Naaman, commander of an ancient Syrian army and subject of Monday’s first reading (2 Kings 5:1-15), is hardly a household name among Catholics. We should get to know him, though, as he has much to teach us about faith and the specter of doubt that can weigh down even the most devout believer.
Naaman was encouraged by an Israelite slave to seek the king of Jerusalem to heal his leprosy. Upon news of Naaman’s arrival, the prophet Elisha sent for him. When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house, the prophet sent him a message: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” Naaman flew into a rage at the news, and shouted, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”
Naaman’s reaction is not uncommon for believers at varying points in our lives. Doubts about God’s love or existence can creep up when He does not act according to our expectations. Sometimes such doubts can arise when our own hopes about how our lives should be do not turn out as we wish. Other times doubts may arise when God does not answer a petition, such as when prayers for the recovery of a fatally ill family member seem to be ignored.
Such doubts are common, serious, and trying, and they can test the very core of our faith relationship with God. Sometimes these doubts can even harden into resentment and bitterness toward God, especially after the experience of a serious trauma or evil. We doubt His existence or His care for us. These doubts then tempt us to stop attending Mass and to stop praying.
How are we to respond to such experiences of doubt that, in reality, have been generated by our own lofty expectations? As the conclusions of Naaman’s story teaches us, the best way to respond to doubt is to make a reciprocal act of faith.
In response to Naaman’s incredulous rage, his servants said, “[I]f the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” Naaman then went and washed as the prophet had commanded, “and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
Naaman’s servants remind us that we should not subordinate God’s will to our expectations. In fact, God explained to the prophet Isaiah the problem of forcing Him to act according to human desires: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).
We cannot pretend to understand God’s whole plan for the world and for our lives, particularly when life does not work out as we wish. We are inveterate seekers of explanations, but explanations are not always available. In addition, our fallen nature leads us to trust ourselves before others, particularly those with authority over us. It is all too easy, when faced with a trying situation, to reject God because we know that He may not desire for us what we desire for ourselves. Faith requires us to fight this tendency and entrust ourselves to God—to put our worries, our expectations, our fears, and our doubts into His hands.
Jesus told Peter that the more we surrender our lives to God, the more God will give to us in return: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matt 19:29).
As an army commander, Naaman was used to having his will carried out by others. When it comes to our relationship with God, we all have a bit of Naaman’s impulse in us. But in the battle of faith, we must ask God for the humility not to command, but to surrender as His willing soldiers, so that our favorite prayer may become “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media)
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