The Road to Grace: Honesty

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace
  5. The Road to Grace: Transparency

 
MaskHonesty.

Perhaps the rarest of all human virtues, treasured mostly in its absence, brought into focus most sharply in its antithesis.

If you ponder the subject for a moment, you may well find it surprising that we are anything but honest — that we do less than express exactly what we think, that we are anything but open and honest about our actions and motives. There are, after all, no dishonest dogs, no lying cats (though some might differ), no roguish raccoons or shady shellfish or mendacious mammals — save man.

So why, then, do we twist and torture the truth, crafting clever stories or deft deceits to cover our shortcomings and faults, smiling warmly while telling the most audacious prevarications concerning things both weighty and trivial? Why is this so often our default behavior?

What, exactly, are we trying to hide?

The answer lies in that dark angel of shame, that inner incubus engendered from a life spent divesting endless energy in the pursuit of the empty self. For dishonesty arises from evil, from the desire to hide that which must not be seen, from the need to present ourselves to others as something other than we are. Our ruptured relationship with God produces a perverse and unnatural self-sufficiency, driven by the desperate desire to fill the vast inner chasm thus resulting with a host of destructive desires, behaviors, and obsessions.

These fevered yet futile attempts to kill the existential emptiness and primal agony of life lived unnaturally, isolated from the life-source of God, prove highly toxic, causing yet greater distraction by their inevitable consequences. Designed to give, we strive endlessly to acquire; created to love, we engender hatred, exploiting others to fill our unquenchable needs, and detesting them when they prove unable to meet them. Our relationships become, not fertile beds of true intimacy, but vast webs of manipulation, abuse, resentment, and fear, as we suck the life out of others, seeking to satiate the insatiable void in our still-empty soul.

When we use the finite and futile to fill our edacity for the infinite, the invariable outcome of this manic miasma is a deepening conviction of our own guilt and growing awareness of our intrinsic unworthiness. Yet there remains a gossamer thread still tying us to the divine, an ancient truth near forgotten, a genesis of the God-life deep within, which says this can not, this must not, be true. And thus we craft another narrative of necessity, convincing ourselves and all around us that we are something which in fact we are not.

This pervasive dishonesty is the antithesis of transparency, and if we are to approach the ideal of being truly integrated — our inner self and outer appearances drawing toward unity — then we must come face to face with our own deceitfulness. This pilgrimage toward honesty must begin with the one with whom we are most deceitful: ourselves.

In our sophistry and sophistication this self-delusion is called by many names: rationalization; minimalization; justification; denial; projection. Though we often place such concepts solidly in the realm of science and psychology, they are in fact the attributes of a soul unwilling to face its inner abyss. They are, distilled down to their sordid essence, our unwillingness, our inability, to be rigorously, ruthlessly honest with ourselves.

Such a journey to the center of the soul cannot, indeed should not, be undertaken alone. The very strongholds we wish to conquer are such that they unite in their own defense: you will reason that you do not rationalize; you will deny your denial; project your fury at yourself onto others; minimalize your own responsibility for much which ails you. The mind is a dangerous neighborhood, best visited with another.

There is much to be learned from those who have undertaken this road to rigorous honesty through the crushing collapse of all of life’s props, brought about by the slavery of addiction and alcoholism. Driven to utter depredation and despondency by the scourge of a compulsion unbeatable and hopeless, they stagger into smoke-filled halls and church basements to seek what help they may from others of their kind. There they find kindred spirits — coarse in speech and common in appearance — yet victorious over the selfsame demons which shriek within their own dissipated minds.

They hear, for the first time, a startling truth:

Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Honesty: how peculiar, how unexpected, how self-evidently foolish as the solution to a deadly losing battle against booze. Yet those who triumph are those who become most willing to expose their darkest secrets, to face their shame, to lay it open before God, and share these hidden horrors which have enslaved them with another trusted friend.

Of course, you protest, you are not at all like those people, drunks and druggies, whose lack of moral character, hedonism, and enfeebled will must depend on such extreme and ridiculous measures to overcome their moral turpitude. You, on the other hand, a faithful Christian, have seen the light, and are walking the straight and narrow, secure in your own righteousness — err, the righteousness of Christ. The truth has set you free, after all — you know Christ.

Uh-huh.

And Christ knows you, and spoke about you often: something about “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind.

The path to honesty starts — startlingly — by getting honest, first and foremost, about ourselves. The dark heart of man knows no bounds — and the Christian is no exception, no matter how righteously we present ourselves to the outside world. Our hearts are filled with greed, lust, hatred, fear, pride, and extreme selfishness. Our one great advantage is this: when we are honest about our true nature, and act on that honesty, there is grace unlimited to overcome these inner demons.

So how then should we proceed?

We should, first of all, be systematic. Recovery programs use an approach which lists resentments, fears, and harms done to others — thereby covering a vast expanse of problems in human relationships which poison the soul — relationships so often devastated by the extraordinary self-centeredness so central to addiction. Other structured formats exist, based on lists of character defects, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the seven deadly sins, or other moral or spiritual principles. In a subsequent post I hope to expand on the recovery model, as well as provide a list of questions as a starting point to discovering core moral failings. The key here is not to achieve some legalistic righteousness, nor to engender guilt and self-pity, but rather to bring about conviction — that painful but healing knowledge of where we have failed, which is the commencement of a journey toward breaking the control of self-centered evil over our lives.

The second point is this: we do this to share with another. We should not strive to paint a rosy picture to impress, nor fill our story with a host of justifications, or endless whining about how life and its inhabitants have done us dirty. Surely they have in many instances — but we are responsible for our own attitudes and actions, regardless of the culpability of others. If we are rigorous and honest with ourselves, we will generally find we have brought much of life’s pain upon ourselves.

And lastly, we must pray. Unaided, our souls will drift and dodge, and find a million excuses for putting off this necessary work or justifying our ill motives and evil actions. Prayer empowers us to know, and in knowing, enables us to change. “I am the Truth and the Light” — both the ideal and the means to grasp and achieve it.

Everything inside you will rebel at this task, complete with procrastination, timidity, and our insane busyness whereby we avoid facing life’s painful truths and necessary reflections.

And of course, this self-examination isn’t really necessary, after all.

Unless, of course, you want to experience grace.

The Sword of Grace

Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace

 
sword of graceWe 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.

Sort of.

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.

Back soon, God bless.

Mortal Canyons

The wind whipped down the side street, as it does so often this time of year in New York. Like some entrapped banshee, it screeched, wildly, tearing past the long sharpened shadows of the afternoon sun, then suddenly, more restrained, whistling softly like a frightened child in a graveyard.

It burst forth upon the broad avenue, now swirling in whorls of unseen turbulence, sweeping up gently with hidden hands the week-old newspaper, tossing it in graceful arcs and dives like some savage cat toying with its prey, ending its flight with bored indifference in a doorway swinging gently in the lingering eddies. Its newsprint preached in foreboding tones of warming planet and warring sects, of homeless and health care and dishonest pols. But the world thus depicted was now convulsively changed, new beyond recognition, dark beyond comprehension.

Down the grand avenue, the lucent cadence of stoplights kept their ordered rhythm, now green, green-red, now red again, an endless choreographed chronos now futile in purpose, whose lifeblood yet poured forth through subterranean copper veins from whirling turbines crafted to run unattended, for days.

The synchronized lines of green and red receded unbroken, their vortex co-mingling at the vanishing point of the now-empty boulevard. The once-vibrant canyon stood lifeless, the once-seething froth of trucks and horns, cabs and transport now a dry wash devoid of motion, the scattered gravel of abandoned cars marking its course like tombstones on a high mountain pass. In funereal silence, a man lay slumped near a steam vent, its wispy vapors rising like a fugacious ghost fleeing some ghastly tomb.
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On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans

Third part of an ongoing series on the problem of miracles, and evidence for the Resurrection:

  1. The Problem of Miracles
  2. On Miracles: The Historical Jesus

 
It has been said that Christianity is the only religion which traces its origins to the humiliation of its God. As followers of its crucified leader dispersed widely after its germinal events, traveling great distances from a remote corner of the Empire over dusty Roman roads, they indeed told a tale bizarre in every respect. How ludicrous the story of a God made man; who worked miracles among men; who suffered the most heinous execution the Romans could devise. A man who, if these fables be factual, arose from the dead, utterly transforming the lives of all who saw Him — these same men who audaciously claimed to be eyewitnesses to this mysterious manifestation.

The people of the ancient world were no strangers to quixotic stories, to endless tales of gods and goddesses, myths and magic. Rome in its pragmatic wisdom absorbed them all, with their blood rites and orgies, their asceticism and temple prostitutes. Such tolerance kept the Empire unified and the conquered content; no sense risking unrest and rebellion over senseless fantasies.

Such legends amused and titillated, and their rituals provided feeble comfort in a brutal world ruled by heartless Fate. Yet Christianity was not merely another imagined tale of jealous gods and devious deities, but carried in its implausible story a spark fully absent from pagan fables: the flicker of hope in hopeless darkness, of purpose in a world chained and weighted to emptiness and futility. This spark fell upon the dry straw of a desperate world, and started a conflagration which reshaped that world in ways unimaginable.
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