As we pause to consider the start of the new year, and the opportunity to grow in different areas of our lives – such as health, intellect, relationships – let’s not neglect to give attention to the most important area of our life: our spiritual condition. This condition, the state of our soul, must be given life and nurtured because it reflects the quality of our relationship with our Maker, and determines our posture toward life and its inevitable trials.
We must always stand ready to examine our own souls before the searching but gentle Spirit of God; but as J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic Holiness (1877), certain seasons afford a welcome opportunity to set about this happy and most important business, the business of our souls:
“To every one who is in downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?
“The question is one that is always useful, but especially so at certain seasons. A Saturday night, a communion Sunday, the return of a birthday, the end of a year – all these are seasons that ought to set us thinking, and make us look within. Time is fast flying. Life is fast ebbing away” (99).
One of the qualities of Christ that made him the most celebrated and universally admired, if not worshipped, persons in history was his example of personal humility and love, even toward those who hated and rejected him. Apart from questions about his divinity, through his life and death Christ changed the course of history, and others who’ve sought to imitate him – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis today, for example – are also impacting their worlds and the course of history. Much of what they imitate are Christ’s “passive graces.”
When’s the last time you thought about the “passive graces”? If you’re anything like me, never, because you’ve never heard of the passive graces, and probably wouldn’t have, if you didn’t read someone like J.C. Ryle, the famous nineteenth-century bishop of Liverpool in the Church of England. In his classic 1877 book, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 2001), in the chapter on sanctification – the life-long process of becoming more like Christ – he writes about the need to give our attention to growing in the passive graces.
The passive graces are “those graces which are especially shown in submission to the will of God, and in bearing and forbearing towards one another.” For example, as opposed to actively doing something unto another, being patient and loving toward them even as they hurt you, or speak ill of you and inflict injustice upon you. The model, of course, is Christ – who submitted himself to the power of those who beat him and killed him, and even forgave them, for they “knew not what they did.”
Ryle further comments: “The passive graces are no doubt harder to attain than the active ones, but they are precisely the graces which have the greatest influence on the world. Of one thing I feel very sure – it is nonsense to pretend to sanctification unless we follow after the meekness, gentleness, long-suffering, and forgivingness of which the Bible makes so much” (35).