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Nothing Apart From God

Nothing Apart From God January 13, 2021

Cdd20 : cartoon painting universe starry sky nothingness / pixabay

“For if any one thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal. 6:3 RSV). If we understands this statement correctly, we should realize that no one is something in and of themselves. Everyone comes out of nothing, for God created us out of nothing, ex nihilo. Outside of God, we are nothing. Thus, as St. John of Kronstadt points out, when we realize our inherent nothingness, we should discern how only God can be said to inherently be:

For him who truly believes in God, all material earthly things and all visible worlds, as it were, vanish; he cannot imagine a point of space without God; everywhere he contemplates the One Infinite Being – God. He represents to himself that with every breath of air he breathes God; for him the Lord is everywhere and in everything, and creatures as though they did not exist, while he himself willingly vanishes mentally in order to give place also in himself to the one God, Who alone is, and Who works within him in everything.[1]

Of course, we are real; we are nothing only in relation to our origin, but thanks to God, who gives us our share of existence, we do exist and we are something. But it is vital for us to remember that the something which we have, the something which we are, does not come from us, but from God. If we want to be something, if we want to be great, we must realize we can be so only through God and his grace; if we try to do so all by ourselves, without such grace, all we will do is lean upon our inherent nothingness. The good which we have, thanks to the grace of God, will be diminished according to the level of our reliance on that nothingness. Once we see and understand this, once we see we have nothing by ourselves, we should them open ourselves up to God – and when we do, we will see that God will grant us more and more grace, and with that grace, becoming more and more like God in the process.

Whenever we praise ourselves as if we achieved something on our own, we end up hindering the good which we think we have done. The more we praise ourselves, the more we lift ourselves up, the more we think we have achieved something by ourselves, the further we are from the truth, and the less we really are. Let us, therefore, not be deceived. Let us go forth with humility, realizing that the good we have, even the goodness of our own being, comes from God. By ourselves, by our own power, we are nothing. Our existence is real, but it is predicted to us by God. The more we distance ourselves from God, the more we can see how insignificant we really are; indeed even what we have, thanks to grace, is limited, and so our limited good in comparison to the infinite good of God proves to be as nothing.

Humility is key. The problem is, though we start out with such humility, recognizing our weakness when we acknowledge our easily discerned sins, the more we advance spiritually, the more victory we have against sin in our lives, the easier we find ourselves falling into pride. Not only do we find ourselves claiming to be greater than we really are, we lose sight of the struggles we went through to get where we are and how difficult it was for us to achieve what little success we have actually had. We assume if we can do it, others can do it as well, and so they should be like us, and judged in accordance to whether or not they have conformed to the virtues which we have attained.  And yet, their circumstances are different, as is their potentiality and gifts. We are not all the same. What we can do, others might not be able to do so easily, just as what others can do, we find ourselves unable to do. Some people have natural singing ability, while others can never be made to sing well; just as we would not judge those who cannot sing based upon those who can, so we should not judge others based upon what we have been able to do.

Of course, pride leads to great evil. Once we have been taken over by pride, we begin to lose our standing. Even those sins which we think we conquered can come back with greater force, making us worse than before. Pseudo-Macarius, realizing this, preached on how easy it is for us to become complacent, to think we have achieved a sustainable victory and so find ourselves weakened and giving into temptation because of our vain assumption:

Certain persons have become very sure of themselves and have been greatly worked on by God’s grace. They found their members so sanctified that they thought that concupiscence does not happen in Christianity, that they had received a balanced and chaste mind, and that in regard to other things the interior man was raised up to divine and heavenly things so that they completely thought they already had come to the measure of perfection. And as such a one was thinking that he was already nearing the calm harbor, billows of waves rose up against him, so that he again found himself in the middle of the sea and he was being carried to where the sea is the sky and death is imminent. In such a way sin entered and “wrought all manner of evil concupiscence” (Rom 7:8).[2]

It is strange to think that some might come to the conclusion that concupiscence should no longer be in effect in Christians. All one has to do is read Scripture to see how many of the holy saints, like Paul, had to constantly be on guard against their own worst inclinations. Paul realized he was fighting various desires which he had, desires which he knew to be wrong and led him to do what he knew he should not do. His humility allowed him to recognize this and not despair. And yet, this is what pride can do to us. It first suggests concupiscence is gone, or should be gone, once we have embrace the Christian path. Our initial zeal makes it appear that this is so. Then, the zeal dies off, and our temptations come back to us; we begin to question ourselves, especially when we give in and sin. Are we truly Christians? Of course we are. If we realize the problem, if we fight against our worst inclinations, God is there giving us grace, and so we should not despair.

We need to be humble. We need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We do this with the realization of our own nothingness apart from God. We need to realize that whatever spiritual victories we have can  be taken away from us if we succumb to pride. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18 RSV). We need to be thankful for what we have, and likewise realize that our own strengths and weaknesses are ours alone; others will have other strengths and weaknesses which will make them and their struggles different from our own. We should not expect others to be just like us.

We must let God be God, to work with everyone in in relation to their own particular circumstances and needs. We need to focus on ourselves, and do so with humility, remembering we have come from nothing and it is to this nothingness which we will return to if we attach ourselves too much to ourselves instead of open ourselves up to God. Once we do so, we will be able to act and react, not out of pride, but with humble awe, as we look out into the world and see the glory of God’s work all around us, bringing all things out of their nothingness and into glory, the glory which God gives to all things out of a great and bountiful love. For it is with that glory all things can truly be something instead of the nothing which they are on their own.

 


[1] St John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ. Trans. E.E. Goulaeff (London: Cassel and Company, Ltd., 1897; repr. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000), 108.

[2] Pseudo-Macarius, “The Fifty Spiritual Homilies” in Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter. Trans. George A Maloney SJ (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 212 [Homily 38].

 

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