You know that children are beginning to grow up when they reject their parents’ offers of help. “I’ll do it myself,” they say irritably, fending off adult assistance in the sort of task they wouldn’t have thought of attempting just a few weeks before. Thus they lay claim to one of humanity’s besetting errors, the illusion of self-sufficiency. Even without the necessary skill or agility to carry out the operation, they stand their ground with iron determination, huffing and puffing through gritted teeth until success is granted or failure accepted.
It is good that they seek to develop their abilities and increase their knowledge, provided they do not distance themselves from those around them or try to by-pass the dynamic of giving and receiving that characterises healthy and fruitful human relationship. Getting this balance right is crucial to personal development and the ability to take one’s place in family and society.
To refuse all help as something shameful, or as if it threatens to make us vulnerable by establishing a sense of obligation to our neighbours —this can quickly lead to a surfeit of pressure and stress, with predictable results of explosion or collapse. On the other hand, failing to nurture skills of survival, and the facility to respond adequately to life’s daily demands, ultimately saps us of whatever confidence in our abilities we might have, reducing us to a miserable and fretful state of mere existence rather than abundant life.
When St John writes that ‘the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees him nor knows him’ (John 14.17), he is echoing the continuous insistence in scripture that it is only the ‘poor in spirit’, those who know their need of God (Matthew 5.3) who will be granted a place at table. Without that need, we are too full of ourselves to receive the one God sends. He comes to his own, but we are those who ‘receive him not’ (John 1.11).
Our first goal, then, is to learn that, at the most basic level of our existence, our hands are empty. We need God, and have nothing to bring to the party except what God has already given us. We can receive only what we do not have, and what we know we do not have. And if it is not something that we have a desire and longing to receive, we have no hope of doing so.
Alas, as 21st century citizens of the west, we think we have it all already. Even when we get a nasty shock like the hacking of the NHS computer system, we do not question our values or doubt our abilities. We stride on, the super men and women of the planet, capable of everything, fearful of nothing. We have not even begun to know our need of God, to ‘receive the kingdom like children’ (Mark 10.15) or to adjust our vision so that we might see and know the one who comes to us as Comforter.
It is not clear that things are significantly better in the Church. Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, the mistaken belief that we are able to achieve salvation by our own efforts (‘the way I do things’) rather than receive it through God’s grace freely given.
We might wonder where a lot of activity in today’s Church of England derives its sense of direction and drive. Are we really those who are conscious of our emptiness, of a need to receive everything from the Lord’s hand? Or do we secretly believe that we can do it ourselves? If only our worship could be more innovative and eye-catching, our presentation more sleek and glossy, and our daily dealings more efficient and business-like, then surely the salvation of increased numbers would follow as rain follows drought.
And would we not then be justified in looking askance at those less obviously successful? Would we not be rightly impatient with those who take to faith more timidly, whose theology probes without ever striking oil, whose discipleship is modest, whose claims are few? If we’ve made it to the spiritual big time by our Herculean efforts, surely the rest are just lazy, frankly deserving of extinction?
Many would agree. And yet, perhaps it is these apparent failures who, recognising that they have so little, are thus enabled to receive much more. In knowing their inadequacy and incompleteness, they see and know the Spirit of truth, not as a reward for keeping the rules or playing the game successfully, but as a simple consequence of being ready like bewildered children to receive God’s bounty. In acknowledging the failure of their own efforts to bridge life’s gaps and fill its void, they are the ones, in the end, who receive Christ’s promised gift and encounter the Holy Spirit as Lord and Comforter.
But we can only receive with empty hands.