Giving Yourself Up

There are probably various reasons as to why people do not trust in God but trust in themselves or in the world. I suspect some people are defiant and want what they want, some are greedy and want more and more, some are envious and want what you have, and some are spiritually hollow and live in a constant state of want no matter how much they accumulate. Then, there are some people who are traumatized from past betrayals and who fear to trust anyone ever again — including God.

Wheat Field with Cypresses (July version), by Vincent van Gogh

St. John of Kronstadt wrote about trusting in God, giving oneself up to Him, rather than focusing on the acquisition of wealth and finding happiness in the things money can buy. I divided the following quotation into paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Give yourself up entirely to God’s providence, to the Lord’s Will, and do not grieve at losing anything material, nor in general at the loss of visible things; do not rejoice at gain, but let your only and constant joy be to win the Lord Himself. Trust entirely in Him: He knows how to lead you safely through this present life, and to bring you to Himself — into His eternal Kingdom.

From want of trust in God’s providence many and great afflictions proceed: despondency, murmurings, envy, avarice, love of money or the passion for amassing money and property in general, so that it may last for many years, in order to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy; from want of trust in God’s providence proceed in particular afflictions such as arise, for instance: from some loss of income through our own oversight, from the loss of objects, specially valuable and necessary, as well as immoderate joy at recovering some objects, or at receiving some large income or gain, or some profitable place or employment.

We, as Christians, as “fellow citizens with the Saints and of the household of God: (Ephesians 2: 19), ought to commit all our life, together with all its sorrows, sickness, griefs, joys, scarcities and abundance unto Christ our God.

St. John of Kronstadt
My Life in Christ, pp. 251, 252

In general, as a lifestyle or emphasis, amassing money and possessions is contrary to trusting in God. That is, trusting in oneself and focusing on the ways of the world rather than turning to the God Who created us. We might say that we find happiness in whatever it is that we trust in — except that trust in self and world is misapplied and temporal, and therefore ultimately disappointing and even ruinous. St. John connects lack of trust in God to various forms of distress and affliction — I think not as a punishment from God but as the natural progression of that which is prone to instability and deterioration.

St. John reminds us that we belong to the household of God with all the saints. It follows, then, to give ourselves up to God, to do His will which can only benefit us, and to commit any needs or abundance into the service of Christ in Whom we live and have our being. Thus, whatever our financial status, whatever our health, whatever the betrayals of the past, we are restored and fulfilled only in Christ Who is worthy of trust and Who offers us the Eternal Kingdom. There is nothing else to want and no other true happiness.

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A Labor of Love

We sometimes speak of a labor of love, usually in terms of a personal characteristic or a category of work, and without awareness of the biblical validation of the concept.

Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God our Father…

I Thessalonians 1: 3 [KJV]

For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.

Hebrews 6: 10 [KJV]

Generally, we think of a labor of love as something for which we do not get paid. Or, as something which is labor-intensive — we get paid very little compared to the number of hours we put into it. Some jobs are that way, such as teaching, nursing, and social work. Some forms of self-support are also that way, such as handicrafts and various arts. At the opposite end, there are some jobs that pay far above the required knowledge and skills, such as professional sports and the entertainment industry.  Earnings, therefore, are often based on society’s values and desires and not on the hours of labor or the results of that labor.

Let us, then, seek to understand a labor of love as a spiritual quality, as something we do for God and for the upbuilding of the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul tells us that God accepts, actually never forgets, any labor which is done in His Name and for his people. We might say that any work should be a labor of love inasmuch as what we do, whether paid or unpaid or underpaid, whether on our earthly jobs or directly for the Church, should be to the glory of God.

Christ Himself acknowledged a difference between working for material things, perhaps even for mere survival, and working for that which is eternal.

“Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”

John 6: 27 [KJV]

Some people work only for money, whether in a survival mode or in the pursuit of wealth for its own sake and for the purpose of obtaining things of fleeting satisfaction. Of course, we need money and we have to work for it. But our labor, in order to be fruitful for the Kingdom, must be invested with love and without compartmentalizing our lives into what is spiritual and what is mundane.

A teacher, for example, must be a teacher because God has called him or her to express the Faith in that way — to shape young minds in an academic and ethical manner and to serve as an example of Christian virtues. Moreover, the teacher who is a Christian, or rather the Christian who is a teacher, must also labor for everlasting life which is attained only through Christ. All facets of living, on and off the job, must be in alignment with whatever promotes everlasting life.

A labor of love is rewarded beyond money, for it is rewarded by the God Who sees and hears everything we do and say. This is not Pollyannaish, nor is this to justify or overlook the hardships of a low-paying job, but it is to focus on the truths of the Gospel and the righteousness of God. We do not conduct ourselves according to the impure standards of the world, but according to whatever is good, right, and true. This might mean having to steer the course of our lives through unfair systems, to cope with lack of friendships among peers, and to manage financially within a simple lifestyle.

Until the End

Even if you are the most empathic person, you cannot thoroughly understand the travails of old age until you arrive there yourself. Old age involves the passing of time or, rather, the approaching of the end of time, which is truly difficult to comprehend when you are young or middle-aged. Time brings emotional losses and physical deterioration, whether it seems to happen overnight or it gradually becomes the bulk of one’s life. Yet, spiritually, we continue forward through the remainder of our years and even achieve victory over our losses and in the face of deterioration.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

I Corinthians 15: 55-58 [KJV]

For many years, my favorite Bible passage was Philippians 4:8, “…whatsoever things are true…think on these things.” It gave me permission to consider all sources of truth, goodness, virtue, and to denounce any preferences for fanaticism, supremacy, trendiness. However, the passage from First Corinthians propels us beyond permission or authorization. It gives us encouragement or reassurance, telling us to be abundant in our pursuits — for victory is ours. That is, when we say and do everything for Christ and in Christ.

When you get old, time and labor are measured by the days and deeds of yesteryear. There is fatigue — not like the satisfying expenditure of energy in one’s youth — but a general slowing-down that says you cannot go on much longer and the end is near. There is a tendency to look back on the history of one’s own life, at those decades of survival in the world as well as dedication to Christ, and to try and make sense of it as a whole. Because, it all led to this present moment of reflection, to this instant in old age, and there is the sudden realization that one is called to be unmovable in faith and abundant in spirituality nonetheless — and to go forward to total victory.

The labor of the past was not in vain, not if it was done in purity of heart, according to the will of God, for the sake of the Kingdom, to the benefit of Church and mankind, and in Christ. Even if our labor failed in any of these dimensions, repentance and transformation of the whole is still possible — this I believe, for healing is life-giving and boundless, and there is victory over all nuances of sin and every trace of decay and death.

Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

Yes, you have to enter old age, and maybe that is the great blessing of old age, to really see the contrast between death and life. That is, death as anti-life and anti-Christ, death as ruthlessly against revelation and hope, death as jealously hateful of purity and abundance — and life as merciful resurrection into the eternal truth and love of Christ.

Faith in Others

One of my psychotherapy patients, years ago, who was a recovering alcoholic, complained to me that his wife had no faith in him. She was not supportive of his efforts to stay sober, and generally treated him as though he were a little boy with grubby hands. His remark surprised me for two reasons. First, his desire for his wife’s faith in him actually seemed more like a demand. His sobriety, after all, was his responsibility. I wondered if he was setting up his next relapse, with the excuse that his wife drove him to it. Second, I thought people should have faith only in God, and that faith in another person was idolization or maybe infatuation.

It was only after I entered my senior years that I found myself in situations where those of the younger generation seemed to need or want me to have faith in them. That is, a trust or confidence in their abilities, perception or insight into their potential, and even a sort of blessing upon their existence and their value or purpose. Such faith was actually the core of the relationship, a basic dynamic between the old and the young, a contrast between life gone by and life yet to be lived, something beyond being supportive, and a matter of affirming and nourishing the reality of goodness and fruitfulness.

Some people are vulnerable or innocent in that way. Nowadays, or over the past few years, those are the people I seem to encounter.  In other words, the ones who are open to love, who have room in their life for love and for more love, and who relate to me as an older person — as though I were always this old. They do not demand, but seem to hope for or anticipate validation by someone who has survived that which is still ahead of them. I am slowly learning that they are images of the God in Whom I have faith and therefore that faith must be shared in them.

The following is a quotation from Fr. Thomas Hopko who puts forth that faith in God is very much connected to faith in people.

The foundation of all Christian virtue and life is faith. Faith is the natural possession of all men who are wise and virtuous. For if a person lacks faith in man’s ability to know, to do good and to find meaning in life; if he does not believe that this is possible, profitable and worthy of man’s efforts, then nothing wise or virtuous can be achieved. The striking characteristic of all prophets of doom, apostles of despair and preachers of absurdity is the absence of faith in man’s capabilities for goodness and truth, and the absence of faith in the meaning and value of life. It is also an absence of faith in God.

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. IV, Spirituality, 1976 (p. 58)

People are to be valued, and not because they are worthy or perfect, but because God has given us certain capabilities — even if latent or grubby in the unfortunate, even if already fairly accomplished in the advantaged, and we have to take our place in humanity and fulfill goodness and truth in our own lives and nourish it in the lives of others. If we have faith in God, then let us invest that faith in those precious souls who look to us to verify and endorse life and love. If they perceive the image of God in us, despite our flaws, then let us respect His image in them and interact in faith.

For Everyone

I have tried over and over to analyze it, hoping to figure out the viewpoint of someone who would say such a thing. But, after sorting through my thoughts and feelings, and having re-stabilized myself, I decided to bypass the analysis and simply refute the following statement:

The Orthodox Church is not for you.

A member of the Orthodox Church said that to me. And, I have a response:

The Orthodox Church is for everyone.

Christ died for everyone. If the Orthodox Church is the True Church, then, in fact, there is no other place for people. Otherwise, the disqualified must go to the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. That, in turn, is the same as saying there are legitimate alternatives to pure and total truth. Now, I personally love some aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism, and I love the people, but it is only the Orthodox Church which offers the one and complete body of Christianity.

Little Russia, by Ora Coltman [a view of St. Theodosius Orthodox Church, Cleveland]

As an antidote, I found a very different remark from Metropolitan Joseph of  the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

THOUGHTS FROM METROPOLITAN JOSEPH ON EVANGELISM

A preacher doesn’t need to have all the knowledge of this world, but to be faithful and honest in what he is saying. The most eloquent homily we can give to the faithful is this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I love you and I pray for you.’

If you desire to grow in your relationship with God, fall on your knees in repentance, then stand up and get to work. We have much to do.

Whereas the ancient city of Antioch was a place where many races coexisted in peace, so we build the new Antioch here in America, embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.

If we do not have Christian love, if we have no long-term vision of evangelization and education, if we cannot see our parish’s calling to minister to the spiritually sick and suffering, then we will be slaves to petty arguments and pride.

URL: http://antiochian.org/missions

If I may humbly add to the above, I would say that “petty arguments and pride” might also include puritanical protectionism or separatism. My disturbing experience showed me that, even in this new evangelistic era, there is still a certain bias as to who is regarded as acceptable.  Yet, I consider myself Orthodox and I am trying to do my part, by writing this essay, to affirm “embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.“

If you have ever been viewed as disqualified, then know that you are not destined for hell just because of one person’s opinion. The Orthodox Church is not for you sounds like a judgment, probably based on a distorted or fragmented perception of Orthodoxy as well as a failure to see the image of God in you. Ultimately, however, you can use this unfortunate experience as an opportunity to suffer for Christ, to increase your understanding of theology, and to deepen your faith.

It is the Day of Resurrection, so let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us speak, brothers and sisters, also to those who hate us, and in the Resurrection let us forgive everything, and so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Paschal Chant

A Christian Response

A Christian Response to Extremist Ideologies and Terrorist Attacks

1) To pray for the world, to be a people of right worship, and to turn to God first in all situations and for all things.

2) To see the image of God in all people, to love but not facilitate enemies, to desire the welfare and salvation of all races and cultures, and to affirm the Church and protect civilization.

3) To be lights shining in the darkness, to be examples of true religion, to be a culture of life, to prohibit and prevent actions which are destructive or deadly to human life, and to refute falsehood wherever we find it.

4) To maintain our religious beliefs and civilized values with absolutely no resignation to terrorism as inevitable or as something that unites us and makes us strong.

5) To love children, to prioritize the protection of children from terrorist violence as well as from extremist brainwashing, pornography, kidnappings, and slavery.

6) To hold elected officials accountable by voting, sending letters and e-mails, and through social media.

7) To define current multicultural tolerance as oppressive to a free society, subversive to democracy, and as anti-Christianity, anti-Western civilization, and anti-American.

8) To become aware of multiculturalism instruction and tendencies in the public school system, to read our children’s textbooks and monitor their homework, and to voice any concerns to teachers and principals.

9) To align with other cultures and religions which uphold values similar to ours.

10) To find ways to support the families and loved ones of terrorist victims and to support first-responders.

11) To report any suspicious person or activity to authorities — if you see something, say something.

12) To denounce those who misinterpret the Bible to support submission to immoral leadership or inhumane policies, or who misinterpret the Psalms to justify personal vengeance.

Children as Targets

The title of this essay could have been, “The Vulnerable and Innocent as Targets of the Self-Righteous and Envious.” It has always seemed to me that terrorists are essentially self-righteous at the core of their character and as a basis for social cohesion. They are good and right and you are bad and wrong and therefore you are offensive and must be dominated or annihilated. That is their sense of logic. Intimately woven into pervasive self-righteousness is an envy of anyone with real accomplishments, particularly people and nations which do not share in their extremist value system.

We might say that the quality of innocence is also offensive to the radical agenda. Children are to be brainwashed and forced to continue the ideology into the next generation. That is to say, their children. Our children, however, are to be killed in order to terrorize and demoralize us into non-resistance if not total submission. The targets of terrorist violence have always been weak or vulnerable, but to target young people is utilitarian at a depraved level. The youngest person killed in Manchester, U.K., was an eight-year old girl. Just a little girl who had gone to a concert with her mother and sister, not knowing how offensive her favorite music was to the self-righteous and envious. Twelve of those killed were under the age of sixteen.

If the targeting of children continues, there will be woe many times over. There will be funeral after funeral. Families will be forever altered. Classmates will be devastated. Commentators will continue to analyze an extremist culture which simply does not think or act in normal ways. Let us hope that a strategy  will be developed to end terrorism — hope, and hold our elected officials accountable. Let us pray that all children, theirs and ours, will be spared from brainwashing, violence and slaughter. We must protect childhood according to humanitarian standards. We must not passively accept a world in which the killing of children is the new and inevitable normal, and in which multiculturalism makes excuses for terrorists and protects their so-called rights.

Unworthy Servants

People were meant to work, to do something, to focus their energy into fruitfulness. Even prayer is an activity inasmuch as it involves a concentration of one’s vitality into worship and intercession. Yet, the Bible tells us that, despite our efforts and achievements, we are unworthy servants. We have only done what God has called us to do and enabled us to do.

The verse related to this is from Luke 17: 10.

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ [RSV]

So with you: when you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.” [The Jerusalem Bible-1966]

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all these things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. [KJV]

In an effort to understand this verse, I jotted down some ideas and notes.

  • We are undeserving of tribute or awards, for we only did the work we were called to do. Our work is vital, but it does  not make us special or any better than others who are also working. Everyone works according to their gifts and talents, and according to the claim of God upon their life.
  • We are undeserving to do His work, even though we have been called to do it. That is, called forth from our falleness and into His love and unity. Rather than coveting acclamation, our attitude should be one of thanksgiving for the chance to share in and to be a vital member of the whole.
  • Our work should be inspired by love of God, Church, and mankind. A servant does what he is paid to do, and a slave does what he is forced to do. A disciple of Christ does what he is called to do, and this work or activity is in itself a source of happiness and fulfillment.
  • Our work does not make us superior. We cannot do anything without God and we are dependent upon Him no matter how much we accomplish. We are unworthy in a sense of self-idolatry, letting others put us on a pedestal, judging those who seem to have done less, and resting on our laurels.
  • “Our Lord showed his disciples their need of deep humility. The Lord has such a property right in every creature, as no man can have in another; he cannot be in debt to them for their services, nor do they deserve any return from him.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, p. 965.
  • With faith as a grain of mustard seed, we could move mountains.

The word unworthy is not a description of our work or service, but of the status of Christians who have only done what we were supposed to do. Nonetheless, God has deemed us worthy though unworthy to do His work. But to expect exaltation would be presumptuous on our part. The strange thing is not that we are unworthy, but that God has given us something to do and thereby filled our lives with purpose, meaning, direction and completion. He has entrusted us to serve the Church and build up the Kingdom.

Our performance of these duties is not in the detached manner of a paid servant or an abused slave, but we are involved and invested as His children and heirs. It is astounding that God allows us to work, and that with a little faith we could move mountains; and it is shocking that we react with pride rather than humility. God does not owe us anything, and we are not doing Him a favor by believing in Him. We answer God’s calling because life has no significance outside Him, and we do whatever glorifies Him because He alone is worthy and because in this we find our only true happiness.

The Little Country Maid, by Camille Pissarro

Taking Up the Cross

To deny oneself and to take up one’s cross is essential to following Christ in true discipleship.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 16: 24-27 [RSV]

Taking up the cross might involve conditions such as: being misjudged by the world, coping with social exclusion, relinquishing some goals and plans, not insisting on certain ideas or opinions, not resting on past achievements, not coveting what others have, and perhaps actually suffering persecution from schoolmates, colleagues, or the government. In other words, “…not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26: 39). One’s decisions and actions must be in alignment with the Church and in cooperation with the will of God.

This is not a glamorization or self-infliction of suffering for its own sake, but a loving imitation and witnessing of Christ under all circumstances — particularly expressed in the forgiveness of those who trespass against us. It is to be in the world but not of the world — and this has many ramifications which are often unavoidable, beyond our control, and even to be expected. Everything is grist in the process of denying, taking up, and following.

To deny oneself is to reject all forms of self-centeredness such as: self-gratification, self-indulgence, self-justification, self-promotion, self-infatuation, and perhaps likewise any neurotic self-judgment — leaving all judgment to God. It does  not mean to deny the distinctive self that we were created to be or called to be, or the image of God in which we are made. Denial of self pertains to the renunciation of our fallen and corrupted state of self-centeredness. We deny, renounce, and triumph over impurity through Christ. In this sense, self-denial is an affirmation of holiness.

The genuine self is realized by taking up the cross and following Christ — by becoming Christ-like, by living a life pleasing to God, by forgiving others and enduring to the end. The cross is not oppressive or gruesome, but life-giving and victorious. For some people, it may involve sacrificing some of the good things in life in order to more fully embrace the ways of God — but what we have given up will be replenished a hundredfold (Mark 10: 31).

Perhaps the most emotionally disturbing and mentally confusing thing is to carry the cross among one’s own kind: within one’s own church or religion, or inside one’s circle of friends. Perhaps the most spiritually unbalancing thing is to carry the cross before religious authorities and experts. Yet, Christ did all of the above and in the extreme, relying  on God the Father to direct and sustain Him. The saints and martyrs were sometimes criticized, falsely accused, and banished by other Christians — by bishops, priests, monks, as well as by civil authorities and pagans. If we really follow Christ, then we enter into a divine journey of total trust and unceasing prayer as we fulfill God’s purpose in all kinds of places and at all times — and, for each one of us, these will be the most spiritual places and times.

Bearing the Marks

Some people think St. Paul ruined Christianity. Anyway, I have come across postmodernists who view Paul’s epistles as inconsistent with Christ’s teachings, and they conveniently omit that part of the Bible from their beliefs. But then, Paul seems always to have had certain challenges to his apostleship, even to the point of defending himself in frustration.

Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Galatians 6: 17 [RSV]

Paul literally bore marks on His body, for he suffered physical harm as he performed his evangelistic duties. There are persecuted Christians today who likewise bear the marks of Christ on their bodies, as well as suffering damages to their homes and churches. Even in America, there are instances of church arson and shootings, mainly in the southern states. Most of us are more likely to suffer mental and emotional abuses from colleagues or classmates.

However, there are possibly other ways in which we can bear the marks of Christ, conscientiously or proactively. That is, there are ways in which we can demonstrate His love and be recognized as His followers in our everyday relationships and encounters and also in our goals and efforts. To elaborate on this, I am going to connect Paul’s statement with three verses from the Gospels [RSV].

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him and bound up his wounds…

Luke 10: 33-34

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13: 35

Bear fruit that befits repentance…

Matthew 3: 8

St. Paul, by El Greco

There are positive behavioral and social marks of a Christian. These marks — actions and interactions, labor and productivity, purification and transformation — should be the everyday stuff of life along with prayer, reading the Bible, and worshipping in Church. This is how other people, Christians and non-Christians, experience the image of God in us. People may or may not be impressed with domes on church buildings or with three-barred crosses, for these are symbols and not marks. The symbols are important because Christ died on a cross, but He died with marks on His body — the marks of His faithful ministry on earth which was even unto death.

If we do not have compassion like the Good Samaritan as a basic disposition, if we are not emotionally and practically attending to the wounds of the suffering, if we do not express or show love for one another in some way, if our repentance is not manifested in positive changes or outcomes, then, like the postmodernist, we are picking and choosing which parts of religion we want to uphold and which parts to discard.

St. Paul regarded himself as the first among sinners, and yet he loved Christ and was not timid in his expressions of love or in his evangelistic commitment. There was no false humility. To bear the marks of Christ makes us like Him, and like Paul who was like Him. It sets us on an affirmative course, claimed and branded by the message of Christ and not by the deceits of the world.