I’ve been reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics recently, and I just came across this beautiful section about how to receive revelation (God’s word, the gospel) means to receive Jesus unavoidably as our Master. Barth goes on for pages, outlining 6 particular ways that Jesus is our master. The fourth one is this:
“To have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ is to exist in an ultimate and most profound irresponsibility.”
I thought there must be a typo. It must be that we exist in an ultimate and most profound RESPONSIBILITY! And then I thought, oh Barth, you are so great but this time you’re a little off track because, you see, I exist in an ultimate and profound responsibility. I could be defined by the word responsibility. What on earth could he mean by saying that we exist in irresponsibility???
This is what he says:
“All other masters and teachers and leaders and lords load and burden us with responsibilities, i.e., with questions which we answer out of our own knowledge, with obligations which we satisfy by our own wish and action, with programmes which we have to fulfill and realise by our own achievements” (Barth, CD I,2 p.274).
But with Jesus as our master we “participate in that work of the Word” but our participation is only “in spite of our unsuitability” and “rests upon the forgiveness of sins” (ibid., 275). This we mostly know– we are saved by grace, but we still hop along and participate, trying to do good works as commanded in scripture. At least, I do, because I feel so responsible all of the time.
MEANING OF RESPONSIBILITY
And the word irresponsible means literally– not responding. And to this we want to argue that surely God’s grace has freed us to respond to God! God saves us, and then we respond, right? Right??? We are responsible! We must be!
As I was thinking about this, I decided to look up the definitions of responsibility. (Cheesy, I know– one of my professors used to joke all the time about how terrible it is when people begin a paper, “Webster’s Dictionary defines [some word] as [such and such].”) But I thought these definitions were helpful, so here they are, with my responses in brackets:
1a. liable to be called on to answer [we will be called upon to give an answer, but our answer can only be: “Jesus Christ.”]
b : liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent [Jesus is our primary cause, motive, and agent. Jesus came and died and rose again to become the one who will give an account to God for us.]
c : liable to legal review or in case of fault to penalties [Jesus made himself liable for us]
2 : characterized by trustworthiness, integrity, and requisite abilities and resources [we aren’t]
3 : able to choose for oneself between right and wrong [nope, cf. Romans 7]
There is a difference in our being able to respond and our being responsible. One is freedom and grace and the other is crushing enslavement. One trusts God to forgive all our sins, and the other turns us into the Judge of ourself, others, and the world. One lets Jesus carry the government on his shoulders, and the other snatches this role from him.
We really aren’t responsible. We are ultimately and profoundly irresponsible. If Jesus is our Master, we are “really free.” Barth says that we are free in these areas:
1. “Free from worry about [ourselves]” (ibid.) We are irresponsible! We are free! Free from worry about what we will eat or drink or wear. Freedom from what others will think of us. Freedom from the questions of what we will do tomorrow or the next day, what we will make of our lives. When we become trapped by these questions, when we start bearing this responsibility, we can only turn to Jesus and be reminded that he is our master.
2. “But also free from worry about others” (ibid.) Free from feeling proud if they are doing less than us, free from feeling crushed if they are doing more. Even free from a crushing sense of obligation to help others, to mitigate suffering. Free from guilt about not doing enough. We are free to serve, but we are free not to worry.
3. “And free from worry about the whole development of human affairs in the Church and the world” (ibid.) Now, this book was published in the late 1930s. Barth had already been kicked out of Germany for his resistance. The church was crumbling around him, unable to respond vigorously in opposition to the National Socialist party. Barth lectured and wrote prodigiously trying to convey the theological problems that he saw as responsible for Nazism. He was involved. He participated. But he knew that the government was not upon his shoulders (Isaiah 9:6).
This freedom means freedom from worry about big picture problems in the world and human affairs. It also means freedom from worry problems in smaller spheres. The home. The people in the home. Freedom from worry if crumbs spill on the floor. Freedom from worry if someone breaks something. Freedom to let some laundry be unfolded. Freedom from a pressing need to maintain control and order at all costs. What would it look like for us to be irresponsible homemakers, for Jesus to be the master of the home?
THY WILL BE DONE
Barth closes this section by saying:
“That the will of God should be done in all things is what [the Christian] can and should pray when the other burden [the burden of responsibility] seems likely to crush him, and then it will not crush him. But the very prayer, Thy will be done, is in fact an admission that I need not worry about it, because that is not my business. The burden, the burden of my own and others’ sins, does not lie upon me. It lies solely and entirely upon Jesus Christ.”
“When I am bound [to Jesus] in this way I can never again take the burden on myself, I can never invest myself with the dignity of the Word, the dignity of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ alone bears it and can bear it. Our relationship to Him must always consist in our knowing and saying and confirming and attesting and living out this truth: that He careth for you” (ibid.). Amen.