Among the most alluring ideas in our lives are the notions of cause and effect, performance and award. Nothing seems more soothing than the simple promise that doing one thing leads to the reward of the other. It is predictable, subject to control, clearly delineates the rules of reward and punishment and makes obvious who deserves what. Nothing could be neater.
The limit to this idea comes when we encounter living, sentient beings. We are, to a certain extent, irrational. We do not behave predictably at all times. We respond in unexpected ways and initiate unexpected activities. We can add to this limit the vast amount of what we do not know. We take precautions not to get the flu – but we still do. You drive carefully and are hit by the truck you did not (and could not) see. The life of cause and effect is simply inadequate as a fundamental position.
The spiritual life is no different. God is free and cannot be expected to behave in a predictable manner (known to us). We can expect certain things according to His promise, but even those things remain largely hidden. For example, we can trust that He is always at all times and in all things working for our salvation, our true communion with Him and healing from the ravages of our brokenness. But we are creatures who dream of being gods, though entering by a false door. Rather than being raised up and conformed to God’s image by the ineffable working of His grace, we prefer to make little god-lets of ourselves and becoming masters of our lives. Cause and effect is the demon that ever waits at that very point.
We most often experience cause and effect as a sense of control. Our failures haunt us while we obsess about what might have been. Some seek to partner with God, looking for ways of praying and living that rig the game in their favor. Much of this is utterly contrary to the purposes of God in our life. We seek for success and accomplishment. We look for rewards and things we perceive to be desirable and good. Surely no one prays and asks for difficult things. And yet the difficult things are precisely the place where the refining fire of God’s grace burns brightest and best. No one is saved by success and prosperity.
Among the greatest difficulties faced by Orthodoxy in the New World has been the relative prosperity of an immigrant Church. Prosperity makes for a Church that is nicely comparable to denominational America, but it does not produce saints. Christ warned his disciples that the rich find entry into the Kingdom nearly impossible. Nothing has changed since then. There have been wealthy saints in the past, but they were often forged in the fire of radical generosity.
We are indeed saved by grace. However, the Protestant meme that interprets this as mere judicial kindness is an egregious error. Grace is the very life of God, the Divine energies, the fire by which we are transformed into the image of Christ. We do not earn it, but we can certainly shield ourselves from its action. Christ describes this in terms of a seed sown among thorns:
Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. (Mat 13:22)
Prosperity (American-style) can increase our anxiety as we get caught up in the delusion of cause and effect. We imagine ourselves as the source of wealth. And though Christians pay lip-service to virtues like humility and meekness, we frequently overlook the examples that dwell among us. More often, celebrities and the successful are singled out for honor, even among the Orthodox. It fits well in American culture, but it rankles in the Kingdom of God.
It is said that humility is like a magnet with regard to grace. “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). And in a similar manner, “He guides the meek in judgment, and teaches the meek His ways” (Psalm 25:9).
How do we live with such realities? For one, it requires an ethos of meekness. Our culture is inherently competitive. We not only want to do well; we want to do better than others. A noticeable presence in American culture is created by the measures of American standards. I cannot think of how many times I have heard people speak about the Amish as obscure dropouts who seem destined to have no impact on the world. And yet they are people of meekness and humility. I would covet their prayers and suspect they are viewed well from heaven.
Virtually none of the measures that hold value in our American culture belong to the virtues of grace. I have said in a previous post that we are in great need of monasteries and monastics. I would broaden that and say that we are in need of the prayers of the humble and the wisdom of the meek. They alone understand that cause and effect does not belong to the Kingdom of God.
We worship the God who causelessly causes and Himself reigns in humility. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the humble and meek.
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Mat 11:28-29)
Give thanks always because God provides, yet be not indolent for sweat appears to be part of our salvation.
Unless I have it wrong.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen. This is timely for me.
Great post to ponder on at the end of the Year. Thank you father, through your prayers and the prayers of all the Angels and Saints of God. Thank you for your writings. They are truly a blessing to me.
Thank you Father. Your words ring very true. One of the many reasons I left Protestantism is the deep penetration into all denominations of the “Prosperity Gospel.” Although some denominations have railed against it, their congregants watch the TV shows, read the books and believe in the Great Celestial Candy Machine. All one has to do is to put in their “dues,” make their selection and pull the handle and God must bless them. As an Associate Pastor, I tried to explain that this was a false Gospel and all I got was resistance and I was shouted down. I do see this trying to creep into Orthodoxy, but we have on huge advantage. We have a Hierarchy and Tradition to help us through. We still need to look at ourselves and evaluate our thinking to see if we are conforming to the mind of the Church. I still find the need in myself to check my thinking in the area of behavior and reward.
The classical notion that ‘one reaps what one sows’ [reaps what one cultivates is perhaps more to the point] – especially considering that the ‘seed’ is sown by the Spirit and it is this seed’s careful cultivation through ceaseless ascetic labour that is our only input – seems to have become perverted into this rationalised notion of cause and effect, as you have just explained it Father. I guess that our misunderstanding of freedom and how to use it might have something to do with all this too. ‘Cause and effect’ seems like a Godless, secularised version of the concept of ‘reaping what the Spirit sows (which we gratefully, lovingly, obediently and painstakingly cultivate)’: a corrupted concept, lacking the understanding that everything that happens to us, ultimately serves our salvation. God is forever girded with His towel –ministering to our salvation (John 13:4) – yet we are forever too short-sighted to realise this. Freedom must be understood as the unreservedly trusting, voluntary acceptance of the timeless laws and principles that govern our existence, in awareness of God’s continual providence. Any breach of them can bring freedom’s demise. Moreover, obedience and freedom are [consequently] not mutually exclusive, but complementary. In fact, the fruit that results from man’s immaturity and weakness in understanding these ‘conditions’ of life, is lack of freedom. That’s why man erroneously supposes that disobedience would somehow safeguard his freedom. This way however he is inevitably driven to the loss of his freedom.
I have been a consistent reader of your blog for the past several years and have been both challenged and comforted (far more often challenged than comforted) by your words. In particular, I have payed special attention to your consistent references to Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan and the embracing of weakness and shame as the path to Christ. I recently purchased “St. Silouan the Athonite” in an attempt to dig further into the truths you present here. In particular, I’ve latched onto the idea of “Stand on the edge of the abyss and when you feel that it is beyond your strength, break off and have a cup of tea” or “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not.” I don’t understand these sayings, but I sense a deep truth that is able to help me within them.
I have spent the last year trying to figure out how to begin embracing my own shame and weakness and I often feel like I’ve gotten nowhere. My case seems particularly difficult (to me, at least) because I am the type of person who is generally very open about my faults and weaknesses to most people that know me. There are few of my closest (and even nominal) friends that don’t know my darkest secrets. My priest has wondered out loud in Confession if I use this as a shield against real shame. I think I agree with him, and yet I still don’t know how to truly make myself vulnerable.
I’ve toyed around with the idea of just signing up to do things I’ve never done before and embracing the weakness and vulnerability that’s involved in learning new things (especially things like Swing Dance Lessons where everyone sees your failure), but I’ve always talked myself out of it due to cowardice and by convincing myself that things like that aren’t “spiritual” things so they can’t be the right way to go.
My own shame has lead to immense amounts of anxiety which have been laid bare more and more in recent months. I’m going to start reading “St. Silouan the Athonite” in about two weeks. Other than that, receiving Communion and going to Confession, do you have any suggestions for ways in which I can learn to embrace my shame and thereby seek Christ?
Dino, you raise points to ponder for sure. At first read it makes sense because of how spiritual untruth mimics the truth but without the reality. An attractive counterfeit.
A key difference in the a karma based attitude and Christianity is that comfort might be viewed as an affirmation that you are on the right path. The rich man in the Parable of Lazarus would have interpreted his life as on the right path in a karma or prosperity gospel context
The December 31 Gospel includes Jesus telling us how to describe ourselves:
“We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.”
Yet the prosperity gospel seems to encourage us to view ourselves as profitable
Fr. George Calciu of blessed memory discussed how the enemy of mankind worked in Romania and noted that in America that enemy worked through the American Dream
St. Melania the Younger, hopefully a new patron for America, is commemorated on December 31
Her generosity speaks volumes about comfort not being the goal of wealth. She also turns a moment of hardship into Christian peace: In her life she explained to others that the storm they faced at sea was not God’s wrath but simply because He did not want them to go directly to their destination
I also have wondered about the parable of the ten virgins, some have to go buy oil. I wonder if those women are those who live their lives in a bartering mindset, trying to earn their way into Heaven. They may think they have done so at first as they begin their vigil but as the night closes in they realize the insufficiency. But all they do as a solution is more of the same, bartering, since they are not open to the truth. It proves not enough and the opportunity is lost. Father, please correct me if that is wrong and forgive me.
The saint who repented while dying on the cross next to Christ fills me with hope.
This sentence stayed with me : “Some seek to partner with God, looking for ways of praying and living that rig the game in their favor.” I first thought of the spiritual bargaining we try to do, I try to do. if I pray correctly, fast, give alms, attend liturgy with reverence– God will be pleased with me, things will be OK, I will be a good Christian. i am like a faithful employee: show up, work hard, follow instructions, eventually retire with benefits. I don’t feel right about thinking of faith as a job or a contract. But that’s a mind set that comes so easily. Thank you for pointing out its dangers.
Yes. It is the difference between managing our lives and living our lives. Life is not a project.
Fr. Zacharias of Essex is fond of saying that the greatest commandment is that we stay aware that we are the greatest of sinners (based on Christ’s closing of all commandments with, ‘say to yourselves that you are unworthy servants)’. Our remaining in God’s will as far as we can while accepting whatever befalls with gratitude is a fulfilment of patience, obedience, humility, gratefulness, faith, hope, love and repentance all in one.
“Christ warned his disciples that the rich find entry into the Kingdom nearly impossible.”
As a comfartable and well fed American (I literally just indulged in some Wendy’s fast food that I didn’t really need. And now I’m sitting lazily in a comfy chair indulging in my smart phone that I don’t really need), I think about this teaching of Christ’s a lot. It’s hard to make a beginning in repentance in this situation. Pray for me and my family.
Thank you for another message that challenges the assumptions by which I am prone to live. Near the end you wrote, “Virtually none of the measures that hold value in our American culture belong to the virtues of grace.”
Maybe one of my goals for 2017 should be for the “virtues of grace” to guide more areas of my life, particularly those areas where modern American values play too great a role in my life.
Please excuse me for responding to your question before receiving an answer from Fr. Stephen. I do not have an answer but a question for you. You mentioned “My priest has wondered out loud in Confession if I use this as a shield against real shame.” Have you pursued this with your priest? God gave him the insight to see this in you, and He gave us priests to teach and guide us along the way. I hope that you truly trust your priest, and if so, submit to his guidance. That’s what they’re there for. BTW, Fr. Stephen helped set me straight on this very issue of priest as confessor/spiritual father. Bottom line, it seems best to use this gift God gave us for His Church to grow in spirit.
I think I’ll expand a just little on my last comment, since eating fast food and playing on one’s phone in the comfort of their home can seem pretty harmless. For me, these harmless indulgences that most of us Americans enjoy on a regular basis make me feel like a rich king lounging in his castle, as the poor and desperate of this world are so far from me. I’m not one of them, nor even friends with them because of this distance, yet it is with these humble poor that salvation lives.
You and your family are in my prayers, always…
As if an answered prayer to have some comforting words for you, this Christmas letter from Father Evan in Colorado came into my mailbox. So I thought I would share it with you and everybody here….
May God bless you and your family this year and always….
Thank you, you have such an amazing talent to dig out the best “golden nuggets” from the Saints (Father Zacharias is one of them for sure). That “greatest commandment” of the Lord is rather well hidden and rarely paid attention to, isn’t it? Maybe because it demands from us fulfilling the Commandments without expecting any reward, just the opposite, we are not even to take credit for the the good things we do…
It reminds me also about Fr. Zacharias saying that many of the Lord’s disciples “stopped following Him and left Him” after hearing such words from Him. “Who can hear Him, His sayings are too hard…”
(I think it is so interesting that the verse 66 of the 6th chapter of St. John’s Gospel says “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more”)
May the Lord grant us to always walk with Him and follow Him wherever He takes us, with “patience, obedience, humility, gratefulness, faith, hope, love and repentance all in one”….
It is utterly amazing how that Christmas letter came to you after your prayers for Michelle. It’s a wonderful, uplifting message for those of us who struggle with the dangers of our prosperity here in America. Everything we have is because of God’s provision, and it’s what we do with it that matters. It seems that we tend to become ashamed of our American culture, not in just certain aspects, but encompassing all. I love the way Father Evan put it in the perspective of his grandfather as an immigrant…the man was thankful. Yet he says that was not the purpose of his article, and went on to suggest a better perspective, that being Christ and His Church. I don’t believe we should feel guilty for what God has blessed us with, rather He blesses so we can be a blessing to others.
Anyway, thank you for the link to the article.
Blessed new year to all.
I’m a new commenter and an inquirer into Orthodoxy. Thank you, Father, for this beautiful, thoughtful post, and thank you for everything you do here on this blog. I have very much to learn, but your writings never fail to teach, challenge, hearten, and inspire me.
Yes, it was really wonderful. It’s so easy for us to loose perspective, about how much we have, Christmas is truly every day….
I really like the quote from Lao Tzu I once found on a greeting card:
“To know when we have enough is to be rich beyond measure”
Don’t we all have enough? Are we thankful at all for all we have? Is there a way to be thankful enough ever, thanking Him for all we have?
My 21 year old son was playing his guitar during his Christmas visit from college, looking up music on his laptop…. I told him that when I was his age, growing up in Poland, I have not ever seen a computer. Or a cell phone. Or had and knew how to drive a car. All the things kids take for granted these days, I take for granted…. May the Lord grant us the awareness of all the gifts He showers on us, and to be thankful a little more… That is what living Eucharistically actually means, we need to say “Thank you” more….
Thank you Father and all who comment here…
Thank you for your prayers for me and my family. I am very blessed by them. I read Fr Evens Christmas message and I will keep it close by in my heart. I have been contemplating it with great care all yesterday and today.
When you talk about the irrationality of the human race, Dan Ariely and his book Predictably Irrational comes to mind. He comes at the issue as a social scientist and has many wonderful observations. I would recommend anyone checking out his TED talks and Youtube videos.
Michelle, thank you for your comment from Jan 1 @ 1:55. I think about the same thing all the time, yet never do anything about it. Lord have mercy on my soul.