The Change We Should Believe In

saviour2But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

Among the many losses within modern Christianity has been the place of transformation. Nineteenth-century revival movements and theology emphasized a single experience that was associated with salvation. Those who concerned themselves with what came later, described growth in the Christian life as “sanctification,” and tended to imply that it was optional. Contemporary Christians have settled for a spiritual life in a plain brown wrapper ever since.

Though the word sanctification occurs in the New Testament, it is nowhere treated as subsequent to salvation itself. Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.

Many Christians recognize that a transformation is supposed to occur within a believer, but have adopted a model that postpones that change until after death. Thus we live in this world as one-time, once-and-for-all conversionists, and hope to simply wake up as saints in the life to come. And even this model is often weakened to a matter of heaven as paradise (imagined in starkly material forms).

The fullness of the Christian gospel, as found within Scripture and the Orthodox tradition, is radically committed to the transformation in this life of the believer.

Psychology Is Not Enough

In a self-help culture, saying that people need to change is merely an endorsement of what everyone already knows. But the movement sought within the culture needs no God. To become a better person (more fit, more affable, more kind, more considerate, etc.) is simply a description of a moral program. Morality has nothing particularly Christian about it. Morality is constituted by whatever agreed upon rules of behavior are desired at any given time. The psychological component of morality is no more than the interior adjustment to a desired behavior: behaving well and enjoying it.

The transformation wrought by Christ is the manifestation in this world of the Kingdom of God. In its fullness, it looks like the resurrected Christ Himself. It is the union of heaven and earth, the created and the uncreated. It is a transcendental reality.

That, of course, describes some few saints in some measure. But admittedly, it does not describe many, nor does it appear to describe Christians in general.

But this is a false judgment. In a psychological culture, morality and psychology are the only human realities we acknowledge. We do not see nor understand the nature of spiritual things. We are locked in a world of cause and effect and presume that everything works in such a manner. The landscape of psychological causes (and effects) is the world as we choose to see it. But it does not see the landscape of the Kingdom of God – that which is birthed in believers in their Baptism.

One of the great challenges in living an Orthodox Christian life is making the transition from psychology to true spirituality. Some teachers suggest that many will fail to do so – and will thus fail to realize the reality of their birthright in Christ.

To speak of this movement is difficult because we leave the world of cause and effect and step into the world of grace (though even the world of cause and effect is moment by moment sustained by grace). But grace works with faith and freedom – thus there is not cause and effect (else it would be forced upon us). It is this life of faith and freedom that are often so strange to us. We cling to what we know and reduce our understanding to a virtually mechanical world. There we engage in various therapies and moralities, which have the ability to change appearances but never the substance of reality.

I will use the Apostle Paul as an example in this article. He was an upright, moral man prior to becoming a Christian. He kept the Jewish law in the strictest possible manner as a member of the Pharisees. He was not a hypocrite. But neither did he know the true and living God. When he was converted on the road to Damascus, he did not suddenly take up a new moral code. He abandoned his moral ways and set himself on the road of grace. That path was one he described as “weakness.” He humbled himself. He emptied himself. He submitted to beatings and scourgings. He endured shipwrecks and the false accusations of his enemies.

But he is not a moral hero nor an example of great human achievement. What we see in his outward Christian life, is also the shape of his inmost heart. There, too, he strained towards what was impossible and beyond human reach. He pushed beyond what could be known in cause and effect. What he found was the very mystery of the Kingdom – union with God.

The result of this inward emptying can be seen in the fullness of grace God bestowed upon him. Miracles were worked even by cloths that had simply had contact with him. He raised the dead and cast out demons. He became so closely united to Christ that he could tell others to live as he lived.

From the outside, this manner of life can easily be mistaken for some version of moral psychology. But it is nothing of the sort. It is the impossible become reality, by the utter dependence upon the God of grace. As God told St. Paul, “My grace is enough.”

Moving from the psychological life to the spiritual life is often counter-intuitive. It sounds like it won’t work. To a certain degree it involves quitting. We quit trying to be good, and seek only to empty ourselves to God. The goodness of our lives thus becomes God’s goodness, and not our own.

The moral/psychological life is often one that cycles between effort, failure, shame and remorse only to begin again with renewed effort and promises of a better outcome. Some Christian lives never leave this cycle. It can be sheer misery. Most often it leads to disappointment and a quiet resignation to something less.

At first, embracing a spiritual life can feel like embracing failure. Indeed, it is embracing failure and weakness. The Elder Sophrony taught, “The way down is the way up.” It is, strangely, the only spiritual path that would actually be open to all believers. The worst of us can fail. Some of us learn to be very good at it!

Prayer as the emptying of self in the presence of God is a very different thing than great athletic efforts of well-kept rules. I have often advised people to keep a fast during Great Lent that is somewhat out of reach – for without some measure of failure during the fast we are in danger of reaching Pascha with a sense of satisfaction instead of true self-emptying gratitude.

Taken to an extreme, it is easy to ask (as was asked of St. Paul), “Should we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” St. Paul said, “Of course not!” But the logic of the question flowed from his teaching and is more sound than the moral/psychological substitutes that others have put in its place.

But weakness is not sin. Failure is often not sin. Our emptiness is not sinful in the presence of God. True repentance (humility, brokenness, emptiness) is not a result of sin, but the return to our proper state before God.

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

To enter into a true spiritual life we must leave behind cause and effect and abandon ourselves to the Ground where God causelessly causes. And having embraced such weakness, we stand without defense before those who would slander our way of life.

And this is the ground on which the saints stand. We cannot explain their existence. The transcendent goodness of their lives and deeds, the wonders worked at their hands – all appear to have come into existence “out of nothing.” But like the whole universe that surrounds us (which was itself causelessly caused) – they nevertheless exist.

And this is the change of Most High. Glory to His name!

25 comments:

  1. Father Bless. Thank you yet again. This is a great boost approaching Lent to seek self emptying. Would it be possible to expand on the discussion to more fully explain the concept of the two kinds of prayer you mention? I well know the trap of the first type.

  2. Father Stephen, I have thought previously about the two kinds of prayer you summarized here, and I almost came to the opposite conclusion from yours. Almost.

    I considered that since emotions can be misleading (mine have gotten me into big messes) and since i have never FELT love for God anyway (wonder, yes, and gratitude; even fear at times, when i forget to reread the Gospels) maybe it is better for me to read out loud traditional formal prayers than to “call on God” out of recognition of my weakness and need–because that “calling on” feels like an extended self-centered monologue, an ongoing list of my problems, failures, wants, sins, whereas many of the traditional prayers focus on God’s goodness and love for us–plus, those words are shared by persons all over the world now and in the past, and so even the weaknesses they refer to are shared, thereby raising them out of individual self-pity or even genuine personal sorrow to a kind of communion of prayer–whether or not much feeling or “weeping” is involved.

    That’s what I thought. But such a view seems very limited too. And I was especially confounded while reading “Laurus” because it did not seem that Arseny prayed much at all. He talked to Ustina, but did he talk to God, I wondered. And did he read or hear sung formal prayers? Did he even try to know God. Yet he seemed to have been chosen by God. Now I am wondering if that may be what you mean by the second type of prayer; i.e., not talking, not reading, just accepting.

    Another question: (Even though Arseny’s actiins may not be what you include in the second typeof prayer) is his “non-prayer” a model, something to strive for? or does it happen in God’s time, or not at all? And if not a model, what do such stories tel us about our Ives? Just wondering. Your posts stir up a lot of thoughts, and I am grateful.

  3. “Would it be possible to expand on the discussion to more fully explain the concept of the two kinds of prayer you mention? I well know the trap of the first type.”

    I fully concur with this and I would also like to see Father expand on this.

  4. Encouraging words, Fr. Stephen. Thank you. My moral failures seem to always be big and public – I suppose that is God’s grace. 🙂

    “We are aware of just how unaware we are of God. We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.”

    But for the grace of God, go I.

  5. Fr. Stephen, Thank you always for your words.

    I am in the cycle of effort, failure, shame and remorse. It’s a horrible cycle and it’s wearing on me. As time goes on the energy to put forth the effort is depleting and the failures come more often. So, I have no choice but to break this cycle. I have in the past broken the cycle and completely surrendered and emptied myself to God. Only to take up the effort once again and therefore the cycle returns. I do appreciate what you write here in this post, as it really resonates with me. But, what is challenging to me is that your description of the spiritual life does not necessarily sound all that much better than the cycle! You describe it as “ standing without defense against those who slander our way of life”

    I guess I am not seeing much joy or hope in the spiritual life right now. I see the importance of breaking the cycle and emptying myself. I see that I really have no choice. But I don’t see much joy and hope in doing that. I don’t see how breaking that cycle does much better for me. But, maybe that is just the cause and effect that I am so used to thinking.

  6. Father,

    Manifestation of fullness that already exists and is accomplished. Being consummately who we already are… “Working out our salvation.”

    “Everyone who has been baptized in an orthodox manner has received secretly the fullness of grace; and if he then goes on to perform the commandments, he will become consciously aware of this grace within him. However far a man may advance in faith, however great the blessings that he attains, he never discovers, nor can he ever discover, anything more than what he has already received secretly through Baptism. Christ, being perfect God, bestows upon the baptized the perfect grace of the Spirit. We for our part cannot possibly add to that grace, but it is revealed and manifests itself to us increasingly, in proportion to our fulfillment of the commandments. Whatever, then, we offer to Him after our regeneration, was already within us and came originally from Him.”
    –St. Mark the Monk, quoted by Timothy Ware in “The Orthodox Way”

    So, prayer is not “my prayer.” I haven’t got a prayer so to speak. “Praying” is mostly about repenting into a full participation in the prayer life of Christ Jesus in whatever “type” of prayer we are engaged in.

    Same thing with ministry and so on.

    Not until I let go of succeeding in praying and ministering etc. (fail in the best sense) can these actually take place.

    I am sure my language is clumsy… So, as ever, submitted for clarification and correction.

  7. This describes well the last decade of my life: “cycles between effort, failure, shame and remorse only to begin again with renewed effort and promises of a better outcome.” For a long time that renewed effort was directed toward my career. That ultimately ended in failure. When I became Orthodox, I thought I had escaped this.

    Only recently have I realized that I treat Orthodoxy in exactly the same moral terms. I fail, again and again, and always promise to do better next time. But that promise is like Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together. It is a shoddy human attempt to cover my failure instead of facing it head-on by coming before God in my nakedness.

    Thank you for your wonderful writing, Father, and please pray for me.

  8. I am not Orthodox or Catholic, sitting here this morning singing praise music and agreeing with you. It was the point of my sermon yesterday at the Union Gospel Mission. You can preach it but each must surrender to our all glorious God, love with a passion, trust Him absolutely and love His Son and be transformed by His love and mercy flowing from the Cross, and love the never tiring, always working Holy Spirit-listen to Him.

  9. Fr. Freeman, As an Orthodox Christian (since 1995) I go frequently to confession with my same habitual sins, In particular the sensual/sexual sins I have committed in thought and deed from my youth to the present. I go desiring to change, to repent, to turn my back from on my past, to be spiritually transformed. But I constantly fall (sin). How should I deal with my sinful condition? Help. Having been granted God’s mercy to live 4 score and ten years, I sometimes get so discouraged with myself that I want to give up, and think surely God is discouraged with me. I want to live a life pleasing to Him. Soon I will have to give an account of my life to Him. How do I deal with this my sinful condition? Thank you Fr., Please pray for me. Jerome

  10. Jerome,
    The article on “not doing better” that Hugh referenced is a good place to start. While we often look at ourselves and see that we are “not doing better,” we must remember that we do not know the truth of ourselves, and cannot really judge accurately. You are doing right by struggling to live a life pleasing to God, but remember the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He is waiting for you, straining to see your return. He is not sitting there, tapping his foot waiting to scold you with observations of your bad conduct. The father dismisses the plaintive words of the Prodigal, and instead welcomes him home, puts a ring on his finger and a robe around him (those covering his shame) and prepares a feast for him.

    God has prepared a feast for you. Make a good confession, go to the feast and give thanks always for all things. If you give thanks always for all things, you will be saved.

  11. Jerome,

    A notable actuality is that a believer’s opposition to a permanent surrender to their own sinful slavery – through confessing the same stuff again and again – “counts” as a bearing of the ‘cross’ of their own incurable passion…
    This ‘patience in sin’ bears great fruit if we manifest to any measure and in any way our (still schizoid) desire for freedom from a (still beloved) slavery that plagues us. This ‘short-term desire vs long-term desire’ clash can bring a humility that is only rivalled by what far greater tribulations we are not prepared for yet can bring. We must try to find what is there for us in order to be thankful in all situations.
    Sometimes, in their sinfulness, great sinners manage with God’s grace to return their prodigal mind to the heart (the house of the Father) in the contrition their sin-awareness produces, faster than others.

  12. Transformation isn’t something we opt for. It is the gracious gift and purpose of God as a loving Father to transform us. The problem with most of us…ha, O.K. my problem is that I don’t recognize the process and, in fact tend to resist it. I tend to see God’s means (called “discipline in Hebrews 12) as bad luck, or situations to avoid, or trials to overcome.

    Discipline is a negative thing; discipline equals punishment. Success, and we Christians are supposed to be successful, means having the resources- spiritual, mental, emotional and certainly economic to avoid difficulty. Life is “…a breeze. Drifting through a summer night. Heading for a sunny day.” (thanks to Paul Simon). When it isn’t, I look for someone or something to blame or a way to fix whatever is wrong. Little do I suspect it is my faithful Father showing me how broken I really am.

    I read “He disciplines us for our good, that we might share His holiness”. In fact, and this is only my opinion, I suspect that some of us actually believe that freedom from what discipline fully means is a demonstration of God’s love. Kind of like being dry cleaned and then left to air out ’til we die. I’m coming slowly to realize that of all the things I may have by nature, holiness is not one. I’ll venture to speculate that most of the Christians I know and many beyond that, have no real idea what holiness looks like. I don’t need a high goal for a Lenten season to show me that I still “miss the mark”, the morning commute gives me evidence enough that the attitudes of my heart are not what they should be. And my day has just begun!

    I struggle to believe that God isn’t shining His light into me for judgement – that has already happened – it’s for my good. The Proverb that reads “don’t be like the horse or mule that have no understanding, whose gear includes bit and bridle…” was surely written for me. And while I don’t believe that transformation is something we opt for, it can be resisted.

  13. Father Stephen, and any of the faithful who may see this, forgive me if this is inappropriate, but I just wanted to ask for your prayers. My sister-in-law is going to be having a biopsy done soon to see if she has multiple myeloma. Unfortunately so far all signs are pointing to yes. Her name is Nikki, she’s only 33 yrs old, and a mother of eight young children. I am ever grateful for your prayers, and just wanted to ask on the blog here because Father Stephen and the many commenters here have been a great blessing in my life. Thank you.

    In Christ,
    Michelle

  14. Hi Michelle, You and Nikki are in my prayers as well. Sometimes a dietary shift may help prognosis in this illness. I have provided below a website address on this topic. As a chemist, I have read several of the journal articles listed on several different topics on this website and these presentations on the whole appear to appropriately represent the science articles cited. Beside each presentation is a list of the articles that are referenced in the presentation. I hope and pray that this presentation, source material and the blog/comments following it might be helpful.

    http://nutritionfacts.org/video/turmeric-curcumin-mgus-and-multiple-myeloma/

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