Christian baptism involves a whole new way of looking at things, a whole new way of feeling about things, a whole new way of doing things. And this precisely means unlearning other ways of thinking, feeling and doing. The Christian gospel is perceived as paradoxical – almost unrealistic at times – because it proposes a way of life which is not governed by the virtues so highly prized by our technocratic society: success, efficiency, immediate gratification and control. The Christian gospel is not about success – gaze briefly at a crucifix for verification – but rather, it is highly inefficient, frequently delays gratification and encourages us to relinquish our obsession with control to One whom we cannot see.
Unlearning ingrained habits of thinking, feeling and doing and replacing them with new ways of thinking, feeling and doing – this is what Christian spiritual writers call conversion. Conversion includes even our very imagination. If this conversion, in fact, is constitutive of (meaning there won’t be a time when we won’t need conversion in this life) our faith journey (to use a time-worn, if not altogether empty phrase), my purpose is to point out three pitfalls of modern Christian living, three traps into which people of good faith often stumble, three ingrained ways of thinking about things which, in my brief and limited experience, can have very debilitating effects.
The first unconverted way of thinking is the tendency to think that we earn our salvation. I think that this finds its roots in our American consumerism and workaholism, as though our salvation is a commodity we can, with the right effort, self-discipline and hard work, acquire and possess by right. It is as though we can somehow impress or “wow” God by our behavior. Unfortunately, this is really not a new idea. It’s also a bad one: it’s called Pelagianism and it was condemned at the councils of Carthage and Orange in the fifth (411) and sixth (529) centuries, respectively. Salvation is not something we can earn, achieve or acquire. Salvation is a grace, and grace means gift. Our task is simply to receive it as a gift.
I am not suggesting, however, that we simply sit back and say, “I accept Jesus as my Savior,” and think our work is done. Obviously, this gift of salvation, offered by God in Christ, requires an active response of faith, itself mysteriously graced; a response that demands our assimilation to Him who gave Himself for us.
How we live, how we behave and the choices we make are crucial indicators of our response in faith. But it is imperative to remember when thinking about our salvation that the initiative is always on God’s side. That’s another way of saying that God has to do most of the work: in fact, in Christ, He has already done so. Our task is to respond to and, more importantly, to rely upon His grace, His help, as we muddle toward His kingdom for which we pray and in which, by our baptism, we have implicated.
You see, when we put the emphasis on our abilities, our strengths, our energy, we are bound to fall into one of two dead ends. If we are successful in growing spiritually and in “being good,” we tend to think of it as our personal accomplishment and end up like the Pharisees caricatured in the Gospel: self-righteous and judgmental. Alternately, if we put all the pressure on ourselves, forgetting that it is only with His help that we can grow, we are bound for failure, and failure leads to one of the most challenging aspects, in fact the real bane, of the spiritual life: discouragement. Discouragement itself creates a vicious cycle of failed attempts and further dejection which can lead ultimately to despair. We cannot, and must not try, to earn our salvation. Christ did that once and for all. We must learn humbly to rely more and more upon God’s help and we grow and are transformed by grace – slowly but surely – into the image of Christ, His Son.
The second pitfall is the tendency to think that religion is a private affair between “me and Jesus.” This ingrained tendency of thought undoubtedly has its remote origins in the rugged individualism that is part of American culture. While religious faith is and should be quite personal, it is never private. That is, our experience of Christian faith is mediated through a particular community of faith. This is why there is RCIA, which involves the whole parish or university community, not simply Father Smith instructing Mr. or Ms. Jackson. That is why very frequently, Catholic children’s first penance is experienced as a communal celebration. There are, in a certain sense, no “private” sins.
While perhaps unknown to anyone else in the community, my sins nonetheless have an impact on the community – if I am less a person because of my sins, the whole community (or better, body) suffers because I am an integral part of that body. Understanding our Christian faith as a corporate or social, even organic, phenomenon is crucial. Our experience of Jesus is, in fact, mediated through sacraments – public and discrete rituals of the Church which bring us into contact with Jesus Christ Himself. And that meeting place with Jesus is always within community; grace requires a human or created agent.
On a very practical level, we desperately need one another; for support, for example and for a shared sense of what is true and good. In fact, Christian hope envisions an eternal life with God that is intrinsically social – it will not be me gazing at Jesus, but all of those who love God in communion with one another in Christ. Heaven is innately social. Perhaps an apt metaphor for hell is precisely the opposite: if original sin is fundamentally self-love, in hell we get exactly what we’ve always wanted – ourselves, and only ourselves, for all eternity. A grim prospect.
The third pitfall is to want to be perfect right now. Rooted in our desire for immediacy (we are, after all, the culture of the internet and the smartphone), and our hatred of ambiguity, we want to be perfect right away and, even more, feel perfect right away. This is an occupational hazard especially for recent converts and persons returning from a retreat experience. They have seen the mountaintop, and they want to stay there. Unfortunately, life almost never works that way. And at the first symptoms of spiritual aridity, they begin to “feel” less religious, less “spiritual.” After an attempt to become Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II overnight, they become disillusioned and discouraged.
It is best, I will suggest, to look at our spiritual life more as a continuum than through “freeze-dried” moments of grace or sin. The spiritual life is about growth – most often very slow growth – and so baby steps are more reliable than blind leaps. St. Thomas Aquinas observed that it is better to limp along the right road than to run headlong down the wrong road. And he was wise.
Realistic expectations about ourselves – and others – are essential as we seek to live in this world of ambiguity, complexity and imperfection. In fact, we need to redefine the spiritual life from being the search for immediate perfection to a learning to be imperfect well. That is why the image of the Church as a pilgrim is so apposite: we may not yet have arrived, but we are certainly on our way.
These are but three significant challenges which face us as we await the fullness of God’s kingdom, begun in Christ, but as yet unfulfilled. As we learn to live here and now as members of His Kingdom, sharing in the truth He has revealed to us about ourselves, rather than accommodating the Gospel to our own limited and fallen imagination, we will, even if unawares, be engaging in evangelization. I am not talking about the in-your-face techniques of overly argumentative people who are more annoying than effective. By evangelization I mean the calm, steady and stable behavior of a people who know they have found the Truth – and they love Him.
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