Warning, graphic content ahead.
I knew a man in prison once who had been raised in a Pagan family with many trials. When he was still just a child, his grandfather took him up into his lap, hugged him close, and shot himself. In stressful situations, this prisoner would recall the feeling his grandfather’s debris on his face.
A life of crime and drugs brought him to prison more than once, but this time he found a different circle to walk in. When I met him, he was the leader of the Wicca group. Over the time we spent together, he left the Wicca group and embraced Christianity. He grew into a leader on his unit, mentoring other men and taking the lead in his recovery programming groups. It was amazing to watch.
When the day finally came for him to release on parole, he went out with strong support from some of our most veteran volunteers, who helped set him up with housing and visited him regularly.
He was why I kept coming to work.
So it pained me to hear about how he got himself caught up with gangs and drugs again and was back in the system within the year.
He had our prayers and support. He had mentors and structure and opportunity. What happened? Where was God? Where was the change, the victory, that our gospel promises?
Paul makes some pretty strong claims in Romans six about how our old self is crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin, and that sin will have no dominion over us since we are not under law but under grace. (See verses 6 and 14). In verse seven he clearly states, “For whoever has died is freed from sin.”
So why isn’t this the normal Christian experience?
If we truly are crucified with Christ and resurrected to new life in him, then why is the struggle against sin still so hard? What does it mean to be transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light if addiction still holds us? What is the point of the cross and the empty tomb if the way out of darkness is still only through disciplines?
Perhaps the Protestant tradition I was raised in threw the baby out with the bathwater in its zeal to proclaim that salvation was by faith alone. Surely, the intention was not to sabotage the normal Christian life, but the overwhelming emphasis on a works-less salvation has eroded our Christian experience down to a couple of hours on Sunday and regular Bible reading through the week for the dedicated.
Admittedly, that’s a gross over-simplification of the kind of experience that’s available within this tradition, but when our core teaching is that the work of salvation was completed on the cross and there is nothing we can add to it or take away from it, is it any wonder that our people are left defenseless and unequipped to face the onslaught of sin and temptation?
We are spiritually atrophying in the pews.
In the introduction to his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes,
“…actual discipleship or apprenticeship to Jesus is, in our day, no longer thought of as in any way essential to faith in him.”
Not only have we not been taught how to be disciples of Christ, we have actually been taught that we don’t need to be because the work was completed on the cross. This has left us in limbo between accepting the completed work of Christ by faith and yet somehow being responsible for participating in our own sanctification lest we “fall away”.
Every unanswered prayer is laid upon our shoulders as a spiritual failure on our part, yet we are supposed to be resting in the grace and mercy of a loving God who knows our every need and will surely give us all things since He has already given us His son.
It seems like Jesus is either stuck in the past participating in our suffering on the cross, or he’s stuck in the future waiting to bring the glory. But in the midst of the life we’re living right here and now, he’s nowhere to be found.
We can’t win for losing, so where are we getting our lines crossed?
On their website, Renovaré writes,
“We keep trying: to find happiness, to experience God, to fill the emptiness. And that’s the problem. Trying just tires us out, distracts us from what’s important, and discourages us when we fail.”
And, “Spiritual Formation helps us reclaim our relationship with God as it was meant to be. It’s not trying – it’s training in eternal living, determined discipleship to Jesus Christ, and the way we discover the renewable source of spiritual energy we’ve been looking for (2 Cor 4:16).”
Their whole concept is that we train in the spiritual disciplines, not to earn salvation, but to be strong athletes ready to run the race. To be affective in our salvation. They point out that we cannot expect to respond to life with the aplomb of Christ if we are not practicing the disciplines and habits that he practiced.
Peter puts it a similar way in his second letter. He exhorts us, in light of the freedom we have found in Christ, to diligently support our faith with ongoing spiritual formation, cultivating virtue into love. This, he says, is how we bear fruit in Christ.
I don’t mean to suggest that the missing ingredient in our spiritual lives is trying harder with a longer list of new rules, but I am beginning to wonder if the work of Christ on the cross and through the grave was less a signed and sealed deal on our behalf and more an open invitation for us to join him in a new way to be human.
Maybe Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t guarantee us anything accept an opportunity to step out of death and into life. And maybe that’s a choice that can’t be made once, but must be made new every day. And maybe it’s the disciplines of spiritual formation that teach us – train us – to make that choice more consistently.
Have you discovered a new way to be human? What has your journey been like? We’d love to hear your story and be encouraged by your journey. Sign up below to receive our newsletter and for access to our Facebook group, On Journey Together, where the conversation continues.
Buen Camino, my friends.