Saturday, May 28, 2016

The victory that overcomes the world

I want to comment some more on the topic of the burdensome (or not) nature of the commandments of God. First John 5:3-5 says this:
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
In John's line of reasoning, the commandments are not burdensome because whatever is born of God conquers the world. This 'birth of God' refers to the activity of the Holy Spirit, by which a person is born anew and brought by God into the life of the Holy Trinity. This birth implies a new-found strength against previously slavery to sin: Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God's seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because the have been born of God (3:9).

As I was reading this verse, I was struck by John's powerful phrasing about a victory that conquers the world. So many persons throughout history have attempted to conquer the world: various emperors whose empires have all fallen sooner or later, be it Julius Caesar or Alexander or Hitler or whoever else. Their efforts, violent and oppressive, have fallen to the ground in the end. But John says that Christians, by virtue of their faith in Jesus as Son of God, have become the true conquerors of the world. That is certainly an impressive claim! What could it mean?

In the first place, because he is speaking about obedience to God's commandments, he clearly means that Christians have conquered the world in the sense that they have conquered the sinful environment and pressure of the world. They do not (need not) engage in that which everyone else wants and enjoys -- whether it is violence, or illicit sex, or scapegoating rejection of false enemies, or thievery and lying, or whatever else it might be. The life that seems not only normal but also inevitable to people in the world, along with the sense of meaninglessness and emptiness that follows from it, is not an inevitability to the Christian. Led into the life of the Holy Trinity, given a new understanding of herself and her place in the world and her relation to God, the Christian begins to see a different life available to her, by virtue of which she is said to conquer the world and all it offers.

Secondly, faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is itself a conquest of the world. This is because everything in the world militates against it. In this day and age, too many people (wrongly) think that faith in God is baseless, so that to believe that God has a Son is even worse. But to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried -- to believe that he is the Son of God requires a fundamental reevaluation of what we think God to be like! Like Father, like Son: if the Son of God suffers and dies for a wretched, sinful humanity, accepting death in the place of catastrophic, world-destroying judgment, then we can no longer think of God in empty categories of power and subordination, fundamental enmity towards humanity, competition with human concerns, and so on. These all got to go.

And to believe that Jesus is the Son of God also means following what he says -- about violence and retaliation, about love for enemies, about marriage and sexuality, about the use of monetary resources, and so on. Here, too, the Christian finds herself essentially at odds with the dominant thinking of so many people in the world, especially in this day and age. Jesus says that the gate is strait and the way is narrow which leads to life; it's a squeeze, and people in the world tend to be fattened with selfish concerns. To be able to believe that Christ's word is the truth, in the face of so many pressures to the contrary -- that is also a conquest of the world.

The Christian ought to think about herself with some measure of confidence -- not in her own strengths and abilities, but in the strength and ability of God who is on her side. Her faith is a conquest of the world! Through God's power, and not without her own cooperation, she has been brought out of the muck and mire of the world into a better and different life. Why look back into the swamp longingly, then, when you have been pulled out of its quicksand and put on solid ground, to enjoy a life not constricted and constrained by suffocating vines?

It's a struggle; I am writing about myself. I think to the words of John of Damascus: it is impossible to observe the commandments of the Lord except by patience and prayer (De Fide Orthodoxa IV:22).

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