There is an emptiness in many of us. We can feel it when we are alone, not having a good day, and/or there are no distractions. It is like a gaping hole. Sometimes we may even cry out to God in desperation, “Where are you?”
Recently, I heard a contemporary pop/rock Christian song in which they sang, “Turn your face to me” several times. It reminded me of my spiritual journey. All the years of searching and finding temporary satisfaction; whether that satisfaction fix came through a pumped up worship set, a motivational sermon, or bonding with those in my community.
But the warm fuzzies would fade away and I would once again feel that nagging restlessness in me. Certainly it was not too much to expect a warm feeling of intimacy with God every day, was it?
In his book The Idolatry of God, Peter Rollins makes a case that everyone has this feeling of emptiness within them, and that we often turn to religion (or other things) in order to fill the emptiness without truly seeking God Himself. While I don’t agree with his final point (that we will always feel empty and we should simply embrace it), I do think he makes several good observations in the book.
I have learned over the past couple of years that God never turns his face away from us. But there was certainly a reason I infrequently felt his presence.
There are these ugly things inside of us. Often they are called passions in the Bible and in Orthodox theology. They are sins that rule and dominate us. In my childhood, I was taught that Jesus died for our sins so that we don’t have to suffer. We are “saved,” the work is done, and now we just need to make it through this life. It created an illusion of freedom that I could tell did not truly exist. The truth is that we have these foreign tyrants ruling from the throne of our hearts, even if we are Christians. They are alien invaders.
They manifest themselves in various manners, but are quite obvious with addictive behavior: when someone feels pulled to do something they know they shouldn’t and may not even really want to do. Those of us who have been there know that we hate it and we often times end up hating ourselves. “Why do I keep doing that?! Why can’t I be free of this stupid cycle of sin?!” It is as if we are not even in control of our own bodies.
The passions toss us around and cause us to do their bidding. They are horrible, yet we submit to them because we honestly know no way of escape. We begin to wonder, “What does it mean to have freedom in Christ? Is it something that will happen in the next life and we just have to scrape by, bloody and depressed, in this life until we get to the glory on the other side?” That was my impression.
The deeper we go in our spiritual journey, the more our eyes will be opened to the passions in our lives. That is good though.
If we don’t remove the fierce tyrants, then we can’t feel God’s presence. It is because of their existence in our hearts that we shout to God, “Show me your face!” and yet feel nothing but emptiness.
If you think of God as being like electricity, then sins (even little ones) are like insulation that keep “God-electricity” out of our hearts. Electricity is powerful, but the smallest amount of insulation can stop its flow; or at least greatly diminish it.
I have found that much of the life of an Orthodox Christian is dedicated to the process of cleaning off this built-up insulation and corrosion. As we scrub away at the passions with Grace, we will feel more in touch with God. That is what is meant when we are told to put “the old man” to death; to mortify our flesh.
A couple of years ago, I learned that these passions that so violently sat upon the throne of my heart can be cast down through the Grace-filled disciplines of life and prayer in the Orthodox Church. However, few things want to die quietly. The alien tyrants will try to fight their way back in frequently, but through continual repentance and prayer, we find that though we struggle with sin, it no longer controls or dominates us. This is the first taste of true freedom in Christ.
And not only will we feel it, we ourselves will actually change and transform to become more like God – because in truth, we are being unified to God’s deifying presence within us.
Interestingly, when that change happens, we don’t always notice it so much. We look at ourselves and think, “I’ve come a long way, but I know I still have a lot of work to do in my soul.” But other people may notice. Sometimes they may even be drawn to us because God’s loving energy/electricity is beginning to flow through us more vibrantly.
FINDING FREEDOM AND LIFE
There are few overnight successes in this journey to spiritual freedom. But the freedom promised us is real and it is attainable in this life. The Orthodox call this process Purification. Paul writes that we are to be like athletes who train themselves to run for the crown.
That means discipline. This training, this strengthening I have only found in the life of the Orthodox Church. I am not writing this to try to persuade people to convert; I am simply telling you my story: where one dying soul found the Elixir of Life. There are few instant results here, but I am confident that the fathers of the Orthodox Church have very plainly revealed to us the path of cleansing our souls so that we can experience the rich indwelling of Christ. You can try to cut your own path, but there’s a highway to freedom, beauty, and life that is open and has already been paved.
For more information on deepening your walk with God, feel free to check out my prior post, Finding the Kingdom Within and the resources that I have listed at the bottom of that page.