Jesus became a man like us in all things but sin so that we might become like him in all things.

Divinization is not something reserved only for special saints. It isn’t something so “spiritual” that it makes us into starry-eyed mystics. Divinization is the word that we use to describe how God’s grace makes us more and more like Christ in our very nature. Through divinization, we take on Jesus’ personality—his thoughts, dreams, and desires. Cooperating with God’s grace, we find ourselves becoming more loving, more willing to lay down our lives for God and his people, more merciful, and more attuned to the cry of the poor and forgotten. In short, we become Christ in the world.

We see this in Peter’s life as God’s grace did more than just inspire his good characteristics. We see grace acting like a sculptor’s chisel, smoothing off Peter’s rough edges. As a result, the man who once cut off an opponent’s ear slowly grew into a man who generously and humbly welcomed his onetime enemies, the Gentiles, into the Church (John 18:10; Acts 10:34-49). The man who at one point wanted nothing more than to stay on the Mount of Transfiguration and enjoy Jesus’ glory became a man who gave his very life for the gospel, in imitation of Jesus (Luke 9:32-35; John 21:18-19).

Encountering Christ, Embracing Grace. Clearly, this kind of change is not something we can make happen by our willpower alone. We can’t make it happen only by reading about other people who have welcomed the grace of God into their lives—although the more we learn about other people, the more encouraged we will become. No, like Peter, we need to learn Christ. We need to encounter Jesus and let that encounter shape our hearts and minds, our actions and expectations.

When a man and a woman fall in love, it’s because they have spent time together and have come to know each other well. Their initial attraction grows into something more mature and life-giving as they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes. It deepens as they take steps to care for each other, putting aside self-concern for the sake of each other. Their time together has borne wonderful fruit.

This is one way to think about our life with Christ. If we want his grace to change us, we need to spend time with him. We need to get to know how he thinks, what he likes, and what he dislikes. We need to get to know the deeper desires of his heart. How else will we be able to recognize the grace that he offers so generously?

Pray and Persevere. How do you get to know Jesus? Of course, the first, most obvious answer is to spend time with the Lord. This could be in prayer, at Eucharistic adoration, at the liturgy, or in Scripture study. Come in touch with his mercy, his kindness, and his love. Ask him to tell you about himself, and quiet your heart so that you can hear his answers. Get to know him in the people around you, especially in the “distressing disguise of the poor,” as Mother Teresa once said.

But Peter gives us another insight into how we can know Jesus better, and that’s through perseverance. As we said previously, Peter probably received more words of rebuke and correction than any other disciple. But he never gave up. He never thought it wasn’t worth it. He never let himself get discouraged. His love for Jesus—and Jesus’ love for him—kept him faithful, even when it was difficult.

If we can have the same attitude, we’ll find the Spirit shining his light in our hearts, showing us Jesus’ heart and helping us discover his grace. It isn’t always easy, this life of discipleship. But as Peter himself said, “To whom shall we go?” We know that only Jesus has the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Only he has the grace to strengthen us and divinize us.

Two Resolutions. So let’s make two new resolutions this New Year. First, let’s tell the Lord, “I want your grace to build up my nature.” But let’s also say, “I want your grace so that I can be more transformed into your image. Come, Lord, and help me to walk the same path that Peter walked. Shape me into your image.” If we can hold on to these two resolutions, we will see our lives change!