Breaking Fatalism

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was known to have said, “When I was young I admired cleverness. Now that I am old I find I admire kindness more.”

I awoke this morning in heaviness of heart; as a shepherd this happens often. At times it is difficult to shut the theological mind off as I read posts or listen to conversations; attentive to the underlying theological issues influencing a particular conclusion, or course of action. I found myself praying about what I might term perspectival fatalism, which appears to be creeping into people’s biblical theology. While it is beyond the scope of this blurb to define philosophical fatalism properly, it is a perspective that resigns itself to fate, or the fates, if you will: an outcome is predetermined, and therefore, it is unavoidable.

The apostle Paul wrote, “My eager expectation and hope is that in no way will I be put to shame, but that with complete boldness Messiah will even now, as always, be exalted in my body – whether through life or through death. For to me, to live is Messiah and to die is gain. But if to live on in the body means fruit from my work, what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two – having a desire to leave and be with Messiah, which is far better; yet for your sake, to remain in the body is more necessary” (Phil. 1:20-24).

Some have come to an almost “oh well” attitude concerning situations we presently face, even suffering and death. People are exhausted, overburdened, over-extended, worried, mourning, fearful, angry, etc. Yet, Paul is not given to a fatalistic attitude, as noted above. He is not surrendering to “fate,” rather, he is surrendering to the sovereign will of God in Messiah. He remains, even while in prison, missional in disposition.

Yes, absent the body sets him with the Lord – which is gain; but to remain, even with the pressure he faces, is necessary for the maturing of those in his care concerning the Gospel.

What breaks a fatalistic attitude? Kindness; specifically biblical loving-kindness.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, kindness, first translated by Myles Coverdale as “loving-kindness” into English, which I explain as covenant faithfulness, is derived from חֶסֶד/hessed. What is hessed? Simply: love expressed as deed. Hessed is a gift of ourselves to the human other. It reorients the perspectives of those giving it, and those receiving it. I’ve heard it explained that God’s hessed humanizes fatalism, by transforming what some thought inevitable with a simple act of loving-kindness. When destined by “fate,” the reach of God saved the soul.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Messiah gives a startling illustration of the separating of His sheep from goats. The sheep, to whom He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me,” (v. 40) are sent to the right, where He is. To the goats, however, Messiah says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me,” (v. 45) and they are sent to the left, representing everlasting judgment (v. 46).

The actions are surprisingly simple: give to the hungry, give to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned (v.35-36). Uncomplicated. What was the difference between the actions of the sheep, and those of the goats? In a word, loving-kindness. Hessed is an outward demonstration of the inward love for the Lord, and the human other (cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). As Paul expressed above, his love for and desire to be with the Lord was paralleled with the love he had for the human other as well. Profound.

In an age where argument is viewed as strength and boldness, the needed redirect is to kindness, which, contrary to mounting opinion, is not weakness, but this: sureness with whom you walk. As the prophet writes:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy (loving-kindness), and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8).


“For I desire mercy (kindness) and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

In faith we bring the theoretical, perhaps even the abstract, to life by faithfully outreaching to those trampled over by life in the name of the Lord.

Can fatalism be caught up in the life of faith? Only when we turn our eyes from the Messiah. Fatalism and faith are simply incompatible.

As we find in the Great Commission, and again in Acts 1:8, those in Christ remain on His mission, regardless of circumstance, history, or political atmosphere. Therefore, our perspective cannot be fatalistic, but missional. As Paul writes regarding putting off the old man with his abundant wickedness, and the putting on of the new man, we do so with “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another” (Col. 3:12-13; cf. Gal. 5:22-23).

We are all enduring something, somethings more tragic than others; but when we reach out our hand in loving-kindness, we are caught up in His grace – and all it encompasses. Hessed changes the perspective of both recipient and actor. A simple act, lost in the myriad acts of a day, week or year may not change your life, or be a moment remembered; but it may give hope to and radically change the life touched.

Loving-kindness is the power of God manifest as a glass of water to a thirsty, hurting soul.

Be well. Shalom.

One thought on “Breaking Fatalism

  1. John

    Rabbi, what a great word on fatalism, mission and mercy! As I once heard – “fatalism is a fatal disease of the mind if not transformed.”
    Thank you! Blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

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