Godtalk: True Devotion



It is easy to mistake an unhealthy form of piety for the genuine response that God wants of us;  that is, to enter into an intimate relationship  with Godself and then try to help others have that same experience. We see this everywhere in Scripture.

For example, in Luke’s Gospel, after witnessing a miraculous catch of fish, Peter responds by falling at Jesus’ knees and saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” At first glance that would seem the appropriate response, an acknowledgement of his littleness and unworthiness in the face of God’s abundance and goodness.

But Jesus sees Peter’s response differently.  Peter’s response shows a sincere piety, but his awareness of God making Peter tremble, crushes him.  This is hardly the response Jesus wants. He tells Peter not to be afraid but use what he had experienced to bring others to the same experience. Jesus is inviting Peter to move out of fear and into the intimacy of God’s fullness.

We see something similar in the account of King David arriving at the temple one morning, hungry, without food. He asks the priest for some loaves of bread. The priest replies that he hasn’t any ordinary bread, only consecrated bread that can be eaten only after the appropriate fasting and rituals. David, nonetheless, knowing that he is expected to act resourcefully rather than fearfully, takes the bread that, in other circumstances, he would have been forbidden to eat. 1 Sam 21.1-6
What makes this story so important is that when confronted by the piety of the Pharisees, Jesus highlights it, telling us that David’s response was the right one. Jesus tells those who were scandalized by his disciples lack of fear that David’s response was right because he recognized that in our response to God, intimacy and a certain boldness in acting resourcefully, are meant to trump fear. “The Sabbath,” says Jesus, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Luke 6.1f

In other words, God is not a law to be blindly obeyed. God is a loving, creative presence that invites us into intimacy, giving us energy to be more creative in the light of that relationship.

The great Christian mystics have taught that as we grow more deeply in our relationship with God, we gradually become more bold with God:  fear gives way more and more to intimacy, legalism gives way more and more to resourcefulness, judgment gives way more and more to empathy. The kind of piety that would have us clinging to Jesus’ knees paralysed by our own sinfulness, gives way to a joyful, cheerful energy for mission.
Of course, there is an important place for piety. Healthy piety and healthy humility are gifts from the Holy Spirit, but they do not paralyse us with an unhealthy fear that blocks a deeper, more joyous, and more intimate relationship with God. David had a healthy piety that didn’t stop him from acting boldly and creatively within the intimacy of his relationship to God.

The mark of true devotion is cheerful energy. The healthiest religious person you know shows this boldness and joy.

Peter Knott SJ