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This Spiritual Life

The journey of the spiritual life begins as an inferno, and then wanders through purgatorio, but how do you reach paradiso?

Published on:
February 8, 2017
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4 min.
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There lived a man named Tiresias who dwelled in the foothills of the metropolis. Before last fall he drank a little too much and made the girls laugh until they followed him home. But now, when Christ appeared, a burning affection toward the Lord had consumed his waking life. He had entered the inferno.

Inferno

He had not known how simple Christianity would turn out to be.

In the beginning the whole sky was ablaze with golden light. It was as if he had been given new spectacles through which he saw a newer world. Traffic became opportunities for friendship and evangelism. Work was but a steadying of the mind and for reflection on the soul. For as long as he could remember, he was taught that the body is altogether wicked and should be thrown out, but when the Lord appeared he knew that he too had a body, and that was as magical as a rainbow.

He had not known how simple Christianity would turn out to be. Simply believe in the Lord Jesus, and one is declared righteous in the sight of God. He began to pay closer attention to the world, to the voice of God, to his vices, to others’ needs, for “spirituality is the attention we give to our souls.”[1]

A new believer has an explosive tenacity in his convictions, shooting upward like a prematurely-lit rocket. All things are possible, all things are new, and all things must be shouted over the rooftops of the world. “You can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6)—and Tiresias believed it. He rose in the morning, sang songs of praise, and the birds tootled gaily on his shoulder.

But homo incurvatus in se bent these golden rays of light toward his own soul, illuminating the darkest cupboards. He had entered purgatorio.

Purgatorio

The birds popped off his shoulder and flew into an eerie twilight, where the clouds darkened and the shadows grew long and pale. Tiresias had been cleaned, and he must therefore keep it together. “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).

He had not known how difficult Christianity would turn out to be.

The enemies of the soul—the world, the flesh, and the devil—began to howl and beckon him. He became brutally aware of his sins—each one a red-hot jab in the kidney—and he continually glanced wide-eyed over his shoulder. Sanctification replaced justification, and the ingrained patterns of sin were revealed. Pushing the girls out of his bed was easy, but the shadows surrounding the longing of the eyes or texting just a little too much were more insidious.

He had not known how difficult Christianity would turn out to be. Not only had the puss-covered lesions of his own soul shown themselves with unavoidable fury, but so had the maladies of evangelicalism become all too apparent. He began to realize that evangelicals were a lot more concerned with what others were doing in their beds than whether they had beds to begin with.[2]

A bored and listless disillusionment had crept into his callusing soul. Reading theological books put him to sleep, eating was simply too much, and he even called on the power of God to help him put on his trousers. Daily with his morning coffee he recited Goethe’s verse:

Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the midnight hours
Weeping and waiting for the morrow—
He knows you not, ye heavenly powers.[3]

You see, when Tiresias read the New Testament during the inferno, he noticed that “Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike,”[4] the kinds of systems that evangelicalism had produced.

The Christian life, he reasoned, was not really that spiritual after all. Much of it is like any other life, say a businessman’s life or a politician’s: one eats a hearty breakfast, waves congenially to his friends, writes emails, says a few friendly quips, and finally he goes to sleep in his knitted pajamas. Or perhaps it is more like military life: keep everything clean, do as you’re told, and don’t cause too much of a fuss. Yes, he concluded, that is the Christian life.

But then he began to realize that the spiritual life is not so much about reading leather-bound and lofty books and sweating in arduous prayer, but rather about joyfully listening to a grandmother plod on about her three grandchildren in Missouri. The faith of his pioneers—Spurgeon, Ravenhill, Wilkerson, and others—was not the faith he had encountered, and he needed a new perspective. He had entered paradiso.

Paradiso

As there are three phases in the Christian life—inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso—so there are three phases in the life of faith—notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia is the content of faith; that is, in order to have faith in someone, we must know certain things about him. Assensus is the conviction that the content of that faith is true. One can know the content of the Christian faith but not believe its truth. Fiducia, finally, is the personal trust in or reliance upon the faith.

It’s this last one that gives us the trouble.

God’s goal in much of his work is toward humility.

On the one hand, Tiresias read the Christian “heroes” he was supposed to read, but he kept going back and back again to the artists. He soaked into the notitia of the faith, and then drifted into the seas of assensus, doubting its truth. The artists held him up.

What was the point of the Christian faith? This question continually beat him. Was he to wear khakis and tuck in his shirt and smile at passersby? Should he become a missionary or a pastor or some other noble position?

Finally, some solace appeared when he noticed that God’s goal in much of his work was toward humility. That is where God aims his mighty arrows. When reading the Bible it appeared to him again and again. This reversed the cultural patterns so wrought in his mind and in his heart. It was not about the books or the languages or the perpetually-pleasant disposition after all. It was about being humble, about putting others before oneself, and about an abiding relationship with the Lord.

The further and further he walked away from purgatorio and into paradiso, the brighter and brighter the sun sat upon the hills. It seemed as though the clouds broke apart like little cupcakes, and he soon took flight toward that ethereal and eternal light.

Brandon Giella
Brandon is the content editor for Fathom, serving as its copy editor. He also serves as a content developer for The Starr Conspiracy, a full-service digital agency in Fort Worth, TX. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 6.

[2] Barry Jones, “The Sin-Breaking Process: Romans 6:1–14.” Lecture, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, February 21, 2014.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Retribution,” in Goethe, trans. Thomas Carlyle (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1881), 65.

[4] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, in Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997), 1089.

Cover image by Ales Krivec.

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