Artur Rosman’s intriguing blog, Cosmos The In Lost, recently featured a beautiful, beautiful quote from Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh (you know, the guy who wrote what Father Barron called the greatest Catholic novel of the 20th century – Brideshead Revisited). Apparently when his friend Nancy Mitford (who, like Waugh, was one of the Bright Young Things of 1920’s England) complained to Waugh that despite his conversion to Catholicism he was, well, still such a jerk, Waugh answered forthrightly, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”
That quote took me, oddly enough, right back to my college days, riding home from youth group with my Lutheran friend, Holly, whom I accompanied to church on occasion back then. “Why are Christians such jerks??” she ranted. She was complaining bitterly about one young man in particular, an enthusiastic Lutheran who held some pretty objectionable opinions and wasn’t shy about publicizing them. He drove her crazy with his gauche remarks and behavior. If he was a Christian, why didn’t he act like one???
So, it’s not just Evelyn Waugh, apparently. Why are Christians such jerks?
Well, there are several possible explanations, the most obvious being that there is no God and therefore when one “gets religion,” basically no change occurs. Small wonder that there is little evidence of reform. Just t-r-y-i-n-g, by sheer force of will, to live up to all those pious expectations laid out in Scripture gets some people farther than others, but since there is no “supernatural aid” to be had, you may turn over a new leaf or two, but it’s nothing for the world to get excited about.
Protestants offer other perspectives on the conundrum. There is, of course, a God, and He does, of course, provide supernatural aid. So, how to explain the “jerk factor”? Some Evangelicals basically overlook sin in their lives and in the lives of their co-religionists, provided, of course, that the sin falls into certain pre-approved categories (which is to say, the sins of gluttony and gossip get a free pass, but swearing and alcohol abuse will not be tolerated; marital infidelity can be forgiven, but homosexual acts cannot; cohabitation is unthinkable, but divorce for just about any reason is no problem.) “Sanctification” isn’t a popular topic in these circles; “evangelization” is. Christians shouldn’t sin, but the important thing is evangelization – even if your “Christian walk” isn’t what it should be, you need to convince others of their need for a Savior. This perspective leads to the interesting personal anecdote told by Evangelical Bill Bright of how he took the opportunity to evangelize the police officer who pulled him over to give him a ticket for breaking traffic laws. Let’s not talk about my transgressions, officer – let’s talk about yours….
Many Protestants, of course, take a decidedly less cavalier approach. They are very, very serious about sin. Former Church of Christ minister Bruce Sullivan wrote about the torment habitual sins caused him:
We had a song in our Church of Christ hymnal entitled “Did You Fully Repent?” I would often reason to myself that, surely, if I had fully repented, I would not find myself so beset by habitual sins. I honestly cannot recall how many times I walked the aisle of a church seeking the spiritual strength I needed in order to live the faith I professed. More than once I thought that something was lacking at the time of my baptism. Consequently, I was baptized on three different occasions within the Church of Christ. (Bruce Sullivan, Christ in His Fullness)
As Sullivan (who was reconciled to the Church in 1995) explains it:
The problem, however, was not so much the ability to accept the forgiveness of Christ after initial justification as it was determining whether initial justification had actually been received based upon the reality of subsequent moral failure. This left me in the agonizing position of trying to determine whether my faith was truly a saving faith.
Translation: I’m still a jerk! Am I really saved???
This is where the sacraments come in. The Church teaches that we are born again in baptism; therefore, as baptized Christians we need never question the reality of our initial justification. The Catholic Church would never “rebaptize” someone who felt that “something was lacking” in his baptism. The truth is, though, that SINS are washed away in the baptismal font – habits are not. Grasping this distinction between sins and proclivities was a real problem for me when, as a new Catholic, I began frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation; I insisted on confessing tendencies, as in “When the going gets tough, I just tend to wimp out…” or “I’m not a very loving person, but I know God wants me to be,” leaving the poor priest muttering something that sounded like “Number and kind! Number and kind!” What I was trying to confess was that I was a sinner with sinful inclinations – what did I expect the priest to do for me?? Jesus gave His apostles (and by extension, their successors and those ordained priests by their successors) the authority to absolve penitents of their SINS: actual acts of disobedience against God. Sinful inclinations are a whole ‘nother kettle of concupiscence.
The Catholic Church takes quite seriously St. Paul’s command to the Philippians, and instructs the faithful to work out their salvation. We are NOT a finished product. Our sins are forgiven when we receive the sacrament of Baptism; of that we can be sure. Through baptism we have entered the body of Christ. Our sinful inclinations, however, stay with us. We have accumulated habits aligned with those inclinations that come far more naturally to us than does Christ-like behavior. And so we often revert to type, and sin. For that reason, the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion were instituted, whence the Christian, born again through baptism, receives the grace to begin chipping away at those nasty habits and to start the long, slow process of healing the self-inflicted wounds that our sins have left in their wake – and to stop sinning. This is what distinguishes our efforts from self-help programs, for as St. Augustine assures us:
Hence also that grace of God, whereby His love is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us, must be so confessed by the man who would make a true confession, as to show his undoubting belief that nothing whatever in the way of goodness pertaining to godliness and real holiness can be accomplished without it.
You see, the question isn’t, are we perfect yet? There’s simply no question about that for the vast majority of us; the answer is NO. The question is, are we okey-dokey with the status quo? I’m okay – you’re okay? That’s NOT okay. If we are struggling against our tendencies towards gossip, lust and covetousness, availing ourselves of the Sacrament of Penance when we succumb, and sustaining the new life within us through our reception of Holy Communion, then we are actively working out our own salvation, as St. Paul commanded. Anything short of that struggle is not Christianity.
If you entered the Church in possession of, or rather, possessed by an ego the size of a barn, you won’t become instantaneously humble – that’s why we pray the Litany of Humility. Perhaps you’re best known at the time of your conversion as a major whiner; the notion that you’d best stop may not dawn on you for years. Praying the Psalms should help redirect that impulse. You may be – by nature or by upbringing – an inordinately suspicious person with a low threshold for frustration, someone who is not in the habit of keeping his promises and even less likely to admit his mistakes, a piker, a potty mouth, and a fraud. Join the club. The sacraments give us the grace to endure the rock tumbler into which are placed those ugly, common stones known as Christians. Through the seemingly endless process of tumbling and scraping known as “life,” we lose our rough edges. Some of us begin to shine a little, although it depends on what kind of stones we are to begin with, as well as our commitment to the process. Others of us keep hopping out of the tumbler because the polishing process hurts, particularly when we get scratched by other rocks in the barrel. How can they act like that? The jerks!!! And there are those who simply refuse to continue to participate because, since instant gratification (in the form of holiness) isn’t part of the package deal of “getting saved,” the claims for Christianity have supposedly been proved bogus by their own experience, or rather, lack of it.
Yet the Church has never touted instant holiness as a by-product of conversion, for the simple reason that the Church believes conversion to be a lifelong process. Catholics, in fact, believe this process to be so necessary yet so potentially lengthy that anything not fully addressed in this life will be completed after death in Purgatory. The Church openly advertises herself as a hospital for sinners, though what we all desperately want it to be is an art gallery – with saints on display. Saints are the finished product, the fruit of a life lived under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit Who indwells the sinner. There ARE saints in the Church, alongside the Evelyn Waughs, alongside the you’s, alongside the me’s. To those you’s and me’s, as well as to the saints, the author of Hebrews penned an urgent reminder:
Your protest, your battle against sin, has not yet called for bloodshed; yet you have lost sight, already, of those words of comfort in which God addresses you as his sons; My son, do not undervalue the correction which the Lord sends thee, do not be unmanned when he reproves thy faults. It is where he loves that he bestows correction; there is no recognition for any child of his, without chastisement. Be patient, then, while correction lasts; God is treating you as his children. Was there ever a son whom his father did not correct? No, correction is the common lot of all; you must be bastards, not true sons, if you are left without it. We have known what it was to accept correction from earthly fathers, and with reverence; shall we not submit, far more willingly, to the Father of a world of spirits, and draw life from him? They, after all, only corrected us for a short while, at their own caprice; he does it for our good, to give us a share in that holiness which is his. For the time being, all correction is painful rather than pleasant; but afterwards, when it has done its work of discipline, it yields a harvest of good dispositions, to our great peace. Come then, stiffen the sinews of drooping hand, and flagging knee, and plant your footprints in a straight track, so that the man who goes lame may not stumble out of the path, but regain strength instead. Your aim must be peace with all men, and that holiness without which no one will ever see God.
The Christian life is one long life of correction, one long “battle against sin” – some, enabled by grace, embrace the battle and flourish; some reject it and wither. But we must always bear in mind that when we lie, cheat and steal, no one can ask “Why don’t you act like a Christian???” We ARE acting like Christians – check out the epistles to the Corinthians if you doubt that. We ARE NOT acting like Christ.
Jesus is the Fount of all Holiness, and fortunately for us, He is also the Vine. When we branches are grafted onto the Vine, we begin to produce the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, in other words, the beginnings of “that holiness without which no one will ever see God.” I may not evidence much self-control, for example, when I first enter the Church. Check back with me later. After a while, I may still not evidence much self-control, but if I am grieved by this, if I still struggle, and pray, and work for this fruit, then I am still connected to the Vine and there is hope. As Hebrews puts it, I am protesting and battling against the sin in my life. The fact that I am not yet perfect simply illustrates that God’s work in me has not yet come to full fruition. If you are concerned about my continued lack of self-control, for Christ’s sake pray for me, as St. John advised:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death.
The stones in the tumbler have been commanded to pray for each other as the grit grinds down the imperfections. If you refuse to pray for me because you find my remaining imperfections off-putting, you clearly have a few remaining imperfections of your own that you need to address….
I have two children. My son was an easy baby who grew into an easy child. Gentle, polite, solicitous, well-mannered – I received no end of compliments about how well I’d raised my son. His sister, who suffered from full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder in her youth (she is doing much better now, thank you), was a pain-and-a-half: difficult, uncooperative, bright as a penny but very, very hard to deal with. When people complimented me on my well-behaved son, I had a terrible urge to blurt out, “It’s none of my doing – that’s his nature. If you want to compliment me, compliment me on what a great job I’ve done raising his temperamental sister! You have no idea what a disaster she would be if it weren’t for me and my love for her!”
And God looks at me and says the same thing.
So pray for us, Evelyn Waugh – you who bumbled and grumbled your way to God, you who were also a work in progress, you who, like us, would have been “much nastier” had it not been for the redeeming power of Christ in His sacraments. Pray that our apathy may not make us appear to be evidence against the grace of God poured out through His Church. Pray for fervor, and for a horror of sin that stiffens our resolve. Pray for a daily, and even moment-by-moment commitment to the battle as we tumble in the barrel that is our life in Christ. And pray for perseverance, that with the aid of the sacraments we may be found, perhaps not perfect, but ready when the Bridegroom comes to call.
On the memorial of St. John Eudes
Deo omnis gloria!