At the risk of derailing someone's hard fought New Year's vows, let me suggest that some of us stop trying to become good Christians, or whatever noble thing we're striving to be.
I grant that the New Testament is replete with admonitions to "strive" and "make every effort" to be faithful followers of Jesus. One of Paul's favorite expressions along these lines is a dressing metaphor: "put on the new self" (Col. 3:10), "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 13:14), and "put on the whole armor of God" (Eph. 6:11), to quote a few of the places where he uses this stock phrase. He often ties this metaphor to the virtues: We are to put on "the breastplate of righteousness" (Eph. 6:14), "to put on … compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience" (Col. 3:12), and above all we are to "put on love" (Col. 3:14).
What Paul doesn't address is how exactly one "puts on" these virtues. The answer is more mysterious than we are apt to think.
During an evening prayer service on New Year's Day, a friend described his spiritual journey the previous year. He lamented that his plans to become more regular and disciplined in prayer and Bible study had come to naught. And yet, he said, he found he grew spiritually more than ever.
This is precisely how the spiritual life has worked for me. The more I strive to be a "good Christian"—more prayerful, patient, giving, sacrificial, whatever—the more I find myself anxious, irritated, guilty, resentful, and self-righteous. When I simply accept that I'm a sinner, really, I find that I pray more, am more patient, more giving, more humble, and more loving.
This is the paradoxical reality that has been exploited effectively by Alcoholic's Anonymous for decades. The more an alcoholic strives to control her drinking, the more she is given to drink. The moment she admits she has no control over alcohol, that's when she can gain some freedom—as long as she continues to identify herself accordingly: "Hi, I'm Anne, and I'm an alcoholic."
We are regularly tempted—at least I am tempted thus—to control our sinful longings and to strive to become what we are not: holy. Yes, I understand that in Christ we can indeed call ourselves holy. Some talk about this in terms of imputation—we are now treated by God as if we are righteous. Others emphasize the hope: we are promised by a faithful God that in the end Christ will transform us. However we think of it theologically, it remains a paradox that many don't make any progress in the spiritual life until they understand themselves by their failure: "Hi, I'm Mark, and I'm a sinner."
Jesus put it this way: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
In practical terms, that means giving up any effort to make oneself into something (which correlates nicely with the fact that it is God who has already done everything necessary to make something of us—more on that another time). This means, in turn, that we may want to consider abandoning resolutions to become better in one way or another.
This is understandably a frightening thought for some: "I can barely live a decent life when I try so hard. If I give up striving, won't I just melt into a puddle of immorality?" Or, "If I don't set new goals every so often, won't I stagnate?"
That is always a possibility, of course. We human beings have a way of turning profound truths into justifications for all manner of behavior. But then we have people like Jesus telling us that the way to the kingdom of heaven—the fully realized life in God—runs through the crossroads of spiritual poverty.
Add to that the experience of many: that only by abandoning moral striving can one really make any progress in this life. This has partly to do, again, with the perversity of human nature, which instinctively rebels against any outside authority, even the ethic of Jesus! While part of us longs to live morally (that is, a fruitful, loving life), another part of us sabotages that desire when we strive to realize the ideal.
It also has to do with what enables people to do the very thing they fail to do when they strive to do it: freedom. You cannot enjoy freedom when you feel you have to do such-and-such to be good. That's not freedom but oppression. Only when you realize that you do not have to do or be anything can you know freedom, and only when you know freedom can you really choose the good.
In Christ, God tells us that we don't have to do or be anything anymore. God so loves the world. We are the object of God's favor just as we are. We can add nothing to that reality or take nothing away from it. There really is no point in trying to do or be anything but a sinner. (One reason that is freeing is because we're pretty good at it already!)
What happens, though, when we live as if we are moral failures, when we refuse to become anxious and guilty and shamed by our behavior, and just acknowledge how spiritually poor we are? For many, it works like this: For the first time they are able to ask a simple but crucial question: "What do I want to do?" Doing the good or avoiding the bad changes nothing in the universe, certainly nothing in our relationship with God. That whole discussion is off the table. We're loved whether we do the good or not. We're loved whether we sin or not. The only thing left to determine our behavior is "What do I want?" How do I want to live? What type of person do I want to be?
To modify the philosopher Augustine, once we find ourselves in a state of transcendent love—knowing God's love and filled with gratitude in return—we really can do whatever we want. And the big surprise is this: The very thing we've been striving to do and to be, the very thing that we have felt pressured to do or become, is now an object of our desire. Not because we have to in order to meet some religious standard, to be a good Christian, to accept ourselves, to contribute something useful to the world, or to justify our existence. No, when we really have the freedom to do whatever we want, we'll find that we want to do and to be what the God of love wants us to do and to be. In short, the kingdom of God will be ours!
This does not mean that we'll now magically be able to do what we want with ease, that we won't fail, that we won't have to be mindful and deliberate in our efforts to follow Christ. Hardly. When Paul says we are to "work out" our salvation, he means it. The mind and will were created by God to be fully engaged. God is not looking to create passive robots but dynamic lovers. I'm merely suggesting what many theologians and spiritual directors mean when they say that our moral efforts need to be grounded in freedom and motivated by love. This sounds like a religious cliché but in fact is a psychological and spiritual reality.
This is, of course, but one dimension of how God transforms us. As the old saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. The infinite love of God works in an infinite number of ways. To be fair, some really do grow by making resolutions, setting goals, striving with all their might! But accepting one's spiritual poverty and relaxing in grace has been the most fruitful course for many others.
So how might we understand Paul's notion of "putting on" various virtues in light of this reality? I don't believe it is a pressured striving he's exhorting us to—that would be the way of law that he consistently condemns. I think of it like this: I'm in a clothing store, eyeing a rack of sports coats. Along comes a clerk, who says, "Why not put on the blue one." Then he takes the coat off the hanger and holds it open for me to put my arms through the sleeves. Then he hoists it onto my shoulders, buttons the front, smoothes it out, and tells me to look in the mirror. I've put on the coat, but really, the clerk has put it on me. Work out your salvation, says Paul, and in the next breath adds, "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:1213).
The Clerk approaches us daily. "Why don't you put on love," he says. "Here, let me get it for you. Just hold out your arms."
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Me? Favored? By God? | The remarkable announcement to Mary—and us. (December 22, 2010)
The Great Incompatibility | Jesus is interested in the oddest things. (December 16, 2010)
Evangelizing Ourselves | The gospel is for Christians too. (December 2, 2010)