The “Me First” Message of St. Isaac

One of the sayings of St. Isaac the Syrian that is often shared is not actually a quotation.  It is a paraphrase taking part of one sentence and attaching an end that’s three sentences away. The paraphrase usually goes something like this:  It is better to make peace with your own soul than to raise the dead. Although this is a hack job as a quotation, it is nonetheless not an unfair paraphrase of this section of St. Isaac’s fourth homily.  

St. Isaac is writing for solitary monastics: hermits. Consequently, much of what he says strikes our ears as extreme.  He says, “Love [the] idleness of [the] stillness [of prayer] above providing for the world’s starving.” A case can be made from the context that St. Isaac is not referring to those physically starving so much as those who are starving for teaching. Nevertheless, the force of St. Isaac’s argument strikes our ears as, well, selfish. He exhorts us to love our own salvation before the salvation of others: “It is better for you to free yourself from the shackles of sin than to free slaves [of sin?] from slavery [to the passions?].” Can St. Isaac really be as selfish as he appears to be to our modern ears? Why would he proclaim what seems to us to be such a “me first” message?

One reason may be that different gifts in the Body of Christ require different disciplines. That is, those who are called to devote their life to prayer for the world cannot fulfill their calling if much of their time is spent caring for the sick or teaching catechumens or washing dishes in a soup kitchen. These are all duties and tasks in the Body of Christ, but not every member can do every thing. And certainly when we try to do too much, we do nothing well. My wife, for example, is an iconographer. When she is working on a big project, more of the responsibility for household chores falls on me (which generally means that the quality in all areas of domestic care takes a nose dive). If she is going to fulfill her calling as an iconographer, she cannot at the same time be busy cooking and cleaning. Perhaps what St. Isaac is saying is that for the hermits to fulfill their calling, they must not be distracted by other pressing needs that other believers should be (but perhaps are not) attending to. Certainly one of the lessons I need to learn (again and again throughout my life) is that I cannot do everything. With God’s help, I may be able to do well what God has put before me to do. But if I stretch myself too thin, I will not even do what little God has put before me well.

However, there is a deeper and I think more important reason why St. Isaac promotes what seems to be a kind of selfish or “me first” attitude in spiritual discipline. He says, “Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling block for many when their acts were made manifest.”

There is a humility that underlies all of St. Isaac’s teaching, a humility that encourages his readers to be aware of their own weakness. St. Isaac warns his readers that even the very gifted–perhaps especially the very gifted–are prone to “the infirmity of their senses (or feelings)” which makes them unable to withstand the “vehemence of the passions.” And when such gifted ones fall they not only “slay themselves,” but they also “become a stumbling block for many.” This reminds me of St. Paul’s awareness of his own weakness when he says, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

And so St. Isaac recommends that if we do say something that seems profitable to others, we should speak as one still learning, not as an expert. And speak reluctantly from our own inner experience, awkwardly; rather “than to gush forth rivers of instruction from the keenness of your intellect and from a deposit of hearsay and writings of ink.”  

St. Isaac’s intense focus on personal spiritual discipline before the care of others isn’t really selfish at all. It is humble. It is about seeing oneself as small and weak. It’s about knowing one’s sickness and, ultimately, it is about trusting God. God saves. He may or may not let me help in some small way; but at the end of the day, God saves.  And the biggest thing I can do to bring salvation to those around me is to let God save me first, to let God transform me, to let God teach me repentance, and to acquire peace. Then, as St. Seraphim of Sarov has famously said, thousands around me will be saved.


  1. Thank you Fr Michael, all of this is helpful for me.

    Having come from a "works first/only" activism Christian upbringing, extremely leery of anything 'spiritual' to the neglect of just doing a concrete act of mercy, this was the hardest 'heart' of Orthodoxy for me to come to terms with.

    One of the things that helped me tremendously was the Mystical union of all people- and all things- in Christ.
    Thus, to save one's self is to impact all of Mankind and even all the world, for good and toward salvation.
    What helped me to see this was the spiritual impact of "one man's sin" when Adam transgressed- how the whole cosmos was impacted. What then, if one man repents? We know that all the host of heaven will rejoice!
    It also dovetails with the weakness and hiddenness of God's might. The power of love is always hidden, discrete, waiting to be revealed with Christ. God is all-powerful, yet veiled in gentleness and secret.
    To heal ourselves (through repentance and receiving the Physician's work) is to heal those who suffer in the downtown eastside. This is not a cop-out (my initial worry), so long as we are struggling and 'suffering' in our ascesis. Real work in the rocky garden of our heart, to receive real salvation.

    Does this make sense, do you think?

    Thank you;

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