Beyond a Purpose-Driven Life

escher-relativity1Americans are known to be “practical” people. Historically, our culture has seen problems, defined them, set goals and achieved results. Though the mechanics of this simple approach seem to have broken down over time, it is still a habit of thought. We like to plan. Businesses have retreats to develop goals and establish a vision. This practice has spread to the wider culture – even Churches have such vision retreats. It is a practice that seems reasonable. How can it be wrong to make plans and set goals?

There is a link between the present circumstance of anyone and the goals they set – and it is a link that is often overlooked or diminished. That link is the steps we take to accomplish any given goal. We desire the future – we desire a future good – and we take reasonable steps to bring it about. And it is in these steps that we lose God and the Kingdom.

The mental habit in which we focus on the end or goal of our actions is also the mental habit that makes us ignore the actions themselves. We may not consciously think that the end justifies the means, but focusing on the end makes us blind to the means, with frequently disastrous results. For in truth, we do not live at the end, but in the means to the end. Or, in proper theological terms, every moment is the end and not the means to something else.

In the Biblical story of the Fall, there is no mention of a desire for evil. Eve only perceives good things. The fruit is “good for food.” It is “able to make one wise.” It was “pleasant to look at.” There is nothing wrong in such goals. The sin is found in the means. I am fascinated by certain revisionist Christian theologies that argue for Eve as a Promethean heroine, seizing the “fire” of wisdom from the gods. Such interpretations are straight from the pit – but so are our own utilitarian justifications.

Sin is found in the means – when we ignore them. But the Kingdom of God is found in the means as well. We are not the masters of history, responsible for its outcome. The outcome of all things is solely in the hands of God. To imagine ourselves to be in charge of outcomes is idolatry.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “You cannot achieve good by doing evil.” Instead, he taught, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
The Spirit of Peace is not a goal towards which we strive – it is a gift found only in the present moment. If you are not at this moment acquiring the Spirit if Peace, then what are you doing and why? Do you have something more important to do?

We can acquire the Spirit of peace while doing other things, if we are actually present to what we are doing and are acting in communion with God. Indeed, there is no other way to acquire the Spirit of Peace.

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1Jo 1:7).

31 comments:

  1. Your blessing Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this article and all previous postings and broadcasts. I have been listening to your past Ancient Faith shows and they have brought peace to my soul. You have acquired the Spirit of Peace and thousands of souls are drawn to you and through you to Christ. May they be saved as well as yours.

    Despite not being an American, I live a very target-driven life in England. The details are not important, but this dedication to daily tasks, to a career, to anything other than seeking the Truth has taken me as far from peace as possible. I often wonder whether my life is in the service of the Mammon. I find no evangelical justification for the dedication to one’s work, passions, even family. Success or the perception of it is but a mere distraction, perhaps the mother of all distractions (περισπασμός).

    I find myself complaining about this a lot; as a financial immigrant moaning helps me blend in with the British rather well. Good friends have listened patiently and advised that it is the intention that matters (what you said during a broadcast: “I want to want to change, I want to love Christ, instead”). Orthodox Christians do not remain grounded by guilt as much, but rely on the hope that God’s love with find its way to save even the worst of us. I find consolation in the Jesus prayer – I am going to St John the Baptist’s monastery tomorrow to hear them say it during Vespers. I once asked them over the phone “what do you need? What can I bring from the city?” and they told me “nothing”.

    This pause before receiving this peaceful answer taught me so much. I think I could “hear” a smile! What have I or the world to offer to those who live in God’s peace? Their sins, perhaps; at best moments of ego-shattering repentance. We have the potential of becoming saints like St Mary of Egypt and offer our stories to spiritual fathers like she did to Abba Zosima. If only we could dedicate ourselves to that exchange with Christ through prayer…

    The Jesus prayer feels like the greatest gift for someone who is immersed in wordly pursuits so far so that only the words “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner” can bring repentance. Pray for me, Father, that my sins teach me to be humble and that some of the holiness around me eventually rubs off on me.

    Your blessing, Father. Apologies for the length of my comment.

  2. Father, bless! It seems to me this is just the tip of the iceberg here. I think unpacking a bit in future posts what it means in Orthodox terms to “acquire the Spirit of peace” and how one goes about that would be helpful to me (and likely others as well).

  3. Thank you very much Father Stephen for this very insightful post. Since I started my work in a Christian NGO here in the Philippines, I sense that the greatest challenge for us is to be mindful, to pay attention to our hearts. Initially, I thought this is specially true for us who are involved in a very routinary work such as microfinance. Your post made me realize that the challenge or even temptation of not being mindful is more pervasive. God’s word to us in our recent Day of Prayer and Fasting is “Consider your ways” (Haggai). Again, thank you very much.

  4. Jun,
    Success will only be measured in the Kingdom. And the measure of that success is given in the gospel: “Well done, good and faithful.” God does not judge like man. May God bless your work, and the faithfulness of your ways!

  5. Is a ‘vision quest’ necessarily wrong? Can it be compared to the guarding of the heart, the intellect, the imagination? After all, every act begins with an intention, and every event is accompanied by our correlated ‘thoughts’ (logismoi); both these mental phenomena should ideally emerge from a pure heart, and be corrected by a vigilant mind. It seems therefore necessary to focus on the end, as well as the means. Isn’t sanctification itself a goal, a ‘vision quest’?

  6. Father, bless!

    My understanding was that Christ asks us to have for our main goal the heavenly kingdom and to trust that for our wordly goals, if pleasing to God, we will receive help from Him. Is my understanding wrong and Americanified (if such a word could exist)?

  7. Anna,
    Yes, the heavenly kingdom is our goal. But the Kingdom is now, at every moment. When we make it a future goal, we can too easily ignore the moment. We too easily live a secular life, waiting for a spiritual end.

    “Behold, now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation” (2Cor 6:2)

  8. Don’t disagree w/ the dangers of assuming we are somehow in control of our future. But your post seems to imply a passive, “just whatever will be will be” is the godly attitude.
    I immediately thought of James 4:13-16 which agrees w/ your point but exhorts us to always acknowledge “if God wills we will do thus and so.”
    How much genuine Kingdom work would have been left undone had believers not had mission statements and specific plans to bring about those works. Synergism, imo, allows for, calls for both, like the good bishop of Jerusalem exhorts.

  9. As an artist, I have a goal in mind. To crest this goal I begin in the process. It is there in each moment of this process that something emerges. I try to control and it controls me. Certainly there was the idea, be in the process I find the meaning and the method. I am usually at peace, but at times I don’t have the understanding of the skills I needy I accomplish the goals. Yet, it is in the desire to reach my goal that I persevere; but I can never postpone the moments other artwork becoming a finish product. To achieve the goal is good, yet the scarification and peace lives in the process. We all try to live as Fr Stephen suggested long ago in the relationship with our father, our God. The relationship is the goal, yet each step if the process has to be lived in each moment of becoming. I see nothing passive in this process of peace either in creating an artwork or creating a relationship. Both require all our concentration to be in the sweet moment.

  10. There’s no doubt the Am/West can be chided (yet again) for allowing visions/goals to subvert means. Pursuing the Priesthood (diaconate, Mt Othos, Phd…)and all the planning, moving the family can get corrupted no doubt. But then, I doubt, however, you advocate a simplistic unstructured life of the charismatic living day to day by the whim/stir of ‘the spirit’. Nor do I suspect you believe the Apostles…who envisioned their Missionary Journeys desiring “a future good” (preach/plant Churches) did not take reasonable steps to “bring it about”…and in these steps “los[t] God and the Kingdom”? I’d love to see your point more carefully laid out and qualified. The means to our goals need not of necessity be any more corrupted than the goals themselves. Thank you Father.

  11. There is nothing passive about reliance upon God’s plan. I would much rather be a humble peasant, obedient to the Lord’s means each daily moment of my small sphere of life and influence, than to be Captain Courageous in all of life’s strife–asking “Lord, bless my plans!”

    The Lord himself said that there’s enough evil in each day to bother worrying over tomorrow. Moderns and Postmoderns have far too much confidence in our own abilities to shape the World.

    As a former Mass Communication practitioner, I do not pretend to touch more than one life at any given moment.
    Beyond the moment, serving God and his children, one at a time, all is hay and stubble.

  12. It seems to me if you play this out. Only those times when we are outside the moment, are we in the space where we commit sin…since we are human, being outside the moment is unavoidable and most often not recognized until AFTER the fact. Ultimately then, in order to become our true selves and stay in the moment, we must experience our ego outside the moment- Which happens by definition because we are flawed as “we know not what we do” until after we do it.

    As an unavoidable part of man’s path, sin therefore has divine purpose in that the mistakes we make when not in the moment are exactly the opportunities we need to teach us let to of the need toward a specific material outcome.

    This, to me, is the spiritual path we travel on because of, not in spite of seeking material progress. We all have material needs. The balance then is being comfortable in whatever material progress is being made because it cannot be any other way – no matter what is occurring – because if it were meant to be different it would be different by definition since all material progress is ultimately related to choice.

    The ultimate realization of this would allow us to stay in the moment no matter what, but the first person that claims they are capable of that is usually a heretic…or a person who wondered the desert for forty days and let go of all attachments to material needs. 🙂

    Is this close? I am not Orthodox, but I love Truth. I hope my comments are welcome here.

  13. Katy-

    I can relate to what you said about process in art. A few days ago, I was talking with someone who was struggling with why God did not stop them from being abused. The thought entered my mind: I could write about this on my blog – but I had no idea how/what I would write.

    As I was driving home that evening, an idea came into my mind of how it might be written in a story, as a sequel to one I wrote a year ago.

    I sat down to write the story that evening. Different ideas emerged but I did not know how it was going to end – especially I did not know how or if the question would find resolution. The writing was a prayerful experience and the story came to a resolution that I could not have articulated at the onset.

    I did not write the story with a goal of answering the question but tried to enter it with an openness to what God would provide.

    The process itself was a gift but I’d like to share the story itself if Fr. Stephen doesn’t mind -it doesn’t feel like it was meant just for me. (If you prefer not, Fr. Stephen, just wipe out this paragraph and the link. Thanks.)
    http://findhope-mary.blogspot.com/2013/08/week-of-hope-day-7.html

  14. I understand the thoughts on a balance and the perceived need for a plan – but I’m speaking about a quality of action that is utterly different than what we usually know (even when we’re paying some attention to what we’re doing). Christ calls us to the moment (as you well note, Dionysio) that is spoken of in the fathers as “the heart.” It is an entirely different way of seeing, of acting, of knowing. It is, as Dionysio noted, not a work of the ego. To understand more of what I’m saying, I would recommend this short series of articles that start here.

    The secular man (and we are all so secular – so utterly secular), doesn’t need God to be anything more than an idea, a goal, an ideal. He does everything the same way an unbeliever does, only in a different name and for a different goal. Most unbelievers are incredibly moral. Morality doesn’t require a God, just a set of standards of some sort. At its worst, the secularized Christian can even say things like, “working to bring the Kingdom,” or such nonsense. It’s pretty much blasphemy – but a not uncommon pious sentiment.

    We either do things with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, by Christ, or we do things without Christ. Life without Christ, or with the Christ of the Second Storey, is secular. Again, such a Christ need only be an idea – He wouldn’t even have to exist. The Christ most people talk about doesn’t exist anyway. He’s just their idea.

  15. “The secular man (and we are all so secular – so utterly secular), doesn’t need God to be anything more than an idea, a goal, an ideal.”

    Actually, secular man doesn’t want God to be anything more, IMO & IME (in my experience). & well said that we are all “secular”!

    Thanks, Father 🙂

  16. Concerning the topic of the article:

    I think I get it. Riding my bike to work this morning, I realized that I could be appreciating the moment, greeting people I passed, taking note of the nature and traffic around me….

    instead of thinking about what I needed to do at work, fall projects at home, what I don’t like about my life, etc.

    I also really liked the note from Dionysio. These phrases stuck out: “Only those times when we are outside the moment, are we in the space where we commit sin…” and “As an unavoidable part of man’s path, sin therefore has divine purpose in that the mistakes we make when not in the moment are exactly the opportunities we need to teach us let [g]o of the need toward a specific material outcome.”

    When we rest in the Lord, it is then that we learn to relax and rest in the moment. I agree that this article can end up sounding (as Randy Evans said) like we’re impassively floating downstream and letting “whatever will be will be”, but that’s not the case here.

    When we rest in the moment, we bring our powers to bear on what is right in front of us right now – within our sphere of influence – instead of trying to manage it all and be “everywhere present at all times”.

  17. Hate to go against the grain (not really) but it is those times when I am definitely in the moment and decide to sin that lead me to more problems. Sin, IME, is always a choice of the moment at some level . It may be a conditioned choice with a slick and easy pathway because of past choices, but it is still a choice even if it has ancestral elements: I choose mercy, kindness, attention, humanity and light, or I choose darkness, selfishness, pride, fear and anger. The ultimate choice of the moment is whether or not to repent or remain in the pseudo-pleasure of sin induced delusion.

    I would also say that the truly secular man does not even recognize a transcendent reality, present or not nor does he strive for release from darkness or resist succumbing to it. He is what he is and there is nothing more. He is autonomous.

    While we are marinated in secular ideology from the moment of our conception to the moment of our repose and I for one often give into the easy and false promises of that ideology, that does not make someone a ‘secular man’. Surely we are shattered, broken, disfigured, lame, halt and maimed but always God is with us and patiently, lovingly reminding us of Himself.

    To even posit “secular man” as a creature who has real existence is to posit a creature wholly apart from God. If it was possible before, the Incarnation effectively put an end to any such possibility.

    To return to another recent topic, here is my version of universal salvation: We will all be given one last opportunity to acknowledge who we are and who God is in Jesus Christ with complete consciousness. When that happens, if such a question is even relevant, I don’t know. I rather like C.S. Lewis vision in The Last Battle (last book of the Chronicles of Narnia).

    In that moment, our hearts will respond in love to love, or they will reject it and we will pass into outer darkness.

    “If it be now, it is not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all”

    Let us pray for mercy, render the deeds of mercy and be watchful so that the lamp of our hearts does not go out.

  18. Michael,

    I hate to disagree with you because I know you hate confrontation and going against the grain (wink), but I disagree concerning sin and being in the moment.

    It is when I am in the moment but don’t like or appreciate the moment I’m in and what I have to do – this is when I sin. I see the beautiful woman and want to lust after her – whether from ingrained habit or a fresh temptation does not matter. I am in the moment but step out of it when I choose lust after that object in my mind rather than simply appreciate God’s beauty that I’m given to behold right in front of me, given for my brief appreciation and gratitude toward God rather than for my possession and the fulfillment of my tortured desires.

    God gives us moments; we choose whether to accept them graciously or turn them aside for something we deem better. The true folly of man: to think we can do better than God.

  19. Michael,
    I don’t think we are using the word moment at all in the same way. You are using moment, as a point in “chronos.” I am using it in a different manner.

  20. Chronos? Not exactly though with perhaps more of that than you mean. More like the intersection between humans or even with onesself, pregnant with possibilities spiced with both the present, the living history of each and eternity. In that moment we either enter more fully into our humanity or reject it for a false stereotype. We enter into a sacramental, iconic moment or remain tied to an idol. We recognize the connections of life and spirit that unite us or try to remain autonomous.The constant challenge of being open or imploding on ones self.

    Chronos implies a linear reality I don’t really believe in.

  21. Michael,

    Sometimes you make my brain hurt. My experience of the moment is comprised of much less and much simpler words. Maybe you just think much differently than I do….or maybe you’re making it more complicated than it is. I know not.

  22. More complicated in words than in actuality. Sorry for making your brain hurt. Its about the Cross.

  23. Michael-

    Wondering if this helps as it seems we are having two different discussions. In my experience, when in the moment we are simultaneously experiencing and accepting all that is in front of us. There can be no judgement or false desire. Judgement and false desire come from ego. So the choice to lust, for example, is manifested only because one is not in the moment. To even consider choice means the moment has slipped away. “Be”-ing in the moment is effortless and the only thing one is capable of manifesting is love. So if you declare choice- the “flow” of moments has stopped and ego enters the mind.

    To me, it’s a qualitative feeling that is easy to distinguish between choice and ego. When we fall from the moment and make a choice, our rationale brain will justify the fall, but make no mistake- the moment is gone…we usually don’t figure that out until later but with proper insight we realize we fell…we can pinpoint where we fell…and we can prevent that fall in the future.

    FLOW is several moments connected. To even recognize choice means stopping flow. Subtle but profound. So I will state again- one cannot sin when truly in the moment. 🙂

    We are not in opposition- just clarification of what the moment means to each uf us. Make sense?

  24. Dionysio,

    I agree with this, but I suspect when considering habitual sin, someone could think you advise going with that learned response: “Go with the flow” and “Just do it”

    As Michael said, more complicated….

  25. Thank you so much for this, Father. This was timed perfectly for me. As a teenager I was working on the false presupposition that my vocation- the thing I ought to do in my life- was something I gained as an adult. But, no, there are things that I ought to be doing right now. Such as honoring my parents and working through my chronic illnesses by applying myself to my therapy and not trying to plan out my entire life “once I get to ____.”
    I wrote this blog post as response: http://correspondenceofideas.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/this-was-going-to-be-something-else-entirely/

    Again, thank you, Father. 🙂

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