Friday, August 14, 2020

On the Counterfeits of Faith, Hope, and Love

If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14–15)

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Faith means: You, O God, are right in every case, even when I cannot see it or perhaps would prefer the opposite. Hope means: In you alone, O God, do I have my continued existence, and for that reason I leave behind all assurances resting on myself. Love means: All my strength and heart and mind are straining themselves to affirm you, O God (and myself only in you), and those whom you have placed beside me as my “neighbors”. 

—Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology. vol. IV, Spirit and Institution. trans. Edward T. Oakes. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 348–349.

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As I see the reactions from certain elements of the Church—largely found in the United States and Western Europe—it seems that people have forgotten something crucial. While nobody sets out to put themselves in opposition to God, some have replaced the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love with counterfeits that put the focus on reliance in themselves. I think the above quote by Hans Urs von Balthasar helps us see why the modern attitude is a counterfeit.

In the case of faith, we are supposed to recognize that God is in control and what He promises will be fulfilled despite all the opposition against Him. Yes, His permissive will may allow evil to exist for a time. We certainly cannot complain if we are mistreated on account of living the Christian life. Jesus did warn us about persecutions after all. But that does not contradict His promise. So (to use our current crisis), when He promises to protect His Church, we must have faith that His Church will not fail. But some, instead of trusting that God is right in every case, claim that to do God’s will, the Church must act as they personally think best. If not, then the Church is deemed “in error” when the actual issue is that they prefer a different outcome, a different teaching, a different tone.

Hope means that while we cooperate with God by doing His will (Matthew 7:21-23), we recognize that the ultimate outcome is God’s. We can do wrong, or fail to good, but we hope in God to do what is impossible for us. The counterfeit of this is assuming that whatever bad thing might come our way, it is somebody else’s fault. If they acted as we saw fit, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

The virtue of Love requires that our actions are done out of seeking the greatest good for the beloved.  Obviously, as finite beings, we cannot add anything to the works of the infinite God. But—after John 14:15—we can choose to do what God wants. Not because of compulsion or fear, but because of love for Him. That love for Him requires us to love our fellow human beings and seek their greatest good as well. The counterfeit of this is to make that love of others conditional on whether their behavior matches up to our standards. If the person is not up to that standard, we can feel free to treat him or her with contempt. There’s no room in this counterfeit for the sinner who doesn’t live up to our standards. Forgetting that we are also beggars coming before the King seeking fulfillment of our needs, we demand a level of perfection from others that we do not demand of ourselves.

Where’s the Love in that mindset?

None of this should be interpreted as “let others do whatever they like.” Some do choose to do wrong and we must admonish and correct. But this must not be done with the counterfeits of the theological virtues. If we do not do unto others, how can we dare to come before God to ask what we refuse to them? (cf. Matthew 6:14-15). But this is where these counterfeit virtues lead us.

All of us are sinners. Contra the claims of the founders of Protestantism, we are not Pelagians who think we can be good by our own efforts. We do have to return to God like the Prodigal Son did and strive to live rightly with the grace He gives us. This will be an ongoing cycle in our lives. Some of us may have done worse things than others. Those who have done those worse things need to turn back. Those who have not done them must not view them like the Older Brother viewed the prodigal. Jesus shockedthe Pharisees by saying “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). To the 1st Century Jews, these people were seen as doing the worst possible things. In saying this, Jesus was not saying it was morally acceptable to be either. But he was saying that those who did the worst things, but repented, will enter Heaven before the self-righteous who do not repent.

If we’re tempted to reject the teaching of the Church, if we think things are hopeless, if we refuse to show love to others—especially if it’s because those we dislike are found wanting by our standards of our own ideologies, politics, or morals—let us remember that we have replaced the true theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love with a counterfeit.



(†) Today, Jesus might shock us by saying, “Abortionists and homosexual activists are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” He wouldn’t do this to affirm their behavior, but rather to point out that repentance is expected of all of us.

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