Faith and Discipline—Reflections on Albert Edward Day, Part 3

The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship.

We have talked much about salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not a vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ [emphasis added]. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

—From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day

As you might have guessed, the demands of seminary have kept me from writing weekly. For lots of reasons, I’m going to work really hard at not letting that happen again. Suffice it to say here that I find it truly ironic that that which is supposed to be formational can actually be just the opposite when we let it take first place in our lives. But that’s another topic for another day.

When I last wrote, I reflected on Day’s belief in the importance of living a disciplined life of faith. This week I end this series by reflecting on his rather startling idea of God being a “defeated Savior.” If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, how can he be defeated, at least in the sense Day means? Two words: free will. God is not some puppeteer nor are we his marionettes. If that were the case, we could never have any kind of real relationship with God and that would contradict God’s very nature. No, God can and does work in us fully but only if we allow him to do so. It is the terrible freedom we broken, sinful humans enjoy and it is for our ultimate good. Having free will means that we can truly enter a relationship with God on our own. It also means that we are free to be tested and learn about the legitimacy of our faith and relationship with God in the test. My own recent life illustrates this quite nicely. I have failed to use the grace of discipline to keep God at the center of my life. I have sunk into a morass of self-indulgence manifested primarily in gluttonous and slothful behavior that has turned my spirit into a vast desert wasteland. In elevating things of this world above God—an act of free will on my part—I have denied God access to my life and in the process have starved myself. I am at the point where I have lost all desire to pursue the priesthood and even maintain an active presence in the Church. If I never take another class at seminary it won’t be too soon—well, at least until Fall. 🙂 God is not present and I can tell it, both inwardly as I suffer a terrible emptiness and loneliness, and outwardly in the absence of purposeful living. This has happened because I have failed to keep God first in my life and pursue the needed discipline to ensure that he remains there. And what has been God’s response to my self-indulgencefest? He’s let me.

Is this the end of the story? I doubt it. If it were, there would scarcely be any Good News here. I’d be just another pitiful person who is trying to stumble through life on his own with little or no help or hope. But I don’t think the “Hound of heaven” gives up on us that easily. Just because I haven’t let God in, doesn’t mean he stops trying! The very fact that I am writing about this is a good sign that perhaps I am on the verge of turning this mess around—with God’s help. Perhaps he has been here all along, knocking insistently at my heart and asking me to invite him back in (Rev. 3:20). But let’s be clear about it. I have to turn it around; God won’t do it for me because that would be quite an unloving thing for him to do. What God will do, in part, is help me learn from this and grow in my relationship with him—if I am willing to listen. And if I do listen and emerge from this, I dare say I’ll have a stronger relationship with God than I had before. If I once again put God first and partake of the grace of discipline to open myself to his presence, I fully expect him to resume working in and through me. Until that time, however, I must admit that I’ve just not let him do so and as a result, I have not born much corresponding fruit.

So count me as one who is a fan of free will and who dares to believe in a “defeated” omnipotent God. I’m glad God loves us and respects us enough to give us this freedom.

What about you? Do you enjoy your freedom or has it been a curse (or perhaps both)? Has it been your experience that God only works in and through you fully when you allow him to do so? Do you agree with Day’s notion of a “defeated Savior”? Tell us your stories that we might learn from each other.