In Eastern Orthodoxy, I am confronted with an uncomfortable fact: the work of my salvation is in progress.
In my Protestant years, I basically learned, “You’ve already been saved, everything is done, now go and enjoy life.” But Orthodoxy confronts me with an entirely different path of salvation. Here, I am taught that God accomplished everything on His part to save me. But now I must do my part.
It is not enough to say, “I am a son of God!” or “Jesus, I want to go to Heaven!” I must live like a son of God, like a heavenly creature.
In the Eastern Orthodox understanding of salvation, God became a man, putting on the human nature and uniting it to the divine nature. This divinized Man then took upon Himself all of our human frailty. “That which was not assumed cannot be redeemed,” and in his ineffable love, our Lord Jesus even assumed death itself in the most humiliating and public manner, nailing the sin of the world onto the cross, and bearing its weight into the grave. After releasing the captives in Hades, He arose on the third day, ascended into Heaven, and seated His divinized human nature at the right hand of God.
The afterlife is the culmination of this life. If we are struggling to be like the God-Man Jesus Christ and unified to him in every thought, word, and deed, then we are slowly becoming sons of God. However, if we disregard that calling, then we are becoming sons of darkness.
Heaven and Hell are not places that we will go when we die, but rather states of being in which we will find ourselves when we all meet God. Either through our struggles and repentance we will find that we are unified to the Divine Consuming Fire or through our lack of repentance we will find the Fire to be hostile to our inner state of being.
If we have struggled to become like God, then we will find that our soul has been restored to both the image and likeness of God. In the end, Like will meet with like, and the fiery divine love will be consummated to perfection within us.
However, if we have pursued our own will, if we have not thrown off all worldliness and we still cling to the sinful pleasures and attachments of this life, then when we meet God there will be no likeness to Him within us. We will find the Consuming Fire to be the antithesis of our existence and experiencing God will be something horrible.
During this first week of Great Lent, as we sing through the Canon of St. Andrew, I am reminded that no matter how hard I have tried, no matter how much I have struggled toward God, I have still failed miserably.
This admission of failure has been one of the most freeing things for me in Orthodoxy, as odd as that might sound. In my Protestant years, my thoughts were more like, “I am a son of God, I am ‘more than a conqueror,’ I am perfect through Christ’s sacrifice, so why am I still a mess? Why am I so restless all of the time? Why am I ensnared in a continual cycle of sin? Why, if I am already free, do I feel like a slave to sin?”
In those days, I realized that my internal state did not match up with my theology. Something had to change, and fortunately, God led me out of a self destructive path and into the Orthodox Church.
Here I am confronted with what I already knew intuitively: my life is a mess, and that is not ok. I am powerless to change myself, but I must still make an effort to do so. The grace of God then comes and fills all that is lacking.
So, we ask for mercy and forgiveness, from God and one another. We sing penitential songs, we weep for our sins, and we find the words of scripture to be true,
Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)