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.