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I Can't Get No Sanctification


Disappointment with God

Last week I made the claim that we can get as close to God as we want to. And I stand by that. But there is another side to the thing. And that is this: in due time, I suggest, you will find yourself against a blank wall. You will conclude that with your mind you serve the law of God, but with the flesh you obey the commands of sin and death. And then what are you to conclude? You may look back in shame, or perhaps in bitterness, at what now seem the over-optimistic and inflated terms of the promise of sanctification that you once embraced. You may find that the straight and narrow path of sanctification is none other than the Boulevard of Broken Dreams!

There is such a thing as spiritual disillusionment, disappointment with God. You feel far from God, but you know that despite the face-saving slogan, it was not you who moved. Rather, you take as your own the plaintive words of George Harrison's psalm:

"I really want to know you, but it takes so long, my Lord." If you have reached this point, I have some things to say to you. Or, even if you aren't there yet, perhaps you can remember them in case that rainy day ever comes.

The first is this: remember that spiritual growth is receptivity, and that receptivity requires emptiness, poverty of spirit, an empty cup. For spiritual fullness is a plenitude of emptiness. The sense of hunger and longing is itself the satisfaction. Or, at least, that is certainly my experience. I have found a greater spirituality in seeking answers I knew I did not have and was not likely to get, than in assuring myself that I did have them. The intellectual quest for answers that will never come is another form of the fullness of emptiness, the blessed poverty of spirit. When Antonius Block (in Bergman's The Seventh Seal) asks in his travail, "What will become of those of us who want to believe but are unable?" blessed is he.

It is only those who continue to seek who continue to find. They are like Diogenes of Sinope, holding aloft his lantern as he walked the ways of the world in search of an honest man.  He himself was the man he sought, and if he ever realized this and stopped, the world would have forfeited its single honest man.

In all this I am not talking about a mere period of "spiritual dryness" which one might expect to endure for a while, a dark night of the soul which one hopes will end but fears will not. I am talking about the result of maturity, a mid-religious-life crisis, if you will, when you just have to realize that you are not going to become the pious angel you once thought you might be. You realize that it was never a realistic goal. You come to accept that Karl Barth wasn't being pessimistic, he was being realistic, not unbelieving, but free of "childish things," when he said, 

Let us be honest. If we relate to ourselves, to you and me, to this or that Christian (even the best), that which is said about the conversion of man in the New Testament... it will have the inevitable smack of hyperbole and even illusion -and the more so the more we try to introduce it... [into] the Christian life. What are we with our little conversion, our little repentance and reviving, our little ending and new beginning, our changed lives...? How feeble is the relationship, even in the best of cases between the great categories in which the conversion of man is described in the New Testament, and the corresponding event in our own inner and outer life! (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/2, pp. 582-83. Quoted in James M. Gustafson, Christ and the Moral Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968, p. 95)

Let's turn it the other way around. Let's look at the preface of Monsignor Knox's classic study of religious fanaticism, Enthusiasm Listen to his description of the typical enthusiast: 

He expects more from the grace of God than we others. He sees what effect religion can have, does sometimes have, in transforming a man's whole life and outlook; these exceptional cases (so we are content to think them) are for him the average standard of religious achievement. He will have no 'almost-Christians', no weaker brethren who plod and stumble, ... whose ambition is to qualify, not to excel. He has before his eyes a picture of the Early Church, visibly penetrated with supernatural influences; and nothing less will serve him as a model... Quoting a hundred texts – we also use them, but with more of embarrassment - he insists that the members of his society, saved members of a perishing world, should live a life of angelic purity, of apostolic simplicity... (Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. NY: Oxford University Press, 1950, p. 2)

What immediately occurred to me the first time I read these lines is a possibility that would also explain the distressing gap measured by Karl Barth: perhaps the New Testament writers were sectarians and enthusiasts (religious fanatics, in short) of the kind Knox describes! Indeed, they must have been! The initial fervor of any new religious movement glows with fever heat in the pages of the New Testament. When enthusiasts read it, they find the page a mirror, and they hear the Spirit say to come join the sect, imbibe the heady wine of its fervor.

But inevitably the fire burns low, and one adjusts to reality even as the early Christian sect itself did, and one (as Knox and Barth say so well) finds oneself quoting those passages with embarrassment. The claims made for “entire sanctification,” for Christian perfection, in the pages of the New Testament, become as much a stumbling block as its statements about demons and a flat earth. We have to take them as equally mythical.

There are plenty of people who do a passable job mimicking New Testament Christianity in our day. They are the pietists, the literalists, the adventists, the dogmatists, the exclusivists, the tongue-speakers and miracle-believers. Anyone else, they regard as mere worldlings, half-Christians. They point to their greater numbers and condescendingly tell mainline churches that, if they would embrace full-bodied Evangelicalism they would be growing. There is a great irony in that claim, for sooner or later, it is they who will be jumping ship.

The adolescent grandiosity that colors their religious life now will eventually die down, and they will become contemptible "half-Christians" like those they now pity. But they will be worse hypocrites than those others because, unlike them, they will continue to quote the fanatical texts of the New Testament as if they really believed them.


End of the Rope

Let me draw attention to one pitfall of the spiritual life, indeed perhaps the very one that has led so many to despair of sanctification. It is the dynamic of striving and resting. In the literature of religious conversions and "deeper-life" experiences, one finds story after story of frustrated seekers who just could not receive the blessing of spiritual power they sought, no matter how they prayed and fasted. At length they just threw in the towel--and, what do you know, that was precisely what it took to gain the blessing! Pietist literature explains it this way: all one's own efforts at spirituality are the efforts of the flesh, of sinful human nature, which unwittingly exalts itself as it seeks God, foolishly imagining that it might produce him like a product by enough strenuous effort. One must come to the point of exhaustion to see the limits of the flesh and to make room for something better to replace it: the grace of God, which then pours through an unclogged conduit unopposed. Psychologist William James explained it this way:

A man's conscious wit and will, so far as they strain towards the ideal, are aiming at something only dimly and inaccurately imagined. Yet all the while the forces... ripening within him are going on towards their own prefigured result... It may consequently be actually interfered with (­jammed­, as it were like the lost word when we seek too energetically to recall it), by his voluntary efforts... "Man's extremity is God's opportunity" is the theological way of putting this fact of the need for self-surrender; whilst the physiological way of stating it would be, "Let one do all in one's power, and one's nervous system will do the rest." (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience NY: New American Library, 1958, p. 171)

James thinks nothing is lost to conversion-religion by admitting this. But even Bultmann's existential gospel could not survive it. Even Bultmann insists that as long as we rely on what we believe are our own human resources, we can never find grace. James is popping the bubble by revealing that what you thought were extra-human forces of divine grace are themselves after all simply reinforcements from the subconscious.

But we did not need to wait for William James to come along to throw a wrench into the mechanism of pietism. If one reads closely enough such handbooks as Andrew Murray's Abide in Christ, one will sooner or later become uneasily aware of precisely the same Catch 22. Murray tells us that the secret of the victorious Christian life is "simply" to stop trying to live it in one's own strength ("the arm of flesh will fail you; ye dare not trust your own"). Instead one must resign oneself to utter spiritual impotence and let the indwelling grace of Christ emerge to transfigure and sanctify. "Let go and let God." Simply rest in the everlasting arms.

But then one finds oneself unable to make the leap, unable to rest, to be forever mindful of the benefits of Christ, to practice God's presence--whatever devotional idiom you prefer. And then inevitably--one ­strives­ to rest, and the whole maddening cycle begins again. Before, one strove for victory, gave up striving and surrendered, then received the victory. But now this very act of self-surrender, no longer a wonderful surprise to the despairing soul, is too well known. One is led to expect it as part of the process of sanctification, one of the necessary stages, one of the preliminary things one must do. It becomes a holy charade. It worked once, when it happened spontaneously, unexpectedly. But it's too late for that now. And devotional systems based upon it merely torture their adherents with a will-o'-the-wisp of a victorious Christian life that never comes, and thus they send the seeker into a profounder Slough of Despond.

But, as Gandhi once said to a despairing man, "I know a way out of Hell." Surrender the whole endeavor of piety. Face it: it doesn't work. I say unto you: Drop it. Follow the example of Pontius Pilate and wash your hands of the whole stinking matter. I have always enjoyed C.S. Lewis's advice in The Screwtape Letters on how one ought to react to a vicious cycle of spiritual frustration. The veteran tempter Screwtape instructs the novice Wormwood thusly:

Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, "By jove! I'm being humble," and almost immediately pride - pride at his own humility - will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt - and so on, through as many stages as you    please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast. NY: Macmillan, 1970. p. 63)


What should the earnest pietist do when he realizes the trap he's in, striving to rest from strife? Awake to the absurdity of his predicament! Laugh it off and go on to something else, anything else, in fact, except more pietism.

Do you remember the strange words of the Sermon on the Mount which advocate a secret piety? Matthew tells us to hide any religious devotion we may have from the approving or disapproving eyes of others, and then--to hide it even from oneself! "Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing." The person who is pious in a Sermon-on-the-Mount sort of way might be the one who would be surprised to hear himself or her self described as Christian or righteous or spiritual. Here's how Lewis puts it in another book, Mere Christianity:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him [i.e., the truly humble] is that he seemed a cheerful intelligent chap who took a real interest in what ­you­ said to ­him­. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of someone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. NY: Macmillan, 1960, p. 114.)


Or as Bonhoeffer put it in his Letters and Papers from Prison:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism..., but to be a [human being]. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world..(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. Trans. Reginald H. Fuller. NY: Macmillan, 1953, pp. 222-223.)

There is the essence of Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity," to do what Christ did and leave the magic circle of heaven where only religion matters, where religion sets the parameters of discussion, and to enter into worldly, profane existence, truly incarnate as a human being, not trying to be something else, an angel walking the earth mindful only of God.

Maybe that is the true sanctification: no sanctification.

That's what I say.





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