Last updated: November 22, 1997
“Contrary to the common belief, a conversion is not caused by the emotions; emotions reflect only a mental state, and this change concerns the soul.”
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “Peace of Soul”, page 199
“[Our] real selves are all waiting for us in Him.”
C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”, Ch. 11
“Cheap grace is grace without discipleshipï¿½”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”, page 47
“the desire that began to grow lukewarm may grow chill altogether and may be totally extinguished unless it is repeatedly stirred into flame.”
St. Augustine, from the Letter to Proba (Chapter IX)
“Remain faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.”
You’ve come to believe in Jesus, and joined a church. Perhaps you were already baptized and came to a new realization of faith or started going back to church because of a spouse, friend or child. At first it was great or at least good, but now you feel like a musical instrument going out of tune. At first, you were learning new things and changing your life. Old habits and likes were discarded and new ones embraced. Now, Sunday Mass doesn’t have the same joy it had before, and you don’t really look forward to fellowship time either.
Before, you felt like you were waking up from a long sleep; now you wonder if your conversion was only a dream.
The causes of difficulties of this sort can be grouped into six categories:
- Bad intentions from the beginning, possibly unconscious
- Bad approach to conversion or an incomplete intention
- Wishful thinking
- Pelagianism – trying to do things mostly by our own effort
- Simple trials
- Demonic attack
We can examine each of these, providing examples and possible approaches for a cure.
Bad intentions from the beginning
This does not mean sinful intentions only. Many young adults with small children are seeking a church that will provide a religious influence. Most religions teach respect for parents, and so they may be hoping to have their authority bolstered by a yet higher authority. This is not a specifically Christian problem. Many secular Jews are embracing the more ritualistic aspects of their religion without really even accepting the reality of a personal God. The problem with this is that conversion is a personal process between God and us. We cannot convert for the sake of our children, spouse or friends. In fact, such “conversions” are not conversions at all.
If this applies to you, try to forget about everyone else but you and God. Do you want to know Him? Do you believe He loves you right now? Are you willing to do anything to get as close as possible to God? Do you believe that Jesus died and rose? Humbly acknowledge that your intentions were wrong and pray for a real conversion.
Some intentions are actually evil. There are actually people that join churches to get closer to certain people for purposes of gain. Others want to be known as “church-going people.” It will be very difficult for such persons to ever have a sincere conversion. True repentance is the only advice.
Bad approach to conversion
Jesus said that a man about to build a tower must first determine whether he can actually complete it. Conversion begins with sorrow for our sins and continues with a gradual and eventually complete abandonment to God. If this seems extreme or harsh, your conversion was probably based on the unrealistic expectation that you could keep at least some small part of your life for yourself. You can’t. God will demand more and more of your life. He will expect you to give up cherished illusions about yourself that you were never aware of. In some cases you will think He is killing you. He is. He is trying to kill the old person so He can make you the person He created you to be.
Did you hold back? Did you think that God would just make life easier for you if you worshiped Him?
If this sounds familiar, try this: Write down your expectations of God. Did you hope He would heal your marriage but let you keep your little circle of friends? Fix your finances but not expect generosity to the poor? Write down what have been disappointments and then give them to God. Accept them as God’s will so long as you are not the direct cause of the problem. If your marriage is bad and you spend your evenings drinking with buddies and playing poker, God is not to blame, and He is not helping you to grow by this.
There is no part way for the Christian, in spite of the many books that promise riches or popularity through “Christian principles.” Christianity is not about being a better you. It is about becoming a part of the Body of Christ, and becoming the very hands, feet, eyes and heart of Jesus Christ in the world today.
The Gospel of Matthew offers a few root (pun intended) causes for post-conversion difficulties in this category. The problems listed in the parable of the sower and the seed (Mt. 13:1-23) are worthy of meditation:
- The path represents those who do not really understand the demands of the Gospel and so they cannot endure.
- The rocky soil represents those who convert only on the surface, without ever allowing God to penetrate into their inmost being.
- The seed sown amid the thorns is like the one who takes the Word of God to heart, but does not completely break with the ways of the world, and succumbs to lust, greed or worldly cares.
St. James said it best:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” (James 1:22)
Sometimes we spend more time wishing than praying. Many wishes go about disguised as fervent prayer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this a wish-dream. We say to God: “I wish I had more patience!” or “I wish I could stop being so critical of others!” Wishes are for pagans, not Christians. We worship a Father and Son that have promised to send the Holy Spirit, Divine Life itself, into us. Nothing is beyond God. I might wish to win the lottery, but I must truly pray that God will change my cold, dead heart into His holy one. Wishing is insincere and keeps God at a distance.
We must be honest with ourselves. If we have not improved, perhaps we did not truly pray at all. To pray for a virtue is to accept whatever is necessary to obtain it. It means committing to whatever path God chooses for us to obtain the necessary graces.
“‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than thatï¿½ Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfectï¿½ This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'”
Mere Christianity, Chapter 9.
The Pelagian heresy (5th century) taught that people are capable of good works without God’s grace. The Council of Carthage, in 418 A.D., stated that without God’s grace, it is absolutely impossible to perform good works.
Sometimes we tire of doing good and striving for holiness because we are the ones doing the work. We hope to have the help of God as we progress in the Christian life, but we know that “God’s work must truly be our own.” Unfortunately, we just can’t keep it up. There are numerous facilities for healing burned-out ministers and priests for this reason. While there are certainly problems enough in living the New Life, our primary problem is always that we do not love God as we ought.
God made us to surf the waves of life, not drill like moles through mountains of difficulties. God has created us with such awesome abilities that we get carried away and try to do things on our own.
Our only hope is to completely confess our inadequacy before God. He alone will win the victory for us. As the Council of Carthage stated, the grace of Christ not only discloses the knowledge of God’s commandments, but also imparts the strength to will and execute them.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Life is hard enough. Hard enough for us to be refined like gold in the fire. Hard enough for us to be molded by the Father’s hands into a perfect vessel for His delight. There is so much in us that must be purged out, and our lives are so short. The process can be exhausting, especially if we have prayed for humility, that most dangerous of virtues to desire.
If you find that the rigors of everyday life, work and family and relationships, are just wearing you down, try to examine yourself more often. To what degree are your faults aggravating the situation? If you find yourself in quarrels, be honest about your part in it. If you are completely without fault in your eyes, pray for clearer sight. If you know your own part of the responsibility, be grateful for the insight, and pray.
Many problems are truly not our fault, or are caused by mistakes made in good faith. Some of these might have been avoided if our prayer life was better.
As we journey farther from the point of our initial conversion, we face taller, more forbidding mountains of difficulty. Our spiritual life must grow past the sweet milk of our youth and gnaw on the hard bread of the pilgrim. If you are not much of a reader, especially of Scripture, it is past time for you to start. If you are not much given to prayer on your knees before the Blessed Sacrament or a crucifix, now is the time. Don’t wait for a retreat or a tent revival. Find a place or way to place yourself before God in daily private and fervent prayer. Beg God to have pity until He cannot resist you because Jesus told us to do it. Pray quietly the way that Jesus did in Gethsemane so that you can endure your own Calvary.
If you think of yourself as a reader, you probably need more mystical prayer. If you think of yourself as a deeply spiritual person that doesn’t need to read, you very much need to read. In any case, know the Scriptures, especially the Gospel and Epistles (letters). St. Augustine said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of God.”
There are cases where a Christian, or a community, is attacked by demonic forces. Some modern minds deny the presence of personal evil in the world, but the Church has never wavered on the issue, and Jesus was very clear about this. The Saints that were afflicted in this way responded with prayer and fasting (penance) according to the recommendation of Jesus in the Gospel (Mark 9:29).
Most of us pose so little threat to the kingdom of evil that no attack of this kind is likely. Direct attacks of this kind usually have the reverse effect anyway: it would only make us run to the Father for safety.
There is a spirit of discord in friendships and communities that tears at the bonds of the Body of Christ. The recommendation is the same: prayer and penance. Many times the problem can be avoided by discernment and wisdom, but these only reach their greatest powers in souls in union with Jesus.