... through him who strengthens me."
You cannot do it alone. Whatever it is—a relentless addiction or compulsion, an inordinate attachment or desire for something or someone, a difficult or frustrating situation or relationship, etc., etc.—you absolutely, positively, cannot overcome or work your way through it by your own power. It’s utterly impossible.
With God, however, all things are possible (cf. Luke 18:27).
Today’s Mass readings (Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30) tell us how; and a line from the second reading, in particular, holds the key. St. Paul writes: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). That, in a nutshell, is the Trinitarian formula, as it were, for redemption and a genuine relationship with the God who saves us. Through Christ—fully human, fully divine—God the Father confers upon us the life-giving Holy Spirit, the very breath of life.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and gave them new life, the Gospel of John tells us: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22). At that point, the fearful, uncertain disciples became equipped to do God’s work with wisdom and courage. This is an act of creation, or re-creation, just as “the mighty wind sweeping over the waters” of Genesis 1:2 tells of God’s spirit or breath (ruah in Hebrew) bringing life to what had been a dark, formless void. God’s Spirit promises and gives life to all who receive and nurture it with faith.
This is what St. Paul is telling us in today’s second reading—that the Spirit of God, the very breath of life (cf. Genesis 2:7) overcomes the death-dealing desires of the flesh. By “flesh,” he does not mean simply “the body.” Our bodies and all that comes with them are good—we were created by God in God’s image, after all. By “flesh,” St. Paul means all those inordinate attachments and desires which we typically direct away—rather than toward—the God who gives us all things for our good. Living according to the flesh, as Paul puts it, means being slaves of our misdirected desires. Only the Spirit of God can put such desires to death, breathing new life into them and re-orienting them toward their origin and end—the One and Triune God.
As Scripture scholar Diane Bergant, C.S.A., says in her commentary The Word for Every Season, “The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit who dwells in us, enabling us to live transformed lives. [Today’s] readings portray Jesus as a kind of intermediary between us and both the Father and the Spirit. He reveals his Father to us, and he shares his Spirit with us.”
And what kind of Spirit is this? How does God respond to our fickleness, our tendency to choose creation/creatures over Creator, and our prideful, greedy, selfish, often violent ways? “Your king shall come to you,” the prophet Zechariah foretold, as “a just savior, meek, and riding on an ass … he shall proclaim peace.” As today’s Psalm (145) recounts: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.”
This is the Spirit our Merciful God offers to us through Jesus, who says to us in today’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest … Learn from me, for I am meek [read: gentle] and humble of heart.” The God who created us, who gives us the freedom to choose but nonetheless longs for us to choose Him above all, the God who knows us through and through (with all our failures, contradictions, and misdirected desires) treats us with gentleness, humility, graciousness, mercy, kindness, and compassion. The God of all things bows before his wayward creatures to lift them up on his shoulders, and says: “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27).
This is the only way we can put to death the desires of our flesh—addictions, compulsions, inordinate attachments or desires, trying situations or relationships—and be transformed into who God has called us to be. We must allow God to save us, to pick us up. We can’t do it alone, no matter how hard we try. We must place our trust in God, and allow the Spirit to take hold of us, to breathe new life into us, to give us peace.
And if you are simply unable or unready to do that right now, the good news is that desiring it is enough. It is enough to simply desire what God has to offer. And if you can’t yet desire it, simply ask God to give you the desire. He will—in God’s own time and circumstances, I promise. Give him an inch, and God will not only take a mile, but go the extra mile with you, whispering gently, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”