November 24, 2008

soul sadness

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.

Soul Sadness

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.


Anonymous said...

The word that echoes through all of this, for me personally, is pride. If we are His child, we of course have the Holy Spirit dwelling in this body of flesh. This flesh is all flesh—no spirit. This brings me back to the thought of the spirit verses the flesh. Because we have the spirit dwelling in us, we of course have a desire to do good—which comes from the spirit. But our flesh wages war upon this desire- with Satan’s abundant help. Satan says, “ How can I turn this noble desire into something of the flesh and help to cancel it’s effect?” He can’t just remove it, because the Holy Spirit is stronger than he, but he can sure twist it. He can make it be of the flesh by simply making this desire a point of pride. And that’s where the self comes in. We know that all good and Godly attributes or traits of our personality can, through sin, be taken into a fault. (the mother that loves and cares for her children, but makes them her idol.) I think it was Chesterton who wrote about right and “almost right”. We can have self-sacrifice and service to others “almost right”. The action is right but the motive is wrong—steeped in self and therefore sin rather than an action based on an outpouring of our love for the Savior. We should “put on Christ”. If we do, then we should be hidden from view—it should be all Christ and none “us”. But the flesh struggles with this. We are constantly averting our eye from Christ to the mirror for that little glimpse of “me”. How am I looking? In this very concern, we have lost Christ—we cannot fully, wholeheartedly focus on Christ and yet for even a moment look on self. Even our concern of our stance with God negates God, because again, we are more concerned with “us” than the glory of “Him”.
Now, the sadness of soul comes from our inability to meet the mark. If we are concerned with meeting the mark, then we have quantified our good and no amount of good can undo the ‘bad” dwelling within us. We are still consumed with self and not looking to Him—the author and finisher of our salvation.
Better to rest in Him, inside Him, hidden in Him. No me, just God. Looking ever to the cross, because there can be no self-concern while gazing at the miracle of our redemption. And if we are resting in Him, and focused all on Him, then all that energy expended in turning to the left or right, seeking our reflection from God and man, is now spent in and for Him—through good works, self-sacrifice, prayer, meditation upon Him. When consumed with His majesty and glory, there is no room for “me”. We have patience because the concern for self is gone. “ All is His way, in His time.” Humility and tranquility come because we are no longer consumed with our “performance” only looking to Him, listening to Him and doing for Him.

Kate said...

Good stuff like this always reminds me of the frail humanity of those of us who emphasis salvation by grace and strongly oppose the concept of works righteousness. I tend to think that works righteousness is not an issue I have to deal with, because I was weaned on sola gratia :). But every word of this strikes home. that's where my complacence came in.
I think the biggest havoc this wreaks in my life is that I cease to understand the power of the Cross and Christ's right and power to forgive and free me from guilt and sin. I tend to rather rejoice in this soul sadness and be proud of myself when it hangs on, even after confessing it to God. I think I'm a very good person for being so troubled by it. But really I want to feel like a very good little humble Christian, grieved by sin.

Sheila Atchley said...

Fantastic. Provoking. I shouldn't have read it this late at night (10:40 PM) because, as all good writing will do, this has caused an avalanche of contemplation.

I get frustrated when someone else puts so succinctly my own jumbled thoughts and vague impressions. Why couldn't "I" have said it like that? :-)

Thanks for taking the time, Lynn.