Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

Choosing Eternity

46052070051_03aa13314b_n

There  was a man, could have been any one, who considered himself a decent sort of person, but who never put much thought into an afterlife.  There were too many things in life which occupied his attention, and which also allowed him to avoid thinking about the inevitable.  Unexpectedly – at least for him – his life dreamily ended.  He found himself in the place where all souls are said to be judged by God.   As it dawned on him about what had happened and where he was, he suddenly was terrified of what awaited him.

4564405060_9e3004d071_n

An angel of the Lord approached him.  The angel’s appearance was awesome, and the man cringed and swallowed hard.  His mind was racing for what defense he might offer at his judgment.

The angel spoke in a harmonious voice, asking the man, “Are you now ready to choose your eternal destiny?”

8186037621_7d1687fab3_n

“Choose?”  The man was astounded at the question, for he had given no real thought to it in his lifetime and he couldn’t believe he had any real choice in the matter at this particular moment, considering where he was.  “Do you mean I even have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice.” replied the angel  “You have to choose where you will spend your eternity.  Who did you think was going to do that for you?”

The man was at a loss for words, but for the first time in a long time, God came to mind.

The angel led the man to a room which had four doors in one wall.  The angel explained, “Behind one of these doors lies your eternal destiny.  But you have to choose which one you will enter.  Three of these doors open paths to heaven.  Only one of the doors leads to hell.  You have to choose what your fate will be. Choose wisely because whichever door you open is the one you must enter.”

46290756951_23e510792b_n

The man was now becoming concerned again.  “But . . . how do I know what door to choose?  Is it a trick . . .  or is it all left to chance?”

“There is no trick,”  The angel responded, “and it isn’t a matter of chance; it really is choice.  You have to decide which door you want to go through.  I’m even going to tell you a something about what is on the other side of  each of these doors.”

The man didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or whether this was going to be such a test that he would certainly fail.

“One of these doors leads to martyrdom and suffering for the Gospel, but you will find your way to heaven on that path.  One of these doors leads to people who are suffering terribly and it will require that you spend time to care for them, but it too leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Behind one door are all manners of poor people, beggars, the unwanted – and they will ask you to give them everything you own including the clothes off your back.  But this too is a path to the Kingdom.   Some of the saints thought this door with all the beggars is the easiest path to the kingdom because it requires no suffering – all you have to do is give everything you own away – let them lighten the load for you.  It is the easiest path to the kingdom but that door is the most difficult to choose.”

Then the angel said, “Only one door leads to hell.”

38669899994_af6c38811a_n

The man was not a little glad that judgment was not in God’s hands. And in any case choosing heaven was three times more likely then choosing the path to hell.   His mind was whirling with his good fortune as he realized his fate was in his own hands.  He was overjoyed to hear that one door gave him easy access to heaven because he certainly assumed everyone chooses that door.

“How can I tell the doors apart?” the man asked.  “This is the trick . . . isn’t it?”

The angel again assured him that there was no trick.  “Just approach each door and listen carefully to what you hear,” the angel instructed.  The angel handed the man a well stocked backpack.  “You will need this on your journey – it will speed your on your way.”

As the man looked at the backpacks contents he noted medical supplies, analgesics, antiseptics, bandages, food, extra clothing, water, bedding, a tent.  The back pack was very heavy, but the man was feeling buoyant because of the care being shown to him and the provisions given him.  He put the pack on his back, feeling confident that he was now prepared to choose his destiny.

26441374902_558921309b_n

The man hesitantly moved toward the first door, still fearful that maybe it was a trap.  But as he drew near to the door he could hear terrible screams from people on the other side of the door as if they were being tortured.  They cried out in horrible agony, begging for mercy.  It sounded like their bones were being snapped or as if they were being eaten alive.  Did he smell burning flesh from under the door?  The man was horrified and fearfully backed away from the door lest he somehow fall through it.  A shudder went down his spine as he moved more quickly to the second door.  At first he didn’t hear anything coming from behind the second door.  Carefully,  he put his ear to the door.  The sound on the other side of the door was the most pitiful moaning, people groaning in their suffering.  The piteous sighs of these people struck his heart with a dread – he did not want to find out what was causing their grief, nor did he feel that he wanted to deal with that suffering.   He felt oppressed by the thought of it.

He looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was watching expectantly, and the man felt encouraged.

45915123524_b34ed1fd42_n

As he moved toward the third door, he could hear a loud clamor from the other side of the door before he got near it.   People were pounding on the door begging for help.  The man thought the door itself might burst open because of the crowd pushing against it.  There was a myriad of voices all begging for something to alleviate their need – medicines, clothes, food, water.  Amidst the din, he thought he heard someone shout out a warning  from the other side of the door – “Don’t open the door!  Those people are diseased and dangerous. You’ll unleash them on the world.”  He almost felt as if their arms were reaching through the door trying to pull him in.  His hands tightened their grip on the straps of his backpack.  He leaped back away from the door, thankful that he had escaped being dragged into that mess.

45650831112_d982032a3b_n

He then cautiously moved toward the fourth door.  He stopped and listened but didn’t seem to hear anything.  He moved closer to the door.  He tentatively placed his ear against the door.  What he heard seemed so soothing to him.  For the sound was as if a running, bubbling river was passing by on the other side of the door.  There was no other noise.  The man liked the quiet, peaceful babbling.  It was so inviting, very much what he hoped heaven would be like.  He grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open and confidently stepped in.

The sound it turned out was not a river as he imagined it at all.  What was flowing past the door was a rapidly moving stream of sewage of the most foul kind.  There was no other sound because everything was quickly being swept away by the force of the flow.  The man’s back pack dragged him down into the sewage and he was carried directly to the mouth of hell.

35204742875_eb4e3d3810_n

The man had chosen his eternal destiny.

The angel cringing, marveled at the man’s choice.

The man suddenly felt his neck snap, as his eyes popped open and his mind jolted awake as he heard the priest chanting:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

 

 

Demonic Influence vs. Free Will

“…angelic and demonic thoughts as gifts or temptations from the outside involve some degree of free choice. While it is not in a person’s power to decide whether a demonic or angelic thought will pass through one’s mind, people can choose to act on it or to ignore it. Upon determining the origin of a given thought, a person is quite free to reject the thought or admit it by lingering on it. No matter how enticing a demonic thought maybe, it can only urge not coerce. This can be seen both in the account of the fall and of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, well-aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes,

‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, ever kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

(Fr. Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 60)

We All Offer Sacrifice and Sacraments to God

We shall only understand the character of the world when we think of it as a gift or present.

The whole world ought to be regarded as the visible part of a universal and continuing sacrament, and all man’s activities as a sacramental, divine communion.

Because man is unable to give God anything except that which he has already received from God, man learns to perceive the world as gift and sacrament by sacrificing something in this world for God’s sake, as a sign of his grateful love, and as the vehicle of this love. God for his part returns to man what man has sacrificed in the form of fresh gifts, containing a new manifestation of His love, in a new and repeated blessing. “Grace for Grace.”  And so an unbroken interchange between God and man in man’s use of the world takes place, an ever-renewed and growing mutuality of love. The more man discovers the beauty and the higher use of created things, and the greater the gratitude and love with which he responds to God, the more God responds with still greater love and blessing, because man is in the position to receive it.

Man puts the seal of his understanding and of his intelligent work on to creation, thereby humanizing it and giving it humanized back to God. He actualizes the world’s potentialities. Thus the world is not only a gift but a task for man. Man is able to mark the world with his seal because the world as the gift of God’s love for man is not the fruit of necessity but the fruit of divine freedom. If it were the fruit of necessity there would be no freedom in it, and it would develop as an inexorable casual process. But it is SO constituted that divine freedom and human freedom can manifest themselves in an unbroken dialogue.

(Fr Dimitru Staniloae, The Time of the Spirit, p. 28)

Freedom and Suffering

St. John the Forerunner

Dostoevsky shows that suffering lies in the very nature of man as a free and morally responsible being, that nothing can eliminate it as long as man remains what he is, and that the purpose of human evolution is not to abolish suffering, but to explain its meaning, for only those who are not afraid of pain are matured and truly free people.”  (Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian Prophets, p. 93)

To Sin is Not Freedom but Slavery

Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture.  Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking.  Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do.  Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms.  Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.

Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions.  God places before each individual life and all its choices.  There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God.  We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.

One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others.  On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being.  We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin.  This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.

Christ, Adam and Eve in Eden

The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others.  It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other.  We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God.  But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike.  It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest.  It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.

If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan.  It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death.   But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end.  No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out.  But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.

St. Basil the Great writes:

“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘”  (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)

God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death.  We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life.  God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death.  We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.

Becoming Christian

Becoming Christian 

  • Jesus Christ’s act of salvation, his victory over death and sin through his cross and resurrection, is indeed complete and definitive.

  • Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).
  • But, while the Lord’s victory is certainly an accomplished fact, my personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete.
  • As St. Paul states “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own…” (Phil 3:12).
  • My personal incorporation in Christ is incomplete, not because of any defect or lack of strength on his side, but because for my part I retain continuing freedom of choice, the ability to refuse as well as to obey.
  • In the words of St. Anthony the Great of Egypt: “Expect temptation until your last breath” and with temptation there always goes the possibility of falling.
  • My trust is therefore in Christ, not in myself, and I am confident that Christ is faithful and stands firm.

  • According, then, to the soteriological perspective of the Orthodox Church, salvation – when viewed from the standpoint of the human subject that receives it – is not a single event in that person’s past but an ongoing process.
  • To quote Martin Luther (not that the Lutherans consider salvation to be a process): “This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming.
  • I am on a journey, and that journey has not yet reached its conclusion.  
  • On the Orthodox understanding of the fall and its consequences, humans – retaining as they do the divine image – retain also the freedom to choose between right and wrong.

  • The exercise of our free choice, while restricted and undetermined by the fall, has not been abolished.
  • In our fallen state the human will is sick but it is not dead; and although more difficult, it is still possible for humans to choose the good.
  • We Orthodox cannot agree with Augustine when he maintains that, in consequence of the fall, “free will was lost” or when he claims that we are under “a harsh necessity” of committing sin, and that “human nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell, and so came to lack freedom.”
  • Against this the Orthodox Church affirms, in the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, that each human being “has the power to do what it wishes. For you do not sin by virtue of your birth.” Fallen humanity has always the possibility to resist temptation: “The devil can make suggestions, but does not have the power to compel you against your will.

(Kallistos Ware, How are we Saved?, pp. 4, 6, 32)

Awareness of God’s Presence

The sense of the presence of God.  Something I pray everyone I know may have.  I wish everyone in the world could have it.

In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they  lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener.  They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them.  And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking.  They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence.  They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator.    Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God.  Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything.  In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do.  They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise.  Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]

How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made?  And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God.   Amazing!  Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.

God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence.  When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power.   God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will.   Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example.   God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power.   The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits –  the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence!  Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.

If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation.  The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms.  In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices.  Just look at Genesis 2:19 –  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal.  God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates.  Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation.  [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians.  In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals.  Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be.  Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story.  God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done.  Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]

Adam naming the animals in Paradise

The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence.  We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example,  God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.

And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation.  Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence.  The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.

Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.

In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion.  For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve.  We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation.  We can experience God directly and fully.  We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection.   Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father.  Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God.  We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Christ in our midst and Christ in us.  As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :

Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.

God’s Love and Our Free Will

St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th C)  gives a wonderfully artistic metaphor to help us understand free will.  He says it would have been a whole lot easier for God if God had simply created us to obey Him – if God had created automatons or robots, rather than bestowing free will on humans.  God could have forced us to do His will, but God didn’t will that.  God created us to co-create with Him.  God gave us free will so that we might create beauty.  If God had forced us to do His will then we wouldn’t be in God’s image.  Instead of God “painting” our portraits as He determined, He gave us the gifts to beautifully create self-portraiture.  We get to choose the colors adorning our portraits, creating unique beauty which is the way to please God.

Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)
Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)

“For this is the Good One, who could have forced us

to please Him,

without any trouble to Himself; but instead He toiled

by every means

so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will,

that we might depict our beauty

with the colours that our own free will had gathered;

whereas, if He had adorned us, then we would have

resembled

a portrait that someone else had painted, adorning it

with his own colors.”

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye, p 61)

 

Called by God to Choose to Obey

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

St. John Chrysostom presents an interesting picture of the relationship between God’s will and our free will.

“God does not compel, but allows people to be masters of their own choices even after the call.” (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet, p 213)

God calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, but even when the omnipotent God calls us, God allows us to choose how to respond.  There is a true synergy between God and any human – we have to cooperate with God for our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)