The Half Gospel of Spiritual Death

004 Ladder of Divine Ascent - ancient Russian icon croppedAlthough six hundred and three thousand armed [Israelite] men were said to have left Egypt, no more than two of these entered the promised land…many are said to be called but few are said to be chosen.  Bodily renunciation and removal from Egypt, as it were, will be of no value to us, therefore, if we have been unable to obtain at the same time the renunciation of heart which is more sublime and more beneficial. -Elder Paphnutius [1]

There are some Christians who believe that works of charity and social justice are the primary evidence of being a Christian.  They point to passages such as what is in Matthew 25 regarding the sheep and goats.  Some even attest that the Gospel boils down to nothing other than charitable works toward one’s neighbor.

But is that the entire gospel message?  I don’t believe so, and it seems to me that the Elder Paphnutius, quoted above, did not think so either.  He goes on to quote St. Paul in the Love Chapter [2]:

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

So, how can one live selflessly, but then be condemned as not having love?  The Elder states they could not reach love despite their good works because they were dominated by pride and impatience and clung in their hearts to their former vices and wicked behavior; they [were] utterly unconcerned to purify themselves of these things. [3]

He continues, if I am impatient or angry or envious or proud or inflamed by others’ insults, or if I seek what is my own or think what is evil or do not bear patiently and willingly all the things that could be inflicted upon me, the renunciation and the burning up of the outer man will be of no value to me interiorly if I am still involved in my former vices. [4]

But how could he say such a thing?  Because whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)  The Lord who commanded us to feed the hungry also commanded us to abstain from pride, fornication, and a multitude of other sins.

The Apostle Paul writes, For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17, emphasis mine)  While nobody would argue about pursuing peace and joy, these are only experienced in an emotional manner and not in the Holy Spirit if one is not also abiding in righteousness.

The disciple who intimately leaned upon the breast of Jesus during the last supper writes, For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. (1 John 5:3) And Christ himself says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)  Where do we find his commandments?  In the entirety of the New Testament in which our Lord is either directly quoted or the apostles write with His inspiration through the Holy Spirit.

While works of charity are part of the love of God, they are not the entire Gospel, which includes righteousness: inward and outward.  I believe the interior journey, uprooting pride and the sinful passions, is more important work than even works of charity.  Why?  Because we can give up everything, even our bodies, and yet still lack love for God due to hidden unrighteousness in our hearts.

It is easy to practice virtues that popular culture admires, but difficult to embrace one’s that society disdains (such as chastity and humility).  Doing things that causes us to be liked by society takes no supernatural grace.  But if we are criticizing others secretly in our hearts, or if we are full of pride, then our good works amount to nothing.

Our Lord Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God and the second is to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40).  The only way to fully obey both of these commandments is to journey down the long, difficult road of interior healing of the passions.  Otherwise, we will be like those who boast before God of their good works on the Day of Judgement, yet God will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers. (Matthew 7:23)

In my years of spiritual journeying, I have found no place that has shown me the way into my own heart like the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Here, I have come to realize the wretched monster of sinful passions that is alive and often hidden behind every good work that I do.  In Orthodoxy, God gives us the introspective tools we need for the therapeutic work of salvation within our souls.  God also grants us the grace and strength to not fall into despair when we realize the depth of evil that abides in each human heart.

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.  (John 3:36)  To fully obey is to believe, anything else is a dangerous fairy tale.

Those who fear the Lord will not disobey his words,
    and those who love him will keep his ways.
Those who fear the Lord will seek his approval,
    and those who love him will be filled with the law.
-Wisdom of Sirach 2:15-16


[1] The Conferences by St. John Cassian.  Newman Press, page 127.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:3

[3]  The Conferences by St. John Cassian.  Newman Press, page 127.

[4] ibid

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

4 thoughts on “The Half Gospel of Spiritual Death”

  1. Thank you for this. You have a gift for putting the truths of the Church into simple terms. Glory to God. Khristos Anesti!

    1. Forgive my late reply, Niky. Life has been hectic lately and I had not logged into my website in weeks. I will contact you via the email you used when posting your comments.

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