“It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure.
This despair is the awkwardest pride of all.”
As Christians, we have so much good work to do. The kingdom of God is being built all around us, and we are all invited to participate.
It sounds prideful to say that we are working in God’s kingdom. What audacious excess of praise to call a thing both divine and royal! Yet, as these words suggest, working for God’s kingdom is the greatest and most meaningful work we have to do in this life, so great and meaningful that it would indeed be prideful if we thought could do such work without God’s grace.
We need to be sure, then, that we see our work in light of God’s grace. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to come naturally, at least not for me. I often forget that the good work I do is based on God’s grace in my life. Moreover when I forget, a subtle shift in perspective can take me from a vision of how great a work I am allowed to participate in to a vision of my own importance in doing such work.
If C.S. Lewis is right, we only internalize God’s grace after first attempting to live up to our divine calling without it. Then, by recognizing our failure to do anything of the sort, we become acquainted with our dependence on God firsthand (145). In the life of faith, such failure is ironically an accomplishment. It provides us with an opportunity to learn some humility, and then continue our work with appropriate reverence for God (146).
Yet, I’ve learned from experience that, even after such failure, pride can persist in the form of despair. In the quote at the beginning of this post, Wendell Berry insightfully points out despair’s close relationship to pride. Both pride and despair are forms of unreasonable self-importance: pride cannot see past its own success; despair cannot see past its own failure. Perhaps it is the dissonance between our self-importance and evident failure that makes despair so awkward. Or maybe it’s the fact that hope is there if only we could see past ourselves. Despair keeps us from seeing the humbling and hopeful truths that, despite our failure God’s kingdom continues to be built, and we are still called to participate in it.
When we move past both pride and despair, we begin to see this more clearly. We go to church, greet the elderly who have carved out Christian lives through the decades, participate in worship hewn through the centuries, and bring before our minds truths older still. We rejoice in knowing that, all around, God is working through fellow brothers and sisters to keep the homeless in our cities safe, to come alongside delinquent youth, to bring reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, and many more things we do not even hear about. We rest in the grace of God, and then continue the work that has been given to us.
Berry, Wendell. What Are People For? Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1990.
Lewis, C.S.. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.