How Living Safely is Dangerous

I tend to think passivity and the middle-way are pretty safe ways of life.  But choosing neither virtue nor vice is more dangerous than choosing vice.  If I am an outwardly vicious person, I cannot deny my viciousness.   On the other hand, by internalizing, that thereby ignoring, my own vice, I risk denying its very existence.

Consider Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees (Mark 3.4):

Jesus: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”
Pharisees: *crickets*

Their problem here is not the typical Pharisaical hypocrisy.  It is a subtler, more paralytic hypocrisy.  They are silent because they hate public correction.  They would much rather be correct than corrected.  If they open to the possibility of their own error, then they also open to the pain of correction.

In life, the ways we tell ourselves we are don’t need correction are just as subtle and crafty.

For example, let’s say that I get really angry when my roommate retires early to bed because it prevents me from staying up late studying in our room (a totally theoretical situation).  In response, I can either lash out in anger, communicating how much I dislike the inconvenience of his early bedtime, or I can pretend it doesn’t bother me in the least bit.  Ignoring my anger seems the holier option, but it turns out to be the more dangerous one.

It seems that resisting anger could be the better option in the following ways:

  • It exemplifies a holiness that should be emulated.
  • It resists the natural tendency to sin in this way.
  • It displays self-control, which is Spiritual Fruit.
  • It avoids painful confrontation.
  • It practices self-denial.

Nevertheless, what if this passive response is more deceptive than constructive?

Notice that my pretending not to be angry is just that: a pretense.  It is just like that Pharisaical lie that tells me I don’t need correction:  it communicates something false about myself.  Thus, being bold in the wrong ways will tell me more true things about myself than my silence.

Whenever we convince ourselves to live safely, we actually hinder the process of sanctification.  By “safe living” I mean choosing the least confrontational, most holy-seeming option available.  These can vary from offering a service you really don’t want to do to seeming really solemn during a worship service to Pharisee-like silence.  We sometimes think seeming like the caring person is more important than actually caring for others.  This sort of self-deception does two things:

First, in these pretenses we hide from men.  Instead of confronting us about our flaws and failures, they praise our purity. By producing this positive image of ourselves, we deceive others.

Second, this success in hiding from men actually conceals us from ourselves. If we hear their praises enough, we will actually start to believe them. Then, when the pretended safe living becomes our truest form of living, we have trouble recognizing our own flaws.  By extension, we will also have trouble with sanctification. The temptation to sanctify a projection of ourselves paralyzes the process of the true purification that works at the core of who we are, where Christ is.  We feel safe because we try to hide from the exposing power of sanctification.

By safe living, we distance ourselves form our fundamental identity in Christ.  As we continually try to reinforce the self-perfection we have constructed, we rely on the people around us to tell us how sound this self-perfection structure is.  Affirmation can feed the monster within that desperately wants others to confirm the false perfection we outwardly project.  We forget to cling desperately to the perfection of Christ, subtly defending, instead, our own self-righteousness.  We choose to identify with a false righteousness instead of the perfect righteousness Christ offers us.

Fortunately, this form of self-deception is relatively easy to identify.  We must, however, be open to the fact that we practice deceptive safe living in the least suspecting areas of life.  There are two main ways to recognize this self-deception.  First, you have an unexplained need for affirmation.  If you need others to approve of you in certain areas of your life, dangerous safe living has probably crept into those specific spaces. Second, you are hurt deeply by personal flaws that people bring to your attention.  If you feel a powerful aversion to a confrontational remark or probing question, search for self-deception lurking nearby.

The Holy Spirit will bring people into your life to provide this service.  He will also remind you of the painful remarks people make about your flaws.  These all serve to keep us truly safe, in Christ, not deceptively safe, in ourselves.

One who finds freedom in Christ is free to live dangerously.  You are no longer bound to sin, so why be burdened by the thought that others might consider you sinful?  Instead consider those occasions when the deep darkness inside you swells to the surface as opportunities to boldly confront that deep darkness and give it, with all its twisted ways, to Christ.

It is unhealthy to have sin, but it is fatal to silently pretend it isn’t there.

The truly safe man rests in this prayer:

Lord I need you, oh, I need you

Every hour I need you

My One Defense, my Righteousness

Oh God, how I need you.

Everyday Holiness

Sanctification is not always an earth-shattering affair.

More often, I think, sanctification and spiritual growth come through the (perhaps seemingly menial) tasks, actions, decisions, thoughts, and words that populate our daily lives.

We recently bought a basil plant and placed it on our balcony. After a few days, I harvested the leaves to use while cooking dinner, leaving the plant nothing more than a bare, green stalk with one or two small leaves near the top. Days passed by, and for a while it seemed like the leaves weren’t going to grow back. From day to day, I couldn’t see a noticeable difference in the plant. After a couple of weeks, however, it was clear that the remaining leaves had grown larger, and new ones were beginning to sprout. I couldn’t see a difference on any given day, but the growth was happening nonetheless, and over time it became clear.

Most change and growth in life seems to occur this way: it almost sneaks up on us, and we don’t realize we’ve changed until after it’s already happened. But most good and beneficial change won’t happen at all unless we work towards it, consistently, every day. I believe the work of sanctification is, at least in part, found in our small, daily toils and responsibilities, and it’s the smaller tasks that can be the most difficult because they are easier to dismiss as unimportant.

I came across a quotation that paraphrases something C.S. Lewis says about love in Mere Christianity, and it reveals the combination of forces necessary to sustain any virtuous or holy thing:

“Love is not merely a feeling: it is a deep unity maintained by will, deliberately strengthened by habit, and reinforced by grace.”

We are responsible for the first two thingswill and habitand the grace comes from God. As an illustration, this notion is easily applicable to marriage. The reality is that the state of my marriage twenty-five or fifty years from now depends upon my husband’s and my daily actions and behaviors in the present. It probably won’t be one big, monumentous thing that alters or defines the course of our relationship. More likely, it will be the culmination of all the little things we do (or don’t do) along the way, combined with the grace of God.

While marriage is an apt example, I believe the quotation above applies not just to love (marital or otherwise) but also to every aspect of our daily lives. To find grace and virtue and sanctification in the everyday, we must have the will to continue in our work, maintain the habitual actions necessary to strengthen ourselves and our relationships, and trust in God’s grace to sustain us. When you think about it this way, repetitive, everyday tasks start to seem kind of miraculous.

In turn, this thinking speaks to the importance of maintaining a daily prayer and Scripture study habit: the five or ten minutes I spend each day seeking communion with God may not seem like much in the moment, but it’s a habit that will strengthen my spirit and my relationship with the Lord over time.

Much of my thinking here is inspired by a blog post by Janelle Aijian titled “On the Road with the Noonday Demon” that a couple of my Facebook friends shared recently. It’s short and worth a read, so I won’t rehash every detail here, but the overall message of the piece is that Christians may be easily distracted from everyday tasks, dismissing them as less important than more exciting, “meaningful” activities (evangelizing, community service, etc.). However, the difficult work of committing consistently to our everyday tasks is in fact the root of growth and sanctification. As Aijian notes, early Christian monastics referred to this struggle as the “noonday demon,” that is, the “tedium or perturbation of heart” regarding their everyday work that came upon them around midday.

The author references Pascal to explain the heart of this difficulty: it is the struggle between our inherently sinful nature and “our restlessness for God and for holiness.” She continues:

“We were created to be perfectly holy and perfectly happy, in communion with God and each other, but at present we are full of error and sin and trying not to think about it. It’s Pascal’s contention that most of what we spend our lives doing is intended to distract us from this fundamental wrongness in our spirit, this knowledge that we are capable of being completely happy, but because of the sin rooted deep within us we are always subverting ourselves, preventing ourselves from experiencing the unencumbered joy we were made for.”

Striving to live virtuously in the everyday forces us to face up to our weaknesses, fears, biases, inadequacies, and bad habits. Our everyday roles and responsibilities as friends, spouses, parents, students, teachers, employees, or leaders can be both frightening and boring (doing the laundry can be as much a part of being a supportive spouse as being emotionally and physically available). Sometimes we feel like we’re doing a terrible job, and a lot of the time we’re just faking it. Often it would be far easier to abandon these tasks than to commit to return to them, day after day, and try to do better. Settling into our daily work can be quite challenging because we must constantly fight against our corrupted nature in order to endeavor any sort of virtue. Aijian explains:

“When we settle down to work it’s easy to be unsettled. Consistent work is not distracting. Consistent work, our own work, is quiet, and it requires a quietness of spirit to accomplish. The desert fathers moved into the wilderness and lived simplified lives not in order to remove themselves from temptation, but to confront the twists and turns in their spirits that only became apparent when they refused to be distracted.”

It’s difficult, and not fun, to sit down and own up to your shortcomings and sins. We begin any virtuous work (including the work of everyday living) having already fallen short, so it’s easy to get discouraged and opt to think about something else instead. When we distract ourselves by checking email, running errands, working overtime, going out with friends, or doing any other activity, it’s easy to believe that we’re actually just fine and that we don’t really need God’s grace or forgiveness right now. None of those activities are inherently bad, but they become harmful when used as distractions from our spiritual state of being and the everyday work that has been allotted to us. To quote Aijian again, “The noonday demon is perfectly happy to get you doing something, so long as it isn’t the thing that is yours to do right now.”

If we continually distract ourselves and ignore our faults and sins, then we are unable to address them, ask God to forgive them, and work to eradicate them. When we remove ourselves from distractions, we can come before God more honestly, more humbly, and in a better state to receive God’s grace and let our hearts be changed and worked upon by Him. And that miraculous, divine work of forgiveness, sanctification, and growth starts today, in, as Aijian says so well at the end of her piece, “the simple, monotonous, often unobserved, difficult, profoundly good work of living.”

Image via Flickr.

Put Your Face in the Dirt and Start Struggling

Any Christian who can’t think of a fistful of sins he or she is struggling against is probably not in a good place.

In the war against hell in our hearts, there exists a continuum of three possibilities: our defeat, our struggle, or our perfection. We lazily assume perfection is our default disposition. Subconsciously, we believe we have two or three things we’re struggling with, but the rest of the seven deadlies or the ten commandments are probably in good shape in our souls.

Rarely does the modern Christian challenge herself with the possibility that the areas of temptation with which she struggles are the areas in which salvation is being enacted. This is working out salvation with fear and trembling. This is sanctification.

Kneeling down at bedside with hands clasped in prayer, we will confess those little things or big things, once again or for the first time. We label pride each time, if we’re honest. We say anger or despair or this or that. And, we ask God to deliver us.

If we believe that the fight against sin is worthwhile, we might lean in a little further and ask an uncomfortable question at this point in our prayer. Instead of only telling God our sins, we might add a request that God tell us some of our sins, too.

That suggestion terrifies me, of course. After all, there’s a great, unexplored chasm between the sublime glory of my God and the festering evil of my heart. I am not virtuous enough to summon the faith necessary to save me from the despair of really, truly seeing the state of my soul in entirety. There may be things I’m not ready to start struggling against. God in His mercy veils even myself from myself, disclosing a little bit at a time. By breaking it into manageable chunks, He helps us build the faith necessary to avoid unbearable sorrow as the next little cloudy wisp of evil floats out of our hearts.

So goes the lesson. So goes the movement from bored defeat to struggling toward perfection. The little temptations against which I am not struggling are likely to be the areas of my soul which bear the fewest of God’s fingerprints.

The areas of our soul that seem bright and shiny are suspect. The areas that seem noxious attest to God’s presence in our lives, because without God we could not have identified their rankness. A moment of pause and numbness or a day in which one can remember no wrong action smells less of perfection than stagnation.

This is because perfection, sadly, is not our default disposition. We live in a state of perpetual stumbling, and the height of Christ is the most visible to the man who knows his face is flat on the ground. All men’s faces are, of course, flat on the ground from our stumbling. But, it is only the ones who realize it that can cast their eyes upward and perceive the great bridge of the cross and the lowest of the heights of heaven. (These men are the happiest.)

These men are capable of realizing the lowness of their state and their utter need for God. And, from there, they can see the first roots of temptation. They can immediately call on the Holy Spirit to rip the sin away. And, who with the knowledge of his position, with the view of God’s glory, could possibly hesitate to cry for help at the instant of temptation’s onset? Who can be proud with his unworthy face in the dirt and his loving, glorious, all-powerful God stooping down to lift him up?

Are Works our Salvation? A Lesson in Beauty

The kingdom of heaven is like the piano lesson of an undeaf man.

Outside the kingdom of heaven, it’s like being someone who’s listened to his music too loud too long. For years, whenever the music ate at his hearing, he would turn it louder, again and again, until he was all but deaf. He gets so nearly deaf and plays the music so loud that, taking a sharp turn at a yellow light, he doesn’t hear the other car honk its warning, but careens solid into the passenger door, shattering his sedan and pummeling his forehead against the steering wheel.

His car with its loud radio comes up against something too sturdy, something that, by its nature, couldn’t be misshapen, but could only reshape what tried to clash against it. Amid the odor of sweltered rubber and aluminum, the sturdy car’s door swings out and the sturdy driver plunges out into the unwieldy wreckage to revived the concussed young man who sees and hears nothing as darkness swallows his field of vision.

A foreign student in a foreign country, the young man wakes in a four-poster bed in a strange room without a sound in his ears. Wriggling his jaw to unpop them, turning his head to relieve the emptiness, he sits up and tries to form words, but produces only silence and sweat.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is like being that stranger walking out of the guest room into the other driver’s home and finding it a mansion. It’s like him feeling in his toes and his heels the vibration of a terrifyingly unheard music, whose vibrations heightening as he descends the stairs into the great front hall and wanders through it. Turning the corner, the Steinway comes into view, with the pencils and pen in a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug atop, neighbored by a stack of freshly writing pages. Hearing the approach, the other driver shoots from the piano bench to grasp the bandaged hand and place in it a solid handshake, a drink, and a seatback.

So, the convalescence begins. The composer from the other car drives the young man to the doctor by day and houses him in the guest room by night, and the young man relies on that composer for every dignified and undignified necessity until the morning comes, and the composer pays the cost of the ear surgery that will restore all the young man’s hearing potential.

The young man goes under for the surgery. Eyelids fluttering in sudden consciousness, our young man hears whispered some words about deposits and accounting among numbers of something. Each word is as crisp and clear as the smacking kiss of a shameless child, and just as beautiful.

The story is familiar: fault and injury, payment and restoration. If he was in a smaller story, that would be enough. If he hadn’t embanked on Beauty’s threshold, then having hearing restored might have been enough. However, the kingdom of heaven isn’t home to enough, but to the complete and the holy and the extravagant. Breathing in the kingdom of heaven is like when the young undeaf man goes to the composer’s concert the next evening. The concert sounds nice. Some parts stir him, and he gets a little bored in some sections, but he stays attentive most of the time (until they neared the end, anyway).

Then, rolling his attention in a long stretch of whining strings, he stumbles into a glimpse of the tears clustered in the eyelashes of the enraptured woman beside him.

Startled, he glances to his left to see another guest whose lips hang parted by an unaffected smile. Our young man fumbles at his brochure to find the concert billed as being from the hand of The Greatest Composer of All Time. Bewildered and humbled, the undeaf rubs his eyelids and realizes with shock:

Even hearing, he doesn’t know how to use his ears.

The kingdom of heaven is like the young man strapped in the passenger seatbelt on the way home beside the Greatest Composer of All Time as the raindrops tap notes on the windshield, while he admits with helpless but calm sadness, “When I was deaf, I couldn’t hear sounds. But, now, I still can’t really hear music. Little bits here and there thrill me, and hint at something I can’t access, but most of it I just don’t care about. I’m just not good enough at hearing to listen to your music.”

One hand on the wheel, the Greatest Composer of All Time presses the undeaf man’s shoulder, saying, “Listening takes more than hearing. But, if you’ll learn, there’s nothing I’d rather teach.”

The kingdom of heaven is like the following morning, when the young man rises early at the composer’s suggestion, and slides into place behind the dawn-kissed piano keys. And the Greatest Composer of All Time gently guides his undeaf student through the C scale, which he plunks out again and again, awkwardly or too quiet or too stiff, until the motion settles into part of his nature.

Then, another scale and another. Slowly and precisely. Even when the ears can tell poor from good, to know good from great takes a lesson of the fingertips. Because to understand greatness – in music or in painting or in life – is to understand the process of creation. To fully enjoy a masterpiece means knowing the difference between a master’s work and a master con’s, and the only way to know that is from so close you’re almost within, almost of the same mind as the artist by sincere imitation. (And what artist practices his craft as beautifully as the King of heaven practices goodness? And the ability to mirror this goodness forms the greatest gift of salvation. Are works our salvation? Yes: by our salvation, we are finally and delighted capable of good and saved from doing bad.)

In our sanctification, the world expands as the concerts expand for the undeaf student. He begins to hear what’s there, instead of missing everything. The Greatest Composer of All Time even writes him his own melodies to play. With practice, his ears and his fingers learn to reach for the depth of the beauty in every tone and harmony and trill. With familiarity, he discovers the thrilling gap between his abilities and those of the Composer. It troubles him until he discovers that the difference is too severe to permit an inkling of competition. Then, the gap becomes freedom and pursuit.

He sinks himself as far into that gap as he can go, increasingly enjoying the vast expanse of untrodden beauty into which he can fling himself further every day without fear of running out of room. The joy of ceaseless pursuit finds home in the unbounded possibility of beauty.

The learning takes his lifetime and makes his lifetime worth every minute he pays to the piano keys and the concert hall. It’s years and hours and, with gray tufts over his ears, he still slides into place beside the Greatest Composer of All Time.

“Before you began teaching me,” the undeaf, unyoung man sits upright on the bench beside his still teacher. “I thought you and I were two degrees removed from each other’s musical abilities; you could play and I couldn’t, and those were the two options. When I started the scales, I began to think we might be a hundred degrees removed, and when I started melodies, I realized that hundreds was far too small.”

The kingdom of heaven is like when the composer reaches in front of that upright student and places a hand-penned song on the music stand. That evening, even from the corner by the lamppost outside, wayfarers can hear the Steinway’s melody swell as the unyoung, undeaf man pours his fingers and his joy into the masterpiece gifted to the undeaf by the Greatest Composer of All Time.