The Gospel for last Wednesday’s services (new readers: the weekly prayer services and Scripture studies are on Wednesday evenings up at the Big House) was an excerpt from Luke 16, the parable of the unprofitable steward. This got us talking about the courage to do things on Earth that will store up Heavenly blessings for our souls. Doing works that bear good fruit. It’s a frequent theme, and with good reason. Orthodox Christians believe in synergistic salvation, which is to say that we require God’s grace and mercy for salvation and cannot earn it on our own merits, but we are expected to cooperate with God’s grace and act accordingly.
A defense of synergistic salvation is beyond the scope of this post. If you’re still with me, good!
There are two major errors we can make in our quest to behave according to God’s commands. (Actually, there are probably more, but I’m going to write about two of them.)
Cowardice is the more obvious of the two. God’s holy laws have always been unpopular in the world, and they will always be unpopular in the world. To be a Christian is to go against the grain, to swim up stream against a mighty torrent of opposition that all too often includes our own will. It is a radical thing. It’s easier not to bother with it, and we are frightfully adept at generating excuses for our spinelessness. We adroitly twist Scripture for our own purposes, including the words of Christ Himself. Consider Matthew 6: 5-6:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly I say to you that they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father Who is in the secret place, and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you openly.
The cowardly soul quotes this passage and others like it as an attempt to justify spiritual sloth and inaction – and not only that, but to subtly imply that any Christian whose good deeds are visible is a vainglorious Pharisee, not someone whose righteousness puts the slothful to shame. Did you catch that? They’re sneaky monkeys. Fortunately, the corrective is right here:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Let me break it down for ya. Let me be abundantly clear.
We are commanded to do righteous works as a grateful response to God’s undeserved grace, and as an evangelical act. Do not run from opportunities to do good in front of others, but refrain from doing so because others are there.
On to egomania.
Egomania is pride by another name and, therefore, the most pernicious of sins because it is the original sin. Lucifer rebelled against God because he wanted to be God, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Egomania is often difficult to detect because we love it so much. So great is our kinship with this wickedness that we initially find it almost impossible to be alarmed by it. If we persevere in prayer, however, God eventually blesses us with the understanding that we have to change our lives dramatically. We gradually stop loving our sins and start replacing them with activities and thoughts with greater spiritual benefit. So far so good. We develop a warmth of heart toward our neighbor and desire to help her find the spiritual comfort of holy peace. This love of neighbor blossoms into a desire to impact the community – even the world – for Christ with our good example.
Woah. Back that trolley up.
Did you catch it?
This love of neighbor blossoms into a desire to impact the community – even the world – for Christ with our good example.
Uh-oh, spaghetti-o’s. This is where that selfless ivory tower comes crashing down.
Read any treatise on Orthodox monasticism and you will learn that one of the greatest temptations facing monks (especially newer ones) is this inner voice that whispers, “You have the potential to do so much good in the world! Leave this monastery and go back to your city and set a good example for everyone around you.” The Holy Fathers counsel that this suggestion is not from God, but from demons who wish to thwart the monk’s attempt to live the angelic life. (Note to non-Orthodox: by the “angelic life” we mean monasticism, which is an angelic existence within the bonds of created time that prepares the monastic to life the angelic life in eternity).
Such thoughts are dangerous, not because it is wrong to do good in the world, but because most of us don’t do it for the only acceptable reasons – to glorify God and save the souls of others around us. Lamentably, when we say, “I love others and want to help them by setting a good example that they can admire and emulate,” what we actually mean is “I am addicted to the approval of others and I desire to manipulate them into parroting my behavior.”
The sting in a rebuke is the truth. – Benjamin Franklin