There two schools of Christian anthropology.
The first school I will call the Noetic. It advocates the transforming power of knowing God. To know God’s love is to be transformed by that love.
The second is the school of Praxis and Discipline. We needs to press on and take hold of what Christ has secured for us, thereby not being unfruitful in our knowledge.
Scriptures abounds which support both schools, because scripture is of both. Consider these verses:
The Noetic School:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
The School of Praxis:
…Make every effort to add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities and continue to grow in them, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:5-8).
On the one hand we have the deeply encouraging message of God’s transforming glory; on the other hand, we have the indispensable imperative to pursue the life to which we have been called.
Both messages are truly one. We are indeed transformed by God, and we are indeed called to put on Christ daily. But what happens when these two aspects of grace are severed from one another?
A Bird Needs Two Wings
The most common danger which faces students in the Noetic school of transformation (Beholding is Becoming Be Our Motto!) is demoralization.
One is told, and told truly, that he who has received Christ is marked by Christ, that he who is of God remains not in the darkness.
But if this is so, one wonders, why is my life marked by a failure to grow spiritually? Why does repeated sin, even indifference often reign?
This problem becomes aggravated when the twin solutions of the Noetic school (scripture and prayer) fail to remedy the situation.
The problem is not with scripture or prayer, but that fitness is not to be had without exercise, of which prayer is but a part, even the essential part.
May I not prove to be a stumbling block. We must persevere in prayer even when we are brought to our knees, and especially then. We must pray when the heavens are but a brass plate, and we can believe only that our Father has grown weary with our prayers.
Our Father is never weary of our prayers.
But prayer alone is not enough. Prayer is answered sometimes in our willingness to do more than simply pray. Prayer is often answered by bringing our need into the light of action and fellowship.
Indeed the grave danger of the council of prayer is that we are all too prone to use prayer like a lever to pry ourselves out of the morass, or get God off His butt and do our will.
Telling the bewildered Christian to read her bible and pray harder can be a hairs breath away from telling her to fix her own problems. The mechanics of sin and mechanics of righteousness must be addressed, without which sanctification becomes not mystery of God’s grace, but a baffling puzzle of shame.
Such mechanics may mean exploring the scriptural councils on relevant matters, but often include the incarnate wisdom found in fellowship, tradition, confession, psychology, and at times modern medicine.
Telling such a one to pray harder can be like sending a man to the well without a bucket (James 2:14-24).
Prayer alone can be like adding fuel to a car whose axle or engine is out of repair!
While prayer is needful, alone it can be insufficient, unless you can characterize the entirety of your life as a living prayer.
I myself cannot.
I need to be taught how to do so. I need spiritual elders, forerunners to show me the path. This is where the wisdom of the twelve steps reminds us in the Church that we need neither more works, nor more faith, but a faith that works!
We need love which accepts us as the failures we are, the fellowship of the Holy Failures to surround us and uphold us, and practical wisdom to guide us during the journey.
Deeply habitual sin is rarely permanently removed from on high without a corresponding change in practice. Transformation is often not about mystical healing from above, but about a mystical encounter with the nuts and bolts of life here on earth.
Change, from the human perspective, often has more in common with the incarnation and the cross than with the ascension.
A Father not Afraid to Open Up our Wounds
Unfortunately, those from Noetic school of transformation are quick to believe that if they were really saved, they wouldn’t be having these problems.
Surely God’s children wouldn’t sin like this…would they?
The school of Noetic transformation is susceptible to this either/or thinking:
Either I am a true believer, or I sin and do not really believe.
Such a one has yet to learn that faith without works availeth not, and that the fruit of prayer can be despair, when such despair is the result of one’s own impotence and failure.
The transforming power of Christ may be work in us when our hope is at its lowest. God is not above using our desperation and holy fear to set us asking, seeking, and knocking, even in ways desperate and undignified.¹
This is because God is not a cosmic butler who goes around fixing our problems just because we ask him. Rather, he is kind enough to use sin to crush ungodly self-reliance and pride.
Like a good father, as a perfect Father, he helps us seek and discover the means by which we shall come to better depend upon Him. It is God himself who teaches us how to love him with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul.
Woe to unto him whose every prayer is answered as he would have them. Woe unto him who has received the false gold of self-satisfaction. Who will stand in the church and think what a lucky fellow God is to have him there.
Though we be brought down to the dust, yet we may hope in Him. For our faith goes not so deep as we might will it to go, but to the very depth of Christ whose being is rooted everlastingly in God.
- All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king²
A school of transformation without practical wisdom is like a hospital which has become useful to healthy only.
The Other Wing
But on the other hand, the school of Praxis and Discipline (Fight! Fight! Fight! is our motto) suffers from its own peculiar problems. There is much medicine to be had in its halls, but such medicine becomes dangerous in hands which are not held by the hands of our Father.
Such medicine risks curing a patient, only to prepare him for a more deadly disease (Luke 11:24-26).
Much like one who tries to force God’s hand through prayer, the school of Praxis can suggest that transformation is ultimately the work of man. It tends to think it can put spiritual growth on its own timeline. Worse, it risks reducing the righteousness of God to a show of human virtue (Matt. 5:20).
If our pursuit of righteousness amounts only to a set of actions and habits, it is little more than a program of self-improvement which has the self as its object. God is not interested in little selves running about nodding at each other, admiring how excellent and handsome they’ve become. The life we are called to is far more radical then this Benjamin Franklin school of excellence.
A school of Praxis which looks only to mechanics without looking to the true end of all praxis becomes a school of monstrous little idols who are worse than wicked. They are dull and dignified!
Unity with Christ
True Christian virtue seeks unity with Christ, and seeks this unity in prayer and action. More importantly, it receives this gift of unity from God himself.
Mere virtue is an impersonation of the person of Christ. To virtue, one must first add faith, and to faith hope, and to hope love.
But as the Noetic school will be the first to remind us, these are themselves the gifts of Love, a Love who first loved us, and continues to do so, even in the face of our most radical unloveliness.
The practices of virtue, rightly understood and informed by God, are simply a way of faithfully pursuing the face of Christ, and prayerfully seeking to glimpse His face in that of our neighbor.
Any virtue which aims lower than this must end in something subhuman and degraded. The mechanics and wisdom of the school of Praxis and Discipline must be continually turned on its head by the triumph of Mercy, lest its students become blind to his Author and Finisher of our Faith (Heb. 12:1-3; Matt. 5:20; Matt. 23:23-24).
Mercy forever maintains that the true church is home for all the weary and heavy laden of this world. While there is indeed a yolk we must bear, we are principally schooled in bearing this burden by One who bore this burden for us, that is, by One who knew us from the very beginning and sees even now, how very unfit we are for this task.
Remarkably, when we stand in the presence of God’s glory, a glory which simultaneously reveals Him to us and us to ourselves, we perceive not only our failure and insufficiency, but the terrible mercy of which is yet glad to call us to serve.
It was his good pleasure to win for Himself that right.
The two wings of Christian faith teach us that all things are from him, and through him, and to Him (Rom. 11:36). It is in the dynamic of this dialogue (the dialogue between contemplative transformation and praxis) that we continually discover the human face of God, and in that face discover Love.
¹Do you know why so many Christians haunt the rooms of the twelve steps? Because Christ haunts their consciences.
²from The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien.