17 April, 2024

Why the Restoration Movement Needs Saints and How to Become One

by | 1 March, 2024 | 2 comments

By Tyler McKenzie 

I wish we had “saints.”  

I was raised and currently serve in a Restoration Movement church, but I received my undergraduate theological training from Benedictine Catholics. Catholics do saints different. They had a feast for a saint almost every day! All Saints Day (November 1) was a student favorite because they canceled classes! We were supposed to spend the day in remembrance. God, forgive us!  

Some Catholic teaching about saints is outside the bounds of biblical truth. However, the systematic way they sowed admiration for spiritual heroes stuck with me. Recently, I made it a discipline to read a saint story every day for a year. I learned about Dorothy Day, Festo Kivengere, Pandita Ramabai, Mary McCleod-Bethune, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many more. I found myself wishing we had saints. So, I adopted a few of my own. 

A REMARKABLE LIFE 

One of my favorites? Clive Staples Lewis—an intellectual giant who made a transgenerational impact. He was born in a nominally Christian home and experienced great suffering as a boy. His mother died when he was 9. His father, crushed by her death, sent him off to boarding school. At around 20, he fought in World War I. He came of age in a cruel world. 

Lewis always had a predisposition for literature and the arts. He listened to operas and read Celtic myths, Norse legends, and Greek classics. Eventually, he excelled at Oxford and became a professor of literature there (1925–1954), then later at Cambridge (1954–1963). Initially, his studies made him an atheist until he befriended J.R.R. Tolkien. Over time, Tolkien played a critical role in Lewis’s conversion. 

Lewis would then play a critical role in the Western church. At this point, there were only a handful of Christian intellectuals who had real clout at the world’s table. In the 1920s, there had been a split in the American church called the Modernist-Fundamentalist divide. There were big disagreements over foundational doctrines. The Christians who held to orthodox belief about issues like the resurrection and the authority of Scripture withdrew from the academy and started their own institutions of higher education. Their curriculum had a heavy emphasis on Scripture, but often cut out the study of ancient classics and philosophy. By the 1940s, there were less and less Christian intellectuals who had the credentials to be taken seriously in the non-Christian academy.  

UNDERSTANDING HEAVEN AND HELL 

Into this gap, C.S. Lewis stepped. He was a unicorn. Not only did he have the résumé, he also had orthodox faith. Lewis would go on to bless a generation with fresh ways of imagining the Christian story and understanding its truths. One of the more resonant ideas he introduced to me was his understanding of heaven and hell. I take issue with some of his beliefs here, but in a nutshell, he understood the images of heaven and hell as more than final destinations. They described the journey toward spiritual formation or deformation. He wrote in Mere Christianity

Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before . . . you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature. 

Heaven is a journey of formation. Hell is a journey of deformation. The eternal destinations immortalize the choices we’ve made all along. “Hell is the greatest monument to human freedom,” Lewis once wrote. With every decision we make, we become people of hell or heaven, people of selfishness or love, people enslaved to sin or enslaved to righteousness. The basic argument is a widely accepted understanding of how human agency works. 

1. At first, humans have the freewill capacity to choose moment by moment. This makes us unique. Animals do not. Beetles do not hire life coaches. Geese don’t make lists of pros and cons before migration. They act on instinct. Not us, though. Humans determine the sort of people we become and things we do. 

2. Over time, humans diminish their capacity to choose based on what they continually chose. With each decision, we are determining our character. We pick up momentum in one direction or the other. Eventually, our character builds enough momentum that the roles switch. Rather than our decisions determining our character, our character determines our decisions. 

3. In the end, our decisions become our destiny. I heard it said, “We all make decisions, but in the end, our decisions make us.” 

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg brings this into the 21st century in his book, The Power of Habit. His thesis is that humans are a big bundle of habits. Our brains do this thing called clustering. It is the process of making complex actions into unconscious habits to save energy and increase productivity. This is why the first time you do something takes more attention than the thousandth time.  

For example? Dribbling a basketball or pulling your car into your garage. I drive an SUV. It is 195 inches long and 79 inches wide. Our garage is 201 inches long and 83 inches wide. Do the math. My margins are tight! The first several times I pulled the car in, it was a lonnnnnng process, but by the end of a month I could sip coffee, send texts, and yell at my kids all while pulling in. It’s the “power of habit.”  

A weightier example is if you’ve ever known an addict. It’s hell. The addiction cycle starts with the addict getting pleasure the first time they use a substance. Over time, they need more and more of the original substance to get less and less of the original high until it consumes them. It’s an illustration of the power of habit, human agency, and hell all at once. The Bible calls it the slavery of sin. First, you choose to sin. Soon, you have to sin. 

• You have to check your social media constantly. You do it without thinking. 

• You have to drink a couple glasses of wine to sleep.  

• You have to win every argument.  

• You have to binge trash shows on Netflix before bed.  

• You have to work 90-hour weeks to keep the business going.  

• You have to travel a third of the year to afford the house you barely live in. 

THE POWER OF HABIT 

John Mark Comer says the tension here is that “Our strongest desires are not always our deepest desires.” Truth! In the moment of temptation, the desire I feel most is the strong one—the desire to sin, to lust, to gossip, to avenge, to purchase, to conquer. As I choose it again and again, the habit takes over with almost no inner resistance. Lewis says, “That’s hell . . . being enslaved to sin and its fleeting pleasure knowing you were made for something more . . . that’s hell! 

The flip side is that the power of habit can be leveraged for good. Rather than being enslaved to sin, we can be enslaved to righteousness. Rather than choosing the highway to hell, we can choose heaven. Strangely, this slavery to righteousness is what the New Testament calls “freedom.” When you continually choose God, you turn your agency into habitual righteousness and set yourself free to truly live. 

This is why saints are so important. They show us that this principle works. It is possible to become a person of astounding love and holiness. By the power of God’s regenerating grace and the Spirit’s sanctifying guidance, we can begin to stack up days, then weeks, then years of faithfulness. And, just like them, our lives too can be swallowed up in freedom. 

2 Comments

  1. Joe Grana

    Well done. Thank you for your thought provoking analysis!

  2. Elaine Francis

    Very good. I’ve never heard it explained this way, but it is very good. Heaven or hell—our habits, our choice!

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