The Spiritual Life: “Am I doing it right?”
Perhaps no question comes more frequently to the sincere and devout person trying to live an authentic spiritual life than, “Am I doing it right?” Or, “Am I missing something?” The feeling that we’re basically doing all the right things and yet are lacking in a sense of accomplishment seems to expose a kind of disconnect between our efforts and the normal, expected fruits of our efforts.
In so many other departs of life we are conditioned to observe cause and effect: sowing and harvest, exercise and weight loss, rehearsal and performance, etc. We rightly expect good results from diligent efforts. Should the spiritual life be any different? Is it any different?
If there is a missing piece that connects effort with results it is certainly grace. Grace is God’s life within us, His power enabling us to desire and do the good that is pleasing to Him. But grace remains, and will always remain, a gift. Saint Paul explores God’s gratuity at great length in his efforts to differentiate the old covenant from the new: “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus… (Rm 3:23-24). This is only one example of the many New Testament teachings on people getting right with God, not by rehearsal or practice, but by the grace of faith in Christ.
Does this bring us any closer to answering our question about the spiritual life? I expect everyone already knows that, without God’s grace, we are all lost, entirely incapable of doing the least good thing. But if those same people, again, wish to know how their spiritual progress is measured (since grace admits of no easy measurement), does Jesus, does St Paul, offer us a rubric?
Instead of a direct answer, maybe another prior question is in order: Why do you want to know in the first place? Yes, we like to measure calories and weight loss, cholesterol levels, growing virtuosity in music, greater strength and endurance of body, etc. Fair enough. But to do the same in the spiritual life might mask a lack of trust in God, might reveal a fear of walking by faith and not by sight. We often want certitude in this and in other areas of life where God does not want us to have perfect certitude. As soon as we are certain of progress, the temptation to attribute success to our own industry looms large. Sometimes, and within limits, it is quite reasonable to connect the two.
But spiritually, the interplay between grace and personal effort is so symbiotic, or interdependent, that we cannot separate the two, as we might dissect a specimen in biology. An analogy from the inspiration of Scripture might help. If we ask how much of God and how much of the human author contribute to the writing of the Biblical books, can we really offer a proportion such as 50/50 or 60/40 or some other fraction? The Church teaches that it is both “100%” God and “100%” of the human author that collaborate in the writing of the Scriptures. But it is God who makes use of the writer’s powers of mind and body to compose the sacred text. He is the primary Author, but the one who writes is truly an intelligent, consenting instrument.
The same is true of the spiritual life. God is the primary “author” of human holiness, but people can and must be willing collaborators. St Paul loads the scales in this way: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philip 2:12-13). Try to separate what God has joined here—His graceful work and our fearful, trembling work—and you lose both the sense of gift and the necessity of trust.
The surest sign of our growth in Christ is our increasing desire to walk this earth as He did—poor, pure, and completely selfless. Note how this includes both the inner man and his outward conduct: the pure heart, the sparing life, and the generous spirit of service. Because as we know, the outward work minus the pure inner motive falls very short of the Gospel ideal and regularly incurs the Lord’s condemnation.
Rather, as St Augustine says (in his monastic Rule): we can be assured of our progress the more we look to others’ interests before our own. If the Incarnation was precisely that—a looking to the needs of fallen, sinful humanity by One who had nothing to gain by redeeming us—then we have a reliable measuring rod for our own spiritual lives. We cannot be truly selfless while thinking about ourselves and what we stand to gain by our works. Joy in serving the Lord, gratitude for being allowed to serve Him, conquers the questioning self, the insecure disciple, the one always anxious about his status before God and men.
The beauty of the Christian life is that the more we imitate Christ’s self-emptying for us, the less we think about ourselves doing anything special, of living a particularly radical life. We just live it. It becomes second-nature, like many of those other skills of art and athletics that people practice to perfection. The question of “Where do I stand?” becomes less and less likely to suggest itself. What replaces it, instead, is the question of how we can make a return to the Lord for all of the good things He has given us. How to give thanks and praise to God for His marvelous gifts. This is the preoccupation of the perfect and those on their way to perfection in Christ.