Complacency and despondency. I think these are the two great spiritual dangers faced by Christians in our culture, or any culture.
The spiritually complacent Christian is smug and overconfident before God. He does not repent, he does not actively seek God, he does not strive, through His grace, to serve Him more faithfully and follow Him more closely. The complacent Christian has no great love for God and no real consciousness of his own sin. He avoids dwelling on spiritual thoughts because he knows the truth will interfere with his comfortable way of life. The complacent Christian tells himself that he’s already completed the one single task required of Christians: that is, at some individual point in time, he verbally or mentally announced a belief in Him and an acceptance of all that stuff in the Bible — although he doesn’t really know what’s in the Bible, and in fact does not accept most of it.
The complacent Christian believes that he can be selfish, lustful, spiteful, vengeful, adulterous, disobedient, and prideful all he wants. In his mind, he’ll reap the rewards of salvation regardless, despite the fact that Scripture excludes such people from the Kingdom (1 Cor 6:9). He has determine that Christ was exaggerating when He prescribed keeping the commandments as a condition of the Christian life (John 14:15). All we need do, this Christian tells himself, is feel, think, and say that we believe. And not even every day. Just once. Nothing else is required. Sin is irrelevant. Repentance is a symbolic exercise at best, and not a very important one.
Of course, Scripture responds here with a loud rebuke: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” And again: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins.” And again: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.” And again: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” And again: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
All of these passages clearly indicate the necessity of actively following and listening to Christ, and making actual sacrifices for His sake. This is why the word “if” — the Big If — often appears when Scripture speaks of salvation. But the complacent Christian ignores the “if.” He concludes that following Christ and listening to Him and making sacrifices for Him is far too burdensome a proposition. He declines, therefore, to heed the call. Instead, he wraps himself in a small, random, out-of-context assortment of passages that seem to give him a license to live exactly as he wishes. He trusts, without basis, that he will never go to Hell no matter what he does or how he lives.
On the other hand, the despondent Christian — a category in which I am much more likely to find myself — does not share the complacent Christian’s fatal self-assuredness, but he ends up just as spiritually sedentary. He knows that he must follow Christ. He knows that his sins matter. He knows that repentance is required for salvation. He does not hide from these facts, but he feels he has already been damned by them. He looks at his life, his lengthy resume of sin and moral cowardice, his track record of failure and betrayal, and he feels that he’s dug himself into a spiritual hole from which he can never escape.
The despondent Christian feels that he’s incapable of following God. And he’s correct that he’s not capable of his own accord, yet he doesn’t ask for God’s help. He’s given so much of his life to vain and materialistic pursuits that, he imagines, it’s too late. He doesn’t know how to set himself right and “walk in the light, as He is in the light,” and again he doesn’t consult God on the matter. He insults the Lord by thinking that even the God of all creation is not powerful or merciful or loving enough to rescue a lowly sinner such as he.
He knows that he’s made so many declarations and oaths and resolutions about the things he’ll do, the ways he’ll live, the holiness he’ll attain, the faith he’ll embody “from now on,” but they’ve always amounted to nothing. Plans crumble, promises are broken, oaths are abandoned, and he finds himself in the same place he’s been all along. What he says now means nothing tomorrow. His pledges for the future remain in the future, and the future never arrives.
He listens to the complacent Christians talk about how they “gave their whole life to God” with one word or thought, and the Heavens opened up, and everything changed from then on without any effort at all on their part, and he feels even more despondent. What is he doing wrong, he asks? For him, living the Christian life is an almost impossible struggle, yet these people talk about it like it’s a trip to Six Flags. Why has he not had a spiritual epiphany? Why is he following Christ through six feet of icy snow while these other Christians, according to their testimony, are merrily and casually strolling beside Christ over flat, rubberized pavement on a cool spring day without the slightest gust of wind impeding their progress?
He gives up. He cannot be a Christian, he erroneously concludes. He’s too weak, too inconsistent, too prone to temptation. He raises the white flag and surrenders to the world. And in this surrender, he experiences a sort of false relief. Suddenly, he finds that he’s strolling along just as easily as the complacent Christians. After all, they have given up on God, too, they just aren’t as conscious of it. His despondency and their complacency have joined them together. They both lack faith — he in Christ’s mercy and grace, they in Christ’s teachings and commandments — and that lack of faith has brought them both to the same road, and that road leads to the same place.
Both the complacent and despondent neglect and ultimately abandon the daily practice of loving and serving God because they find it pointless. The complacent Christian thinks that no such effort is required because he’s already done his duty by confessing, at one point, some vague and lethargic belief in some version of God that he conjured in his head, while the despondent Christian thinks that the effort would be meaningless because God has no interest in him anyway. They’re both wrong. Fatally wrong. The great truth that they ignore or fail to understand, and that all Christians must ever keep in mind, is this:
The Christian life is something we can only live now. Today. This moment. Actively. Purposefully. Faithfully. Right now.
Christ rebukes complacency and despondency in the Sermon on the Mount when he says: “But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for tomorrow: for tomorrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”
Christ says to the complacent: Seek me today. First. Before anything else. Actively pursue and follow me right now. This moment. No matter what you thought or felt or said in the past. Don’t think your duties are finished or that you have no more sacrifices to make.
And to the despondent: Seek me today. First. Before anything else. Actively pursue and follow me right now. This moment. No matter what sins you committed in the past and no matter how unsure you are of the future. Don’t think you’re doomed because of who you’ve been until now. Don’t think that change is impossible. Remember, with Me all things are possible.
This is our task, to give Him this moment. This very one. Trust in Him, depend on Him, serve Him this moment. Be a Christian at this second in time, and then in the next second when it arrives, and the next, and the next, constantly reaffirming and demonstrating our commitment through word, thought, and deed.
This is what I remind myself whenever I’m feeling particularly defeated or hopeless. Whatever has happened before, good or bad, I know that God has given me this moment, another in a long succession, as if to say, “Here, try again.” The fact that I’m alive means that there’s more for me to do. God has not given up on me, nor is He satisfied. He has not despaired of me, neither should I despair. He is not complacent about my life, neither should I be complacent. He gives me another chance. This chance. Will I take it or not?
Perhaps I loved Him well yesterday, perhaps not. Regardless, the only reason I was given today is to love Him again. That is, to love Him actively, in thought and deed, in a way that manifests itself clearly and bears fruit. God does not care what I say I will do, will think, will feel, will believe; neither is He content with what I have done, have thought, have felt, have believed. He knows what a fickle and ridiculous person I am. He knows what I said or felt yesterday does not necessarily have any bearing on today. So, He says, “Don’t tell me about tomorrow. Don’t talk to me about yesterday. Give Me today. And when tomorrow is today, give Me that too. And on and on until your work on Earth is done.”
“Take up your cross daily.” Daily. Every day. Not once five years ago. Not today and then you’re good from here on out. The Christian life is an ongoing, daily struggle which requires constant prayer, repentance, and obedience.
We’re neither doomed nor saved by our past. History is full of people who have come to God in a moment and then abandoned Him in another. And there are many (but probably fewer) examples of the reverse. Of those examples, my favorite is the penitent thief on Calvary. We don’t know what sort of life he lived up until that moment, but we know by his own testimony that it warranted a gruesome death. Yet, after all of that wickedness, he turned to Christ with a simple contrition: “We indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
The thief didn’t ask to be saved from his suffering. He didn’t make excuses. He accepted the consequences. He came to Christ without any expectations. He looked to Christ with submissive love, saying meekly, “Remember me, Lord.” The clock was ticking. He beat the buzzer by mere moments. If he had put off repentance any longer, if he had decided to indulge in hatred, envy, self-pity, and vengeance in that moment, it would have been the end of everything for him. But he said instead, “Give me Christ.” And he got his wish.
Imagine the joy this criminal must have felt to be promised Paradise that very day. Yet imagine the torment he still had to endure. Christ didn’t save him from his temporal suffering. That still lay before him and there was no escaping it. The thief didn’t want to escape it, anyway. It was the impenitent thief who besought Christ for temporal rather than eternal rewards, and as a consequence he received neither. The penitent thief wanted nothing but Christ, whatever that entailed. And he got Him. All of Him.
Is there any better illustration of how a sinner ought to approach Christ? The ultimate mix of joy and suffering; the combination of faith and humility; the all or nothing nature of the choice; the decision to give that moment, with all of its pain and humiliation, to Christ. It was just one moment, but to borrow a phrase from CS Lewis, it was a moment that contained all moments. It was a moment that became eternity.
Our job, then, is to live each moment like the penitent thief, which means we can be neither complacent nor despondent. And if we ever find ourselves reflecting more the attitude of the impenitent thief — arrogant, foolish, demanding, selfish, despairing — then without delay we must flee back to the right side. We can always have forgiveness, we can always try again, we can always draw closer to Christ as long as we’re alive. Indeed, that’s the only reason we are alive. But this life won’t last forever. We don’t have a lot of time. All we can do, then, is ask for Christ and Christ alone this moment, each moment, until we reach our final moment — whenever it arrives.
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