We live in an “age of reason” where many seem to think the most reasonable course in any given situation is to “look out for Number One.” Thus, all reason ultimately leads to self-preservation. Thomas Paine wrote, “It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”[i]
In the same spirit, actress and New Age adherent Shirley MacLaine states:
“The only sustaining love involvement is with yourself… When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you’ve been and where you’re going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness—when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself.”[ii]
Of course Paine has a point. Hypocrisy should be rejected and mental health in part depends on an integration of our inner beliefs with our outward professions. However, this orientation to self-actualization proves above all else a poor starting position from which to live life and an impossible one from which to live an authentic Christian life.
We can be thankful that the church through the ages has been blessed with powerful examples of those who have stood against such a perspective. These heroes of the faith would reject the view of “self-actualization” as the ultimate goal of life. They would certainly renounce the primary view of the church as a “self-help” center where we get physically fit, emotionally supported, spiritually spoon-fed, intellectually stimulated, socially situated, and fiscally informed (although these may occur as a by-product of our church involvement). Furthermore, they would call into question Christians who show a predominant self-centeredness in their Christianity.
We must ask ourselves whether our faith is God-centered or self-centered. Are we willing to pay a price for our association with Christ? Is our commitment to someone other than ourselves or do we hold that commitment only as long as the church “ministers to us,” questioning the “reasonableness” of perseverance when conflict threatens our sense of personal well-being?
How different the picture when we consider Martin Luther’s stand at the diet of Worms on April 18, 1521! Luther, that great leader of the Protestant Reformation, was summoned by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in an effort to reconcile Luther and the Catholic Church. When asked to recant his teachings, the Reformer responded, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” Luther held fast to the faith he professed. He was able to do so because of a deep conviction concerning the lordship and high priesthood of the Son of God who alone had paid for all his sins, removing the need for an earthly priest as an intermediary.
Run the historical footage ahead a little more than four centuries to World War II. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, pastor, seminary professor, and participant in the resistance movement against Adolph Hitler, had been imprisoned by the Nazis for his role in the latter. In the final days of the war, Bonhoeffer and his fellow prisoners had experienced a strange mixture of hope and panic as they heard the Allied guns on the horizon. Moved from place to place in advance of the American and British forces, the little group of prisoners was finally brought to a schoolhouse in Schonberg, Germany.
Time finally ran out for Bonhoeffer. An interrogator from Berlin named Huppenkothen arrived with orders for Bonheoffer’s immediate trial and execution. On the Sunday prior to his execution, Bonhoeffer was entreated by his fellow prisoners, among them Roman Catholics and even a Communist from Russia, to hold a worship service. He gave an exposition on “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5), and “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). The sermon touched his fellow prisoners deeply. Following this message, Bonhoeffer was called out of his cell and transported to Flossenberg, Germany where he was interrogated, tried, and condemned. The next morning between five and six o’clock, Bonhoeffer, stripped naked beneath the scaffold, knelt to pray one last time in a woodland spring.[iii]
In his final morning mediation to reach the outside world, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The key to everything is in the “in him.” All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what god, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what god promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet mediation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to god and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is then impossible for us, because all things are possible with god; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him.”[iv]
Bonhoeffer truly embodies the principles inherent in Hebrews 4:14-16, namely that perseverance depends on one’s relationship to Jesus, the Son of God. This was a truth Bonhoeffer lived to the very end, one that left an enduring picture of true Christian faith in the midst of adversity.
For us, these verses also offer a message of hope and help as well as a challenge, as we face the present difficulties that fight against our perseverance in the faith. Today you might be facing a high degree of persecution ranging from the possibility of death to being made fun of for your faith in Christ. For instance, you may have a boss that pokes fun at the faith, a former friend who seeks to humiliate you publicly because of your Christian commitment, or a non-Christian spouse who makes your life miserable. Such struggles are both real and threatening.
If we find our grip on the faith “slipping,” ourselves plagued with “conflicts on the outside, fears within,” as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 7:5, we must examine our view of Jesus. Do we have a clear picture of him and his high priesthood on our behalf? As seen in the examples noted earlier of Luther and Bonheoffer, resolve flows from a depth of conviction and a commitment of one’s entire being to the truth found in Scripture founded on the reality that God is in control even in the midst of suffering. Once we find such conviction, we will live lives of integrity with our outward actions matching our inner beliefs and commitments.
As seen in Luther’s plea for God’s help and Bonheoffer’s fervent prayer in the final seconds of his earthly life, drawing near to God plays a vital role in perseverance in the faith. God offers us help in our time of needs with prayer as the vehicle to communicate those needs to him. This does not mean that God does not know what we need. With that said, prayer is a relational dynamic by which we actively approach the throne of God. This involves setting self aside, reaching beyond ourselves looking to God in our time of need. The wonderful mystery of mysteries is our seeking of his presence is as much desired by God as it is needed by us. Jeremiah 33:3 declares,” Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” God further promises in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
The unfortunate reality more often than not is just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden long ago, we too shrink from the awesome presence of God. Due to our sin nature, it is more natural to drift or run away from God than to draw near to Him. Thus, we leave the church or tune out the preacher, return to old, sinful patterns of life, or simply stop meeting with God in prayer and Bible study. In this fallen world, the gravitational pull downward of the world, the flesh and the devil at times makes a move toward God seem the most unnatural action in the world when the opposite is actually true.
Writer and naturalist Anne Dillard tells a story of a cold Christmas Eve when as a young girl, she and her family had come home from a late dinner out. Ginger ale and a plate of cookies sat on a special table. Dillard had taken off her winter coat and was warming herself on the heat register when suddenly the front door opened and a person entered whom Dillard never wanted to meet – Santa Claus! The family called to her, “Look who’s here! Look who’s here!” Little Anne ran upstairs because she was afraid. She explains that she feared Santa Claus as “an old man whom you never saw but who nevertheless saw you. He knew when you’d been bad or good! And I had been bad.” Santa stood in the doorway, ringing the bell and shouting “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” Annie never came down.
Dillard found out later that this Santa was really a “rigged-up” Miss White, the old lady who lived across the street. Miss White constantly reached out to young Anne, giving her cookies, teaching her finger painting, and generally instructing her about the things of the world. Anne liked Miss White, but one day, six months after the Santa incident, she ran from Miss White again following a lesson involving a magnifying glass. Miss White had focused a pinpoint of sunlight on Dillard’s palm to let her feel the heat and Anne was burned by accident. She ripped her hand away and dashed home crying. Miss White called after her, trying to explain, but to no avail.
Reflecting on how these experiences paralleled her relationship with God, Dillard writes,
“Even now I wonder: If I meet God, will he take and hold my bare hand in his, and focus his eye on my palm, and kindle that part and let me burn? But no. It is I who misunderstood everything and let everybody down. Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”[v]
Like Dillard’s Miss White, God calls out after us, trying to explain. He invites us out of our want into His supply of grace, out of our spiritual cold into the warmth of His holy fire, out of our fear into a relationship of trust and love. Yet we like half-starved, rain-soaked strays run from our source of true help. We fear the throne as a throne of judgment instead of embracing it as a throne of grace.
It is not natural to draw near to God, conversely, it is supernatural. God has called us to Himself away from the natural pulls and thoughts of the world. His invitation and promises still stand. Our part is to respond to His call and approach the throne of grace. Our sympathetic High Priest has experienced the temptation to bolt and run. He has been with us in our humanness and invites us to be with Him at the throne of grace. Therefore, we may approach with unabashed boldness. Let us make that approach today, for we will surely find timely help for whatever we need.
[i] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, pt. 1
[ii] Shirley MacLaine, Washington Post interview, 1977
[iii] Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 277-78.
[iv] Ibid, 263.
[v] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (new York: HarperPereenial, 1992) ,139-41.