Saturday 5 March 2022

The 'undulations' of being a Christian

In The Screwtape Letters - CS Lewis talks about the 'undulations' of Christian life; the high and low phases of faith and doubt, bliss and desolation, connectedness and isolation - that are so striking to the convert. 

Having experienced the bliss of God's guidance and blessing, it can be dismaying when this is withdrawn - as it always is. It is not uncommon for the Christian to pray sincerely for help and guidance, yet for prayers to yield none. 

As if one had picked up the phone to speak with God, but discovered 'the line had gone dead'. 

I understand this in terms of two things: firstly, God's basic intent in creation; and secondly the consequent basic nature of this mortal life.

The intent of God is that by ongoing-creation Men may rise to become like to God; as has already happened with Jesus Christ. 

...That as many Men as desire it should follow the path to full divinity - which Jesus opened and on which he guides us. 

This means that our current existence is primarily a phase of learning. As such, God wants each of us to do as much as possible for himself - for each (as much as possible) to 'work-out his own salvation'. 

Simply because that is the best way to learn - and we are here to learn

Therefore, for God continuously to guide and sustain us, would defeat the object of creation!  

So, the 'undulations' of Christian life are not an accident, nor are they necessarily the fault of the Christian; but at some level are 'part of the plan'. 

God is always present and available to 'intervene' directly in our life and the world - when it is necessary. But Plan A is for Men - individually and collectively - to work things out for themselves as much as possible, and to learn from this (often trial and error) process.

God's (intermittent, perhaps infrequent) direct interventions should be regarded as a means to an end - and something that happens 'only' to get us going, provide (minimal but necessary) encouragement, and rescue us from a situation beyond our own capacities. 

As William Arkle once said (I paraphrase): God does not want our lives to be focused on God; but instead to be focused on doing what God put us here to do - which is live and learn!

Those periods of direct contact with the divine, guidance, revelations, miracles, answered prayers etc - should Not be regarded as the main thing in life; but as helping us to live well, and learn from our failures as well as successes...

Bearing in mind that sometimes the best way to learn (for you, me, or others) may be to struggle, overcome despair, fail and try again, err and repent... Whatever works best or is necessary, God may try with us - through his work of creating.

And from our personal point of view - we should not always be 'demanding' (or begging for) divine intervention and guidance; but ought to work things out for ourselves, endeavor to learn God's lessons from the many experiences that God places in our paths. 

We should do what God wants us to do, live as God wants us to live - and that is not to function as some kind of a remote controlled automaton, implementing divine orders! 

We need not demand or beg; because there is no difficulty at all about God intervening in our lives - when God recognizes the need for His external assistance... But not whenever we suppose we need help and keep asking for it instead to be helping-our-selves. 

No problem about God stepping-in to stop us when we are determined on a wrong track... But it is better if we recognize this for ourselves.

No problem about God producing a miracle - small or spectacular- when it is likely to be helpful to faith... But not when the miraculous will merely be used as an opportunity to explain-away and mock the divine. 

No problem about God inspiring and enthusing and shaping us with a direct apprehension of His love - for any capable of recognizing it and responding positively... But not when a Man wants to surrender responsibility for his fate. 

We are sustained alive in this created mortal world either because we have not (yet) decided-for-Christ, and are being given time and opportunity to make that choice - i.e. salvation; or else because it would benefit us through our eternal resurrected life to learn something/s - and our mortal life is being shaped to encourage such learning - i.e. theosis). 

God makes them possible; but neither salvation nor theosis can be done for us by God. Both rely on our own personal efforts. 

Some kinds of learning can be unconscious and automatic, but other kinds must consciously be chosen.  

The main things of life are up to us


John Venlet said...

Dr. Carlton, your post brings to mind the teaching of, and learning, which Abraham underwent as God the Father instituted the new covenant, and which Leon Kass so richly brings to our attention in his book The Beginning of Wisdom, which I am currently reading. If any individual underwent undulations on the path to Christian living, it most assuredly was Abraham, and we have much to learn from his interactions with God the Father.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JV - wrt to the episode of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac - William Arkle once made the insightful comment in a letter than God probably gave Abraham a mark of 60% for obedience, for what he actually did; but God would have awarded Abraham 100% if he had replied: "This is not like you, I won't do it!"

John Venlet said...

Dr. Carlton, it is quite thought provoking to consider what if Abraham had questioned God's command, rather than acquiescing to the command to sacrifice Issac, who was the seed promised. Kass also ties the command to sacrifice Issac to Abraham's arguments for sparing Sodom. The lessons to be garnered from these events are not necessarily easily digested. Kass presents the argument that Abraham's obedience to sacrifice Issac was a means of inspiring Abraham to complete reliance on God the Father, and also to instill in him a true patriarchal mindset. I think that Abraham scored 100%, though what I think actually does not matter, as I am not the judge. Still, it is interesting to contemplate, and enriching.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JV - It depends on prior assumptions of several kinds; for example Kass is a Jew while I am a Christian, so it would be unsurprising if our interpretations differed - I am looking back with a post-Christ perspective on God's nature.

Kathleen said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts and this made me chuckle simply because you might have posted: God helps those who help themselves. I read Screwtape Letters as a teen, still think about it to this day.

Bruce Charlton said...

@K - "God helps those who help themselves" - yes, true - but spiritually, wrt. the next life... When people use that phrase they too often seem to mean 'getting on' in this mortal life.