If there is one thing that my devoted readers may not know about me, it is that long before my years as a Protestant evangelical deeply embedded in the charismatic revival culture, I was a Catholic. This would be an unimportant bit of information, even to myself, were it not for the fact that in recent years, I have found myself, quite by accident, gravitating back to my Catholic roots.
To be honest, the return has been more metaphorical than actual. As far as doctrine is concerned (that is, on points that Catholicism and Protestantism differ), I am afraid I am irreparably Protestant. With regard to practice, I attend Midnight Mass on Christmas if I attend at all. My return then has been on a far more subtle level. It has expressed itself primarily and perhaps ironically not in how I practice but how I see the Christian faith. Specifically, I have come to realize that the Christian life is not only important and beneficial but beautiful.
Life is Beautiful
In saying this I suppose I am suggesting that the evangelical portrayal of the Christian faith is less beautiful than the Catholic portrayal. This is true. But the reasons I feel this way are most likely personal and ultimately indefensible. It is not what each side of the great Christian divide is in practice but rather what each has come to symbolize that makes me feel the way I do.
When I was in college, my perception of God was much different than it has been for most of my adult life. At that time, I was eager to live a life that would please God. To me, that did not mean living religiously; it meant living meaningfully. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I felt this to be true, but also believed the fully examined life, if lived in complete honesty, would lead one inevitably to the Creator of all life, and ultimately to a life lived in perfect harmony with the very purpose of life. Considering its Source, such a life could not help but be profound and significant, for this is who God Himself, as expressed for centuries through the Christian faith, is.
Living a life pleasing to God did not mean living religiously but meaningfully.
But I was also very sensitive, especially in my desire to please God. This is why, when a campus ministry claiming to be the only true church, validated in its own eyes by the willingness of its followers to do exactly what the Bible says, told me that I was not okay before God, and that to be acceptable before Him I had to be willing to surrender every part of my life and follow their teaching implicitly, it was particularly devastating.
The Death of God
Through this experience, I not only suffered the death of myself but also the death of God. As I struggled to come to terms with a God who exacted obedience in every square inch of my life and my own personal failure to do so, my view of God dramatically changed. He was no longer the source of love and profound mystery. Instead, He had become the inescapable and ever-present reminder of my own inadequacy. To the extent I was no longer acceptable, He was no longer beautiful.
That was my introduction to the Protestant evangelical culture. Granted, that campus ministry was not the best example of what the evangelical church has to offer, and to suggest this would be grossly unfair. Still, after decades in the evangelical culture, I find there is one characteristic of that awful church experience that stubbornly remains: A tendency to reduce the God of the Universe down to a single question: What should I be doing?
One characteristic of the evangelical church is the tendency to reduce the God of the Universe down to a single question: What should I be doing?
The evangelical culture is a culture of tireless activity. Whether in its “seeker-friendly” efforts to be relevant and attractive to the modern world or in its more traditional efforts to encourage its members to “witness” to friends and neighbors and otherwise equip them to “do the works of service,” it is always on the move.
Even the faith-based revival church, which prides itself on freedom from what it calls a performance-based approach to the Gospel, seems to be obsessed with what one must do to experience “supernatural breakthrough” and “miraculous favor.” At this time in history, one might even say no one is working harder to obtain what Jesus has freely given than the faith-based church.
Deep at the core of the evangelical mindset is the fear that says if we cease from striving, nothing will get done.
The evangelical church is not only active but defined by its activity. Deep at the core of the evangelical mindset, there seems to be this fear that says if we cease from striving, nothing will get done. As a result, God has ceased to be the Source of all profound mystery; He has become instead the Source of all Instruction. Our practice of spirituality has left little room to behold God simply for who He is. We are always trying to figure out what we should be doing next.
And herein lies a big distinction between my Catholic upbringing and the Protestant Evangelical spirituality I embraced as an adult. Catholic spirituality was simply not about doing. Granted, we had the Sacraments, and among them, you were obligated to attend Mass and Confession regularly. But for better or worse, this is where your obligation to God ended. It could lead one to a lifestyle of piety on Sunday and living like hell the rest of the week (as some critics claim). But for those who loved God it afforded a great capacity for thinking about God without necessarily the compulsive feeling you had to be always doing something for God. In short, it allowed for contemplation.
But as I have discovered recently, contemplation in the Catholic faith seems to be more than accidental. For such Catholic writers as Brother Lawrence, John of the Cross and others, the essence of the spiritual life is not to be found in what we should be doing, but in what God is doing. Through the Cross, Jesus has not simply given us a commission or granted us promises to “obtain by faith.” What He has done most of all is taken up residence. That is, He has come to live within us in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and He is now actively at work in us and through us. He is the Initiator. Therefore, the substance of the Christian faith is found not in the work we do for God but in the work God is doing in us and through us.
The substance of the Christian faith is found not in the work we do for God but in the work God is doing in us and through us.
This distinction has great ramifications for how we view the Christian life. For one, it brings peace to the soul. If God is essentially doing the work, we can rest in His efforts. The Cross becomes something Jesus not only accomplished but in a very real sense continues to accomplish through us — as opposed to something we must now do something about, or figure out how to “appropriate.”
Secondly, the ethos of the spiritual life becomes one of surrender, not activity. We are learning to cooperate with the work of God, not work for God. We are learning to let God in, not figuring out how to get God to be a part of what we are doing (or wanting).
But most importantly, the spiritual life is liberated from the tyranny of doing, and God with it. If the Gospel is essentially about God being the initiator, then it is no longer about what we should be doing. Doing in fact becomes irrelevant. What takes its place is relationship.
A New Foundation
A foundation of relationship opens up doors to God that would otherwise remain shut. The door of love, for example: Not love for what practical end it might achieve — not love to equip us to do the work — but love for love’s sake. Love because God is love. And from God’s perspective, for us to experience His love is reason enough.
God does not wish us to experience His love strictly for what practical end it will achieve. From God’s perspective, for us to experience His love is reason enough.
The same could be said for the door of wisdom, of majesty, of holiness, of mercy, of purity, and of goodness. The point is: If the work of the Cross is essentially God at work instead of God putting us to work, then the Christian life is no longer about us working for God but about us experiencing God. It is about us coming to know God and all that God is. The Christian life is not an endless series of duties but a limitless journey of ever-deepening encounters with the living God. We are not merely working for God; we are dreaming with God.
Granted, what we do in this life matters, and so does a lost world Jesus desires to reach. But perhaps the question is not how much gets done but how it gets done. The apostle Paul, arguably the most active member of the New Testament church, said he did what he did “according to the grace of God mightily at work in him.” In other words, it was not a fear of idleness that drove him, but the grace of God that led Him.
Like the campus ministry I encountered so long ago, we evangelicals can commend ourselves for our desire to work tirelessly for the Gospel. But in our zeal to do great things for God, I wonder if we have not lost a bit of the soul of the Christian faith our Catholic forebears possessed. Perhaps the life Jesus has purchased for us is more than Him putting us to work. Dare I even say it, perhaps the Christian life is more than the Great Commission. If we embrace a vision of the Christian faith greater than our efforts, we may just find that it not only becomes more beautiful but we do also to a lost and dying world.