Friday, December 2, 2011

Spiritual Progress & The Sanctification Mistake. Aka "Grace is wonderful and all, but what about becoming holy?"

Gotta admit, the Mockingbird blog really has some fine content. 

There's a piece today on The Rhetoric of Progress.  It's a good follow-up to my last quotation from Tullian Tchividjian's book Jesus + Nothing = Everything.   It covers a theme I gravitate towards, partly because it's where I've come to recently, and also because I know several people that are affected by this rhetoric, some pretty seriously. On some level I suppose, it's what affects all of us.  I've certainly made the sanctification mistake a time or two, and will probably make it again, it rings true to me that "rhetoric of Christian progress" is largely based on mythology.  Meaning that when we begin to talk about our "progress in whatever," we are very noticeably talking about...ourselves!  And that's the exact opposite of what sanctified people do, most of the time.  But when we are engulfed in the sanctification mistake, Jesus is a footnote in our lives, and our personal holiness is far more interesting than his.

Here's a section from Mockingbird piece:
The logic underlying the rhetoric is the same across traditions even if the actual words are not.  Evangelicals speak in a progress rhetoric equally well-developed and theologically imprecise.  They talk of “going deeper” and “growing stronger,” of “godly living” and “taking the next step,” of deriding “spectator Christians” and urging people to “get connected.”  Some Reform-minded Christians, guarding against the impression that the disciple’s works contribute to progress, speak of “growing in faith” or “deepening one’s understanding of faith.”  Yet they simultaneously emphasize the importance of intentionality and obedience, which pours an unintended meaning into their phrases of choice.

One way that unintended meaning speaks to us, my friends, is through our conditioning by a consumer culture and the Christian celebrity-mania that drives much of public ministry.  Preachers, speakers, singers, revivalists.  The American Idol complex awaits the progress Christian- "I'm constantly on a stage, and I'm being measured by my performance."  (And naturally, the guys we watch doing this, the guys who make a living onstage, are used to looking pretty good. They're trained to do so.)  "When I 'get there' I'll look and feel just like [insert Christian pop icon here]."  And we have a mind-boggling array of "ministries" that will assist us in the worship of progress, using any means possible.  

But then we do something that Awesome Preacher Guy would never do, and it becomes painfully clear that we haven't made it.  Yeah, God might approve of me and all, but I should still try to put my faith into practice, and people are supposed to be able see the fruit.  Back to square one. 

Those of us who are far more hip than this may word things differently, and present a more nuanced me-centrism, but the principle is the same. I'm the point, God's looking at me, and it's important that I at least try to be good.  Define being good as you please.  Line up all the requisite principles, methods, and imperatives that make it sound "not legalistic."  The ringing voice of the Father that said "This is my Son with whom I am ever delighted," now seeks to say the same thing about me, though he may not if he finds a problem.  Or even if he does, my church friends might not.  The notion is that the "Christian ideal" we're running after is basically characterized as a position or responsibility we fulfill (or ought to) and that part of that responsibility is dwelling on our personal progress.

Take K for instance.  K plays in a Christian band, faithfully attends church, reads his Bible, and seeks to have an edifying presence among his brothers.  And he often does.  He's sharp and witty, but he's nearly always aware that he may be violating someone's standard of how far is too far, of some boundary that must not be transgressed.  He'd like to write a novel, but wonders how he could incorporate themes of his faith into it, as a testimony.  He's smart, but he's aware that one can become "too intellectual" and thus walk in what is simply "head knowledge." Deep down, there's a constant question of whether or not his life, his desires, his actions, are lining up with the Christian ideal. This type of scrutiny is commended by his peers as "sanctification."

But these questions don't lead us anywhere that's creatively honest, or faithful to our own story.  They are, quite honestly, a compromise, in that their destination is perpetual self-involvement.  We stand at the edge of our imagination and see it as a vast chasm into which we dare not leap because someone might object to a cuss-word, or call us lazy or something.  We might justify this as a "concern for our weaker brothers," when what would really make the weaker brother strong is seeing our relentless freedom to be human.  But usually the real reason for not offending another with the human reality of our lives is that we're desperately grabbing for the nearest fig-leaf.  We're self-important, it feels good, and it's justifiable under this banner of progress and holiness.

To be gloriously imaginative without a thought as to whether our work is describably "Christian." Or to how it will be received, what will happen to our reputation. Or to be a mess, if that's what we are- to be a mess in a world for which Jesus was crucified and rose.  That would be honesty.  And it would be the groundn on which it's possible to make more of Jesus than ourselves.  The seasons come, the seasons go.  Yet this "progress theology" asserts that "If I'm truly seeking with all my heart, spring will come a month early."  Foolishness.  Utter folly.  Not only folly, but narcissistic folly.

And that narcissism is labelled, as often as not, sanctification.  

I've often heard it said that those words "this is my Son, with who I am delighted," are for us now that we are in Christ.  And that this is the "big secret" to progress in sanctification. Well, they are true, but they're not the key.  They won't get us where we're headed  because in time, this notion will only feed the narcissism that we never wanted to let go of to begin with.  You see, we're still the center of the picture.  No, I'm afraid we must, like John the Baptist, disappear from sight altogether.

What God the Father does is he still looks at Jesus, and still says of him "I am always delighted in my Son. Isn't he amazing? He is the Man I have been waiting for."  That's what he says about Jesus, and will keep saying about him, forever.  


Bob Spencer said...

Very well said. I lot of people I know talk in these terms. They talk of God being pleased or displeased with them. And you know, they don't want to hear about a God who is always and ever pleased with them as if they were Jesus Christ himself. Period. They seem to want to desperately hold onto the idea that they are being ranked, judged, weighed and measured by God. How Pharisee-like that is!

In my experience, early on Christian's love to hear the gospel of grace, but as time passes they drift right back into the progress-trap. It's definitely more comfortable for them there, and they feel pretty confidant that they can please God. It's as if they understand the grace of God as God's seeing the good that's in them and ignoring the lingering sinfulness which is on its way out anyway. Thus, we come up with Christless Christianity. But of course God didn't just ignore the evil in us . . . he did something about it!

Nate said...

Amen. To take it a step further, when the Gospel and its implications are assumed to be a method of "excusing sin," what's generally happening is that the ranking system is being spiritualized in a manner that gives people an excuse to think/talk about themselves even more, and Jesus less.

It's easy to think that the "Christian" thing at that moment of sin to contemplate personal holiness, or how to get there. Or commit to change. It's actually quite sub-Christian. Mostly, it in itself is an excuse- to ignore Jesus in favor of one's own piety.

Man if this got out, "the industry" would collapse.