In my last post, Finding Peace Despite Sinful Thoughts, I spoke of the struggle to accept the struggle, to be at peace despite ongoing sinful thought. I compared this struggle to the battle I have in my garden with bindweed.
One of the readers of that article wrote the following comment, and I thought that I would share my response with everyone. Here’s the comment:
Thank you Father, One of the problems I have is that when I deal with my own “weeds”, I think I do not get upset enough about them. I understand that I am a mess and God will love and forgive me anyway, so I don’t get that upset about it and move on and try to be a little better. This sounds fine and dandy, but then I feel like if I did get upset that I would try harder to be better. I guess knowing that His love is so strong does not give me the urgency to improve, leaving me to feel sort of indifferent. Despair is not good but neither is indifference. Any thoughts?
Here’s my response:
Indifference is certainly not good, but a lot depends on what one is feeling indifferent about. To be indifferent toward a destructive behaviour is certainly not good; however, to be indifferent toward, in the sense of despising, a reoccurring sinful thought may indeed be one useful strategy against it.
The words, “try harder to be better,” also trouble me. Certainly we must all do our best to do good. However, one of the fundamental Christian teachings is that I can’t be good by trying harder to fulfil the law (the main point of Romans chapter 7). It is the Life in Christ, energized by the Spirit, that makes us into who we are called to be. And so, trying harder to be better may actually be a distraction. Instead of turning our eyes to Christ, trying harder to be better turns our focus in the wrong direction. We focus on our outward failures as though by trying harder we could correct them despite our repeated failures in the face of our having actually tried harder. Rather, these failures need to instruct us that trying harder to be better is not the answer. Neither is the answer to stop trying. Rather, the answer is to turn our focus inward. Sure, there is always an ongoing effort to flee or resist temptation, but without a growing attentiveness to Christ in our hearts, the One to whom we flee, our mere outward efforts prove futile.
So if I were to get upset about anything, it would not be that I continue to have sinful thoughts or that I fail repeatedly in one way or another. No. What I would get upset about is that I don’t care, the fact that I am indifferent. That’s where the real problem lies: inside my heart, not outside in my thoughts or actions. That I sometimes don’t even want to flee to Christ is itself a motivation to flee to Christ. That is, sometimes I run to Christ with nothing but my apathy: “Lord, look at how spiritually lazy and uncaring I am! Help me. I cannot help myself. Lord have mercy on my spiritually lazy soul!”
I find it quite instructive that very holy saints repeatedly refer to themselves as utterly sinful people. It seems holiness increases the awareness of our own sin and brokenness. Therefore, if our focus is on trying harder to be better, we may actually be working against the Spirit of holiness that is working within us. Saint Paul said that we have to walk (live) in the Spirit not to fulfil the lusts of the flesh. It is one of the ironies of Christian life: by not paying so much attention to the impulses of the flesh we, by the work of the Holy Spirit, overcome the flesh; but this then makes us more aware of our sinfulness, leading us back to Christ through whom, by the work of the Holy Spirit, we increasingly overcome the flesh by not paying that much attention to it.
Yes, I know that sounds crazy. Circular arguing. But it is this very sort of irony that makes up much of the Christian experience. Life enters death. You must go down to go up. Christ is glorified through death. Sin is overcome not merely by resisting, but by fleeing to Christ. And for most of those who will ever read this, our problem isn’t that we haven’t resisted sin. Rather, our problem is that we pay too much attention to resisting sin and not enough attention to fleeing to Christ.