One of my parishioners told me last week that a relative of hers is looking into Orthodox Christianity. When I asked her why she was looking, the answer surprised me. She said that her aunt is beginning to read about Orthodox Christianity because, as she put it, “she had rode the Charismatic bus to the end of the line.”
I think I know what she means. In my Protestant days, I was a Baptist Charismatic with Word of Faith influence, a Four Square Pentecostal, and a close friend of the Vineyard Christian fellowship. I even did a couple of years stint in YWAM. I too rode the Charismatic bus to the end of the line.
In the Protestant Charismatic and Pentecostal world as I experienced it, there seemed to be a progression of Christian experience that went something like this: First you are saved, which means that you have an encounter with Christ in which you accept Christ; that is, you accept the fact that Christ died for (read: instead of) you on the Cross. This salvation was considered real if it included an embrace of traditional American “family” values (especially in the Baptist and Pentecostal circles I was in) and the cessation of “worldly behaviour.” Worldly behaviour was defined variously, but generally included (but was not limited to) the following: smoking (anything), drinking alcohol, dancing (except as worship in church) and going to places where people smoke, drink and/or dance. I realize that not all Charismatic groups put the same emphasis on the cessation of clearly defined “worldly” behaviours, but most of the groups I was associated with did.
After one was saved, the next step was to be filled with the Spirit. This generally involved an emotional/spiritual experience, generally with the laying on of hands, and was often accompanied by glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. This second phase of the Charismatic Christian experience often included teaching about spiritual gifts and encouragement that one practice “functioning” in one’s spiritual gift. Alternately, especially in the Vineyard circles I haunted, “inner healing” functioned as a cathartic spiritual (and usually very emotional) experience. This second stop on the Charismatic bus line might be summarized as being healed and empowered, and was followed by ministry and outreach.
The last stop along this Charismatic Christian line is ministry or outreach. Having been saved, healed, filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped through the laying on of hands or teaching (which is sometimes considered an additional stop or an alternative stop to #2 for non-Charismatics), one is then expected to give oneself to ministry. This ministry can take many forms, from evangelistic work, to teaching and from administrative work to giving prophetic words. One was supposed to be doing something “for the Kingdom.” Catch phrases like “you are either a missionary or a mission field” were common. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), there is often a great deal of pining that goes on among Charismatics who have been around for awhile and do not yet have something to do in Church that can be readily identified as a ministry. For these, the advice is often the same: Go back to step two. More teaching or more inner healing or more prophetic insight should reveal your ministry to you and remove all blockages to the successful and dynamic functioning of said ministry.
Those who are already confident in their ministry minister with all their heart, as though the eternal destiny of all they come in contact with were at stake: after all, “saved to serve, serve to save,” that’s the driving (though not always spoken) premise of Protestant Charismatic ministry (at least to what I have been exposed to). And sooner or later (more often sooner than later), the active Charismatic minister burns out. Sometimes this burnout takes the form of moral failure of some sort. Other times it takes the form of emotional and physical exhaustion—even to the point of exhibiting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At this point of burnout, you are left with three options: either A) take the bus back to the beginning, assuming that perhaps you were not really saved at all (I personally experienced two extra baptisms based on this assumption); or B) you get more inner healing or more education; or C) Having repeated A and B several times already, you give up. People don’t usually give up on God (totally), although some do; rather, most just give up on church as they know it. They cannot deny the reality of their encounters with Christ, yet they cannot go back to where they were before: it is just too painful. Something isn’t working right.
But what if salvation is not just about accepting Christ? What if salvation is the whole process of being conformed into the image of Christ? What if we are not saved to serve? What if we are saved to become like Jesus?
I think, for many, this is the appeal of Orthodox Christianity. As Orthodox Christians, we understand salvation to be a process of transformation—a process that takes a lifetime, and even more than a lifetime. If salvation is of the Lord, as the scriptures tell us, then even when I do serve the Church, I am not serving so that others might be saved. The eternal destiny of no one depends on me, the eternal destiny of no one except myself that is. I am called to save myself in Christ, to hide myself in Christ, to find myself in Christ. I am not called to save anyone but myself. And saving myself is merely a matter of learning again and again to accept Christ as the Lord of my life, in ever widening areas of my life, in ever deeper levels of my being. But if I save myself (in Christ), thousands around me will be saved: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” Jesus tells us.
St. Isaac the Syrian tells us that ministry is not unimportant. Yes, we must love one another in practical ways, in ways that are often unique to our personalities, callings in life, resources, and relationships. However, St. Isaac also says, “How beautiful and praiseworthy is the love of neighbor, if only its cares do not distract us from the love of God!” You see, that’s the problem. We get in ministry “mode” and all of our focus is shifted outwards: What does God want me to do? What is God saying to this or that person? What am I supposed to teach? How can I help this or that person or situation? All of our focus is scattered around us and we have very little time or energy to focus on “the one thing needful.” And that one needful thing is to attend to Christ in our hearts.
In the Protestant Charismatic world there are very few resources and spiritual practices that encourage one to develop this one needful thing. In my experience, Bible reading, which was called quiet time, was the only spiritual practice that I was encouraged to engage in. And I must say that nearly all of the enduring spiritual transformation I experienced in those years came out of my quiet times reading the Bible. Nowadays, perhaps there are more resources. One Charismatic Mennonite friend of mine runs a centre for silent retreats. This is certainly a step in the right direction: outer silence may be the beginning of inner stillness.
And yet there is a paradigm problem. In fact, I think it is more than a paradigm problem there is an acute eccleisial problem: The Protestant Charismatic church is just not the Church, not in the full historical and theological sense of the Orthodox Church. I have a regular weekly lunch with some Protestant Charismatic leaders who have become friends of mine, and I explained this problem to them this way: The Charismatics today are much like the Corinthian Church St. Paul wrote to. They love Christ and they are zealous for spiritual gifts; and like the Corinthian Church they sometimes “value giftedness more than character” (by the way, that was a phrase used by one of my Charismatic leader friends). However, the early Church, I pointed out, was terribly persecuted, which in many ways kept most people honest. One is not so tempted to seek ministry if one knows that life and property are on the line. You risked everything to follow Christ. About 250 years later, when the persecution ceased, the monastic movement began in earnest, which in many ways functioned in the same way the persecutions did: it kept people honest. This self-imposed persecution or asceticism again forced one to put it all on the line in order to serve, lead or minister in the Church. And this ascetic way, this desert tradition has continued in the Orthodox Church—to a greater or lesser extent—to this day.
My Charismatic leader friends are amazed that within the Orthodox Church we have all the miracles and signs that the “Corinthians” are zealous for. But what amazes them more is the fact that holiness and character and godliness leading to theosis is what is emphasized. Raising the dead is nothing: Knowing yourself, repenting and becoming transformed into the image of Christ, now that is something.
None of my Charismatic leader friends seem particularly interested in becoming Orthodox. For now, they are interested in learning from Holy Orthodoxy bits and pieces that they can apply in their context, in their paradigm. I keep warning them that the results will not be the same, that Orthodox Christianity is a “whole meal deal.” But still, they keep asking, so I keep giving whatever I can. After all, salvation is of the Lord. I cannot help them. Only the One who is Lord of both me and them can help or save any of us.
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.
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.
"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."