I’ve just had a very merry Christmas. It was about as perfect as they come. My daughter and her family came for a week (five children, including eleven-month old twins). The services were beautiful and well attended. And it snowed enough to feel Christmassy, but not so much that you couldn’t get out of the house and take the kids to the zoo, or McDonalds, or whatever might give mom a break for an hour or two. It was truly an ideal Christmas. Nevertheless, there was something that was bothering me, something I knew I would have to write about—that’s what I do. I write about what’s bothering me. It’s therapy, maybe even prayer.
I’ve been thinking about deceit. Deceits, really. As St. Paul says in the second chapter to the Colossians, “Beware lest any one take you prey through philosophy or empty deceits.” The past few years I have watched several friends and loved ones being taken prey—the word is more like ‘plunder’ or ‘booty’; I have watched feeling helpless as people I care about are plundered by empty deceits. One common deceit is sexual immorality—homosexuality seems to have been disproportionately popular among my acquaintances. Then there’s the lure of false religion—one apparently devout friend of mine converted to Islam (he assures me that Islamic theology makes much more sense than Orthodox Christian theology). Most are plundered by the more wide-spread and socially acceptable form of this deceit: atheism—not necessarily hard-core, there-is-no-god atheism, although I did have one teenage acquaintance choose that form of atheism, but I think he is just working through his personal and family issues and will eventually either return to the Church or settle into the more logically defensible and much more popular form of atheism called agnosticism, which is practical atheism without so much angry baggage.
Whatever sort of deceit one falls prey to, the symptoms seem almost always to be the same: the person reports that he or she is happier than ever, more at peace, and very confident that his or her new path or relationship is the right one. But isn’t that exactly the problem with deceit? It is so deceitful. One who is deceived doesn’t know that he or she has been deceived. If they knew, it wouldn’t be a deceit. That’s probably why St. Paul tells the Colossians to “beware.” If you could see it coming, it wouldn’t be a deceit. And we need to keep in mind that St. Paul is writing to baptized, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing Orthodox Christians. He tells them, “Beware.” Of course the secular deceits I cited above are not the only sorts of vain, or empty, deceits out there. There are also the more churchy deceits such as striving to practice an Orthodox faith that’s more Orthodox than your priest or bishop, or the deceit of being so certain that the way you are doing or seeing things is the right, Orthodox way, so certain that you stoop to manipulation, deception and coercion to get others to do things the “Orthodox” way that seems right to you. I am reminded of the proverb that says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (14:12). Or the warning in Ecclesiastes (7:16) not to be overly righteous lest you destroy yourself—and perhaps destroy a few others too.
So how do you know? If deception is so deceptive, how does one know if one is being deceived? Well, in my experience, one cannot know, not for certain. In fact, unless one is already a saint, the safest route is to assume that one is—to one extent or another—constantly being attracted by empty deceits, constantly toying with them, being tempted by them and even being caught up into one empty deceit or another. In fact, one of the features you find in the sayings of many saints is a deep awareness of their own susceptibility to deceptive temptations. I would go so far as to speculate that one of the prerequisites for developing genuine Christian discernment it to realize that you can be, have been and probably are deceived right now in one way or another.
It seems to me that there are two common features in every empty deceit. The first is that it is empty, spiritually empty. However, if one is not paying much attention to the inner man, if one’s attention is directed outward, toward thoughts and ideas, toward bodily and emotional needs and desires, or toward the cares of this life, then one would certainly not notice that an empty deceit is empty. The healing of our souls takes place as we learn to focus our attention on our hearts: keeping our mind in our heart as St. Theophan the Recluse so often puts it. And, by the way, by ‘heart’ the Church is not referring to the seat of our emotions, but rather to the centre of our being—not the “I” who is sad or happy, but the “I” who notices that I am sad or happy, the deeper heart where I dwell with Christ.
But if we have not practiced ourselves in the habit of keeping our mind in our heart, then we may not notice at all when Christ is absent there. And if your prayer life is anything like mine—distracted, inconsistent and shallow—then the actual experience of having my mind in my heart is much less common than my experience of having my mind just about anywhere else but my heart. And so, there can be long stretches—days, weeks, maybe longer—stretches of time when I can be completely captivated by an empty deceit before I start to notice that I am empty. The God whom I’ve been ignoring is not there to be found when I start again to look for Him. [Important note: This language of the absence or presence of God in our hearts is, of course, metaphorical. God is everywhere present, even in the hearts of those who try really hard to ignore Him. However, by speaking of the absence of God, the Church fathers are, I think, referring to the same thing St. Paul was speaking of when he spoke of “quenching the Spirit” or “hardening your heart.”]
The other aspect of empty deceit that I have noticed is that it almost always feels right. Those of you who have read much of what I write know that I often say that being right, or feeling that one is right, is the most dangerous spiritual place one can be in. If you are absolutely confident that you are right (about almost anything), then with St. Paul I would warn you: Beware lest you be taken (or have been taken) prey by philosophy or empty deceits. Even the Apostles doubted. It says in the famous Great Commission passage at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel that when Jesus appeared to His Disciples after the Resurrection “some doubted.” Thomas was not the only one; he’s just the most famous. Some doubted. If the very Apostles of Christ experienced doubt, I think we should be very suspicious if we sinners who have not walked with Jesus and seen His miracles with our own eyes for three years, if we ourselves do not also experience doubt. Doubt and confusion seem to me to be evidence that one is not deceived, or evidence that one is resisting deception—at least so long as one remains in the community of believers as he or she struggles to believe. St. Thomas doubted, but eight days later, he is still with the others. At some level, he trusted those who believed even though he himself could not.
When someone is certain, certain about almost anything, that’s when I get nervous. To feel absolutely certain about one’s faith is, in my experience, a warning sign that one may have fallen prey to philosophy or empty deceit. Another symptom of having fallen prey to philosophy or empty deceit is lack of conflict. This is often misunderstood as peace. When things are going pretty much your way, when you are generally happy all of the time, when you really like your life the way it is, when you like all of your friends and all of your friends like you, then I would again join St. Paul and say beware. Jesus said to his disciples, “In this world you will have tribulation.” If you are not experiencing tribulation, you may not be living as a disciple. A metaphor common in this region is that only dead salmon go with the flow. The living ones are constantly fighting the current, which I liken to the spirit of this age.
Another version of this experience of peace as lack of conflict is being happy. Now, happiness is not bad. We were created to be happy in our relationships with God and with one another. However, there is a form of happiness that one experiences when you just cave into your lusts and follow the path of least resistance. It’s a feeling of relief, a feeling of freedom. If your happiness is based on feelings such as these, then I would warn you with St. Paul, beware. If, however, you feel constrained by your conscience, if you seem to be always resisting temptation, if it’s often hard for you to do the right thing, then I would suggest that you are probably not waking in deception. You are probably on the right path.
Living for Christ as an Orthodox Christian, loving those near us, and resisting sin is never easy. Jesus told us it would not be easy. The Apostles told us it would not be easy. The saints tell us again and again that the path they walked to holiness is not an easy one. Therefore if you struggle, rejoice. You are probably treading the same path the saints walked. You’re probably not deceived.