Then they said to him, “What must we do to be devoting ourselves to the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
John 6: 28-9
In his Inaugural Address of 1961, John F. Kennedy uttered the memorable words:
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
It is unquestionable that God’s work on earth must be our work if it is to be done at all. Yet, we must become aware of our tendency to presumption, that is to presuming that our work is God’s work. In today’s gospel, Jesus admonishes the crowd that follows him because he fed them and not because they recognized the truth of who was by “the signs” that he had done. Instead of growing in the faith that comes more and more to see the world as God sees it and then working accordingly, we can rather reduce God to our size, presuming that we are “devoting ourselves to the works of God” when things work out in accord with our wishes and designs.
It is one of life’s great paradoxes that we cannot really begin to know God and God’s will without first coming to the knowledge that without God we are nothing. Until then, all of our works are building on the sand of our own illusions. God’s name can come far too readily to our lips, as God becomes a confirmation of our own self-worth and autonomy. Even our attempts to do and be good can be in service to our own desires to become somebody of our own making. Those whom Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel know from their tradition what it means to devote themselves to the works of God. It is to keep the commandments and be faithful to the covenant as they understood them. Similarly we too readily become victims of our own knowingness. We know who we are and what we are to do, and then we become of judge of what is God’s work. .
Jesus says, however, that is in only by believing in him whom God has sent to save us from ourselves that we can do the works of God. It is only in service to God’s will as manifest in Jesus, in realizing fully that apart from him we “can do nothing” (Jn 15:5), that we can begin to devote ourselves to the works of God. This is what it means to live by faith alone, not faith in ourselves, or in our culture, or in our possessions or power, but in Jesus – in whom we have live but without whom we are nothing.
Robert Alter translates verses 27-30 of Psalm 119 as follows:
The way of Your decrees let me grasp,
that I may dwell on Your wonders.
My being dissolves in anguish.
Sustain me as befits Your word.
The way of lies remove from me,
and in Your teaching grant me grace.
The way of trust I have chosen.
Your laws I have set before me.
It is when our being has dissolved, in anguish, that we come to know that it is God that sustains us. The law of the Lord, in its living truth, is not our comprehension of how to be good and righteous, but it is rather the light that remains when “the way of lies” (even our good-willed lies) has been removed from us. We do God’s works when we live in the way of faith and trust, when,, in the words of the theologian John S. Dunne, we walk with God “step by step out of the heart.”
Someone who is conscious that she is capable of nothing has every day and every moment the precious opportunity to experience that God lives. . . . This does not mean that a person’s life becomes easy simply because she learns to know God in this way. On the contrary, it can become that much more difficult. But in this difficulty her life acquires a deeper meaning. Should it mean nothing to her that she continually keeps her eyes on God, knowing that she herself is capable of nothing at all, yet with the help of God she is indeed capable? Should it mean nothing to her that she is learning to die to the world to esteem less and less the things that fade away? Finally, should it not have meaning for her that she most vividly and confidently understands that God is love, that God’s goodness passes all understanding?
We are not saying that to need God is to sink into a dreaming admiration and some visionary contemplation. No. God does not let himself be taken in vain in this way. Just as knowing ourselves in our own nothingness is the condition for knowing God, so knowing God is the condition for the sanctification of a human being by God’s assistance and according to God’s intention. Wherever God is, there God is always creating. God does not want a person to be spiritually soft and to bathe in the contemplation of God’s glory. God wants to create a new human being. To need God is to become new. And to know God is the crucial thing. Without this knowledge a human being becomes nothing. Without this knowledge, he is scarcely able to grasp that he himself is nothing at all, and even less that to need God is his highest perfection.
Soren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses