2 Corinthians 3:6 For the letter kills, but the Spirit quickens. Several times in his letters, Paul the Apostle says that the Law brings death. In particular, much of his letter to the Romans is devoted to trying to get us to understand why this is so. I am seeing those passages in a new light as I walk through Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.
(Every quote from Kierkegaard is taken from Hong and Hong’s translation in Kierkegaard’s Writings, Volume 16; Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
The first reason the Law brings death is because it is exhausting.
Keeping the Law requires absolute keeping of it, day and night, every minute, never letting up. Because if you ever blink, if you ever lose focus, you might do wrong. Living like that, with potential (imminent) failure (condemnation) hanging over you every day would be a curse, wouldn’t it?
Galatians 3: 10 (NIV) For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law…”
It is the indefiniteness of the Law, that we talked about last time, that makes this “continue to do everything” so onerous. As SK says:
“When one speaks of a ‘sum,’ the very expression seems to invite counting, but when a person has become weary of counting and yet is also all the more eager to find the sum, he understands that this word must have a deeper meaning.
Similarly, when the Law has set, as it were, all its provisions on a person and hunted him weary because there is a provision everywhere, and yet every provision, even the most definite, still has the indefiniteness that it can become even more definite (since the perpetually indefinite resides in the provisions and the undying disquietude of their multiplicity)—then a person is taught to understand that there must be something else that is the fulfilling of the Law.”
The indefiniteness of the Law is the proverbial “rabbit hole”. Once you get going down it, it just gets deeper and deeper. The more definite we try to make it, the more we find that it is not enough. How do we get out of that infinite loop?
Give up. Surrender.
Our very finiteness, the reality of our human weakness, should be the clue that striving after the unsatiable is a losing proposition. If I know that crossing the Sahara on foot is impossible, why would I even try?
“A human being groans under the Law. Wherever he looks, he sees only requirement but never the boundary, alas, like someone who looks out over the ocean and sees wave after wave but never the boundary. Wherever he turns, he meets only the rigorousness that in its infinitude can continually become more rigorous, never the boundary where it becomes gentleness.
“The Law starves out, as it were; with its help one never reaches fulfilling, since its purpose is to take away, to require, to exact to the utmost, and in the continually remaining indefiniteness in the multiplicity of all its provisions is the inexorable exaction of the requirements. With every provision the Law requires something, and yet there is no limit to the provisions. The Law is therefore the very opposite of life, but life is the fulfilling. The Law is like death.”
- The Law demands that we keep its totality.
- The fear of overlooking one point of the Law forces us to keep digging into it. It forces us to keep our eyes fixed into it and, alternatingly, fixed on ourselves, to measure, compare, ensure.
- And the result is paradoxical. All we see are the waves that could drag us under and never notice the horizon of peace at the other end. All we see are trees that block our way, that we think must be climbed, and never the inviting shade of a forest that will protect us on the way there.
- The obsession with requirement after requirement sucks the joy of living out of life.
If it is impossible, and I honestly know it, why do I keep trying to live by the Law? Is this maybe a different kind of idolatry?
I had never thought of it this way. But if it is truly impossible for a human being to keep the Law, impossible for me to be righteous in my own human strength, then maybe the fact that I keep trying is nothing else than my trying to deny my humanity and pretending I am more than that. Maybe I think I can earn my entrance into the Kingdom of God. Maybe I can be good enough that God has to let me in. In that case, who is really on the Throne?
This should be a scary thought. And maybe that is why Kierkegaard began this line of reasoning by reminding us that we cannot even get going on this journey until we understand how we stand in relation to God.
The power of Surrender
That comparison to God should shock us back to reality by reminding us of our humanity. And then maybe we will see the power of humility.
Every infinite obstacle we face in the Law can either be a crushing blow to our outsized ambitions or it can be a forced pause to make us take a step back and look up in search of Hope. In each of the similes Kierkegaard just used to illustrate the Law, he put before us also the hope we can reach for, the way out that we will discover if we give up (I underlined them):
- Faced with the infinite sum, even in the midst of the labor of grinding out the numbers, we all know deep in our hearts that the answer is deeper, that the saying is true: the sum is greater than its parts.
- Faced with an endless obsession of keeping rule after rule – and forcing that same requirement on those around us – eventually we all realize it cannot be done. And if that is so, if we cannot keep what God requires, then why did He speak it? The answer is, there must be some other way that fulfils the Law.
- Striving to swim against the endless waves of guilt and failure, caught in a riptide that we know will drag us down no matter how hard we try, sooner or later we cry out, ‘I want peace!’
- And finally, eventually, we all look back at our lives and admit that we want more than just surviving. We all know that life was meant to be more than this grind that never satisfies the hunger in our souls. There has to be fulfilment somewhere. And it is not in the Law.
But to get a hold of this hope we must give up. Jesus told us so:
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all ye who labour and are burdened, and *I* will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest to your souls; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Jesus is the way out of the endless striving, the way to find peace and fulfilment in this life. Why? Because He is that sum that is greater than the parts, He is the end of the Law – that is, where the sum ends. He is its fulfilment. He explains why this is possible in the verse just preceding the quote above:
Matthew 11:27 All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son but the Father, nor does any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom the Son may be pleased to reveal [him].
That’s the bottom line. He can give us peace, fulfilment, purpose, life. In fact, He can guarantee them because they are all in Him.
When we surrender, we surrender to somebody
Over the history of civilization, across the cultures of humanity, there have been wise men, philosophers, teachers, servants of mankind… people willing to sacrifice their lives to teach us a better way. The people of Israel had many of them, their prophets. If we could speak to all those wise men, I think each could tell us, ‘Look, I am following a way that works, you could too…’ But there is only One who claimed to be The Way.
As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it:
Hebrews 1: 1,2 God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son, whom he has established heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds…
No other wise man in the history of humanity has claimed to be the Creator Himself. But that is precisely who Jesus said He was.
As the time was approaching for the culmination of His mission, Jesus told His disciples:
John 14:1-7 Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe on God, believe also on me. In my Father’s house there are many abodes; were it not so, I had told you: for I go to prepare you a place; and if I go and shall prepare you a place, I am coming again and shall receive you to myself, that where I am ye also may be. And ye know where I go, and ye know the way.
Thomas says to him, Lord, we know not where thou goest, and how can we know the way?
Jesus says to him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father unless by me. If ye had known me, ye would have known also my Father, and henceforth ye know him and have seen him.
Jesus did not come to show us a way, He Himself is The Way. He did not come to tell us the truth, He is The Truth. He did not come to teach us how to live, He is The Life.
The fact that He has received all things from the Father means He has reached the end of the sum. Infinity is not a challenge to the One who invented it. The fact that He is the Son of God means that He can meet – more than that – He has already met all the requirements of the Law.
The Law took everything it could demand of Him.
The Law requires, Love gives
In trying to resolve the tension between Law and Love, sometimes we see Law as a harsh taskmaster that requires work, work, work. But when we do that, we risk forgetting that it is Love that does the greatest Work.
“But there is no conflict between the Law and love, no more than there is a conflict between the sum and that of which it is the sum, no more than there is conflict between the vain attempts to find the sum and the happy discovery, the happy decision, that it has been found.
In a certain sense, then, there is no conflict between the Law and love with regard to knowledge; but love gives, the Law takes, or, to describe the relation more precisely in its sequence, the Law requires, love gives. There is not one of the Law’s provisions, not a single one, that love wants to have removed; on the contrary, love gives them all complete fullness and definiteness for the first time; in love all the Law’s provisions are much more definite than they are in the Law. There is no conflict, no more than between hunger and the blessing that satisfies it.
Love is the fulfilling of the Law, because love is no shirking of the tasks, no indulgence that, claiming exemption or giving exemption, coddling or being coddled, sneaks in between love and the fulfilling of the Law, as if love were an idle feeling too distinguished to express itself in action, a pretentious incompetence that neither can nor will give satisfaction. Only foolishness speaks of love this way—as if there were a conflict between the Law and love, which there certainly is also, but in love there is no conflict between the Law and love, which is the fulfilling of the Law—as if there were an essential difference between the Law’s requirement and love, which there certainly is, but not in love, in which the fulfillment is altogether one and the same with the requirement. Only foolishness sets the Law and love at loggerheads…”
The conflict between Law and Love simply lies in this: That Law cannot fulfil itself; or give anyone any power to fulfil it. Only Love can fulfil the Law. Only Love is willing to do the work that it takes… even if it means dying on a cross.