To Serve God

In a therapeutic culture in which our goal is to be our very best, it is almost impossible to serve God. The reason is quite simple: when my goal is to be my very best, the goal is my God. “Serving God” thus becomes a euphemism for a Christianity that we take to be therapeutic – and that its value lies in its therapeutic virtues. All of this is a stranger to the invitation of Christ, which begins with an exhortation to take up the Cross, promises persecutions and sufferings, and generally offers a fullness of life that has nothing to do with our cultural goal.

All of this has a very subtle way of working in our lives. Our culture has made us accustomed to maximizing our own comfort and control. We are managers of our world. This, of course, presumes that we, ourselves, are the best judges of our own best interests and are capable of managing things for a desired outcome. We are, in short, trained to be little gods.

In my previous article, I wrote about worship and the proper role of liturgical tradition in our lives. At a certain point in modern culture, the liturgical life passed from a “given” to a “choice.” As such, it has become just one more thing that we manage in our world. Imagine getting up every morning and managing the sunrise, or the positions of the stars and planets. It’s an insane thought. It is a great comfort to know that the sun will rise regardless of my efforts and that it will be a stable part of my day. The same is properly true of our relationship with God. The more we “manage” that relationship, and actions such as liturgy and prayer, the less effective it will become. We are simply not up to the task.

Arriving at Church on a Sunday with questions, “I wonder what Church will be like today? Will I like it? Will it be interesting?” is to have already reversed the order of things. We treat what should largely be fixed and unchanging as though it should somehow mold itself to us while treating ourselves as the stable and unchanging that is to be cajoled and assuaged into some better frame of mind.

Fortunately, human beings are creatures of habit. Despite our imagined efforts at management, we quickly fall into patterns of behavior that are indeed stable and predictable. The culture promotes change and variety. These are little more than sales techniques. It is not what we really want.

However, living with a model of management and change in our heads, while actually desiring stability and predictability, creates “two souls” (tvoye dusha in the Russian). We are nurtured in a worldview that is not nurturing, while we ignore the saving value of the stability that daily presses in on us.

The Christian spiritual life, rightly understood, encourages us towards stability. It teaches us (if we allow it) the necessary skills to live a stable life in a manner that saves us. Though our modern economies urge us towards constant choice and variety, it can be a poison in our life when it enters where it does not belong. We lose the humility and vulnerability of acceptance (and fear somehow that we will lose our “freedom”).

However, God and the service of God are not commodities. They are not the product of our choices or our management. Any God you can manage is no God at all. Neither is God inert and predictable. But He has humbled Himself, accommodated His self-revelation to what is necessary for our salvation. For this reason, He can be known.

It is difficult for us to change the habits of our hearts. Our lives are deeply formed by the illusions of choice and consumption. A stable prayer life, for example, may often be described by some as “routine” and “empty ritual.” That I pray today in a manner that differs from yesterday or tomorrow, carries no particular merit. It might very well represent nothing more than a celebration of my “mood.”

The illusion of choice and management also has a great propensity to create anxiety and depression. We do not have a culture of “acceptance,” even though most of our lives lies beyond our control. Our lack of power over what cannot be controlled and managed is thus perceived as failure and breeds anxiety and depression. And strangely, even the suggestion of nurturing “acceptance” will create an anxiety in the mind of some readers who will say, “But we must do something!”

Imagine yourself in a situation of life and work in which you have no access to the internet. Nor do you have any newspapers or magazines. All you see or know is what you actually encounter. Strangely, all you could actually do would be to “live.” This, in the best of situations, is the culture of a monastery. They are not “cut off” from the world. They are on this planet. But they are absent from the “matrix” of modern concern and anxiety, the illusion of managing history’s outcomes.

To serve God in this world, we need to accept Him as God. We cannot manage Him, nor even manage our relationship with Him. We simply need to do what is given to us. Pray the prayers. Give thanks. Share your stuff.

29 comments:

  1. There’s a quote I just copied out of a book I just finished (A Tender Struggle, by Krista Bremer) that fits here:

    We would rather be ruined than change. We would rather die in dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.

    W H Auden

    And another line from the same book, while the author was debating an abortion, being pregnant and not married, “…the subtler rewards of acceptance and surrender.”

    Lines pertinent to my life, and other ponderings.

  2. Not a comment directly related to this article, but – the picture of that toddler is just wonderful! It goes straight to the heart.

  3. ” Imagine yourself in a situation of life and work in which you have no access to the internet. ”

    Interestingly enough, my generation may be the last to remember what life was actually like before the internet and cell phones and social media matrix. I don’t need to imagine. I remember. But my kids don’t.

    The first week of Lent I went off all social media. It was very very nice – and I found that I really did not miss it.

  4. Father Stephen,
    I’m very grateful for this continued clarification on the prior topic. I find it very helpful for a number of reasons. Primarily when I commented before, I wrote using an analogy, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable. But I wasn’t able to sort out ‘why’ but was able to recognize ‘where’. When I wrote it I felt something weird–a feeling I couldn’t identify but a feeling just as you describe here as “destabilizing” (I am grateful for your eloquence !). I was caught on the words “my best” in that analogy. I felt that somehow the words were not ‘quite right’ but couldn’t grasp how or why. With your elaboration here, I am more aware that the choice of words themselves belies a conception of choice. The words “my best” engages a kind of conceptualization that “I manage”, as though I have the freedom to choose a manner of life that is best to serve God. I am more ‘stabilized’ now that I have a better grasp what was bothering me with using those words. Thank you for your ministry, your continued attention and time for your writings and reflections!

  5. The drive to control and to manage the world and God is exactly what the point is in paganism. I had a professor in Seminary that showed that this trend in modernity is a return to a pagan worldview. This explains much in our world.

  6. I wish every patient I work with in counseling could read this and take it to heart! It is true that much anxiety and depression is created by “the illusion of choice and management” in place of acceptance, and God’s rightful reign on his throne. Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I look forward to reading all your blogs! Robert

  7. I can’t hep but muse upon how this would affect our Confession if we were to give up “choice and management” and move toward acceptance. How many of our confessions amount to “I chose to do such-and-such sin , I failed to manage it, I’ll try harder to manage it in the future”? It’s a whole different ballgame when the Holy Mystery is approached in acceptance.
    One of the ironic things is, when one accepts rather than manages, sin’s grip considerably weakens.

  8. Just wanted to make sure you knew that you are referenced in the March 16 post in the other “best blog” anywhere–One Cosmos Under God, at onecosmos.blogspot.com.

  9. “We need of three things: first, Faith… second, Faith… third, Faith.” –Mother Gravilia.

  10. Justin, great description of what confession often amounts to. I find your parting observation to be my experience, too. It’s the difference between pull yourself up by your own bootstraps theology and the movement of true faith.

  11. I agree with the post. For a while I was thinking about exact same things, but just was not able to put it to words so clearly. Trying to stay away from modern distractions. Failing at it even now, because replying to this post. God have mercy on me.
    Father, forgive me for mentioning, but “two souls” in Russian would be much closer to “dve dushi”.

  12. Do I want to manage God or accept Him as He wills? As I reflect on your opening salvo on this subject I am reminded of my namesake’s much earlier ‘post’ on the same problem.

    “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations, knowing this: that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, never wavering, for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” James 1:2-8

    So where does the root of double-mindedness lie? Not in how ‘much’ faith I have, but in not letting patience have her perfect work. In other words, not accepting how God chooses to try my faith. If I step in to manage that, which Fr Stephen you so aptly nailed as the problem, then I am not accepting God’s work in my life. I am daring to manage the Unmanageable and so am double minded. Why should I expect to receive anything from the One whose action in my life I am rejecting? Your thoughts on this pagan (earth centered) vs. Christian struggle of perspective are most helpful this Lent.

  13. Fr. Stephen, I hope you will be publishing another collection of these articles, since “Everywhere Present” dates back six years.

  14. Father Stephen, thank you for this: ” They are not “cut off” from the world. They are on this planet. But they are absent from the “matrix” of modern concern and anxiety, the illusion of managing history’s outcomes.” And thank you for consistently, calmly, and regardless of the storms raging in our culture, pointing to the Cross as The Way. Sober vigilance is our friend, not alarmism.

    Thank you also -Nicholas Stephen Griswold for this: “The drive to control and to manage the world and God is exactly what the point is in paganism.” Amen.

    Encouraging and hopeful reading while a pilgrim on the path of the Long Defeat.

  15. “Any God you can manage is no God at all”.
    I would like to comment on this with a personal story – and you will forgive me because I can only speak from my own experience, and that might not always be that relevant –
    I love to make and bake bread. When flour, yeast, water and salt are kneaded with prayer and become bread, you feel thankful, but when you give away or break a warm bread to share with anyone it becomes love.
    About a year ago, I expressed to my spiritual father the desire to bake prosphora, and he agreed.
    I got the recipe, and I made sure that I am respecting all of the steps related to kneading, prayer, rising of the dough, baking etc… long story short I was managing the work!
    The recipe called for five loaves, so the dough was to be divided in five equal parts. I wanted the loaves to grow, I wanted them to look good, but because I didn’t have enough faith, I purposely divided them unequally – I preferred to have four big ones and one small (was there any vanity in this? Absolutely.) But after I got them out of the oven, the most perfect among all, was the very one I unfairly made smaller. Not only was “the small” prosphora as big as the rest, but the seal on it was perfect, too!
    I am so humbled and grateful to serve a God that I cannot manage.
    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for sharing your thoughts with us! I am very grateful for your wisdom!

  16. Thank you as always, Father! And blessings upon all who read this blog and share such sincere and wise comments!

    I was led to this article today, and found it rather freeing and very apropos to the theme of this article (and the recurring theme of us really needing to “Let go and let God”, as cliched and vacuous as that statement can be without the content of Christ and His Church). Highly recommended, especially for any who suffer great anxiety about their lack of spirituality:

    http://www.pravmir.com/error-to-the-right/

  17. For some reason, this piece draws me to the thoughts of Fr. Alexander Elchaninov in a collection of his sayings in The Diary of a Russian Priest. This particular quote I think relevant to the many themes coursing through this and the last few essays in connection to a fixed and stable frame from which we find our “liturgical” nurturing that is unchanging and consistent:

    “A feature of the Russian Orthodox faith which is essential, yet hidden from many–a feature
    connected neither with the exterior organization of the Church nor with its dogmatic and
    liturgical peculiarities, but with the life of the Russian people on the deepest and most
    fundamental level. Beneath the external divisions into geographical units (diaceses, parishes),
    there exists another organization of living elements in the Orthodox Church, which does not
    coincide with the first and is constructed on other, non-territorial principles. Its centres are a
    few personalities, highly gifted spiritually. The field of action of these startsy [or elders]
    is unlimited, they come to assume their role through free election, through the voluntary
    submission of others to their guidance. Although not yet canonized by the church, they are
    undoubtedly saints, recognized as such by the people. I feel that in our tragic days it is precisely
    through this means that faith will survive and be strengthened in our country.”

    Perhaps important to consider that this was written during the height of Russian genocide when all structure and culture was being destroyed. Even the so-called “Living Church” under the mis-direction of Alexander Vvedensky as the Soviet version of the Orthodox Church promised a new and improved management of everything “religious” and “state” approved as a telling example of the utter failure in transhuman, secularized “sameness.”

    Fr. Elchaninov further pines, “Typical of the errors which lead to censoriousness, to depression, to wrong evaluations, is ‘Rousseauism in religion–the idea that here on earth…there can be flawless achievements on our part, and on the part of other men, in our human relationships.” He further observes the expectations of sanctity we impose on others more than in our selves and thus the duplicity and envy that result; especially in our attitudes of “rightness” based on the “orthodox” evidence we cast on feelings and what we think.

    At the height of such deep decay and death in human intimacy, from which “no one and nothing can be free of,” there is given to us these pearls of unmeasurable price–the elders, the starets, our priests, who point us (and themselves) back and forward to an unshakable and unmovable wisdom which is the unfinished breath of God being breathed into each of His “person” projects, even as we dry up and return to dust; even as all about us crumbles. As Fr. Aldea is nurturing us in prayer, he implores us to cry out to God, “Here we are Father, your children, whom you MUST save.”

  18. Being a bondservant, a slave, is not part of life that anyone alive today would consider normal, in fact we find it repulsive. Yet Saint Paul considered himself the bondservant, the slave, of Christ. Paul encouraged slaves to be faithful examples of submission to their masters. We moderns have no sense of being servants to another who is our master.

    In the reading of the Psalms of Ascent for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts that is prayed during Lent we hear the following: “I lift my eyes to You, Who dwell in heaven. Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the maidservant look to the hands of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God untl He shall have compassion on us.” (Ps 122) The raising of the master’s hand to summon someone is only experienced in the setting of fine dining these days. Those of us who have waited tables in a restaurant have some sense of trying to reach this goal of attentiveness. It is all about being managed and trying to please another; often a thankless task, but one that takes focus and rejection of distractions.

    As I reread and considered Fr Stephen’s encouragement for this Lenten journey I appreciate more clearly the struggle for our attention that rages around us each minute of each day. ‘Is my device turned up in case a message comes in?’, ‘That was an outrageous billboard’!, ‘What did the radio announcer just say?’: all these thoughts that are the result of our environment demanding our attention. But like Elijah, we hear the voice of God by attentiveness in the quiet, the stillness, the peace in our souls. All that other noise must be squelched. Submitting to the prayer of the Church in the services is an act first of rejecting the noise of all the others clamoring for our attention. In the space and quiet created in the Church’s prescribed prayers may our “eyes look to the Lord our God until He shall have compassion on us”. Fr. Stephen continues to prod us on this journey.

  19. Subdn. Andrew, your “For some reason, this piece draws me…” for me = “out of the nudging of the Holy Spirit.” 🙂 Do you have a source for the book you mention in your last comment? Your comment also seems particularly relevant to me in view of the already irregular non canonical jurisdictional situation we have in the West and also because istm there are many indications now the erosion of human rights and religious freedoms could collapse into complete tyranny and active persecution of the Church by the state in the West (rather than just the insidious undermining that has been underway for decades), throwing what little organization we have into utter chaos at a moment’s notice.

  20. Karen,
    You can purchase The Diary of a Russian Priest from Amazon. I appreciate your prompting by the Holy Spirit for you and possibly for me, however, it is not for me to say that for my self. I often mistakenly presume a holiness above what I ought and can only thank my Forgiver for this season of grace.

    Regarding the larger theatre of tyranny and persecution I am regretfully aware that this is one of those unchanging conditions of the historical dilemma. I would further suggest a local impact that is perhaps more deeply felt by one’s neighbor and myself that is even more ominous–but not impossible if we “share our stuff.”

    The everyday battles fought within churches, in schools, in city councils, county jurisdictions, municipal courts, prisons, local businesses, families, between spouses, parents and children, in the work place…are all mostly internal. My fears are your sentiments exactly. I fear “the outsiders.” But the kicker seems to be hitting me from within almost every organization where differences are encountered in others. This is where I personally struggle to give up my “rights” or “freedom” so that an other close to me can experience these commodities. As Deacon James pointed out above, the sacrifice of service to others is exactly that–it is giving something up I might rather have for myself. Service is not necessarily and rarely free. There is cost involved…I think.

    So, the fear that we both share in an impending persecution is quite justified, but it is most deeply felt now at the local level between…the likes of you and me. And quite frankly, the state fictionalizes persecution while we (their “useless eaters”) make it a reality. The most effective disorder and conflict is happening on an unprecedented level on every social media outlet as each participant clammers for likes and defends against the dislikes. It is a totalitarian dream come true. We do their dirty work for them.

    End this? No, we help treat it by being moved in that mysterious and quiet step by step prompting you mentioned earlier. A movement of choosing to carry, if but a corner, of another’s confusion, suffering, and anger in a world that doesn’t make any sense is mostly unplanned. They are those surprises we fail to see and often miss…but maybe we didn’t. Maybe its just a light. A presence.
    The mistake of being somewhere and you don’t know why. The persecution can be fought. It starts within me?

  21. From someone who knows so little-I see religion as man made and spirituality as coming from God. Perhaps the reason I no longer attend church. I come here for spirituality. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  22. Debbie,
    Being human means that everything in our lives has a “man-made” aspect to it. Jesus, as God-made-man, also had a “man-made” aspect (His flesh was of Mary, He was nurtured in her womb, etc.).

    Of course, with all things human, there are “human” things. We live in cultures. We have histories. We can never do things “in general” but only in specific, particular ways. Jesus did not leave us with just a spirituality. He gave us Apostles and the Church. The New Testament is completely written by and for the Church, regardless of how inspired it is. There is no genuine spirituality that does not involve loving other human beings.

    True sexuality, for example, only takes place in the context of a life-long commitment to one other human being (marriage). That doesn’t make marriage perfect, nor does it mean there isn’t any sex anywhere else.

    The difficulty of the spiritual life is only manifest in the community of the Church…but also its glory and its wonders.

    The Christian “churches” (denominationalism) is a disaster and a mess, the product of a disastrous turn in history. I’m an Orthodox Christian, in which I adhere and live within the context of Orthodox Christianity, the oldest form of the Christian faith that has also maintained the fullness of its historic life and practices. What the other Christians do is something I cannot justify or defend – though much of it is good.

    There’s much to be said for “Church,” it’s like joining the human race. God give you grace in your spiritual life!

  23. Just a personal note: any Orthodox book you can buy on Amazon you can buy from Eighth Day Books. It may cost (may) a bit more or take a bit longer to arrive but by buying from Eighth Day you are buying from a faithful Orthodox man whose store is a center for Orhodox learning and a ministry to inquirers and converts everywhere.

    It is a human business blessed by God. A business of culture and simple kindness. Amazing things happen there. Grace is present and lives are changed. Just walking in the door is a bit like entering Narnia. A different world that resonates with a different understanding and new possibilities.

    As with all independent book stores it is an economic struggle to maintain. Unique enough to warrant a recent write-up in the New York Times.

    Your purchases from Eighth Day increase what you pay many fold. http://www.eighthdaybooks.com

  24. Fr. Stephen thank you for all you do and your wisdom. Totally in agreement on the denominational thing-the 1st 5 words are enough to steer this human a way. Grew up in all of this and believed that God in all of His Glory truly hated me. Why I come here to read and listen to Podcasts. Thank you Fr. Stephen. Although not authorized to claim I am Orthodox Christian I find this the closest to the spirituality I endeavor to live by-no CO churches in my area. Denominational churches have seemed to have done more harm than good. If there were one I would slip in the back and listen and want to remain invisible to others. Perhaps Fr. Stephen you may understand.

  25. Fr. Stephen I know within my spirit you do understand. Thank you as the Only One and True Living God and His Son knoweth our hearts. Thank you again Fr. Stephen. Your words through wisdom and perhaps past experiences have helped this humble one whom doth hurt from the past. I pray that God will remove this hurt and anger from my heart and not keep me from those whom have hurt me. The sense of entitlement I see in some is most disturbing. This site is a blessing. Gives me some hope in a time of need. As Easter draws nearer-Praise be to God for His gift and Promise. Past by me not oh Gentle Savior.

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