Thursday, January 25, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Advice for Measured Moderates

(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 Three: Advice for Measured Moderates)

There’s one more type of Christian that I want to address, though. So far, I’ve advised you to find your comfort zone on the effort-spectrum, and then commit to going all-in on your end of that spectrum, since any measure of balance would be anathema to our goal. But there may be Christians out there who are naturally a little more balanced, who already know how to handle a good mix of both work and leisure without overcommitting to either. Such folks are already in a dangerous position, but, if that’s you, take heart, because there are a few simple tricks that can help you—yes, even you—to attain misery in your Christian life and practice.
One of the most effective ways is to ignore the effort-spectrum of Christian discipline altogether, and replace it with something that looks similar but which is altogether more effective for our present purpose. That is, find a substitute for Christian discipline, which may still fool the outsider but will leave you helpfully stunted in your spiritual growth.
            One of the easiest ways to do this is to read lots of books. If you’re the type who likes a good intellectual investigation, who enjoys taking sides in brainy debates and getting wrapped up in the technical minutiae that could prove your side right, well then you’ve got a whole world to explore in the exciting field of Christian systematic theology! But the same warning that applies to the Bible applies here: while it’s somewhat safer to read theology books than to read the Bible, they can still sneak in little points here and there that might frustrate your pursuit of misery.
The best tactic is to choose an arcane field of theological debate, one that will have practically no impact whatsoever on how you live your daily life, and devote yourself entirely to that: end-times speculation is one of the most popular choices these days. (Or, if you’re particularly good at limiting yourself to the technical aspects and ignoring applications to your daily life, you can also easily find helpful debates about divine sovereignty vs. human free will, or about which denomination’s view of baptism is right, or about what the best English translation of the Bible might be.) All of these are interesting, stimulating theological debates, matters of real value, but if you enter them with the intent of wrapping yourself up in a convenient distraction from your own Christian practice, they can be immensely helpful. You’ll look super-spiritual and brainy to everyone else, and you’ll get to keep your pursuit of the miserable Christian life all the while. As long as you ignore your own relationship with God, you can sink your teeth into as many wild and wonderful theological debates as you like. In this way, you’re substituting something that looks like Christian discipline for the real thing.
            Even if you’re not theologically-inclined, or if the prospect of learning about these debates makes you feel a wonderful sort of drowsiness, there are still other options out there for you. Self-help books, like this one that you’re holding, are a really great substitute for actual effort in Christian discipline. This is one of the easiest ways to perpetuate the cycle of fashionable Christian misery.
Step One: Your misery will probably convince you of the need to find some new answers for your life, so you’ll pick up a book purporting to have the answers.
Step Two: You read the book and talk about it with your friends. You discover lots of neat insights that really get you thinking.
Step Three: After reading the book, you get a recommendation or see a link for another book that can produce similar feelings of having found a neat insight. And so you start the next book.
As long as you keep to this easy-to-follow plan, you can keep reading self-help books your whole life, discovering lots of neat insights, while still, remarkably, holding on to your Christian misery! How, you ask? Well, because the only way out of your Christian misery is to actually apply some of the insights you’ve learned: to put some effort into the classic disciplines of the Christian life, or to practice soul-refreshing seasons of resting in Christ.
So the wonderful secret is this: as long as you don’t actually do anything, as long as you don’t intentionally try something to grow your daily walk with God, you’ll be fine. You can read all the books you want, and it’ll look to everyone else like you’re really spiritual and abounding in insights, when the fact of the matter is that you’ve been able to maintain, all the while, that under-the-surface discontent that is by far the most popular Christian choice these days. Just keep looking for that one next insight that will revolutionize your life, and as long as you keep looking instead of putting any of the insights into practice, you’ll be good to go.
            By now I’m sure you’ll agree: being miserable as a Christian isn’t nearly as hard as it’s cracked up to be. Remarkably, despite the joy of salvation and the delight of knowing God’s love, it’s relatively easy to maintain a fashionable level of Christian misery. All it takes is a little bit of dedication to ignore the right things.