This essay is adapted from James Martin, S.J.’s new book Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, available from HarperOne.
In my ministry with LGBTQ people, I sometimes meet people who feel profoundly, even paralyzingly, discouraged by the lack of forward movement in the church. Even when something positive happens in the church, they will say, “Not enough!” or “Too little, too late.”
In his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII mentioned “prophets of doom, who are always forecasting disaster.” Of course, it’s not surprising that LGBTQ people might feel discouraged—even despairing—from time to time when church leaders and others put so many stumbling blocks in their way. But this can also betoken a reflexive focus on the negative, a pattern that can seem hard to break.
Reflecting on the story of the Raising of Lazarus, from John’s Gospel (11:1-44), can offer all of us, not just LGBTQ people, some clues in how to move away from the focusing on the negative. When Jesus asks Martha to remove the stone that covers her brother Lazarus’s tomb, a thrilling moment of possibility, she says something odd: “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Martha, who has already professed her faith in Jesus as the “Messiah,” is focused on the negative.
Jesus’s reassuring response to Martha’s mention of the stench, however, is puzzling: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” This comment functions less as a direct response to Martha’s question and more as a general reassurance to this troubled sister and to the crowd mourning with her.
His reassurance is reminiscent of the Angel Gabriel’s response to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary, “much perplexed” by the news that she will give birth, asks, “How can this be?” (1:34). Mary is also focused on the practical: she’s a virgin. In response, the angel reassures Mary by reminding her that her cousin Elizabeth, previously thought to be unable to give birth, is pregnant. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” says the angel. God reassures Mary, as Jesus reassures Martha by Lazarus’s tomb.
In moments of confusion, doubt or fear, such reassurance can jolt us out of our focus on the practical, the negative or the seemingly impossible. This is what Jesus does in both cases for Martha in front of her brother’s tomb.
In our own lives, there are several antidotes to a misdirected focus on the obviously negative, the purely personal or the seemingly impossible. To be clear: I’m not saying that we should never feel sad or discouraged. Sadness, frustration and discouragement are natural reactions to times of loss, pain or a disappointing turn of events. What I’m talking about here is a frequent, persistent or habitual tendency to focus on the negative to the exclusion of all else.
What can help counteract those tendencies?
First, gratitude. Nothing counters negativity as much as gratitude. As St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, said, ingratitude is the worst, most abominable of sins and the origin of sins. Ingratitude blinds us to the blessings that God is giving us, even in the middle of tough times. Ongoing ingratitude can make us tetchy, negative, complaining and even despairing. In those moments of negativity, doing an honest inventory on the blessings in our lives can help restore some balance.
Second, memory. This is something of what the Angel Gabriel does for Mary. “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son,” says the angel, “and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (Lk. 1:36). As I see it, the angel may not be revealing something new to her—Mary likely would have heard of her cousin’s amazing pregnancy even though Elizabeth was in “seclusion”—but is reminding her of something she already knew.
When we look back to see how God has been with us in the past, our memory reminds us that “nothing will be impossible with God.” This can help us move past fear. Looking backward can help us move forward.
Third, grit. A friend, colleague, psychologist or spiritual adviser can jolt us out of our negativity. “Stop complaining!” or “Stop being so negative!” An honest friend’s remark can be like a pail of cold water in the face. However, we need to be careful not to simply tell people to “snap out of it” because there are legitimate reasons people are sad, angry or frightened. But an overall attitude of negativity sometimes needs to be challenged.
Fourth, perspective. Reminding ourselves of the ways that others suffer helps put our own suffering in perspective. We can make an honest acknowledgment that when compared with many others, we sometimes don’t have it so bad. A few years ago, I was speaking to my physician about some minor concern, and I asked how he was doing. Without breaking confidence, he told me he was dealing with several patients who were suffering from life-threatening illnesses. This put things in perspective for me.
Finally, faith. Remember, God is with us. The practical, negative and frightening aspects of life are only parts of the picture. As St. Paul said: “We see only in a mirror … I know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Where we see only a small bit—work that needs to be done on a relationship, a problem at work, the stench at the tomb—God sees the whole picture.
In every life, there will be a stench. But, as on that day in Bethany, God stands next to us, encouraging us to see the rest of the story.