A favourite phrase from the American Declaration of Independence tells us that one of our inalienable human rights is the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This legitimate political goal has morphed into a personal philosophy, and now the notion is so ingrained in western culture that it is common to both liberals and conservatives, to both those in the right wing and in the left wing. This philosophy says that the ultimate goal of life is to have the freedom to do what we want and to have enough money to buy the lifestyle we desire. How much the State should be involved in the attaining of this goal is debated among those of the right wing and the left wing, but the legitimacy of the goal is presupposed by all. (Or, as one wag pointed out, the right wing and the left wing are both found on the same bird.)
True Christianity will have none of this. Our goal is found not in the American Declaration of Independence, but in the Gospel of Matthew, for there Jesus told us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). Christians therefore seek not happiness, but God’s Kingdom. Happiness and blessedness and the possession of what we truly need (which rarely coincides with what we think we need) come as a by-product of this continual striving for righteousness.
Striving for righteousness and against sin is an uphill battle, as anyone can tell you who has attempted it. Within each of us lies a silent traitor, a kind of fifth columnist, ever waiting to wreck our good intentions and drag us back to the filth and mess from which we emerged when we became disciples of Jesus. St. Paul gave us the classic formulation of this interior self-betrayal: “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul calls this inner compulsion “the old man” or the old self, contrasting it with the new man and new self we receive through the new birth at holy baptism. The old self always exerts a tug upon us whenever we decide to strive for righteousness and pursue new virtue.
The battle within is made all the more fierce by the battle without, for we find ourselves immersed in a culture in which sin has become the norm. Everything around us—every book or magazine we find in the bookstore, every movie or television show we watch, every conversation around the office water-cooler—they all tell us that what the Church denounces as sin is normal and healthy, and that our attempts at classic virtue are pathological and futile. All this makes striving against sin an uphill battle.
Fortunately God is patient. He knows the immensity of the forces arrayed against us in this war, and is always quick to forgive whenever we truly repent and come to Him. When we return to Him and His loving embrace, we bring our resolve and our determination to amend and change our lives, rooting out the noxious weeds of sin and replacing them with the fragrant flowers of holiness. But often our journey to the Kingdom and to righteousness involves taking two steps forward, and one step back—or, on a bad day, two steps forward and three steps back. In this race we fall down many times. When we do so, the Enemy is always close at hand to whisper into our ears that it is hopeless, that God doesn’t love us, that He has surely given up on anyone as sinful as us, and that repentance and attempts to amend are useless. Better to give up and stay down, to despair, to stop praying, and stop striving to swim upstream.
It’s all lies, of course. God never gives up on us, and it is prideful presumption to imagine that we know better than God. So, as often as we fall down, we must get up, dust ourselves off, and keep running forward. The temptation is to look back and try to see how far we have come, to check our score. Are we improving and getting better? Are we better than that sinner and tax-collector over there? Are we better than we were this time last year?
This is a mistake, if only because we cannot know for sure how we are doing. We might be doing better. We might be doing worse. We cannot gauge our progress accurately any more than we can take out our eyes to look at them. We must therefore leave all judgment to God. St. Paul told us as much: “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time” (1 Corinthians 4:3-5).
We should not look back to see how far we think we have come—our vision is too poor for that. We should not look down to check our notes—we have no reliable information to jot down. Instead of looking back or looking down, we must look ahead, keeping our eyes on the finish line, on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). We must forget about the past and leave it behind, straining forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).
This means, let us be clear, that we will be confessing the same depressing sins over and over, each time we come to confession. That is entirely to be expected, for the sinful nature does not die out before we cross the finish line, and the battle against sin is lifelong. This constant battle against the same sin should cause us neither surprise nor despair. No surprise, for each time we receive Holy Communion we confess that we are sinners. And no despair either, for Christ came to save sinners.
That is why we come weekly to the Divine Liturgy, because there we experience the blessed collision of our sinful, broken, and penitent hearts with the consuming love of Christ. In this collision we are embraced, forgiven, healed, and transformed—and sent out back into the world to fight some more. The time will come soon enough for sheathing our sword and resting from the battle. Until then, we fight on. True life, true liberty, and the pursuit of righteousness—this is what is inscribed on our banners. As often as we fall, we rise up again with our sword in our hand. We refuse to stay down, for we are heading for the Kingdom of God.