Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Modern Christian Life and the Myth of Moral Progress

I have been following with great interest the discussion initiated by Fr. Stephen Freeman on his blog ‘Glory to God’ on the topic of moral progress (, and others). Taken at face value, I have found his engagement on this issue to be profoundly helpful, until I realize that his perspective, if true, overturns the entire way I have understood my Christian life – at least my pre-Orthodox Christian life.  Like any revolution, this is both exhilarating and deeply unsettling.

Fr. Stephen’s contention is that Christianity in general, and the Christian life in particular is not a moral project.  The gospel is not about taking bad people and making them good, or at least better.  Now, maybe I misunderstood things when I was growing up, and then when I was a Christian leader at university, and then a seminary student, and then a pastor and a missionary and seminary teacher, but along with the emphasis on God’s grace (if mercy is God not giving to me what I deserve, grace is God giving to me what I don’t deserve), came the assumption that the Christian life (the life of discipleship, the Spirit-filled life, however it is described) was a matter of progressively laying aside sin and becoming more and more like Christ.  This, of course, was done, not as a quid pro quo, but out of ‘gratitude,’ so we were taught.  So while there was the constant note of ‘grace’ being sounded from the pulpits and Bible studies and in our pious books, there was the equally strong insistence that our ‘salvation’ be matched by lives that looked saved.  But because of our inherited allergic reaction to all things Roman Catholic, this could never be understood as ‘salvation by works’; we were, after all, ‘saved by grace through faith’, regardless of what James had to say in the second chapter of his letter. 

Amongst many Fundamentalists and Pentecostals, this insistence on a requisite and subsequent holiness was overt, in that there were certain behaviors that the ‘saved’ simply did not do, like drink or dance or play cards or be caught unchaperoned with a person of the opposite sex, among other things.  We Evangelicals thought we did better by getting rid of the overt ‘legalism’ of our Fundamentalist cousins, but the insistence that we progress in Christ (I think ‘grow’ was the operative term) was just as strong.  This might be seen in our insistence on a morning quiet time, or on Scripture memory, or on ‘doing’ evangelism or helping at the soup kitchen.  We were told that we must be ‘pure’ and chaste when it came to our sexual lives.  Our marriages were supposed to be strong and getting better.  Our children were to be disciplined ‘in the Lord’ and be Eagle Scout material, or at least, like Lake Woebegone’s young people, all above average.

I can only speak for myself.  The great dissonance of my Christian life is that I have not experienced any of the moral progress that I was told Christianity was meant to facilitate.  I am not a better person than I was when I ‘accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord’ as a fourteen-year-old.  And in most aspects, I am worse.  All of the sins that I struggled with as a teenager are still besetting sins.  Not only that, I’ve discovered a whole raft of new sins that weren’t a part of my portfolio when I started out on this pilgrimage.  What the hell is going on!?  I have no excuses.  I can’t claim ignorance.  I was Evangelicalism’s poster child in terms of opportunity. I had access to the best Evangelical training, the best teaching, the most awesome associations.  But day after day after day, when the sun went down, I was still very much the same person that watched the sun come up that morning.

I was in denial about this discrepancy for decades.  I bought into what turned out to be a spiritual Ponzi scheme: keep bringing more and more people into the church through our ‘evangelism’ and we will appear to be ‘growing’, while pretty much everyone else who has been around for a while is still working on the same old issues.  I myself really believed I was a blessed somebody.  But with increasing clarity, I have noted with dismay just how far short I have fallen.  With pain I recount how I have walked through a series of overwhelmingly challenging circumstances, none of which have brought out me at my best but rather displayed me at my worst.  As a Protestant, I was supposed to celebrate the light of salvation, preach and teach the light of salvation, live the light of salvation.  But in my own life the long dark night never gave way to a dawn; just to more of the same.  The closest I ever came to finding relief was from the old DC Talk chorus from their song ‘In the Light’:

‘What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior.
This only serves to confirm my suspicions,
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior’

But I thought I was ‘saved’!  It was one thing to struggle with this sin and that sin as a teenager.  But to still be struggling in my twenties just did not seem right.  And when my thirties and my forties found me in the pulpit passing on to congregations everything I had been taught about grace and sanctification but finding myself unable to live it, this I found not just embarrassing, but deeply disorienting as well.  And it wasn’t like I was leading a double life – I was constantly reaching out to friends and colleagues around me, constantly trying to be vulnerable about what I was experiencing, constantly sharing with my spouse and friends what was going on.  But nobody had any answer, other than to leave me with the vague sense that the problem was with me, that if I was just this or that, or if I just got my act together, I could get back on the escalator of sanctification.  I understand their frustration with me.  They were all playing with the same hand I was dealt.  It’s one thing to listen to someone, to share your own helpful perspective, and then see that person go on to experience ‘victory in Christ’.  But when that person just keeps dealing with variations of the same thing for years, even decades, well, what can you do?  Maybe, surely, it’s their fault?  Or maybe your answers don’t actually work.

I had come to the conclusion in 2008 that my long-held, long-believed, long-preached and taught Protestant theology of salvation simply was not working.  It no longer made sense.  It seemed wholly different in emphasis from what I was reading in the New Testament.  According to my own received theology, I was a serial backslider.  It was a cycle that simply went round and round.  And I was a part of that section of Christianity that worked very hard to determine what bad sins excluded one from the party and what other ones could be ignored or redefined as being not sinful after all.  The focus was on what pleased God (i.e. keeping God’s law), and thus whether or not one was in the right or in the wrong.  And I kept finding myself in the wrong – in my thought life, in my war with lust, in my marriage.  And after having tried every variation I could think of, and every suggestion from all the Evangelical Christian life books that I had devoured, prayed every prayer, started multiple accountability groups, I determined that I must be self-deluded, and that a wrathful God was about to call in the chips, that I was about to find myself attempting entry to the wedding feast in the wrong clothes.  And we know how that story ended.

from Martin's Doodles

It was the constant zig zag in and out of condemnation, in and out of forgiveness, that I found untenable.  With the Western churches’ emphasis on a just God and our need for salvation explained and resolved forensically, the ‘Gospel’ made sense for someone who was initially ‘coming to Christ’ and ‘repenting’ and asking God for forgiveness.  Such a person is received by God just as he or she is.  Sins are forgiven, Christ’s righteousness replaces every deficit, heaven replaces hell as the final destination.  But what if the said ‘saved’ person continues to struggle with sin, continues to ‘backslide’ (a term usually applied to ‘major’ sins, usually of the flesh), continues repent and ask forgiveness?  What if this just keeps going on year after year?  Is this person saved?  What sort of ‘salvation’ can this possibly be?

When I discovered Orthodoxy, I didn’t just discover a variation on this way of doing salvation and the Christian life and Christian theology; I found a different way of understanding the Gospel and our response entirely.  Salvation is not about having my sins forgiven, being on God’s right side, about having my legal issues before a holy God happily resolved and thus getting into heaven.  Salvation is not about me becoming a better person, a holy person, a person who can finally keep God’s law.  Instead, salvation comes to all who know they fall short, who know their choices have alienated them from God and from the people around them, who call out for mercy, who are met as the returning prodigal is met by the running Father. 

Salvation, in the Eastern Churches, is repentance, that posture and action prompted by seeing ourselves as we really are, crying out for the mercy from God without which we will surely perish, turning from those ways and thoughts that have so mangled us and pleading with God for healing.  And God surely receives and forgives and heals.  Salvation is also the reconciliation and restoration that occurs in our relationships, with God and with all those around us, especially those we have hurt.  God invites us to participate in the love of the Holy Trinity itself, to receive love and to give love.  It is a different way of seeing, of living, of being that we are invited into, and we find ourselves part of the transformation that God is recreating all around us.  God the Holy Trinity loves us profoundly.  And our response is not intended to be, ‘Ok, now keep God’s law!  Become a better person!  Become a holy person!’  Instead, the response that God’s love invites is love itself.  God saves us in love, by love so that we might share this love and love Him and those around us.  Jesus himself, when asked what the most important law was, said ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength and all your soul.  And love your neighbor as yourself.’  And now we know how – just as Jesus as loved us.  But salvation will also be our deliverance from death and everything that means in our own lives and in this sin-blighted world of ours.  We were created for paradise, with spirits like the angels and bodies for living in this material world.  But instead we have inherited brokenness, catastrophe, sickness, death and decay – all consequences of our choice not to love.  After His crucifixion and death, Jesus broke its power by His divinity, and raised His humanity to transfigured new life, the first fruits of what God intends for all humanity.  We, too, will be set free from death’s power, from decay’s stench, from the moldering dust of lives long forgotten.  All of us will experience the power of God, this miracle of God, which will touch each of us in the most personal, intimate way – you and I will be saved from death and all that it has ever done to us.  And every tear will be dried.

Thus my invitation into Orthodoxy was an invitation into love, to receive love from a God who doesn’t stand in threatening judgment over me, to receive a love that unworks the damage I’ve done to myself through my disordered thinking and living and that others have done to me, a love that brings healing, and a love that then calls from me a love in return – loving God who so loves me, loving my neighbor who I see every day, and even loving my enemy who may not deserve it, but who will be loved anyway because I recall that I could not earn such love as this either.

After all the fear, all the guilt, all the condemnation, all the rejection I received and felt, especially in these later years when I began to grapple in earnest with my own brokenness, the Gospel I heard from the Orthodox people I began to know was something different from what I had experienced previously.  It got my attention.  It startled me.  It made me wonder why I hadn’t been told this before.

I certainly blame no one but myself for what I experienced in my 50 years in Protestant churches.  All of the people I interacted with and worked with for all of those years were just like me, doing the best we could with what we knew.  If anyone else was struggling with being a sinner, I was all the more, and so I am in no position to condemn anyone.  I can only hope that they too can enter more fully into what I have begun to taste and see, namely that the Lord is good, and that His mercy endures forever.

A couple of years ago, I had been kicked out of my house by my wife.  Obviously things between us were not good.  We were missionaries at the time, teachers at different theological colleges.  I hardly knew what to do or where to go.  I was too ashamed to ask friends to take me in.  I was also afraid that if word got out that my wife was now separated, her mission (the one that had already dismissed me for becoming Orthodox) might do the same to her.  In desperation I went to the Roman Catholics and was told there was a monastery about 5 miles from the university where I taught.  And when I went there and explained what my situation was to the brother in charge, he took me in.  I lived at that monastery for nearly 4 months.  I didn’t tell anyone that I was separated, out of fear, out of shame.  Finally, I had arranged to invite my priest who was also my spiritual father to visit the several Orthodox priests who were students where I taught.  We both had been very busy, and I had not been able to tell him what was going on in my life.  After he finished having tea with the students, I showed him around and then, as we were walking to the car, I told him about my separation.  I told him that I didn’t think I should be singing in the choir, or serving as a Reader in the Church.  I would instead just stand in the back, if he felt that was the best thing.  At this, the Father stopped me and looked at me and simply said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’  I believe this is the most healing thing anybody has said to me ever. 

Before I felt trapped in a ministry of condemnation.  Today I have hope.  Before, my closest relationships and associations judged me on the basis of what I did or didn’t do.  Today I am learning what love really is.  Before, I spiraled repeatedly into depression and could not understand what was going on inside of me.  Today, God is working his healing, bringing His perspective to bear on my life and my heart.  Before I was riding on a never-ending escalator, ever upwards in an attempt to grow in holiness, get better, live the ‘Christian life’.  Now I understand that what God wants from me is not my perfection but my repentance. 

As Christos Yannaras writes,

Those who have trusted in ‘themselves that they were righteous’ (Luke 18:9) exclude themselves from the Kingdom.  They themselves have shut themselves out of the wedding-feast and remained content with their virtues, with the self-satisfaction afforded by their moral attainments.  They have no need for God except to reward their individual performance.  This is why the Pharisee who keeps the Law faithfully, is not justified before God, even though he is ‘not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers,’ but indeed ‘fasts twice in the week, and gives tithes of all that he possesses’; for he does not justify his existence as a personal fact of communion and relationship with God, beyond corruption and death.  The Publican weighed down as he is by a multitude of sins, is justified because he feels his own inadequacy as an individual and seeks God’s mercy, that is to say participation in the life that is grace, a gift of love (Luke 18:10-14).  (ChristosYannaras, The Freedom of Morality, 59)

I struggled for decades as a Christian because I was given the very strong impression by friends, colleagues and leaders that my salvation would be matched (verified) by my progressive sanctification.  But nobody could say how sanctified I needed to be in order to be sanctified enough.  And nobody was willing to make the connection between this and being saved by works, because we all knew that we couldn’t be saved by works – that was a Catholic error.  So we all found ourselves on the ramp of moral progress, or ‘spiritual growth’, where we were to become more like Jesus.  I can’t speak for anybody else, but I was never in danger of becoming like Jesus, and I suspect that the same is true for just about everybody else I know.  We all get by because we either lower the standards, or ignore them – but who gives us the authority to do either?  Or we're simply deluded.  So a Christianity, a salvation that leads to the necessity  of moral progress is a perversion of the gospel. Jesus did not come to make us better.  And if He did, then, um, it didn’t work.

Instead, the mountains and hills are made low.  The first made last, and the last first.  Undone publicans find God’s mercy and the religious professional leaves with only her/his self-righteousness.  It’s the sick who need a physician, not the ‘healthy.’ 

I, for one, am grateful.

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