Attempting to Measure My Post-Lenten Spiritual Progress

Christ is risen!

We’ve made it through the ascetic struggles of Great Lent and Holy Week, entering into the celebration of Pascha, Bright Week, and beyond. Whew! Done! Life moves on at its usual relentless pace.

But now that we’re on the other side of our journey, what is the result? Are we any different?

I always like to measure progress. It’s a very Western thing. We like data, we like numbers, we like finding ways to be efficient and effective. We measure growth in many ways: in terms of sales and market share in the companies we work for; in counting the people showing up on Sundays in our parishes; and with dated hash marks on a door frame to mark our children’s growth in height. So it’s natural to want to measure our spiritual progress too. 

assorted tape measures
[Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash]

Ticking Off Boxes

But the problem with measuring spiritual growth is that it works for the externals, but not really for matters of the heart. When we look back on our Lenten struggle, it’s easy to count the number of days we refrained from meat. We can count the number of times we didn’t quite make it to the weekend for that glass of wine or a cocktail with friends. We can check off our daily prayer rules and the number of church services we attended. Our bank balances tell us how much extra money we gave to those in need.

These things are quantifiable, but they tell us next to nothing about the state of our hearts. Saint Basil the Great in the 4th century noted the danger of these external yardsticks:

Beware of measuring fasting by abstaining from food. Those who abstain from food but behave badly are likened to a devil who, although he does not eat anything, doesn’t stop sinning.

 

[Photo by Miraslavic on Pixabay]

Several years ago a high school girl told me about a mentoring program at her nondenominational church. The leader taught the girls about various disciplines of the Christian life, like prayer and fasting. Then, she required them to turn in a weekly log showing how much time they spent daily on prayer and Bible study, and whether or not they fasted. She would point out with approval the girls whose records were filled out consistently, and she questioned those who had not performed as well. In front of the other girls.

I am not making this up.

I have no idea if the pastor knew what was going on in this so-called “discipleship group,” but I can tell you the lessons that the leader was teaching these girls: Spiritual pride. Judgment of others. Lying as a way to avoid humiliation. The importance of pleasing someone in power rather than seeking Christ.

Although I’m appalled at this program, I’m not sure that I treat myself any differently. I grade myself on tasks accomplished because it’s so much easier to tick off boxes—to complete my fasting, giving, and praying goals for the day—than to repent and seek Christ. And doing well by this sort of measuring, or even doing mostly well, can lead to a puffed-up sense of pride—just as struggling and failing in the externals can cause us to beat ourselves up.

The Church cautions us about these dangers every year before Great Lent begins, with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. But I forget. Those Sundays happened a long time ago, and my habit of measurement is an ingrained one.

The fact is that none of our self-denying feats can tell us if any internal change has occurred. Fasting and other forms of ascesis—the things that we do or refrain from doing, the things that are measurable—are merely tools. They help us to grow in those important areas that are not easily measurable.

How can I tell if my fasting efforts have made me 17% more patient than I was last year? Or if my attendance at Presanctified Liturgies means I am now 8.5% less likely to snap at somebody when I’m stressed? As a result of writing an extra check to the food bank, do I love God at least 1% more than I did last spring?

Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God. — St. John Cassian, 4th  – 5th c.

Faith and Feelings

There is another tempting and imperfect way to measure our spirituality: by our emotions. I have experienced many examples, especially in youth groups but also in adult events, where leaders whipped up an intensity of feeling in the crowd as a way to demonstrate their love for God. Even the vocabulary for seeking God is expressed in emotional terms: being “on fire” for Him or “worshiping in the Spirit” in ecstatic ways. This emphasis on emotion as a measure of our love for Christ can be a temptation especially for people from a charismatic background, but it can happen to any of us. 

And I have never seen a genuine connection between an intensely emotional approach to spirituality and godliness. In fact, I have often observed the opposite, where an emotional faith leads to pride and condemnation of others.

man in white crew neck t-shirt sitting on brown wooden chair
[Photo by Ekoate Nwaforlor on Unsplash]

But sometimes we lose sight of the ends and concentrate on the means. If I measured my closeness to God by my feelings, then I would have to conclude that this Lenten season and Holy Week were personal failures for me. I didn’t feel much of anything, whether joy or love or compunction. I repented, I prayed, I sought the Lord, but I didn’t experience any big, emotional moments.

There are many reasons for this, some of them related to personal struggles. Also, I’m currently on the Parish Council at my church, which means that during many Holy Week services and the Resurrectional Canon and Paschal Divine Liturgy, I was serving at the candle stand or ushering. I could only be partially involved in the worship. Performing these tasks was my small offering to God, but they did put me at a remove during services.

Still, I wasn’t on duty at every service, and during the forty days of the fast I felt more a sense of plowing through than of growing in Christ.

So, what does this mean? Or . . . does it mean anything at all?

Experiencing strong emotional responses to a beautiful hymn in a Bridegroom service, or experiencing a sense of God’s love in a powerful way, can also lead us to pride. We can focus on our feelings, on our responses, more than on God.

Imagining that he loves God, the proud person loves only himself and his emotional sensations, which he prizes above genuine faithfulness and devotion to God. — Archbishop Averky (Taushev), The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, 20th century p.50

No matter how we try to measure spirituality, the pendulum swings from one extreme to another. We emphasize knowledge and deeds, or feelings and experiences.

Newtons, Cradle, Physics, Pendulum, Metal, Balance
[Photo by Quince Creative on Pixabay]

Most of the time, these are all good things. In the Orthodox Church, we are encouraged to read the Scriptures and the words of the Holy Fathers, to study and to contemplate them. And the Church teaches us to draw closer to God through the prayer of the heart.

I can’t speak for others, but I think my concern about grading myself—this constant compulsion to chart my progress—is based in a transactional approach to God and the desire for quick results. If I do X, then God will do Y in my life. If I fast, pray, and give—for 40 days, no less, plus Holy Week!—then God will intervene in a timely fashion.

He may intervene miraculously—I’ve seen Him do so. But any fruits in my life, any acquiring of the virtues, are experienced incrementally over time. And I don’t acquire them by keeping score, but by growing in love.

The perfect person does not only try to avoid evil. Nor does he do good for fear of punishment, still less in order to qualify for the hope of a promised reward. The perfect person does good through love. His actions are not motivated by desire for personal benefit, so he does not have personal advantage as his aim. But as soon as he has realized the beauty of doing good, he does it with all his energies and in all that he does. He is not interested in fame, or a good reputation, or a human or divine reward. The rule of life for a perfect person is to be the image and likeness of God. — St. Clement of Alexandria, 2nd century

I can’t measure my love for God; I’m not sure how I could. Feelings wax and wane. Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me” (John 14:21). Well, sometimes I obey closely; other times I can be thoughtless and distracted. Am I growing in love for others? As soon as I see good signs in one area of my life—say, being patient with someone who is unfair—I become aware of my failings in another, like avoiding someone who talks too much.

Love & Marriage

[Photo by Stokpic on Unsplash]

Jesus is our Bridegroom, and as the Church we are His bride. The metaphor offers us the picture we need. Our love for God is much like love in an enduring marriage: spouses’ knowledge and understanding of each other grow and deepen, along with their love. But we can’t quantify these things, not only because love can’t be measured, but because it is rooted in relationship, which is living, active, and ever-changing. 

So is my relationship with God, with the difference that He doesn’t change. His love is steady and constant, while my love for Him is often two steps forward, one step back.

The tools the Church has provided in Great Lent and other fasting seasons help stretch me and shape me—no yardstick or calculator required. It’s like spiritual exercise. Twenty-five sit-ups won’t change my health, but regular exercise results in increasing fitness. And as I follow the Church’s guidance over time,  I trust that I will draw closer to God on the path to theosis. 

The fruits of the earth are not brought to perfection immediately, but by time, rain and care; similarly, the fruits of men ripen through ascetic practice, study, time, perseverance, self-control and patience. — St. Anthony the Great, 3rd – 4th c.

And so we press forward. Maybe next year I will experience deeply the “bright sadness” of Great Lent and an exceptionally joyous Pascha. Maybe I will do really well in following my prayer rule, in keeping the fast, and in giving sacrificially.

Or, maybe not. As St. Paul writes in Phillippians 3:12–13:

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let’s keep following that upward call together. We’re playing the long game here.

***

Speaking of measuring—or, at least, pondering—our progress, next time we’ll consider the past few years in our societal and spiritual lives in the post,  “The Pandemic Is Kinda Sorta Over. Have We Learned Anything?” I hope you can join me.

 

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for your post!

    I think, if we thought of Lent as re-entering our Baptism, re-entering the catechumenate, then after Lent, Holy Week, Baptism/Pascha/Exodus – where do you end up? Prepared to enter the desert. This is why I regularly try and bring up bringing back the catechumenate. The logic of so much that we do I feel is lost without it. And even if there were no catechumens (which is unlikely right now), there’s no reason this Orthodox imagination couldn’t be re-emphasized: Exodus/Desert/Loyalty or failure/Promised Land or Judgement. Lent is bootcamp to make it in the desert and reach glorification. Bootcamp is supposed to make some habits almost involuntary, just like basic training or training in sports, and when it is wasted as such, it’s mere short-term behavioral modification.

  2. Thank you, Lynette. Your posts speak to me so much. I was wondering why I didn’t “feel” something strong and beautiful during the Pascha service. I was confused. The Lamentation service moved me, so. I was baptized into Holy Orthodoxy last year. I have trouble with the transactional approach to God as you explained.. It pops up everywhere and I don’t know how to eliminate it… except through prayer and fasting. Thank you again… you have helped me understand more things.

    1. Thank you, Maggie! And welcome to the Church. Our feelings come and go, and it’s our faithfulness that matters. Depending on our faith backgrounds and personalities, this can be a difficult idea to embrace. But I think our spirits soak up so much, even when our minds wander. Keep persevering!

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