A. Lent and Love
1. Quinquagesima provides an epistle about love and gospel prophecy about the cross. These two lessons are aptly paired to prepare us for Lent. When Jesus said, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished,” he was prophesying the ultimate act of love. Our Lenten vocation centers on these two themes. We are called to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus by adopting various spiritual disciplines; the goal is to grow in our ability to love.
2. The purpose of fasting is to remove obstacles to love. We don’t love God and neighbor as we ought because we are too attached to things and to our own self-centered desires. Things become idols that we worship instead of God. We fast, we practice going without things, in order to detach ourselves from them and open our hearts to God in new ways.
B. Charity and other kinds of love
1. Our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, agape became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, caritas became “charity.” The word charity was used instead of love (even though the English translators were working from the Greek) because it had developed a formal meaning as one of the three “Theological Virtues” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 (Faith, Hope and Charity).
2. While the world charity sounds archaic, there is a strong case to be made for maintaining its use—or perhaps for just calling charity by its original Greek, “agape.” There are other kinds of love that all people may experience on some level (see The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis for a fuller description of these). When people talk about love today, they are often thinking of mere sentimentality. Agape-caritas-charity is distinct from the ordinary human experience of love. Consequently, there is reason to give this kind of love a particular name.
C. Charity vs. mere love
1. The unique meaning of agape/charity becomes clear as we read 1 Corinthians 13. It tells us that agape/charity is all sorts of things that we do not naturally do or possess. It is patient, kind and longsuffering; it does not seek its own good and it never fails. Human love, in contrast, is not a disinterested concern for the good of the other, and it fails all the time because all merely human love is infected by the fall. Ordinary human forms of love may be raised to the level of agape when they are motivated by and infused with this theological virtue. But in their natural form they are necessarily different.
2. We are able to love with agape/charity only after we experience this kind of love from God. In relationship with God, we experience love in a way that we cannot experience anywhere else. God first convicts us of our sin to lead us to repentance; then he forgives us and cleanses us; then he gives us strength to live in a new way. Through this experience of agape/charity, we experience God’s new creation. God brings his order and beauty of our chaos, causing all things to work together for good in our lives. This is the essential experience of the life of prayer.
3. No human counselor or agent can love us in this way. No human agent can forgive us—for only Christ has the power to forgive. No human agent can cleanse us—for only the Spirit can wash away sins. No human agent can give us the strength to overcome our sins—for only God’s grace can enable us to rise above our natural weakness. And no human agent can exercise a sovereign and benevolent control over our lives. Agape/charity is known only as a gift from God.
D. Spiritual gifts
1. When I say that no human agent can do these things, I mean no human agent acting apart from God’s grace. However, the members of Christ’s body, whom Christ has gifted to be agents of his grace, can love as Christ loves using the particular gifts Christ has given us. As Romans says, “The love (agape) of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
2. Our right use of our spiritual gifts is dependent upon our own ongoing experience of Trinitarian love. We can only give to others what we know and experience. This is the main point of the epistle, which says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing (1Coritnians 13:1-3).
3. The epistle is really a warning. It tells us that it is possible to exercise our spiritual gifts, perform extreme acts of charity and even die as a martyr in ways that mean nothing to God. Agape or charity is the thing that distinguishes genuine good works from mere religious or self-serving activity. Thus, the central question is not, what are you doing? The central question is, why are you doing it? Are we really motivated by the love that comes from God? Or is our behavior infected by other motives?
E. Lent and charity
1. Honest self-assessment will reveal the presence of mixed motives in all of us. We do not love fully yet. We are learning how to love. Lent is a season of opportunity to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus with the goal of growing in the love that comes from God.
2. Our experience of love begins with our prayer—for we cannot love with the love that comes from God unless our behavior is the fruit of our prayer. Lent calls us to reverse the pattern of our lives. Our natural tendency is to rush into work and business, and then come to God to clean up the mess after we are done. To act with agape/charity requires that we come to God first to receive grace from him through the sacrament and through daily and constant prayer. Only when our behavior is the fruit of our prayer can we begin to love with the love that comes from God. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). As we pray in today collect,
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.”
1. Septuagesima Sunday marks a change in season and focus. From Advent through the last Sunday after Epiphany, we focus on the Incarnation and the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. Today we begin to look forward to the Cross and Resurrection. Septuagesima means “seventieth day;” it begins our countdown to Easter. Today is actually the sixty-fourth day before Easter, It is likely that the observance of the seventieth day before Easter was moved to the following Sunday at some point in time.
2. Septuagesima is one of three pre-Lenten Sundays. Next week is Sexagesima, which meaning “sixtieth day”—even even though it is actually the fifty seventh day before Easter; the following Sunday is Quinquagesima, which is means “fiftieth day” and is, finally, accurate. This two and a half week season is a time to get ready for Lent. It is time to start thinking about and planning for one’s participation in the Lenten fast. But it is also the time for the last celebration—Carnival, Mardi Gras and so forth. We enjoy the good things God has given even as we make plans to give them up in preparation for Easter.
B. The Lessons for Septuagesima: the paradox of grace and labor
1. The gospel for Septuagesima highlights the grace of God. The workers work different hours but they all get paid the same amount of money. The point is that salvation is a gift. It is not quantifiable. No matter how long you labor in God’s vineyard you will receive the gift of salvation. Someone who comes to faith at the 11th hour of their life or at the last hour of time will receive the gift of salvation. The point is precisely that salvation is not a wage—it is not something we earn. The dynamics of salvation don’t fit into a story about work.
2. The epistle makes a seemingly contrasting point. We must strive hard and practice discipline—a buffeting of the body—in order to win the crown of eternal life. St. Paul suggests that it is possible to run in such a way that we might not obtain the prize; it is possible to fall short of the goal through a lack of discipline.
3. These are not contradictory points. Rather, they form a sort of paradox. Salvation is free, but it requires us to work hard. Salvation is a gift, but we must practice discipline to hold on to and grow in this gift. The world and the life of faith are full of paradox because reality is paradoxical. Often, things that seem to be in conflict are really complementary parts of a unified whole. The true or catholic faith of the church is rich and full. It takes eyes of faith to see and perceive that fullness.
4. Error and heresy result when we try to resolve the tension of a paradox too far in one direction. With regard to our lessons, one error is to think that since salvation is a gift all I have to do is exercise faith at some moment in time and my salvation will be guaranteed no matter what I subsequently believe or do. The other error is to think I am working my way into heaven by my discipline and good works so that I come to feel that I do, in fact, deserve a higher wage that the person who did not work as hard.
C. The resolution of the paradox.
1. We can understand the paradox by recognizing the limitations of our analogies. There is a sense in which salvation is like the common coin paid to all laborers. The coin highlights one aspect of the truth about salvation. But there are a thousand ways that salvation is utterly unlike a coin. Salvation comes to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The living, growing, transforming force that is the Holy Spirit is clearly not at all like a denarius.
2. This life is a gift that can only be received by faith, yet this gift will challenge us and change us; it will make demands upon us and require of us further acts of surrender. This life may begin with a simple act of general repentance, but it will require of us a thousand subsequent acts of specific repentance. It will plant within us the potential for eternal glory, but then it will begin to purify us so that what is potential becomes what is real.
3. Thus, salvation is a free gift, but it requires of us much discipline and labor in the Spirit. We must cooperate with the Spirit by practicing fasting and self-control so that our fallen nature will be brought under the control of the Spirit. We must feed this gift of life with the Sacrament and the daily bread of prayer in the Spirit. We must learn to love in the Spirit by responding to the image of God in other people. Salvation is received by faith, but the faith that saves us is a present tense verb. That is, we must continue to believe and trust so that what is planted in us through faith may continue to grow and reach full maturity.
4. We might be tempted to accuse God of a sort of bait and switch tactic. We thought we were signing up for this free gift of salvation that would take away our guilt and make us feel better. It turns out we were signing up for a complete and total conquest. We were allowing ourselves to be possessed by a conquering Spirit that will not be content until it possesses every fiber of our being. But God was not dishonest with us. Rather he was gracious to us. We are not as good as we thought we were, but God is willing to take us as we are and work in us by grace to make us what we are meant to be. As we grow in the Spirit we discover just how much we resist the love of God—just how much we are stuck in sin and enslaved to our idols. This is hard not because God likes to make things difficult. This is hard because sin and evil and real enemies that must be conquered by real grace and acts of the will.
D. The task of pre-Lent and Lent.
1. The good news of grace is that God is content with a gradual process. He does not require that we become completely holy in a day. Rather he requires that we respond to his word and Spirit at each season of time. Our concern is not how God will finish his work in us; our concern is how we will be faithful to what God is calling us to do today. Each small act of faith and surrender takes us to a new place where new acts of obedience are possible. We can’t skip any steps. We can’t go from directly from beginning math to calculus.
2. As we enter pre-Lent and begin to look toward the Lenten preparation for Easter, the questions for each of us to ask are simple. What is God saying to each of us right now? What sins to we need to confess? What new disciplines do we need to establish in order to make progress against temptation? What virtues do we need to practice and cultivate by grace?
3. Above all, do you know that your sins are forgiven? Do you know that salvation is, in fact, a gift and that there is nothing you can do to earn it? If we are to profit from our spiritual disciplines, they must be rooted in God’s grace—in the knowledge that God loves us and accepts us we are in Christ.
4. Lent is temptation for human nature. Human nature wants to earn what it cannot earn. Therefore, it is always tempted to turn religion into merit producing performance. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more than he already does. Whatever you might do in the Spirit is merely a way to say yes to God, to respond to his love in some new way. Spiritual disciplines get ourselves out of the way so that we might grow in the free gift of salvation that God continually gives to those who believe in Jesus.
Today’s gospel prophesies the fulfillment of the epistle. When Jesus said, “Behold we go up to Jerusalem and all things that are written in the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished,” he was describing the ultimate act of love.
Charity as a Theological Virtue
Both our collect and epistle talk about the theological virtue of charity, which modern Bibles translate as love. The Greek word being translated in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” When the early church translated the Greek into Latin, it became “caritas.” When the Latin was first translated into English, it became “charity.” Because the word charity had a formal meaning as a “theological virtue,” the King James translators used charity for the first English translation of 1 Corinthians 13.
There is a case to be made for maintaining the use of the word charity. The three virtues mentioned at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, faith, hope and charity, are called the “Theological Virtues.” This is to distinguish them from the natural or cardinal virtues of classical thought. The “Cardinal Virtues” are justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude. The idea is that these have a “natural” form. By proper training, a non-believer might be just, prudent, temperate and courageous. To be sure, faith and the gift of the Spirit will raise these virtues to a higher form, just as faith and the gift of the Spirit draw all natural endowments into the service of the kingdom. However, they exist apart from faith.
Conversely, the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity can only be possessed as a gift from God. Thus, they are called “infused” virtues. They are given by God to the faithful in baptism, and they are developed in the life of prayer by God’s grace. This is why it is right to distinguish the theological virtue of charity from the ordinary use of the world love. In his book, Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes three kinds of natural love. There is sexual and brotherly love, and there is a kind of natural, familial affection. All can experience these. But it is not possible to have agape-caritas-charity except as a gift from God.
Charity vs. mere love
This becomes clear as we read 1 Corinthians 13. It tells us that agape-love is all sorts of things that we do not naturally do or possess. Love is patient, kind and longsuffering; it does not seek its own good and it never fails. Human love, in contrast, is not a disinterested concern for the good of the other—and it fails all the time. Because natural love is infected by the fall, the desire for the good of the other is always leavened by our own needs and desires.
We are able to love with agape/charity only after we experience this kind of love from God. In relationship with God, we experience love in way that we cannot experience love anywhere else. God first convicts us of our sin, then he forgives us, then he cleanses and heals us, then he gives us strength to live in a new way. God brings his order and beauty of our chaos, causing all things to work together for good in our lives. We experience this pattern repeatedly through the life of prayer.
No human counselor or agent can love us in this way. No human agent can forgive us—for only Christ has the power to forgive. No human agent can cleanse us—for only the Spirit can wash away sins. No human agent can give us the strength to overcome our sins. Apart from grace we are stuck. And no human agent can exercise a sovereign and benevolent control over our lives. Agape/charity is known only as a gift from God.
When I say that no human agent can do these things, I mean no human agent acting apart from God’s grace. However, the members of Christ’s body, whom Christ has gifted to be agents of his grace, can love as Christ loves using the particular gifts Christ has given us. However, our use of spiritual gifts is dependent upon our own ongoing experience of Trinitarian love. We can only give to others what we have and know ourselves.
Thus, the right use of spiritual gifts depends upon our own experience and possession of agape or charity. As the epistle says,
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1Coritnians 13:1-3).
It is possible to exercise all manner of spiritual gifts, perform extreme acts of charity and even die as a martyr in ways that render the actions worthless in the eyes of God. Agape or charity is the thing that distinguishes genuine good works from mere religious activity. The central question is not, what are you doing? The central question is, why are you doing it?
Lent and charity
When we understand that all our doings without charity are nothing worth, we realize that Lent is a season of both danger and opportunity. It is a season of danger if we keep the fast by observing a list of rules on a merely human level. But it is a season of opportunity to grow in agape or charity. We can go only up to Jerusalem with Jesus if we observe the fast with the goal of growing in the love that comes from God.
Our appetites get in the way or our ability to love. Thus our fast must aim to bring our appetites under the control of the Holy Spirit so that we may love more. Out motives taint our giving. So in Lent, we not only give more. We also ask ourselves, why are giving? Do I give because I want attention or recognition? Do I give because I want something back? Lent is a time to pray for God to purify our motives so that we learn to give the way God gives. Our lack of prayerfulness leaves us without the power to love. Thus, Lent begins with a renewed commitment to prayer. As Jesus said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
We start by praying for an increase in agape or charity, the love that comes from God:
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
“That on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the world, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”
The gospel: an organic parable
Last week, our gospel images came from the workplace and the athletic arena. Today, the gospel image comes from the field. Seed is scattered by one who sows or plants; the point of the parable is how the seed fares in the various locations, which represent a spiritual condition of the heart
The wayside is the soil that has been hardened by constant foot traffic. This represents the hardened heart. The seed upon the rock, or rocky soil, has a shallow surface of loose soil covering a hard base—only slightly less hardened than the wayside. The thorns represent a competing plant or affection that is growing in the heart. And the good soil is where the seed or word takes root and grows freely.
The parable presents a black and white contrast between the seed on the good soil and all others. If we were looking at a field in question, it would be obvious upon planting that the each seed was destined for its respective fate. We know we are not going to get corn on the cob from seed planted in a quarter inch of soil.
Yet, in the spiritual life it is not that simple. We cannot draw conclusions from the first plating because we cannot see the heart. There is much battle to be waged against the devil, temptation and the riches and cares of this world. Consequently, as we sow the seed of the gospel we can never be sure about its fate. How can we know whose enthusiastic first faith in Christ will be met in two years time with temptation that will make faith unfruitful? And how can we know whose faith will bear fruit?
On the meaning of patience.
The punch line of the parable is that the seed on the good soil brings forth fruit with patience. Patience is misunderstood virtue. The chief error is one of translation. The English word patience implies passivity and inactivity in way that the original Greek word does not. Thus, if we say to a young child, “be patient,” we are likely to mean that the child should sit still and do nothing until it is time for action. However, the biblical word means perseverance; it assumes a continuation of action, not idleness.
A proper analogy would be a marathon runner who keeps striding on pace and pumping the arms with an eye on the distant finish line; or, a doctoral student who keeps plugging away at the dissertation with an eye on completing it in two or three years time; or, if we are to stay with the agricultural image, patience is the gardener who continues to weed, water, prune and fertilize knowing that this will result in a beautiful flower or something to eat a year from now.
This distinction is of the utmost importance to a proper understanding of faith. The parable teaches us that patience or perseverance is the quality that separates genuine faith from faux faith. In the parable, two of the three areas that were unfruitful did in fact produce some initial growth. Only time revealed the lack of perseverance. Similarly, two new Christians, one destined to become a non-fruit-bearing nominal Christian and the other destined to become a saint, may look very much the same at the six month, year or two year mark. What will ultimately distinguish the two? Surely not that the saint was better at sitting still!
The faith that saves us is an active virtue that follows the sacramental principle. Faith is seen in what one does. As St. James says, “Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jam 2:18). The primary “works” of faith” are the things that make up the life of prayer. To persevere in faith is to persevere in prayer, which produces the fruit of obedience and good works.
Obvious problems arise when faith is viewed passively. If faith is just some abstract idea of trust, then how are we to exercise it? Faith in God might be envisioned as sitting in a chair saying “I believe, I believe, I believe”—not trusting so much as trying to convince ourselves that we trust.
Genuine faith is exercised by activity. Faith means that I participate in the Eucharist on Sunday, read the daily offices, converse with God in prayer and tithe. Faith means that I try to act with love and obedience in all the circumstances of my life. It means that I confess my sins when I fall and attempt to use my gifts to serve the Body of Christ and the world. In all these active ways, I put my life in God’s hand and, thus, trust him for the results and my destiny. Apart from some series of regular and visible activities that serve as the outward and visible sign of my faith, it would be very hard to understand exactly what I meant when I say I believe.
Patience and rule of life
This brings us back to the parable. To “bring forth fruit with patience” means to continue to practice the various activities of faith through times of temptation and testing, through demonic attack and as a way of constantly renouncing the world. The seed on the soil that that does not bear fruit represents a passive faith. It attempts to silently trust in the face of attacks from the world, the flesh and the devil; and eventually it succumbs. The fruit bearing seed, by contrast, keeps on practicing the faith.
This highlights what may be the most important point for contemporary Christians. The faith that perseveres unto the end is rooted in the will rather than the emotions. Genuine faith does not always make us feel like doing what we ought; but genuine faith does cause us to do it anyway. As we keep on doing what we ought in spite of our feelings, we move persistently towards the goal of resurrection and life in the world to come.
Let us return to our analogies for support. At mile fifteen, the marathon runner may feel like giving up. If he follows his feelings, he will not complete the race. But if he has developed the will to continue on in spite of the feelings, if he has patience, he will finish. Our gardener may frequently not feel like weeding or watering. But if he continues on with his husbandry anyway, he will have flowers and fruit—and if he does not he will not. Clearly, the will is more important than feelings.
The biggest temptation we face is not the temptation to commit sin. The biggest temptation we face is the temptation to give up the practice of the faith. When we abandon the discipline of living in communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, sin fills the void and faith diminishes. That is the devil’s goal. Any particular sin we may be tempted to commit is only for the larger purpose of pulling us away from faith and prayer. Sin leads to guilt; repeated sin leads to despair, which then leads us to give up. The only sure way to combat that temptation in the long run is to persevere, to never give up.
To be a Christian in the Anglican tradition is to practice the faith within the framework of the Anglican rule of life. Our prayer life reflects a three-fold pattern. We gather as a church for the Eucharist each Sunday and on certain holy days. We pray the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. And we make time for conversation with God. On top of this we establish personal disciplines of giving, fasting and silence. We live out this rule through an annual cycle of feasting and fasting that begins in Advent and reaches it fulfillment in Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Our personal rule must be fit our temperament and schedule. It may be adjusted seasonally or as our circumstances change; but it must never be abandoned. As we persevere in our practice of the faith, we grow spiritually. We “see” Christ more clearly and worship God more sincerely. We become stronger and more able to resist temptation. We come to discern the nature of our gifts and our how we are called to serve God and others in the world. We bear fruit.
For our faith to bear fruit in an efficient and effective manner, two things are necessary. First, we must establish some pattern for our practice of the faith; we must establish some “rule of life.” Second, we must persevere in the observance of our rule until we die or the Lord comes. As Jesus said, “That on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the world, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.”
Septuagesima Sunday marks a significant change in season and focus. From Advent through the last Sunday after Epiphany, we focus on the Incarnation and the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. Today we begin to look forward to the Cross and Resurrection. Septuagesima means “seventieth day;” it begins our countdown to Easter. Today is actually the sixty-fourth day before Easter, It is likely that the observance of the seventieth day before Easter was moved to the following Sunday at some point in time.
Septuagesima is one of three pre-Lenten Sundays. Next week is Sexagesima, which meaning “sixtieth day”—even even though is actually the fifty seventh day before Easter; the following Sunday is Quinquagesima, which is means “fiftieth day” and is, finally, accurate. This two and a half week season is a time to get ready for Lent. It has a dual, paradoxical, focus. It is time to start thinking about and planning for one’s participation in the Lenten fast. But it is also the time for the last celebration—Carnival, Mardi Gras and so forth. We enjoy the good things God has given even as we make plans to give them up.
Grace and labor
The lessons are complementary meditations on labor and grace. In the epistle St. Paul talks about the discipline practiced by athletes who strive to win a race or contest. In the athletic contests St. Paul had in mind, the victor was given a crown made of foliage that would be dead within a short space of time. Since we are striving to win the crown of everlasting life that will never decay, St Paul suggests that the battle we fight against our spiritual enemies and the race we run is worthy of even greater effort and discipline.
The gospel talks about labor, but it is really about grace. The workers labor for different amounts of time during the day, but all receive the same wage at the end. The story doesn’t tell us how to pay workers. The story illustrates that the dynamics of salvation do not fit into a story about labor. We are saved by grace. All who believe will receive the gift of eternal life no matter how long they labor in God’s field.
Placed together on Septuagesima, these lessons highlight the tension between grace and labor. The gospel suggests that it is never too late to repent and be saved. Grace is free and always available. The epistle suggests that it never too late for those who are in the kingdom to ultimately fall short of it by a lack discipline. The two truths are sometimes presented as though they are irreconcilable; as though to say that we must expend effort means that we think we can “work” our way into the kingdom. After all, if salvation is a “free gift” why do we need to eat less food and abstain from things we like? Why should we pray, practice generosity and create space for contemplation and silence? Why should we do good works?
We can understand why by analogy to human parenting. In healthy families, parents love their children unconditionally and not because they have achieved something. The status of the child in the family is a result of the grace of birth. Why, then, should the child study, exercise and do chores? The answer is that these things will aid the child’s development and make the child a better person. Parents will still love irresponsible children who drop out of school and don’t take care of their bodies; but those parents will be heartbroken and those children will not become productive functioning adults.
Spiritual life and new birth in the Spirit.
To be saved by Jesus Christ is to be transferred into a new realm or new mode of existence, by means of baptism and faith—by the grace of new birth. There is nothing we can do to achieve that new mode of existence on our own. We can’t climb up in to heaven or earn access into the kingdom. However, once we have been saved by grace, once have been brought in to the kingdom, living faithfully in that new realm requires effort of us. That effort does not save us. That effort makes God’s grace more effective and fruitful in us.
The spiritual growth we experience in Christ operates according to natural principles that correspond to physical growth. Better habits of spiritual diet and exercise will result in better spiritual health and more significant spiritual growth in the same way that healthy mental and physical habits aid the mind and body. Neglect of the means of spiritual development will result in a prolonged spiritual infancy and childhood and a lack of fruitfulness in the Christian life.
In all areas of life a lack of disciplined preparedness leads to a lack of success. In sports, when a player hasn’t worked on his fundamental skills he isn’t able to perform successfully when that skill is required in the game. A musician or singer who does not rehearse will end up hitting discordant notes during the performance. When we focus only on salvation by grace and neglect the need to grow in spiritual strength and proficiency through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we create Christians who are not able to effectively deal with the temptations they face in the spiritual battle that takes place each day. We must learn to see the Christian life as contest that requires preparation and discipline; and we must realize that the practice of that discipline is the sum and substance of the Christian life. It is what we call, “The life of prayer.”
Pre-Lent as a call to action.
The various seasons of the church year are a gift to us; they remind us periodically of the various aspects of the Christian life that we tend to forget or neglect with the drift of time. Septuagesima is a trumpet call that alerts us to begin to think about girding up for Lenten battle that prepares us for Easter. This is season of spiritual opportunity for those who have ears to hear.
We can pose three questions to establish a framework for pre-Lenten reflection. First, what is your most besetting sin? The deadly sins are: pride, envy, covetousness, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth or laziness. Which of these most hinders you in the spiritual battle? This will be the focus of your Lenten confession. Second, the virtues that stand opposite these sins are: humility, thankfulness and contentment, generosity, charity, chastity, self-control and diligence. Which of these do you need to develop so that you can be more effective in the spiritual battle? This will be the focus of your Lenten prayer for growth. Third, what new spiritual disciplines will you practice to help you conquer the besetting sin and grow in the corresponding virtue? This will be the foundation for your practice of Lent. The next two and a half weeks are a time to pray and think about these things; they are a time to ask God to show us what we need to work on and how we ought to do it.
It is hard to be faithful in the Christian life, but the principle of success is simple. Like every other thing in life, if we want to be better at it, we must work at developing the skills that will help us succeed. As St. Paul writes,
Everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run…not with uncertainty…I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9: 26-27).