Saturday, January 19, 2008

Having Faith in Faith (Not!)

Orthodox spirituality does not allow our love of Christ to remain unexamined or unchallenged. In some other bodies of which I have been a member in the past, this is not so; a person is free to entertain a highly exaggerated notion of his faith and of his love for Christ. But when one becomes Orthodox, suddenly, he is called upon to put that faith and love into practice.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you fast with the Church, for His sake? Okay, so you can, you say, but you didn’t. You try again, with the same result, or at least a result very little better.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you control your temper, for His sake? Okay, so you think you can, but is that true? You try again, with the same result, or at least a result very little better.

Okay, so you love Christ; can you pray 30 seconds without distraction, sacrifice your money for the poor, make time in your busy schedule to visit the sick? You love Christ, so how come you sat in that traffic jam cussing for half an hour when you could have taken the opportunity to say the Jesus Prayer? You love Christ, so why are you judging your brother every day when Christ commanded you not to?

And so forth. The Orthodox Christian, after a (usually short!) while, begins to wonder whether he ever loved Christ at all, much less with the great and ardent love he had formerly imagined he harbored. He begins to wonder what became of the faith that in his fantasy was so firm, so strong, precious, so devoutly held. And if it really is anything like what he had imagined it to be, how come it keeps flunking out when put to the test, almost any test?

This may be part of the reason other communions encourage their members not to look at themselves, to “keep your eyes on Jesus.” It is frightening to behold the disease and disfigurement within ourselves, and the extent to which we are slaves to our own bodies. Yet if you don’t look, you never know yourself. You have no way of knowing whether your faith or your love is authentic. You have no way of testing your faith. “Faith” is easy to have if you blind yourself to the reality within, but when you see the dragons there, then what?

Worse, if you don’t look, you never find Christ there, within you, as He promised to be. You will remain a stranger to the Holy Spirit, who dwells within the Christian.

There never comes a time when the Orthodox Christian, if he is really following the spirituality taught by the Church, ever says to himself, “Alright, I seem to be in good shape now. I can rest secure.” Such self-satisfaction is not on the Orthodox menu! Seeing that one has made some small progress in this or that can never be grounds for pride, because advancement in Orthodox Christian spirituality clarifies a person’s vision, thereby causing him to see how small is the healing so far, compared with the disgusting enormity of the remaining disease. What one might say to himself is something like, “God seems to have granted me to fast a little better, yet I have been grumpier than before and have been mistreating everybody!”

Even St. Paul wrote,

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. (Philippians 3:12-16)

It doesn’t mean if St. Paul had dropped dead midway through writing that passage, he would not have made it to heaven. It means the object is to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength. Therefore, the question, “How much faith (or love, or obedience) do I need to be saved?” is wrong-headed and self-centered, not loving at all, and not relying upon Christ at all, either.

Instead, we seek perfect conformity to His image, Whose perfections are infinite. Christ Himself is our heaven, and the more one is conformed to Him, the more one already lives in heaven. And the Orthodox know two things. One is that we are already living and moving and breathing in that heaven. The other is, we are doing it very imperfectly; like St. Paul, we haven’t made it, yet. We live in hope, we walk by faith. But our faith is not in our faith. It is in Christ.


Anonymous said...

Thank you...I needed this...
Lord Have Mercy!

William Weedon said...

Surely not an either/or though. The Holy Spirit commands us to examine ourselves, to test ourselves whether we ARE in the faith. We mayn't not do so.

But such an examination leads us to the hearty despair of self, so that we learn increasingly to look to the Lord. "Come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus" is also the command of the apostle inspired by the Holy Spirit. As Saint Augustine said so wisely: "That we may be healed of sin, let us gaze upon Christ Crucified."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Mamjuliana, you're welcome. I needed it, too!

William, do you mean looking outward and looking inward are not mutually exclusive?

If so, I certainly agree. But this is the first time I can recall ever hearing a Lutheran encourage looking inward.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thing is, we are told that it is by grace through faith that we are saved. Grace, to save us, does so through faith, requires faith; else, everyone would be saved, however faithless.

Yet we Orthodox have no faith in our faith. Do I have faith? How do I know? How can I show it? If by my works, as St. James and St. John both tell us, I have only the most pathetic of works to offer.

So it's paradoxical. We must trust Christ alone but not trust that we have sufficient trust in Christ!

That's what keeps us from the kind of overweening confidence in our salvation that could become smugness. That's why we do not speak of of our salvation in the iron-clad, absolute terms that some use.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...


(Spelled correctly this time! Well, apparently, you understand.)

I've just discovered, with great joy, your blog and shall add it immediately to my blogroll.

William Weedon said...

On looking inward:

"Beloved in the Lord, it is our intention to receive the Holy Supper of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which He strengthens our faith by giving us His body to eat and His blood to drink. Therefore, it is proper that we diligently examine ourselves, as St. Paul urges us to do..." - Corporate Confession and Absolution, LSB, p. 290

Every service in LSB that has the Eucharist in the Confession we do together specifies a time of silence: "for reflection on God's Word and for self-examination."

We have a tradition of examining ourselves according to the Ten Commandments, asking of ourselves earnestly, for example, on the 2nd commandment:

Have I called God "Father" with delight? Have I used holy words or holy names in a light-hearted way? Have i used them in anger, in mockery, thoughtlessly, or for superstitious reasons? Have I sworn carelessly or falsely? Have I taken oaths frivolously or even lied under oath intentionally? Have I kept my vows (baptism, confirmation, marriage)? Have I received holy absolution or the sacrament of the altar unworthily, mindless of the gift and my need for it? Have I listened to and read God's Word diligently? Have I called properly on my heavenly Father through His only Son Jesus Christ, and had faith that He heard and answers my prayer? Have I called on His name wrongly through false worship?

It goes on. And we use such "Confessional Mirrors" on each of the commandments. By the time we're done, we've seen the horror of our own failures to live in love up close and we are running to our Lord for His forgiveness, pardon and grace, and for strength to amend our sinful lives.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

That's good, William, to see that Lutherans, at least, do examine themselves. (So why do they so often and so vehemently attack Orthodox for doing it?)

Do you also go further than these questions seem to indicate, and examine what's behind the sins of omission and commission?

William Weedon said...

I'm not sure what you mean by attacking Orthodox for examining themselves. Have I done so? Maybe there was miscommunication somewhere along the lines on that? It's the most common reason that most Lutherans (not Luther himself, by the way!) give for NOT communing the children: "because they can't examine themselves as St. Paul's tells communicants to do."

What lies behind the sins of commission/omission is largely dealt with the examination regarding the first commandment - to have no other gods.