Friday, September 19, 2014

Lukewarm Christians

In my last blog post, I spoke about the middle way, the way of spiritual discipline that does not err to the left (too lax) or to the right (too strict).  Barbara, one of my regular commenters, asked me to speak a little about this in the light of the warning in the book of Revelation not to be “lukewarm” lest God spit us out (3:15-17).  I can see how one can easily be confused by this warning in the light of the teaching of the Holy Fathers and Mothers that we pursue Christ by avoiding extremes to the left and to the right.

To begin with, I think one’s spiritual temperature has less to do with the specific disciplines and activities or virtues one practices than it has to do with one’s attitude when one practices them.  In the text from Revelation, Christ tells the Laodicean Christians (the lukewarm ones) the reason why he says they are lukewarm.  Let’s look at the passage:

And to the angel [or pastor/bishop] of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I could wish that your were [either] cold or hot.  So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”’.

The lukewarmness of the Laodiceans does not have to do with any specific “work” that the Laodiceans are or are not doing—“I know your works,” the Amen says to them.  The problem isn’t the works, it’s the attitude:  They think that they or their works are sufficient.  They think they have more than enough of all they need.  And they do not realize how poor, sick, blind and wretched they really are.  This is what it means to be lukewarm: to think that you have enough, that your are all right, or that you have things pretty much under control spiritually speaking.  

Someone suffering from this malady of lukewarmness might be very diligent in certain pious practices and spiritual disciplines, or she might not be disciplined at all.  The sickness is not necessarily manifest in any specific outwardly identifiable behaviour.  It is the sickness that many of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church call “self-esteem.”  

We live in a culture in which self-esteem is considered a good thing and to have low self esteem is to be in need of psychological help.  While low self-esteem is not an issue addressed by the Fathers or Mothers of the Church (at least not that I know of), I do concede that it is nonetheless a genuine malady suffered by some—especially by those who have been psychologically damaged by severe physical and emotional abuse.  However, genuine low self-esteem is very uncommon in my experience (and I have been around a lot of abused people—I myself was raised in foster homes and institutions).  In my experience, anger expressed in passive-aggressive behaviour is a much more common malady among those who have been abused than is genuine low self-esteem.

But even then, even defining self-esteem is difficult.  The problem with defining self-esteem is that we live in a culture that considers self promotion, self praise, and fighting to get ahead to be normal, healthy expressions of personhood.  Any man, woman or child who does not push to be first or rush to assert her opinion, or fight to defend his turf is judged by the social and psychological gurus of our age to suffer from low self-esteem.  However, from the perspective of the Church Fathers and Mothers, these are manifestations  of a spiritual disease, a disease that they often refer to as “self-esteem.”  

This, I think, was the problem of the Laodiceans, this is what I think made them lukewarm: they had (too much) self-esteem.  They were full (of themselves).  They were rich (on their own—the same problem St. Paul points to in his letter to the Corinthians [4:8] “You have reigned as kings without us”).  In fact, this is the same problem revealed in the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve wanted to become gods apart from God. 

 Most people suffer from way too much self-esteem.  We generally think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think (c.f. Rom. 12:3).  Generally, we don’t think we have much or anything at all to repent of.  Most people, even believes, and especially this believer, sometimes, live as though God did not exist, as though God were irrelevant, as though whatever may happen next in my life will or will not happen because of what I do or do not do.  Again, generally speaking, we don’t see ourselves as dependent creatures.  We don’t see ourselves in constant need of God’s ever-present protection.  We don’t weigh every thought, word and deed as though we will give an account at the fearsome Judgement Seat of God.  And what’s more, we generally don’t care.  This is what it means to be lukewarm.

I wish it were easy to discern whether or not, or to what degree I am lukewarm.  It is not easy at all to discern.  However, I think one principle may help us:  In as much as I am sure that I am lukewarm, I am probably not; and in as much as I am sure that I am not lukewarm, I probably am.  When we know we are sick, we seek the Physician;  when we think we are well, we do not.  And this brings us back to my last post: how do we seek the Physician, how do we find healing in a way that is effective?  The Fathers and Mothers of the Church encourage us to seek spiritual health through the practice of virtue and spiritual disciplines in a way that is neither too strict nor too lax.

How do we know the difference?  St. Isaac suggests some guideposts.  On the one hand, if you find yourself falling into lustful temptations, it may be because your discipline is too lax.  On the other hand, if you find yourself falling into despondency, then it may be that your rule is too strict.  But who can diagnose herself?  We need spiritual fathers and mothers, wise physicians of the soul to help us discern these things.  And for those of us who don’t think we need a spiritual guide, perhaps our Lord’s words to the Laodiceans apply.  We are all sick, blind, naked and wretched.  It is only the lukewarm who don’t think they are.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Thank you, Father. I've never heard the lukewarm warning explained in this way. Such a helpful way to think about it.