Perhaps we look at the whole thing wrong.
For a long time, most Christian think that they’re not actually progressing, that they’re doing something fundamentally wrong with their lives. If I am a new creation, then why do I continue to sin? Why can I not let go of the sin that holds me in its grasp? Everyone constantly references Romans 3:23 in this regard:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
A “neo-Calvinist”, so called, will tell you that we all look dirty, and that we just need to accept that. True, but let us not forget the context of the verse given here:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Grace and redemption come as gifts from the King on high. So what do we do with said gifts? We usually don’t repent, that much is true. Rarely do we find ourselves in a position to feel worthy, nor do we improve in our lives. Sin continues to overtake us at every turn. Why? Why can a newly regenerated Christian suffer in their sin, crafting new forms of guilt and then inculturating constant feelings of failure into the equation? Like Martin Scorsese’s “Catholic guilt”, everyone feels unworthy on some level. Of course, Hebrews 2 says otherwise:
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
We were meant for a life of freedom, yet the knowledge of sin brings far less freedom than we felt we had. It’s a catch-22, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Sin remains your ever-present friend. So why does this happen to Christians?
I think I may pinpoint a solution here: the way you think about the world will, inevitably, color the way you act. If you believe that sin will come, it will surely transform into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will do it, and it will continue the cycle. The culprit of this mode of thought comes from the very cognizance of sin itself, not even necessarily an act. The cognitive dissonance between Old You and New You means that habits need reshaping, former actions need repentance, and your whole life must change. Of course your body rejects it; you’re literally trying to change the way your flesh operates, and while your mind might accept it, changing your actions with your physical body overnight simply won’t happen.
On the other end, thinking about sin presents its own pitfalls. Now that you know what it is, it suddenly turns much more tempting than before. And why wouldn’t it? Now you KNOW it’s bad, so rebellion has a face and a name. Like a child disobeying a parent, you still find yourself eager to return into the old ways. Fundamentally, though, the issues isn’t that you aren’t improving, but your mindset toward it. You think of “winning” as the goal, not “improving”. It’s the difference between playing a video game to win, and playing it to experience the mechanics. For the former, you’re literally just trying to rush through the whole thing; taking your time will make the experience more enjoyable, and ultimately less haphazard in your approach. Do you think God wants you to rush through this, or that you even can?
So let’s imagine the Christian Gospel for a second. People throughout the ages thought to systematize the faith through something we now call, under a catch-all, “theology”. Theology means, quite literally, “the study of God”, and that’s exactly what we mean by it. People construct vast, elaborate systems of the Christian faith, explaining the metaphysical structure of the world or the practical affects of said structure on humanity. Everything within the system exists for a reason, and isn’t a part of other systems for precise reasons. We tend to view the surroundings as if they were the thing itself, and frequently cross the boundaries. Whether or not you accept or reject such premises on their face, you can’t deny that Christianity does require holding a number of beliefs which reflect themselves in your actions. Doing things for the right reasons means just as much as doing right things, strangely enough.
Unfortunately, in a goal oriented society, we tend to set goals in advance for ourselves, and especially in Christianity. Even though God already wins the victory, we say to ourselves “I will not do that thing” or “I will improve myself by this date or time”. It works even with dieting and the like: we orient ourselves around predetermined goals, somehow understanding where we will be a few hours from now, and then try to reach that goal. If we don’t, we feel guilty and start the cycle anew. If we succeed in that goal, we set yet another goal which will make us feel guilty again, and so on. Rather than change the entire structure of our lives, we choose instead to continue what we were doing with minor changes. That just will not do.
Instead, we need to think of our lives as an assemblage of systems that interact with an infinite number of different permutations from day to day. We will fail: that remains an inevitable part of human experience. Yet, failure should not mean feelings of guilt, or a return to square one. Initial passion means we will make promises that we will not keep, and we will do the things that we do not want to do for the spirit is willing, yet the flesh remains weak. Passion for the Gospel develops over time; it’s not a “one and done” thing. Otherwise, you continue the cycle. As Scott Adams, the author of the Dilbert comic, points out:
If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.
So how do you avoid this? Rearrange your life in a way that allows for continued improvement, that allows you to become a better person; goals will not help you, but beliefs will. Take it a day at a time, if not an hour at a time when things in your life explode. If something prevents you from success, cut it out of the equation and stop dwelling on it. The probabilities say that you will fail at avoiding sin, so reduce that probability through a constant cycle of different approaches. Know that you will sin, but dust yourself off and stop feeling guilty about it – God forgave you already. God knows your intentions and He will understand. Christianity’s system of human freedoms allows for sin precisely because of its inevitability. The constant presence of failure lets us learn from it and avoid it in the future – sometimes, we will make the same mistake, yet God still loves us. Christ’s life demonstrates the results of that system.
And hey, He failed too in a way. Some evil men slapped him up on a cross and God died. But three days later…