Many of the paradigms offered to us on the spiritual life flirt with “the automatic.” By this I mean the hope for that something which will make the Christian life “work” without the awfulness of moral struggle and dramatic choice.
Can there be such a thing? I think not. We never are dismissed from choosing, exercising our free will for the good, the true and the beautiful. And we are never exempted from consequences of choices. What we are offered is the company of Christ, not a free pass from the human condition.
Surely we are given God’s help. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1Co 10:13) In this text we are assured of several things. One, we do not cease to be human and go through what humans go through. Get use to it! We are tempted. Two, temptation is beatable. There is no fatal determinism that forces you to fail. Three, there is always a way through. In the moral realm, there are no dead ends. Four, humans can persevere. At the end of the day, there is no fault in God or in his provisions.
But this verse, and others like it, can in the hands of some preachers, seem to teach that there is some place to go where victory is simply automatic, something that is a “get out of Gethsemane free” card that we can just lay on the table when things get really hard.
Four things works against this view. First, the Bible itself. When all of the Bible is taken together, we have a more complex view of salvation. It is easy and tempting to make one verse stand for the whole of the Christian life. But if one takes seriously the analogy of faith, that Scripture interprets Scripture, we cannot reduce the whole to a single verse which teaches the whole. It takes a whole Bible to form the whole of the spiritual life.
Second, the teaching of the Church through twenty centuries does not see such a possibility as we wish for. What TV preachers and popularizers can present as so plain has not been so plain to the breadth of the church immersed in Holy Scripture for two millennia. Wise brothers and sisters, good, discerning, tried and tested, from many times and cultures and circumstance, do not attest to anything like an automatic, a once for all formula that has proven over time to be reliable. Flee from preachers who have “the key” to the Christian life.
Third, reason itself militates against such a teaching. It does not pass the “this makes sense” test. This is not as if reason must stand in judgment over the Bible. But reason that believingly engages the Bible must conclude that what our untrained spirits long for, relief from a true testing, will not be ours in this life. We will never lose the ability to embarrass ourselves. All available evidence reasonably weighed suggests otherwise.
Fourth, Christian experience does not validate it. It has been found to be profoundly inhuman to expect humans not to act, well, humanly, redeemed though they be. The Bible never says to expect to sin. But it does say “when we do sin,” and that those who say that they are without sin oppose Christ and are liars.
A philosophy of Perfectionism is in this life an enemy of spiritual formation. It spins a tale that we can in some way find a doorway into the automatic and short-circuits the necessary preparations for spiritual combat. Perhaps the teaching of John Wesley has some fault here in his assertion of a life of “perfect love.” While he did not claim that such a life was his, he held it out as an aspiration that was not simply a wish but a real thing to be had. Church history traces how this “higher life” teaching evolved into holiness movements, developing into the charismatic/Pentecostal churches of today. It is of the essence of some of these churches to teach a higher life that one can enter into through an act, an experience, a crisis coming of the Holy Spirit. While I affirm that there are such experiences that launch the Christian onto new plateaus of consecrated and happy living, I deny that these experiences in any way bring to the Christian a relief from the perspiration of moral struggle. There is strengthening and renewal, oasis moments of relief that build strength. But soon we must mount and ride out into the harshness of the wilderness to test our faith.
Is this a depressing view of the Christian life? I think not. It is a view that readies me for a life of training, not trying. We train for holiness, righteousness, and godliness. There is a world of difference. Those who simply try hope for an abracadabra that will get them through. But those who see themselves in training do not waste time praying to get out testing but preparing to get through it. What matters in the long run is a long obedience in the same direction.
And so the Christian takes causes and means seriously. Holiness is not something we directly get. We practice what produces holiness and tends to holiness. We don’t just speak words and change the world as it is, as some word of faith teachers propound. Nor do we put on our positive thinking cap as if all is mind over matter. We face, fight, tremble, seek, obey, pray, fast, attend to the faithful preaching of God’s Word, ask for spiritual direction, share with others the Lord’s Supper, serve the lowly and left behind, love the near, give and do not hoard, think much of eternity and little of the things of earth and say in a thousand ways and in a thousand situations, “not my will but thine be done.”
The ready Christian realizes that his biggest failure might still lie ahead of him. He reads the warning passages of Hebrews as spoken to him, the realization that apostasy is not something that just happens to someone else. He understand that the sin nature lies deep and is under no illusion that he has passed over to Canaan’s full rest.
This understanding not only releases us from the bondage to perfectionism, it brings to us a steady compassion toward others who are not faring so well in the battle. We intuitively understand casualties. Real Christians really fall. We do not shoot our wounded. We make allowances. While not allowing defiance of God to run loose in the church, we give people room to understand, grow and change, get it wrong, and then get get it wrong again.
The spread of recovery ministries such as Celebrate Recovery would make more of a difference if they were seen as models of Christian growth for the whole church. Their emphasis on working our recovery every day and being faithful to our disciplines comes as close to a model for Christian living as any I have found. Seeking keys and formulas keep alcoholics alcoholics and addicts addicts. Being good stewards of the new creation begun in Christ so that He is given room to be all is the thing itself.