The true focus of every Christian is not their salvation, but God. We are supposed to love God first of all, and then, secondly to love neighbor. An obsession with one’s salvation is far more an act of self-love rather than true love.
For true love, the love which God exhibits towards us, and which Christ commands us to do, is focused not on the self but on the other – God first, and then neighbor. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:
“What should we be interested in? God. Beautiful, marvelous, magnificent, splendid, glorious God Almighty. And His only begotten Son Jesus Christ, born of a virgin on earth; and the all-holy, life-creating Spirit who proceeds from God, dwells in the Son, and is breathed upon us. In God is life, reality, truth, peace, and joy. We need to be interested in the God who saves us, not in salvation as such. We need to be interested in loving God. Life is about God. The Bible is about God. Church is about God. Sacraments are about God.” (The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 230-233)
“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.
“Grant, Lord, that I may ever love each of my neighbors as myself, and not be angry with them for any cause, and not serve the Devil in this way.
Grant that I may crucify my self-love, pride, covetousness, incredulity, and other passions.
Let mutual love be our name; grant that we may believe and trust that the Lord is everything to us all; that we may not be careful nor anxious for anything; that You, our God, may truly be the sole God of our heart and nothing besides You.
Let there be union of love between us as there ought to be, and let everything that divides us from each other, and prevents us from loving one another, be despised by us, like the dust trampled under foot.
So be it! So be it!
If God has given us Himself, if He abides in us and we in Him, according to His own true words, then what will He not give me, what will He spare for me, of what will He deprive me, how can He forsake me? ‘The Lord is my Shepherd: there can I lack nothing’ (Psalm 23:1). ‘Shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ (Romans 7:32).
And therefore, my soul, be perfectly at rest and know nothing but love. ‘These things I command you, that you love one another’ (John 15:17).”
“To lack prudence and wisdom is to act foolishly and thoughtlessly – seeking merely one’s own good rather than the good of friends and the larger community.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pg. 80)
“[…] The Creator, decreed that we should require the help of one another, as it is written, so that we might associate with one another. Again, apart from this consideration, the doctrine of the charity of Christ does not permit the individual to be concerned solely with his own private interests. ‘Charity’, says the Apostle, ‘seeks not her own’. But a life passed in solitude is concerned only with the private service of individual needs. This is openly opposed to the law of love, which the Apostle fulfilled, who sought not what was profitable to himself but to many that they might be saved.
Furthermore, a person living in solitary retirement will not readily discern his own defects, since he has no one to admonish and correct him with mildness and compassion…Besides, if all we who are united in the one hope of our calling are one body with Christ as our Head, we are also members, one of another. If we are not joined together by union in the Holy Spirit in the harmony of one body, but each of us should choose to live in solitude, we would not serve the common good in the ministry according to God’s good pleasure, but would be satisfying our own passion for self-gratification. How could we, divided and separated, preserve the status and the mutual service of members or our subordinate relationship to our Head, which is Christ?” (Deno Geanakoplos in The Way of the Fathers by John Chryssavgis, pg. 43)
“Souls on fire with the quest to become super men and women may even fail to notice and appreciate treasure in such ordinary vessels. It is our culture’s incessant and infantile desire to withhold love until we find the perfect body, the perfect mind, the perfect mood, the perfect mate, or until we possess the perfect ‘me-ness’…which renders us vulnerable to the same old seduction that began long ago in a Garden called Eden. To the degree that we are all striving, in one way or another, to become something, we are missing out on the privilege of being nothing. Yet ‘it is the Father’s good pleasure to give (us) the kingdom.’ What is the blindness and grasping that leaves us in search of something that will make us worthy of what can only be given as gift? Like the first Apostles, ‘we do not understand about the loaves.’ We still choke on the apple of self-sufficiency, a fatal mistake. The simple fact is God-esteem is infinitely more life-giving than self-esteem and infinitely rarer. The road of love begins where I end.” (Stephen Muse, Being Bread, pp. 65-66)
Wisdom is found in every religious tradition. Stories which offer a moral, cause us to think about our decisions and priorities in life, or challenge us to see things in a new way help us grow in wisdom and understanding. Wisdom stories don’t have to follow the laws of physics or be historically true – if they convey a point and cause us to think and reflect on our values, they have done their job. Below is a prose poem from story-teller Anthony De Mello set in a Hindu Indian tradition. It offers us a universal truth not dependent on one religious tradition, and plays upon our wish to win the lottery or have a Genie grant us three wishes, and pokes at our own short-sighted selfishness (even our selfishness in prayer where we attempt to turn God into a Genie whose job is to fulfill our wishes). Wisdom often brings us out of our dreamy wish-world and into reality. And as this story suggests, we might all be better off with some contentment and thankfulness for what we have rather than wishing for life on our terms.
In Orthodox spirituality the opposite of love is not really anger or hatred, but self-love. True love is relational and directed toward the good of another. “God is love” (1 John 4:8) we are taught. God’s goodness is other directed. First, within the Holy Trinity each of the Divine Persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, are eternally loving toward each other. They are not narcissistic or solipsistic. God eternally is love, which means each person of the Trinity always existed in relationship to each other and forever are directed in love toward each other. Theology would say if God is love, God could never be a monad as there then would be nothing to love but Himself. The Trinity reveals to us the manner in which God eternally is love: there always were other persons within the Godhead to love.
Second, God is love in relationship to creation. God has freely brought creation into existence in order to share the Trinitarian love with creatures beyond their mutually shared eternal and divine nature.
We are created in God’s image: we are created to be relational beings; we are created to love.
“An old man used to say, ‘If thou hast prayed for thy companion thou hast also prayed for thyself, but if thou hast prayed for thyself only thou has impoverished they petition…” (E. Wallis Budge, THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS vol 2, p 229)
Praying for others enriches our prayer life, and generates love in us for our neighbor and even our enemies. This is not to say that we cannot pray for ourselves as well.
“While you can and should ask for the intercession of others, you must also pray yourself. This is how Chrysostom puts it:
‘Even if we be in sins, and unworthy of receiving, let us not despair; knowing, that by assiduity of soul we shall be able to become worthy of the request. Even if we be unaided by advocate and destitute, let us not faint; knowing that it is a strong advocacy, the coming to God one’s self by one’s self with much eagerness.’” (Stanley Harakas, OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 126)
Praying for ourselves does serve to direct our thoughts and our hearts and minds to God. Thus even prayer for ourselves is relational and puts us into God’s presence. But our prayer if based in love will move beyond our self, to concern for those around us. Prayer helps us to get beyond the limit of self and to become part of something greater than an isolated and alienated being, and puts us in communion with our fellow human beings, with all of creation and with our Creator.
“It pleases the Lord, the common Father of all, when we pray for each other willingly with faith and love, for He is Love, ready to forgive all for their mutual love. The Holy Ghost said: ‘Pray one for another, that you may be healed.’ (James 5:16). You see how pleasing to God, and how efficacious, is the prayer for one another.” (St. John of Kronstadt – d. 1908AD, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 134)
Intercessory prayer flows from the love which we have received from God. Intercession is one way for us to fulfill Christ’s teaching that we are to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35). In ancient Christianity, “one Christian was no Christian” (Tertullian, d. ca 225AD) because to be a Christian meant to live in loving relationship with all other believers as to be a Christian by definition is to be baptized into Christ and to be a member of His Body, the Church. To be a Christian is to imitate Christ, which means washing the feet of fellow disciples – being a servant to others -as we witness Christ doing on the night of His betrayal and arrest (John 13:1-20).
“Our care and concerns for other people, for our country, for our planet, are not all empty, nor are they all selfish or egotistical. This is demonstrated in the very powerful experience of bringing concerns to God in prayer. This is not the intercession that starts out by pointing out what mistakes God is making in the running of the world, followed by a list of things we would like Him to do about it. That practice is simply another aspect of the ego’s desire to control, an empty soul-less activity which leads us further away from God, even while we think that because we are participating in something ‘religious’ we must be progressing in the other direction.
Intercession is not a matter of telling God what to do, even with the best of possible intentions. Nor is it a question of trying to change God’s mind about something. Intercession is simply a matter of bringing the concerns of our own lives – friends, relatives, but also enemies and competitors – to the throne of God and leaving them there. Any person and any subject can be brought to God. … We do not pray for specific outcomes, and we do not demand particular results, since to do so would place our own desires as the point of the prayer, whereas in reality the sole and entire aim of prayer is to discover the will of God. It may seem rather obvious to state that we do not discover the will of God by simply repeating our own demands over and over again.” (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, BREAD & WATER, WINE AND OIL , p 57)
“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
St. Hesychios the Priest said:
“If you do not want to suffer evil, do not inflict it, since the suffering of it inevitably follows its infliction. ‘For whatever a man sows he will also reap’ (Gal. 6:7). Reaping unwillingly the wickedness we deliberately sow, we should marvel at God’s justice. “ (The Philokalia, Volume One, pg. 172)
Looking at more contemporary Orthodox writers, we see the influence of the Patristic writers in shaping the modern Orthodox understanding of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise.
“In the beginning the Lord created man out of dust. He made Adam and Eve immortal, fashioning them in His own image and likeness and showering gifts upon them. He gave them the beautiful garden of Paradise to be their home, and put the whole of creation under Adam’s authority. There was one condition only, a simple test of obedience: Adam and Eve were allowed to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden except one.
Alas, they did not fulfill the condition. Eve listened to the seductive voice of the serpent, and Adam listened to the persuasions of his wife. If only they had exercised discernment and remained loyal to their benefactor! Instead they played into the hands of the devil, who envied them the home in Paradise from which he himself had been expelled, and devised a scheme to rob them of the honor God had given to mankind. The devil tempted the man and the woman to covet the prerogatives and the glory of God Himself. He led them on the ambition of becoming equal to and independent of their Maker and of deciding for themselves what was right and what was wrong. They succumbed to the devil’s suggestions and fell into sin. In consequence they lost the promise of immortality and became subject to death. The Lord passed sentence on them. ‘You are dust,’ He declared, ‘and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:19).” (Anne Field, FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT, pp 44-45)
We see in the modern writers the embracing of the different threads, trends and tradition which we found in the Patristic writers. The Adam story is a rich tapestry of theology and anthropology. It gives us a deep understanding not just of Adam the first man, but of each of us in as much as Adam is a representative of all humanity. Humans were given wonderful gifts from God – creation, free will, relationships, the chance for immortality. It is however the human desire to possess – grasping to hold on to things for one’s own ends and purposes, which led to the disintegration of the unity of creation with Creator.
“In reality, property and family are from God. When God created the world He gave it to man to possess, so that it would become man’s possession ‘… to till it and to keep it…’ And when He created man, He created a wife because ‘it is not good that the man should be alone…’ But then, here is the fall (the original sin): Man wanted the world as a possession for himself and not for God, not for life in Him; and man made his wife an object of love torn away from God’s love, again for himself. And then Christ Himself gives away, leaves His life in order to resurrect it, to free it from death, so that life would cease being the source of death, so that life would reign and death would be trampled down. Does it mean that God calls us to kill ourselves? ‘Leave’ the world, give away one’s possessions, leave the family—all of these do not mean that they (possessions, family) are identified with evil, in which case they should be thrown away, but that they mean their liberation and their transfiguration into what God had created them to be. The one who gives away his property in reality becomes richer because he makes the world again (given away, dispensed) divine. ‘Leaving’ one’s family is its resurrection, its cleansing, its transfiguration, but not its annihilation. How could the Church perform the sacrament of marriage if marriage was evil? Marriage is a sacrament because through it is accomplished its gift to God, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit—where everything is light, as it is in Christ’s call: distribute, leave, all is positive, all is light and not darkness and destruction.” (Alexander Schmemann, THE JOURNALS OF FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN, pp 320-321)
This blog series on Adam, the first human, is really looking at a mosaic of quotations from various authors, ancient and modern, whose ideas are part of the Tradition of the Orthodox understanding of Adam, of what it means to be human, of the Fall, and of salvation. The Orthodox Church reads the narrative of Adam and Eve through the lens of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The canonical texts of the Jewish scriptures actually make very little use of the Adam story. It is with the coming of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, that we begin to understand the depth and affects of the fall on all of humanity. In Christ we see and comprehend what it is to be fully human.
I have often said that the opposite of late is not hate but self-love. Love is always other directed – it is a coming out of oneself to be with, care for, give to, provide for, sacrifice for, protect, honor and serve the other. Self-love on the other hand is totally self oriented, it’s never about the other but only about the self. Christ taught love; much human sinfulness involves selfish, self centered, self love.
Nathan DeWall, associate psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, says that “lyrics in pop music from 1980 to 2007 reflect increasing narcissism in society.” DeWall was interviewed by NPR’s Michelle Norris: Study: Narcissism on the Rise in Pop Lyrics . DeWall says song lyrics are cultural artifacts that reveal trends in culture. Love songs used to be about we and us, today singers croon about how great they are. DeWall says about the increased narcissism in culture:
“It reinforces this idea in American culture that we really need to focus on how people feel about themselves. You know, we can’t really threaten other people’s self-esteem. We can’t give them accurate feedback about who they really are. People who are very narcissistic, they come off as very confident, but if you insult them or provoke them in any way, it sort of breaks their bubble, and they’re very fragile people.”
Personally I think narcissism and post-modernism go hand in hand. In post-modern literature there often are no clearly defined good guys and bad guys because everything is simply perspective. Good and bad depend upon who is evaluating but is always merely personal, the assessment of an individual, but not an objective value.
It is narcissistic in the sense that the only reference point is “I“. Truth, good or evil are all completely seen as what is true to ME, what is good to ME, what is evil to ME. There is no recognition that truth, good or evil might have real meaning apart from the self or that they can be shared values of society or by like-minded people.
The pre-postmodern view did hold that there are some universal truths: murder is wrong for example. It is wrong not because “I” agree that it is wrong, it is wrong for everyone. It is a recognized evil.
Postmodernism says there is no one meta-narrative that ties us all together, rather each person lives their life story while bumping into others who are living their stories. But Christianity (so too Islam and Judaism, fascism, communism and many other -isms) says there is a meta-narrative which ties all of our lives together. There are common and shared values. So there is truth, good, evil and reality beyond the I.
Even evolution is a meta-narrative that ties us all together. And though pure Darwinism avoids putting value on traits that have evolved/emerged in humans, yet it do recognize that some things are valuable to human survival and some things will hasten the demise of the species. The things that help a species survive become part of that species’ behavior. So even if it is only because a gene causes us to be empathetic or compassionate or socially conscious, this trait apparently helps the human species survive and so has a value to them.
It is not surprising that pop songs reflect an increasingly narcissistic attitude in the culture. It is just another manifestation of the extreme individualism that causes us to forget that we are social beings, created to live in relationships with one another, created to love.