Friday, April 11, 2014

Success


I did a forty day memorial recently for a woman who died at a relatively young age (by today’s standards) who had been an immigrant to Canada from a war-torn Orthodox country where she had been raised in near abject poverty.  As young adults this young woman and her husband immigrated to Canada, worked very hard and raised two very successful children. Both have become doctors, one at a major research university. After the memorial service, the surviving spouse, let’s call him Theo, kept repeating to me: “She was a very good woman. Both of our children have become doctors because of her encouragement.”

On one level, I have to agree with Theo. It is an amazing thing to come from dire poverty, immigrating to a country where you don’t speak the language and working hard to provide a home and every academic advantage to two children who both grow to become what most people would consider very successful adults. It is an amazing thing what this couple has done.

And yet on another level, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Isn’t there anything more important in life than success--especially as we remember someone who has departed this life? As we contemplate what is most worthwhile to leave behind us when we depart and what is most important to impart to our children in this life, isn’t there anything more important than material and social success?

So much of what we consider success in this world has to do only with what can be seen and measured. But you can have it all and still be miserable. What makes us happy and what gives meaning to life are those things that cannot be seen nor measured. Love cannot be counted. Satisfaction cannot be bought. Peace cannot be earned. All that is longed for has nothing at all to do with how much status or money or power someone has. And yet we continue to pursue these things and teach (and sometimes drive) our children to do the same.

In “The Christian in a Changing World,” Archimandrite Vasileios says that the devil has a very limited vocabulary.  He is always telling us the same lies. There are no new lies (though technology is changing, what life is about in this world is not changing at all). The devil tells us the same lies he told our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The devil tells us the same lies our whole life long, even though we have, through our own personal experience, come to know that they are lies.  

We have come to know that wealth does not bring happiness, yet we continue to hear the same lie whispered in our ear. We have come to know that success does not bring love, but we hear the same lie whispered in our ear.  And we have come to know by our experience that owning newer and bigger and better things does not bring satisfaction--yet the same lie continues its monotone drone in our ears: “Buy this and it will be enough”; “accomplish that and you will be loved” ; “If you only had a few hundred or a few thousand or a few million dollars more, then you would be happy.” They’re the same lies over and over again. We know they are lies, but we are still seduced by them.

Someone once observed that people will believe whatever they hear repeatedly, no matter how ridiculous it is. A casual look at the quickly changing social landscape of North America over the past fifty years can confirm the truth of this observation. If we are not attentive, our minds are changed by the mere repetition of ideas. And herein lies the devil’s power: his very limitedness. The power of the evil one is that the he whispers in our ears the same lies over and over again.  

How do we escape? How do we overcome this human weakness? The first step is to admit that we have this weakness. We must admit, confess, that we have these thoughts. We must confess that we do indeed hear a drone, a continually dripping lie as from a slowly leaking faucet saying in our mind: do this and you will be happy; do this and you will be loved; do this and you will be satisfied. The specific form or forms of this lie that each of us hears differs depending on our personalities, backgrounds and the specific weaknesses that we have been susceptible to in the past.

Some hear a whisper: “look at this pornography, and you will find relief form your boredom or stress or loneliness.”  Some feel an urging that would translate into something like: “eat a little more or have another drink or get high one more time; it will be worth it, it doesn’t matter, you will feel better.” And some have an impulse or a driving idea: “If I just had the newest model, if I only had the latest fashion, if I could only accomplish this higher goal; then it will be enough, then I will be satisfied. And even among the religious, the devil has his few but ever repeated phrases: If only you prayed more, if only you were more disciplined, if only you hadn’t made that mistake, then God would love you and bless you and be near to you.  

Lies, lies, lies--and yet through repetition we believe them. The first step to get free from these lies is to confess them, to confess to God, to yourself, to your priest, and to whomever God has put in your life to help guide you out of darkness and into the Light. Confess that you do indeed experience these thoughts and urges and feelings and although you know they are lies, you are still somehow drawn by them; you still somehow find them attractive.

Having confessed, the next step is to recognize that you are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings or urges. You are a human being who has thoughts and feelings and urges, but you are not those thoughts and feelings and urges. You are the one experiencing these things and deciding what you are going to do. Just because, for example, you have the thought that a hamburger would taste good right now, doesn’t mean that your body needs a hamburger. But if that thought lingers in your mind, soon your body will begin to sympathize with it. The thought of eating a hamburger will generate a feeling of hunger. But even a feeling of hunger doesn’t mean you are actually hungry. We know this by experience. Most of us have experienced at some time in our life the feeling of being full after a wonderful meal, but wanting to eat more and so eating more until we make ourselves uncomfortable or even sick.  

Similarly, most of us have experienced buyer’s remorse.  The new thing we just had to have, once we acquire it does not do for us what we expected, but on the contrary, becomes a kind of burden (and something else we have to figure out how to pay for). And then there is the illusion of success. Every goal achieved only reveals a higher goal. Every record broken only raises the bar of expectation: now I have to work harder to keep pace and strive even more to break into the next level.  

However, those desires and thoughts and feelings are not me. The desire to have the newer, better car or boat or house or outfit is not me. I am not the sum total of my desires and urges. My identity is not found in the records I break or the goals I achieve. These are all things I may do or feel or experience, but they are not me.

But if all of this jumble of thoughts and feelings and urges is not me, then who am I? Ah, now we are asking a vital question, now we are beginning to make progress in our salvation. Who we are, or better, who we are becoming has not yet been revealed, according to St. John’s first universal letter. But what we do know is that what we are becoming looks a great deal like Jesus. Who I am becoming looks like Jesus and yet still looks like me. Who I am is someone who is becoming, someone who is growing and changing. I am someone who is becoming myself. And all of the thoughts and feelings and urges that I experience provide a kind of context, a proving ground if you like, a place where I can become myself, my better self, my more Christ-like self.

Human beings were created as noble creatures, creatures worthy to be filled with the Spirit of God. However, human beings also participate in and experience an animal life; and human beings can, if they are not attentive, become like mere animals. As the Psalmist says, “A man being in honour did not understand; he is compared to the senseless cattle and became like them.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the charge and authority to rule over all that is animal, but if we are not careful, if (as the psalmist puts it) we don’t understand, then we will compare ourselves to, or make as our standard, the senseless animals instead of comparing ourselves with our God and making our Creator and His calling for us our standard.  

Certainly it is important to work and contribute to the social and merely animal aspects of our life in this world.  Yes, it is much better, if you are able, to be someone who contributes to society, someone who helps others rather than someone who merely takes. (But in reality we all give and take--some giving is more noticeable or considered by society to be more valuable, yet we all give and take). However, if we merely succeed on this animal and social plane, and fail to become full of the Spirit of God; then can we consider ourselves to have been successful at all? Didn’t Jesus ask the same thing when he said, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but lose their soul?’


Just like the animals, the animal aspect of our life will one day pass away; and with it will pass away all of the social success we may have attained and the possessions and the power and the wealth we may have acquired. Then, on that day, who we are will be revealed. What we have become will be known. May God grant us to keep that day in mind and to consider success to be the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, to be mastery over our animal passions, and to be victory over the demonic lies that perpetually bombard us. This is success: to become, by Grace, God-filled human beings, to become all that God has called us to be.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Messiah Complex

I think I have a messiah complex. The reason I say this is because I often feel that if I only did something different, if I could only discover what I should do differently, it would make a great difference in the lives of others.

I know that such thoughts are not uncommon. Many people are tied up in knots, praying earnestly that God will show them what to do, that God will help them to pray more or fast more or do something more so that the power or Grace of God will flow and make a difference in the lives of those we care about. We are tied up in knots because we think that we are the essential element blocking the work of God in the lives of those we love. Somehow we think salvation depends on us.

As Orthodox Christians, we are encouraged to see ourselves as the chief of sinners. We are encouraged not to blame others, but on the contrary to blame ourselves. Many saints have had this attitude and the hymns of the Church and the advice of many spiritual fathers and mothers tell us this. I do not dispute it. In fact, I have found this self-condemnation to be quite life-giving. However, what is not helpful is a kind of corollary that I and I think many others make. The corollary goes like this: I think that because I am the worst sinner and because I blame myself and not others, the responsibility of repairing the mess is also mine, that I am the key to fixing the messes that I have made (or contributed to making). But this is not a healthy thought.

In most cases, in my experience, the thought that God is waiting for me to do the "right" thing to pour out His Grace and help, this thought that it must somehow depend on me, actually comes from a kind of pride. Instead of producing humility in me, the thought that my sin contributes to the brokenness of those around me, an illusion of responsibility is produced or even the delusion that I somehow have the ability to fix things: if I could only pray harder, or find the right thing to change in my life, if I would only in one way or another try harder, then others (particularly those I love and care about) would see God more clearly and would themselves find Grace, be healed, and would repent. In my sick and fallen way of thinking, the idea that I am the cause or part of the cause of the sufferings of others (because of my sin or lack of faith or inadequacy), I am somehow the one who has to find the way to fix things.

But this is not at all how healing and salvation come about in the Kingdom of God.

We must see ourselves as the chief of sinners and even as the cause of the suffering of those around us because we are not to judge others. And not judging others, I am the only one left to judge. I judge myself—as Jesus said, so that I will not be judged. So I am the chief of sinners because, as far as I know, as far as I know experientially, I am the only sinner. I cannot judge others. However, this in no way means that I am the one who must or even can fix or cure the physical, relational, psychological and spiritual illnesses around me. I can only repent myself. I can only turn myself towards God. And only God Himself can heal me and others.

It is difficult to acquire the kind of humility in which I do not see myself as the linchpin, as the one who has to figure it out. It is difficult to simply rest and trust God, to rest in the knowledge that while I am a big part of the problem (maybe the only part of the problem), God is the only One who can fix the problem. God is the only One who saves. "Salvation is of the Lord," the scripture says repeatedly. And yet I somehow keep falling into the trap of thinking that I somehow have to figure out how to save others. I cannot save anyone. I cannot even save myself—except in the sense of myself turning and submitting again and again to God.

As a priest it is so easy to develop a messiah complex, to think that I have to figure out what to say and what to do to save others. I am continually tempted to think that I have to push myself harder, to pray longer, to fast more severely so that others may be saved. It is so easy to think that it depends on me. And of course, you don't have to be a priest to have this problem. Many earnest Christians struggle, tie themselves up in knots,  and completely lose any sense of peace or joy in their lives because they are tormenting themselves with the thought: "If only I did more, if only I could figure out what to do differently, then things would be better, then my loved ones would see Christ more clearly, then there would be peace in my relationships. But such thinking never leads to peace. It leads to greater and greater frustration, anger and sadness. And eventually, it can lead to a kind of accusation or blaming of God Himself. The thought might occur to us, "God, why aren't you helping me!"

One of the constant themes of my Bishop, Archbishop Joseph, when the clergy gathers is this: he says, "A priest's first job is to find salvation for himself, then God will save the community." It is like the word of St. Seraphim of Sarov who said, "Acquire the peace (or Grace) of the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved." Peace does not come once we figure out how to heal our problems and the problems of those around us. That's backwards. Our problems and the problems of those around us will be healed as we acquire peace. And peace comes as we learn to accept our brokenness, as we accept the fact that we cannot save others. We can love, or learn to love, but we cannot save. Only God saves.

And so what are we to do to acquire peace, to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit. For me, one of the first steps has been to really accept the fact that I am the chief of sinners, that I am so broken that there is no chance I could help or save anyone no matter how hard I worked or prayed or strove. I am broken. I am a clay pot—a cracked clay pot—that somehow has a little spark of the Grace of God inside. This I must focus on. I must nurture this spark inside myself and let go of the responsibility I have pinned onto myself for the salvation of others—even, and especially, for those I love and care the most about. I cannot save. Only God saves. I cannot save, but I can seek to nurture and attend to the little spark of light that God has put into my soul.

Yet even as I say this, part of me is crying out: "That is so selfish. Where is the love in caring for your own soul when there is so much sadness and brokenness around you?" Yes it would indeed be selfishness, if I actually could do something to save those around me. But since only God can save, the most loving thing I can do for those around me is to attend to God in my own heart and thus be transfigured by the knowledge of God in my heart. My ability to cooperate with what the Grace of God is doing in others depends completely on my growing awareness of and cooperation with the Grace of God within my own heart.  I have to let go of the world to change the world.  I have to let go of my false sense of responsibility and the anger or sadness or frustration associated with it so that I can be transformed by the love and Grace of God already in my own heart.

Sometimes I wonder how much my over-wrought sense of responsibility isn't really just a manifestation of my own sense of guilt. I know I am not a very good priest—even when I try my hardest. I know that I was not a very good parent—even though I tried to do what I thought was best for my children at the time. I know my inadequacy, and somehow in my confused mind, having an over-anxious sense of responsibility is my way of assuring myself, and perhaps my way of trying to tell God, that I really do love and care about those whom He has put into my life. Sometimes, I think, this anxiousness I experience, this messiah complex, is really just that. It is my attempt to assuage my doubts, to convince myself that I really do love and care and want the best for those around me.  And if this is the case, and it seems often to be the case in my life, then letting go of this false sense of responsibility is not really about letting go of my love and care for others, it is about letting go of my coping mechanism and embracing even my own self doubt as part of my brokenness, as a part of what needs to be healed in me.

I cannot save others. Salvation is of the Lord. Sometimes I just repeat this to myself over and over again. It helps me shift my focus. It helps me look to God in my heart and to give over to Him all of the anxiety and worries I have for those I love. After all, God really is the only One who saves.



Tuesday, April 01, 2014

I Am Not Afraid Of Hell...

"I am not afraid of hell, and I don't think about Paradise.  I just ask God to be merciful to the entire world and to myself."
St. Porphyrios

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on Fear


For a while, when I was in my 30s, I was into rock climbing.  I never scaled any really large faces, although I did do a few three pitch climbs (a pitch is a little less than the length of a rope—50 metres). There are several levels of fear and even kinds of fear that one must encounter and work through as one climbs. There are irrational fears, like the fear of heights, or of spiders or of snakes—all of which one encounters rock climbing in Southern California. There is the fear of equipment failure, or the more realistic fear of making a mistake with the equipment—knots are checked and rechecked, anchors are trebled, everything is thought through. Then there is the fear of your partner failing, of his not paying attention or not being careful when care is most needed. Learning to confront and overcome these fears in myself was one of the most important and inspiring aspects of rock climbing for me.

However, there was also another kind of fear, and I’m not even sure if fear is the right word for it. There is a feeling of being overwhelmed by the massiveness of the rock itself and your complete dependence on it. You are on the rock by its permission, so to speak. The rock is holding you, holding you because it does not even notice you—you are that insignificant. Clinging to the side of a massive bolder a hundreds of feet from the ground, you get a profound sense of your insignificance, of your dependence, of your contingency—the fact that you do not need to exist.  Humility might be a better word than fear to describe this feeling. This humble fear, or humbling fear, makes life very simple on the side of a rock. There is only you and the equipment and your partner—and the rock. This simplicity makes something else possible: pure Joy.

I have felt joy more intensely while rock climbing than I have felt it in just about any other context of my life.  Nothing gets in the way. The fear brings me to a place of humility and simplicity and then joy breaks through. The hot sun, the cool rock, the view of eagles soaring below you. The quiet. You don’t even notice the pain.  A gash here, a few bruises there, and still all you feel is peace.  Deep breaths of cool air, spiders and other small insects scurry in and out of cracks in their elevated world, and nothing in my head. No stray thoughts, no wandering fantasies. Having harnessed fear, trusting my partner and trusting my equipment, I don’t think at all. I just move, pulling myself higher, negotiating tricky patches, breathing, breathing, and moving again. It is all so simple, so peaceful, so full of joy.

I sometimes think the fear of God is supposed to be experienced like this humbling fear. It is not a fear that something bad will happen if I screw up, if I or the equipment or my partner fail. No it is not really about me at all. The fear of God is like the feeling of humble contingency. The feeling of dependence. The feeling of existence at the permission of another, another whom I cannot manipulate or control, another whom I can never change for he is so massive, but another whom I can work with, who at all times is holding me up. The fear of God is a fear that humbles us. It humbles us and simplifies everything. And this simplicity makes joy and peace possible.    

St. Isaac the Syrian puts it this way. He says that all of life is a fetid sea which we must cross. We cross this sea in the boat of repentance with the oars of fear and heading to harbour of love. There are two dynamics at work: fear is propelling us and love is drawing us. However, fear here is not, at least I do not think it is, the fear of punishment or the fear of failure, for the love of God is also drawing us.  Rather, it is the fear that comes from attention, the fear that comes from the growing realization of reality, of things as they really are, and the distance between what I am and what I am called to be, what God is. Love is drawing me, and at the same time I am aware that I have not embraced that love, that I have preferred my own reality, my own interpretation, my own loves. And it is this very realization of my own loves as not real, not real in the presence of the Great Love, that is drawing me. It is this awareness that produces this fear, or perhaps instead of fear, we might just as truly call it a heightened state of awareness. I am aware of the distance. I am aware of the sea’s threatenings. I am aware of Love drawing me, and I am aware of my tendency to reject or despise or to twist it to try to make it conform to my image—instead of allowing Love to conform me to His Image. I am aware of all this and it somehow motivates me. It motivates me to row, to repent, to work, to change. It creates humility, the profound feeling of dependence. And it directs and compels me to love.

And reaching the harbour of love, the oars of fear are let go. There is no fear in love.

This metaphor, like all metaphors, is both useful and misleading. It is useful in that it helps us understand how fear and love can work together; but it is misleading in that it implies that the journey takes place only once. However, our lives are too layered for that. Life is a continual journey toward love through the vehicle of repentance, drawn by love and propelled by fear one moment, only to have fear fade away and be replaced by only love. And then somehow sin slips in and the boat of repentance stalls. This calls for a renewed sense of fear and action in repentance which is soon lost in a renewed awareness of the embrace of love.  With the fear of God, with faith and with love we draw near. It is not either fear or love. It is fear and love leading to love only. This is our journey. This is how we motivate ourselves in repentance, this is how we make our way across the fetid sea of this life.

Every time I put on the harness to climb, I felt the fear anew, but fear quickly gives way to joy the more you climb. And when the day is done, it is the joy that remains. The joy stays with you and the fear passes away.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Rapture


In 1 Thessalonians Chapter 4, St. Paul talks about the end of time, when Christ will come again to the earth.  First those who have died, St. Paul says, will be physically raised from the dead; and then those who remain, who have not yet physically died, will be physically caught up into the clouds with Christ to remain with Him forever.  This being caught up is often referred to as the Rapture.  However there is another kind of rapture I want to talk about.  A very common kind of rapture, one that we all experience, a rapture that makes it difficult for us to pay attention to God in our heart, a rapture that does not allow us to prepare for the Rapture.  What I am talking about is the rapture, or the being caught up in and by, the busyness (or the business) of life.

In Orthodox Christian eschatology (study of the End Things), not much play is given to the Rapture, certainly not when compared to how significant a role the Rapture plays in many Protestant eschatological scenarios.  When compared to some others, Orthodox Christians, on the whole, are much less concerned about the details of how the world will end and much more concerned about the experience of judgement that will take place when every single person must stand before the Judgement Seat of God and give an account for his or her life.  It is the preparation for this Judgement, or this giving account, that most Orthodox spirituality focuses on.  And so for most Orthodox Christians, the when and the where and the how of eschatology is of very little significance.  After all, it is the actual meeting with the King that one needs to be prepared for, not whether you will be walking or escorted there in a coach and four.  

Or to put a finer point on it, it does not much matter whether I will come to stand before Christ tomorrow or fifty years from tomorrow (and really, in the scope of eternity the difference is microscopic).  It does not much matter whether the End comes next Tuesday and we who remain are raptured out of this world, or if we are hit by a truck, die of a heart attack, or slowly wither away with dementia in a convalescent hospital somewhere.  How we get there is of almost no importance.  Who we are when we get there is of great importance.  And who we will be then depends not at all on how or when we get there, but in what we are caught up in, or enraptured by, now.  That determines who we are and who we will become.

Certainly we all have to work.  We all have jobs to do—obediences that involve caring for mundane tasks so that we can eat and be clothed and live in a warm and dry dwelling.  Doing work and being busy is a good thing.  Work, since the Fall of mankind, has been an essential part of our salvation.  And even before the Fall, caring for the Garden and tending the animals there was part of Adam and Eve’s very communion with God.  Work is very important.  The father of all hermits and the first monk, Anthony the Great, was instructed by God Himself that prayer alone was not enough.  He was taught that he must pray for a while, and then work for a while, then pray for a while and work for a while again.  

Work in this age does not hinder our preparation for the Age to to Come; on the contrary, it is an aid.  What does hinder our preparation for the Age to Come has to do with where our heart and attention lie.  What enraptures us?  In what are we caught up?  That determines to a large degree who we are becoming, and what we will have to say on the last day—And I mean that in both senses: what we will have (or possess) to say, and what we will have to (as in be required to) say.

It seems that everything in our culture is teaching us to live for today, to be caught up in or be enraptured by what we are feeling, doing, or desiring right now.  Seize the day, we are told, means to do what you want today giving no care for tomorrow, which is almost exactly opposite the original meaning of of carpe diem, which meant to seize today to prepare for tomorrow.  And this is exactly what Christ in many of His parables teach us that life is all about: preparing for tomorrow, for the ultimate Tomorrow.

It is said that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes.  But even taxes change (they don’t go away, they just change).  But death does not change, ever.  Death is that certain.  And just as it is foolish not to prepare for a upcoming test at school or not to pay your taxes or not to change the oil in your car (it will break down if you don’t take care of it), so it is foolish to be enraptured by things that have no eternal value, to be caught up in things that make you into someone you don’t want to be.  On the Last Day, sins will be forgiven—that’s not what we have to prepare for.  Christ has taken away our sins.  But here is the question we all must ponder: who will I be?  Who am I becoming?  Who is this one who experiences forgiveness?  Actually, forgiveness can be a very frightful thing.

Consider, for example, a person who loves to smoke pot.  I have an acquaintance, a street person who would rather smoke pot than just about anything else.  In fact, that’s why he’s a street person.  I have been directly involved with attempts to get him into housing or programs that will help him; and every time, he is the one who walks away.  Why?  Because they won’t let him smoke pot while he is in the program or while he is living in a friend’s house.  This is Canada, British Columbia even.  He’s forgiven.  No one holds pot smoking against him in any legal sense—even though it is still technically illegal.  But he does’t care about that.  He doesn’t want forgiveness.  He wants to keep smoking pot whenever and wherever he wants.  And he is willing to live on the street, in the cold, in the rain, in the snow, to do so.  He is enraptured with smoking pot.  

And just like my street buddy who prefers smoking pot on the street to a secure, dry, housing and job training program, so too I think many of us will have quite a shock when we stand before God on the Last Day.  Yes, our sins are forgiven.  But who have we become?  Who will we be when we stand before God on that Day?  What have we become enraptured with that we will not be allowed to bring with us into Heaven.  What will our teeth gnash about and what will we weep over and what will burn like eternal fire as we are separated from it?  What will we have to leave behind?  And what will be left of us after all that must be left behind is left behind?  What will we have, or who will we be if we have spent the time allotted to us for repentance being caught up in everything else but God?


A wise Protestant Christian once said that you won’t be raptured with Christ on the Last Day if you are not enraptured with Christ today.  I think that’s pretty good.  Who you are striving to be today (even if you are failing—and we are all failing) is who you will be on the Last Day.  What enraptures us today determines how we will experience the Rapture of the Last Day, no matter when or how that takes place.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Zeal


St. Theophan the Recluse, in The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, stresses the importance of zeal, which he describes as our “willingness to do whatever it takes to be saved.” Of course, saving is something that God does and has done (and will do). Nonetheless, we too must be active. This activity on our part is motivated by zeal. Zeal is an energy to do something, to do “whatever it takes,” as St. Theophan puts it.  

Zeal comes from the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to make us aware of our sin and to call to our remembrance God’s existence, arousing in us the fear of God, or the awareness that what we do has consequences that we cannot control, consequences that will affect us and others both now and in the age to come. But this action of the Holy Spirit is not enough. We must believe, accept and cooperate with this awareness generated in us by the Holy Spirit. This believing, if it is genuine, produces a kind of energy that motivates us to do what is good and cut off in ourselves what is evil. Or to put it another way, zeal motivates us to get our life in order, to straighten crooked desires and raise valleys of spiritual laziness and bring down mountains of high self opinion: to make a way acceptable to the Lord. Zeal changes us.

There are, however, some common problems we run into when we seek to arouse zeal in our lives. You might say that these misdirections or misidentifications of zeal all fall under the general category of zeal without knowledge. Misdirected zeal is the most common problem.  Misdirected zeal identifies something outside myself that needs to change and works towards that change. Misdirected zeal often quickly becomes anger, anger toward whatever or whomever seems to be in the way of the good we are pursuing. This outward directed zeal is the zeal that one sees in politics (whether in politics proper or in the manipulation of relationships at home, work or in the church). Looking outside ourselves to identify the problems in our lives, we can easily identify causes, locate blame, and come up with a plan to remove the problem. All of this energy almost never actually changes much because it shifts our focus outside ourselves, so that even if a situation dramatically improves, we still have ourselves to deal with.  As a friend of mine used to say, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Only when zeal is directed inwardly can we begin to change ourselves. But we will talk more about this later.

There are two kinds of zeal that are commonly misidentified as spiritual zeal. These are intellectual zeal and emotional zeal. Intellectual zeal identifies a goal, identifies the steps or means of obtaining that goal, and then pushes to work the steps to obtain the goal. This is the kind of zeal common in the workplace or in many self-help programs. It is a zeal based on reason, based on figuring out what is needed or wanted and the steps necessary to get what you need or want. You figure it out—or more usually someone else does—you convince yourself of the reasonableness of it, and you commit yourself to the steps, to working the plan. It is a zeal that leaves you completely in control. You decide the goals, you decide the steps and if you obtain your goal, it is because you worked your steps and did what you were supposed to do. If you fail, it is also your fault—or someone’s fault (we are always so good at blaming others)—but failure is always someone’s fault.

When this intellectual zeal gets clothed in religious language, it can be quite damaging to us spiritually. To begin with, it is damaging because we call our own choices, God’s choices, or we say that we know what God wants.  That is, we reason within ourselves that what we want is really also what God wants (according to our reading of the Bible or the advice of a parent or spiritual authority, or based on a particular feeling I have or set of serendipitous confirming circumstances or just based on the popularity in our current religious milieu of that particular outcome we are seeking to obtain).  For example, if someone grows up in or has been influenced by a religious setting that emphasizes evangelism, he may feel a great deal of pressure “to do more” in the way of evangelizing those around him. Believing (perhaps falsely) that this is what God wants him to do, this person creates or adopts a strategy to accomplish his goal. He might begin by memorizing conversation starters. Then he might set a goal for himself: “to share my faith with at least one person a day,” for example. Then he must muster up the determination to work his plan (wrongly thinking this is spiritual zeal).  

Or, for example, someone might experience a serendipitous series of events—a dream, a chance encounter, an apparently miraculous event—and interpret them as revealing God’s will to them. In my experience, these sorts of serendipitous or even genuinely miraculous experiences often carry with them an additional burst of emotional zeal, or excitement, which can make genuine discernment even more difficult. Many a earnest Christian has devoted years of his or her life to working the plan, to pursuing the logical steps toward a particular ministry or calling only to find out later, often in painful failure, that perhaps what they thought was God leading them was probably much less God and much more their own desire or ideal spurred on and guided by emotional and intellectual zeal. Intellectual and emotional zeal are not without their place in our lives, but when they are mistaken for spiritual zeal, they can get us into trouble.

Intellectual zeal clothed in religious language is also dangerous to us spiritually because of what it produces in us—whether we succeed or fail—because the success or failure of a reasonable goal is a matter of our working the plan. If the expected results are obtained, it is because we worked well; if the expected results are not obtained, it is because we (or someone else) failed. One of the common sources of soul-destroying pride is success in an endeavour.  Whatever sin or passion or addiction we overcome, if we are not very careful, can quickly become a source of pride for us. The woman who has lost and kept off 100 lbs., must attend to her soul carefully lest she think that anyone can do what she has done if only they will do what she did. This is a dangerous spiritual place to be in—not far from the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel who prayed within himself, “I thank you God that I am not like other men.”

Of course the flip side of success is also dangerous: failure often leads to depression. On the simplest level, we damn ourselves because we were not able to work the plan. We assume we must be losers, moral failures, or just doomed to be stuck in the same place. We are depressed because we couldn’t keep up with the plan. We assume we didn’t keep up with the plan because we didn’t work hard enough or pray hard enough or strive hard enough. It is our fault, and it seems there is nothing we can do about it. We may even begin to wonder if God is willing to bother with us at all. We feel that we have let God down. This is the first level of depression that can come upon us when we come to rely on intellectual zeal and when we assume that what is outside us is what God is really concerned about.  

One of the common ways we try to buttress intellectual zeal is by embracing emotional zeal, or excitement. Those who manage sales people know that the best way to keep your sales staff working the plan is to keep them excited.  Emotional zeal temporarily buoys us, it can give a spirit of energy to keep us going even in the midst of failure-induced depression. When I was a young man, I was involved in a missionary-minded church group that put a great deal of emphasis on personal evangelism. I was a terrible at it. In all those years, I never got one convert. I was embarrassed by street evangelism, I hated going door to door, and I felt so uncomfortable with contrived and awkward conversations with strangers. Nevertheless, in that religious setting, those were the things that I had to do (the plan that I had to work) if I wanted to save souls and thus show myself to be a faithful Christian. I needed regular injections of excitement and emotional zeal. And these were provided. Testimonies of conversions and miraculous events were the constant fare from the pulpit in those days. So after a couple of hours of enthusiastic singing and preaching mostly about the missionary imperative and the End Times, I would get buoyed up enough to go out and try again, only to fail miserably and sink again into depression.  

But a life of extreme effort buoyed by emotional zeal in the face of repeated failure is exhausting. Something has to give way. Moral, physical or institutional burnout brings us to our knees. Sooner or later, if we keep trying and keep failing, we can come to the point that we begin to blame others. Like Job, we realize that we have done all that we could do, that the failure, the problem, lies not in our working the plan. We have worked the plan, we have done what we thought God wanted us to do: we believed, we confessed, we worked, we strove. We ask God, “what more could I have done?” We are tempted to curse God and die.  We are tempted to blame God, we start to wonder—perhaps even out loud—if God exists at all. This is one of the darkest nights of the soul.

However, this darkness can also be a womb, a place of preparation for a new birth. When we have come to the end of ourselves, to the end of our plan, our understanding, to the end of God as we thought we knew Him, then we truly become the poor in spirit. Then we truly are the orphan and widow—our false understanding of God has left us abandoned. Our misguided zeal based on what we understood with our intellect and bolstered by excitement and pushed forward by our determination, all of this is gone, and we are left whimpering, like an abandoned child. And here, if we can accept it, is where we need to be: broken and contrite, with nothing to offer God but broken pieces, without a plan and without a goal—without a goal except just to be, to just be with God, or rather to learn how to just be with God.

And here spiritual zeal can begin in earnest, spiritual zeal focusing on myself, on attending to Christ in my heart.  Intellectual and emotional zeal always focuses on what is outside us. Spiritual zeal brings our attention to our heart, to our repentance, to what is needed for our turning toward God. In our heart is where we find what God cares about.  Yes, there will always be things to do, and these things we do are not without a certain relative importance. However, it is only as we attend to our own hearts, as we embrace the humility of dependence, of not knowing, and only as we see our own participation in the brokenness of the world around us, only then can we hope to actually be the light in the darkness. Spiritual zeal helps us to repent, to change ourselves not so that we can do things in the world, but so that we can be something in the world: so that we can be bearers of Christ. Like the Theotokos, Christ’s Virgin Mother, we are called to become pure so that we too can carry Christ in our hearts.


This is our calling. This is our ministry. No matter what else we may or may not do—and we may or may not do wonderful and noble things—but none of these are our calling, none of this is our ministry, if we are not truly bearing Christ in our hearts as we do whatever it is we do.  And this is what spiritual zeal is for. Spiritual zeal motivates us to repent, to adopt ascetic disciplines, and to pursue spiritual help through prayer, study and obedience to holy guidance. This is how we accept Christ into our hearts. This is how we are saved. By cooperating with the convicting Grace of the Holy Spirit, often manifest in our conscience, turning our hearts away from what is displeasing to God and toward what pleases Him, we come to be ourselves vessels of Grace, Grace that can change the world—not because I worked a plan hard enough, but because God’s Grace is sufficient.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Robert Coles on Ruby Bridges

May God help us to pray as Ruby prayed!

Now is the time to forgive all those who do not know what they are doing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard




During Lent, the Church reads Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah.  The New Testament is not read during Lent, except on the weekends, when there is somewhat of a lessening or lightening of the fast. After the Psalms, I imagine that Isaiah is the most quoted book of the Old Testament in the hymns and verses of the Church services. Not only does Isaiah have amazingly accurate prophetic pronouncements concerning the Coming of Christ, but Isaiah also reveals quite plainly in many images and parables God’s heart toward His people and how, in His love, God deals with his people to lead them to repentance.  

One of the common metaphors both in Isaiah and throughout the whole scriptures used to describe God’s love and relationship with His people and how and why He deals with them the way He does is the image of a vineyard. In the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church today, this image is still often used. For example, when the Bishop is blessing the community during a hierarchical Divine Liturgy, he blesses by paraphrasing Psalm 79 (80), “O Lord, look down from heaven and visit this vine and perfect that which Your Right Hand has planted.”

In Isaiah chapter five, God address his people as “My Beloved” and sings a song about a vineyard. The RSV translates the passage this way:

Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes (or thorn bushes according to the Septuagint).

What do we have here? The vines represent the people of God, and the vineyard is all that God has done to help the vines grow and become all they are called to be. The vines are given everything they need to produce good fruit, and the vineyard is supplied with all of the equipment that is necessary to turn that fruit into wine. We might say that the fruit refers to the result of human effort in cooperation with Grace, while the wine refers to the spiritual beauty and heavenly result of God’s transformation of this fruit into something divine. Human effort is necessary, but it is not sufficient. To follow the metaphor of the vine, God provides the soil and the nutrients, God provides the rain and the sun—all of this represents all of the Grace and help God pours out on us so that we can produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But still, we must cooperate with Grace, just as the vine itself must grow and produce fruit, transforming the nutrients, water and sunshine into grapes.

But producing fruit is only the first step of a process, a process that will eventually produce wine. The Fathers of the Church teach us that virtue is the fruit of the Holy Spirit—or the fruit of the Holy Spirit is virtue. St. Paul, in the book of Galatians, lists nine qualities that he calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the Christ-like virtues. We could also include virtues such as wisdom, hope, and humility—but to tell you the truth, I think if we could all just focus on the love, joy, peace, patience and kindness, our lives would be transformed.  These qualities, or virtues, are evidence not only of the Grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but also of our cooperation with that Grace. The first step in producing the heavenly wine, is for us to cooperate with the Grace of God by loving our neighbours, being kind to one another (even when we don’t feel like it), bearing patiently uncomfortable or even painful situations that are beyond our control, and controlling ourselves—what we eat, what we say, what we do.

Producing this fruit of the Spirit is the first step in the transformation into the image of Jesus. It is what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the discipline of the body and the discipline of the mind. Cooperating with the Grace of God, we learn to control our bodies and our minds, we learn to bring our body and our mind under control, under the obedience of Christ, as St. Paul puts in 2 Corinthians chapter ten, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” This is the spiritual warfare Christians are called to engage in. All of the evil in the world that Christians are called to battle against must first be conquered in ourselves before we can have any hope of influencing the world around us. In fact, it is a common error pointed out by many fathers and mothers of the Church for beginners to focus outside themselves on the problems that need be solved in the world while passions and foolishness are still raging in their own minds and bodies. Remember, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is virtue, not a better political system or a better society—although these may result in a community of men and women who have obtained virtue.  

But even virtue and all of the societal benefits it might bring is not the goal. It is a necessary step on the way. All of our virtue must be offered to God to be transformed into the wine of God. That is, ours is not to choose or determine the result of our lives lived for God. Our lives are offered to God, and just as grape juice must be transformed by the action of yeast into wine, so our lives through prayer and stillness are transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit.  What does this divine wine look like—well, we don’t know yet, exactly. As St. John puts it, “Beloved…it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is.” The wine of God is the blood of Jesus Christ. We do not yet know exactly what we shall be, but we do know that we shall be like Him.

Let’s return, now to Isaiah and the parable or metaphor of the vineyard. God gives us Grace, God gives all we need to bear good fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—but what happens?  Isaiah tells us that instead of bearing fruit, God’s people bear wild grapes, or thorn bushes (in the Septuagint). Then God asks a question: “What more could I have done?” If God has given us every protection and advantage to produce good fruit, and we refuse to cooperate, what should He do?  

Well, contemporary business consultants will commonly say that to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results is a form of foolishness and insanity. God is no fool. God will try something different. God loves us that much. If blessing and prosperity, protection and nurture do not result in our bearing godly fruit, then God will do something else. Here’s how Isaiah puts it:

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed and briers and thorns will grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Now I think many of us when we hear these words might be thinking individually. That is, we think these words are referring to how God deals with individuals. It is true that God does deal with individuals sometimes with blessing and sometimes with hard times, and although this passage could be applied to individual people, it is not what this passage is talking about. This passage is talking about how God deals with his people as a community. This is very significant, especially as we are praying through Lent. As we pray together, the repentance of each of us becomes the repentance of all of us.  

And as we struggle with our repentance together in the Church, it sometimes happens that it seems like the Church, God’s people, are like a vineyard that has been abandoned. Of course, God has not abandoned his people—far from it—but for the sake of our repentance, so that we will desire to bear fruit, God sometimes allows his people, the Church, to be trampled on and devoured by unworthy and worldly people (both from within and from outside the Church) as though the protecting wall (or hedge) has been removed. Sometimes God allows what seems to be ruin, dry seasons, empty churches, and hard times during which nothing but prickly relationships and weedy encounters confront us in the very place we had thought to find hope and encouragement. God allows this, and even though it does not feel very loving, God allows this out of His Great love for us so that we will develop a longing for life, spiritual life, real life, life that bears godly fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Until we begin to long for Life, until we begin to hunger and thirst after righteousness, what good are the blessings? What good is heavenly protection when we don’t even desire to produce any fruit worthy of heaven? We must ask to receive, but in order to ask, we must first desire, we must long for a Christ-like life.

And of course, longing is not enough, but longing is a start.  We must learn to long for the Life of God so that when God does send a little rain, a little Grace into our life, we will seize it. We will attend to ourselves and to the little Grace given us and let a little fruit of godliness be born in our life—a little kindness, a little patience, a little peace. This is the beginning. I can do nothing about “the Church at large,” although I must suffer and endure together with the whole Church whatever trials or ignominies or humiliations that God allows for our repentance. I cannot do anything about others, but I can repent myself. And here’s the mystery—the amazingly powerful mystery of repentance—my repentance becomes the repentance of the whole Church. Yes! Just as I suffer with whatever weaknesses the whole Church suffers from, the whole Church benefits and is revived by the repentance of only one. God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorra for the sake of only ten righteous people. How much more will God have mercy on His Church, His beloved Bride, when just a handful of people repent. How much blessing will God pour out, how much blessing has and does God continue to pour out on all of us because of the humility and repentance of a handful of men and women hidden in the mountains and caves of the earth?  

The angels rejoice, Jesus tells us, over the repentance of one sinner. I make a difference. You make a difference.  I don’t have to set my mind on things too high for me, as Prophet David said, I need to still and quiet my own soul, like a weaned child at her mother’s breast. I cannot fix the world’s problems. I cannot fix the Churches problems. But I can repent myself. I can still and quiet my own soul. And who knows? Maybe God will see my desire to repent and send just a little more Grace to the whole Church. Maybe God will notice your longing for piety and pull a few of the weeds and thorns out of the way. Who knows? God is, after the vine dresser. I am only one vine in the whole vineyard.  I cannot do anything about the whole vineyard. But what I can do is long to bear fruit and await the rain. I can cry out to God in prayer for mercy, I can learn to control my mind and my body, and I can await with longing the coming of Grace. Then, like I say, who knows, maybe the whole vineyard, the whole Church will be blessed and experience again the gentle care and loving touch of the heavenly Master who only loves mankind and only desires to see us become all that He has created us to be.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Shedding the Fear of God's Wrath


Sister Vassa in her post on the Sunday of the Last Judgement says that the fear of God, when it is healthy, is manifest in us by the fear of disregarding our own conscience; for, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, our conscience is the voice of God within us. Many people struggle, however, with a different understanding of the fear of God. For them, fear of God refers to a fear that God will punish them. This false understanding of the fear of God often comes with the assumption that God is angry—angry in the same way that we have experienced angry human beings, especially authority figures, who in our lives have in anger punished us or withheld love, or threatened to punish us or withhold love.

It is difficult to come to God when you are afraid of being punished. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we feel an impulse to hide, to cover ourselves, and to blame others. We have listened to the lies of the serpent, and so we have forgotten the loving care of our Father.

Of course, the anthropomorphisms of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, do not help much in this regard. The Bible is full of references to God's anger and wrath, and for people who have been raised in a 'Bible only' theological tradition, it is distressing to conceptualize a divine Father figure of whom it is said, on the one hand, that he loves us, and on the other hand, that his wrath burns hotly against us. What is particularly terrifying about this picture for many of us is that we have known earthly fathers or other authority figures who, due to alcoholism or other mental illnesses, have been loving towards us one day and inexplicably angry and wrathful towards us another day.   Too many of us have learned from experience not to trust the love of an authority figure because we have experienced also his or her wrath.

I have found it helpful, both in my own life and in trying to help others who struggle with this false understanding of God, to begin with the theological premise that God does not change. God does not get angry. There is with God, as it says in the book of Hebrews, no shadow of turning. God has no dark side. God is truth. God is light. And darkness, wherever it is found, is only a shadow that we have created for ourselves, a bit of unreality that we sustain by hiding from God. This is the darkness that the world is in, and it is a darkness that many of us have gotten used to and perhaps even enjoy: a reality of our own creation, even if that reality isn't really real, but exists only in our minds, nonetheless it is our reality and we have come to like it. And perhaps one of the reasons why we like our darkness is that we don't have to see what we don't want to see.

But God is Light, God is the real reality. And just as light drives shadows out of a dark place revealing what is hidden, so God Himself delivers us from our false realities—a deliverance we may find painful. But God comes to us as a friend, as a doctor, to heal our sickness. And we, like a child who has fallen—even if she had not been careful and it was her fault, we, like a child who has fallen, run to God as to our Father for comfort.

Elder, now Saint, Porphyrios says the following:


We should regard Christ as our friend. He is our friend. He asserts this Himself when he says, "you are my friends." Let us stretch out to Him and approach Him as a friend. Do we fall? Do we sin? With familiarity, love and trust let us run to Him—not with fear that He will punish us, but with the confidence which we derive from the sense of being with a friend. We can say to Him, "I have fallen, forgive me." At the same time, however, let us have the sense that He loves us and that He receives us with tenderness and love and forgives us. Don't let sin separate us from Christ. When we believe that He loves us and we love Him, we don't feel [like] strangers and distanced from Him, even when we sin. We have secured His love, and however we behave, we know that He loves us. 
Wounded by Love p 105 

I must admit that I have a little insecurity in me. Such a pure parental love, I'm afraid, might be taken by some as licence to misbehaviour, but what am I afraid of? Is good behaviour our goal, or is it relationship with God and transformation? Perhaps misbehaviour is what is needed in some cases, if love for God is genuinely lacking, if love for God is merely a pleasant delusion. Perhaps, sometimes, one needs to fall hard and far in order to see what is truly in his or her heart. Perhaps a messy reality is better than a neat unreality. But of course, a heart guided by genuine love of God is the best of all.

St. Porphyrios then goes on to talk about hell and the fear of hell. He says, "Certainly the Gospel tells us in a symbolic language that the unjust man will find himself in a place where there is 'grinding and gnashing of teeth'—because that is what it is like to be far from God." Notice that the Saint calls this symbolic language. Hell is not a place as we understand place in the world of time and space as we now know it. After all, how can we talk about place when we have no bodies? Just as Adam and Eve were tormenting themselves as they attempted to hide from God, although God was never far from them, so also the language of torment and of God being far from someone is not a reference to any physical reality, but a reference to a heart turned away from God. And the weeping and gnashing of teeth refers to the torment one goes through as one's false world is confronted with reality, when light shines in places we want to remain dark. 

But why does the Church use this language at all? Why do we talk about hell as a "place of eternal torment" if what we actually believe is something much more nuanced. The answer is didactic. That is, at different stages of our moral development, some images work better than others to move us into the Light. After all, the reality of the Age to Come is such that it cannot be expressed at all in the language and concept of the present age except by metaphor, parable and allegory.  But what cannot be directly expressed in the language and concepts of this age can nevertheless be experienced. We can experience a foretaste of the Light, Life and Love of God, the Paradise of the Age to Come—or even the torment of the Age to Come—even now while we are still citizens of this world. And because God loves us and wants all human beings to be saved, Christ has given us many parables and metaphors to help us draw near to Him in our hearts no matter were we are on our journey.  

St. Porphyrios puts it this way:


Everything has its meaning, its time and its place. The concept of fear is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners, those in whom our ancestral fallen nature lives on. The beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined, is held back from evil by fear. And fear is essential since we are men of flesh and blood and earth-bound. But that is a stage, a low level of relationship with the divine. We think in terms of a business deal in order to win Paradise or escape hell. But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest. That's not something that appeals to me. When someone progresses and enters into the love of God, what need does he have for fear? Whatever he does, he does out of love, and that is of infinitely greater value. For someone to become good out of fear of God and not out of love is not of such value.  
As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the Evangelist says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fears is not perfected in love." As we exert ourselves out of fear, we gradually enter into the love of God. Then the torment of hell, fear and death all disappear. We are interested only in the love of God. We do everything for this love, as the bridegroom does for the bride.

And so we are told that fear and hell are tools, tools to help moral beginners, tools that spur us in the right direction when our hearts are very dark and turned away from God. However, they are tools that lead us to love, tools that are laid aside as we turn away from our own darkness and toward God's Light, as we repent. And perhaps those of us who have come to love God, but are still tormented by a fear of punishment, perhaps what we need to do is just let go. What may have served a useful role in our spiritual life at one point, is no longer useful—in fact, it is getting in the way. It's time to grow up in God, to love our Heavenly Father just because He loves us.

Here is a story that I think might be helpful. When I was in high school and college, I hated writing. In my mind, I associated writing with red marks telling me everything I had done wrong and seeming to ignore what I was actually trying to say. Now, red marks correcting spelling and punctuation may indeed serve a useful purpose in helping someone learn to write, but there comes a point when one has to overcome the fear of making a mistake by the desire to communicate. This overcoming did not happen to me until graduate school. The best marks I ever got in my undergraduate writing courses were C- . I hated writing. It was a mine field. I wrote to avoid mistakes, not necessarily to say anything. But something happened in graduate school. I was allowed to use an editor. I was allowed to hire a typist (personal computers, alas, were still a decade away). The professors were interested in what I had to say. Suddenly, I was writing A papers. I was writing to say something, not to avoid mistakes.  

I think a similar transition has to happen in our relationship with God. Sooner or later we just have to shed the fear of making mistakes, and just love God.

Monday, March 03, 2014

But What Did Jesus Actually Say?


You can’t read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. Ch. 5 - 7) without coming away disturbed. Perhaps that’s why we don’t hear too much sermonizing based on Jesus’ longest sermon (and perhaps his only sermon recorded in the Gospels if you count Luke’s version as a different telling of the same sermon). We don’t hear many sermons based on these words because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be promoting what some people might call ‘works righteousness.’ Throughout the sermon, Jesus tells his hearers that God will treat them exactly how they treat others.

In his comment on prayer, for example, Jesus directly links our forgiveness by God to our forgiveness of others: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive  you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you.” And this teaching on forgiveness, which is actually part of Jesus' advice on prayer, is part of three activities that Jesus assumes we will do. And how we do these three activities, again, determines how God responds to us. Notice, Jesus says “when you do charitable deeds…” “When you pray…” and “when you fast…” Jesus is assuming that we will be doing these things. Prayer, fasting and charitable acts are not optional for followers of Jesus—it is what identifies them, at least according to Jesus.

Notice also, with each of these three activities, after Jesus gives some specific instructions about how these are to be done (and not done), he adds that they must all be done in secret. And whether or not they are done in secret determines whether or not God rewards. I mentioned this in an earlier blog, but it bears repeating here: the word ‘openly’, as in “and God will reward you openly,” does not appear in the earliest and best manuscripts. The contrast is not secret versus open (i.e. secret prayer resulting in an open reward) but rather the contrast is between secret and reward (any reward). But lest any of us be thrown off by that word, “reward,” as though a reward were something extra given and not actually contingent on anything we have done, we should notice that the Greek word misthos that is translated as ‘reward’ in these verses is much more commonly and appropriately translated ‘wages’ or ‘hire’, as in “a labourer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10: 7 & 1 Tim. 5:18) and “Behold, the wages of the labourers who have mowed your fields…” (James 5:4).  

As distasteful as this may sound to our ears, the following is a perfectly legitimate translation of these verses: “That your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will pay you out.” As I said above, if you are going to read Jesus’ sermon for what he actually says, it sounds a lot like what some would call ‘works righteousness.’ In fact, it is probably to avoid sounding this way, the word ‘reward’ is used. 

Another word that is conveniently mistranslated in these passages is the word ‘charitable deeds.’ In Greek neither the word ‘charity’ nor ‘alms’ appears. The Greek word here is dikaiosune or ‘righteousnesses’, or ‘righteous deeds’. So really, what Jesus is saying is that God the Father pays out for righteous deeds done in secret.  

No wonder we don’t hear too much preaching from the Sermon on the Mount!

So what do we do with this? Do we have a conflict between Jesus and St. Paul? Is Jesus preaching salvation by works righteousness while St. Paul is preaching salvation by faith?  Actually, I have read some scholars who argue this very position, but I think they are totally off the mark. The problem lies, in my opinion, in the very concept of salvation, what it is and how we obtain it. 

If we have a juridical understanding of salvation, as though it were a thing given to us, then we might get caught up in wondering on what basis this thing is given to us. And if we think of salvation merely as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of righteousness to us in some heavenly accounting system (rather than in our lives as they are actually lived and experienced), then we might split hairs over at exactly what point and on what basis such legal standing is granted us. And if we understand the judgement of God to be the opening of this heavenly accounting system (the books) to reveal who made it into heaven and who didn’t—as opposed to the opening of the books referring to the opening of our conscience, the revelation of all that we have done, lusted after and hated or loved and served in the secret of our hearts—if we think judgement is just about who made it in rather than a revelation of who and what we are already, who or what we have become in this life, who or what we have longed to be, if judgement is just about accounting, then of course, how we live our lives and how we cooperate with or resist the Grace of God in our transformation in this life would certainly be irrelevant. 

But it is not irrelevant, rather it is the ‘whole enchilada’ to use a phrase some monastic friends of mine like. Our transformation into Christ’s image is the reason for everything. And this, of course, is the whole point made by St. James. Faith and works are not separate. Certainly, faith precedes works in one sense, but this preceding faith, if not followed by action, is not faith at all, it is empty, it is dead. Even in St. Paul’s famous argument in Romans chapter four, based on the righteousness of Abraham, faith is accompanied by an action and that action is a sign of the reality of the faith. Abraham is given the sign of circumcision, “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). But what if Abraham decided to pass on the circumcision? What would that say of his faith—or lack thereof? It is the action, or the ‘work’, that fulfills the faith, that reveals that the faith is indeed real. As St. James puts it, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith is made perfect?” (James 2: 21, 22).  

Since the goal of the Christian life is to be transformed into the image of Christ (not to get into heaven by making sure your name is on the right list in the heavenly accounting books), and since the final judgement has to do with the revealing of the secret things written on our conscience, then it makes sense that Jesus would emphasise certain key dispositions, certain key attitudes and actions that are to come from a secret place within us, from our hearts: come from our hearts and be manifested in our actions. Faith is essential, for without faith we would not move toward God at all: “For he who comes to God must [first] believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Oh! And there’s that Greek word again, now in its participle form, misthanpodotes. God pays out to those who diligently seek him.

And so to return to the Sermon on the Mount, what is the pay out, what does God give us both in this age and the Age to Come? According to Jesus, God gives us what we give others, or treats us as we treat others. You might say that God gives us what we want, what we really want secretly in our hearts. Do we want mercy, then we show mercy to others and God shows mercy to us. Do we want forgiveness, then we forgive others and God forgives us. Do we want a genuine relationship with God in our hearts, then we pray in secret—in our hearts, and God rewards us by dwelling secretly in our hearts by faith. Do we want to love Christ and receive his love, then we love our neighbour, we do to others as we want God, who is the ultimate Other, to do to us.

Isn’t this also what is revealed to us by the psalmist when he says, “With the holy, You show Yourself holy; with the innocent, You show Yourself innocent; with the pure, You show Yourself pure; but with the perverse, You show Yourself perverse [or shrewd, if we don’t like the idea of God being perverse, but that is, nonetheless, the parallelism] (Psa. 18: 25, 26). For too many of us, the words of Jesus have not been taken seriously because we have not believed that they really matter. Too many of us have held understandings of salvation that somehow only value the fact that Jesus died on the Precious and Life-giving Cross [as some sort of a credit in a heavenly accounting system]; but we pay little heed to what Jesus actually said, as though what Jesus said has nothing to do with what He did.  But I don’t think that is the case. In fact, I think it is rather foolish to think such a thing.


Jesus made it very simple for us—simple, but not necessarily easy. Jesus confirmed the Great Commandment of the Old Testament, to Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbours—even our enemies—as ourselves. And Jesus made it pretty clear that this is what the Judgement on the last day is all about.  For, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these,” Jesus says, “you have done it unto me.”