It is the Spirit who gives life. The life-giving Spirit is not a direct heightening of our natural powers – what blasphemy! How horrible to understand the Spirit in this way! Christ brings new life! A new life, yes, and this is no platitude such as we use every time something new begins to stir in us. No, it is a new life, literally a new life – because, mark this well, death goes in between life and the new life on the other side of death. Yes, that is a new life.
Christianity teaches that you must die. Your power must be dismantled. And the life-giving Spirit is the very one who slays you. The first thing this Spirit says is that you must enter into death, you must die to yourself. The life-giving Spirit – that is the invitation. Who would not willingly take hold of it? But die first – there’s the rub!
You must first die to every earthly hope, to every merely human confidence. You must die to your selfishness, and to the world, because it is only through your selfishness that the world has power over you. Naturally there is nothing a human being hangs on to so firmly – indeed, with his whole self – as to his selfishness! Ah, the separation of soul and body at the hour of death is not as painful as being forced to be separated from our flesh when we are alive! Yes, we human beings do not hang on to this physical life as firmly as we do to our selfishness!
What, exactly, does it mean to die to yourself? It is more than not seeing your wish fulfilled or to be deprived of the one that is dearest to you. True, this is painful enough, and selfishness is wounded. But it does not follow that you are dying. No, but personally to shatter your own fulfilled desire, personally to deprive yourself of the dearly desired one who is now your own: this is what it means to wound selfishness at the root, as it was with Abraham when God demanded that he sacrifice Isaac. Christianity is not what we are all too eager to make it. It is not a quack doctor who is promptly at your service and immediately applies the remedy but then bungles everything. Christianity waits before it applies its remedy. This is Christianity’s severity. It demands a great sacrifice, one which we often despair of making and can only later see why it was necessary to hold out and wait.
Surely you have experienced, as I have, that when you begin to moan, and say, “I can’t take any more,” that on the next day you discover that you could. Consider a team of horses that groan and pant, feel exhausted, and feel that a handful of oats is just what is needed. However, they also don’t realize that with only a momentary halt the heavily loaded wagon will roll back down the hill and plunge them and driver and everything into the abyss. Is it cruel of the driver that the lashes fall more dreadfully than ever before, especially on this team of horses who are as dear to him as the apple of his eye – is this cruel or is it kind? Is the driver cruel when the lashing is finally the only thing that can save the horses from ruin and help them pull through?
So it is with dying to yourself and to the world. But then, my listener, remember that then comes the life-giving Spirit. When? When you are dead to everything else. When does the Comforter come? Not until you have died to your selfishness and come to the end of your own strength. Not until you in love to God have learned to hate yourself, even your ability, not until then can there be talk of the Spirit, of life, of new life.
Once upon a time there was a rich man. He purchased a team of entirely splendid horses, which he wanted for his own pleasure and the pleasure of driving them himself. A year or two passed by. If anyone who had known these horses earlier now saw him driving them, he would not be able to recognize them. Their eyes were now dull and drowsy, their gait lacked style and precision, they had no staying power, no endurance. Moreover, they had acquired all sorts of bad habits, and though they had plenty of feed, they grew thinner and thinner as each day passed by.
So he called in the royal coachman. The royal coachman drove them for a month. In the whole countryside there was not a team of horses that carried their heads so proudly, whose eyes were so fiery, whose gait was so beautiful. There wasn’t a team that could hold out running as they did, even thirty miles in a stretch without stopping. How did this happen? It is easy to see: the owner, not being a coachman, drove the horses according to the horses’ understanding of what it is to drive. The royal coachman, by contrast, drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive.
So it is with us human beings. When I think of myself and the countless people I have come to know, I must confess that here are capacities and talents and qualifications enough, but the coachman is lacking. We humans have been, if I may put it this way (in order to carry on with the metaphor), driven according to the horses’ (i.e., our) understanding of driving. We are governed, educated, and brought up according to the world’s conception of what it means to be human. See, because of this we lack vitality and are unable to endure the sacrifice. We are impatient and impulsively use the means of the moment and, in turn, want instantly to see the reward for our work, which for that very reason is not very good.
Things were different once. There was a time when it pleased the Spirit himself to be the coachman. He drove the horses according to the coachman’s understanding of what it is to drive. Oh, what a human being was capable of then! Ponder this! There sat twelve disciples, all of whom were of but a common social class. Their task, however, was to transform the world, and on the most appalling scale. And when the Spirit descended, the transformation indeed was set in motion.
They carried Christianity through. They were men just like us, but they were driven well! Yes, indeed, that they were! They were like that team of horses when the royal coachman drove them. Never has a human being lifted his head as high as did the first Christians in humility before God! And just as that team of horses could run if need be thirty miles without pausing to catch their wind, so also did they run; they ran seventy years at a stretch without getting out of the harness, without stopping anywhere. No, proud as they were in their humility before God, they exclaimed, “It is not for us to hold back and dawdle along the way. We will not stop – until eternity.” They were driven well, yes, that they were!
Oh Holy Spirit, you who give new life, we pray for ourselves but also for all people. Here there is no want of capabilities, nor of education, nor of sagacity – indeed, there may rather be too much. But what is lacking is that you take away that which is corrupting us, that you take away our power and grant us new life. Certainly a person experiences a shudder like death’s shudder when you, in order to become the power in him, take power away from him. So, help us also to die, to die to ourselves. If even the horses came to realize how good it was for them that the royal coachman took the reins, although it surely made them shudder at first and they at first rebelled, but in vain, should not we who are created in your image quickly come to understand what a blessing it is that you have the power and give life! Oh Holy Spirit, take the reigns of our lives and rule us. May it be you that has the power.
Provocations are taken from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard