Dallas Willard’s words (above) are testimony to the fact that the Christian life is, first and last (and everywhere in-between), a matter of Grace.
It’s a good and needful word in this day and age – when so many seek to navigate the spiritual life by their own strength and wisdom and control. In the landmark study, for example, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – an amalgam of several religious expressions and sentiments – is set forth as the major belief system of American youth today. (It has a whiff of Christianity about it but, as one draws closer, one can understand why Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Seminary labels it as she does in the title of one of her books, “Almost Christian.”) Smith and Denton, the authors of the study, tell us that they chose the word, “moralistic,” for the ways it “inculcates a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” (Smith & Denton 2005, p.163)
To be sure, the Christian life and spiritual formation have some relationship to morals and morality. But, these are secondary. They are more outcomes or ends of the Faith than they are means. A Christian can and does have (or develops) morals. In my mind, though, a moralistic Christian is working overtime at acting right and proving wrong. By their mindset and their actions, moralistic Christians defy the notion that the Christian life is foremostly a matter of faith in Grace. They defy the notion (ala Willard) there’s nothing we can do in the Christian life.
Unfortunately, their numbers abound – and not just among post-Millennials.
So what is the Christian life – or, we might ask, what is Christian spiritual formation – if it’s all that we do on the other side of realizing we can do nothing? What’s left? Here, I might tender a few disciplines or dispositions which are growing in my thoughts, vocabulary, and practice:
- there’s being still and becoming more aware of the God-richness of each and every moment
- in the words of the Serenity Prayer, there’s “taking this sinful world [as Jesus did] as it is and not as I would have it”
- there’s being grateful (I love the connection in so many languages, like Spanish, between the word Grace and saying thanks!)
- there’s trusting (that, in spite of all we see and oftentimes feel, life is good…) that the power and presence and love of the Divine are aligned towards better things for us and all of Creation
I will be building the list further – in my heart and in my days… and probably through this blog.
At this point, the question is worth asking. Can you begin to see it? (Or, am I just kidding myself?) That each of these and other disciplines of the faith are simply the fallout of faith in Grace: that there’s really nothing to do in the Christian life and our spiritual formation… but approach them with opens hands and hearts and minds and souls.