At the ETS meeting, someone handed me the inaugural issue of Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care. Despite the fact that I’m in the business of these activities I have to admit that I am often turned off by writings about spirituality and soul care. Maybe its because the words can mean so many different things.
Anyway, I finally had a chance to look at the articles and found this little treasure by John Coe, “Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation: Opening to Spiritual Formation in the Cross and the Spirit” (p. 54-78).
Coe tells his reader that he is writing to dedicated Christians (rather than consumer Christians) who are very serious about their Christian growth and have a sincere desire for increased holiness. He says he sometimes calls this group the “dedicated neurotic.”
What I have discovered, however, is that these same dedicated persons often struggle with a secret, and sometime not so secret, burden of guilt and shame that they are not as mature as they should be, that their lives often feel spiritually dry and withered, that the Christian life feels more like work than joy. They wonder at times, “God, what is wrong with me? Where are the rivers of living water? Why do I still struggle with the same sins year after year? Why is my spiritual life so dry?” And so they might pick up a Dallas Willard or Richard Foster book or come to our Institute for Spiritual Formation with a hunger to grow, hoping to find something that will make their spiritual life work. (p. 55)
Ever experience this?
Coe goes on to say that he wants to tell this person,
…what they may not know is that they are in the grips of a great temptation… For some, there is a temptation to despair of their spiritual life, to despair that God will come, to tune out, to accept a spirituality of “dry bones.” For others there is the temptation to act out immorally, so that when frustrations mount in the Christian life, the temptation is to say in one’s heart, “I cannot take it anymore, I just want to escape for a while.”
However, I want to address a peculiar temptation, one especially relevant and (I think) universal to those who are dedicated to the Christian life and to ministry. It is what I call the moral temptation. (ibid)
What is a moral temptation? In Coe’s mind it is to,
attempt to deal with our spiritual failure, guilt and shame by means of spiritual efforts, by attempting to perfect one’s self in the power of the self. It is the attempt of the well-intentioned believer to use spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, ministry, service, obedience–being good in general –as a way to relieve the burden of spiritual failure, lack of love and the guilt and shame that results. (ibid)
How do you know if you are a Christian moralist? Coe uses the following diagnostic?
Question one: When you are convicted by sin, what is your first response?Is it “I will do better…I need to work on that…” then you are a moralist. If this is not just your first response, but also your most abiding one then he really thinks you are positively a moralist. The law, Coe says, is our tutor to lead us to Christ. And we can tell the difference based on our response. Are we feeling condemned versus culpable. Are we feeling the “should do differently” versus “I cannot do it apart from Christ.” Are we thinking we should try better versus sorry for our failing. Are we making moralistic efforts versus seeking the spirit.
Question two: When you are aware of your guilt and failure, does it lead to“overwhelming and abiding feelings of frustration, sense of failure, and self-rejection so that you do no want to feel things things but, rather want to repress them from awareness…”? (p. 68) Or do you pray with the ancients, “O blessed vice, for it was you who taught me to cling to Christ”?
The next post we’ll look at some ways out of this moralistic pattern.