Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.
If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.
Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?
I was afraid you were going to ask that.
And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.
What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.
It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.
It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.
It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.
It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.
It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.
Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.
We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”
Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.
The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.
When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.
Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.
Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.
After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.
We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.
The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.
And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.
The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.
At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.
The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.
Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.
How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.
But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.