According to a Person’s Ability

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For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end…  (2 Corinthians 1:13)

Although St Paul can soar in his spiritual life to the highest of places (2 Corinthians 12:2-3), he is also clear that he speaks to people on their own level.  He is not trying to present things to people which they are not capable or prepared to understand.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

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Paul speaks in words that those who are listening to him can understand. To the educated, he speaks as an educated man, to those unlettered, he speaks at a level that they can understand. We each receive from the Scriptures what we are able to understand and put into practice.   Thus, different people receive different ‘words’ from God since ‘No one size fits all.’ In Christ’s Parable of the Talents differing things are given to each of the servants according to the ability of each. God has varying expectations for each of the servants. “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:14-15; emphasis added).  St Cyril of Alexandria comments: “That the gifts are given in equal proportion to the total perfection of those thus honored, Christ, the distributor of these things, here shows” (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 282). Christ knows each of us and knows the proper spiritual gifts to give each of us, according to our abilities.  And in the Parable of the Talents, each proves his abilities including the one with the least abilities who didn’t do anything with the one talent he was given. So God does not give the same gifts or to the same degree to each individual.  Some receive more than others as God deems appropriate, but also God expects more from these gifted people than others.

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All of this is a good warning to each Christian not to judge what others are doing, nor to compare oneself to others as each has differing abilities and each must serve God according to their abilities. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).

Russian Starets Macarius once wrote to one of his disciples:

What I write to you, I write to you alone, and I must ask you to refrain from passing any of it on to others as a general rule of conduct for all. It is nothing of the kind. My advice to you is fashioned according to your inner and outer circumstances. Hence, it can be right only for you. (RUSSIAN LETTERS OF SPIRITUAL DIRECTION 1834-1860, p 25)

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It is a warning not to convert every Gospel verse or every spiritual advice into hard and steadfast laws that apply to all.  Wisdom and love tell us that discernment is needed in how we apply spiritual direction to our lives.  Spiritual direction is often geared toward one person or towards a few people and must not always be read as law applying to everyone.  As wisdom says, “one cannot teach by exception”, meaning some general principles are necessary for the sake of educating a population or a parish, however, to turn all spiritual guidance into unbending laws for everyone in all situations, is to forget that God is concerned with each one of us, not just with the cosmos as a whole.

One thought on “According to a Person’s Ability

  1. kenstevens61

    Dear Fr. Ted:

    I am a member of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Columbus, OH. I grew up in Sioux City, IA of Lebanese parents and Antiochian Orthodox (73 years old, 3 kids, 8 grandkids, happily retired).

    Anyway, I am just about to head out to visit Daryl Cochran at LCI. He has spoken in the past so fondly of your pastorship and guidance over the years. We are Oblate brothers with the Orthodox Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady and St. Laurence.

    At some point, I would love to speak with you, I know you could give me some great insights about prison ministry, etc. I would greatly appreciate your counsel. Would that be OK with you?

    I have recently subscribed to your Franternized newsletter, and I am truly edified . Thank you for your beautiful and prolific contribution.

    May His blessings abound with you always,

    Ken Stevens

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