Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

Are you devoted to God?

William Law as a young man refused to take an oath to support the crown of England. He believed that such an oath would be the same as saying the church is subservient to the monarch. His scruples cost him his chance to be ordained in the Church of England.

Law is important for many reasons, but for United Methodists he is important because he had a powerful influence on a young John Wesley. It was reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life that convinced Wesley he should live his entire life as a devotion to God and seek holiness in all things. Wesley would later criticize Law for giving him a vision of holiness but not providing the means to attain it — justification by faith alone.

If we hold on to that concern of Wesley’s, I do find Law’s vision of a devout life compelling. Here is how the book starts:

Devotion is neither private nor public prayer; but prayers, whether private or public are particular parts or instances of devotion.

Because of this all-encompassing definition of devotion, Law has a heavy critique of people living their lives as if devotion is only what happens in church prayers.

It is for want of knowing, or at least considering this, that we see such a mixture of ridicule in the lives of many people. You see them strict as to some times and places of devotion, but when the service of the Church is over, they are but like those that seldom or never come there. In their way of life, their manner of spending their time and money, in their cares and fears, in their pleasures and indulgences, in their labour and diversions, they are like the rest of the world. This makes the loose part of the world generally make a jest of those that are devout, because they see their devotion goes no farther than their prayers, and that when they are over, they live no more unto God, till the time of prayers returns again; but live by the same humour and fancy, and in as full an enjoyment of all the follies of life as other people.

This emphasis on a total life of devotion directly influences early Methodism. Many of John Wesley’s sermons are direct expressions of Law’s point-of-view. Methodism itself, in many ways, is the fruit of this attitude that our life should be devoted entirely to God.

The spark at Methodism’s heart

John Wesley wrote two fascinating letters to William Law days before and days after his Aldersgate experience. They reveal some of the spiritual transformation that he went through in the that momentous month of May in 1738.

William Law was a spiritual mentor of Wesley’s. He wrote books of practical theology that Wesley read and recommended to others, although Law’s turn to more mystical themes alienated him from Wesley, which we can see in the two letters.

On May 14, Wesley wrote Law an accusatory letter full of pain. Wesley had been following Law’s advice in his preaching — and own life — for two years. He preached the law of God in great depth and detail. When people found they could not follow the law, he exhorted them and stirred himself up to pray for the grace of God and use the means of grace. But, still, the law was too high for him.

Under this heavy yoke, I might have groaned until death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible for thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find.

Wesley turns from sharing his great discovery to a  pointed question to Law: Why had Law never told him this piece of advice while the young Wesley was groaning in misery?

If Law thought Wesley already had faith or was being prepared for it, Wesley wrote that he was mistaken.

If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin; that gives us to have free access to the Father; to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God;” to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us; and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?”

In this letter and the follow up answering some of Law’s defense of his conduct, I hear the eruption of a spiritual experience that would shape the entire Methodist movement for the next 50 years.

Wesley the serious priest intent on holiness and mindful of hell was groaning under the pains of his own attempts to achieve his salvation by his own work and effort. He strove with sincerity and earnestness that few Christians ever attempt much less attain. And it was all vanity. He groaned still.

It was the doctrine of salvation by grace that unlocked the torture chamber of his soul. It opened his heart and gave him exceeding joy. It burst the bonds of the law with grace.

The Methodist move in those early decades was built, I am hypothesizing, to nurture that same spiritual experience in others. It was an apparatus for helping others find what John and his brother Charles had experienced.

Over time, we have lost that focus. The apparatus broke down or got used for different purposes. More and more of us carried the name of Methodist but without an knowledge of the experience or inkling that it might be the animating purpose of the movement that became a denomination.

And so, now here we sit.

Gustavo Gutierrez in his book We Drink from Our Own Wells argues that every spirituality within the Church remains a resource for Christians today. Of course, he is Roman Catholic. Identity issues are not quite so fraught for him as they are for ever-fracturing Protestants.

But I wonder how we United Methodists cohere and persevere as a church that no longer is defined by its founding spiritual experience and impetus. So many of our pastors and laity have no identification with the groans that tormented Wesley or the joy that met him in the word of grace.

Can we recenter on that spiritual experience? Should we? If we don’t, how do we remain custodians of it in ways that enrich who we are?

Nothing new under the sun

At a time when I was in great danger of not valuing [the authority of the Bible] enough, you made that important observation: “I see where your mistake lies. You would have a philosophical religion; but there can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world. It is only ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’ So far as you add philosophy to religion, just so far you spoil it.” This remark I have never forgotten since; and I trust in God I never shall.

— From a letter John Wesley wrote to William Law, Jan. 6, 1756

We flatter ourselves in the 21st century that we have discovered new spiritual problems. We imagine that our ancestors living in less advanced and blessed ages were mired in darkness, but we see things new and face all manner of new challenges. Chief among these in our day are questions about the reliability of Scripture, questions about the reality of eternal reward and punishment, questions about the necessity of church itself for the salvation of souls. Men such as Rob Bell captivate our attention and the “rise” of the ranks of the spiritual but not religious are seen as harbingers of a new age.

Of course, our fantasy that we live in a unique time when it comes to questions of the spirit would be quickly dissolved if we would read more.

For instance, John Wesley had frequent conversation and correspondence with people who raised the same questions so popular and controversial in our day. There were in 18th century England popular figures who questioned the reality of hell and preached a kind of faith that was all about personal spirituality set free from the trappings of church and Sunday worship. Spiritual but not religious was not invented by us.

William Law was a spiritual writer and teacher who had great influence in England during Wesley’s life. Wesley himself expressed his indebtedness to Law’s works. But Wesley found himself at odds with Law’s mysticism. Law argued against the need for outward means of grace. He wrote that people did not need the trappings of church and organized religion (not his term) to follow the Spirit of Christ that is given to all people. He argued against the doctrine of hell, instead insisting on something like the doctrine of universal purgatory, where the blemishes of our sins would be removed by a time of purging before all are brought to the presence of our Lord in heaven. (When I read such notions, I am reminded quite strongly of Bell’s popular book Love Wins.)

I do not deny that our circumstances are different than Wesley’s. The general “plausibility structure” of our culture is different. The social norms are different. The religious landscape is different. But I resist the idea that we face questions about belief and practice that are all that different. The context in which the questions are raised may be different, but the questions themselves appear to be quite commonplace throughout Christian history.

In his lengthy reply to Law, Wesley tackled questions of the reality of hell with an appeal to Scripture, one that historical-critical methods make problematic for many 21st century clergy, but one that sets issue in exactly the same terms that we discuss it today.

Now, thus much cannot be denied, that these texts speak as if there were really such a place as hell, as if there were a real fire there, and as if it would remain forever. I would then asked but one plain question: If the case is not so, why did God speak as if it was?

In our day, we would halt Wesley here with questions about inspiration and revelation, but I am reminded in reading his words of people who stand up at annual conference when we debate contentious issues and raise the simple question: What does the Bible say? They are putting the question much as Wesley did.

Say you, “To affright men from sin?” What, by guile, by dissimulation, by hanging out false colours? Can you believe it of Him? Can you conceive the Most High dressing up a scarecrow, as we do to fright children? Far be it from him! If there be then any such fraud in the Bible, the Bible is not of God. And indeed this must be the result of all: If there be “no unquenchable fire, no everlasting burnings,” there is no dependence on those writings wherein they are so expressly asserted, nor of the eternity of heaven, any more than of hell. So that if we give up the one, we must give up the other. No hell, no heaven, no revelation!

We might today engage in more layers of debate and argument, but the dispute between Law and Wesley captures in its fundamentals so many of the disputes we have today. Like Wesley, many contemporary Christians cannot fathom how they should be called to find the Bible both the final authority in matters of faith and practice and a book full of errors, lies, and cynical manipulations designed to play upon the credulity of simple folk.

As I read the words of Law and Wesley, I hear so many of the conversations and debates we still have today. I am reminded of that other writer of some fame who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Why did you keep this from me?

A Pentecostal friend once teased me that Methodist teaching on salvation was two words: “Try harder.”

I thought of that when I read a remarkable letter John Wesley wrote May 14, 1738, just 10 days before Aldersgate. The letter was to the Rev. William Law, who had been something of a spiritual mentor and teacher to the young Wesley. In the letter, Wesley recounted how law’s teaching had led him to preach the law.

For two years (more especially) I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises; and all that heard have allowed, that the law is great, wonderful, and holy. But no sooner than did they attempt to fulfill it, but they found that it is too high for man: And that by doing “the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified.”

To remedy this, I exhorted them, and stirred up myself, to pray earnestly for the grace of God, and to use all the other means of obtaining that grace, which the all-wise God hath appointed. But still, both they and I were more and more convinced, that this is a law by which a man cannot live: the law in our members continually warring against it, and bringing us into deeper captivity to the law of sin.

Here is the “try harder” Christianity that my friend spoke of. If we cannot be good and holy and loving people, the solution is to redouble our efforts. Hunker down. Put your back into it. Try harder.

But here is what Wesley wrote to Law.

Under this heavy yoke I might have groaned till death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible to thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find. Strip thyself naked of they own works, and thy own righteousness, and fly to him. For whosoever cometh unto him, he will in no wise cast out.”

And I love what Wesley wrote next, the young disciple to the mentor and teacher.

Now, Sir, suffer me to ask, How will you answer it to our common Lord, that you never gave me this advice?

I my mind’s ear, I hear the sound of one who had struggled and strained terribly. He had despaired of relief. And then one day someone offered him a key to unlock the chains that bound him down. It was liberating and exciting, but in a moment the thought occurred to him. “If this was so easy to do, why did no one do it before? Why was I forced to toil in such darkness when the light was so close at hand?”

Part of the goal of the letter, so it appears to me, is to challenge Law’s own faith, so the tone is not so innocent as I suggest here. There are barbs aplenty.

And yet, I wonder how many people sitting in our pews might throw the same question up at us. How many people who have heard the ungospel of “try harder” from our pulpits might ask us “why have you never told us this before” if we were to preach more faithfully the gospel of, as Wesley puts it, “the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus”?

How many of our people stumble onward with the kind of faith Wesley had: “that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not in the heart”?

Other books Wesley read

John Wesley famously called himself a man of one book, but he read quite widely.

Some of the writers who informed his spirituality include:

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest