An excerpt from "The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation." Reprinted by permission from Paraclete Press.
Life in Christ. It sounds pretty good: communion with God, love for others, even for our enemies, even unto death. All creation in harmony around us, as responsive and fruitful as the Garden was to Adam and Eve. The peace that passes understanding informs our every thought.
So why are we doing such a crummy job of it?
Why are we modern Christians so undistinguishable from the world? Why are our rates of dysfunction and heart-break just as high?
How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy?
How could the earlier saints "pray constantly," while our minds dawdle over trivialities?
How could they fast so valiantly, and we feel deprived if there's no cookie at the end of the in-flight meal?
How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend's success makes me pouty?
What did previous generations of Christians know that we don't?
A modern Christian may well feel perplexed by these questions. We think, "But we know what the answer has to be: Jesus is the answer." So we try each day better to love and follow him, and yet the life we lead would not readily be described as "victorious." To tell the truth, we don't even attempt anything that strenuous. We know we can't do it. So we do the best we can, getting by, sometimes befuddled and disappointed, turning to God for consolation.
Then, turning to the hymn "And Can It Be," she quoted the line, "No condemnation now I dread." Because grace has been poured out on us, she explained, we no longer have to feel burdened by our inevitable falls. We can go on trying and failing and forgiven, comforted by God's loving acceptance.
Many modern-day Christians will nod at this story; it sounds familiar and reassuring. But let's imagine we could hand this e-mail to a Christian of another era, perhaps from the fifth or sixth century, living in the Middle East. We' ll call her Anna. As she reads over this anecdote, she's perplexed by the sudden turn at the end. Oh, plenty of it sounds familiar: being grumpy, having failings, wanting to do better. She has three kids herself, and a husband who runs a busy olive press. Some of these stresses are timeless.
But how does "No condemnation now I dread" address that situation? She wants real help to change, not just consolation. And she expects that real help, through Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit. For her, this story omits that practical hope, and trails off in anticlimax.
For Anna, the problem is not so much the final reward of sin, but the natural daily result of it-the way it distances her from God. Her whole life is a journey toward union with God, and failures are like rocks in the path, hindering her from drawing closer to this great love. Sins are all the little actions and inactions that serve our selfish impulses and that can be so hard to resist-even, ahead of time, hard to detect. Anna gets frustrated with these failures, not mostly because they earn a future penalty, but because they block her today from what her heart desires: to see the glory of God reflected in the face of her beloved Lord Jesus.
Resigning oneself to continual failure, then stamping "Debt Paid" at the end of the bill, sounds like a depressing prescription. What Anna wants instead, and what she expects, and what she steadily progresses toward, is a truly transformed life, where sin is being conquered every day.
So for Anna it's not gloomy dread of condemnation that's the problem. At church Anna's husband Theodore, a deacon, chants prayers already centuries old that emphasize God's ceaseless mercy. God the Father is likened to the father of the prodigal son, someone whose forgiving love is never ending, never deserved.
Yet God is unwilling to leave her as she is, confused and mired in sin. To receive God's healing Anna must examine and admit her failings, the things she'd rather ignore or dismiss with "I just can't help it," or "God accepts me anyway." She must not just resolve to do better, she must actually do better. She must expect that there will always be new layers of unexpected sin under the old ones, and that she will never outgrow the identity "sinner."
Yet there is peace, joy even, in admitting this truth. After all, Jesus came only to save sinners; the righteous, he said, can take care of themselves. All the cloudy layers of sin inside Anna are something that God already knows about and sees through, and he loves her and wills to save her anyway. There is no need for shame.
Nor is there reason to slack off. Anna must take seriously Jesus' charge to "be perfect," and daily ask for grace to perceive her sins and fight against them. Otherwise she will block the love that God constantly streams toward her, and her healing will be delayed. There is a fearful danger here. A habitually hardened heart can even cease caring about God, and cast away the gift of salvation.
Every morning Anna prays for help to be vigilant, humble, yielded; every night she prays for forgiveness, reviewing the day's mistakes and asking for strength to do better tomorrow. She is like an athlete in training, striving toward a prize, as St. Paul said. In the company of her fellow church members, mutually forgiving and supporting one another, fasting together, listening closely to the words of the worship services and cultivating constant interior prayer, and by talking privately with her pastor about her struggles, Anna can draw closer to her beloved every day.
This path is open to every Christian. It is a reasonable journey, a feasible journey, and the life each of us was made for. It is a journey we can begin today.
But there's a catch. The first step is repentance.