By Calvin Lane
Everyone here is just more than contented to be living and dying in three quarter time.
Jimmy Buffet, “Nautical Wheelers”
Through bleary eyes, the addict recognizes the wounds he has inflicted. He can hear the pain in the voices of those he loves. And he realizes that he is loved above all and beyond all. Grace. But then he has to go to a meeting. And another meeting. And another, and another, and another. He goes until the rhythm becomes saturated into his being — and then he goes to another meeting. Never does he stop being an addict; never does his dependence on grace disappear. He will quickly tell you this. But he is not who he once was. Or, as James K. A. Smith writes in his recent On the Road with St. Augustine, “Grace is a game-changer, not a game-ender. I’m not who I used to be; I’m on the way to being who I’m called to be; but I’m not there yet… [Augustine’s] spiritual realism harbors no illusions about hasty arrival even as it nourishes his unflagging hope of getting there” (p. 71).
Over the past generation or more both Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians have emphasized participation in Christ as a the marker for the Christian life. . And they have stressed, much as Smith has popularized of late, the importance of habituation, which claims that a regular life — a regulated life — of routinized prayer, corporate worship, and recourse to the sacraments, forms and cultivates the believer, the member of the body of Christ, sharing in the Lord’s death in order to share in his resurrection (Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:10). Sundays mount on Sundays; season leads to season; the Christian year, rolling like a waltz, imprints the mighty work of God in Christ on the baptized and habituated believer who waits on tiptoe for the return of Christ and the perfection of all things, himself included (Rom. 8:23).
A word of caution is needed here. Many “Evangelicals on the Canterbury trail” — folks who’ve read their way through Robert Weber and Smith, and perhaps also more recent but wonderfully helpful voices like Winfield Bevins and Tish Warren — after a time in their new-found home, which certainly is furnished with all that was lacking at their old address (or addresses!), discover that habit, ritual, and practice is not a cure-all. They learn, in time, that the gospel they heard in their earlier days remains true: only the blood of Christ, mediated to us in the Holy Spirit, makes us new women and new men. But come back to that eschatological dynamic put so well by Smith: we are not who we once were; we are not yet who, in Christ, we will become; we are becoming, even though it is by fits and starts.
Some brothers and sisters, perhaps suspecting shades of Pelagianism, have pushed back against an emphasis on practice. Maybe Smith (among so many others) have overstated the case for practice and habituation. Can repeated practice really generate significant changes in behavior? A better approach, some claim, is for a recognition of one’s sins, followed by another recognition of the shocking enormity of forgiveness which then produces gratitude which then (here’s the purported pay-off) produces new desires. I made Mom mad by doing X; she forgives me, and I don’t like making Mom mad; I will stop doing X. Is this the new heart described in Ezekiel 36:26? In other words, the addict recognizes (cognoscere, an intellectual, noetic exercise) the damage done and the enormity of grace extended to him, and then, with this intellectual recognition in place, his desire (his affection) for the drug goes away.
The problem is that no addict has ever had an intellectual realization and just changed his behavior. Paul captures this beautifully in Romans 7:15-20. How many of us have disappointed those we love, learned the extent of the damage, experienced forgiveness…but kept going right back to the sin? We might say this is like experiencing an intervention but then not going to a meeting. Anfechtung and conversion, the consolation of a terrified conscience, even the daily experience thereof, is a gift beyond compare. It is a necessary part of the Christian experience of grace and hope. But our gratitude alone — something along the lines of the nagging need to send a thank you note to your aunt for that birthday card because that’s what we do in polite society — is not enough for meaningful change. The truth is we are like children who knowingly yet continually put our hands on the hot stove to the point of scars until our parents quit pleading with us with ideas alone and instead occupy our hands with other tasks which form and cultivate within us other directions and desires. And we do these other things not alone but with our brothers and sisters. We may look longingly back at the stove; in time we grow increasingly aware of how disordered that desire is even as it lingers and persists within. We are not who were once were; we are not yet who we are meant to become. And this too is a work of God’s grace.
Our gratitude is an important element in the Christian life, but it alone cannot carry the burden. The intervention, the Anfechtung and conversion, that sober recognition of one’s need for a gracious savior and the in-breaking presence of divine love, has to bring us to a meeting, and another, and another, and another. We still want to touch the stove; we probably do sneak off and touch it again; but things are not what they once were, and we have a vision implanted deep in our being of a world where the stove no longer has any appeal. This is a daily dying in order to share in the resurrection (once more, Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:10).
To borrow rather liberally from Jimmy Buffet, we’re living and dying in three quarter time, fumbling through a waltz, practicing and training our bodies, spirits, hearts, and minds to be the women and men who, in Christ, we are called to become.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is affiliate professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and associate rector of St. George’s Church, Dayton, OH. He has also taught for Wright State University and United Theological Seminary and is the author of two books on the reformation.