So give encouragement to each other, and keep strengthening one another as you do already.
1 Thessalonians 5: 11
Paul tells the members of the Church of Thessaloniki that they are children of light and so “must not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober.” (vs. 5-6) Being children of light is not a permanent state but rather a call to a way of being and living. It is, in short, a work.
Paul goes on to suggest that this “work” is one in which we need each other. We must live with and relate to each other in such a way as to encourage and strengthen what is of “the light” in us. Theodore James Ryken envisaged the community he was founding as “a band of brothers (and sisters) who mutually help, encourage, and edify one another and who work together.” His vision of what would be required of those whom he sent to the American mission was not a sentimental one. He realized that the wilderness America of his time would swallow up the physical and spiritual resources of any individual, and that the society’s strong pulsations toward autonomy and independence would be extremely difficult for a single individual to withstand. He realized that it was only in a community whose members would consistently challenge, encourage, and edify each other that his brothers could bring the light of Christ to their situations.
Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that the difference between the children of darkness and the children of light is that the children of darkness recognize “the power of self interest” while the children of light know the truth of a “higher law” but don’t realize “the power of self-will.” The children of darkness, in short, know how to use human self-interest in service of their own ambitions. And far too often, the children of light are used because they do not recognize appeals to what is dark in themselves, to their own self-interest. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul writes that the cross is “the power of God to us who are being saved.” We are not saved into a static state of blessedness, but are rather always “being saved.” What we are being saved from is the hell of self-interest and self-absorption that always continues to threaten us. As fallen, human beings will always be prey to what Niebuhr terms “the power of self will.”
This is where community comes in. For St. Benedict, the monastic community was the “school for the service of God.” We learn to serve God rather than ourselves in the day to day, moment to moment challenge of living with and caring for others. Paul fully understands that “the light” will continue to shine in the church of Thessaloniki only if its members continue to encourage and strengthen each other in what is of God in them. This encouragement implies that they must also challenge and counter what is of self-will and self-interest in each other. To evade the difficulties of life together in an attempt to find a a conflict-free existence is to give free reign to self-will in one’s personality. Today, may we recognize that the moments of disruption, aggravation and conflict which others evoke in us are opportunities to recognize the hold of self-will over us. May we, further, encourage each other to abandon our selfishness that the light of the Lord within and among us may radiate more fully in our lives and to the world.
According to the scripture, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” This observation fits the modern situation. Our democratic civilization has been built, not by children of darkness but by foolish children of light. It has been under attack by the children of darkness, by the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength. It has come close to complete disaster under this attack, not because it accepted the same creed as the cynics; but because it underestimated the power of self-interest, both individual and collective, in modern society. The children of light have not been as wise as the children of darkness.
The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They “are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest. The children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will. They underestimate the peril of anarchy in both the national and the international community. Modern democratic civilization is, in short, sentimental rather than cynical. It has an easy solution for the problem of anarchy and chaos on both the national and the international level of community, because of its fatuous and superficial view of the human person. It does not know that the same person who is ostensibly devoted to the “common good” may have desires and ambitions, hopes and fears, which set one at variance with one’s neighbor.
It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness
We are children of day and the light, not of darkness nor the night. But without attentiveness to the light, without each day actively striving to discern God in my life, I can find the darkness rather attractive. Self-will and self-interest are strong attractors. The God who is not seen can at times play second fiddle to the immediate satisfaction on offer on the “dark side.” There are so many warnings in scripture about, as St. Paul says, staying awake and sober, or about the need for prayer and fasting. And yet there are also times when the work involved in all that seems too demanding.