‘The Christian and Anxiety’: Hans Urs von Balthasar nails it on the transition between fear and hope

One of the most comforting feelings for individuals who have deeply thought about their faith is to find serious minds who came to similar conclusions. Top-tier intellectuals articulate complex ideas with a clarity and eloquence that makes readers sigh with relief and exclaim — “I think I’m on the right track!”

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety is one such example for this blogger.

“Inasmuch as the accomplished salvation remains eschatological and the sinner is still journeying toward perfect righteousness, then to some extent the twilight between ‘fear and hope’, or, to put it more clearly, between the sinner’s fear of God and of condemnation and the believer’s hope for salvation, will never be completely illuminated. Does not the New Testament foster this twilight by strengthening both the promise and the threat and making them definitive? Yet, in so doing, which requires anyone who stands in its force field to endure a superhuman tension (to fear in earnest and to hope simultaneously, to be certain yet to leave everything in suspense), has it not overstrained the human soul by winding its powers too tightly? Is it feasible to live within this contradiction? […] Does not the Christian who takes sin and salvation seriously get lost in a dialectic with no exit, in which each increase in grace brings forth an increase in unworthiness, even guilt, so that in this tangled thicket religion becomes the real inferno? …

Christianity cannot be blamed for this loss of footing; it has to be laid at the door of the man who does not want to take Christianity seriously. Christianity offers man, not a bottomless pit, but solid ground — grounding in God, of course, and not in self. To place oneself on this solid ground involves relinquishing one’s own ground. The sinner wants to stand on his own, not on God. And whoever tries to stand both on God and on his own is sure to fall into the bottomless space in between.

The uneasy conscious that many Christians have, and the anxiety based on it, do not come about because they are sinners and backsliders but because they have stopped believing in the truth and efficacy of their beliefs; they measure the power of faith by their own weakness, they project God’s world into their own psychological makeup instead of letting God measure them. […] They lie down to rest in the chasm between the demands of Christianity and their own failure, in a chasm that, for a Christian, is no place at all.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian and Anxiety.

I, like anyone else who honestly wants to become a better person, found myself at some point looking for ways to monitor my progress — a “goodness barometer” of sorts. That is extremely difficult for a Christian because the benchmark for most people is, “What is the guy next to me like? How do I compare to my neighbors? How do I compare to my local politicians? How do I compare to the president?” And so on and and so forth.

All that, however, is irrelevant. We cannot see into another man’s heart and soul, and therefore it is spiritually dangerous to compare yourself to those around you. The only soul you can ever read is your own — and even then we often use our minds as a vehicle for self-deception.

Who, then, is the proper litmus test for spiritual progress? Answer: Christ.

And that, dear reader, is where the chasm von Balthasar mentions comes in. On many levels, your entire life is just a one-on-one conversation with God. The clearer God becomes to you, the more of your own blemishes you will see — and that can be terrifying.

The challenge for Christians is to keep their eyes focused on God while walking toward Him, because when one looks down into the chasm of their own wickedness for too long the experience can mutate from something humbling into something crippling.

There is much more to say, but for now I will just suggest reading The Christian and Anxiety if this is a topic that has ever concerned you. Von Balthasar is a brilliant man, and I have no doubt that if you read his works then your faith will be strengthened by the experience.

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