CT’s Mark Galli launched 2011 with a post entitled Blessed Are the Poor in Virtue: Why Some People May Want to Abandon New Year’s Resolutions As Soon As Possible. In it he contends that the process of growth to fullness in Christ is “more mysterious than we are apt to think”:
During an evening prayer service on New Year’s Day, a friend described his spiritual journey the previous year. He lamented that his plans to become more regular and disciplined in prayer and Bible study had come to naught. And yet, he said, he found he grew spiritually more than ever.
This is precisely how the spiritual life has worked for me. The more I strive to be a “good Christian”—more prayerful, patient, giving, sacrificial, whatever—the more I find myself anxious, irritated, guilty, resentful, and self-righteous. When I simply accept that I’m a sinner, really, I find that I pray more, am more patient, more giving, more humble, and more loving.
(Before we get to the heavy-duty freight, take just a sec here and read John Acuff’s tongue-in-cheek post on Stuff Christians Like entitled #954 Using a fear of legalism as an excuse to be lazy. Acuff: “Reading the Bible regularly on a schedule is only one degree removed from thinking you have to earn Christ’s love everyday.” Too funny.)
Returning to Galli:
Add to that the experience of many: that only by abandoning moral striving can one really make any progress in this life… It also has to do with what enables people to do the very thing they fail to do when they strive to do it: freedom. You cannot enjoy freedom when you feel you have to do such-and-such to be good. That’s not freedom but oppression. Only when you realize that you do not have to do or be anything can you know freedom, and only when you know freedom can you really choose the good.
I once heard David Carradine share that same sentiment on an episode of Kung Fu. But I digress. Back to Galli one final time:
To be fair, some really do grow by making resolutions, setting goals, striving with all their might! But accepting one’s spiritual poverty and relaxing in grace has been the most fruitful course for many others.
Complicated stuff, this more-mysterious-than-we-think striving-for-nonstriving. Contemporary John Wesley scholar Gregory S. Clapper notes that it can lead to what he calls “the problem of self-deception” (see Acuff essay, above). Wesley himself proposed a decidedly non-mysterious alternative to such individual introspectiveness, namely, searching, searing, regular, raw accountability encounters with fellow self-deceivers on the discipleship trail. Writes Clapper in his eminently worthwhile The Renewal of the Heart Is the Mission of the Church:
Wesley was not one to recommend lonely mountaintop contemplation, for he knew too well the human heart’s propensity for deceit. Wesley was constantly forming new believers into classes, societies and bands where the Christians could examine each other and openly and honestly share with each other the course of their spiritual struggles. Seeking “feedback” and direction from others was more the norm for the Methodist movement than the exception.
Thus, in counterpoint to Galli’s claim that “There really is no point in trying to do or be anything but a sinner,” we can say, well, yes there is. One can be a fellow sinner. For one of God’s lavish–but often flatulently non-mystical–gifts to us which Galli does not mention in his article is the brother-and-sister discipleship daisy-chain in which God has graciously appended us like paper clips.
Sadly, that daisy-chain has been largely dissembled in recent days, in both nonprofits and churches, and thus does not and cannot function in much if any equipping or accountability framework. One of the Holy Spirit’s primary tools has been misplaced by the pastors and nonprofit leaders who were called to be stewards and custodians of the toolbox: As Ephesians 4:11-13 makes clear that Christian growth is a primarily a corporate process, not an individual one. Or as Luke Stamps puts it:
Unlike the Roman Catholic view, the Reformed view did not teach that grace was a substance that was channeled, irrespective of personal faith, through the sacraments. Instead, grace was defined in terms of the “benefits of redemption” (justification, adoption, sanctification, etc.) and was granted only to those who believe. And yet, this grace does not come to the elect in an immediate fashion, that is, not mediated through outward means. No, the Reformed confessions maintained that redemption is communicated to believers through the outward means of the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. The Word, when combined with the Spirit’s regenerative work, creates faith, and the sacraments and prayer sustain this faith throughout the believer’s life. In this sense, redemption is mediated to the believer through the ministry of the church. John Calvin could cite Cyprian approvingly in this regard: “He has not God as his father who has not the church as his mother.”
Generally, mothers are not a terribly mystical lot. They nag you to read your Bible daily. If you try to explain to them that it is important for you to only read your Bible when you’re absolutely certain you’re not striving for anything, they will roll their eyes, tell you that you are making ridiculous excuses, and order you to stop playing World of Warcraft.
Which is sager advice than that offered in most editorials.