You know how you always hear Christians talking about, oh, it’s all God’s plan – it’s not my success, it’s God’s success. It sometimes comes out as this weird humble brag, as if they think they really do deserve the credit, but they’re pretending to be modest and all ‘oh no it’s all God really’. There’s a Jon Bellion lyric where he attributes his success to this potent mixture of being “hard working and Jesus anointed.” It’s just always stuck with me – like, which is it? Is it you, or is it God? Are you hard-working because of something inherent to your own character that you ultimately deserve credit for? Or, instead, is that ability to work hard better understood as something that was put into you by God? Part of what we’re asking here is a pretty fundamental question about what it means to be human. It’s about how we should think about our aspirations, as well as our achievements. The conversation is layered, and different people end up going down different paths. On the one hand you’ve got this almost hedonist attitude – I will accept all of the good things that God brings to me and my life. God wants me to eat all of this chocolate. He’s put it right there – and who I am to deny God’s will? God invented supermarkets for a reason. Dig in. These guys can sometimes come across as a bit lazy, like they’re just expecting God to drop everything in their lap. They also don’t seem super well equipped to deal with bad shit. That’s when they start spiraling off into conspiracy theories about how it’s good actually that they’re in pain. Then you’ve got the ‘high achiever for God’ people. They’re always out pushing themselves and trying to be the best, and they take on too much and burn themselves out, but it’s for Jesus, so they have to keep going – really these guys are the other end of the spectrum. If the first lot are expecting God to do everything for them, like some kind of butler, the second lot work themselves into the ground trying to make Him happy. Between those two, we can obviously see different understandings of the relationship between the work that God does and the work that we’re supposed to do. Between hard-working and Jesus-anointed, if you like. And then you’ve got Maximus the Confessor, who kinda has his own thing going on.
- The text: Ambiguum 7, from the wider work Ambigua, and Ad Thalassium 2
- The author: Maximus the Confessor, 7th century monk and theologian
- Read it yourself: These texts apparently don’t exist in English outside of this translation from St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, which is what I’m using.
So you can see that the stakes with this stuff are pretty high. We’re asking big questions about what it means to be human and have goals and aspirations. And everyone has different opinions about how much is God’s action and how much we’re supposed to do. For Maximus, as I’ve said before, perfection is a passive state. It’s not about our actions, it’s about us being passive and receptive and allowing God to act through us. It’s all God’s action. That’s how we reach perfection, that’s how we embrace our fullest humanity – we sit back and allow God to control what we’re doing. That’s Maximus’s idea.
In some ways, his idea seems to be towards the hedonist end of the spectrum. If we’re meant to be passive, and God is meant to be acting through us, then it’s not really us going out and doing stuff of our own accord. We just get to come along for the ride. That seems like the obvious interpretation when Maximus starts citing verses like Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” However, it’s not quite that simple. It’s almost about where the energy or motivation for an action is coming from. If we’re motivated towards an action purely by something in ourselves, according to Maximus, it’s not valid or good. But if we’re motivated towards an action by God, by God’s will, then it’s fine. So in a sense, both the hedonists and the workaholics can be correct, as long as their actions and motivations are set under God’s will. Hence the line about ‘I no longer live’ – from Maximus’s perspective, the verse means that the will of the individual is cast down, and that God’s will fuels their actions instead. Maximus particularly quotes Jesus in Gethsemane in support of this idea: “Yet not as I will, but as You will.”
In the balance between God’s will and our will, then, Maximus seems to be saying that it’s God’s will that should be driving things. People aren’t hard-working in themselves, and it’s not really any credit to them if they do work hard – at best, they are simply being obedient to God’s will, in whatever form that takes. It’s an interesting idea, because it preserves diversity, even as we’re all motivated by the same singular force. For Maximus, our redemption involves being assimilated into the universal, made again part of one harmonious universal tapestry. In Ad Thalassium 2, Maximus argues that although we will retain our individuality, all of our particular individual actions will resonate with the one universal principle: “one and the same principle shall be observable throughout the universe, admitting of no differentiation by the individual modes according to which created beings are predicated.” When a dog barks, it will be according to the same principle that makes the sun rise and makes me hate lemongrass. Even though those things are all different as actions, they will all rely on the same principle. God will be all in all:
“Even now in His providence He is bringing about the assimilation of particulars to universals until He might unite creatures’ own voluntary inclination to the more universal natural principle of rational being … and make them harmonious and self-moving in relation to one another and to the whole universe. In this way there shall be no intentional divergence between universals and particulars.”
There is a final question as to how we can retain our individuality under those circumstances. If I’m just doing things as motivated by the divine will, what even am I? Can I be said to ‘do’ anything, or ‘feel’ anything, or am I essentially just a sock puppet? Maximus isn’t looking to answer that question per se, but if I had to pull an argument from his work, I’d probably look at the Trinity. The whole premise of the Trinity is that it contains within itself both difference and identicality (word of the day, look it up). God is three, God is one. God is singular, God is multiple. Jesus is not the Holy Spirit, and neither of them are the Father, but they are also one. If that’s already the nature of God, is it so hard to imagine something similar applying to us? We are human, and we make our own choices, but they’re also God’s choices, but they’re also still ours. It doesn’t make sense, but in the same way that Trinitarian thought doesn’t make sense. It’s not a framework that’s foreign to the faith, if you see what I mean. Food for thought.