Archives For Sanctification

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

On the Nature of Virtue

November 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.

If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”

He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.

Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.

The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).

So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.

You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.

And What about that Book?

I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.

The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.

The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).

Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.

One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.

I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.

Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.

As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.

Boot Camp Religion

September 23, 2013 — 21 Comments

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.

_____

* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Human Transformation

February 23, 2012 — 2 Comments

Some of us aren’t really happy with the person we are. We’d like to be better than the man or woman who squanders their life in the pursuit of the trivial . . . while we neglect what is truly important.

Fortunately, when we look to God as he has revealed himself in his only, begotten Son, we are transformed. As we place our trust—our faith—in Jesus the Messiah, what was dying is reborn. Instead of aligning our eternal fate with a decaying world, we are embraced by the Giver of eternal life.

By the grace of God, through the work of his Holy Spirit, we are transformed. This is a lifelong process that doesn’t experience its culmination until we stand in the presence of our Lord. In the meantime, however, we are engaged in the process of “sanctification,” becoming holy (like our God is holy!).

Not only is this a lifelong process, it’s a daily, ongoing progression. C.S. Lewis provides an excellent illustration of the daily aspect of our spiritual growth:

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind. We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

What a wonderful adventure we are on!

May the grace, mercy, peace and glory of God seep deep into your heart, mind and spirit.