But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
If you want to get ahead in this life and you’re not at all concerned about the next, you have probably already figured this out, but I’ll say it anyway for the slackers: faith, hope, and love can’t help you much. In fact, faith, hope, and love directly oppose the three main fleshly keys to worldly success.
I began thinking about this a few years ago when I realized that the opposite of love is not hate. According to the apostle John, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The biblical opposite of love is not hate then, but fear.
This realization prompted another inquiry. Namely: “If fear opposes love, what are the fleshly opposites of faith and hope?” Before I get to that, let’s talk a little bit about virtue.
What is Virtue?
We live in a broken world. If we didn’t, anything that had benefit to our eternal life would be perfectly and immediately beneficial in the temporal one. And, conversely, anything that warred against the eternal would immediately and palpably harm the temporal.
As we all know, this is not the case. Because we live in a broken world. But we also live in a grace-filled world. If the eternal consequence of sin were immediately present in the sin itself, we would all be dead before we had a moment to repent.
So virtue, which could be defined as the temporal exercise of eternal values, very often requires sacrifices in this life. Virtue is short-term painful in a broken world. Vice is short-term pleasurable in a grace-filled world.
Very often, rejecting virtue is the fastest way to get ahead in this life. Stealing is easier than working. Cheating is easier than being faithful. Lying is easier than telling the truth. And all of these vices will reward you immediately, no matter the price some say you have to pay in eternity. If you don’t believe in eternity, then of course you won’t much care to pursue virtue now.1
For this reason, Pascal’s Wager strikes me as nonsensical. If God doesn’t actually exist, you lose everything to live as if he does. You lose all the short-term benefits of vice, and you don’t even get an eternal reward. You get nothing. Living like God exists, AKA living virtuously, benefits you if and only if God actually exists. Like Paul said:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:16–19)
We tend to think of virtue as beneficial. We tend to think of vice as harmful. But I think the Bible organizes the argument differently. Vice is also beneficial—it pursues the temporal benefit of the fleshly self. In other words, the “natural man” has good short-term reason to pursue sin.
On the other hand, virtue pursues the eternal benefit of the heavenly self. Both the old man and the new man seek their version of good according to their belief of what’s real. Both vice and virtue have benefits; they are judged only in the lens of eternity (or the lack thereof).
Love and Fear
This is one reason why hate is not the fleshly opposite of love. The virtuous and the vicious both exercise hate and love. We all hate according to what we love. So the bare existence, or even passionate display, of either hate or love does not properly divide the virtuous from the vicious.
The pervading presence of either love or fear, however, quite nicely divides the wheat from the tares. Because the virtuous person roots out fear, and fear, perhaps surprisingly to some, is quite beneficial in the short-term and is therefore a controlling navigator in the fleshly rationale.
We don’t often think of fear as a good thing. But, from a natural, temporal perspective, it’s a life-saver. Fear keeps you from doing dangerous things that might hurt you or end your life. Fear keeps you from trusting others, since they may not have your best interest at heart. Fear helps you to decide what job to take to keep food on the table. Fear keeps you from doing embarrassing things in public. Fear helps you organize data into safety-generating generalizations (“good neighborhoods,” “reliable cars,” “marketable careers,” “least evil presidential candidates”).
Fear, from a fleshly perspective, is not just beneficial—it is essential. Consider how fear organizes so many of our perspectives on immigration, race, economics, politics, religion, marriage, and just about anything else you can think of. We use fear to protect our selves and those like us.
Fear says that the highest good is the immediate good of self, sometimes extended to those we can see ourselves in. If you are going to make a mistake, fear says, better that it hurt “the other” than hurt the self. So fear tells the police officer it’s okay to shoot first if he perceives a potential threat. Better to mistake him for a dangerous criminal and be alive than mistake him for an unarmed citizen and suffer harm. Besides, fear says, what difference does it make if one person dies or if a lot of people have hurt feelings when my life is on the other side of the scale?
Fear says, if you are going to be wrong, let someone else pay for it. Fear doesn’t want to risk anything because it doesn’t want to pay for anything. Fear says that nothing exists that can outweigh the value of one’s own life.
On the other hand, Jesus says to deny the self. To love others. To consider others as more important than yourself. He says, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24). Of what use is fear in these endeavors of virtue? Not only is fear useless here, it is detrimental. So the virtuous person casts out fear like a demon from his spirit.
That doesn’t mean the virtuous person is suicidal or irreverent. But many people will see him that way. Without fear to guide him, he may invite possibly dangerous immigrants into his country or home with the goal of exercising love even toward those who might betray his good intentions. He might refuse to vote for a candidate he doesn’t believe in even when everyone is screaming about the apocalyptic nightmare he’s ushering in by not voting against the other guy. He might quit a well-paying job if it interferes with his ability to love his family or pursue his calling. He might speak up when a pastor is abusive, even when everyone else tells him, “Don’t rock the boat.”
The fleshly world looks at fearless people as insane, or at least terribly impractical. “If you act like this,” they say, “you’re never going to get ahead. You’ll probably get yourself killed.” That’s probably true. And it would be the only truth that mattered if we didn’t believe in eternity.
But we do. If in the course of saving our lives, we lose our souls, of what benefit is that? If I save my life by losing the opportunity to benefit other lives, my life is a buried talent. I’ll answer to God for that. And if, like the worthless servant in Jesus’ parable, I make my defense on the basis of fear (“I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent”—Matt. 25:25), I’m sure God will answer me in much the same way: if you feared in truth and believed me, you would have cast out fear with love.
The Opposite of Faith
So we see that fear has value in this life, but characterizes the fleshly spirit and opposes courageous love. What about faith?
Again, the Bible illuminates this opposition (in James 1:6):
But [the one who asks God for wisdom] must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
The fleshly opposite of faith is doubt.
We might not think doubt possesses any benefits for the flesh, but from a temporal perspective especially in our age, doubt enjoys nearly supreme importance. Because doubt (i.e., skepticism) lays the foundation for scientific thought. In a world where truth is never allowed to be larger than fact, doubt becomes the ultimate tool of right knowledge.
Doubt believes only what has been proven and waits only on what can be proven. Doubt has confidence only in the seen. Faith has confidence in things not seen (Heb. 11:1; 2 Cor. 5:7). Doubt proceeds from fear: fear of being tricked, fear of being wrong. Doubt attempts to keep from coming to a decision. It attempts to hold more than one thing as possibly true at once (hence, James calls the doubting man “double-minded”) but ends up deciding that the invisible, being unprovable, can’t ever be true. It hedges its bets, or at least attempts to.
Lest I be misunderstood, fleshly doubt differs greatly from intellectual humility. Intellectual humility (motivated by faith and trust) says, “I am not sure about many things because I don’t know very much. But I believe God knows, and I long to search out his wisdom in this life and the next. I will believe his Word even if I don’t understand. Like Augustine, I will believe in order to understand.” But doubt says, “I will not believe unless I first understand. I will disbelieve in practice anything that has not yet been proven true to me.” But saying “I will not believe unless I see first” is another way of saying “I will not believe until belief is no longer an option.”
The Opposite of Hope
Finding the fleshly opposite of hope has proved tricky for me. The natural opposite I first gravitated toward was despair. But even the fleshly mind recognizes that despair holds little benefit. In all the fleshly counterparts to the Christian triad of faith, hope, and love, I was looking for things that had profound short-term benefit for the natural man.
After some time, I found the opposition to hope implied in a number of Bible passages, a few of which I’ll quote here:
The hope of the righteous is gladness,
But the expectation of the wicked perishes. (Proverbs 10:28)
The desire of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 112:10)
For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. (2 Peter 1:4)
At some point in reading the Bible with my question in mind, it suddenly hit me that the hope of the wicked the Bible often talks about is not a long-term hope, even according to the fleshly mind. The flesh is not looking for something later. It’s looking for something now.
The hope of the flesh is a short-term desire (or expectation/entitlement). It is a hunger. The hope of the flesh is lust.
The question here is “What keeps a person going?” For the believer, hope keeps him going. Hope says, “Things look bad right now. But keep following after God and believe in ‘his precious and magnificent promises’ and you will receive an eternal reward: union and communion with God eternally. Furthermore, God knows what you need. He’ll take care of you even now if you trust him.”
But the natural man is driven on by his short-term appetites. He is driven by cravings and desires (“A worker’s appetite works for him, for his hunger urges him on.”—Prov. 16:26). The flesh is fueled by the prospect of short-term gain. Certainly, there are fleshly spirits that have a longer temporal game in mind: a person who invests his money to get rich might look more circumspect than the person who buys a lottery ticket for the same purpose. But both have the same hope: temporal gain.
Again, don’t get me wrong. It’s not wrong to desire food, drink, sex, clothes, housing, money etc. In fact, all the fleshly keys to success have their place in the natural order of things. But we go wrong when we think the natural order of things is the only or most important order of things. The natural order of things is passing away (1 John 2:17; 2 Cor. 4:16f).
The Christian might recognize that the fears, doubts, and lusts of the natural order are passing away, but they are not completely dispensable in this life. We need fear sometimes to keep us from danger. We need hunger sometimes, so that we will work. We need doubt sometimes, so that we can rid ourselves of falsehood. There will come a time, and it already exists in the Spirit, that God will roll the natural order up like a threadbare garment. It’s in that light that God wants us to learn to walk.
Our hope is eternal, and it is by this hope that we believe “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other things will be added to you.” All the benefits of the natural order will be added to you if you live truly according to the eternal order.
Jesus didn’t need to operate according to fear to hold himself back from jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. The benefits fear would have provided Jesus were subsumed into the free rule of love. In other words, the same love that motivated him to preserve his life on the roof of the temple motivated him to lay it down on the cross. And this same love enabled him to pick his life back up again three days later (John 10:18). Fleshly fear never needed to enter in as a guide. His only commandment was love.
What it All Means in the End
No one can keep all the short-term gains promised and secured by the fleshly keys to worldly success. The irony of trusting God is contained in Jesus’ words that he who loses his life for the sake of Jesus will save it. The one who trusts in God looks like the loser, the slacker, and the fool here on earth, for a short time. The one who masters the natural order looks like the winner, the go-getter, the wise man, even the righteous man here on earth. Again, for a short time.
But the only thing that matters is whether Jesus says, “Depart from me” or “Enter into my rest” in the end. The eternal end, not the temporal one, justifies the means. Call it Cosmic Pragmatism.
I would like to offer a word picture of the Christian triad:
For those who have been united in Christ, faith is the navigator, hope is the fuel, love is the vehicle.
Hope tells us where we’re going. Faith gives directions. Love gets us there.
That’s why love is the greatest of the three. The action of love that gets us to the heavenly kingdom still operates once we are there. But we won’t need faith and hope anymore once we have arrived. Because we will see what faith believed, and we will possess what hope was promised.
On the other hand, for those who reject the eternal reality, the only thing that matters is this life and, consequently, this temporal location. The fleshly spirit isn’t planning on going anywhere. It doesn’t believe there is anywhere else to go.
So doubt disparages the reality of any other destination, lust (hunger) occupies and sates the fleshly imagination, and fear is the comfortable and safe little cell the flesh never leaves.
This is why that person is blessed who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers (Psalm 1). The progression of the flesh is from action (walking) to less action (standing) to inaction (sitting). From life to death (James 1:15). God regularly calls us to walk with God and run the race set before us. The righteous life of faith, like Abraham’s story, is about going from the comfortable known into the promised unknown (Heb. 11:8f).
If you would pursue the higher calling and kingdom of heaven and walk with God, consider in every decision whether you are being motivated by love or fear, directed by faith or doubt, and sustained by hope or lust.
Living in fear, doubt, and lust will mean getting ahead in the short-term. It will mean more money, more notoriety, less trouble, and less heartache—again, in the short-term. In the short-term, fear will keep you from being harmed, doubt will keep you from being fooled, and lust will keep you from being purposeless.
In the short-term, love will leave you weak, faith will leave you credulous, and hope will leave you empty-handed. But if eternity is real and God’s Word is true, what happens in the short-term doesn’t matter much. The long-term is all that really matters.
- Incidentally, this is one of the reasons that many of our Founding Fathers thought a belief in the afterlife and the final judgment should be requisite for government office-holders. But that’s another article. ↩