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Do Catholics Make Christianity Too Difficult?

September 26, 2017


A common complaint against Catholicism is that its view of the spiritual life is too difficult, that it over-complicates Christianity and doesn’t trust enough in the finished work of Christ on the Cross. That’s an appealing complaint, since it proposes a lighter, easier Christianity. But it’s a view we should be extremely suspicious of, given everything else we know about reality. So here are six observations that I think have some bearing on how we think of salvation specifically and the spiritual life more generally:

  1. How much harder it is to do things well than to do them poorly;
  2. That we often respond to this difficulty with shortcuts;
  3. That we see shortcuts in the spiritual life, too;
  4. That Scripture warns against spiritual shortcuts;
  5. That the Cross isn’t easy; and
  6. That “hard” doesn’t mean few succeed.

So let’s start from reality in general before moving to the faith in particular:

Observation 1: How much harder it is to do things well than to do them poorly

Have you noticed how much more difficult it is to have something go well than to have it go poorly? This observation might be so obvious that you’ve missed it, or that you take it for granted, but take some time to think about it. Think of how easy it is to come up with the wrong answer to an equation, and how much more difficult to work the sums correctly. One wrong step, and the outcome is wrong (or, at the very least, unreliable). That’s not really true in reverse – it’s not as if you can make a hundred wrong steps, but still be assured of the right answer because one of the steps went smoothly. And it’s like this in all of the sciences, from what I can tell – it’s easy to invalidate a study, to ruin laboratory conditions even accidentally, etc., and it’s much more difficult to make sure things run properly.

But while that seems to be virtually a rule in math and the sciences, it’s nearly as true in other areas as well (even if not quite a rule). It’s a lot easier to make a bad first impression than a good one, a lot easier to lose a job than get one, to fail a class than to master it. Even if you have an easy instructor, you’ll find that it’s harder to master the material than it is not to; ignorance takes no effort at all, while education takes a great deal of work.

In our interactions with those we love, this general rule still seems to hold true. It’s much easier to hurt feelings than to set things aright, and the closer we are to the person (a loved one, a spouse, a child, etc.) the truer this axiom seems to be. A good deal of the grief that parents feel is, I think, related to a recognition of this rule – they have a weighty responsibility to bring up their children well, and it’s much easier to fail than to succeed. Even with our own bodies, the things we should know better, it’s so much easier to live an unhealthy life than to have a healthy diet and get the appropriate amount of exercise. There may be a single cure for cancer out there, but there seems to be no limits to the ways we can contract it. Even a baby recognizes that it’s easier to fall than to stand.

Look at your own life, especially in those areas in which you’re aware that you struggle, and I imagine that you can come up with an even better list upon just a few moments of self-examination. As I’ve said, this isn’t quite a scientific law (although its truth seems to be reflected in one, the law of entropy). I’m considering it just a general observation on the nature and structure of reality. I’m sure that there are counter-examples in each of our lives, things we seem to succeed at in spite of ourselves, but I think you’ll agree that these counter-examples are more the exception than the rule.

Observation 2: That we often respond to this difficulty with shortcuts

Given that success in life is more difficult than failure in virtually every field, how do we respond?

I think that there are a few traps that we fall into. One is to despair. It’s hard to do this thing well, so we simply throw up our hands and give up. I’ll get back to this in a moment. Another trap is to impose an extreme regimen upon ourselves (or worse, upon others). We have a very narrow conception of how to succeed (for example, a very particular diet, or a particularly-intense program of study), and we decide that this is the only way that the thing can be done well. In my observations as an outsider, this seems to be one of the major struggles of motherhood – not only is the thing difficult to do well, of itself, but there is no shortage of other moms who will criticize you for whatever you do, because you’re trying what happened to work for them with their kids.

But it seems to me that the most common trap is the shortcut. Somebody will come along and say, here is a way to get rich quick, or put this magnetic belt on and you can get fit without having to worry about diet or exercise, or try this fad diet, or listen to this audiotape while you sleep and you’ll learn the language, etc. And precisely because succeeding is difficult, it’s so tempting to opt for the shortcut. And in the end, even despair can be a sort of shortcut – give up, throw your hands up, and maybe you’ll succeed anyways without even needing to try.

Observation 3: That we see shortcuts in the spiritual life, too.

You might be wondering where I’m going with all of this, apart from musing about reality. Well, what got me thinking about this is (as I mentioned above) the spiritual life: both salvation specifically, and the life of prayer and sanctification more generally. What strikes me as fascinating is that the very same people who would never be so foolish as to buy into a get-rich-quick scheme or sign up for an easy fad diet expect salvation and the spiritual life to be simple.

I’ve literally seen books in which the difficulty of the Catholic view of the spiritual life is taken, on face, as an argument againstCatholicism, as if Catholicism can’t be true if it’s saying that the road is going to be difficult. But here’s the thing: the same God who created the life of the spirit created the rest of reality. If the message He wanted to send in material creation was “life is easy, salvation is easy, just ‘believe’ and you’re good to go,” why does virtually every single other part of His Creation send just the opposite message: namely, that it’s much easier to fail than to succeed?

I would be extremely skeptical of two particular extremes. The first is the attempt to reduce the spiritual life to a one-size-fits-all method: that to be saved, everyone has to pray in just this way, or behave just like so, etc. That doesn’t ring true with what I know of reality: there are no one-size-fits-all diets or exercise regimens or methods of learning or parenting styles or so on.

But the other extreme is to say that all approaches are equally valid, or to posit some too-good-to-be-true shortcut. Just because no two people have the same dietary needs, it doesn’t follow that a diet of cinnamon rolls is as valid as a diet of fruits and vegetables.

As a Catholic, I’m incredulous at those Protestants who present salvation as a one-and-done number: the kind who say things like, “I accepted Jesus in my heart on Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 9:00 a.m., and now I’ve got nothing to worry about.” Doesn’t that strike you as a little incongruous with, I don’t know, every other aspect of your life? You wouldn’t dream of saying “I had a really healthy meal on Wednesday night of January 14th, 2015, so I don’t have to worry about ‘health’ anymore.” Or even “I got saved by the firefighters after my last car accident, so I don’t need to worry about wearing a seat belt anymore. I’ve already been saved.” So why treat your spiritual health or salvation more lightly than you do the life and health of your body?

Observation 4: That Scripture warns against spiritual shortcuts.

Entire branches of Protestant theology can fairly be described as “get-saved-quick” theology. And of course, like fad diets, it sells well. People want this kind of easy shortcut to be the case. But the Bible warns about just this kind of spiritual shortcut. St. Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:1-7, writes:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His Kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.

As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Listen to that contrast. True Christianity involves accepting suffering, it calls for urgency, for patience, for conviction, for rebukes and exhortation. Sham Christianity, on the other hand, is nice and easy: no need to “endure sound teaching,” just seek out teachers of your own liking. That sounds a lot nicer than martyrdom (either the physical martyrdom that St. Paul and St. Timothy faced, or the sort of spiritual martyrdom of dying to self-will that each of us have to face).

St. Paul is no “easier” in his message to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). He begins by pointing out that the Israelites of old passed through the Red Sea, “and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all at the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink” (1 Cor. 10:2-4). The supernatural food was the manna (Exodus 16:31), and the supernatural drink was the water from the rock (Ex. 17:6); Paul notes that the Israelites “drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

Okay, so there’s no shortage of graces that God has poured out upon the Israelites, who are, after all, His people. And these graces in a not-so-subtle way prefigure the Sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, in the Christian life. But then listen to what Paul says: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:5-6). So Paul looks at the way that the Israelites, even after God freed them from Egypt, were still capable of turning away from God and incurring His wrath, and his message is: don’t think that this can’t happen to you. Don’t think that just because once, at 9 a.m. on January 14, 2015, you were brought out of the place of sin that you’re so secure that you can never fall back into it again. The Israelites, even afterthey went through all of this, lusted for the fleshpots of Egypt. They longed for their old sinful ways. And they were barred from the Promised Land as a result.

St. Paul concludes this lesson with a warning and a promise. The warning is dire: “therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11). Those who believe in a “once saved, always saved” theology believe that the Saints can never ultimately fall, and hold themselves up as people who stand and who therefore have nothing to worry about. St. Paul is directly rebuking that spiritual arrogance. And of course, even that Paul uses is a reminder that the spiritual life is like the rest of reality: it’s much easier to fall than to stand.

Now, lest we be overwhelmed by the weight of all of this, lest we throw up our hands and say it’s just too much, he also gives a promise: “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:12). Admittedly, even that promise includes a recognition that the spiritual life is going to be so hard that we’re going to sometimes wonder if we can endure. But Paul’s answer is yes, with the help of God.

Observation 5: That the Cross isn’t easy.

If you want to know whether salvation is easy or difficult, look at the Cross. That’s the price Jesus Christ paid that we might be saved. If salvation were meant to be easy, somebody should have presumably given that memo to Jesus so He didn’t have to worry about the scourging, the humiliation, the being spat upon, the getting whipped, the condemnation as a common criminal, the carrying of the Cross, the forcible public stripping, the having nails driven into His Flesh, and the slow death followed by bodily desecration.

There are only two responses to the Cross: reject it or accept it. Some forms of rejecting the Cross are obvious, where we don’t even want to look at it. A Catholic priest installed a large Crucifix in his church, and parishioners complained that they didn’t want to look at something “morbid and sad.” Another priest related to me his experience in a Gothic Methodist church in which a woman boasted to him that they didn’t have Crucifixes, and shared with him about her time in a Catholic hospital in which she refused to have a Crucifix in her room, saying “get that d*** thing out of my room! Why would I want to look at that when I’m trying to get better?” (The priest, in relaying this story, censored his retelling, pointing out that calling the Crucifix “that d*** thing” may be the worst blasphemy he’s ever heard).

But a subtler form of rejecting the Cross is to say, in essence, “Jesus did it, so I don’t have to.” Here again, some forms of Protestant theology are fairly explicit in preaching this: Christ died as a “substitute” for us, so we don’t have to go through the nastiness of the Cross. But a Christianity without the Cross simply isn’t Christianity. And I mean that in a very personal way. Christ’s message is “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). A theology that rejects this is simply a rejection of discipleship.

Now, it’s true that Jesus says that His yoke is easy and His burden light (Mt. 11:30), but that’s because He promises to bear our burdens with us, to be with us in our yokes. Bear in mind that He’s still presenting discipleship as a yoke and a burden, just once that we can bear lightly, because we are invited to “learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29). This is another way of saying what Paul says in 1 Corinthians: the spiritual life, unbearable though it is on our own, is one that we can get through because we don’t have to go through it alone. But we still have to go through it, and it’s still going to be a struggle in which it’s easier to fall than to stay upright.

Observation 6: That “hard” doesn’t mean few succeed.

One of the most frequent mistakes that I see on this subject is an assumption that if the spiritual life is hard, then few must be saved; or conversely, that if many are saved, then it must be easy. People will even say, “if so many are saved, how difficult can it be?”

To this, I would again say to listen to the rest of reality. The teenage years are hard, but most people make it through them more or less okay. The bar exam was the hardest test I ever took, and yet 80% of those who took it passed. Most soldiers make it through basic training, but that doesn’t mean it was easy.

So I don’t want anyone to read this and despair, or to say that because they hope that many will be saved, they’re not too worried about the idea that salvation could be difficult. It’s a mistake, and I think a dangerous one, to connect difficulty and ultimate success too simplistically. It would be a much better thing to conclude that since the spiritual life is difficult andChrist wants our salvation, we should be prepared for a lifelong battle, but one in which we’re never alone.

And finally, when you hear someone complain that Catholics make salvation so “difficult,” realize that this is the exact same complaint that charlatans lodge against doctors prescribing good diets and exercise, or by conmen against those who think you have to struggle and work hard to get ahead in business. Approach get-saved-quick preachers with the exact same skepticism you’d approach dispensers of any other kind of snake oil. Or perhaps better yet, don’t approach them at all.