In my part of the world, sometimes referred to as the Bible Belt of Canada, I have plenty of opportunity to interact with Evangelicals of various stripes: from intellectually rigorous, Reform(ation)-minded Calvinists to free wheeling, seemingly theologically ambivalent Charismatics. One thing that has struck me, however, about most of the Evangelicals I have encountered lately is how strongly they prioritize ministry, or action taken for God in the world. This is such a priority that one is considered somehow deficient if he or she is not enthusiastically pursuing some activity that can be labeled as ministry of one sort or another. In fact, the word “enthusiastic” may be too mild, for the word “passion” is often used to describe the level of enthusiasm one is expected to exhibit in the pursuit of whatever it is that an apparently good Evangelical is doing for God in the world.
Not too long ago, after I listened to a middle-aged Evangelical man wax eloquent for ten minutes or so about “the exciting things God is doing” in his ministry and his service for God in the world, the man asked me what I was passionate about in ministry. For a few of seconds, I thought about playing along with the fellow and telling him a couple of the things I am interested in, just to play along with the game and to avoid an awkward moment. But some ornery corner of my being wouldn’t let me, and so I replied, “Well actually I spend a great deal of my energy working very hard not to be passionate about anything.” A short but interesting conversation followed, but as soon as the fellow thought he understood what I was talking about, he moved on to talk to someone else.
And just yesterday, I was speaking to someone who works with an Evangelical wilderness camping program. He told me that one of his struggles with the program is that it strongly encourages the participants to make a verbal commitment to accomplishing some great thing for God. The participants are encouraged “to expand their vision” and commit to doing zealous exploits for God. At one point in the program, the participants are encouraged to share with the whole group the exploit they will passionately pursue for God. And this young fellow wanted some advice. He didn’t know what he was going to say at that point. I suggested that he consider saying that he is pursuing peace within himself—which is what we had been talking about before the subject of this camp came up.
In the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition, ministries and great works accomplished for God are really quite down-played. You don’t generally hear people talking about their ministries when you get a large group of Orthodox Christians together. It’s not that Orthodox Christians don’t do stuff. They do lots of stuff, stuff that others might call ministry. It’s just that ministry, what one does for or with God in the world, is not a significant measure of spiritual stature in the Orthodox world, it’s not evidence of anything necessarily eternal, it’s not the real work of Christ in the world. In the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition, it’s not the moving of physical, political or social mountains that is most important. What is most important is that one ascend the inner, spiritual mountain with Christ. All that can be seen, all that one does externally is only the context, or perhaps the overflow of this hidden, inner work. External actions are not unimportant or irrelevant—to the contrary. But they are only important in as much as they are a participation in the work of Christ in the world and in as much as they are the external fruit or overflow of inner transformation.
But the tricky thing about outer, observable works or ministries is that they can be deceptive and can even—and perhaps often—become for us an end in themselves or even an idol. And as a result of this misguided zeal without knowledge we, with either slavish obedience or passionate enthusiasm, give ourselves over to the labour and stress of doing ministry to the destruction of our inner peace and life with God. It’s the passion that kills us. It’s the nagging suspicion that if I just worked harder, if I were just more obedient, if I could only just make myself do more (pray harder, work harder, fast harder), if I could just give more of myself than I seem to have, then, then God’s blessing would come and whatever visible results I was looking for would be manifest.
And after that then what? You know there is a popular aphorism that you hear in movies every now and then when the characters are trying to sound religious. It goes something like this: God has given me a certain things to get done on this earth…. They say things like this in movies because it is what many of us think, and even say. I have personally heard many Christians of various kinds (including Orthodox) say something like this.
I can only guess why contemporary Christians feel compelled to think of their relationship with God in this world in terms of getting things done. It might have to do with the pervasiveness of the Protestant Work Ethic as it is drummed into us by the economic realities of our age. But however it has come about, the worship of Mammon has come to dictate how we worship our Father in heaven. The same passion that our employers expect us to manifest in our service to the company, we now have come to assume God wants from us. We want to serve God as if He were our heavenly employer, not our heavenly Father. We want to offer God the sacrifice of idols, like the Old Testament Israelites trying to appease God by offering their Children as sacrifice—a worship practice they learned from their neighbours. And you know, sacrificing children is not too far off. How many marriages have been destroyed by priests and pastors passionately pursuing their ministry? How many sons and daughters have been sacrificed on the false altar of working harder, pushing harder, praying harder. This is not as it should be.
Perhaps instead of expanding our vision of ministry, it’s time that we all had a serious contraction of our vision. Perhaps, as I have heard my bishop say more than once, I just need to work on saving myself. Perhaps that by itself is a big enough vision for me.
Now if by chance any non-Orthodox Christian reads this, I need to explain that what I mean by “save” here is much more than to “accept” Christ. To be saved, from an Orthodox Christian perspective, means to be transfigured in Christ. To be saved is much more than the forgiveness of sin, although it certainly includes that. To be saved is to cooperate with the gift of God’s Grace in my life so that the Old Man (my broken, sinful and false self) is passing away and the New Man (my Spirit-filled, Christlike self) is growing stronger.
However, as I have written about a lot lately, this process of transformation doesn’t feel like getting stronger. It feels like you are becoming more and more aware of your weakness, your sin, and your brokenness. Isn’t this what we read in the lives of the saints? Isn’t this what St. Paul tells us over and over again in his epistles: “I glory in my weaknesses” and “I am the chief of sinners”? Saving oneself means to cooperate with the transforming Grace of God so that I become different, so that I become more like Christ, more full of the the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And as the Holy Spirit works on us and begins to lift us up a little, we see more and more clearly than we ever had before what depths of sin we are wallowing in. And so saving ourselves is a much bigger vision than any of us realize at the beginning, which is why it’s not really a contraction of vision. It is probably more accurate to say it is a refocusing of vision. It is a focusing of our vision on the one thing we do have a certain amount of control over in this world: on ourselves.
Of course focusing on saving ourselves does not mean that we no longer do stuff. It does not mean that we no longer have things we do in the world, ministries we nurture, people we care for or labor we work hard to accomplish for Christ’s sake. There’s always work, hard work to do. There are always needs to be met and jobs to be done. Since the Fall, this is how things have been set up in this world—all profit requires hard work. But we know, especially in Christian ministry, and this also applies in any endeavour in life, we know that all we can do is work hard. In the end, the results are up to God. All we can do is prepare the field and sow the seed—God gives the increase, or not. And so our success in our relationship with God cannot be measured by what we can see, by the success of our ministry, by the numbers, by the metrics of this world. We work hard at whatever our hands find to do, but as to visible, measurable success, that’s God’s department.
However, what we can influence, what’s in our department so to speak, is our own repentance, our own inner life, our own striving to “put on Christ.” And this, if we are successful here, is what will eventually make a difference in the world. Feeding the hungry or preaching to thousands means absolutely nothing, if I cannot or if I am not feeding my own hungry soul, if I cannot practice myself what I preach to others. What is a passionate pursuit of a ministry for Christ, if I am left less like Christ, if I can no longer find peace in my own heart? What does it mean to say that you love the world for Christ when you cannot love your own wife and children? “What does it profit a man,” Jesus said, “to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Sometimes I have wondered if the “Strong delusion” St. Paul speaks of in 2 Thessalonians chapter two is not something like this very thing. I wonder if the pursuit of signs and measurable results, the application of market principles and metaphors, market strategies and emphases to the Church, to the work of Christ in the world, I wonder if this isn’t the “Strong delusion” St. Paul speaks of. By perusing signs and wonders, by passionately giving ourselves to external activities with measurable results (no matter how “Christian” they seem to be) as if we were actually giving ourselves to Christ by focusing our attention on what is outside us, could we not be actually missing the one thing needful, the one thing that gives meaning to everything else, the one thing that we will actually take with us into the age to come. And what is that? It is our transfigured soul. That’s what we will take with us: who we are, not what we have done.
Jesus Himself tells us that on the Last Day many will come to Him saying, “Have we not done this or that in your name? Have we not worked passionately for you, have we not prophesied, have we not done miracles, have we not moved mountains in your name?” “Many,” Jesus said, will come to him proclaiming all that they have done in His name. But what is Christ’s fearsome response to those who try to base their relationship with God on what they have done? His response is to command them to depart for He had never known them. On that Last Day, it’s not what we have done for Christ that will matter. What will matter is that we have known Him. What will matter is that we have focused on the one thing needful, on the hidden man of the heart.
May God help us all to shift our focus onto the one thing needful.