Living A Christian Life Requires Constant Effort
When I was 13-years-old my dad challenged me to do 40 situps every day for two weeks. I informed him after the two weeks that I successfully completed his challenge and planned to continue the exercise. And I did. I kept it up for quite some time. When I began to see the slightest definition in my 13-year-old abdomen muscles I was ecstatic. I naively thought that I could take it easy for a while and nothing would change. I didn’t know that exercise results hinge on the continuation of the exercise.
As I think about it now it all seems silly. And yet I’m guilty of doing this exact same thing when it comes to abiding in Christ. I wake up to spend time with God for several days in a row or I win a small battle against temptation and then I think I can take it easy for awhile–after all I’ve just won a battle! But that’s the exact opposite of the way it works. When we celebrate the small victories we lose the war. The church fathers uniformly affirm that constant vigilance is necessary and uncompromisable. There isn’t time to “take-it-easy”; we can’t afford to. As Paul Evdokimov put it, “Every pause is a regression.”1
The fact is, living a Christian life requires much more than a morning exercise routine. Christianity is not just going to Church on Sunday. Christianity is not a list of do’s and don’ts. Christianity is not the sinner’s prayer. Christianity is the union of human persons with the only true person, Jesus Christ, and thereby becoming true persons through Him. And in this sense, Christianity is a journey towards this union with Christ–an existential quest towards being. Above all, being a Christian means living a life in Christ. A life in Christ is not a static fact given to us at conversion but a dynamic reality we are meant to live. It is a journey that must be travelled every moment of every day. As C.S. Lewis put it,
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.2
We reap what we sow,3 not in the way of karma–which is often how Christians often interpret this verse–but rather in the way of personhood: the thoughts, choices, and desires of a man determine the kind of man he is.
Much like my 13-year-old understanding of muscles, I used to think being a Christian would take care of itself. I said “the prayer” and as a result I thought I’d automatically start seeing “Christian fruit.” From experience I can tell you that is not how it works. Constant effort is not optional, it is necessary, for as Saint Seraphim of Sarov put it, we are engaged in a battle against an enemy who never sleeps nor tires.
So what does this effort look like? What is vigilance and how do we remain vigilant? How do we abide in Christ? The search for the answer to these questions in my own life led me and my family to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. I cannot say I have all the answers; I certainly do not. But what I have gathered, by God’s grace, I will share here as briefly as possible.
The Liturgical Calendar
The Orthodox Church affirms that the triune God is worshipped “at all times and in every hour, in heaven and on earth”4 and that when we worship we are joining in with the heavenly choir, the angels, and the saints. The Church’s Liturgical Calendar is set up to help us rhythmically step into, and develop, a pattern of worship. In addition to the yearly cycle, there is a weekly cycle of fasting, a daily cycle of prayer and so on. Practically speaking, when I began to participate in this cycle, I noticed a change in my overall temperament. The day would follow a pattern of morning prayers, prayers before meals, and evening prayers. Short times during the day to reorient myself back to Christ.
The Orthodox Church uses icons in worship–Holy Images of Christ, Mary, and the saints. These icons, hanging in the Church and in our house, cultivate the presence of God by bringing us back to the center and meaning of life. It is a way to keep Christ at the forefront of our daily lives. Candles are lit while daily prayers are said in the presence of these icons and serve as a reminder of the light of Christ within us.
One area we have failed to confront in our age is the thought life. We must guard our thoughts because “The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts.”5 And often our thoughts are the leading cause for our not abiding in Christ. Elder Thaddeus, in his book Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, said it this way,
Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
In order to be vigilant we must take every thought captive to Christ. “Be the doorkeeper of your heart and do not let any thought come in without questioning it.”6
One writer explained that often our thoughts aren’t even our own–they are traps set by the demons. For as soon as you attack a lustful, hateful, judgmental, or otherwise sinful thought by thinking, “I shouldn’t think about such and such” you have already fallen prey to their evil ploy. Instead of attacking such thoughts we should divert our attention to Christ through prayer. The early Christians did this with a short prayer said repetitively. The reason for this is to have a specific prayer in your arsenal that you can immediately go to and begin praying. For in such cases when we pray without knowing what to pray our minds will often wander back to the forbidden thought. The short, repetitive prayer will allow you to focus on the words and refocus on Christ, in whom and through whom is our victory. One example of this is, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” When we practice this enough, whenever a thought trips a red flag, the natural movement of our minds will be to pray.
So how do we abide in Christ? The answer, I truly believe, is in the Church. (But that’s probably a different post waiting to happen.) These specific examples are just a few of the practices–explained and given to me from the witness of the Church–that have helped me on my journey; it is by no means a comprehensive list. I would love to talk about how confession has played a role as well, although I believe that also is a different post. So for now, I pray that God will guide us both as we continue to travel. Stay vigilant. Journey onwards.