This morning I read a portion of William Creasy’s translation of Thomas à Kempis’ masterful devotional book, The Imitation of Christ. In order to prepare his readers for a section on suggestions how a person would practice drawing near to God (James 4:8), he writes…
“Be fervent in going forward… There is one thing that keeps many people from gaining ground and from fervently striving to improve: the dread of difficulty, or more accurately the effort of the struggle.… Without care and diligence you will never acquire virtue If you begin to grow apathetic you will begin to do badly.” (Chapter 25, pp.59-62)
One of the larger tensions in following Christ is just how much effort must I put forth. On one hand we realize that growth is a matter of grace just as much as being rescued by God. Otherwise, the path of discipleship would be something like, God welcomes you into His Kingdom by grace and grace alone (Christ’s performance in your place for your good), and now it’s all up to you to perform. If God, then, is the one who actually causes growth in character (1 Cor. 3:7) how much do I have to “put forth”? Yet, there is no growth without some effort. The truth is churches tend to fall on a wide spectrum of just how much effort is required in the Christian life.
The answer is much longer than space allows but the simple answer is, in typical Calvary Church fashion, “YES”. God does the work but He does it most effectively and efficiently when you consent to His work and partner with Him. Even in the midst of incredibly painful circumstances, our internal character can be shaped for the better if we consent to His work to mold and shape our minds and hearts (beliefs, emotions/desires/longings, and imagination) and we put forth effort to join with God in rooting out sin patterns. Dallas Willard used to say frequently that grace isn’t opposed to effort. It is however, opposed to earning, or the motivation of trying to gain more of God’s favor.
Actually the difficulty isn’t only in the question of what’s my part and God’s part. It seems intuitive to us that growth happens when we actively and intentionally (à Kempis says “fervently”) pursue it. There’s another vicious problem that à Kempis notes – it’s the problem of settling for status quo, which is more connected to comfort, or in other words, laziness. It’s hard to press into your own heart by becoming aware not just that you do bad things but you have a heart that it flows from. He identifies that the reason why it’s easier to do nothing is because it’s hard (and painful sometimes) to examine our own heart motivations. I actually think I’m farther along the Christian road then, truthfully, I really am. Discipleship is an intentional pursuit of becoming like Christ (character growth) where you are more honest about the brokenness of your own heart and the more honest about the amazing grace demonstrated through Christ’s work for you.
Just as I would want to press into the person who thinks that by their efforts they are becoming more mature as a Christian, I would also want to press into the person who has put their growth on hold. I secretly love it when Dr. Phil asks people boldly, “So how’s that working for you?” How has that worked to settle into patterns of non-discipleship where one travels the path of least resistance? In fact, let’s be really clear… when is the last time that you realized, “I have a ‘me’ problem (thanks, Colin Cowherd!) that could not just be wished away?
Grace is designed to stir the heart. Dullness in one’s spiritual life where one simply sits back without ever becoming dreadfully aware of what a gossip they are, how selfish they are, how bitter they have become, how they are unsettled with what they possess, how central their children are to their identity, ad nauseam (a list so long it would make you nauseous), is evidence that there is something about God’s grace has yet to take full root in the heart. This is what takes Christianity out of the realm of being merely a religion. It’s intended effects on the heart are to cause it to come alive more and more to the reality of the centrality of Christ to all of life. This is not only the beginning of the path of discipleship, but it’s also the continued road that all of us are on and the future road that we will travel until we finally meet Him face to face.
Another tension in a few days…