This brief passage from Chapter 4* is rich and stunning and has been whirling in my thoughts for a couple of days now. I've re-read these seven sequential paragraphs slowly a half dozen times and they're still talking to me.
I'm posting the passage uncut in the hopes that some of you might think aloud on these things with me. I'd love some company here in the whirlwind.
A Pharisee who does nothing but focus on avoiding sin is still concentrating on sin, which makes him or her little different from the person who voraciously lives in sin. Both are consumed by sin -- one to avoid it, the other to live in it.
Undue fretting leads to "soul sadness," or despondency or "inquietude," as Francis de Sales* put it. Soul sadness is the result of a performance-based holiness and it often plagues those who most want to serve God.
De Sales wrote that true holiness is cultivated with "patience, meekness, humility, and tranquillity, expecting it more from the providence of God than from [our] own industry or diligence." If, however, we seek deliverance from sin out of performance (which is merely a form of self-love and self-exaltation), we will fatigue ourselves and fall into a soul sadness that, "instead of removing, aggravates the evil, and involves [the soul] in such anguish and distress, with so great loss of courage and strength," that we imagine ourselves "incurable."
Thus de Sales asserted that soul sadness, resulting from self-love and self-effort, "is the greatest evil that can befall the soul, sin only excepted." Soul sadness saps our strength, which is needed to resist the temptation. This is how it keeps us in the maze of "performance."
It is possible for us to desire holiness for the wrong reasons; perhaps we simply want to use holiness for fame, as others might use a beautiful voice or eloquent speech. Or perhaps we are steeped in pride and simply unwilling to count ourselves among the truly sinful. This unholy desire for holiness produces a soul sadness that Satan exploits to further defeat us, with the intent of driving us off the cliff of despair.
Soul sadness "proceeds from an inordinate desire of being delivered from the evil which we feel, or of acquiring the good which we desire: and yet there is nothing which tends more to increase evil, and to prevent the enjoyment of good, than an unquiet mind."
The essence of the Christian life is a love relationship with God. Our standing in the Christian life rests with Christ; when the virtues take on too much importance, that is, when acquiring virtues and avoiding sin become the primary focus of our walk, we have elevated the (admittedly important) secondary over the primary. Another way of putting it is that we have made an idol out of our own piety.
*from Seeking the Face of God by Gary Thomas. Search this month's archives for my reading journal quotes from Chapters 1-4.
**Francis de Sales was a Christian who wrote at the beginning of the 1600's.