This is the 2nd blog in this series, the 1st blog being The Purpose of Righteousness. The Psalmist ponders how he almost came himself to unbelief by contemplating how the wicked also can prosper in the world, and at least in this world are not brought to justice even when they defy God (Psalm 72/73). He raises a question which many believers wrestle with: what is the purpose of being righteous if in this world God gives rain and sunshine to those who are good and to those who are wicked? For indeed sometimes, as can readily be observed, the righteous suffer for their goodness and are not blessed, while the unrighteous suffer no ill consequences in this world for their wickedness.
We can see the dilemma troubled not only the Psalmist but also saints through the ages. St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century), famous as we shall soon see for his great emphasis on the mercy and love of God over justice (or put in another way that divine justice is God’s mercy and love), also raises the same troubling question:
“If these people were right, what would then be the purpose of all the trouble of the solitary life and of purity from ‘the world’ or the illumination of thoughts resulting from the time of prayer? We would be enduring all this to no purpose, and our labours would be in vain, if the object of our hope only extended to that which a secular person, despite being involved in the world and tied to a wife and children, is capable of achieving whenever he likes.” (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 76)
St. Isaac’s conundrum is found in other monastic writers as well – if monks don’t receive some special benefit/reward from being monks, then why should they live such a life of ascetic self-denial? His rhetorical question though flies in the face of what is often offered today that purpose and goal of the monastic life is no different from the life of the average lay person – of perhaps is different in degree but not in kind. St. Isaac’s question is if God will bless and reward (secular) lay people as he does monks, then what purpose does monasticism serve?
Athonite Monk Alexis Trader raises similar concerns in his book on the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. He is critical of Protestant movements such as Pentecostals and charismatics for believing they can receive the power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without first having committed themselves to a life a self-denial as monastics do. For him, there is no doubt that the monastic effort prepares them for the Holy Spirit in a way that non-monastics are not prepared and therefore cannot receive the Holy Spirit:
“According to the Fathers, spiritual gifts are given so that the struggling believer can more fully lead the Christian life by observing ‘all things whatsoever Christ commanded the Apostles to do.’ Saint Maximus goes so far as to define a gift of the Spirit as ‘every capacity for fulfilling a commandment.’[…]God is quiet ready to shed His gifts upon His children, but his children first must cleanse and ready the vessel (i.e., their entire existence: body and soul) in which the gifts can be received. Saint Basil the Great notes that God grants His gifts not only with the benefit of others in mind, but also according to the faith, peace, and purity from the passions of the one receiving the gift.[…]Purification through repentance is required before the believer reaches the stage of illumination in which the gifts are given.[…]Thus in order for a believer to receive spiritual gifts, he not only requires a general purity from the passions, but the good soil of a ready mind or heart well fertilized with the virtue that most corresponds to that spiritual gift. The reception of spiritual gifts, like every aspect in the work of man’s salvation, is the joint activity of (synergy between) the grace of God and the free will of man.” (In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, pgs. 48-50)
This really is the same problem the Psalmist wrestles with in Pslam 72/73 and because of which nearly comes to disbelief. Why struggle with being righteous either as a Torah observing Jew or a Tradition bound Orthodox monk if there is no special reward in it?
St. Isaac who raises the question quickly offers a counter thought:
“… for not many people discover it, but only a few individuals. This is because such things do not occur in accordance with (a person’s) labours, but in accordance with God’ purpose and knowledge, for He knows to whom it is appropriate to give. But we for our part should not cease form expectation in our mode of life during the whole extent of our lives.
Should this be found, however, we must not be proud or imagine that we have been held worthy of it because of the high quality of our mode of life. Nor, if it is delayed for us, should we be grieved or downcast, like people who work for God for a reward: that is the opinion of those who are not trained in the labour of humility and in (earnest) longing for God. For we realize that, as I have said, God does not grant things of this sort to a person as a result of many labours – nor does He hold them back because of a lack of such labours – but (He gives them) to those for whom He knows it will be beneficial.” (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 116)
We don’t struggle to be righteous for the reward. We are struggling to be righteous for righteousness’ sake. We struggle with being righteous in order to witness to being God’s children: to loving as God loves us, freely, unconstrained, expecting nothing in return. As Jesus taught us:
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45)’
As is oft noted in spiritual writings from many different religions: if we please God just to get rewards such as entrance into heaven, then we are nothing but mercenaries. If we please God to avoid hell, we are nothing but slaves. But if we please God in order to be His children, then we are really being like the God of love for we are acting for no reason except for love for the God of love.
Many atheists rightly criticize “faithists” for holding to morality only because they believe they will be rewarded for doing so. There are atheists who are very moral, and they do it neither to get into heaven, nor to avoid hell – for they don’t believe either exists. They embrace morality, the good, for goodness sake.
Is it worth it to us Christians to be good, to love, to be like the Father if there is no reward? Do we embrace goodness out of love for God, out of imitating God’s love, or will we abandon God and His brand of self-emptying and co-suffering love if we think there is no reward for doing it? Are we willing to love and obey God even if we see the wicked prospering and ourselves afflicted and impoverished?