Merton’s “But I believe that the desire to please you does indeed please you” may be one of the most radical phrases in The Merton Prayer. As a child I grew up being taught and totally believing that the ONLY ways to please God were to do good always AND to not sin! And this later rubric always let me down since I – as everyone reading this blog – am a sinner and can never live a life this side of heaven without sin. (“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23).
As an adult, I find incredible liberating joy at this phrase of The Merton Prayer. These words force me to contemplate and question how I could possibly please God with every ounce of my being. I also wonder how the contemporary church as the living body of Christ is doing at “pleasing God” in everything that it does! These powerful words of the German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer are at once stunningly relevant and convicting:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”
What will it take for the church, in all of its thousands of Christendom flavors, to actually live out the witness of Bonhoeffer’s quote? I recently read a book titled Church of Cowards: A Wake Up Call to Complacent Christians (by Matt Walsh, Regnery Publishing, 2022) in which the author documents and decries the apathy of our 21st century church in America. Complacent Christians are hardly striving to “please God in everything we do.” I was shocked recently to learn of the incredible growth of Christianity in China. Only one-half million Christians existed in China as recently as the 1949 revolution and founding of the Peoples Republic of China, and today there are over 60 million Chinese Christians. The projection by one scholar is that by 2030 there will likely be over 200 million Christians in China, which will make China the most Christian nation on Earth, eclipsing America. (Yu Jie, “China’s Christian Future,” First Things, August 2016)
Check out what Yu Jie, a very strong professing Christian, endured as a consequence of his friendship and support of a fellow Chinese dissident who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: he was arrested, spent several years in jail and later in house arrest, was tortured regularly, all of his fingers were broken, he was taken from prison to a hospital which refused to treat him, when he finally was treated elsewhere he came very close to dying, and he had actually given up and prayed for God to bless him in death as a martyr. I read that and I had two reactions: first, I clouded up with tears for what this brother Christian partly, if not significantly, endured for his faith; second, I shudder with shame at how easy and cheap my grace position of salvation is in the American church.
Bonhoeffer was right: cheap grace won’t cut it, at once it is worthless and a fraud. We are called by Merton to “desire to please God in everything we do, and to try to do nothing apart from that desire.” The interesting question which is begged is this: Would Merton’s call to “desire to please God” be seen by Bonhoeffer as cheap and insufficient? God’s salvation plan for humankind had nothing cheap about incarnating his son for a cruel torturous death on a cross. May The Merton Prayer help us strive to focus on pleasing God with every ounce of our being and may we abandon the spiritual lethargy which allows us to placate our souls with mindless and heartless rituals.
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