Thursday, January 11, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Slothful Slackers

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter One: Just Do What You Like to Do!
(Section One: Advice for Slothful Slackers)

The first step is probably the easiest. All it takes is to do what comes naturally to you. If you’re prone to slack off, just apply that tendency to every part of your Christian life, and you’ll find your misery. If, on the other hand, you’re a workaholic sort, then all you have to do is apply a perspective on God that matches your innate tendencies—viewing him as a God who expects absolute perfection from you and is perpetually disappointed when you don’t attain it—and you’ll find your misery, too.

You see, a lot of Christians, over a lot of centuries, have wasted time looking for the appropriate balance of personal effort and resting in God’s grace. The truth is that they could have easily found the widely popular quality of misery simply by avoiding “balance” altogether, and running as fast as they could to the particular end of the effort-spectrum that came most naturally to them.

For a lot of people (including this author), there’s a natural tendency to just slide by in life with a minimal application of effort. The reason is simple: effort is hard, it’s taxing, and it often takes a long time before you can enjoy the fruit of your labors. It’s much easier just to lie back, do the things within your comfort zone without stretching yourself too much, and then you can devote your surplus time and energy to the many idle recreations that we all enjoy so much in our culture.

In the past, though, Christians who had this tendency were often advised to practice a measure of discipline in their daily lives. They were taught that sloth was a sin (rather than, as we all now know, a South American mammal). And in order to combat their slothfulness, these Christians were told to buckle down and read their Bibles every day, to spend long sessions of their time dedicated to prayer, and to conscientiously guard against old comfort-zone habits that may have been sinful.

Now, you may think, “What’s so wrong about that? Having to read your Bible and pray every day sounds pretty miserable to me, if misery is what we’re going for.” The only problem is that it’s a bait-and-switch. The folks who buckle down to practice a life of holy discipline will be miserable for a little while, yes. Developing godly habits can be hard work, after all. But if they’re even the least bit successful, showing progress over their old habits by even the slightest of margins, then they’ll find the specters of joy, contentment, and a fine-tempered perseverance lying in wait for them. If they stay on that road, any hope of being a fashionably miserable Christian will be lost to them forever.

This is a pattern that we will see over and over again throughout this book. We might have an intuitive sense that some of the harder habits of Christian living—reading one’s Bible, devoting time to prayer, fasting, keeping company with onerous busybodies in the church pews around us—will lead naturally and quickly to misery. But not so! It’s all a trick. Those habits, though they make look hard and irksome, are actually the quickest way to losing your misery for good. So keep your eye out for this kind of bait-and-switch. Just because a Christian habit or perspective might look miserable to you at first glance, keep your guard up. The Holy Spirit has more ways to sneak joy into your heart than you might give him credit for.

Christian history is littered with examples of people who went all-in on these difficult habits of Christian devotion, and—startlingly enough—they ended up as paragons of virtue and contentment, whose peaceable spirits became famous throughout the world. In the third and fourth centuries AD, a whole movement of fanatic Christians arose: wild-eyed and zealous for personal discipline, they decided to go live in poverty in the desert, where they could focus on prayer and Bible meditation instead of on sports, drama, and fashion. They were so dedicated to eradicating their personal comfort zones that they even went so far as to practice fasting. Sounds like a good recipe for misery, right? Wrong! Shockingly, some of these “desert fathers” got so good at overcoming their old temptations and slothful habits that they started experiencing startling and powerful works of God in their lives. They found a wellspring of deep contentment in the pursuit of holiness. Ultimately, this derangement led them to conclude that a dedicated lifestyle of getting rid of distractions, in order to focus on God, and of training themselves to overcome bad habits, would actually produce a rich life of holy joy and power.

So what’s the moral for us, who would prefer to fit in with our modern-day, miserable-under-the-surface churches? The moral is, don’t go crazy and become a fanatic about prayer and fasting! Ironically (but clearly), that will lead us further away from our goal of being fashionable miserable. Instead, if you are the sort of person who’s naturally inclined to a little bit of slothfulness, then just do that. It’s so easy!

Basically, you don’t have to change anything about your life at all, and you’ll soon find that coveted lifestyle of miserable Christianity creeping in on you from every side. Instead of making extra time in your schedule to do difficult things like reading the Bible and praying, just don’t bother: spend your weeks watching a little TV, relaxing, surfing the Internet, and enjoying the endless parade of social media with all your friends. After all, you’ll hear the Bible on Sunday, and you can always say a quick prayer or two if you get into some kind of trouble. (But whatever you do, don’t try fasting. It may seem like an easy shortcut to misery, but it’s fool’s gold—almost nothing has proven more effective at chastening the sinful appetites and building Christian discipline.)

Some of you may be suspicious at this point. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, even if that kind of life might eventually lead me to the misery I want, I’m not sure that avoiding the Bible and prayer is actually the way Christians are supposed to live.”

Don’t you worry, friend. We modern Christians have produced a wonderfully simple, easy-to-understand version of Christianity that says we don’t have to change the way we live at all! Surely you’ve been in church and heard the preacher telling you that God accepts you “just as you are” and that he loves you, even with all your sins and problems. Well, if that’s true, as the preachers keep on saying, then you’re good to go! No effort required in the Christian life!

(As a side point here, I’ve often found that it’s a useful practice to listen only to the main points of a preacher’s sermon, and ignore any subtlety or theological context that they may try to sneak in. Some of these over-scrupulous workers of God will try to suggest that the “God accepts you just as you are” principle, while true, is only half of the picture—what they describe in mind-numbing theology-speak as “justification”. But if they go on to try to talk about another side of the coin, perhaps making reference to “sanctification” or “growing in holiness” or “finding victory over sin” or “obeying God’s commandments,” I’ve found that such points are largely extraneous and unuseful to the pursuit of Christian misery. They can safely be ignored.)

All that to say: you can just get saved, punch your ticket to heaven, and then sit back and enjoy life as a modern American citizen, free to pursue all the distractions and entertainments our culture has to offer. But if you go off course, and try to put a little too much effort into your Christian life by reading the Bible and praying too much, well, you can kiss your dream of being fashionably miserable goodbye. Chances are, you’ll end up just the opposite: joyful, hopeful, patient, or some other such odious end.