I had a spiritual director once who told me to pray as if my life depended on it. Make prayer so unequivocally the most important thing in my life, he said, that you treat it as if you might cease to exist without it.
While seemingly hyperbolic at first, dramatically phrased to emphasize the necessity of prayer, his words were not to be taken in any other way than literally. “Because, really, doesn’t your life depend on it?” Everything we have, everything we are, everything we hope to become is the result of God’s grace. We have no existence apart from God, for God is our life and our salvation, the one who holds our very being together. Prayer is not simply something that we do, it is a relationship and acknowledgement of Being itself.
Few people approach their lives with such urgency. For the most part, things go well for us, and there is little cause for alarm. We are able to rely on our own strength and ability to be fairly successful, suffer no extraordinary loss on a regular basis, and find our lives almost never in question. As it is, life is stable. With a general sense of satisfaction, we see no reason for major changes, no reason to shake things up, no reason to panic. Sure, we have flaws and are prone to sin—nobody’s perfect!—but because things are going well, we can’t help but see ourselves as generally good people trying our best. We pray and go to Church, we believe in Jesus and say that we want to do his will, and that seems like enough.
In my experience, we are comfortable being “mostly” Christian. We love the majority of what Jesus says and generally want to be a part of his Church, but are also comfortable keeping one foot slightly out the door. We are in…but not completely in. There’s that one thing, those few small flaws that we just can’t get over, and so we just accept it. Looking at the overall commitment to the mission, we are okay hiding something from Jesus, reserving a bit of ourselves from our efforts. It’s just a small thing! I’m on board with everything else! And so we see no reason to put much effort into it.
In one of his many extraordinary works of contemplation, Thomas Merton rails against the complacency of faith with a rather piercing image: being killed by one person makes you just as dead as being killed by an entire army. His point is that it is not enough to be a “good person” who “mostly” does the right thing; it takes but one mortal sin, one fatal flaw, one stumbling block of faith to forfeit eternal life. The rich young man of the Gospels was undoubtedly a “good person” who prayed to God and followed the law. By all accounts, he had but the one flaw, his attachment to his possessions. He was doing fine in life and could easily have justified this one flaw by looking at all of the good things he did otherwise. And yet, it only took one stumbling block to send him away. The rich young man was so attached to his possessions that even just this one flaw was enough to get in his way of following Jesus.
I wonder, sometimes, if we really grasp what’s at stake here. Our eternal lives are on the line. As difficult as it is to sacrifice things in our lives that bring us happiness or comfort, what good is being happy or comfortable now if it is at the expense of our lives in heaven? Jesus tells us that if our eye causes us to sin that we should pluck it out, and I don’t think he was joking. This is not hyperbole. If something in our lives prevents us from following Jesus with our whole hearts and taking up the mission of the kingdom, there is truly nothing more important in the entire world than removing it from our lives. Clinging to something that does not bring us life means clinging to our sure death.