To whom do you think St. Paul was speaking when he said, “We are fools for Jesus Christ’s sake, and you are wise in Christ”? It is to you and to me that he speaks, but not to the people who are free of all shame, who know of God but do not know him personally. Yes, it is to we who believe that we are working for our place with God, we who do not flee the folly of the cross, nor seek for ways to seem wise in the eyes of the world. He speaks to us who do not tremble at the sight of our weakness.
Where St. Paul finds himself weak, and we find ourselves strong, we should not deny that even with good intentions, we find that we are rather opposed to this great Apostle. This state should be alarming to us, so let us reflect deeply on it. And after we have thoroughly gone into it, let us see where we differ from the true servants of God.
Let us be imitators of Jesus Christ by first becoming imitators of St. Paul, who gives himself as a model after the first model. After having identified our complacency concerning worldliness, we should take hold of ourselves and demand conformity into the image of our model, stopping all the self-indulgences of our hopes, desires, and secret inner delights, and unleash our hate for our spiritual laziness.
Virtue is not a matter of words. We can never reach the kingdom of God through our words. The kingdom of God is found in the strength, courage, and self-control which we exert over ourselves. Every time we encounter the tides of the world pulling on us, tides that pull us into so many sins, so many times, and keep us from doing the good we must do, we must violently take hold of ourselves and forcefully demand of ourselves that we remain in communion with our model. When we must act to take self-control over some weakness within us, we must take hold of our minds with an unbending resolve so that we do not fool ourselves into believing that we have given up some little and unimportant thing.
As we take control of ourselves, we must kill the thing in the spirit after having killed it in the flesh, without believing that God owes us anything special for our have done our duty. We must not allow the idea that hours of prayer or reading the bible or isolation in retreat can make atonement for our sin willfully committed in weakness. All such thinking weakens our resolve to actively kill the sin within us right here and right now. We must stomp on the squealing sin right here and right now without hoping for either more comfort from God or anyone else, or that we should receive more honor or respect for our piousness, or better health to give us strength, or that others should witness our great piousness, not even the comfort of our closest friends. Finally, we should take hold of sufficient self-control to reach that degree of absolute indifference necessary to a Christian, whose only will is that of God his Creator; who turns over to him the success of all his affairs, although he does not stop working; who moves forwards with the boldness of heart, who takes pleasure in his or her relationship with God, and does not fear God’s examining him but instead hopes for God to help in identifying and correcting his sins. Such a child of God remains serene, seeing himself completely at God’s mercy regarding the punishment of his sins.
This is where I leave you, where I pray that you stay in the peace of God even though the troubles and confusions of our life in the world try to pull us away. O Great God, show us that something of the life of Jesus Christ may be seen in us? The more we fear to suffer as Christ suffered, the more we need to do so.
This article was a letter originally written by Francois Fenelon some 300 years ago as part of his collection of letters later published under the name of Christian Perfection and was edited by Mark Heaney. A copy of Christian Perfection that was translated from the French by Mildred Whitney Stillman can be read here and was the translation that I worked from. Christian Perfection was, to me, one of the most practical Christian writings I have ever read, and so I thought that I might edit the phrasing to make it easier for people to understand.