People love sound bites. If it’s short, to the point, and appears powerful, people will take that sound bite and share it with others on social media. Recently, I came across one such soundbite, scrolling through Facebook’s newsfeed. My eyes caught a quote (in meme form) by Evangelical author and speaker, Elyse M. Fitzpatrick. She often shares with people how one may progress in the Christian life. From reading some of the work that Ms. Fitzpatrick has produced, her faith squares up pretty evenly with the modern Evangelical movement; a movement that has no room for a visible Church. On her website and in other advertisements, Ms. Fitzpatrick describes her work in this way: “No fluff. No bricks. Just good news of a crucified and risen Savior.”
Ms. Fitzpatrick probably does not intend it, but these words are insulting and condescending to many Christians. It implies that, for instance, that the Sacrifice of the Mass as celebrated by Catholic and Orthodox Christians is superfluous, that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is just “fluff”, and that asking for the intercession of the saints is part of a man-made building of brick and mortar that has nothing to do with the mystical Body of Christ. As if none of those things I just mentioned don’t preach the Good News of the Christ crucified. How misguided and mistaken a notion she and many other non-denominational Christians have on Christ’s relationship to the Church. Which leads us to the isolated quote I came across …
“Real Progress in the Christian Life”
Below is the verbatim quote from Mrs. Fitzpatrick as it was presented, with no further context:
Real progress in the Christian life is not gauged by our knowledge of scripture, our church attendance, time in prayer, or even our witnessing (although it isn’t less than these things). Maturity in the Christian life is measured by only one test: how much closer to his character have we become? The result of the Spirit’s work is not more and more activity. No, the results of his work are in in our quality of life, they are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Is this an accurate description of “real progress? There are many issues with this quote, as well as the way the meme is delivered to the masses. First, The book this quote was taken from is not mentioned anywhere in the meme. The quote is no longer within the context of the larger work; taken alone, it takes on a life of its own and essentially ratifies what many modern Evangelicals and non-denominational Christians already profess: “One simply needs to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, perhaps recite the ‘sinner’s prayer’, and you’re saved no matter what good, bad, or heinous things you do in the future.”
Not many people are going to copy and paste the quote into a search engine to study more of what this author said because it’s a sound bite. “It looks good”, the person perusing Facebook will say, “so there’s no reason to do any reflecting on this and no reason to consult Scripture or Tradition any further on the issue.” So what is the context here? “Time in prayer” does not lead to “real progress in the Christian faith”? Really?
Church and “Churchianity”
Thankfully, the source of the quote wasn’t particularly difficult to find. It comes from her book Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life. Once we read this quote in context, we can see it’s not so much a problem with the author, who later goes on to expound on why, more or less in a limited sense, we need to live out the commands in the New Testament. Instead, the problem is that the only selection given from this book was a selection with no context. When read by the average Facebook user who is already inundated with images, having no immediate time for further deep thought or reflection, the quote sums up what many non-denominational Christians think: religion is “bad”. The “institutional” Church is “bad”, and simply being a “Christ-follower” is all we need to do.
In any case, taken out of context, this confirms the typical Evangelical Christian in their belief that the visible Church, the Body of Christ, is unnecessary, and doing things the Church has always prescribed is excessive. Outward acts of religiosity are something to be avoided and dismissed as pretentious, in many people’s eyes. Just look at the new term that has caught fire in the Evangelical world: “Churchianity”. A derisive and pejorative barb used to describe those that belong to certain Christian denominations, and as described by Wiktionary, “any [of the] practices of Christianity that are viewed as placing a larger emphasis on the habits of church life or the institutional traditions of the church than on theology and spiritual teachings of Jesus; the quality of being too church-focused.”
How absolutely ridiculous, as if one could be too “Church-focused” seeing as Christians from the Apostolic age have seen the Church and Jesus as one in the same. The truth is, one can’t follow Christ without being religious and a member of the Church. As St. Cyprian said, “He who forsakes the Church of Christ [cannot] attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
Knowledge of Scripture
Here’s the thing. In this quote, four specific things are mentioned as not being ways to gauge progress in the Christian life: to know Scripture, to attend church, to make time for prayer, and to witness our Christian faith. What then really constitutes that progress in the Christian life? Well, one way we can measure how close we’ve become to Christ’s character is how well we’ve progressed in the four things we were just told do not gauge Christian growth.
First off, remember that Jesus doesn’t just instruct, but commands that we be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Then, keep in mind that Jesus was a student of Scripture His whole life, as were his disciples. Do we recall the episode where St. Philip the Evangelist assists the Ethiopian eunuch in understanding what he’s reading in Scripture so that he might come to accept Christ (cf. Acts 8:26-40)?
The early saints also give us a great example. Many of the Desert Fathers made progress in the spiritual life by being very knowledgeable of Scripture. As Abba Nesteros wrote to St. John Cassian, “… having banished all worldly concerns and thoughts, strive in every way to devote yourself constantly to the Sacred Reading so that continuous meditation will seep into your soul, as it were, will shape it to its image” (Conferences 14:10).
Observing the Commandments
Also, Jesus was an observant Jew. And a devout one at that. It’s a fact that Jesus was inside the synagogue, worshipping God each week when the Sabbath came around. Jesus makes it clear that coming together to worship as a community (at church) is indeed a way to progress in the Christian life. He never commanded that the Sabbath not be observed. On the contrary, Jesus said:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5: 17-19)
It’s interesting that the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible has the following footnote for verse 17: “Jesus came to bring the old law to its natural fulfilment in the new, while discarding what had become obsolete.” Clearly, the Ten Commandments, which include keeping the Sabbath holy, have not been discarded. But we live in a day and age where many Evangelicals argue that they don’t need to go to church to worship on a Sunday, or even a holy day such as Christmas, because they can keep the day holy by spending time with their family instead of coming together as a community to worship the one, true God.
Prayer and Christian Life
In the third way we make progress in the Christian life, time in prayer, Jesus’ examples of His forty days in the desert, as well as the prayer he makes to the Father during His agony in the garden, make it clear that He is setting another example for us to follow. St. Paul’s words “pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) come to mind. If we are asked to pray continuously, how can this not be a fair gauge of real progress in Christian faith? If one is not praying often, then it’s clear that something is lacking in the life of said Christian.
We should also look to the early Christians, as they give us a better example of how to progress in the Christian life. The Desert Fathers took St. Paul’s words to heart. They would pray unceasingly, especially the Jesus Prayer, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes in this way “This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus. (CCC 2268).
And of course, by doing these things, the great saints witnessed to the faith. Our Lord wants our faith to be like a lamp on a hill, encouraging others to come and see. (cf. Matthew 5:14). We surely progress in the Christian life when we bring Jesus to others because this is His will.
So it’s obvious: Christians do need more and more activity! We need to actively pray more. We need to study Scripture more. We need to worship together more. And we need to actively witness our faith to others even more! If we don’t do these things, we will never make progress in the Christian life, nor will we grow in holiness. Because in doing these things, we see good fruit being harvested because we’ve emulated our Lord; by doing these things we become more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and disciplined.