“In Him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
“My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)
In part one of this series; I mentioned that we need God. In fact, He is the ultimate answer to all of our problems, our deepest need. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and the fountain of living water. Yet as the prophet Jeremiah pointed out many centuries ago, people consistently don’t look to God as the answer, but have developed their own strategies to meet their needs (cracked cisterns!) But our strategies, even at their best, work only imperfectly. In the end, they do not satisfy. Here are two questions that we should ask ourselves:
What strategies do I have for handling my problems, or the stress, monotony, boredom, frustration, etc. of my life?
How have these been working for me?
Even if we can argue that our strategies have been working well, a further question to ask ourselves is: “By doing this, am I doing my own will, or God’s will? For our most basic sin, our most basic problem is self-willfulness. We have left God as our rightful Master, and we have gone our own way, taken command of our own lives. In this sense, “I did it my way” is the basic sin of mankind, the very story of the prodigal son. “We all like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) We want to order our own lives. This is a most basic manifestation of self-will. Yet, self-will is our enemy! We are called to make war on it! This is what “ascesis” (the ascetic struggle, the war against the sinful passions) is all about. It is an ironic fact that there is ultimately no long-term happiness in self-will. Think about it. Is it not a demonstrable fact of history and everyday life that the most selfish people are the most miserable? The saints were basically self-less and filled with love and peace and joy. True growth in the spiritual life involves surrender, which means a “giving up” of self-will. Our Lord Jesus modelled true spiritual surrender in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed to the Father; “Your will, not mine, be done!”
How many Christians are not surrendered! Many, many call Christ “Lord,” and yet all they have done is added a Christian veneer to a self-run life. In the end, it is they who are in charge of their lives, not God. But in this, we have to die. Our Lord Jesus was crystal clear when he said: "If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) The essence of this death is dying to our self-will.
Brothers and sisters in Christ! It is time to give our lives back to their rightful Master! “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is here!” (Matt. 4:17) “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things (all the things you are worried about) will be added to you as well.” (see Matt 6:25-33) If we will just put God first, i.e. doing his will, rather than our own, He promises to take care of us. He will take care of the rest, but we have to trust Him.
What does it mean in actual practice to trust God? In practice, this means that we need to trust the Church. We have to give up self-reliance, which is another form of self-will. If I rely on “my own understanding of the faith,” or “my own interpretation of the Bible,” I am ultimately still just relying on myself!
“When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you (plural in Greek – “you all”) into all the truth.” (John 16:13) This is a promise concerning the Church. As Orthodox Christians we believe in the Church. We believe that Jesus Christ is truly the “head” of His Church, in other words, He is the leader of the Church; He is in charge. And we also believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and has guided her throughout her 2000 year history. The gates of Hades (Hell, Death) will not prevail against the Church of Christ! (Matt. 16:18) We mean all of this, when we say in the Creed “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” We also say that we believe “in the Holy Spirit.” Do we mean what we say?
“So what, then, should govern the outward ordering of our lives? For those who want to put God first, the answer has to be His Church. So this means that we trust the Church, and we listen to what the Church tells us. So when the Church tells us to fast in Lent – we fast! When the Church tells us that we need to go to confession in Lent – we go! We are called to let the Church guide us on how to order our lives. But for this to happen, we have to surrender! We have to die to our self-will, our rebelliousness. Many go to church, yet do not listen to the Church’s guidance. This is like going to the spring of living water, yet refusing to drink! In part 4, we will discuss the most important spiritual discipline.