Dangerous discipleship: Confusing means and ends

Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Observance | 0 comments

Publican & Pharisee

Publican & Pharisee

If there is any clear danger in a series of blog posts of this kind, it is that someone will not understand the place of observant living in the larger scheme of Christian life. We are concerned here, not with ends or the goal of Christian living, but with the means to those ends.

In his famous conversation with Nicholas Motovilov, St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Prayer, fasting, vigil, and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end” (Little Russian Philokalia 1: St. Seraphim [Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1991], 86 [italics added]). The aim, or end, we are seeking is our salvation; the means to salvation is a life of repentance, part of which includes observant living. To repeat, by “observant living,” I mean the how of Orthodox discipleship: how to live an Orthodox Christian life, day in and day out. Anyone who tries to make of Orthodox practices ends in themselves has missed the point completely, and that person risks very serious pitfalls, for example, of legalism, externalism and spiritual pride.

Legalism arises when someone thinks he can be saved by keeping a set of rules and regulations. Such a person thinks, “If I do this and this and this, I will be a ‘good Orthodox’ and will be saved.” Legalism is an attitude that should be foreign to the Orthodox Christian, but, alas, it is a common affliction. Orthodoxy is not legalistic, and there is no list of things a person can do to be accounted a “good Orthodox.” The measure of all things is the Father’s love for us. We do not try to purchase His love with good conduct. Rather, being in love with Him we seek every possible means to increase that love and to please Him. The means to increasing our love for God is repentance, and here we find the real impetus for observance: observant living serves the pursuit of the Father’s love because it contributes to a repentant way of life. Observance can help you to attain love for God and your neighbor; it is not a substitute for love.

I remember having a hard time with legalism when I converted from the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church had (still has?) minimum requirements for people by which they can gauge themselves “good Catholics,” for example, attending Mass on Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, confessing annually, obeying the marriage laws of the Church, etc. Check off the list, and you’re a “good Catholic.” When I became Orthodox, I assumed there was a similar list of minimum requirements for Orthodox, as well. It took a long time for me to realize that the Orthodox Church doesn’t have a set of minimums, but a set of maximums instead. The bar is set very high for Orthodox Christians, and we often fall short. But better to fall short of high expectations, acknowledge our weakness and strive to do better, than to rest content that we have accomplished a set of minimums and become complacent or proud.

Externalism comes about when someone fails to concern himself with the “internal” realities of Orthodox life: repentance, forgiveness, humility, love, faith, etc. External observance is much easier to achieve… and it is not so hard on the conscience. As a result, some people make external observance and outward conduct the whole domain of their spiritual effort. They may have the appearance of piety, but God forbid that we become whitewashed tombs (see Mt 23.27). Our Lord has told us not to omit the external things, but to give more attention to “the weightier matters of the Law” (Mt 23.23) which are the “internal,” spiritual realities, if you will.

Finally, spiritual pride attacks someone who is pleased with his observance: he says his daily prayers, he tithes, he crosses himself and bows at all the right times. Now all these things are good—in fact, I’m putting a lot of time and effort precisely into describing these sorts of things and getting people to do them—, but we can’t rest there or take too much satisfaction in them. (They are only the means, not the end.) Otherwise, having patted ourselves on the back that we’ve done something good, we become like the Pharisee (“I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men”), when we should strive to be like the Publican and say, “I have done nothing good. O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18.13).

Thoughts or comments?

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