Rising Up and Going Down

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because the Muslim call to prayer is a relatively common image on our media screens. But this is how Middle Easterners prayed (Jews, Christians, and later, when Islam came about, Muslims), and it is part of Orthodox prayer to this day.

There are certain seasons that the Orthodox neither prostrate themselves nor kneel (the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost), and there are seasons (all the fasts) and particular feasts (Exaltation of the Cross, etc.) where full prostrations are the normal posture of prayer. Humans cannot easily separate mind, body, and will; we cannot easily humble our heart without humbling our body. The humility of full prostrations and conversely the confidence that comes from divine grace associated with standing while praying are both a normal part of the Orthodox posture of prayer.

I don’t think Archimandrite Zacharias ever talks about the posture of praying (whether standing, kneeling, or prostrate) in his book The Enlargement of the Heart, but I was reminded of prayer’s posture while reading the book. Zacharias is fond of the phrase “go down,” referring to the journey we are called to make, going down to hell with Christ where he announced his victory over sin and death. Going down to hell sounds harsh, but we Christians have become so accustomed to the traditional language of death leading to life that this turn of phrase helps us think about what the New Testament describes.

Zacharias, following and extending the thinking of both his teacher, Elder Sophrony (d. 1995), and Sophrony’s teacher, St. Silouan (d. 1938), says that one of the prominent features of the Christian church today is despondency. What is despondency or despond? If you’re like me, you might associate it with Pilgrim’s Progress and the “Slough of Despond.” If you are even more like me, you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress but guess that it means that Pilgrim was having a tough time of it. But despond has a more proper meaning than just that. Despond is a lack of concern about one’s salvation.

There is a doctrine widely held in America—the full assurance of salvation—that was originally taught by the Reformers to free Christians from debilitating fear so that they could confidently grow in Christ and be transformed. Ironically, given the modern zeitgeist in contrast to the zeitgeist of 16th century Europe, this very doctrine promotes despond. Once the cycle of despond begins, a blind trust in divine grace and assurance that everything will turn out okay tends toward a lax attitude toward growth and transformation—the very essence of despond.

It’s cliché to say that this is an age of unbelief. Talk to any honest pastor and you will hear stories of rampant unbelief among laity and clergy alike. These are people who like the idea of God and would like to believe, but just can’t do it. The heavens, having become brass, the spiritual world seems utterly cut off from them.

Zacharias argues that this is a symptom and not a root problem. Unbelief such as this, within the church, is a symptom of despond. When we aren’t faithful with a few things, we lose control over the large things, to paraphrase Mt. 25:23. The solution isn’t to try harder to believe, nor is it to just go through the motions hoping belief will come, it is to go through specific motions. Zacharias says the only path forward is to humble ourselves. This is why he is so fond of that phrase “go down.” Humility is going down below others and going down before God in prayer. Extreme humility is going down to hell with Christ.

The Apostle Paul proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ!” (Gal. 2:20). What happened after the crucifixion? 1 Peter says that after his crucifixion, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison …” This obscure and otherwise incomprehensible phrase has been linked to Eph. 4:8 (Christ “made captivity itself captive”). What then becomes clear is that Christ didn’t just die, in death he went and entered into solidarity with the very lowest low that humans captive by sin and death could possibly go: hell. It is here, in this lowest of low places and most hopeless of hopeless states that Jesus announced his victory over death.

Zacharias’ argument is that it is not enough to confess that we have been crucified with Christ, we need to actually do something. We need to travel with the crucified Christ and embrace our lowest and most humiliating low: the ignominy of sin that has captivated us. And only when we humble ourselves to that level can we truly hear and embrace the proclamation of Christ’s victory.

But “humbling ourselves” has become a hackneyed commonplace. (“I am so humbled to receive this honor.”) It begs the question of just what humility is. As Zacharias says, it is to “go down.” Zacharias reiterates the teaching of the fathers that the demons want to go up, not down. They want to rise to heaven and be like God and even above God[1]. In order to free ourselves of demonic despond, we need to start by “going down.” If we are all about improving ourselves, fixing ourselves, making ourselves better, we become easy targets because we are rising up into the sphere of all that stands against God. But if we go down … go down as far as hell, we then go to where Christ is, and then are ready to be lead out of captivity and the bondage of despond.

In modern Western culture we associate praying in a prostrate position (that is, on our knees, face on the floor, with hands outstretched in front) with Muslims because that is what we see in the media. Few of us ever see it in church. Maybe this is a place to start as we seek a way out of our despond. Praying in confidence while standing upright with hands outstretched to God certainly has its place. But there’s another side to this coin. Before we can rise up with such confidence, we must learn to go down.


[1] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, 2nd American Edition, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2012, p. 28.

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The Holy Spirit as Transformer

I ran across a surprising twist on the idea of transformation. St. Silouan (d. 1938) changes the direction of transformation. Yes the Christian is transformed by the Holy Spirit, but he said that divine grace is also transformed by the Holy Spirit. He speaks of the Holy Spirit as “transformer” in the electrical grid sense. The glory of God is too hot or too charged or too high a voltage for us to handle. (“No one can see God and live,” Ex. 33:20.) It is the Spirit who transforms or steps down the grace into a “voltage” we can handle.

Different Christians are transformed (in the traditional sense) to different degrees. The Spirit, as Transformer, steps down divine grace that matches our own transformation. To some it comes hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (to adapt Jesus’ parable of the Soils in Mt. 13:8).

For those who have followed me for a while, you might be reminded of the Orthodox understanding of judgment. (And this is no doubt what Silouan has in mind.) Judgment is not God’s anger, it is God’s love. For those who have been transformed, it is experienced as inexpressible glory. To those who have rejected or not taken advantage of God’s transformation, that same divine glory is experienced as burning pain. Zacharias describes it as follows:

As we are told in the Gospel of the Last Judgment, the notable appearance of the Lord at the end of the ages will be ineffably terrible: blessed for the humility of the righteous, but unbearable to the obstinacy of sinners.

Drawn from The Enlargement of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), Mount Thabor Publishing, 2nd American Ed., 2012, p. 39 and p. 34.

Natural Consequences

One thing we can learn from Jesus is that grace is not a buffer protecting us from God’s wrath, instead grace is simply the character of God. Furthermore, God has told us this, but words are not enough. It must be experienced within relationship to be fully grasped. We explored this in some depth in the previous essay. That essay might be summed up by saying Divine Grace must start as a lived experience before it makes sense as a theological doctrine.

The angry God motif is common enough in the Old Testament, and it ought not surprise us that it is there. We have been separated from God and separate ourselves from God. As a result when we experience Nature as uncaring and impersonal (Nature that seemingly arbitrarily creates havoc in our lives and society), we assume God has turned his back on us. The actual fact is we have turned our back on God because of our preference for sin. From this mistaken starting place, it is easy to assume that God is angry and judging. (More about this below.) But Jesus offers us a glimpse into reality that is quite different from our perceptions.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father is neither angry nor does he have a need to punish the prodigal. Instead he waits attentively for his son’s return. Thus Jesus speaks to the way we perceive divine reality: The prodigal assumes (as we do) that if he returns he will face severe consequences (ie, wrath) and prepares accordingly. He is completely wrong. The Father welcomes him with open arms and doesn’t even allow him to finish his confession! This is but one story of God-as-Grace (in contrast to God offering grace as a cover or shield for underlying divine wrath.)

Martin Luther interpreted medieval Roman Catholic doctrine in line with the Prodigal Son. Starting with divine wrath, he recognized that the balance sheet could never be balanced. This led him to proclaim a gospel of grace in sharp contrast to works. This is the source of the well-known Lutheran “alone” statements. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Upon this teaching (Lutherans call it the “material principle”) all other teachings emerge. While Luther’s insight fell like a bombshell on medieval Europe, he only got half way to the whole truth. Luther believed that the fundamental attitude of God toward sinners was not grace but wrath. For instance, while hidden away in the Wittenberg Castle, he wrote,

I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” [Quote from Steve Lawson, “Fortress of Truth: Martin Luther,” First Things, 9/11/2017.

Luther missed the necessary starting point. God isn’t in the business of punishing sinners. Just as the Prodigal Son’s eating of corn husks meant for the pigs was not his Father’s punishment for leaving the household. So, the calamities and judgments that befall us aren’t God’s doing but the natural effect of our leaving God’s household. The necessary starting point is not the Prodigal Son’s tragic condition, it is the Father, sitting on the porch, waiting for him to return so the Father can welcome him home.

This is how we should understood law (including the Mosaic Law). “Natural law” is not so much God’s demands upon us to live up to divine holiness, it is a divinely revealed description of how the natural world works. We humans turned our back on God. In mercy, God told what we would need to do in order to make our way in the world without the living presence of God within us. Breaking the Law doesn’t make God angry, it brings about effects that are simply part of the created order.

Alongside explaining the negative effects of abandoning the presence of God, Jesus offers a description of what living in the presence of God would look like. The Sermon on the Mount is his most concise summary, and given our experience, Jesus’ description sounds harsh. If we can move beyond our perception of the angry God, we can then recognize how gracious Jesus’ description of live with God (and God within us) truly is. We will explore this in more depth in the next essay.

If God Is For Us

The place we must begin as Christians is that God is on our side. As Paul says, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people. He certainly opposed religious leaders who tried to misconstrue religion to make it burdensome. But his opposition was never against people in principle but always against those who stood in the way of the people coming to God.

The history of religions is rather different. Broadly speaking, religion (that which was thought up by us, not that which was revealed by God) grows out of the sense that we have displeased the gods. Religious practices were put in place to overcome that displeasure. Erich Neumann, in The Origins and History of Consciousness (a summary of Carl Jung) argues that this trope is beyond ancient, it is part of our primordial mindset.

Because the belief that the gods are against us, or at the very least, displeased, runs so deep in our consciousness, it is not surprising that it is a theme that weaves its way throughout the Old Testament. Since it is clearly present in the Old Testament, there is a tendency to say that this is how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob truly is. It is a sentiment that is expressed in the extreme in Jonathan Edwards’ infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is a sentiment that the Apostle Paul wrestles with in his epistles. The theme has also shaped our interpretation of hell, wrath, and judgment.

But if God isn’t like this, why has God allowed the idea that he is angry with us to persist and even creep into scripture? The answer comes when we consider what was important to Jesus. His interaction with the woman at the well was typical. She was concerned with right theology. Being a Samaritan, questions about the correct place to worship—the Jewish Mt. Zion or the Samaritan Mt. Gerizim—were foremost. But Jesus essentially brushed correct theology off by saying, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (Jn 4:23). Instead he was far more interested in her life struggles than her theology. When he probed her mind, it had nothing to do with theology. “Go call your husband and come here” (v 16). Her life, it turns out, was a wreck, and Jesus was far more interested in getting her human relationships sorted out than sorting her theology.

“Who is my neighbor?” turns out to be a question that must be answered, not by the Rabbis in the synagogue (or the priests and theologians in the seminary) but by you and I as we walk or drive to work. As we read the Old Testament with this sensibility revealed by Jesus, we realize that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was as Jesus said and not like the old gods who were easily piqued and demanded that everything be just right. The living God demonstrated that he wanted those ancient wanderers to come along side God and wander with him. God is profoundly relational, and that’s what took center stage, not the need to get all our ideas about God exactly right.

I’ve never had foster kids, but as a pastor I’ve seen a number of them placed in the homes of congregation members. When the foster parent says, “I won’t beat you; you’re safe here,” it’s largely an empty statement, because it’s not the child’s experience. That is a message that can only be expressed through presence and action, not words. After several times when the kid messes up and is not beat, after several months of living in an environment that is actually safe, then the kid himself or herself will begin to say, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” It does little good to tell the child, don’t cringe in fear. The good foster parent ignores that while working hard to create an authentically safe place. It is a truth that is revealed, not by words, but only in action and relationship.

We have come to believe in a wordy revelation. We hold the Bible in our hand and think that this is the divine revelation. But in a profound sense, it is not. The revelation is God who didn’t bother correcting all of the ancients’ misconceptions with mere words, but rather busied himself by creating a safe home (to carry on our analogy) so that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could figure out on their own that, “You won’t beat me; I’m safe here.” The revelation isn’t what Matthew, and John, and Peter, and Paul wrote about Jesus, in a far more fundamental sense, Jesus himself was and is the revelation. To return to the woman at the well, Jesus didn’t start out by saying he was the Messiah, he let her figure it out on her own. And then when she finally put into words the outrageous idea that the Messiah might actually be present, he affirmed her insight. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you'” (Jn 4:26).

Like the foster child, it does little good for God to tell us how to think and act. There is a primordial sensibility seemingly structured into our genetic makeup, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, that the gods are against us and probably enjoy messing with us. (Consider the story of Job.) The only way past that sensibility is to live through it and ultimately beyond it.

And so we end, full circle, where we began. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32) This is what Jesus lived out in his earthly life. He embodied the reality that God is for people.

Lent, Knowing God, and Holiness

With Lent just around the corner I am once again pondering the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. In the circles in which I grew up and was educated, this was a distinction that was not carefully made. I think especially of the books that were particularly celebrated on this subject such as the classic The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, the newer and destined to become classic Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and the even more recent (and better imho), but lesser known The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. I read Packer in high school, Tozer in college and Bridges after I was married. (I also knew Bridges, so that relationship may have shaped my opinions about the books.)

All of these books left me with far more questions than answers. All three put a lot of emphasis on the attributes of God (or what might better be called the philosophical attributes), such as holiness, omnipotence, aseity, etc. I call them “philosophical attributes” because these are the things that make God God by definition. These descriptions say less about how God revealed himself and more about what we believe a proper god should look like. Many years ago I had this very conversation with Jerry Bridges, and his argument was that you can’t put much about knowing God in a book because that requires personal relationship (which is very true—point to Jerry, if you’re keeping score) and furthermore, knowing God requires that we first know about God. This is where, over the years, as I have begun to sort this out for myself, he and I begin to diverge…but not that far, as you will see when we circle back to the topic of holiness.

There is a gulf—we might even call it an ugly ditch in honor of Herr Lessing—between “knowledge of” and “knowing.” Knowing about Jerry Bridges, for instance, might lead one to think he’s great man. When you actually get to know him, he’s more like the guy the next door. These two things (Mr. Bridges as a great man and Jerry the guy next door) are not mutually exclusive, but they are very different. What I discovered is that much of what I thought I knew about Jerry Bridges was actually false (although the facts were accurate). It turns out that I need to know him before I could authentically know much about him. And this is the nub of my disagreement with him about knowing God. Knowledge of God does not precede knowing God, it follows it.

To complicate the matter further, the possibility of knowing God includes a moral component that is not always taken seriously enough, at least in the circles in which I grew up and was trained. Tozer puts some emphasis on the idea of fear and trembling; that is, knowledge of God will lead to fear and trembling because God is high and lifted up. As Peter says, “Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). But to frame it in the manner of Tozer is to make it a volitional requirement. In other words, I have to have a certain attitude about God, based on the knowledge of who God is, before I can hope to begin to know him.

But this volitional component is very different than the moral component required to know God. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see th Lord” (Heb. 12:14). From my vantage point Tozer, Packer, and Bridges are all weak on this point for the same reason that they are so strong on the subject in general. All three are traditionally Reformed in their theology. That sort of Reformed theology that springs primarily from the English Reformation puts a strong emphasis on God’s holiness. But it also puts a strong emphasis on human inability to pursue holiness. Given that humans are totally depraved (a foundational doctrine of English Reformed theology), holiness is a gift rather than something we pursue ourselves.

This sensibility can tend toward a passivity about holiness (what Bonhoeffer railed against as “cheap grace”), and certainly tends toward a lack of attention to the topic of human holiness and how it is achieved. It is no accident that the traditional Reformed communions have never put any emphasis on Lent and most reject it outright as a form of works righteousness.

And indeed in the popular imagination that may be what it is. “What are you giving up for Lent?” and “Oh, I’m not allowed to eat meat on Fridays,” are a statements that belie the underlying punitive sense of the contemporary Lenten experience. In contrast to the punitive sense, the heart of Lent in the classical tradition is cleansing. I recently read a blog post railing against Lent and what the author called the doctrine of purgation and punitive sensibility he mistaken thought it implied. But purgation does not mean punishment; it means cleansing. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” says the Psalmist (51:7).

The punishment model (which is not biblical, except in a narrow, proof-texting manner) is that God is mad at us and we must either take our punishment (judgment), or pass it off to Jesus (grace), before we can know God. The broader biblical model is that God is holy and that holiness can destroy the unsuspecting and unprepared (thus the appearance of punishment). One must be clean before approaching God in order to know him or the destructive burning of the impurities will also catch you up in the conflagration. The blogger (and I suspect quite a number of people) don’t understand the meaning of that word purgation and confuse it with punishment because they sort of look alike.

But back to cleansing. I need to be clean before I can know God. God saves us (or more technically, gives us new life and the Holy Spirit) and then I can begin that process of setting aside sin (even as the Holy Spirit transforms us—it’s both) and then getting to know God a bit as God is now free to reveal more of himself, which allows me to set aside more sin, which allows me to know God a bit more, and the spiral upward continues. But setting aside sin is hard. Furthermore, it is no fun in the sense that sin is a whole lot more fun than the work of setting it aside. This is first the temptation of settling for knowing about God; it’s a lot easier than the process required to actually know God. The second temptation to settle for knowing about God is that philosophy and the philosophical speculation that accompanies it are just plain fun for a lot of us. If we are not truly in love with God, the temptation toward intellectual speculation is strong.

And this brings full circle to the upcoming Lenten season and its surpassing value in the Christian life. It’s a season that reminds me that intellectual pursuit—knowing about God—is not salvific. It’s a season that pushes me in the direction of cleansing rather than knowledge and toward the humility of facing up to my own sin rather than the hubris of reveling in my intellectual prowess. As the Jesus Prayer describes it, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my a sinner.”

 

Moses Pt. 3: He Actually Is Quite Special

Moses and Joshua together prefigure Christ; because they prefigure Christ, they also prefigure the Christian life. There is genius in distinguishing the two story arcs in the Pentateuch and Joshua Because each pictures something quite different that is happening in our life. We experience it at the same time and therefore tend to merge the two into a single experience. But they are not; one is Moses and the other is Joshua.

In the first essay of this series I said, “Moses was not an example of holiness in this life. He was quite the opposite. When viewed from his death backwards (Josh. 1:1-2), the defining moment of his life was one of anger and pride. But this is not say that Moses was not a believer, that he didn’t follow God, nor is it to imply that he didn’t go to heaven. The Book of Joshua emphasizes that he did clearly and redundantly. “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f). He’s not just “Moses,” he’s “Moses the servant of the LORD.”

This is why I needed to insert an essay on eternal security between the first essay and this one. When I insist that Moses is a model of pride and anger rather than holiness, and when I make a big deal that Deuteronomy tells us clearly that Moses was not allowed to enter the rest of the Promised Land because of his sin, I am not saying that Moses isn’t going to heaven. That sort of logic is rooted in a misunderstanding of sin and the meaning of salvation. Rather, I am saying that Moses prefigures one aspect of our Christian life. Joshua (a name that means “The LORD is the Savior”), on the other hand, prefigures another aspect of our Christian life. We ought not to confuse the two. (Thus, the genius of creating two distinct story arcs with these two saints.)

Salvation is accomplished (“It is finished,” Jn. 19:30). Jesus Christ and Christ alone has overthrown death and the devil and opened the gates of Sheol. Our salvation is assured by God’s eternal promise. That is Joshua. At the same time, we struggle with our sin. We are not perfect and all attempts to be perfect fail miserably. The church—the redeemed people who gather to worship and serve God—is for the most part a hotbed of evil. This is God’s Servant Moses. As Enid Strict, SNL’s Church Lady, would say, “Well isn’t that special!”

There is, as I have said, a tendency to conflate these two distinct facets of our salvation. When we do, odd doctrines can result. On the one hand, we might think that we don’t need to worry about Moses at all and just focus on Joshua. Christ is our righteousness, there is nothing left for me to do. This tendency has troubled the church for so long and so consistently, it has a name: antinomianism, which means “opposed to rules.” But as Paul asks, “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1f). On the other hand, there are those who believe that keeping all the rules is required in order to be saved. (This also has a name: legalism.) But these two polar opposites miss the point completely because they conflate Moses and Joshua.

How do we serve the Lord (ie, Moses)? We do it by serving others. We also do it by struggling against sin our life. This struggle typically results in us becoming more holy over time. Let me be clear that it doesn’t result in becoming holy in the absolute sense, but rather in becoming more holy. As we struggle against sin the light of Christ which shines within us is incorporated into our very being and we become more like Christ, that is, we become more holy. But this is all “Moses, the Servant of the Lord” stuff. It happens in the wilderness, on the left side of the Jordan. This is not the stuff that’s going to get us saved. It’s rather the stuff that makes us “the servant of the Lord.”

Returning to the genius of the Old Testament story, the fact is, we are not going to do this very well. When our lives are viewed from the “Moses the Servant of the Lord” perspective, we will end up being defined by our sins and our passions. And that will give those around the opportunity to view us with a cynical eye and repeat with the Church Lady, “Well isn’t that special!”

But God, unlike the Church Lady, actually did think it was special. So even though Moses, when viewed from the end of his life, was defined by his anger and unbelief, God emphatically calls him his servant. There is a danger that we think a successful Christian life is defined by success rather than service, and when that happens we will become discouraged. But success is not the point. Success is not even an option. Moses knew from the day he wandered away from Meribah that he would not be entering the Promised Land. Our life of servanthood, our life of effort to throw off sin and put on holiness, is our life of the wilderness. None of it will get us across the Jordan. It might get us to the top of Mt. Nebo where we can gaze at the Promised Land (Deut. 34)—the Fathers call this the vision of the Heavenly Light—but like Moses, all that effort and the accompanying results will ultimately die in the wilderness.

For all the futility of being a servant (it is represented by wandering around the desert in circles for forty years, after all), when viewed with humility, that would be enough. If we choose to embrace such a role and seek to struggle in putting off sin and putting on righteousness, we can be sure that we will on occasion drink from living water gushing forth from the rock, we will eat the heavenly food of manna, we will even see the glorious heavenly light from afar on Mt. Nebo. Yes, that would be enough. This, in fact, is essentially the vision of life offered by the Greek Stoics as well as a view of secular holiness presented by someone such as Jordan Peterson . For some it is a satisfying vision, but there can be far more.

Side by side with the story of God’s servant Moses, is the story of our Savior, Joshua. Beyond the wandering in the desert, there is the hope of the Promised Land. Beyond the struggle against our passions and the corruption of life, there is the promised rest experienced in the Kingdom of God. “My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites” (Josh 1:1f).

What more can be said about this? This is our inheritance.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (Eph. 1:11-14)

If we try to “harmonize” these stories we will end up with a bastardized religion with either legalistic or antinomian tendencies. We will be frustrated because of our lack of success. We will confuse our “Servant of the Lord Moses” efforts with the “Joshua, our Savior” gift that God has promised. But the genius of Deuteronomy and Joshua is that they keep the stories separate. The genius is the honesty of making Moses a symbol of our anger and unbelief, and by extension, all the rest of our passions. Because of that I can say with complete confidence, while seemingly trapped in my failures, passions, and corruption, that God accepts me as his servant. I am God’s servant Jim. And in spite of the cynicism of the Church Lady, that actually is quite special.

 

Moses, Pt. 2: Eternal Security

On Reddit I follow a couple of Orthodox subreddits and a question that comes up repeatedly is that of eternal security. How can I know that I am saved? Do the Orthodox believe in eternal security? Or some other variation on this theme. In the Protestant group in which I grew up (and it seems this is pretty typical of Protestantism) eternal security was summed up by the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Very early I realized that there was a loophole in the logic that nullified the doctrine at a practical level, and the keepers of the faith regularly used the loophole. If a person went off the rails and became particularly wicked after “getting saved” and being a good church member for a while, someone would inevitably raise the eternal security question. The answer that I heard on many occasions was, “Oh, that person was never saved in the first place.”

So while Protestants, and the Reformed flavor of Protestants in particular, celebrate eternal security, the doctrine remains a nice theory with little real significance in everyday life. The doctrine is logical trap because when salvation is mis-defined as an event—a specific time when one crosses over into divine favor—questions will inevitably remain about this event we call salvation. When actual life is lived in the wold after Adam and Eve, the doctrine salvation as an event creates a morass of questions and ambiguities.

I am particularly fond of the pre-Reformation approach to the question. The Orthodox understanding is typical of this classic view. It begins with the affirmation that no one can escape the presence of God. Even in Sheol, God is there and “accessible” (See the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 as well as Ps. 139). The enduring reality for all creation will be the light and love of God. For those who love God, this will be experienced as light and life, for those who love themselves far more than God, that same light of God’s presence is experienced as fire and judgment. Within this context, heaven and hell and “being saved” means something rather different and far more profound than the rather simplistic binary of “saved” or “not saved” by which it is typically described in the modern world.

What determines my eternal fate is not a particular set of actions nor is it the repetition of a simple little prayer (ie, the Sinner’s Prayer). My eternal fate is to be with God, no matter what. Whether I experience this eternal destiny as heaven or hell does not rest in any particular action, nor whether I happen to be living “in grace” or “out of grace” at the moment of my death, but rather in my attitude shaped by life-long thinking and acting. Thus all the hand-ringing over whether I am saved or not is to rather miss the point. The question is, “Do you love God? And I answer, “Of course I do!” And then my spiritual guide and confessor begins to probe my life and I begin to discover that there are quite a number of things I love more than God. (The Orthodox combine all of these earthly loves into a big group and call them the passions.) The trouble with the heart is that it is very deceitful and it even deceives us, disguising the passions as good things. But as these passions—these things I love more than God—are revealed to me, I can seek to put them aside and come to truly love God. Within this framework, salvation is the path of discovering my passions, confessing them, and turning again and again toward God.

Within the classical way of thinking that was normal long before the Reformation, salvation wasn’t a noun as much as it was a verb. It was not a question of whether you were saved or not saved, for those aren’t the two options, but rather if you were working out your salvation (Phil 2:12). Salvation isn’t a moment where you cross a line from one side to another, it is more akin to a process. It is not an instant transformation as much as it is a slow change.

Within this classical framework, eternal security is rooted in three things. First, is the sure knowledge that God loves us, looks for and longs for us like the father of the Prodigal Son, just waiting for the opportunity to run to us and embrace us. Second, is the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has opened the way to salvation. There are no hindrances to my salvation other than my own pride and stubbornness. Third, in order to be utterly secure in my salvation, all I have to do is continue loving God and learning to love God anew every time I discover an area where I love something else more than God. There are no magic words nor mathematical formulae. Eternal security is not a mental affirmation, but a path to travel, knowing full well that along the way I’ll fall back and have to start anew.

There is a famous icon (see the top of the page) that many Protestants find horrifying because of the tendency to think of salvation as binary. As people climb the ladder to the light of Christ (on the left, note that heaven is on the right), demons are trying to pry them off, making them fall to the ground. My Protestant eyes look at that and see people losing their salvation. But that is not what is pictured. Look closely. The people are not falling into hell, they’re falling back to earth. Such a fall is not the end of the story, it’s a description of how life is actually lived. They’ll just get back on the ladder and start climbing again. The only way to “lose one’s salvation” is to utterly reject it. The danger is not accidental or secret sin, but rather despair (or “despond,” as John Bunyan described it. It would require that one begin to hate rather than love God. This scenario is never considered in this icon. It is rather a picture of the Christian life where we climb the ladder of spiritual maturity, fall off, and start climbing again.

With this more proper context in mind, I will return to Moses and his passions in the next essay.

 

The Word Became Flesh

On this Feast of Theophany, a description by Karl Barth of just what happened in the incarnation, and thus just what was revealed.

He did not cease to be the eternal Word of the eternal Father, Himself the one true God. But as this one true God He became flesh without reservation or diminution. He became man, true and actual man, man as he may be tempted and is tempted, man as he is subject to death and does actually die, man not only in his limitation but in the misery which is the consequence of his sin, man like us. This is how God is God–as the One who is free to do this and does it for His own sake, to put into effect His own almighty mercy, and therefore for our sake, who are in need of His mercy. The divine mercy, and in proof of it the inconceivably high and wonderful act of God, is that He becomes and is as we are. [CD IV/1, p. 418]

It is not paradoxical and absurd that God becomes man. It does not contradict the concept of God. It fulfils it. It reveals the glory of God. [p. 419]

 

A Brief Introduction to the Prayer of the Heart

When growing up I was taught that God wasn’t Santa Clause and prayer wasn’t just asking God for stuff. In order to avoid the pitfalls of just asking for stuff I was taught to pray the ACTS way: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. As my sense of prayer grew more sophisticated I realized that all prayer, no matter what sort, was consciously entering into the presence of God. It wasn’t just asking God nor was it just talking to God, it was being with God. (Just as when we get to know another person we eventually develop the ability to be with that person in silence.)

The Orthodox ascetics (literally, the spiritual athletes, that is, the Christians who explored prayer very deeply) argued that all of the above, while the necessary place to start, was simply an exercise of the mind. In Orthodox sensibility the mind (and our thoughts) are part of our physical being and need to be distinguished from our inner self or heart (Greek nous). Beyond the activities of the mind, prayer can become a movement of our awareness from the mind down to the heart. When this happens we move beyond talking with God and even just being with God and begin communing with and uniting with God being to being.

[Excursus: in case that last sentence is making you nervous I will offer a technical clarification. “Union” is a loaded term, and by saying we can unite with God, I am not saying that our nature (Greek physis) unites with God’s nature (Greek ousia). Rather, to use the langue and distinctions that are typically used in the east (from the earliest days including Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Cyprus, Maximus the Confessor, but most especially associated with Gregory Palamas), our heart is united with God’s energies. What’s the difference between essence and energy? Divine energies (often called “the Uncreated Light”) are God, but they are not God’s essence. That’s one of the most important distinctions in Orthodoxy and Edward Siecienski’s book, The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, gives a nice overview in ch. 7. To be fair to those who remain uncomfortable, this whole area remains a point of contention between East and West.]

As we commune with God in the heart rather than in the head we open up the very core of our being to the Holy Spirit and we also begin to unite with God. In this way prayer and the Eucharist work together to unite us in the different aspects of our physical being (heart and body) with God. This is the true meaning of communion, not just as fellowship, but as “union with,” or joint participation. As I describe it here, the prayer of the heart sounds kind of easy. Those experienced in these matters say it is remarkably difficult. It’s not just praying in a different way nor is it praying without words. It is a spiritual movement away from the physical (the mind) and down into the true self (the heart). The ascetics say, based on centuries of experience, that it is something that typically can only be fully accomplished through the guidance of someone who already has experience in this area.

Why is it so hard? One of the consequences of original sin is the dissolution of our unity. Our connection with divine life was dissolved, leading to our immediate spiritual deaths and our eventual physical deaths. Our connection of our inner being (heart) and our physical being was dissolved, as a result of that our awareness of human nature, that is, our connection with other people faded, and for the most part, disappeared. Christian theologians most often speak of this in terms of the crisis of personhood (which, not surprisingly parallels historically Neumann’s crisis of the collective unconscious). Our personhood is not only us, it is us in proper relationship with other persons. Personhood presumes the human spirit (physis) which is shared by all of us and connects us. Because we are not aware of this collective spirit we ignore or deny it and think of ourselves as individuals. Reducing a person to an individual is a reflection of sin which blinds us to our true nature. Sin alienates us from our shared nature, but it does not annihilate it. Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ and John’s doctrine of the Vine and the branches assumes the reality of a shared human nature revivified in the victory of Christ and enlivening presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of the head (the ACTS process being one example) is our disunited self trying to talk to God. Prayer of the heart is a step toward reuniting the disunited parts. It starts with reuniting ourselves (the movement down from head to heart) which in turn makes it possible to begin the process of reuniting with God and with others. Furthermore, this process, the prayer of the heart, makes our heart alive and pliable thus making it possible to expand the heart (an image drawn from the parable about the new wine and wine skins). The more our heart expands, the more God is able to enter in, the deeper, broader, higher, and more profound our communion – or union – with God becomes.

Because of a 700 hundred year history of individuation (according to Jung) we have lost touch with and have become profoundly alienated from our human nature. The tragic effect of this reality is that as we enter into the prayer of the heart, we’re not even aware that we are reconnecting with our nature. We get all excited about God (which is certainly a good thing!) but remain oblivious to humanity (and if the ascetics are right, with all creation) that we are being reconnected to all because of a living and expanding heart.

Ironically, even as we pray without being aware of its social implications, social justice becomes yet another tool of alienation. We pursue it because in our binary thinking it is active (and not escapist). We participate in it because we think that in this way we participate in God’s salvation of the whole world. But salvation, including the salvation of the world, only comes as the world participates in the life-giving divine energies. And those energies are available to the world, both people and creation, through our hearts that are expanded by true prayer.

But what does this sort of prayer of the heart, with our neighbor or enemy specifically in mind, look like? I will explore this further in the next essay.

Next essay: My Neighbor, Myself

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.

 

Judgment and Mercy

I have talked about the problem of translating “justice” (Hebrew is mishpat) previously in essays such as My Sojourn with the Social Justice Warriors, The Really Hard Part, and Oppressed-a-non. I want to revisit this topic in more depth as a starting place for this series of essays because we tend to turn the meaning of mishpat on its head. The familiar words of Amos 5:24 offer an example. The translation of record of mainstream Protestantism, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This translation makes it sound like Amos is offering a hopeful vision of the future, a glimpse of the Kingdom.

But this is not what Amos has in mind. The King James Version (KJV, translated long before our modern sensibilities of social justice) says that “judgment” (not “justice”) will roll down. In case we are confused by the meaning of judgment and who will be judged, Amos continues by describing its nature: “Therefore I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus” (v. 27).

Another word found frequently alongside mishpat is tzedakah, translated “righteousness” above in v. 24. When mishpat is rendered as “justice” rather than “judgment,” righteousness can also be misleading. The word is similar to mishpat, but again our contemporary usage of “justice” will too easily get in the way of understanding what’s going on. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin says,

From Judaism’s perspective, therefore, one who gives tzedaka is acting justly; one who doesn’t, unjustly. And Jewish law views this lack of justice as not only mean-spirited but also illegal. Thus, throughout history, whenever Jewish communities were self-governing, Jews were assessed tzedaka just as everyone today is assessed taxes.

Teluskin goes on to quote Maimonides,

There are eight degrees of tzedaka, each one superior to the other. The highest degree … is one who upholds the hand of a Jew reduced to poverty by handing him a gift or a loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding work for him, in order to strengthen his hand, so that he will have no need to beg from other people.

What Teluskin describes is something quite different than what comes to mind when we say righteousness will flow down. The English word that comes far closer to this sensibility is “mercy.” In fact the same word tzedakah is one of those multi-purpose Hebrew words that is so rich in variation that there is no good single English equivalent. It certainly means righteousness, but not in the Calvinistic sense of something that only God has the ability to give, rather it is a description of the moral life. When your children ask you in times to come, “What is the meaning of [the Torah]? … Then you say … If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right (tzedek)” (Deut. 6:20, 25). The Talmud (Bava Bathra 9b) says: “Tzedakah [and the Bava Bathra seems to have mercy or charity in mind] is equal to all the other commandments combined.”

What is striking is that neither Hebrew word actually includes the idea that we should fix the root problem of poverty (the current conception of social justice). Alms-giving and the righteousness that grows out of that lies at the heart of both the Old Testament and Talmudic system. This is not surprising when we put the words mishpat and tzedakah into a political context. The nearly universal form of government in the ancient near east was monarchy. This is also the context of the New Testament which was written within the borders of the Roman Empire. There were exceptions (and Teluskin describes “self-governing Jewish communities” as an example), but for most of history, fixing the system was not an option; you either helped the poor by giving them food or money (tzedakah) or you got involved in a plot to overthrow the King or Queen (mishpat).

The equation seems rather different today. Most of us in the Western world live in a country with some variant of a representative democracy. Switzerland is the only country I’m aware of that is close to a true democracy, but most of the rest of us have at least some say indirectly through our representatives. This new political environment was not envisioned by the writers of scripture. Political theology today recognizes there is a third way beyond the traditional meanings of mishpat and tzedakah; we can work to change the system to be more friendly to the poor and oppressed. Our newer understanding of “justice” reflects this, and I suspect that this is why the word mishpat is now almost universally translated into English as “justice” rather than “judgment” and tzedakah as “righteousness” rather than “mercy” (although the latter remains a bit curious).

Unfortunately, this hope that we can fix the system, while a nice theory, has not worked very well. While the poor and oppressed are incomparably better off today than they were in the first century, the systemic problems of poverty and oppression persist. Sadly, three centuries or more of enlightened governance has changed few of these realities. For those in power there is always a loophole. Furthermore, the rich and powerful continue to appear to be ignorant and unresponsive to the fundamental needs of society. Here in the United States tzedakah as “righteousness” is not, nor has it ever been the righteous system that supports everyone, rhetoric of the City shining on a hill notwithstanding, rather tzedakah as “mercy” or “alms” remains the only practical way forward as we seek to become a righteous people of God.

Although the Talmud does not speak to this issue to my knowledge, I have one more observation about social righteousness: It is tempting to try to fix others or fix the system in place of fixing myself. There are at least two reasons for this. First, fixing others is a necessarily public action and we receive praise and increase our stature for such public actions. Fixing myself is (or should be) a private affair that should remain between God, me, and my confessor. It’s harder to get excited about something for which we don’t receive praise. Second, fixing myself is an extremely difficult task. Even though actual progress can be made on fixing myself and even though there is little historical evidence that fixing others is or ever has been an effective strategy, we tend to follow the path that leads to little resistance and lots of praise, while ignoring the historical evidence.

Next essay: Utopia, Dystopia, the Social Gospel, and the Return of Christ

Return to “Prayer as Social Justice” index.