Do We Believe in God?

INDIA_-_Croce_dissacrata_(F)Belief is a strange thing. It rests like an idea in our mind. We can examine it, walk around it, argue it, and change it or reject it. But as an idea, belief really isn’t such a big thing. It is probably quite correct to say that most of the things we “believe” make no difference whatsoever. This is especially true of what most people mean when they say, “I believe in God.”

Belief in God, the Christian God, not only carries consequences, but only matters as it carries consequences. Classically, it can be described as “keeping the commandments.” There is a particular aspect of such belief (and the commandments) that I think is largely ignored, even though it goes to the very heart of believing in the Christian God. It is, in effect, what I call the “secular option.”

A simple way of considering any matter in the light of this belief is by asking the question, “How would what I’m thinking be different if there really were a God and everything He said is true?” That might sound too obvious. However, for years I have watched otherwise faithful Christians act as if there were no God, particularly when it comes to things that matter to them or that feel somehow endangered. This has sometimes been called, “practical atheism.”

I believe it is a particularly attractive temptation for Americans because we are such a practical people. Our culture, formed and shaped by modernity, is deeply “utilitarian.” We can justify doing almost anything “because it works.” When problems arise, we try to fix them. This same drive, in the life of the Church, can often lead to practical atheism.

Obviously, “fixing things” is not inherently sinful. But fixing things as a matter of utility is. The Christian life is properly led in obedience to Christ’s commandments. We do things because doing them is an obedience to Christ Himself. The drive to practicality often carries within it a certain amount of “necessary evil.” We do a bit of harm in order to arrive at a greater good. This is atheism, regardless of the greatness of the good. We find ourselves trying to do the “heavy lifting” for God, because, we do not trust that He’ll do it Himself. This is the inherent temptation of “making a better world.” We have no such commandment from God. Every atheist regime that has existed has done so in the name of a better world.

I have served as a parish priest for around 35 years. The microcosm that is a parish is filled with temptations. There are problems that beg to be fixed (most of them are associated with one or more personalities). As a young priest, I fancied myself to be a “problem solver.” A good parish, I thought, was a happy parish. Conflict and crisis were things to be managed. I even took a number of courses in seminary that were focused on “management.” And this, I believe, was the secular option, the breeding ground of despair and unbelief.

Why despair and unbelief? Despair is the absence of hope. Management is the antithesis of hope. It is rooted in persuasion and control. Problems are obstacles to success. The management of what is, essentially, an all-volunteer membership is a never-ending battle. At some point, exhaustion wins out. Unbelief is always at hand for the manager. Cynicism easily takes hold, as the reality of parish life repeatedly fails to meet all hopeful expectations. In the face of failure, the manager begins to wonder where God is in the midst of everything, or even whether there is a God in the midst of everything.

However, consider St. Paul’s assessment of the Church:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to bring to nothing the things that are… (1Co 1:26-28)

Parish managers inevitably tend to minimize the sick in order to take advantage of those who are most well. However, the fathers say that the Church is a hospital, which means that it is full of sick people. The very constitution of the Church stands in the way of success.

This is the point. Winning and success are nothing of great value. Only faithfulness to God matters. What, in fact, counts for “success” in the Kingdom of God may very well be judged as abject failure by the world. It has repeatedly been the case throughout the history of the Church that the work of a saint is only made manifest after their death. The work of the Kingdom is hidden, unseen by those who dare to judge.

This requires belief in God. More than that, it requires belief in the Crucified God. As frightening as it may sound, every failure, every collapse has the potential of the Cross. If, as the Elder Sophrony says, “The way down is the way up,” then the weak and the sick are much further on the road to salvation than all the others. It has always struck me as odd that we hear in Christ’s words “take up your Cross and follow me,” an admonition to a bold effort of strength, echoed in the words of the old Anglican Prayer Book description of the baptized life: “…manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.” This phrase always caused me to picture the Church as an army of Cross-wielding soldiers, smashing everything that got in their way. That, of course, is true. But the army and the smashing are extremely paradoxical. Smashing frequently looks like losing, and the army a rag-tag group of wounded stragglers.

I especially see despair and unbelief come to the fore when people turn their attention to the Church in its larger aspects. We can grasp, perhaps, that God works victory through our own weakness, but we cannot abide that weakness when we see it in leaders or in the structures they inhabit. For some reason, the higher we look in the ranks of the Church, the less tolerant we become of the weakness and foolishness that are the chosen lot of all Christians. Bishops and Synods trundle along, Holy and Great Councils falter, all accompanied by the calumny and condemnation of others. The Book of Acts glosses over the first Council in Jerusalem, and portrays the steady hand of St. James who stands up and says, “It is my judgment…” and peace ensues. Of course, the letters of St. Paul provide ample evidence that peace did not ensue, and we can assume that the meeting in Jerusalem was bumpier than reported.

The Holy Glorious and All-Laudable Apostles themselves were not able to effectively manage the smooth operation of the Church. However, we can assume that they knew better. St. Paul certainly did. He described the Apostles as the “scum of the earth” (περικαθάρματα τοῦ κόσμου).

We are saved only through the Cross. There is no salvation in strength, only in weakness. We will either come to know God in the communion of His sufferings (Phil 3:10) or we will never know Him. We either believe in the Crucified God or we believe in no God at all.

The commandments of Christ point us in that direction:

Do not render evil for evil. Do not resist evil. Bless those who curse you.

To this I would add, “Do not judge the failings of others, for God has chosen such to lead you into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

At the Cross, evil appeared to triumph. Christ’s refusal to defend Himself must have completely bewildered His disciples. But only in that seeming defeat is the final truth of who God is revealed. You cannot know the crucified Christ if you refuse to be crucified with Him. If you are afraid to lose, then you will never win – at least not the only victory that matters.

I remember that during a terrible storm, Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat. “My Lord! Don’t you care if we perish?”

Jesus has been asleep in the back of the boat for a very long time. But the winds and the seas obey Him. If you believe in Him, you can occasionally get a good night’s sleep as well.

Believe in God. Turn the world over to him and get some peace. Everything else is idolatry.

44 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. I find it interesting that in comments in an earlier post you said something to the effect that somehow our faith has been reduced to an intellectual construct (gross paraphrase because I cannot find your actual comment). I do see it hanging on the definition of the word “believe.” In Elizabethan times that word meant to live as if something were true and today we define it as accepting a fact or situation as real. Today, I believe that concrete is hard and I can believe in God and behave any way I wish even though there are consequences for certain behaviors in either example. The Greek phrase being translated means to “have faith into” which calls for us to make an ontological change in ourselves (be obedient to Christ for example). In this light I whole heartedly agree that we need to live as if God is real and our behavior really does have eternal consequence.

  2. Wow. I was literally just thinking about some of our parish problems and how we oftentimes seek to “fix” them– to bring more young people back in, to boost participation, to bring back parish ministries, etc… It occurred to me that you probably had written several things relevant to my train of thought and boom! This fits the bill exactly.
    Can you expound on what you meant by “Parish managers inevitably tend to minimize the sick in order to take advantage of those who are most well”?
    It occurred to me today that some in the parish may look to me to help “fix” the parish because I am one of only a few young people, I am a convert and thus “fresh blood,” and I have gotten along with most people so far; whereas on the other hand several others I know who have disabilities and are less socially adept but have real spiritual journeys that led them to the Church are not given the warm reception that I have usually received. Is that the sort of thing that you are referring to?
    I especially appreciate the comment: “Do not judge the failings of others, for God has chosen such to lead you into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

  3. Everything else is idolatry.

    I have shocked a couple of people by stating that “committed, loving relationships” that are not rooted in God’s design and will are simply idolatry. Our modern world simply doesn’t understand or recognize the ramifications of God existing. Idolatry is overwhelmingly alive in our culture, sadly.

  4. God bless you in your work, Father. May He bless you and keep you as you walk with Him in the holy way of His cross.

  5. It is so strange to be moved almost to tears by words I read here and hear occasionally (though they are spoken almost constantly) in church–and then a short time later to go on about my life in a rather routine fashion. So strange. I say the creed, but I wonder about true belief. (At least I understand better why ”Lord have mercy” is repeated so often in services, and now–as a kind of final resort–in my own attempts at prayer.) Thank you for speaking out.

  6. One thing I might poke at is simply the notion that we get to choose our beliefs. Frankly, I’m inclined to say that beliefs are formed by automatic belief-forming psychological mechanisms. A light is turned on, I see it, it seems to me that it is on: I believe the light is on. No matter how hard I might try, I couldn’t convince myself I was shrouded in darkness. Met. Kallistos said in one of his books something to the effect of ‘if we believe in God, it is because we have an experience of Him’. Where does that leave people who simply don’t feel God, or see Him, or sense Him at all? Can they make themselves believe?

    But why would they? Because they believe that believing in God is a good thing? But why that first belief? Did they choose to believe it? If so, why? And on and on. If we choose our beliefs, doesn’t this form a kind of infinite regress, choosing beliefs because of beliefs about beliefs, and so forth?

  7. Corey,
    I don’t worry so much about those who seem to not be able to believe. Generally, I don’t worry about them because I don’t really know what’s going on, and therefore have no clue as to what to say or do. It is, I guess, God’s problem, not mine.

    There’s a lot to be said for belief as the light coming on.

  8. Father, you have an uncanny ability to say exactly what I need to hear. Thank you for this post.

  9. Corey, experience builds on experience. Once someone has an experience that is undeniably God, it becomes much easier to continue to experience Him in all other things.

    God is constantly available to everyone; touching our lives. Why some see Him and others do not is a mystery. Perhaps the parable of the sower has the answer?

    Sometimes a priori assumptions get in the way of actual experience. Ideologies of all kinds tend to form a barrier against God that can be quite stout. Even many who claim Christianity have an ideology rather than actual faith. It becomes quite easy to worship the created thing rather than the Creator.

  10. This makes me think of a protestant saying “God helps those who help themselves.” This is often accompanied by admonishments to do something, though not usually to pray.
    I’ve often wondered about this seeming paradox, how we must do something for living (to have a roof and food), but still rely on God. Yet we have so many examples in the Bible when God saved the hungry or found shelter for his people. Can you give an example Father of what that looks like?

  11. Ravenray,
    Nothing we do makes God do anything or earns us anything. But the distinction between thinking and doing are simply artificial, very much an artifact of modernity with no basis in reality.

    To know something (anything, pretty much) requires doing, apprehending (which is a form of doing), etc. Human beings are not static entities. We are “in motion” (to use an image found frequently in the Fathers). Everything we know, we learn “in motion.” On some level, even numbers have to be experienced, with numbers being the closest thing to a pure idea we ever deal with.

    The thing we call “knowing” (when used in a static sense), is closer to remembering. Our problem viz. some forms of Protestantism and modern culture are born of a false set of ideas – such as believing as thinking. In my earlier article on “knowing God,” I compared our knowledge of God to our knowledge of riding a bicycle. To a certain degree, you only know how to ride a bicycle when you’re riding it. The same is true of God. We know God through communion with Him and only in that manner.

  12. What of “belief” that is married to a kind of pessimism? I remember someone somewhere saying that yes, he believed in God because there was definitely someone out to get him.

    In my more darkly wry moments I have sometimes felt that of course there is a God as there has to be someone bigger than myself criticizing everything I do.

    But really I’ve never been able to sustain actual atheism for more than about half a second, if that. “God” though dimly (if at all) known has seemed nearly self evident, but I have not always assumed the best about Him.

    (Orthodox worship and in general exposure to an Orthodox ethos helps beyond words. It has been such a grace.)

    But I wonder what about the kind of “belief” I referenced, as I suspect it’s more common than many realize. Is it anything other than psychological projection of a disapproving parent voice? Or does this not even matter in the scheme of things? I feel like it might be the flip side of actual faith but I’m not sure.

  13. Jane,
    Indeed, I think it’s something like an internalized parent. I remember doing a sermon some years back about the “masters of suspicion” (Freud, Durkheim, Nietsche, et al). These major modern figures who demolished the idea of God. My point was that they were correct. But the “god” they demolished was not the true God at all. To know God, we also have to not know Him first. I sometimes tell inquirers that they may have to become atheists before they can become Orthodox.

    One way to do this is to erase everything you think you know about God. Then understand that we only know God as He reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Gosh, I just don’t see Jesus walking around with the disciples nagging them and pointing out all their faults. God is not our neurosis. That neurotic voice is more like the Lizard on the man’s shoulder in Lewis’ The Great Divorce. It’s more demonic than god-like. It’s not even the voice of conscience.

  14. Then understand that we only know God as He reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Gosh, I just don’t see Jesus walking around with the disciples nagging them and pointing out all their faults. God is not our neurosis.

    This is something of the problem I have from time-to-time (okay, “often”). It is not the lack of God’s presence or revelation of Himself but the realization that He loves me so fully that my faults don’t matter to Him. Unfortunately, I all too often fixate on my faults and not His love; they matter so much to me that I cannot let them go and they make it almost impossible for me to accept the fact that He loves me.

    I agree with Jane that Orthodox Worship is such a grace; a balm to me. It so fixates on worshiping God that I cannot turn away from Him due to my faults. The encounter is too spiritually focused for such small things to get in the way.

  15. Father, thank you for your words. I was thinking about occasionally getting a good night sleep, as you said at the end of the article. I could use one. After reading your previous article about chains, I realize I go to sleep hoping to relieve myself of the heavy chains, some don’t come off. Then I get up, just to put my chains on again.

  16. “Nothing we do makes God do anything or earns us anything.”

    “He loves me so fully that my faults don’t matter to Him.”

    It seems to me we don’t think really believe this. Something is not adding up, what with “unconditional love and mercy”, and then right back to damnation and hell-fire. Something’s gotta give.

  17. Bless, Father.

    I know you don’t know that you wrote this for me. As a writer of such things, I assume you hope it does someone some good, points them in the proper direction, what have you. Thank you so very much for this.

  18. In this post, you note that “the Christian life is properly led in obedience to Christ’s commandments.” As a reader of almost all of your blog posts, I notice that in so many of them you seem to indicate that we need to “follow the commandments”.
    I don’t understand what that means. Does this mean the 10 commandments?
    The approximately 613 laws (a number argued over) in the Torah? The “new commandment” given by Jesus in John’s writings to love one another?
    You reference it so often, and of such importance, any clarification would be much appreciated.

  19. Fr. Stephen,

    I really love your writings. My struggle is in balancing the use of our talents (yes, they are wordly) with the idea of not being successful. Winning and success ARE of great value on some level. I think this is an added paradox that goes beyond us in trying to simply explain the Christian life. We can provide a lot of good for others through use of our talents and skills. Can these be idols also? Sure. I suspect that you will say all of this goes in line with faithfulness to God. Certainly, one cannot argue that that is the clear and proper teaching.

    It seems to me that this pops up again and again in your blog posts. I guess it is a struggle to find this balance in a weird, distorted society trying to find humanity (real humanity) in some part to relate to. I feel like our vacillation of keeping the commandments and violating them, though we believe, is the ultimate paradox. Is it the struggle, then, that matters? To me it seems so. Not giving in to the modern idea of saying because we do something it is now normal and OK — always striving to say that although we are broken and transgress over and over and over — THERE IS some sort of holiness that we should never deny.

    Anyway, your input would be appreciated. Thanks.

  20. Michael Heath,
    Good question. I mean the commandments of Christ Himself. “Do unto others…” etc. There are a good number of them and they are the proper guides to our lives. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” He says.

  21. Palamas,
    Doing good is worth thinking carefully about. We should always do good (“While there is time, let us do good to all men, especially those who are of the household of faith – Gal. 6:10). The curve that modern thinking takes, however, is rooted in the ideas of Utilitarianism. In that there are the ideas of the greatest good for the greatest number, and the idea of the necessary evil (the “greatest good,” etc.).

    If you have “talents” or “gifts” use them. Though be careful. They are like money to us and easily lead us astray. The first thing to concentrate on is the “good” that is near at hand. Do it. When we fall into the reasoning that, “Well, I’ll get to that later because if I do it now then I will not be able to do this greater thing later.” That’s utility. And we don’t know whether we will be alive or dead later.

    Mother Theresa, for example, is still greatly criticized by some because she only took care of the poor when she could have organized, raised money, built hospitals, etc. She, instead, picked up dying beggars one at a time and cared for them. She did not see herself as existing to clear up the problems of poverty in Calcutta or elsewhere. She just did the good.

    “What if everyone did like she did?” Well, we’d be in paradise. But those who have done very little for anyone stand by and criticize the saint who has done much. That is utility.

    A number of the greatest desert monastics had held very, very great power in the Emperor’s court. Couldn’t they have done more good by staying in place and using their gifts for others? I’m sure the thought crossed their minds. But that is utility. Seek first the Kingdom…God will give us the rest. In following these various “goods” we imagine, we rarely get around to following the Kingdom.

    It’s always strange that using our gifts and talents for others often comes with a comfortable salary.

    In our lives, it’s good not to spend so much time looking at the big picture. Every “big picture” in our minds is an illusion, simply a product of our imagining. Just keep one of Christ’s commandments today. Just one, and try to keep it with all your heart. It will become the door to paradise. (that is according to Matthew the Poor). Don’t worry about how much you break them. Only look at keeping them…one at a time.

    I like what Mthr. Theresa said, “We do it to Jesus, for Jesus, with Jesus and by Jesus.” It’s what she called “praying the work.”

  22. But Father, the “big picture” is so easy. Dealing with my own temptations and sins and actually helping out those around me, that is sooooooooo hard.

    If I could get through the day without swearing, that would be a good thing.

    There is a homeless man lying outside the back door of my work right now. Hmmmm.

  23. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I am a Roman Catholic from India who has been reading your blog from back when it was hosted on fatherstephen.wordpress.com. (I think I started reading your writings from around 2007 or 2008).

    I want to thank you for the spiritual nourishment your blogging has provided for me. Your regular themes of bearing shame and not expecting to “get better” have been most illuminating for me, even if I have to struggle to understand them and maintain that understanding and act from it when going about my daily life.

    I also want to thank the readers of your blog for creating a courteous and safe zone where the themes of your articles are expanded and fleshed out some more.

    I have been struggling with AvPD, anxiety and related depression for the past 8 years. For the past two years your writings have been very helpful to me in making sense of life. But as always, when I get off the internet and into the real world applying all this that I have learned is so very painful and filled with failure.

    Please continue your good work.

    Yours in Christ,
    NSP

  24. Michael Heather, Fr. Stephen has already replied your question. Let me just add that the Ten Commandments of OT are the foundation. Of course, we still tend to forget or even break some of the commandments in our daily life (I mean myself). But as Christians, we are to keep the commandments of Christ Himself, the commandments of the Gospel and OT as Jesus taught them.

    Please check out Fr Thomas Hopko’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio:

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/the_commandments_of_the_gospel

    If you are not familiar with The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, please get this wonderful book. It can be helpful if you want to learn more about Orthodox spiritual life.

  25. To Michael Heath

    I am sorry, Michael. I misspelled your family name in my previous message.

  26. Fr Stephen, I deeply appreciate bringing our focus to the immediate good/need/person before us- it seems the correct spiritual shape of our environment.
    I still do not understand how to integrate certain large scale social changes into this paradigm however. For example the abolition of slavery. I think of how many centuries passed where this was left unquestioned and unchallenged, by very great Christians and Christian societies. Or even our current economic structures that depend on usury and tend toward the exploitation of an impoverished labour force and harmful exploitation of God’s creation. (And could we include our ‘culture of death’ that entails thoughtless abortion and utilitarian militarism as another example?)

    How do we continue to focus on the immediate good before us, without turning a blind eye or becoming complacent participants in larger structural/societal evils?

    I still cannot see how persons like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. could have brought about such liberating social change if they were not looking at the “big picture” and trying to directly effect change following Christ’s own way (as they understood it, and with greater and lesser success)?

    I remain haunted by Catholic Abp. Hélder Câmara’s famous quote: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

    Thanks for any reflections addressing this tension- if there is one- yet again.
    -Mark

  27. Jane, adding to Father’s wise words, I would suggest those thoughts of “God” as “accuser/critic” are what the Scriptures describe as the “darts” of the evil one and what the Fathers of the Church describe as “logisimoi” (intrusive thoughts and images interjected into our minds at the suggestion of the enemy and which come from our experience in the fallen world). We combat these with prayer. Specifically, “the prayer” of the Orthodox, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or, we can use whatever brief verse of Scripture that speaks to our heart and serves as an effective antidote to the dart of negativity and falsehood we are faced with. I have been particularly helped by verses from the Psalms, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.” (Psalm 107:1, 118:1 and 136:1, among others). In the Antiochian jurisdiction this is the Psalm verse chanted over and over during the receiving of the Eucharist. This is indeed our very active response in the spiritual warfare that is our lot in this life and over which we attain victory through Christ’s Pascha. May God grant us grace in our common struggle!

  28. Mark Basil,
    Sadly, most of what we think about as our ability to make a difference in the larger sense is simply one of the delusions of so-called democratic societies. If you lived in the Roman Empire, you probably would not ask what you could do about slavery. It would be a fact that you’d try to deal with in a fully Christian manner.

    The myth of democracy, in large part, is just that. It legitimizes a state over which you have very little control, but who keeps telling you that what you think and do matters in some larger sense, when, in fact, those decisions are pretty much removed from your hands.

    MLK was an amazing man. But it is probably incorrect to think of him as bringing about a certain change. He was a catalyst. But had the change not suited the masters of our culture, and the manner in which they perceived their own interests, he would not have succeeded. I see the hand of God in all of that – a matter of providence.

    Gandhi, in a similar manner, prevailed. But he prevailed against the British by progressively shaming them. Had they not cared about their image in the world, he would have likely failed.

    This is a very dark account of human history, but I believe it to be the case. Modern democracy is about the subterfuge of legitimizing. All democracies depend deeply on the use of propaganda. A single effective demagogue shows how easily it can all get out of hand. Mostly, we are constantly stirred up to “care” about things, and to hold opinions. And we think that the sentiment is the thing and feel that our opinions are making a difference. We’re fed poll numbers that give the illusion of belonging, etc.

    But those same illusions of sentiment often keep people from actually doing anything. They think that voting their opinion is the same thing as keeping Christ’s commandments. Jesus is quite clear in his commandments. And, strangely, He never once told us to change the world. Changing the world is the slogan of political masters. They need you to believe it. We need to believe Jesus and keep His commandments.

    The government change a few laws regarding race. It did not, and could not remove racism. That ugly thing is alive and well and often quite subtle. British colonialism has been replaced with globalization. There are no British masters in India, but there are masters somewhere. The strings are very likely not being pulled in New Delhi. They are far more hidden now. But the abject poverty of Indian cities remains, etc.

    Read Stanley Hauerwas.

  29. “All democracies depend deeply on the use of propaganda. . . . Changing the world is the slogan of political masters. They need you to believe it.”

    This is indeed the dark reality of this world system as it is manifest in the modern world. The ceaseless cultural and political polemics are there to distract us from noticing what has really been transpiring around us and understanding our true nature as sojourners in this world whose true citizenship is in another Kingdom entirely. If you want sobriety in this matter, simply research the “Hegelian Dialectic” and its use in the modern era.

    This is a frightening reality in the modern world, and the movers and shakers behind worldly political forces today have both pioneered and made extensive use of our mass media and technology to control the shaping of public policy. On that note, we have the wise words of Elder Epiphanios of Athens:

    “Don’t sit, glued to the television. . . . Guard yourselves from the means of mass blinding.”

    Indeed.

    “We need to believe Jesus and keep the commandments.”

    Amen. May God help us to do so!

  30. Mark Basil,
    I love Father Stephen’s response (and thank God for all the expedient insights with which he constantly nourishes us, despite the fact that I find little time to comment lately).
    I would also like to add something and prompt you that certain Saints did naught (!) externally (read St Barsanuphius the Great recluse for instance), yet they were granted the power to alter the course of global history through their – unknown to others – solitary prayer before God.

  31. Thank you for all of this, Fr. Stephen, the blog post and your response here in these comments.

    Thank you, Dino, for the comment about St. Barsanuphius above here. I have read him and I think this Lenten Season is a good time to read again.

    Glory to God for All Things!

  32. “How do we continue to focus on the immediate good before us, without turning a blind eye or becoming complacent participants in larger structural/societal evils?”

    I have been wrestling with this dialectic in a certain African country for several years. We (Church leaders) give alms until we are empty, go into debt to give more alms, continually beg for money from abroad in order to give more money… and the people continue to ask for more, many with no intention of trying to support themselves. It’s free money.

    Yet we are commanded to give alms. How do we give in a way that doesn’t destroy the people we’re trying to help?

  33. Mary, I had the same issues when I first started into ministry. The people who came for help just saw me and my church as an easy touch. I learned quickly that we were being scammed as many of the folks that came for help were making the rounds of all the local churches. I had reached the same situation that you are describing. I asked the Lord in prayer to reveal to me His answer. I felt compelled to read the Pauline corpus to find my answer. I did in 2 Thessalonians 3:10…”For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” When I came to my last parish, which was very small, we were inundated by demands for money. My Priest was at a loss as to what to do. In our discussion we came upon a simple solution. We offered to hire people who were looking for money to do things like clean the church, paint the outside, mow the lawn etc. We offered $10 an hour.

    Not one of the people coming to the door accepted our offer for them to help themselves. They refused to do anything and simply expected to get money. If they are unwilling to help themselves to money through a little honest work, these people are not willing to spiritually help themselves either. We are not commanded to go into the world and run social programs, we are commanded to make disciples. That is an entirely different proposition and the people we dealt with and most likely the people you are dealing with are not willing to be disciples but see you as an easy touch for money. Try offering work to earn money and see how that changes the dynamic.

  34. Father Stephen and Karen,

    Thank you for your thoughts, which I have been pondering and will continue to do.

    For me it goes something like this– I am conscious of many many small sins throughout the day. I know that the wrongness of these cannot be merely in my own head, otherwise they aren’t wrong at all and my sense that they are is simply an arbitrary, meaningless reaction. I could never be that much of a relativist (I think that’s the term!). . . ergo, God.

    This is not some cynical-esoteric proof of God that I came across in a book somewhere, rather a line of thought/feeling that has gripped me personally from time to time, usually low times, in a somewhat grim but quasi reassuring way. I don’t know if it’s the worst ground for belief out there? But, Father, if you really think this style of “believing” is altogether neurotic and not belief in God at all I would like to know– I do have other grounds for faith so concluding this would not, I think, destroy mine.

    A problem is that it is very easy to image this sense into a negative “God as accuser” figure, as I described in my prior post, which is very dark.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  35. Jane,
    “Many, many small sins” is, I think, a danger sign. Without more information, which I’m sure is probably not appropriate to share, it is hard to be specific. But, the things we think of as “small sins,” are very likely little more than stray thoughts, little things, “logismoi,” as Karen pointed out.

    They are not, generally, acts of the will. In many ways, they are artifacts of the brain, the noise of our lives. Indeed, they often belong to the category of “neurosis” that I described. Everybody is a little bit neurotic, unless they are something much worse.

    Why be aware of these things throughout the day? Why not simply give thanks for all things, included our neurosis. We should give thanks always for all things. How can I give thanks for such things? Easily. I give thanks because my brokenness shouts the goodness of God who died for me, who loves me, who, in time, will heal my neurotic brain and exalt me to His side in the highest heavens. My adversary will not triumph over me, because God is good! How can I not give thanks?

    If thou, O LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. (Psa 130:3-4)

    We do well during the day to forget ourselves. Simply strive to remember God. If you notice that you’ve forgotten Him, don’t reprove yourself, simply give thanks that you’ve remembered Him again. God is not “marking your iniquities” (the word “mark” here means to “watch closely,” or “remember scrupulously”). If God is not doing this, then by what commandment should we do it? We are commanded to be like our heavenly Father. So, we forget ourselves and remember God.

    There is, indeed, an argument for God’s existence called the “moral argument.” Kant used it. Lewis’ used it. But, I’m not sure it’s exactly healthy. (Or it can certainly be used in a dark manner). “Rejoice in the Lord always!” now that’s a good commandment to remember. Give thanks and rejoice. Do them in spite of failings. Do them because of failings. Do them.

  36. Perhaps the greatest message that has stayed with me and many others from [the majestic witness of God that is] Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra (as well as his close disciples), is that we must retain rejoicing and thanksgiving no matter what!. Without it, nothing can really work, and it’s better to go back to ensuring this joy is in place first before all our other endeavours. It is a lifelong labour that is worth continual cultivation, whether we are failing or succeeding in everything that we are involved in. If we find ourselves in particularly difficult situations to do such a thing at present, let us at least remind ourselves of the future hope of restoration and ‘throw an anchor in those eschatological waters’ of what awaits us, at least this can help transform the tempest of today a little bit and remind us that joy can never be absent from a believer.

  37. Thank you Fr Stephen, your reply helps lay to rest the issue for me. I think I understand better now.

    Thank you also Dino for the apt reminder!

    -Mark

  38. I battle with shame as my cross; in prayer I find one thing, and later the old voice from the past insists that I am simply horrible, an excruciating (appropriate word) embarrassment. The more the grace, the more pernicious that denying voice is. I have come to know the difference between shame and guilt — I try to avoid hurting others (the thing that usually makes me feel guilty); and things from the past I cannot change but which I come to realize hurt someone, I pray about. Guilt is limited. Shame is inexorable, endless, unreasonable, oppressive. I suppose it is kind of the inverse of grace: grace is unlimited. But somehow there is that paradox of enduring the kind of shame or scandal that comes from following Him as the only way to walk through the problem. That’s what I read in your post, and also of course I am still trying to find a deeper understanding of what you have written before in earlier posts about shame. (I hope this at least makes sense to you.) A psychologist who is also a Catholic spiritual director told me that perhaps that is God’s way of leading one to heal childhood hurts. It makes sense to me.

  39. Thanks, Father, for the reply and kindly exhortation. It’s been helpful and was very apt to my situation!

  40. Father,

    Can you explain what exactly is meant by this:

    “Do not render evil for evil. Do not resist evil. Bless those who curse you.”

    What word is being used for “evil”? ‘Do not resist evil’ strikes me as going too far, but I want to believe that I am misunderstanding what is being expressed.

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