As children, we are taught to take care of our pets, take care of our room, take care of our toys. A parent’s voice is always in our head: Don’t leave your toys out in the rain. Don’t forget to walk the dog. Don’t leave stuff all over your room.
As adults, we learn to care for our families, care for our friends, care for members of our church who need help. The more valuable the goods, the better the care.
So it is with our Christian faith. The work of the Holy Spirit ties us to Jesus Christ from God’s side of the bond. From our side, it’s faith.
Like so much of value in the Christian life, faith is both God’s gift and our calling. There’s no doubt it’s a gift. Jesus taught that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44). But faith is also our calling. Jesus says so with a simple imperative: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).
Every Christian comes to know that this imperative is bigger than we are. We know the drag of doubt and sloth. We know what it’s like to be spiritually depressed—to find the universe emptied of God and our lives emptied of joy. We know how the presence of advanced evil in the world can taint our trust in God’s providence.
So we pray for God to rejuvenate us. We practice spiritual disciplines that centuries of Christian saints have told us will help. We pray when we don’t feel like it. We go on spiritual retreat because we know we should. We meditate on God’s Word, hoping for a ray of light. We take long, slow walks through cemeteries, treading six feet above well-dressed skeletons while soberly reflecting on how—if there is no God and no eternal life—human life simply stops.
All these means are part of traditional spiritual hygiene, and they are all an immeasurable help when it comes to taking good care of our faith.
According to the letters of St. Paul, the centerpiece of such caretaking is mortifying our old nature and vivifying our new one. One of Paul’s central teachings is that we have died and risen with Jesus Christ. We died and rose with Christ when he did because he is the “second Adam,” our representative. We did it again in our baptism, a ceremony that sacramentally binds us to the dying and rising Christ. And we do it every day when we put our sins to death—kill them, mortify them, crucify them—and bring our virtues to life—encourage them, vivify them, “clothe” ourselves with them (Col. 3:5, 12).
Sanctification is God’s work in us. But it’s also our work in us. Scripture says both things. Jesus “cleanses us from all sin” but only if we “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).
There’s no better way to walk in the light than by putting our sins to death. All serious Christians have experience trying to do it. Suppose my besetting sin is conceit. I am too wily to say it out loud, but I secretly think I’m hot stuff. I think I’m better than others—and if others don’t know it, they should. I might motor along with this superior attitude for years until something jolts me awake.
If it does, I know I have to kill my conceit. I have to yoke my efforts to the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in me. So I meditate on the superlative greatness of God and look at myself by contrast. I meditate on the superlative grace of God and see that I have nothing good that wasn’t given to me. I confess my conceit to God and lament it and beg to be rid of it. I start deliberately praising others, recognizing their gifts and good character. I spend time outdoors where nonhuman creation seems to hum along just fine without paying any attention to me. And I begin to see my conceit as laughable.
How does mortifying my conceit show and strengthen my faith? When I put my conceit to death, I trust God’s Word that doing so is not only right but also healthy. Mortifying oneself is no fun at all. It’s mortifying. But I do it anyway because I trust God that doing it is life-giving, that it will actually make life better.
And it does. As I kill off my conceit, I find that God seems closer to me. Other people seem more interesting to me. Squirrels leaping from branches seem more delightful to me. I’ve broken out of the tiny cabin of my own self-involvement and have found the whole universe comes alive as I turn to it.
When I reflect on this wonderful exercise of dying and rising, I become more grateful for my faith that motivated me to tackle it in the first place. And I want to keep looking for ways to take good care of it.
Cornelius (Neal) Plantinga (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) is senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of many books, including the Christianity Today Book Award winners Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, Engaging God’s World, and Reading for Preaching.