Sunday Worship, December 6 2015
“Luckily I have faith!” “Ah, if I hadn't had faith!” – Sentences of this nature, dear brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has heard them, and we may have even said them ourselves. They express a common opinion: the profound conviction that faith encourages, strengthens, indeed that it provides a feeling of imperturbable assurance, in short that it is a form of security when facing life's difficulties and that it can even “knock down the mightiest walls before us” – like we have just sung.
But here, in this epistle from James that Martin Luther hardly cared for, it's the least one can say, faith finds itself defined differently, since it is associated with trial. We are told indeed that these trials which “we face” must be considered as a source of “nothing but joy”, “complete” joy – in other words, touching the entirety of our being and our person.
This assertion opens, from my point of view, a questioning which I believe to be fundamental: how can trial lived in faith be considered as a source of “nothing but joy”? And what is this “trial” really about?
The simplest answer would naturally consist of claiming that faith must always affirm itself in the face of adversity and be reinforced by it, that it must “hold strong” so that we can affront with confidence this difficult point in life which is the trial and to arrive at the end bigger, stronger, and more resistant.
But is it enough to go no further than this explanation? And in the end is it not appalling to throw into the face of those undergoing trials, real ones, that these must be considered as a source of joy if they really have faith? What a scandalous assertion this is for those who are experiencing dread of the unknown, divorce, separation, professional failure, sickness, mourning, or even closeness to death itself!
What our epistle tells us first of all, I believe, is that these trials are ultimately not bumps in the road, an additional aspect and minor inconvenience on our journey of faith, or at best, an unfortunate occurrence in a life of faith, well-regulated and thus straightforward, and whose solution lies in simply undergoing with firm conviction that better days will come.
No, what the epistle of James tells us first of all is that the trial, the questioning, the fragility: all make up integral parts of life's essence and therefore faith's. It teaches us that faith is not a remedy in the face of ordeals, a “passport to serenity” in the face of evil but that it is itself trial, doubt, and I'll dare say the word, temptation.
Yes, our faith finds itself threatened, tempted, questioned all throughout our existence and this questioning of our faith is, paradoxically and at the same time, a source of joy. In short, it is when we are in doubt, when we are being tried in all sorts of way that faith can become, truly, a source of joy.
This trial must therefore not be perceived as a source of possible decline for our faith, a potential eclipse of faith, or on the contrary, as the origin of a strengthening of our faith. It is on the contrary consubstantial: it is, strictly speaking, faith.
Why? First of all because this trial is that of Christ himself, and it is also that of his disciples, of those who indeed wish to follow him. It is what the Epistle to the Hebrews highlights for example, when it tells us, “ For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin... because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested .”
Next, because faith is not bare adherence to a doctrine, to a theology, to a nice system of thought, whether Orthodox, Liberal, Protestant, Catholic, or Evangelical... but because it is, abstraction made from its doctrinal formulation: life, experience, and profoundness of being. For our being, our life, and our experience are inherently subject to change, rupture, failure, suffering, and ultimately, death. To claim that faith would be foreign to these events or that it would allow us to consider them as mere “hiccups”, this would be to deny the fact that it is rooted in our life, that it finds there its source and its strength and that it is in short life itself.
For, if faith is consubstantial with our life and and with the events that mark it, this is because it is itself a constitutive event of our existence. Each parcel of our life, each instance of our existence is in effect the place of a decision, of a testing that forces us to choose between faith and unbelief.
Of course, we are not always aware of it and we need not make it a daily experience. Life is also a certain routine, a serene progression, sometimes without real concern. But it is precisely in the experience of difficulty, when the linearity of our life finds itself broken, when our being which we thought unified finds itself torn or when the old times are gone and the unknown lies before us, that this moment of faith, which our text associates with a trial, precisely and inevitably surges forth.
Faith is therefore not this type of paranormal energy that carries us over life's tribulations which we hear talk of sometimes, but it is on the contrary, deep down within these trials, the location of a decision, of a choice that we are always and forever called to face life. The trial, it is this moment when our entire existence, because of the obstacles it meets, is suddenly concentrated at one point, where our entire being seems to boil down to a single question and our life seems to depend on one choice alone, that of faith or non-faith.
Naturally, this event, we can always neglect it, consider that it is not decisive, that all will go on as before and try somehow to bring back old times, to take refuge in what no longer is, in the ghosts of the past.
This choice or rather this non-choice, this choice to not choose, it is precisely what the Biblical texts call the lack of faith, the “oligopistia,” what philosophers like Kierkegaard designate as “despair” and what the Christian tradition, especially Protestants, will call “the original sin.” Not in the sense of a corruption following the Fall of Adam or of a morally reprehensible act calling for divine judgment, but rather a definition of ourselves which we choose, a clay which we decide to rid ourselves of and that keeps us stuck but reassures us, a life less full that can seem stifling but that, at the same time, seems to keep us warm – at least for a certain time; the choice of the past against the future, of immobility against movement, of death, even in small doses, against life.
Sin is when we refuse to confront the truth facing us, to recognize that our life is subject to change and to hardship and that this change and this hardship that we encounter forces us to choose between life and death, between engagement and renouncement, between confidence and despair, or as Deuteronomy says, between blessing and curse. Yes, I believe that what the Epistle of James is talking about here, is the ordeal of sin, of the temptation of non-faith, in short of the refusal to choose between life and death.
Here still, the words do not lack for expressing the diverse manifestations of this ordeal: Luther called it “temptation,” while Calvin preferred to speak of “idolatry,”... the term does not really matter in the end. The image that James chooses is sufficiently transparent: “ the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way.”
To refuse to make the lap of faith faced by the unknown, to refuse to be oneself faced with difficulty, is to say yes one day and no the next, is to resolve oneself to hesitation in order to sink into the reassuring indifference and the indolent naivete of a life without agitation; it is to ultimately to submit to the danger of death, as the sailor abandoning his helm lets the currents carry him where they will at the risk of seeing his ship finally crashing against the reefs.
Luther, who I told you hardly liked this epistle, considered its best passage to be this verse – and for good reason! For it spoke, in his eyes, of the ultimate temptation, the only, the true, the one that threatens every believer and which he himself had experienced: the threat of despair, of refusal to choose between life and death, of the refusal to be oneself at the core of this grace that is existence – the one, therefore, of disbelief.
Of course, we are not told that this leap of faith in the face of trial, that we must do it without reflecting, without additional consideration. What the Gospel requires for that matter, is above all patience. “The trying of your faith produces patience.” Patience – not the absence of action, passiveness, or resignation. But the fact of accepting the shifting that the trial which we experience provokes in us, the undermining of what we had believed to be our profound identity. To choose to opt for patience is to accept this shifting that suffering and hardship provoke in order to stop for the a moment, renounce “always more of the same thing” in order to search, understand, meditate... but above all to listen and to ask.
“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God.” - Trial calls us to read ourselves before God, or rather, to re-read by placing our entire life before the Ultimate, the Divine, the Eternal. “Ask God for wisdom,” this is accepting to recognize that our lives do not depend on us but the Other, this is apprehending the possibility that this rupture which we experience is the very place where the divine, the Ultimate, can manifest itself. “ To ask for wisdom,” is to decide that behind this death which seems to invade our existence, at the very heart of this doubt that assails and torments us, a word of life can resound, a promise of eternity. It is to believe against all odds that our life is given and to opt for the first blessing of existence despite the curse that we think we perceive in the world and in our lives.
It is not therefore about denying doubt such as it is – and it is not, I believe, what our letter means here when it says that we must believe without doubt. Because we are not asked to repress the feeling of abandon, of suffering, of failure that the tribulations of life can incite – it is rather about learning to see them otherwise, in spite of everything: fear, doubt, and death.
The German theologian Gerhard Ebeling, who had experienced the tribulation of war and the loss of his master and friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, defined faith with a very grand simplicity like a simple “and yet,” this “and yet” that we decide to oppose to anguish, to hardship, to suffering and to death in order to say: “the anguish and yet the confidence,” “the suffering and yet the joy,” “death and yet life!”
Yes, we have the right, and I would dare even say the duty, to choose life, trust, and blessing in spite of all the hardships of life because this trying allows us to rediscover that life always remains a gift, that existence, despite its ruptures, always carries a promise of eternity - “ for God gives to all and reproaches not.”
In faith, life is no longer a land to be conquered, a Utopian dream to realize, but life becomes a gift, a space of infinity, the place of an eternity not to be taken or won, but to receive and to welcome. For, as Luther said, “the law of life is grace.”
What this patience to which James invites us allows us to discover is ultimately that our existence can always find meaning outside of ourselves, in a particular call or vocation, that of life, of joy, and finally God himself. Truth and the meaning of life are therefore not to be found deep inside us, but first of all outside of us, around us, in this life itself that we have not chosen but which is offered to us.
It is thus that existence, with its thrashings, its lacks, its sufferings, will be able to reveal, despite everything, its unique and fascinating character, its potential of eternity... It is thus that we will be able to experience the fact that existence, this “already-here” that characterizes us and exceeds us, is not the location of a primary suffering, like when Chateaubriand reproached his mother for having “inflicted life” on him, but indeed a primary joy, of a original “yes” that God addresses to us at every moment. Life is here, its meaning is already given and it comes exactly from what is offered to us.
Existence supposes being confronted by a multitude of trials that of course put in question our whole entire life and calls us to requalify but that also allows us to grow in the promise that our life is a gift and, such as it is, it is of divine origin. “Faith,” Luther tells us, “ is creative of divinity in us.” - “creatrix divinitatis in nobis.” Yes, faith is creative of divinity in us exactly because it invites us to see life as bearing eternity and to live it, in spite of hardship, suffering, and even death.
And that, we never discover as well as when we experience the encounter, the experience of the other. It is in the other, in the one who comes to us and imposes himself on us in all his immediacy and the profundity of his being that we can the best sense this part of eternity within us. For the encounter of the other pushes us to surpass the limits of our being and direct it where it could not and would not go, meaning to its very origin: that of the divine. In responding to this call that manifests itself in the encounter, by taking seriously this imperative “thou shalt love!” that the encounter of the other imposes on us and requires us entirely, we have the opportunity to understand the force that the other can represent and the possibility of confessing that the bad can always be changed into good, that the absurd can always find meaning “since love, always, is possible” - to once again cite Kierkegaard.
Of course, it is not forbidden to us to be afraid: we have the right to feel anguish when faced with the unknown, chagrin when faced with suffering, pain when faced with the loss of a reality or a person who seemed to entire qualify us; but what the Gospel offers us, is at the same time that we feel this pain, to hope against all hope, to live in spite of death, because faith allows us to discover, as long as we can listen, that our lives are always bearing of eternity and precisely, that it is always capable of life, of trust and love.
Therefore we may be able to taste this “perfect joy” this “nothing but joy” which the Epistle of James talks about here and which the whole entire Gospel invites us in order to look forward to tomorrow with confidence: “The old world is gone. Behold, I make all things new.” It is perhaps ultimately to live these words taken from Apocalypse, book of trust and not of horror, that the Epistle of James invites us to do here and now, and with it, all the Gospel. And if we hear it, then perhaps faith will have started to tear down some small walls... “ The old world is gone. Behold, I make all things new.” Amen
Merci à Brandon pour la traduction !
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