Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Hidden Secret of Success?

Sister Sarah Brown (left) sings to Sky Masterston, "Suddenly I'll Know When my Love Comes Along"

I was an atheist and she was a devout Christian.

She was only 18 and I was (at the time) about twice her age.  She was one of my actresses - pretty and talented, and backstage we used to talk about all sorts of things.  The conversation at one point drifted around to her future.

"I don't believe in going on lots of dates," she said.  "God will send me my future husband."

"But if you don't date a lot of different kinds of guys," I said, "how will you know what sort of man you're interested in marrying?  How will you know what kind of guy you're compatible with?  How will you even know what guys are like in general, and what sorts of guys are trustworthy and what sorts of guys are not?"

"God will show me."

"Yes, but he'll show you the way he shows you everything else - in fits and starts, by trial and error, with lots of mistakes on your end along the way."

"No.  He will send me my husband and I will know immediately."

That smooth.  That easy.  That stupid.

As I said earlier today (in paraphrasing Flannery O'Connor), she was good, but not right.  


John H's comment from my post "You Can't 'Program' Salvation" is more penetrating than it may first appear.

Facing the messiness of human interaction and romantic pitfalls and broken relationships, there's good reasons to be uneasy. But all of that is part of being human. What these various formulaic procedures for life (or, as I called them elsewhere, faith-based LARPing) are doing is offering a magical formula for success. It's saying: follow these steps, and you will succeed. It's the same thing whether it's Tony Robbins selling you confidence or prosperity gospel hucksters or easy tricks for real-estate wealth. It's trying to sell you "this one weird trick" for solving life's problems so that you don't have to fear failure. And then when you do fail, you either decide you were deficient for not following the rules exactly right, or you move on to the next get happy scheme.

Indeed, in the audio book I'm currently recording, which is by an evangelical Protestant, and which has many good points, there seems to be an assumption that the "one weird trick" needed for eternal success is membership in the club.  You're either Christian and you can get your heaven card punched; or you're outside the circle and you only have hell to look forward to.

Now, I know the author personally and I know he takes the Faith more seriously than this, and I know he understands the need to allow God's grace to sanctify and transform him internally, but the temptation seems to be to fall back on a default position that this is all a kind of elaborate gimmick, a program that "does the trick", so to speak.


This is why Pope Francis (to the horror of many devout Catholics) tells us not to lead with our condemnation of abortion and "gay marriage" - because we are more than our sins.

And faith in Christ is more than a program, more than a quick-fix, more than a get-rich-quick scheme. more than a way of repressing the stuff that makes our life difficult.  It is death to the Old Man, who is on the wrong trajectory, and life in the New Man, by whose stripes we are healed.  It is a slow, frustrating and scary transformation - but that slowness, that frustration, and that fear (which comes from abandoning ourselves to God): that's all part of sharing His cross.

Our sins are simply symptoms that we're not yet in character as Christians (to borrow an acting term).  The point of our faith is getting in character for Christ: becoming loving people who are plugged in to the transcendental reality of the Kingdom, who are bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit who has set up shop within us, who are allowing His love to operate through us, and through our natures.  The point is not simply avoiding sin (important as that is); the point is death and rebirth: death to an old self that is selfish and always out for his own narrow agenda, applying his own ridiculous program everywhere he goes; and birth to a new self, who, cooperating with the presence of a God who is Love, continues the process of incarnation and resurrection, "redeeming the time" (Eph. 5:16) of his life and the culture in which he lives.

This is the astonishing - but also messy and difficult - truth.  And of all people, devout Christians should not be afraid of it.

Though, of course, when Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army does (much to her own surprise) fall in love with a streetwise secularist (i.e., a gangster), Guys and Dolls becomes just like a Flannery O'Connor story without the violence - and we see God's grace operating in our lives in spite of our best efforts to guard against it.


Tom Leith said...

Save a Soul Mission, and its SERGEANT Sarah Brown to you, bub. Now fall in and Follow the Fold.

I thought you were a theater guy...


Anonymous said...

Just because she hasn't go on an endless number of dates doesn't mean she doesn't have the experience to know who will make a good spouse for her. Dating culture exists only in the west then again so does divorce.

Michael J. Lichens said...


The young lady he's talking about is just expecting God to drop a spouse in her lap. I've seen that a lot, mostly among Evangelicals. It doesn't work that way and there's no arguing about it.

Oh, and divorce is not a purely Western phenomena. Oh-for-two, buddy.

Anonymous said...

I think anon was pointing out how many within Christianity think that the only time we should be interacting with the other gender is through dating.

But in reality we can and should be using friendships to learn about what makes a potential mate good or not.

John Smith said...

Thank you for sharing such wonderful and interesting article Hidden Secrets of Success.