Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . . And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. . . . By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going. . . . By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised. . . . By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promise was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendents shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the deat–and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.(Hebrews 12.1-3, 6, 8, 11, 17-19)
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:13b-19)
Whether petitioning the Lord for our own requests, interceding for others, or engaging in other forms of prayer, I cannot see how one can escape the dynamic of assurance and fear. It may seem too stark to put the dynamic in quite such extremes. After all, if we lack assurance, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are gripped with some dark nameless fear that our request will not be answered. Oughtn’t the dynamic be between assurance and doubt? I don’t think so. For if we pray at all, we are expressing some level of faith. And as St. James says in his letter, even the demons have faith, but their lack of assurance is not predicated so much on doubt as on fear, for they do not love.
Or, rather, to say it another way, I do not think the dynamic is between faith and assurance on the one hand and doubt and hopelessness on the other. Faith and fear are not opposites, I do not think. But love and fear are. And if one does not have assurance, it may not be due to a lack of faith per se, so much as a lack of love (or the lack of a conviction that one is loved).
Too often, though I think I understand why, faith is painted in intellectual terms (one believes this or that set of intellectual concepts). But faith is not mere intellectual commitment (see on the demons’ belief referred to above). Rather faith is a matter of relationship, of trust, and that takes love. And love is personal, and thus polyfaceted.
Think, if you will, of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, and his references to Abraham. Note in particular all the references to sight, or to invisibility. Assurance, in the Hebrews reference, is not based on things seen. It is based on things not seen. Now this is a very odd way of putting it. After all, if we are assured of something, it normally means we can marshall direct evidence and rational conclusions based on that evidence. But this treats our relationship to God like a deductive syllogism. Personal relationships are not subject to such proofs.
There is the age old quip: “Prove you love me.” But all the evidence one may marshall–offers of flowers, special date nights, hugs, kisses, and so on–may, by a staunch cynic, be dismissed as ungenuine, motivated by something other than love. Of course, one also may not be able to provide very much evidence of such love. But the point is not that there is or is not enough evidence, it is that, in the final tally, the conviction about whether or not one is loved is a matter of the heart, and an action that the heart accomplishes with a measure of sightlessness. Only God is able to look into the heart of a person.
All of which is to say, that assurance is based on relationship and not on rational calculations. And such assurance is, in the long run, based on a fundamental element that is unseen. We have such assurance, if we have it at all, on the basis of an invisible (to us) reality. It may not be the case that we have assurance without evidence, but it is the case that evidence does not, of itself, give us assurance. Assurance, then, is a volitional act, in part. We choose to have such assurance.
Scripture is incredibly sparse as to what evidence, if any, Abraham used to marshall his assurance ofGod’s love and care. We do know of Abraham’s failures of faith (his giving of his wife to save his own skin, his siring of Ishmael). And what we know of those failures suggests, it seems to me, decisions based on evidenciary calculation: the reasoning based on things seen. But what motivated his relocating of his family to Canaan? What motivated his acceptance of the promise of siring an heir? What motivated his acceptance of God’s command to sacrifice that heir? There is one answer: the unseen God of love. Having directly encountered the living God, he experienced God’s love and from that love was drawn forth assurance: of a homeland, of an heir, the receiving back of one good as dead.
So when we pray, we naturally cast forth hope. If our prayers are uttered in the midst of darkness and struggle, that felt need for hope and assurance runs deep and is very painful. We very naturally cast about us for the least bit of evidence, for this turn of events, or that word from a friend, or some other answer to prayer, however partial and imperfect. But to do so is to base our faith on the seen. It is to place our prayers in the context of fear: what if the Lord does not heed our prayer? what if we continue to suffer? is this the just punishment of our sins? We torture ourselves over nonsensical calculations. What we must seek is the assurance that comes not from the marshalling of evidence, but the assurance that comes from the experience of love, the experience of the living God more near and more real to us than our own breathing. In this light, then, even the painfulness of suffering is reframed in the light of love.
It is helpful, I think, if we can recontextualize our prayers to the Lord not in terms of mind and evidence, but in terms of love. While we may call fondly to mind the various acts and words of our spouses or family, and while those acts and words encourage our convictions of their love for us, in truth, it is not this or that bit of evidence, but the dynamic and living experience of their love. Even though we can doubt and disbelieve that their acts and words are generated by love, we do not. Why? Because we have a living experience that is distinguishable from, though inseparable from, such acts and words. Love is not simply the accumulation of feelings, acts, and words. It is the dynamic, living experience of another person. Love goes beyond because it generates all of its phenomena. Love is more than these things, even if it is inseperable from them.
So, too, our love of God and his love for us. His acts of love are innumerable–and so to marshall them as evidence is vain–the very fact that we are sustained alive each nanosecond of our existence is a fundamental act of love. But it is more than that. For beyond the acts and the words–if I may express it this way–God gives us himself, for he is love. It is inconceivable that we could separate his acts and words from his love for us, but if we could, it would not eliminate the reality of his personal love for us. All that we experience, all that we do and say, all our moments and days are wrapped in the love of the personal God. His love populates our very cells and atoms, our mind and soul, and all that we uniquely are. Indeed, because he is love, this union with him is radically personal, for love can only happen between persons. We do not lose our identity, our personhood. But we fulfill it in him.
Only this love can give us assurance, because only this love can cast out the fear that causes us anguish in our praying. We fear the loss of the goods we have, we fear the loss of the goods we hope to gain, we fear, in short, the loss of love. But for the one who loves, there is no loss, only ever greater love. Our assurance, then, our hope in God’s promises, arises from the experience of love, of God, of his love. The more we love, the more assurance we have. For the more we love, the more of him we experience (if one can say that of an infinite being), the more the union with him transforms us, and strengthens our love.
I do not think I’ve said very well what I have wanted to say. I’m just stumbling upon these things, and it is difficult to articulate them. My Christian paradigm has only recently shifted, and the structures of my Christian thought previous to my becoming Orthodox are not able to adequately sort and structure my experiences. But the Lord will maintain the true and throw out the false here. I welcome critical comments.
But one thing I can say: God is love. Let us embrace that love.