“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me:
and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God,
who loved me, and gave himself for me” Gal. 2:20
The words “not I, but Christ lives in me” have always been rather a stumbling block to me. How can God promise us new life, and at the same time state that He will be the one living it? Isn’t that the equivalent of killing my personality? There are two questions for me: First, who is the ‘I’ who no longer lives: I took it to mean our mind, or will, or initiative, or basically whatever it is that we use to determine our course of action. And second: what does it mean that Christ lives in me: I thought He wants to make all my decisions, or at least the important ones. This is an important issue for me, because the fear that God won’t let me live my own life removes all my inner motivation to love or obey God. Fortunately I now believe that serving God actually helps me in becoming more myself.
Does Jesus want to make our decisions? I began to see this in new light when Fr. David quoted Josef Pieper on Facebook, and I started reading the whole book (The Four Cardinal Virtues). Especially the chapter on prudence was a revelation to me. It is first of all a beautiful exposition of how we should be really open to the truth, and to reality. This means that everything that we see around us should be taken into account if we are to make a balanced decision. So here is already some important advice on decision-making that doesn’t say: pray a lot and it will be revealed to you, but instead it says: be open to the truth and take all facts into account.
And on the process of deciding he writes: “Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient1 nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty. If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness, unless he chose to make shift with a deceptive certitude. The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.” So, here a man of great faith tells us that quite often we just don’t know for sure what to do! This was different from what I expected. I thought that a good Christian would have such contact with God that he would eventually always know what God wanted him to do. But Josef Pieper does not think that Christ living in us means that He does all the thinking or even decision making. On the contrary, he encourages us to use our mind properly, and take prudent decisions ourselves.
And when ‘I’ no longer live, does that mean that I have to stand back? I have attended several Bible study groups on God’s guidance where I have been explicitly told that we do not have to wait on God’s voice on every detail, but still I learnt that we must be quiet and still, and obedient and really listen, so that we will do as He says, because that is the best for everybody. And I am sure that sounds familiar to most of us, and of course, being still and quiet is important, only it should not be misunderstood. It does not mean that God gave us brains or a free will for no purpose. If that were true, it would mean that we are actually smarter than God, or at least equally smart, and have to limit ourselves in order to give Him a chance. That would be as stupid as cutting off a leg, so that He could walk better through us. I believe God is great enough to be able to direct us without limiting the gifts (brain, free will) that He gave us.
So, who is the ‘I’ that no longer lives? Rod Dreher, in his book How Dante can save your life, in chapter 6 on black holes, speaks about the soul-killing gravity of sin. This made me aware that, as long as we are alive, we are always moving. Either towards God, or, when we don’t want that, we are leaving God, which means we are attracted to nothingness, like to a black hole which is very powerfully pulling us. I think we are never actually ‘just ourselves’: we would be dead then. Living means moving in some direction, and, since Jesus saved us, we are free to choose whether we will be attracted by the sun or by the black hole. Or in plain words, do we want to grow towards God or towards nothingness. Whenever we try to do without God, we will in effect be leaving Him. So when Saint Paul says ‘I no longer live’, I think he means my target has been changed and I am now going towards God. It says actually ‘I no longer live without God’ or ‘I no longer live away from God’.
Now, how does Jesus live in us? The answer that I’ve now come up with, is that our mind, and our will, and all our decision-making capabilities are still just properties of us, just like legs and arms, that can be directed. Think of how we use our will to direct our legs: if we want to go somewhere, the legs (usually) obey and walk. This does not harm or limit our legs in any way. In the same manner God can direct our will without limiting it. This is difficult to grasp because we cannot easily imagine anything higher than the highest that we’ve got. This is actually beyond our understanding.
Letting God direct our will, might perhaps be explained as letting Him be the energy with which we use our will. For example, we could see ourselves as flowers that grow towards the sun, and also draw energy from the sun. The flower becomes more beautiful because of the sun, but it will not be taken over by the sun. Also, there are many types of flowers, and the better they grow, the more beautiful and different they will become (don’t all withered plants look the same?). Peter Kreeft’s book Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas helped me a lot. He explains very well that obeying God in reality gives us more freedom, and he often states that God’s working in us is not 50-50, but 100-100: we ourselves are working for the full 100%, and so is God in us.
In contrast to plants, we can actually choose to be open to God. At this point the prayer and quiet and listening to God do have an important place2. In prayer we can decide to be open to God, and then He will enable us to use our own will and understanding better. So we really flourish best when God lives in us in some way that is beyond our understanding, and higher than our will.
To sum up: “I no longer live” means “not without God”. My direction has been changed from leaving God to going towards Him. And “Christ lives in me” means that He is also my source of life and He causes me to flourish and grow evermore beautiful towards the great and marvelous God. We can choose to let Him do this, by opening our hearts in prayer.
- To know things or events before they exist or happen.
- As I also described in On prayer and quiet