Sunday, November 11, 2007

Humility Excursus on Faith and Works

Someone asked me a question about a paragraph in my comment on the fourth degree of humility. The questions had to do with whether we can actually act against evil or if we must adopt a quietist approach. At any rate, it is worth clarifying this point.

The passage exemplifying the crux is perhaps this one:

"It is quite possible, however, that human beings are simply incapable of rooting out evil. The humble person grows aware of this possibility in his or her own struggle against vice. It is arduous work fighting the vices of one's own behavior: how can we possibly believe that we have the solutions to others' vices? That complaining about someone's unjust request will somehow bring about his or her immediate conversion when our own conversions come reluctantly and painstakingly? This is not meant to sound despairing, only to provoke us into a new region of awareness, in which God has the principal role to play in fighting evil. Once we come to realize that it is by grace that we are cleansed from sin and strengthened in virtue, we will learn not to rely on our own pluck and wit, and to trust God. This will also issue forth in a new attitude that refrains from judging others' actions too quickly, out of a humble desire to be consistent in our own words and actions."

A couple of notes, first of all: note that 'God has the principal role to play' but not the only one. We must cooperate in some way (I will suggest an image in a moment). We learn to 'work because [God] is with us' (Haggai 2: 4) rather than 'rely on our own pluck and wit'. So we indeed have an active role to play, but I suggest that it is one in which God takes the lead. A good ballroom dancer has to know how to follow as well as lead, and following is in some ways more difficult, but certainly not passive.

If you will humor an image from football, I think this is helpful. Back in the 80's the '3-4' defense was very popular (I have no idea if it is used today). The '3' in the name comes from the three men on the front line. The middle one is the key guy, and his name is the 'nose guard'. Nose guards are usually the biggest guys on the team. His job is to plant himself in one place and not move, no matter what. The other team wants him to move; if at all possible, they want their running back to run straight up the middle for lots of yards. If there is a big fellow in the middle not moving, the running back has to go around him, and this slows him down so that the faster linebackers can tackle him. The temptation for the nose guard is to try and tackle the running back on his own, but if he attempts this, the running back is always quicker than he is, and once he gets the nose tackle to move, he has a chance of running by him. If the nose tackle resists the temptation to go for the glorious tackle and instead merely stays put, the team does better. This is not passivity: the opposing offensive line is pushing him, punching him, doing everything they can to move him.

In our spiritual lives, perseverance means so much. It does not appear glorious, but so often we make little progress in spiritual growth because we 'move'. We either run after things we aren't supposed to or we let trials knock us down. If we put up a fight 'without running away' (RB7) so as 'not to stain our glory' (1 Maccabees 9: 10), the power of Jesus Christ will defeat the power of evil. Again, this is not passivity--it takes a real fight. But it is not about us going it alone, either.


Anonymous said...


Looking at myself in true knowledge for who I really am, and not who I pretend or want to be.

Understanding my weakness resulting from orginal sin and my own inclination to do evil.

Understanding Gods goodness and total love for me above all else.

Just my thoughts

Anonymous said...

I liked this post a lot- simple anologies work well on simple people like me. ;o)

Anonymous said...

You don't have to print this comment, I just wanted to give you a little heads-up on a post you might like:

It's about a college student who spends the weekend in a homeless shelter, and how the experience changed him.


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page