You will often hear people speak of the importance of having balance in our lives. And generally speaking, it is a good idea to have a balanced life. This is especially true if by having balance in our lives we mean that we try to avoid extreme attitudes or behaviours. However, the trouble with the concept of having balance in our lives is that it is not a Christian concept. That’s not to say that the concept is not useful to Christians. It can be quite useful in some contexts to think of having balance in one’s life. It can be useful especially in identifying when something is wrong in our life—when we feel that our life is out of balance. Nevertheless, using the concept of balance as a criterion for the Christian life can also be dangerous.
The first reason why balance as a criterion for healthy Christian living can be dangerous is that it is much too self conscious. We live in the self-help age, in the age of the selfie. Our cultural milieu has taught us not only that we can change ourselves and change our destiny, but that it is our responsibility to improve our lives and our selves. “You can be who you want to be, you can improve, you can change,” we are told explicitly; and implicitly we hear just as loudly, “If something is wrong or out of balance in your life, it’s your own fault.” The onus for change is on ourselves, and the gospel of this age is that you can change, you can improve, if only you want it badly enough and are willing to work hard enough. And while the steady drum beat of this message of our age does have a certain truth to it, a certain basic common sense, it is not at all a Christian message. But influenced by this cultural drum beat of self improvement, Christians often feel compelled to take spiritual selfies, to try self consciously to evaluate their inner life and to determine what they need to do to improve it. This, according to the Orthodox Christian tradition, is a very dangerous thing to be doing.
The Christian message is not: “Take a good look at yourself, see where you are out of balance and adjust your life to find the right balance.” The Christian message is not to look to ourselves at all, but to look to Christ. The problem with looking for balance in our lives is that it takes our eyes off Christ and shifts our focus onto ourselves, not our true selves, but onto our outer selves, our persona(s), what the Scripture calls the old man. Looking for balance in one’s life is a terribly self-conscious activity and sometimes looks a great deal like just plain old egoism. There’s a certain arrogance in looking for balance in one’s life. It is the arrogance of thinking that you see your inner life clearly, that you know yourself thoroughly, that you have a good grasp on your strengths and weaknesses, that how you see yourself is exactly how others should see you (and if they don’t see you that way, it’s because something is wrong with them!)
But we don’t see ourselves clearly. According to the Christian Gospel, who we are is a mystery. We know that we were created good, but that we are now fallen, terribly fallen. We know that we are not yet who we shall be, but that when we see Him we will be like Him (1 John 3:2). We know that if we think we know anything, we do not yet know as we ought to know (1 Cor. 8:2). We know that through the Scripture—and by extension through the Liturgy and the other spiritual helps the Church has handed down to us—we know that through these we can see ourselves, our inner selves, our true selves, albeit darkly, as in a mirror; but that as soon as we look away (as soon as our minds are distracted), we forget what we look like (1 Cor. 13:12; James 1:22 ff). Jesus said that our inner eyes can occasionally have splinters, but that they most often have logs in them, and that our eye can be dark, and even evil. No, the Christian message is not to see what’s wrong, what’s out of balance in your life and to fix it yourself. The Christian message is to look to Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith.
Another problem with the concept of a balanced life is that it assumes that our real lives are made up of many binary continuums. That is, it assumes that life is full of binary stresses that must be balanced, as though the right way is exactly in between two wrong ways. Now certainly the Scripture and the Church Fathers teach us to avoid errors to the left and to the right; however, that does not mean that the royal way is at some self-determined midpoint between two perceived errors. Binary concepts are useful in helping us understand the nature of extremes: Light and darkness, good and evil, selfishness and generosity. However, they do not help us find the right way. The Christian path is not precisely between darkness and Light, it is from darkness toward Light.
And besides this, our real life, not the conceptualized ideal life we may have in our head, our real life is so complicated that we are almost never presented with clear binary choices. Very seldom are A and Z clear options so that we can confidently choose M and N at the balance point. For example, in real life extreme attention and care for my child when she is three years old might be exactly what’s called for, but the same level of attention and care would be “unbalanced” when she is twelve or eighteen. But where do you cross the line? Is there a line? How do I know the right work/family-life/self-care balance when the needs, demands and responsibilities in each of these areas is constantly changing. As I said above, the concept of life being out of balance can be very helpful; but for Christians, correcting an out of balance life does not happen by finding balance. It happens by finding Jesus; or more specifically, it develops as we return to our hearts, by finding our hearts—the place where Christ dwells within us and where we are most truly ourselves.
Another problem with the concept of balance is that almost all of the examples that the Church sets before us of holy men and women are examples of saints who lived lives that by most standards would not be considered balanced. Is it balanced to spend one’s life in a dessert, eating and sleeping as little as possible so that one can pray without ceasing? Is it balanced to spend one’s life with almost no personal possessions caring for the poor and dying in Calcutta? And even what we might consider a “normal” Christian life would be considered by many in the world to be extreme, to be out of balance: going to Church every Sunday and major feast day, volunteering to chant or serve or to wash and clean and care for the Church building and property, giving ten percent of your income to the Church and other gifts and offerings to the poor, spending significant time each day (or most days) praying or reading spiritual books. And then there are the commandments of the Gospel such as to love your enemy and to leave all to follow Christ. There is nothing balanced about the teaching of Jesus. And in the eyes of the world, even a moderately pious Christian life seems to be unbalanced.
Extremes, while often unhealthy, are sometimes the most healthy path we can follow. But how can we know. How can we know if a way of life is healthy, even if it may be considered extreme by some others? Certainly, at least for the Christian, we do not know the right path by means of self-conscious introspection, that is not how we know what may or may not be a healthy extreme in our life. We cannot find a healthy Christian life by finding balance in some self-conscious way. To be a Christian is to follow Christ, and to follow Christ we must turn our attention to Christ in our heart. And to learn how to do that, we need the Church; we need the guidance of the Tradition that has helped millions before us to find Christ and to follow Him. We cannot do it on our own. If we try to do it on our own, we fall into delusion: we end up self-consciously picking apart our own interior life leading either to despair, or worse, to the delusion of thinking that we are really a spiritual person.
And so, to sum up, although the concept of balance in one’s life is not a Christian concept, it can be useful, especially in noticing that something is wrong. However, Christians are not called to find balance in their life. They are called to find and follow Christ. The Church exists to help people follow Christ, which is not possible for one to do on his or her own. The Church provides us with texts and liturgies in which—even if for a brief moment—we can see ourselves, or aspects of ourselves a bit more clearly. It provides mentors, spiritual mothers and fathers, who give us specific guidance and help along the way. It provides examples in the lives of the saints. And, perhaps most importantly, the Church provides intercession. The prayers of the Church, of the Mother of God, of the saints both living on earth now and of those in heaven already, it is the intercessory prayers of all the family of God’s people that make it possible for any of us to be saved. There are no solitary Christians (even hermits are surrounded by the Church). We are a body, the Body of Christ; and we need one another, for without the other, I am not myself.