January is the time when we traditionally make New Year’s Resolutions, or undertake what people now call a ‘Life Laundry’, clearing out our bad habits and resolving to try harder in future. It’s not always as easy to do as we sometimes glibly suppose.
Hermits used to withdraw from the world, to be alone in order to search inside themselves and bring out into the open anything that needed healing. The same approach was taken up enthusiastically by all the famous religious orders, like the followers of St Benedict and St Francis, and John and Charles Wesley also borrowed from it.
The hermits were practising what is sometimes called Healthy Religion, by which I mean that they hoped to find a mind cure for what was wrong inside them so that they could draw closer to God. Trusting God's Spirit to help them, they followed a routine of prayer, Bible study, contemplation and fasting, hoping to become a better and more rounded person by using these tools.
At university John and Charles Wesley founded a holy club of fellow students who also tried to improve themselves by prayer, Bible study and visiting the sick and those in prison, and even when they outgrew this approach and went on to see that a more radical change was needed, they still continued along the path of self-improvement. Methodists were called upon to submit to the discipline of attending class meetings for prayer and Bible study, to help the poor and needy and to expect to be sanctified or made more holy.
But there’s another more pessimistic approach to spiritual life, personified by St Augustine, who gave self examination a new twist. When he searched inside himself he found that his personality was so badly broken it just couldn't be fixed. There were things lurking there which he felt powerless to overcome. So he said that he could only throw ourselves on the mercy of God and seek forgiveness.
This type of approach is sometimes called Sick Religion, not because it's a sick way of doing religion, like Daish in Syria and Iraq, but because it assumes we are all fundamentally sick at heart and need rescuing. St Augustine's teaching was taken up enthusiastically by Martin Luther and John Calvin and it was when John Wesley was listening to Martin Luther's preface to the Book of Romans that he realised being rescued from this inner sickness is a vital and necessary part of our religious journey. Any number of New Year’s Resolutions - no matter how sincerely made - will not help us unless we first sort out our inner brokenness.
But the Wesleys didn't give up on Healthy Religion. Instead they tried to bring these two traditions together by integrating both the Healthy and the Sick approaches to spiritual life side by side into Methodist practice. They acknowledged that we start out as broken people who need rescuing, and that Jesus comes to redeem us - or give us a fresh start - by his death on the cross, which they called justification or being put right with God. But after that - they said - a Spirit-led journey of self-improvement can begin, which they called sanctification. Being justified, or put right with God, wasn’t the end of the journey, it was just the first step in a process of entire sanctification.
This distinction between so-called Healthy and Sick religion isn't unique to Christianity. Most Muslims believe that it’s possible to improve oneself simply by steadfast obedience to God's will as revealed in the Qur'an. But Sufism, one of the alternative spiritual paths in Islam, shares the Wesleys' view of human nature. People are too sick to embark on a path of self-improvement until they have asked God's Spirit to come into their life and change them for the better.
One modern challenge to self-improvement through religion has come from the teachings of Sigmund Freud. He felt that so-called Healthy Religion, with its stress on being more pure and sanctified, forces us to repress part of our true self and become more - not less - neurotic. According to his view there's no such thing as Healthy Religion. There's only Sick Religion. But one of his disciples, Karl Jung, disagreed. He saw religion as so deeply embedded in the human psyche that the possibility of Healthy Religion must always remain.
As we try to set our New Year’s Resolutions or do our Life Laundry for 2017, psychoanalysis can actually help us by uncovering a number of pitfalls that we need to avoid.
The first is the danger of self-denial, repressing how we really feel deep inside in order become the sort of person we think Jesus would like us to be. So we repress angry feelings, for instance, because we think we've got to be unfailingly nice. But actually we need to deal with these feelings.
And this leads us to the second pitfall, the tendency for Christians to have very strong ideals which we can’t live up to in practice. The danger is that we become disappointed with ourselves and guilt-ridden when we fail. Ideals help us to set goals and measure our progress, but we mustn’t allow ourselves to become hung up on our failures and setbacks.
And that leads to the final pitfall, our tendency to confuse guilt and shame. Guilt is what we ought to feel for the wrong things we do which need to be put right, a process which begins for Christians when we turn to God. Shame is a feeling of worthlessness, of not deserving to be loved, and it needs to be let go of because it's a road block on the way to healing and sanctification.
John Wesley was instinctively right. A one-off conversion experience can't carry us through life's ups and downs. Life is a series of challenges which need to be negotiated. It’s a pilgrimage - a struggle even - towards entire sanctification.