I think I have a messiah complex. The reason I say this is because I often feel that if I only did something different, if I could only discover what I should do differently, it would make a great difference in the lives of others.
I know that such thoughts are not uncommon. Many people are tied up in knots, praying earnestly that God will show them what to do, that God will help them to pray more or fast more or do something more so that the power or Grace of God will flow and make a difference in the lives of those we care about. We are tied up in knots because we think that we are the essential element blocking the work of God in the lives of those we love. Somehow we think salvation depends on us.
As Orthodox Christians, we are encouraged to see ourselves as the chief of sinners. We are encouraged not to blame others, but on the contrary to blame ourselves. Many saints have had this attitude and the hymns of the Church and the advice of many spiritual fathers and mothers tell us this. I do not dispute it. In fact, I have found this self-condemnation to be quite life-giving. However, what is not helpful is a kind of corollary that I and I think many others make. The corollary goes like this: I think that because I am the worst sinner and because I blame myself and not others, the responsibility of repairing the mess is also mine, that I am the key to fixing the messes that I have made (or contributed to making). But this is not a healthy thought.
In most cases, in my experience, the thought that God is waiting for me to do the “right” thing to pour out His Grace and help, this thought that it must somehow depend on me, actually comes from a kind of pride. Instead of producing humility in me, the thought that my sin contributes to the brokenness of those around me, an illusion of responsibility is produced or even the delusion that I somehow have the ability to fix things: if I could only pray harder, or find the right thing to change in my life, if I would only in one way or another try harder, then others (particularly those I love and care about) would see God more clearly and would themselves find Grace, be healed, and would repent. In my sick and fallen way of thinking, the idea that I am the cause or part of the cause of the sufferings of others (because of my sin or lack of faith or inadequacy), I am somehow the one who has to find the way to fix things.
But this is not at all how healing and salvation come about in the Kingdom of God.
We must see ourselves as the chief of sinners and even as the cause of the suffering of those around us because we are not to judge others. And not judging others, I am the only one left to judge. I judge myself—as Jesus said, so that I will not be judged. So I am the chief of sinners because, as far as I know, as far as I know experientially, I am the only sinner. I cannot judge others. However, this in no way means that I am the one who must or even can fix or cure the physical, relational, psychological and spiritual illnesses around me. I can only repent myself. I can only turn myself towards God. And only God Himself can heal me and others.
It is difficult to acquire the kind of humility in which I do not see myself as the linchpin, as the one who has to figure it out. It is difficult to simply rest and trust God, to rest in the knowledge that while I am a big part of the problem (maybe the only part of the problem), God is the only One who can fix the problem. God is the only One who saves. “Salvation is of the Lord,” the scripture says repeatedly. And yet I somehow keep falling into the trap of thinking that I somehow have to figure out how to save others. I cannot save anyone. I cannot even save myself—except in the sense of myself turning and submitting again and again to God.
As a priest it is so easy to develop a messiah complex, to think that I have to figure out what to say and what to do to save others. I am continually tempted to think that I have to push myself harder, to pray longer, to fast more severely so that others may be saved. It is so easy to think that it depends on me. And of course, you don’t have to be a priest to have this problem. Many earnest Christians struggle, tie themselves up in knots, and completely lose any sense of peace or joy in their lives because they are tormenting themselves with the thought: “If only I did more, if only I could figure out what to do differently, then things would be better, then my loved ones would see Christ more clearly, then there would be peace in my relationships. But such thinking never leads to peace. It leads to greater and greater frustration, anger and sadness. And eventually, it can lead to a kind of accusation or blaming of God Himself. The thought might occur to us, “God, why aren’t you helping me!”
One of the constant themes of my Bishop, Archbishop Joseph, when the clergy gathers is this: he says, “A priest’s first job is to find salvation for himself, then God will save the community.” It is like the word of St. Seraphim of Sarov who said, “Acquire the peace (or Grace) of the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” Peace does not come once we figure out how to heal our problems and the problems of those around us. That’s backwards. Our problems and the problems of those around us will be healed as we acquire peace. And peace comes as we learn to accept our brokenness, as we accept the fact that we cannot save others. We can love, or learn to love, but we cannot save. Only God saves.
And so what are we to do to acquire peace, to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit. For me, one of the first steps has been to really accept the fact that I am the chief of sinners, that I am so broken that there is no chance I could help or save anyone no matter how hard I worked or prayed or strove. I am broken. I am a clay pot—a cracked clay pot—that somehow has a little spark of the Grace of God inside. This I must focus on. I must nurture this spark inside myself and let go of the responsibility I have pinned onto myself for the salvation of others—even, and especially, for those I love and care the most about. I cannot save. Only God saves. I cannot save, but I can seek to nurture and attend to the little spark of light that God has put into my soul.
Yet even as I say this, part of me is crying out: “That is so selfish. Where is the love in caring for your own soul when there is so much sadness and brokenness around you?” Yes it would indeed be selfishness, if I actually could do something to save those around me. But since only God can save, the most loving thing I can do for those around me is to attend to God in my own heart and thus be transfigured by the knowledge of God in my heart. My ability to cooperate with what the Grace of God is doing in others depends completely on my growing awareness of and cooperation with the Grace of God within my own heart. I have to let go of the world to change the world. I have to let go of my false sense of responsibility and the anger or sadness or frustration associated with it so that I can be transformed by the love and Grace of God already in my own heart.
Sometimes I wonder how much my over-wrought sense of responsibility isn’t really just a manifestation of my own sense of guilt. I know I am not a very good priest—even when I try my hardest. I know that I was not a very good parent—even though I tried to do what I thought was best for my children at the time. I know my inadequacy, and somehow in my confused mind, having an over-anxious sense of responsibility is my way of assuring myself, and perhaps my way of trying to tell God, that I really do love and care about those whom He has put into my life. Sometimes, I think, this anxiousness I experience, this messiah complex, is really just that. It is my attempt to assuage my doubts, to convince myself that I really do love and care and want the best for those around me. And if this is the case, and it seems often to be the case in my life, then letting go of this false sense of responsibility is not really about letting go of my love and care for others, it is about letting go of my coping mechanism and embracing even my own self doubt as part of my brokenness, as a part of what needs to be healed in me.
I cannot save others. Salvation is of the Lord. Sometimes I just repeat this to myself over and over again. It helps me shift my focus. It helps me look to God in my heart and to give over to Him all of the anxiety and worries I have for those I love. After all, God really is the only One who saves.