Thursday, November 07, 2013
About a year ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "The Chief Hypocrite." I feel like rehearsing that essay today.
We live in a culture that is so afraid of poor self image, that self boasting has become the norm not only in secular society but also in many church contexts. It is almost as if Jesus had never said, "take the lower seat," or St. Paul had never said, "esteem others as better than yourself." What would it look like if I really did esteem others as better than myself? How would I speak? How would I act?
When I read some of the Orthodox spiritual writers, I am often amazed at how aware of their weaknesses and shortcomings they are. Like St. Paul, they consider themselves the worst of sinners; and yet, the Grace of the Holy Spirit speaks through them to me. How can it be?
A monk once told me that each one of us stands before God and is judged alone, not in comparison to anyone else. This judgement is not some future experience; it is an eternal, eschatological experience that we can begin to experience (or experience by anticipation) now. When I stand before God, I am always the chief of sinners. Carrying with me this experience of judgement is, I think, part of the secret to living a transformed life. Seeing myself as last, seeing my self as weak and broken, allows me to experience the Grace of God in a way that would be impossible (and that might even destroy me) were I to imagine that I really had something to add to what God is doing.
When I am weak, then I am strong. When I focus on repentance, on seeing my weakness and on turning again, and again, and again to God, God somehow allows me to participate in some of what He is doing in the world. When I focus on what God is doing and how I can help, I almost always mess things up. And so, like St. Paul and thousands of thousands of holy men and women before me, I rather glory in my weakness (or at least I try to do this).
But sometimes this seems hypocritical. Sometimes it seems like I am just saying words or pretending, that something inside me is protesting: "I'm not that bad."
I think it's insecurity speaking. I'm afraid that God and others will reject me and that I won't be loved and accepted if I am really that bad, that broken, that messed up.
However what saves me when I feel and think this is that the very same eschatological experience of judgement comes also with an eschatological experience of the love of God. God loves me. Yes, I am a mess, but I am God's mess. I am the chief of sinners, and I am beloved of God. Holy Paradox!
I have an excellent chiropractor. He studies my body, pushes things around a little, and then sends me home with exercises. These exercises often involve exaggerating movements, over compensating or pulling my body one way to train the muscles to find the harmonious middle. And his exercises have worked very well for both Bonnie and I.
Sometimes I think my spiritual life is a little like my chiropractor's exercises. The first sin, we are told, is pride. Perhaps it is necessary for each of us to see ourselves as the chief of sinners to be healed of pride—loved and accepted by God, but messed up, weak and sinful nonetheless. Perhaps this is how we are healed of the pride that has perverted and twisted our souls. We have to push ourselves, we have to "put on" humility, to exercise ourselves in lowliness, even when it doesn't feel quite natural. This is part of our therapy. This is how we are slowly being conformed to the Image of Christ.