Saturday, October 6, 2012

In Christ my weakness is my greatest strength

This week I came across a passage from The Discipline of Grace, a book by Jerry Bridges, which I have not read. I read this passage in a post by Tim Challies, The Commitment of the Christian Life. The passage hit-me-where-I-live, in a manner of speaking. Reflecting on it, I think it is an insight that applies to virtually every Christian, both those who strive mightily and consciously for holiness and those who remain skeptical and discouraged about undertaking such efforts:
When we commit ourselves to the pursuit of holiness, we need to ensure that our commitment is actually to God, not simply to a holy lifestyle or a set of moral values... We should not seek holiness in order to feel good about ourselves... or to avoid the sense of shame and guilt that follows the committing of persistent sin in our lives. Far too often our concern with sin arises from how it makes us feel. Sinful habits, sometimes called "besetting sins," cause us to feel defeated, and we don’t like to be defeated in anything, whether it’s a game of Ping-Pong or in our struggle with sin
What caught my attention was Bridges' focus on struggling with sin, especially persistent sin, those sinful behaviors that we just keep repeating.

It is tempting to start rationalizing these behaviors, relativizing them, or simply letting them discourage us from trying, resulting in resignation that we will never be good enough for God, prompting us to say, Why try? This is why I think the first sentence of this passage is so crucial, it forces the question, Why am I striving to live "this" way?

Is the result of going a lengthy period of time without engaging in those sinful behaviors I am so prone to, to laud myself for how "good" I have been, or how "good" I am becoming as a result of my conscious striving? Conversely, when I sin (i.e., repeat that behavior yet again!) am I consumed with guilt and shame? Both of these responses are indicative of a mindset that I will save myself. It seems to me that this is precisely why how we feel, whether we've been "good" or "bad," is not of primary importance, which is different from asserting it is of no importance whatsoever.

Picking up the thread with which Challies began his post, I think it is important to point-out (yet again) that St. Paul frequently wrote about the Christian life in terms of an athletic competition, or an agon, which is a struggle, or contest. It is sometimes the case that we lose, we give in. But the key is not to give up. The key to not giving up is to realize that while we may have lost a particular battle, we are always already victorious in Christ. This is the point Paul is trying to get across in 2 Corinthians, which is where he wrote about "a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated" (2 Cor. 12:7). This thorn becomes an occasion for the apostle to boast, even though, as he clearly states, there are other things, things that reflect more favorably on him, like "the abundance of revelations," about which he could boast.



Paul took his affliction to the Lord three times, praying that this "thorn" be removed from his flesh. The Lord told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). This is what caused Paul to write emphatically, "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ;e for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). As Corrie Ten Boom insisted, "When I try, I fail. When I trust, He succeeds!"

In light of the Year of Faith the Catholic Church is preparing to enter into this Thursday, 11 October, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which, at least to my way of thinking, was the long-awaited response to the Protestant Reformation, without dismissing the importance of the Council of Trent, it seems that reflecting on the universal call to holiness, which summons all the baptized to pursue a life of holiness, from an ecumenical perspective is warranted, not least of which because I think there is much Catholics can learn from Reformed Protestant Evangelical Christians.

Near the beginning of the nineteenth chapter of the book of Leviticus, one of the five books that constitute the Torah, in addition to the command we find later in the chapter, to "love your neighbor as yourself" (v. 18), we find another teaching echoed by Jesus: "Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy" (v. 2); "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). I think it is very important that Jesus gives this command after He lays out the Beatitudes and immediately after teaching His followers, His would-be disciples, to
love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? (Matt. 5:45-47)
This is exactly the kind of thing that routinely trips us up, n'est ce pas? It is a difficult teaching, but what is the alternative, to hold grudges, to get even? Karma, as the saying goes, is a bitch, while grace is always lovely. Being a Christian forces one not only to acknowledge, but to confront, the paradoxes that we must enter fully into in order to become like Christ.

2 comments:

  1. Sometimes one has to go to extraordinary lengths to confront and ultimately defeat sin by opening oneself to grace. Jesus completely emptied himself, going the distance to defeat sin.

    Speaking personally, it was only after I made a pilgrimmage to St Peter's in Rome many years ago and made my confession there near Peter's tomb, was I freed from a defect of my character. It may sound a bit over the top, but I consider it a miraculous healing. What happened certainly had very little to do with me and was a gift of God's grace.

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  2. It doesn't sound over the top at all dear brother. What an amazing grace you received! Sometimes the pity God takes on our nothingness is very astounding. While I personally have no doubt these things happen (probably more frequently than I realize), I understand that such workings are God's and His alone, to either extend or withhold. Whether such graces are granted or not depends on God's loving providence and not arbitrary. I appreciate you sharing that inspiring experience. It gives hope.

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