A follow-up of faith, exercise and striving

I’m still thinking about my last post where I called the following statement an Evangelical platitude: “In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it.” I think some clarification may be in order. I call this a platitude, not because it is platitudinous in its essence, but rather that it has become one of those things that we Christians tend to say without considering the gravity of it.

Whoever first said that true faith requires us to exercise it said something profound and necessary. This is James’ point when he says that faith without works is dead. The point of all this is that faith is more than mental assent; it’s an attitude (or a posture) which inevitably leads to action.

Over and over the church has rediscovered that the talk is easy and the walk … well, not so much. That’s why there’s been a very long line of Christians taking it the extra step beyond what most of the rest of the Christians were doing. We could go all the way back to those first ascetics who left Jerusalem and Alexandria for the desert, in order to strive against sin and strive in the direction of God. And in that same tradition would be contemporary Protestant movements, such as the Navigators (at least as they were 20 or 30 years ago) who understood it wasn’t good enough to merely assent. Faith required action.

“In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it,” is a platitude only so far as it is a profundity that we tend to take for granted. That’s why hearing the same sentiment from a different tradition … in this case, a monk from Mt. Athos … is always helpful to wake us from our slumber. As the deacon says several times throughout the Divine Liturgy: “Pay attention!” He says it because more often than not that’s what we need to do.

Exercising One’s Faith

The Greek word “askesis” is equivalent to the English word “exercise.”  The English word athlete comes from this same Greek word “askesis.”  It is transliterated into English as “ascetic” or “asceticism.” With this in mind, we can realize that the following two sentences use the same terms in much the same way, although it seems they have a very different force. The first is a common American Evangelical platitude:

In order for one to have faith, a person must exercise it.

The other comes from the Introduction to Archimandrite Sophrony’s book St. Silouan the Athonite:

Faith entails ascetic striving.

The Sanctification of Time: Being Present in the Moment

A man was sent to prison for seventy years. He spent his days standing on tiptoe, trying to look out the window his cell, through which he could jus catch a glimpse of the sky.

Looking at the sky, he thought about what it would be like to be free. In his imagination he used to go on long journeys. Sometimes he went into the future and thought about what life would be like after he had finished his time in jail. Some of these thoughts were pleasant. After all, freedom looks wonderful to anyone who does not have it. But sometimes his imagination would take him to places that terrified him. Life in prison certainly has its drawbacks, but at least you do not have to worry about feeding yourself or how to organize your day.

Looking into the future, the prisoner was obsessed with “what ifs.” He worried about growing old and being lonely, about getting sick and having no one to care for him, about being scorned or rejected. Often he feared he might not get all the benefits of life that so many other people seemed to have. Feelings of failure, fears of not living up to his potential – whether in his own eyes or in the eyes of people whose approval mattered – formed a major part of his outlook.

Looking into the past was not much more promising. There the predominant thought tended to be “if only” – if only he had not pursued the course of action that had led to his imprisonment. He experienced a certain amount of nostalgia, which gave him feelings of warmth and happiness, but most of the time he felt only regret.

Thus, he spent his days dreaming and remembering, fantasizing and worrying. He felt alienated when he was with others, and completely alone when he was not.

It happened that the day the man was due to leave prison, he had a heart attack and died. In due course, he arrived at the throne of God.

“Where were you when I needed you?” he demanded of God.

“I longed to see you,” replied God, “but every day when I came to visit you in your cell, you were not there.”

From Meletios Webber, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil, Ch. 5, “The Sanctification of Time,” p. 79