At Last, to Begin: To Live by Faith and Not by Power

Happy New Year! Entirely befitting the Janus-moment, the final first matins reading of 2016, from Colossians, presents two ways of living in the world: according to power or according to faith—the two ways (the fundamental option in the wisdom tradition), set forth, for example, in Psalm 1. 

By baptism, we have been transferred from the world, with its fever for control and its measures of success, into Christ and the true measure: unending love. Now our journey is literally “in Christ”: we are Christian peripatetics (2:6).

Set against this life of faith is a “philosophy” invented by men and inimical spiritual powers: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (2:8).

Surely Saint Paul is warning about a gnostic (and legalistic) teaching, but we must recognize that his diagnosis applies to any ideology that would legitimate the manipulation and control of others.

We either find our “fullness” in the social status hierarchy or in Christ. In this case, Saint Paul is particularly concerned with a pharisaical gamesmanship (2:16-23), but anytime we see one person wielding power against another, outside the order of love, what’s happening is the kind of worldliness that Christ has come to overcome.

He destroys the inevitability of the powerplays of this world by incarnating divine knowing and loving within time: “For in [Christ] all the fullness (plēroma) of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in Him, Who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

Love, the total kenotic love of Jesus, has final authority over power. We either stand in the blessed circle of faith in Christ, which is the life of self-sacrificial love, or we stand in the constricted and constricting circle of secular power. We are delivered from the world into deathless love by baptism, the sacrament of faith:

“In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh (sarx) in the circumcision of Christ: when you were buried with Him in baptism, you were also raised with Him through faith in the power of God, Who raised Him from the dead” (2:11-12).

“Flesh” does not mean the body as such; it means the disordered desire/willing arising within the contracted horizon of worldly powerplays. Having been “circumcised” by baptism, we enter into Christ in Whom the fullness of God dwells bodily (sōma). In love, our bodies become what they are meant to be: that through which boundless knowing and loving, an infinite intimacy, is communicated.

We either trust the fullness of God as what’s really real, despite the force of law and power wielded so mercilessly in the world, or we try to find our fullness in our merciless selves.

In one of his edifying discourses, on “The Expectancy of Faith,” Kierkegaard (who seems to me to be on par with Saint Augustine in the spiritual profit to be gained from reading him) presents a New Year’s Day reflection that pairs beautifully with what we have just read from Saint Paul. He asks, “How, then, should we face the future?” And then he does what he does so well, and draws us a picture:

“When the sailor out on the ocean, when everything is changing all around him, when the waves are born and die, he does not stare down into the waves, because they are changing. He looks up at the stars. Why? Because they are faithful; they have the same location now that they had for our ancestors and will have for generations to come. By what means does he conquer the changeable? By the eternal. By the eternal, one can conquer the future, because the eternal is the ground of the future, and therefore through it the future can be fathomed.

“What, then, is the eternal power in a human being? It is faith. What is the expectancy of faith? Victory—or, as Scripture so earnestly and so movingly teaches us, that all things must serve for good those who love God. But an expectancy of the future that expects victory—this has indeed conquered the future.”

Are you tossed about, in extreme perplexity? The only thing to do is trust, have faith, in God, Faithful and True. The good Father will honor all His promises, and He intends infinite good for each of us.

Only faith gives access to the future, for the future is simply the fullness of God that is still too great for this world to endure.

Faith does not mean a polyannaish assurance that my desires will be satisfied in time. It means trusting that God the Father is trustworthy at last. Thus we conquer time and worldliness:

“‘My soul is not insensitive to the joy or the pain of the particular, but, God be praised, it is not the case that the particular can substantiate or refute the expectancy of faith.’ God be praised! Time can neither substantiate nor refute it, because faith expects an eternity. And today, on the first day of the year, when the thought of the future presses in upon me, I will not enervate my soul with multifarious expectancy, will not break it up into all sorts of notions; I will integrate it sound and happy and, if possible, face the future. Let it bring what it will and must bring. Many an expectancy will be disappointed, many fulfilled—so it will be; experience has taught me this. But there is one expectancy that will not be disappointed—experience has not taught me this, but neither has it ever had the authority to deny it—this is the expectancy of faith, and this is victory.”

In my own distress in this long passage of my life, this lesson is still being wrought in me, but I do know it to be true. Kierkegaard is a thinker of the highest order and, I think, a saint. He sees far and in and deep, and what he speaks is true.

Where Christ is, there is the faithfulness of the Father, and there is no night that Christ is not enduring with you and there is no future of woe that Jesus and His Father have not already traversed:

“Look, an hour is coming and has already come when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and you will leave Me all alone, yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!” (John 16:32-33)