Fourth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
We’ve spent some time recently on relatively heavy-duty topics — like justification, sanctification, and grace — as we’ve explored Christianity as a faith founded on grace and mercy rather than obligation and judgment. Most non-Christians — and far too many Christians, unfortunately — view the Christian faith as a set of rules to follow, a collection of obligations which must be met to “keep God happy.” But it’s not just laws and legalism, but rather a profound inner change of direction and orientation which radically changes the spirit — and leaves the mind and the will stumbling and fumbling behind as they struggle to do in their own power that which they are incapable of achieving.
How do we in practice, in the daily grind of sweat and swearing, facilitate the transformation of the whole being which is the ultimate goal in starting down this path?
For me, it comes down to a simple calculus: what makes me do what I do?
You see, if my goal is to have my thoughts and actions aligned with those of God — when they have spent life running hard in the opposite direction — then something quite essential has to change: my motivation. It has been my experience that the grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it! approach just doesn’t cut it. Sure, I can muster up will power to bludgeon down the gates of heaven, trudging on for a while doing the “right thing,” but that gets very old and very cold before very long at all.
I’ve concluded that, in essence, I do things in life for one of two reasons: I do them because I have to, or I do them because I want to.
Now, all the shrinks and psychologists out there may be excused, before they start bringing up Oedipus complexes, anal retentiveness, the Id, and a host of other Freudian mechanisms which, frankly, hold little or no interest for me — not because they may not have some influence on me (they may well, but color me skeptical that human motivation is so primitive, brutal, and simplistic), but because they are of no practical value in the day-to-day decision-making that makes up the brunt of life.
So let’s keep it simple: if I’m doing something, I’m doing it because I want to, or because I have to. And sure, there’s a lot of overlap here — I often enjoy many of the things which I am obligated to do. And, this may surprise you: I find that doing things I like is always easier than doing things I must .
This is why, for me, a faith which is all about rules and obligations is so very hard to follow, and ultimately doomed to failure. My natural gravity is this: I like doing the things which are destructive for me and which separate me from God — they seem to be rather hard-wired within. On the other hand, I really don’t want to do “good things” — things which draw me closer to God — because I don’t believe they will make me happy, or benefit me, or they seem too difficult: they are a chore and a bore, best avoided. To my way of thinking, I will be quite happy when I get what I want — and when this doesn’t satisfy, well, then I simply need more of what I want.
And herein lies the miracle of grace: the inner transformation of forgiveness and new life have the power to make me want to do the things which draw me nearer to God — the things I previously had no interest whatsoever in doing. And once I find myself doing such things, motivated out of an inner desire to do them, rather than a crushing obligation of rules and law, I begin to experience the rewards of acting in concert with the purposes of God.
And my life begins to get better, and happier, and a whole lot more peaceful.
It’s the damnedest thing. Really. But it really works.
What is going on in this process is not a repudiation of free will, a blind robotic submission to some nebulous deity; it is rather a confluence of wills. I freely choose to do that which I know to be the right thing, despite my natural reluctance to do so — and find in the doing that the choice opens to me a new experience of God, a new pleasure and satisfaction in doing those things which, despite my innate reticence and selfish reluctance, actually bring about a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joyfulness.
The process works, in my experience, through a series of steps:
♦ Insight & conviction: As I discussed previously, the inner transformation of grace occurs first in the spirit, then percolates up through mind and soul. There comes a rather sudden awareness that certain behaviors, thoughts, actions, and attitudes are no longer okay. Call this conviction, call it conscience, call it dis-ease, call it guilt if you will (a word widely ridiculed in a culture which glories in the shameful, decadent, and destructive). It is a sense of uncomfortableness which acts as as a warning sign, a guidepost which gently alerts you that you’re off course, and acts an inducement to change.
♦ Repentance: The dis-ease triggered by wandering off course triggers a desire to change, to correct the error and get back on track. The will kicks into action, determined to act, think, or speak differently.
♦ Confession and forgiveness: We acknowledge to God that we have wandered away, and offended Him — not because He is a jealous tyrant trying to spoil our fun, but because He is determined in love to draw us closer to Him, and our own actions have ultimate harmed us by separating us from His love and grace.
For many of our character flaws, this sequence brings significant change: the desire to pursue the destructive and hurtful behaviors intrinsic to our old way of life lessens, and often disappears altogether. It becomes easier and more natural to do those things which make our life more peaceful and purposeful, as the new way of living becomes normal and natural. Change comes from the inside out, and with it considerable joy and contentment.
Would that it were always this easy.
Before long we stumble upon the more difficult moral challenges in life, the strongholds which are deeply entrenched in our souls, the behaviors and failures which we seem unable to overcome, despite our growing awareness of how hurtful they are to ourselves and others, and how destructive to a deepening relationship with God. We run through the drill, repeatedly: failure, conviction, repentance, confession, recommitment. Wash, rinse, repeat — endlessly, with no apparent progress and increasing discouragement as the new life seems increasingly powerless and frustrating.
The power of Christianity, the new inner life which transforms, often seems incapable of overcoming such roadblocks. These strongholds may be many: excessive fears; inability to trust; anger and rage; greed and materialism; sexual addictions and compulsions; drug and alcohol abuse; compulsive eating, or gambling, or a host of other destructive habits and obsessions. Many of these arise from deep wounds sustained in life: abuse, abandonment, childhood or adult trauma; severe physical or mental disabilities. Some are even inborn or inherited, such as alcoholism or obesity. Their enslavement seems total, even insurmountable; the journey to wholeness which Christianity promises so often runs aground on their jagged rocks and shallow shoals.
Yet these, too, can be vanquished. These, too, can be not merely conquerable, but will become instruments in the hands of a gracious God to bring extraordinary change, not only within us, but for many others around us.
“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was spoken, not only of Christ, but of us: our greatest liabilities can become extraordinary assets in the hands of grace.
But be forewarned: the journey over these jagged crags is a terrifying one — but it is the only way out of the prison. Be prepared to lose all you treasure, and more.
And be prepared to gain vastly more than you bargained for. Getting to grace is a hazardous path — and the most exciting journey you’ll ever take.