Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faithRomans 3:28-30
When I was an undergraduate student, our New Testament teacher once said to us that the first person after Paul himself to really understand St. Paul’s theology of faith was Martin Luther. Perhaps there has been no greater cause of inter-Christian theological conflict than this teaching of Paul. What is the place of faith and what of works in our justification? Or as Paul puts it in Romans today, in what is the righteousness of God made manifest? Is it in observance and obedience to the law or in faith in Jesus?
The reason that all of this has been so controversial over the millennia is that it is not a mere matter of theological niceties. Rather, it lies at the very core of human psychology and the depth, and so sustainability, of living as a true believer. As our lived understanding shades toward the side of observance of the law, we become more and more prone to a self-alienation that occurs as we create a life by creating an idealized self. As Paul points out, we are all incorrigibly sinners who find ourselves “deprived of the glory of God.” This is the actual truth of our human condition.
Perhaps the next person after Luther who best understands the truth of Paul’s teaching is Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard says that when we live by will power alone we create in our innermost being “temptations of glory, fear, despondency, of pride and defiance, and sensuality greater than those . . . [we} meet in the external world.” Kierkegaard, as Paul, sees that our attempt to keep the law only reveals to us our inability to do so.
Last night a friend and I were speaking about a common acquaintance who is both an extraordinarily gifted person and also a drug addict. Time and again he struggles to overcome his addition, but he has not yet learned that he is incapable of doing this by his own will power. When I was a boy, my mother could not understand why my father seemed to lack the will to overcome his addiction to alcohol. We now understand, of course, that addiction cannot, for most people, be overcome simply by willing it. Our mutual acquaintance has not yet learned, despite the years of attempts and failures, that he is unable, by himself and with his own capacities, to live successfully in recovery from his addiction. He can maintain sobriety for a while, but then, inevitably, he succumbs again to the power of his addiction.
The first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” For Kierkegaard true faith requires that we come to understand that we are capable of nothing at all. The second step of AA is: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” To have faith is to believe that all we have and are come from God and that without God we can do nothing. In this sense, faith is inseparable from abandonment of ourselves to God. In our time, abandonment often carries negative connotations, suggesting a lack of appropriate self-esteem. Yet, it is precisely the opposite, for true spiritual abandonment is what Adrian van Kaam calls “appreciative abandonment.” It is abandonment to the one we realize loves us and gives us life, and so we give ourselves back in appreciation and gratitude for the gift that we are.
This appreciative abandonment is a very different spiritual disposition than the forces of will power. Kierkegaard says that will power alone “creates in his innermost being temptations of glory, fear, despondency, of pride and defiance, and sensuality greater than those he meets in the external world.” Jesus tells the parable of the evil spirit who leaves a person and when returning discovers the house has been swept clean. But then the spirit seeks many other evil spirits and returns in much greater force to overcome the person. (Matthew 12:43-5) This is a very good metaphor for the effects of willfulness in us. Given our own power, we are outmatched by the forces that Kierkegaard describes. To push so hard with our own will tends to suppress the transcendent potency that only appreciative abandonment can tap.
Most of us, even if religious, have been formed in a culture that is absent of transcendent awareness. Because of this lack, spiritual language is not easy for us to appreciate and understand. So, when Kierkegaard says that the person of faith “knows deep within that he/she is capable of nothing,” it sounds self-depreciative to us. It can also sound like a summons to passivity. Yet, it is precisely the opposite. It is the only way that we can do our work in life wholeheartedly without inner demands for results or success. If our work is based on the presumption of our ability, then it should have particular outcomes. So we work out of glory, pride, and defiance. When it fails to result in those outcomes, we experience fear and despondency. The insight of AA is that we are always in recovery from our addiction; we are never ultimately recovered. So, our practice of the twelve steps must always continue. So too with all of us. We are sinners who are always loved in our sinfulness, not due to our virtue. Because we are sinners, because of ourselves we can do nothing, we must never cease to practice the way.
St. Catherine of Siena said that “All the way to heaven is heaven;” the Buddhists teach that “Nirvana is Samsara;” Jesus says “the Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand.” To say we can do nothing is to acknowledge not that our work is meaningless but that it is not ultimate. The seeds of the goal lie within it; but they are seen and known only by faith. Although we may work to build the Kingdom on earth, a concept that is not present in scripture, we cannot build it, for it is not a work of human hands. What this means is that the glory belongs to God, and not to us. We are not rewarded by God for our efforts. We are loved throughout our efforts whatever our measure of “success.” Madness in us is our search for glory. It is our willful attempt to be as gods. Our glory lies in the One who creates us out of love, who justifies us not by our works but by our faith in the “sheer grace” of God’s love.
But is one not able, then, to overcome oneself by oneself? How can I be stronger than myself? When we speak of overcoming oneself by oneself, we really mean something external, so that the struggle is unequal. Take, for example, someone who has been tempted by worldly prestige but who conquers himself so that he no longer reaches out for it. If he is to guard his soul against a new vanity, he will have to admit that he is not really able to overcome himself. He understands that with will power alone he creates in his innermost being temptations of glory, fear, despondency, of pride and defiance, and sensuality greater than those he meets in the external world. For this reason he struggles with himself. Victory proves nothing with regard to this greater temptation. If he is victorious in facing the temptations with which the surrounding world confronts him, this does not prove that he would be victorious if the temptation were as terrible as he is able to imagine it. He knows deep within that he is capable of nothing at all.Soren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses