Our life is a series of stories, and every one of those stories comes to its climax. When you have struggled with some puzzle in your life, some trial or temptation, eventually you will defeat it or it will defeat you. In the long run, for followers of Christ, the first is guaranteed, and that’s a blessing with its own set of issues.
You see, when the story comes to a head and you defeat the beast that’s been separating you from God, the immediate result is that God rewards you, whether through a closer relationship with him, some more earthly gift, or often both. The temptation then is to rejoice that you have finally arrived, finally defeated the beast, and then immediately slack off. Don’t.
The problem with sin is that it’s not a beast. Each sin, each struggle, is an entire race of some monster or another. When you learn to kill the Troll of Lust or Ogre of Anger, you have not defeated lust or anger once and for all. Its relatives will come back. No, all your victory means is that you have graduated from the troll-killing academy and know what to do the next time one shows up. But if you pass the test and immediately forget the lesson, you will have to relearn it. And relearning old lessons is messy and results in more battle scars.
The lesson goes deeper, too, and it involves more fairy tale analogies. Beowulf, the old Anglo-Saxon hero, defeated Grendel. Immediately after that, he had to confront Grendel’s mother. Then, after a period of peace, he had to fight yet again, slaying a terrible dragon. Our life is not about just one monster. No, our walk with God means confronting all the monsters. As soon as you kill the ogre, the dragon pops up. When you kill the dragon, you hear the witch around the corner begin to cackle. So when God rewards you for having slain the first enemy, rejoice like a child when his father praises him, then look around in the underbrush for the next ambush, eager to defeat whatever he throws at you next.
There is a positive side to this as well. Back in the Middle Ages, folks had a symbol for Christ that works just as well for Christ-likeness: the stag, or what we would call a pure white, elk-sized, buck-deer. In the stories, the knights would always be chasing this stag, trying to capture it. Always the stag would lead them into some adventure or another. They weren’t just spending their lives defeating evil, they took time to search for what was good.
The stag, I want to say, is Christ-likeness. At the end of each story in our life, when you capture a virtue, you have to keep it. When you finish the chase, you can’t just leave your spoils behind. It’s like a sword: it gets rusty if you don’t take care of it. So when God rewards you for a job well done, thank him and keep trying to do it better, to please him more. Don’t go slack on that virtue. When you capture the stag, don’t think it means you must never chase again. It means you have to find the next one, ride faster, ride harder, catch it quicker. That’s what growing in the Lord is all about.
I say all this because I don’t know how many times I have defeated some sin in my life, or started a righteous habit, only to slack off and have the old struggle jump back and reclaim me. So, a word of advice from one traveler to another: Even when the quest is over, give the devil no slack.