Do Christians grow in sanctification? Do we become more holy and what does that look like?
In E-Lutheranism this past Fall there were a number of Facebook debates, Pseudonymous bloggers, arguments and fights. I was aware of a few of them, though more raged in corners I don’t travel.
In the last few weeks, Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, created a firestorm of his own at his blog (popular enough to land him a book deal or two), and the topic was strangely familiar. He wrote,
“I’m doing better.” Over the years I’m sure I’ve heard this many times in confession. I’ve also heard, “I’m not doing so well.” These are timely updates, personal measures and reports on the state of spiritual lives. And they are wrong.
You are not doing better. You are not doing worse.
In truth, we don’t know how we’re doing. Only God knows. But we have internalized a cultural narrative and made it the story of our soul. That narrative is the story of progress (or decline)….
Our Christian lives are not a moral project.
The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.
He elicited quite an objection. His Church is the Church of the Saints, after all. The Saints are living friends for the Orthodox. The Holy Ones, superior in sanctification, and he was saying “progress” is not the way of the Christian.
And in this post I found hope for Lutheranism and Orthodoxy at the same time.
The rest of his post was Law and Gospel in Orthodox lingo. And more so, his follow-up posts have been brilliant devotions on the theology of the cross, repentance (contrition and faith) and our life in Christ.
In one of the several follow-ups, he wrote the following in describing St. Mary of Egypt. She is a beloved Saint in the Orthodox tradition, known for her repentance and holiness. Or maybe just her repentance as Lutherans understand it. I post an excerpt here for you to consider. He’s a better writer than I am (and more practiced of late), so I’ll let him do the talking. Here’s what Fr. Stephen wrote:
But for all of that victory, [St. Mary of Egypt] still recognizes her weakness. When the Priest Zosimas questions her about her life she says: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”
Should we think of her as making “moral progress?” Were that the case, she would have no fear of the “dangers” and “violent thoughts.” She would have laid them to rest. What we see is repentance. Her repentance is not of the moral sort, a mere sorrow for deeds that have been done. Her repentance is an effort of self-emptying that is greeted by a Divine-filling. She becomes a vessel of grace in the manner described by St. Paul:
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)
It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as “progress,” but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of the Elder Sophrony, “The way down is the way up.” The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of “getting better and better.” It is a work of becoming “lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.
Because of the metaphors and images that dominate our culture, we quickly assume that change (for the good) is an improvement. But included within the progressive metaphor is an assumption of stability and a self-contained quality of goodness (improvement). Thus, if I buy a piece of property and make “improvements,” it is no longer the same. The streets and sewers that have been installed are now part of the property. In human terms, we presume that “progress” gained in the battle with the passions results in an improved self, a self that is less a prisoner to those same passions.
The human life is a dynamic relationship. We are not streets and sewers and electrical gridwork. What is “acquired” by grace in the work of repentance is a different dynamic, one in which our life is centered in the life of God. Repentance is never a one-time event – it is amode of existence.
The modern laboratory of experience that is the Recovery Movement (AA and the like), provides interesting contemporary examples of this same principle. No recovered alcoholic ever says that he is no longer an alcoholic. He will say that he is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.” For he knows that the life of repentance that is described in the 12 steps, is a life that, once ended, will quickly return him not to a new beginning, to a state of non-alcoholism. He quickly returns to where he stopped and will in a short time drink as though he had never known a day of sobriety. St. Mary of Egypt did well to fear all the “dangers” that she overcame. They have not disappeared.
Our “progress” is a road into the life of God – one that is better described as repentance, the word by which we were first invited to the journey.
Wir sind alle Bettler. We are beggars all. That is our faith, our repentance, and the expression of our sanctification. We repent. We become less.