On Sweeping, Confession, and Progress

Tonight I swept, for the third time today, the dining room and kitchen floors. As I coaxed the gatherings into the dustpan, I sighed: the thought of the day’s previous repetitions of the same task, and what tomorrow almost certainly holds as well, often provokes my exasperation, sometimes overwhelming me.  Sweeping, picking up toys, washing dishes, wiping down countertops… repetitive chores like these are part and parcel of maintaining a house that is lived in, thoroughly and exuberantly, by several people —especially several little people. Each one demonstrates very tangibly the lack of forward progress. Again and again, the same mess is made; again and again, it requires attention. The progress we’ve made scrubbing the stove until it shines, however satisfying, will not continue in increased cleanliness.

To the modern psyche, the scandalous thing is not, perhaps, the repetition, but the lack of progress. We are experts at practice and routine when it comes to the realm of athletics. Running, yoga, weight-lifting: we commit ourselves to these and other exercises regularly. And why? For the sake of progress in our personal fitness. We strive for goals such as stamina, body-tone, and flexibility, and, through programs and fitness plans, progress is assured. To not progress, but to return again and again to the same exact task with no discernible improvement — this is cause for discouragement and despair.

As someone who values checklists, reachable goals, and the satisfaction of a task completed, housework often looms before me as an ever-present specter of my own insignificance and failure. The most important people, I am told, work towards progress, towards change. The work is arduous and exhausting, but in the end, they say, it is worth it because of what is achieved. In light of that standard, my work as a housewife is doomed to failure.

“The narrative of progress and success,” Father Stephen Freeman writes, “fails to describe life as it truly is. To make matters worse, failure and suffering in our culture can often make us the objects of shame. The gospel of progress is the gospel of never really being ok – and being ashamed of it. The few who are described as successful and making progress mostly serve as examples that condemn the rest of us. We imagine ourselves working towards becoming the spiritual one percent.”

In much of our language and attitudes, the church has absorbed this “gospel of progress,” this fixation on self-improvement. As time goes on, this false gospel proclaims, you will become a better and better person. In this gospel, the goal is our own moral perfection. While this gospel may reluctantly acknowledge that perfection remains out of reach in this life, it nonetheless views sanctification as a linear and measurable process. If our own self-improvement is the goal, then Jesus becomes the means: the way we turn our personal-progress charts into an upward trend.

This linear progress is absent, though, from much of the biblical narrative. We often read Bible stories that confront us with the reality of living here in this fallen world, as sinners, prone to stumbling and backsliding. Abraham, a man of great faith, sacrifices his wife’s safety for his own. Noah, the only righteous man on earth, succumbs to drunkenness and indecency. The Israelites, witnesses to extraordinary salvific acts of God, grumble and complain their way through forty years in the wilderness. David, a man after God’s own heart, commits rape, deceit, and murder.

These stories dominate the biblical narrative, and yet we easily forget them in light of New Testament instruction, like where Peter tells us this:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8

Righteousness and holiness must grow in our lives if we are to live faithfully in light of our salvation. And yet, Peter’s own life does not offer a narrative of linear progress: he was the disciple who, after his bold declaration of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, rebuked him for speaking of his death; who cried out in terror only a moment after walking on water by faith; who refused to eat with Gentiles even after his welcoming of Cornelius. His life reminds us that sanctification works slowly; even as we “make every effort to supplement [our] faith” (2 Peter 1:5).

However much I may try to put off sweeping, or laundry, or the dishes, my avoidance often doesn’t last very long. Feeling the crumbs underneath my feet, running out of clean socks, and an overflowing sink force me to hunker down and do them anyway. Other daily necessities do not confront me as visibly as those. It’s easy to fly through my day so intent on accomplishing something that even while I work to care for my home, care for my soul is neglected. My exasperation with sweeping reflects my exasperation with prayer: what has been accomplished? How can I make any progress? And confession — in the narrative of spiritual progress — is quite problematic. In confession, I’m confronted with the same sins as yesterday — perhaps, even more serious ones. Nothing quite bursts the bubble of self-improvement like rolling out a list of the ways you’ve fallen short, or neglected to do good.

The potential for despair and acedia to settle in is high, particularly if we preach the “gospel of progress” to ourselves each day. But what if these repetitive tasks, these reminders of our failure to progress, are received as gifts of grace? After all, we do not find our hope for the future in the progress we will make, but in the one who has set the world right. Because of him, our daily tasks are not onerous or futile. We do not lament, like the author of Ecclesiastes, the vanity of all things. Instead, we proclaim that

The Lord’s loyal kindness never ceases; his compassions never end. They are fresh every morning; your faithfulness is abundant! – Lam 3:22-23

Jesus is not, as the “gospel of progress” preaches, the means of our self-improvement. He is the means of our transformation, by bringing us from death to life. We are exhorted to grow in righteousness, but even then, Jesus enables us to do so by his own transforming resurrection power. As people prone to backsliding, we look forward to our final transformation: when, in a twinkling of an eye, we shall all be changed — no matter the state of our homes, no matter the sins we confessed that day. We press on, confident not in our own self-betterment, but in the one who has the power to make us new creations.

Each day, the morning returns, the sun rises, and we begin again. It’s not progress, but it’s a transformation from darkness to light, reminding us of the eternal transformation we long for.

Originally published at Morning by Morning.