Dietrich Von Hildebrand: Transformation in Christ (Chapter 8)
On “Confidence in God”
Many Christians have been waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. It has been over two thousand years since he walked, preached, died and was resurrected. Our Jewish cousins have been waiting perhaps as much a four thousand years for the first coming. Jesus did not pass their mustard test of divinity. Christians utilize prophesies in the Old Testament as predictions that Jesus fulfilled the first prediction.[i] Regardless of this seismic division we still share a Messianic faith:
The term “Messianic prophecy” refers to a compilation of over one hundred predictions (conservative estimate) in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah. They have undeniable accuracy even though these prophecies were recorded by numerous writers into various books over 1000 years. We are assured that these prophecies were not conspired after the fact due to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint. These items are existed prior to Jesus’ time on earth.[ii]
The idea of “Confidence in God” given our shared four thousand year period of “waiting for God” and our collective confusion and divergent interpretations of historical events, scripture, prophets, and the understanding of the historical life of Jesus Christ is intellectually mind-boggling. It is in this context I am hesitant to write about “Confidence in God.”
With genuine humility and intellectual honesty I can assuredly say I cannot define a personal path for anyone to come to believe and share my faith and confidence in God. My own faith I judge to be far too fragile and temperamental.
I can however provide testament to having common concerns and doubts about God with my fellow man that have run deep in my life and come out of the darkness with a greater faith after many trials and divergent paths. Challenges afforded to me have included philosophical existentialism, unexpected losses of family members, experience with personal failures and traumatic situations, a deep seated wrestling with the meaning and nature of suffering, criticisms of our religious institutions practices and beliefs (past and present), alternative explanations for spiritual experiences, psychological principles of individual development and sociological explanations for religiosity, and personal “isms” of a less lofty nature.
How can we ask anyone to have faith in God when facing a four thousand year waiting period for a messianic coming that we cannot define with any certainty while living in a secular world driven by temporal and material goals (ranging from basic survival to unimaginable wealth)? I cannot ask you to have faith. I can share mine. I cannot even give faith away. It is not mine to give. My journey is not even my own.
I have an oar. It is a very small oar. All I can do is row and aim for the greater good. I do not know what rivers I will face, what rapids lay ahead, or when my boat will rest on calm waters. Sometimes I will have other rowers by my side and sometimes I will be utterly alone. God is always there but sometimes in my fear or in my self-possession I will not see him or be aware of his presence. In the poem below it is easy to forget the line “I thank whatever God’s maybe for my unconquerable soul.” [iii]
And yet I am writing about “Confidence in God” for myself and I hope for you the reader. Faith, like sports, is a full contact activity. It requires participation, determination, and perseverance. It also requires transcendence past human abilities. That is where “Confidence in God” comes into play.
I am still daunted by this release of myself into his hands without trembling. The willingness to accept the consequences and responsibilities of a true and on-going transformation in Christ and Confidence is beyond my spiritual imagination. Like my middle name, I still have bouts of doubt that arise at the most unfortunate times. I do not have the luxury presented to doubting Thomas:
The apostles who lived with and followed Jesus Christ struggled to believe in the entirety of Christ message. How can we be expected to claim that faith any better than those who lived by his side?
I believe there is an answer here to part of the mystery of Jesus Christ death and resurrection. We are called to be active and open to a spiritual life, open to living a spiritual life guided by the Holy Spirit and his teachings, and to do so without his physical presence and performance of miracles in our presence.
I cannot define the messianic second coming. I cannot defend if Jesus Christ should or ought to be accepted by the Jews as the first Messiah. I cannot debate if we are living in the Messianic period or are still waiting for the Messianic period. These are theological concepts beyond my pay grade! However through my Catholic faith I am taught the following:
“In him human history and indeed all creation are “set forth” and transcendentally fulfilled.551”[iv]
I am not to wait for the second coming. I am to live a spiritual life now, every day, every moment and to strive, within the limits of my humanity, for “spiritual perfection.”
Dietrich presupposes you have bludgeoned these obstacles and are reading his work and searching and deepening your faith. He delves right into God being omnipotent, omniscient, truly merciful, and a personal loving God. Perhaps your head is nodding and you are saying “Ah yes, Dietrich I readily agree that God is all powerful, ever present, and that through our prayer the Eucharist, and our church that we have a personal relationship with God. Dietrich you are the master of the obvious!” Dietrich answers your thoughts with a warning about some of us who may fall into never being “roused into a full awareness of man’s metaphysical situation” and being truly cognizant of being in God’s hands (which can evoke appropriate awe, fear and trepidation):
“This pitfall of a comfortable smugness masquerading as religiosity we must studiously avoid; in full awareness of the gravity of our metaphysical situation, in penitent humility we must lift our eyes to God, and in constant effort work for our sanctification. At the same time, we must bear in mind that it is not on the basis of our nature but through Christ and in Christ alone that a real victory over our sinfulness can be obtained.”
Dietrich after throwing the above punch, recognizing our human limitations, jumps into God’s infinite love and mercy for each of us and then takes on the intrinsically sad things and intrinsically bad things (evil) and how we are to understand them and come to terms with feelings of being abandoned by God.
It is dizzying to recognize that in a moment of prayer I am connected to the sins of humanity past and present and to the healing and saving grace of God. It is overpowering to consider my part or lack thereof in righting the wrongs of today (poverty, injustice, violence, abuse, murder). My prayers for the many suffering and for cessation of the countless evils being perpetrated are somehow seemingly irrelevant in the vast tide of human misery.
Dietrich acknowledges the “impenetrable mystery of why God permits such a passing trial of evil at all.” How many times have we heard or asked ourselves – God, how can you let this happen? Or as it is said in the bible:
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, KJV).
Jesus was not accepted by the Jews as the true Messiah as they expected the Messiah to be a new King to restore the Jews as a nation (among other reasons). There was an expectation of immediacy. Jesus Christ was not the Messiah the Jews expected. Not even the apostles were prepared for his death or resurrection. Jesus Christ perhaps modeled a response for on accepting suffering:
“My father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me, Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39)
There is a teaching here for our prayer. We can pray out loud to the father and call him by name. We can ask for what we want in our hearts (even though we know he knows our intentions and desires already). And we can reaffirm our desire is to do or accept God’s will, not our own will.
Dietrich presents a compelling case for accepting suffering while maintaining confidence in God’s design no matter how incomprehensible the situation is or how reprehensible our actions have been in the past. Our confidence must also be free of false expectations for repairing harms we have done to ourselves, providing us what we ask for when we want it, or even providing us an “enlivening touch of his grace.” On this point I am spiritually impoverished. I pray that I am not tested by long periods of spiritual dryness. I beg for on-going support and revelation. I announce my weakness and frailty at every opportunity in this regard.
Like Thomas, I fear the loss of grace. I fear the dark night of loss of faith. I cannot imagine the trials and tribulations of the martyrs and saints that have went days, weeks, months, and even years without spiritual consolation.
There is an absurdity here. Who am I to demand spiritual consolation at all? Who am I to take myself so seriously?
I am a doubting Thomas – a man who believes in God but who is struck by fear and doubt. In a moment of agony or pain I can easily forget the many graces I have received, demonstrate a lack gratitude for all that I have been given, and have a penchant (or petulance) for anger when disillusioned by a negative outcome that I perceived as not aligned with my manifest destiny. In essence when life is going my way God is great – but let the boat rock a little and desperation can evaporate my sense of grounding and confidence. This is not confidence in God. Confidence in God is constant no matter what our circumstances are – no matter how dire our situation.
When Jesus was resurrected he left us with a calling card:
“What Jesus longs for in this post-resurrection encounter with Thomas is that we all might believe in him by handing over our hearts and our hopes that he might bring them to the fullness of joy.”[v]
Poor Thomas today still takes a chiding for what was only a natural skepticism. If not for his skepticism how could we be taught to manage our own? Sometimes it is simply better to just move on and take formative action or if I may say – trans-formative radical action. Be confident in God and active in your journey no matter what your circumstance today.