St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Sower of Seeds

In Luke 8:5-15, the Lord Jesus tells the following parable:

“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?” And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that ‘Seeing they may not see, And hearing they may not understand.’

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.

 

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes about the types of persons represented by the three types of ground upon which the seed of the word fell. Concerning those of the first kind he says:

No sacred or divine word will be able to enter those who have minds that are hard and unyielding, for it is by the aid of such words that the joyful fruit of virtue can grow. Men of this kind are highways that are trodden by unclean spirits, and by Satan himself, and they shall never be producers of holy fruit, because their hearts are sterile and unfaithful. (Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, Homily 41)

The second kind have

a religion without roots…when this kind of person goes out of the church, he immediately forgets the holy teachings he has heard there. And as long as Christians are left in peace, he keeps the faith, but as soon as persecution arises, he will be ready to take to flight in search of safety.

This holy Father finally exhorts us not to allow the cares of this world to choke the tender shoots of faith and commitment as soon as they sprout from the soil of our hearts and minds. We must not be deceived, thinking that thorns and new shoots can exist side by side.” (Archbishop Dmitri, The Parables, p. 14)

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Sin: Consenting to Temptation

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Many wonder what it is they should confess when they come to the sacrament of repentance.  Some are not clear about the difference between a sin and a mistake, or between sin and bad judgment.  The monk Evagrius Ponticus writing in the 4th Century gives us some clarification.  Many “warped” thoughts can run through our minds, some of them disgusting, some persistent and pernicious, some of them tempting.  Evagrius notes that we don’t always have control over what thoughts enter into our heads, or how we react to various stimuli from the world around us.  What we have control over is how we deal with those thoughts.  It is only the things that we can control that can actually turn into sin.  When we know something is wrong and do it, we are committing sin.  Thoughts and feelings in and of themselves are not necessarily sinful even though we might recognize them as being bad.  We may have no control over them. Our control begins with what we decide to do about the thoughts or feelings that enter into our minds.

Whether or not all these thoughts disturb the soul does not depend upon us. However, whether they linger or do not linger, arouse our passions or not, that depends on us.  What turns these “thoughts” into passions and then into sins is the voluntary consent of the human being, who gives way to evil within himself. Temptation in a monk is a thought that arises through the passionate part of the soul (that is, anger and desire) and darkens the intellect.  A sin for a monk is the [free] consent [of the will] to the forbidden pleasure of the thought. . .

In order to prevent consent we need the virtues, and, to be precise, above all we need these two, which keep a tight rein on the passionate part of the soul: love as a bridle for anger, and self-control as a rein on desire.  If both of these rule in the soul, the sensory impressions will not trigger the passions.  (Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, Kindle Loc. 748-58, 765-68)

In confession we admit to those things we chose to do which we know are wrong, even if we feel we had little choice but to act in a particular way in a given situation.  Sin lies in knowing that one is doing is wrong or evil, but doing it anyway.  The cure for the soul, what we need to cultivate as a result of going to confession, according to Evagrius is love and self-control.  Fasting, self-denial, asceticism can be a way to learn self-control.  But that is not enough to follow Christ.  To be a Christian is to learn and study the Lord Jesus Christ’s love for us, and then to imitate Him.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

The Cheerful Giver is the Righteous Human

24319325696_77e0508aea_nIn the Epistle lesson of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul describes the generous giver, which turns out to be for him identical with a truly righteous person.   His words are something for all believers to consider, for often Christians think of the righteous person as an upright person who avoids sinning and chooses a virtuous way of life.  St. Paul reminds everyone that to truly be righteous one needs to know how to be charitable, generous and cheerful about the giving.  St. Paul’s words are to a large extent him quoting, paraphrasing and/or echoing Old Testament texts.  It is in the Scripture he uses that we really see how St. Paul is describing that the righteous person is a generous person.  Below are St. Paul’s words with the Old Testament texts interspersed to who what he had in mind:

But this I say: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

Proverbs 22:8-9 in the Septuagint reads:
God blesses a cheerful and generous man . . . He who has compassion over the poor will himself be nourished, because he gave his own food to the poor.

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.

While God is able to make all grace abound, St. Paul quotes a text (Psalm 112) that refers not to God but to the righteous person:

Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house; and his righteousness endures for ever. Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered for ever. He is not afraid of evil tidings; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid, until he sees his desire on his adversaries. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever; his horn is exalted in honor. The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked man comes to nought.

The Lord is gracious, merciful and righteous, but the righteous person is the one who “deals generously and lends“, who gives freely to the poor and needy.  The righteous is not just interested in avoiding sin, the truly righteous is like God in being generous, kind and merciful.  The righteous person isn’t the one who gnashes his teeth when thinking about sinners, but rather is benevolent and hospitable to those who lack clothing, food, or who are homeless or exiles or strangers or refugees.  It is the person who gives to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, not the person who judges sinners.

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Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness,

The Prophet Isaiah proclaims (55:6-12) :

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Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

God is abundantly merciful and forgiving – God’s mercy are the seeds Go plants in us to accomplish God’s own will.  God’s Word, in Orthodoxy that surely means Jesus Christ, comes into our lives to change us into the human beings God wishes us to be.  Christ tells us to love others as He has loved us.  We are not just to hold onto Christ’s teachings to purify ourselves, we are to bring forth the fruits of repentance, to be able to offer back to God an abundant harvest through our imitation of Christ’s love and mercy.

while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.

Proverbs 11:24-28 offers us this wisdom:
One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.  A liberal man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it. He who diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to him who searches for it. He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Those who are generous, charitable, hospitable, benevolent, merciful and kind are the very people who are rich in God and will receive the Lord’s blessings – becoming enriched by God.  Not gathering in more possessions, but being blessed in giving all the more.

34358292054_143cd83080_nAnd Jesus said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:15-21)

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”  (Proverbs 17:27-28)
“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.”  (Amos 5:13-14)

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I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course.  He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine.  Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop.  He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church.  The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions.  He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty.  As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe.  However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues.  He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings.  He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic.  He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true.  The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach.  He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence.  Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books.  Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:

An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed.   (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)

doublehelixIt is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile.  Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith.  He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings.  Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking.  And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues.  Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching.  The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.

Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom.   Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.

We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.

The Prophet Job cried out:  “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!  Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.  Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?  Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?  He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.  Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?  Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.”  (Job 13:5-12)

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God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.   And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends…   (Job 42:7-10)

4440153997_fdf59bed87_nThere are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world.  The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason.  While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy:  “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.

 

The Gospel or a Prosperity Gospel?

Jesus taught:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.  But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”  (John 15:18-21)

Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker comments:

“Contrast with this the promise of one of the [TV] evangelists who is well known to those who are familiar with the North American phenomenon known as “electronic religion”, who every week assures his audience on television and radio: “Something good is going to happen to you today – spiritually, physically, financially.’ It is fairly  easy to see that something is wrong with this message, for what have promises of financial success to do with the Christian gospel? Why should Christians expect material benefit from the gospel? Such promises of physical and financial benefit are crude appeals to self-interest; religion is being sold to viewers as a way to success. Religious men and women will do well because God will reward them. What sort of a gospel is this? Christ died – and I am cured from my cancer. He became poor – and my bank balance gets steadily healthier. He was hung up on a gibbet – and I am a great success.

Now of course this is a travesty of religion – so much so, that we find ourselves amazed that anyone is taken in by it. But perhaps the travesty is only an extreme example of an attitude which is much more marketed in this way, then the Church has totally succumbed to the values of the outside world. Religion is being sold like any other commodity, and the vital question is “What do I get out of it?” But what sort of values should Christians be maintaining – in a world which esteems self-reliance and applauds success? What sort of values should they be maintaining in a world where millions have no hope of being self-reliant or successful?

Christians are no more likely than anyone else to find the solution to problems of inflation and unemployment, injustice and famine. What they can do is to show the relevance of the Christian gospel to all those problems. When the world is divided between rich and poor, prosperous and starving, those with jobs and those without, strong and weak, where should Christians be found? Looking for something good to happen to them, spiritually, physically and financially – or concerned about the welfare of others? Maintaining the rights of the strong, or standing up for the weak? Enjoying the success that has come to them through their own efforts or through good fortune – or identifying with those who have no hope of ever experiencing anything good? (From Adam to Christ, pp. 68-69)

There are many ways we can help victims of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes as well as provide support for future needs of people.  Many organizations do wonderful charitable work to help victims of disasters.  We can help others by donating to  International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Intuitions from the Desert

  • A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.

  • A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’

  • Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).

Human: Created for God

“God did not create man in order for him to feel pain, but rather to know pleasure, which is why he placed him in the garden of Delight (Gen. 2.15).

We were not brought into the world to be deprived of God, but rather to become gods ourselves, to share in the perfection of the image of the Trinity. Man was created to become a vessel and temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4.7; 1 Cor 6.19).

In his sermon on the humility, St. Basil says that “from a state of nothingness, man has expanded into the heavens.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 203, 248, 311)

Let All You Do Be Done in Love

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love.  (1 Corinthians 16:13)

“Those who have stood in these places of the spirit may ask in dismay, ‘Where are we to look for a criterion by which to distinguish genuine communion with God from delusion?’ Blessed Staretz Silouan explicitly asserted that we have such a criterion – love for enemies. He said, ‘The Lord is meek and humble, and loves His creature. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humble love for enemies and prayer for the whole world. And if you do not have this love, ask and the Lord Who said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you” will grant it to you’” (Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 162-163).  

NOW is the Time for Salvation, Not in the Hereafter

Apostles (Byzantine ca 1000AD)

We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, and in the day of salvation I have helped You.” Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.   (2 Corinthians 6:1-10)

St. Gregory Palamas exhorts us:

“Where did true death – the death that produces and induces in soul and body both temporal and eternal death – have its origin? Was it not in the realm of life? Thus was man, alas, at once banished from God’s paradise, for he had imbued his life with death and made it unfit for paradise. Consequently true life – the life that confers immortality and true life on both soul and body – will have its origin here, in this place of death. If you do not strive here to gain this life in your soul, do not deceive yourself with vain hopes about receiving it hereafter, or about God then being compassionate towards you. For then is the time of requital and retribution, not of sympathy and compassion: the time for the revealing of God’s wrath and anger and just judgement, for the manifestation of the mighty and sublime power that brings chastisement upon unbelievers. Woe to him who falls into the hands of the living God (cf. Heb. 10:31)! Woe to him who hereafter experiences the Lord’s wrath, who has not acquired in this life the fear of God and so come to know the might of His anger, who has not through his actions gained a foretaste of God’s compassion!

For the time to do all this is the present life. That is the reason why God has accorded us this present life, giving us a place for repentance. Were this not the case a person who sinned would at once be deprived of this life. For otherwise of what use would it be to him?”  (“To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia”, The Philokalia, pp.298-299)

 

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)