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The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Published by Charles Scribnerís Sons, New York, 1963. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 13: Be Strong

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
I Corinthians 16:13-14


Out of this well-known passage, I chose two words on which I want you to center your attention in this hour -- be strong! They are surrounded in our text by other qualities that make strength possible -- watchfulness, faith, courage, love. All together, they describe the strong Christian personality.

How can we attain strength? This is a question asked in all ages of manís life and in all periods of human history. It is a question asked with passion and despair in our time, and most impatiently by those who are no longer children and not yet adults.

In our text Paul uses the word "be" several times: "be strong," he says to the Corinthians. We easily slip over it. But it should arrest our attention as fully as, and perhaps even more than, the main words of our text. For the word "be" contains in its two letters the whole riddle of the relation of man to God.

Paul does not ask of the Christians in Corinth something that is strange to them. He asks them to be what they are, Christian personalities. All the imperatives he uses are descriptions of something that is, before they are demands for what ought to be. Be what you are -- that is the only thing one can ask of any being. One cannot ask of a being to be something it was not before. It is as if life in all its forms desires to be asked, to receive demands. But no life can receive demands for something which it is not. It wants to be asked to become what it is and nothing else. This seems surprising, but a little thought shows us that it is true.

We know that one cannot ask fruits from thorns, or grain from weeds, or water from a dry fountain, or love from a cold heart, or courage from a cowardly mind, or strength from a weak life. If we ask such things from beings who do not have them, we are foolish; and either they will laugh at us or condemn us as unjust and hostile towards them. We can ask of anything or anyone only to bring forth what he has, to become what he is. Out of what is given to us, we can act. Receiving precedes acting.

"Be strong," says Paul. He says it to those who have received strength as he himself received strength when the power of a new reality grasped him. Now some of us will ask -- "what about us who feel that we have not received, and that we donít have faith and courage and strength and love? We are wanting in all these, so the commanding Ďbeí of Paul is not said to us. Or if it is said to us we remain unconcerned or become hostile towards him who says it. We are not strong, so nobody should ask us to be strong! We are weak. Shall we remain weak? Shall we fall into resignation, and become cynical about your demands? They may be for others. They are not for us." I hear many people, more than we imagine, saying this. I hear whole classes of young people speaking thus. I hear many individuals in older generations repeating these words.

And I donít find any consolation in the Bible. There is the parable of the different soils on which the seed of the divine message falls and of which only one brings fruit. There is the word of the many who are called and few who are elected. There is the terrifying, realistic statement of Jesus that those whom much is given will receive more, and that from those whom little is given, even this will be taken away. There is the contrast between those who are born of light and have become its children and those who are born out of darkness and have become its children. There is the parable of the man as clay which cannot revolt against God the potter, no matter what the potter does to the clay. We would like to revolt, when we hear this. But if we look around us into the lives of men we are forced to say -- "So it is, the Bible is right!" We would like to say in good democratic phrasing -- "Everyone has a God-given chance to reach fulfillment, but not everybody uses it. Some do, some donít. Both have their ultimate destiny in their own hands." We would like that to be so. But we cannot escape the truth that it is not so. The chances are not even. There is only a limited number of human beings to whom we can say -- "Be strong," because they are strong already. And the only honest thing I could say to the others, to whom many of us may belong, is -- "Accept that you are weak. Donít pretend that you are strong. And perhaps if you dare to be what you are, your weakness will become your strength. Accept that you are weak" -- that is what we should say to those who are weak. "Accept that you are a coward" -- that is what we should say to those who are cowardly. "Accept that you are wavering in the faith" -- that is what we should say to those who are not firm in it. And to those who donít love, we should say -- "Accept that you are not able to love."

This sounds strange! But everyone who knows the human soul, and knows his own soul above all, will understand what is meant. He will understand that the first step in becoming strong is to acknowledge and accept his weakness. He who does so will cease to deceive himself by saying to himself -- "I have at least something of what the apostle demands. He can demand it from me, for somehow I have it." There are people who could rightly speak so to themselves. Yet there are others for whom such a judgment would be a self-deception. To them we must say -- "Accept that you are weak; be honest towards yourselves."

Let me say to those who are responsible for others, as parents, teachers, ministers, counselors, friends: donít say the demanding "be" to anybody without fear and hesitation. If you use it, you approach the mystery of the divine election and you may destroy a life by demanding something of a person that he is not!


All these insights lie behind the first thing Paul asks of the Christians -- namely, that they be watchful. The strong being is strong only if he watches his strength, aware of the fact that there is weakness in his strength. There is a non-Christian in every Christian. There is a weak being in every strong one. There is cowardice in every courage, and unbelief in every faith, and hostility in every love. Watchfulness means that the Christian never can rest on his being a Christian, that he who is strong can never rely on his strength.

One can be strong by subjecting oneself to a strong discipline. By suppressing much in oneself one may become powerful in relation to others. It is often this type that is called a strong personality. And, certainly, strength without the ability to direct oneself is no strength. But those who have this ability and are admired as strong personalities should be watchful: they should watch whether their strength has weakness at its basis, whether it excludes elements of life that constitute the richness and the glory of life. If they do not watch their hidden weakness, it may flow forth as hatred for those who affirm the abundance of life. This abundance they cannot endure, because it reveals the weakness on which their strength is built. In order to reassure themselves, they force upon others the same restrictions they have imposed on their own life. Their domineering strength creates weakness in others. There is a profound ambiguity about the strong Christian personality: Christianity could not live, society could not go on, without them. But many other Christians, many persons, who perhaps could have become strong themselves, are destroyed or reduced to mental weakness and often illness by them. They are the bearers of Christianity and society; but their victims among Christians and non-Christians, beginning with their children, their wives or their husbands, are numerous. Be watchful when you are considered, or consider yourselves, strong. Be watchful, and donít demand of those around you to be what you are, and what they are not. You will destroy them by your strength.

Those who are considered strong usually have a strong conviction. They seem to do what Paul asks them to -- namely, to "stand in the faith." Everybody needs a place to stand upon. Without a foundation no strength is possible. In the physical universe it is a place on the well-grounded earth, as the Greeks said; no experience seems more disturbing, even for the strongest minds, than the shaking of the ground in an earthquake. In the social universe it is the home -- the home town and the home country on which we stand; and from earliest times those who lost their homeland were considered weakest and most unprotected. What about the spiritual universe? Language is the place we stand on in the spiritual universe. For out of the word by which we grasp our world and our own being all other spiritual creations grow: knowledge and the arts, social traditions and philosophical beliefs. The word gives man the strength to build a world above the given world. It makes him the ruler of nature, as in the paradise story: he becomes the ruler over other living beings by giving them names. He who is strong in the spiritual universe is strong in the power of the word. A profound insight into human strength and human weakness is expressed in the story of the tower of Babel. Mankind was strong as long as it was united in one language. Its strength impelled it to enter the heavenly sphere. Hut when God wanted to destroy manís self-elevation and reveal his weakness, he confused the one language so that people no longer understood each other. We are in a similar situation today. Our period is weak, because we can no longer speak to each other. Each one has his own language, and the word has lost its power. It has become shallow and confused. We have experienced earthquake and exile in the spiritual world.

Paul asks the Corinthians to stand on something that is deeper than the physical and social and spiritual universe, something that cannot be shaken, because all levels of the universe rest upon it, their divine Ground. To stand on this Ground is, in Paulís words, to stand in the faith. He, of course, thinks of the faith in the form in which he has brought it to the Corinthians. But in this faith, faith itself is present -- namely, the standing on the ultimate Ground below any shaking and changing ground. Breaking the way to this Ground is the meaning of the appearance of the Christ. "Stand firm in your faith" means -- donít give up that faith that alone can, make you ultimately strong, because it gives you the ultimate Ground on which to stand. Standing firm in oneís faith does not mean adhering to a set of beliefs; it does not require us to suppress doubts about Christian or other doctrines, but points to something which lies beyond doubt in the depth in which manís being and all being is rooted. To be aware of this Ground, to live in it and out of it is ultimate strength. "Be strong" and "stand in the faith" are one and the same command. But remembering now the word "be," some may reply -- "Then the demand to be strong is not for us, because we do not stand in any faith. Doubt or unbelief is our destiny, not faith. We know you are right, there is no strength where there is no faith. But we have neither. And if there is some strength in us, it is the strength of honesty, the unwillingness to submit to a faith that is not ours, either for conventional reasons, or because of our longing for strength, or because of being taken in by our contemporary emotion-arousing evangelists. Our strength is to resist and to reject strength that is born of dishonesty." Some of the best minds of our time would speak thus. To them I answer -- "Your honesty proves your faith and therefore your honesty is your strength! You may not believe in anything that can be stated in doctrines or symbols. But you stand on the ultimate Ground, you stand firm in your faith as long as you stand in honesty and take your doubt and your unbelief seriously without restriction. Become aware of the faith that you have, and you will find words for it, perhaps even Christian words. But with or without words, be strong; for you are strong."

Strength, according to Paulís words, includes courage. For human strength is built on human anxiety. Insecurity takes many forms. One of the most dangerous is the experience of being split within ourselves. He who is united with himself is invincibly strong. But who is? We are all dominated by forces that conquer parts of our being and split our personality. We have not merely lost the power of the word; we also have lost the strength that is given with a united, centered personality. We are disrupted by compulsions, known formerly as demonic powers. And who can command a split personality -- "Be strong!" To which side of the personality can such a command be addressed? Yet, there is the possibility of something else. Healing power, coming ultimately from the Ground on which we stand in the faith, can enter the personality and unite it in an act of courage. It is the courage that takes upon itself the anxiety of our disruptions. This courage is the innermost center of faith. It dares to affirm our being, while simultaneously rejecting it. Out of this courage the greatest strength emerges. It is the strength that overcomes the powers splitting world and soul. Be courageous! Say Yes to yourselves in spite of the anxiety of the No.

So Paul finishes his description of the strong personality: a courageous, watchful hero, firm in faith, worthy of great praise. But that is just what Paul does not do. Instead, he says -- "Let all that you do be done in love." The strength of the personality whom Paul has in mind is based on something beyond courage and faith and watchfulness. It is not the strength of a hero. It is the strength of him who surrenders the praise he could receive as a hero to the humility of love. We are all familiar with strong personalities, perhaps in our families, among friends, or in public life, whom we admire, but in whom we feel something is wanting. This something is love. They may be friendly and be willing to help. This they demand of themselves. But everything they demand of themselves they also demand of others. They use the word "be" without hesitation. They become tyrants through personal strength. Without love he who is strong becomes a law for the weak. And the law makes those who are weak even weaker. It drives them into despair, or rebellion, or indifference. Strength without love destroys, first others, then itself. For love is not something that may or may not be added to strength in its fullest sense; it is an element of strength. One cannot be strong without love. For love is not an irrelevant emotion; it is the blood of life, the power of reunion of the separated. Strength without love leads to separation, to judgment, to control of the weak. Love reunites what is separated; it accepts what is judged; it participates in what is weak, as God participates in our weakness and gives us strength by His participation.

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