STAGES

The life of faith is an evolving and maturing life, and it has stages. There’s a lot of room for variation, but the general direction is always the same. First comes the new birth from above, then newness in Christ, followed by an endless process of growth and maturation. It is an exact parallel to the natural life: every human being begins as a single cell; every majestic oak was once a simple acorn; the universe itself has grown from a simple point of energy.  And this is as it should be, since the natural life is merely a reflection of the divine.

Scripture teaches us that the rebirth is a gift of grace, given by God and delivered by the Holy Spirit, and that the newness in spirit is belief in the good news communicated to us by the Gospel writers, belief in the facts about Jesus Christ, about His birth, His ministry, His death and His resurrection,  belief in the indwelling of Christ’s own Holy Spirit.

There’s nothing complicated about this.  Christ’s Spirit needs a base of operation in the life of the potential follower, a beachhead, if you will, from which to expand, and that base of operation is conscious belief.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus was never hesitant to insist that, just as the first steps of a baby are the feeblest, so the first step towards a life of mature faith – the life that is the goal and destiny of every Christian – that the first step be taken by the feeblest of human faculties, the intellect.  He was never embarrassed that it might not seem “spiritual” enough.  Even in His first encounter with His disciples after the resurrection, He ate fish, and offered physical evidence for Thomas.  His miracles were always signs, that you might believe…

That’s why Jesus says, speaking of all future generations, speaking of you and me, that’s why Jesus says, Blessed are those who haven’t seen me, and yet believe.

The simple belief that Jesus is the living God is the necessary foundation for Christian growth. Whether, like the new birth, it is a gift of pure grace, or whether it is a reward that responds to one’s reception of that gift, is a mystery, at least to me. But it is most certainly the treasure hidden in the field for which the man sells everything he has; it is the pearl of great price which outweighs the value of everything else.

It is the first step of the life of faith, a step that must be taken, or there is no life at all.

THE OUTCASTS

Judaism, as an historical religion, is tribal. Its God is a tribal god; its doctrines are the regulations of a tribe; its functionaries are tribal representatives.

Self-identity within the tribe consists of location in the fabric of the tribe. There is no distinction between personal and tribal joy, loss, ambition, friendship, pride. The tribal god is concerned with that fabric, and with the individual only as an ingredient of the fabric.

The voices of the identifiable personalities of the Hebrew scriptures, even when in the first person, represent the voice of the collective, and the imagined voice of Yahweh is addressed to the national attention: I will make of you a great and numerous people is a sovereign promise to a nation, not to Abraham. The prophets do not speak to God out of their private personalities: there are no private personalities in the tribe.

The same is true of all successful religions.  That’s why the Way of Christ has never been and can never be a successful religion.

When Jesus tells His disciples they must hate their relatives to follow Him, He’s beckoning followers to come free of the tribe. He’s saying they must separate themselves from that which gave their lives meaning, security and direction.  And that’s why most of His followers abandoned Him near the end, as they finally came to understand the magnitude and the implication of what He was saying: that their continued relationship with Him is not an enhancement, but an exchange: their lives for His.

Because we are human, and humans are, in their spirit, fundamentally tribal, this is a terrible requirement. Even Paul failed to fulfill it, and instead offered ‘the body of Christ’ as the tribal substitute for the Jewish nation. (And out of that failure – that retreat from the final truth – arose Catholicism, a wildly successful religion.)

The summons is no less challenging today, because people are no less dependent for their identity on their tribe than they were then, although the tribes themselves have weakened, and most are godless. (Hence the existential distress of secular modernity.)

But the call of Christ is the same today as then, and just as unnatural, just as difficult, just as uncompromising: find your identity in your relationship with Me, and nowhere else. All the alternatives are deceptive and ultimately fruitless.

There are no tribes in Heaven.

THE TOOL

It’s a mistake to read the Bible with the expectation of finding perfect consistency, a transparent narrative of events or doctrine.  That’s what you might expect if the book were of strictly human inspiration, and if you found it, that’s also what you might suspect to be the case.  At the very least, your faith in the book would be compromised.

But our Bible is the living word of God.   That means that we do not approach it for the same reasons we approach other texts.  We read the Bible – and especially those portions of the Bible that tell us what Jesus said, and what His contemporaries said about Him and what He did – we read them, not in order to find out a set of facts or even to find the important moral or religious principles we should follow.  We can do those things, of course.  We can learn many interesting facts, and we can certainly acquire information about how we should live and the shape our lives should take.  We can profitably do all that, but that’s not the main reason we read the Bible, and that’s not why we call it the living word of God.

We read the Bible so that we can bring before Jesus and His Holy Spirit the true joys and the true and often sorrowful needs of our own spirits.  We read and reflect on what Jesus said and did, not first and foremost to acquire information, but first and foremost to acquire the spiritual help that is available nowhere else.   That’s why the Bible can offer different things to different readers, depending on their need, and different things to the same people at different times.

The Bible (like prayer) in its spiritual essence is a tool, not for our use, but for God’s.

WHEN YOU FAST

Fasting has many merits, some physical, some psychological. None is religious. When Jesus references fasting, it’s to make a point about ostentation, not about hunger.

Fasting was a practice of religious ritual in the particular time and place within which Jesus conducted his ministry, as the temple in Jerusalem was the seat of ecclesial authority, and Saturday a religiously sanctioned day of inactivity. Had God incarnate entered humanity at a different time in a different place, the messages would have been the same: do not advertise your piety; true worship is vagabond; acts of charity are most highly esteemed by God. All that would have changed are the illustrations.

PRAYER

Christ always emphasizes that the rewards of heaven are very, very different from the rewards of the world.

Because we haven’t listened to what Christ is teaching us, we are accustomed to thinking of Christianity as if it were like all other religions, as if it were at bottom a system of delayed gratification; of enduring present troubles for future bliss; of discipline and deprivation earning eventual compensation.  That is, after all, what all other religions promise.

But that’s not what Christ promises.  Christ doesn’t promise us an abundance of what we currently enjoy; He doesn’t promise an endless satisfaction of what you currently desire, whatever that is.

Christ promises a new you.  Or rather, Christ promises that you will become someone who most deeply welcomes and find peace in what heaven has to offer.

And what will heaven have to offer?  People often engage in this sort of speculation, but the truth is it has to remain largely that: speculation.  There are really only a few things we can say with certainty about what heaven will offer.  One is that, whatever else life in heaven is like, it will be characterized by elements of mercy and humility and forgiving and poverty of spirit, because Christ teaches us that heaven itself is made up of people who find their self-fulfillment in such things.

And another thing we can say with absolute certainty is that if we don’t find happiness now in spending time with God, we will never find happiness in what heaven has to offer.

The things of heaven are already among us, if we open our eyes to them.  Every act of forgiveness is a heavenly thing.  It is not a price we pay to get into heaven; it is heaven, here and now.  In the same way, spending time with God is a heavenly activity, which we can engage in here and now.  If we find it dull, or difficult, or unrewarding or pointless, then I’m afraid that’s how heaven will seem to us as well.

THE SIREN CALL

In the worldly way of thinking, it is very high praise to say of someone, “She is always true to herself.” We don’t say that of someone who is by nature deeply kindhearted and in accordance with that nature always acts in a kindly fashion. We say it of someone who has arrived at certain conscious principles of behavior, and whose voluntary activity is regimented by those principles. Typically those principles are something we also applaud, but there is nothing in the nature of the compliment that requires that agreement: we might readily say it of someone committed to hedonism or vainglory, and we are saying it admiringly, even while we disapprove of their principles.

But this is another example of how the ways of heaven differ from the ways of the world. In the Christian way of thinking, being ‘true to oneself’ is precisely what we are asked to abandon, in favor of being true to Christ. That’s why the lives of saints so often seem whimsical, even self-contradictory.

But like them, we must never fear inconsistency in our lives.

Inconsistency is a failure of principled self-governance, not of following Christ. Jesus Himself – always obedient to God – was as wayward as the wind in His behavior, thus demonstrating that the ways of God are inscrutable to those seeking fixed standards and cogent argument. If rules and reasoning – the standards of consistency – were sufficient guides to life, we should not need Christ’s Spirit.

Perhaps the most tempting Siren call from the Christian Way is to make idols of principles.

REPENTANCE

When we find ourselves facing an unfamiliar deep forest separating us from our destination, we don’t seek the advice of a student of forest paths. We’re not interested in learning how paths are made, or what constitutes a direct rather than a circuitous path.

We seek a guide, someone who is familiar with the destination, and knows the way or ways through the forest to arrive there.

It’s a mistake to think of the gospel of grace as a moral theory, a theory about the paths of life. It does not invite intellectual assent; it invites obedience, with or without assent. It doesn’t offer to edify, it offers to convince; it’s a promise, not an argument. The promise is that you will see, not that you will be confirmed in your beliefs.

A person being led through the far border of the forest and who suddenly sees the city in front of him is reaping the harvest of his obedience to the guide, not of his own perspicuity. The gospel of grace isn’t a theory, it’s a guide to life through the uncanny forest of the world.

But like any guide, it’s only of service to those who acknowledge the problem the forest presents.