Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reverse Progress

I want to share an excerpt from a book I'm reading by Dr. John Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace:  Spirituality for Today.

The self-sacrificial death of Christ shapes our spiritual life and gives our lives their paradoxical character.  So Christ's sacrifice reverses and revises all common notions of spiritual progress.

We all, quite understandably, long for some evidence of spiritual development and improvement, for some clear proof that we are on the right track as disciples of Christ.  Nothing is more discouraging than failure, the sense that we are bogged down and are getting nowhere in our spiritual journey.  The image that appeals to me most is the picture of my life as a spiritual journey from darkness to the light (Prov. 4:18) as I go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:7) and from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).  Yet this progressive understanding of the spiritual life is not backed up by my experience and by the teaching of the New Testament.  There is progress in the spiritual life, but it is a kind of reverse or paradoxical progress, our baptismal progress out of our old selves and into Christ.

You may remember that the Lord God appeared to His people at Mount Sinai.  That encounter was His great theophany.  His foundational appearance to the children of Israel.  Yet it happened in a strange way.  His glory, His visible gracious presence, was veiled in a cloud that was dark by day and bright at night.  He concealed Himself in that deep dark cloud so that He could reveal Himself safely while speaking.  So, from a human point of view, the closer they came to Him, the deeper they came into the darkness.  Thus in Exodus 20:21 we read that "the people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was."

The journey of Moses into God's presence is an apt symbol for the odd progress in our spiritual life:  the progress takes us through the darkness, rather than from the darkness, into the light of God.  As we mature in faith, we move away from pride in ourselves and our own achievements to a gradual awareness of our spiritual failure and Christ's work in us as we entrust ourselves to Him.  We move away from the conviction that we are self-sufficient to the repeated experience of spiritual bankruptcy.  We move on from delusions of our spiritual importance to a growing sense of our utter insignificance and the glory of God.  We move on from delight in our own power to the painful recognition of our spiritual weakness.  We are brought from our self-righteousness to the increasing consciousness that we are sinful.  In each of these painful realizations, we recognize the glory of God.  Christ fills our emptiness and justifies us by grace.  In short, the power of Christ is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

In our human lives, growing up involves the gradual shift from dependence to independence.  But the reverse is true for us as we grow spiritually.  On our journey we become more and more dependent on Christ for everything in every situation.  We do not then proceed from childhood to adulthood; we move forward into spiritual childhood as we grow in faith and become people of prayer.  Hence Jesus tells us to become as little children to receive our full royal inheritance as sons and daughters of God (Matthew 18:3).  As we mature in faith we learn to borrow all we need and all that we are from Christ.  Only as beggars do we have access to the Father's presence and His grace.  Only as we receive grace upon grace from His fullness (John 1:16) can we praise Him in the heavenly choir (Ephesians 1:3-14).

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