Many have accomplished mighty acts, raised the dead, toiled for the conversion of the erring, and have wrought great wonders; and by their hands they have led many to the knowledge of God. Yet after these things, these same men who quickened others, fell into vile and abominable passions and slew themselves, becoming a stumbling block for many when their acts were made manifest.
-St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 4
In my Protestant years, most of the emphasis on being a Christian was outward: street evangelism, acquiring and practicing various “gifts of the Spirit,” feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, prayer meetings, and book and Bible studies. Great oratory skills were a plus, and those who could utilize their gift of speaking to motivate others could reach celebrity-status in their community, and potentially across the Christian world.
I kept myself busy attempting to acquire as many of the skills and experiences mentioned above. Outwardly, many thought highly of me. Inwardly I was a mess.
The above quote from St. Isaac addresses those whose lives revolve around what they believe is their ministry and their mission. He knew or heard of people who worked miracles, even raising the dead, and who evangelized so effectively that they were drawing large crowds into the church. However, because those people did not learn inner stillness and complete self-control, they were subject to their sinful passions and ended up falling into some kind of scandal. Consequently, the people whom they persuaded to join the church would fall away. There was no lasting effect from their ministry.
St. Isaac makes some radical claims in his homily, stating it is better to love stillness than to feed the starving or convert a multitude; it is better to free yourself from the slavery of sin than to free people from slavery; it is better to be incapable of speaking yet possessing inward knowledge of God “than to gush forth rivers of instruction from the keenness of your intellect and from a deposit of hearsay and writings of ink;” it is better to raise your soul up from the death it has experienced in its attachment to sin than to miraculously raise the dead.
Ten years ago, I would have tossed this book aside, laughing and saying to myself, “What does he know? Has he ever read the New Testament? Has he ever heard of the Great Commission?”
If Orthodoxy has shown me anything, it has been the opening of my eyes to realize the depth of my sinfulness, my weakness, and my soul’s pitiful state. I reveled in an arrogant delusion years ago, and now, I am still deluded, but am actively fighting against the lens my ego perpetually places in front of my spiritual eyes.
What I find interesting about Orthodoxy is that has the potential to turn us into the greatest saints through this inward journey or the most satanic Pharisee if we pay attention only to the outward details. Great Lent provides us with this challenge every year:
Will I fast the best I can in an effort to help my soul and spirit gain control over my body so that I no longer serve the passions of my flesh, and thereby, draw closer to Christ inwardly? Or will I get caught up in the rules of the fast and the busyness of the cycle of services while curiously watching others to see how strict they keep the rules and to see who is present and absent from the extra church services?
Will I go to confession, repenting of my sins and blaming myself for everything with the hope that, if any excuses are to be made, God will make them for me in the end? Or will I tell the priest all about how others are tempting me or driving me to think, speak, or act in ways that I know are not grace-filled?
My dear readers, please pray for me. I pray that God “would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:16-19)
The featured image was taken from tulsaworld.com and is of Rob Bell, but I am in no way implying that Rob Bell has had some kind of moral lapse. I was merely searching for an image of a preacher in front of a large crowd.
One last note on St. Isaac’s quote: his point was not that there should be no preachers or miracle workers, but that we should all attain to a level of inward healing from the passions before we attempt to embark on any sort of ministry. We should fix ourselves before we attempt to work on others. Alas, the latter is significantly easier than the former. Some people rush into ministry after an exciting encounter with God. St. Isaac’s advise: don’t do it. Stay still, stay where you are, and continue to deepen and strengthen the inward man for the hard years ahead.
2 thoughts on “Fixing Ourselves First”
Wonderful post! This was my experience essentially. Outwardly I had attained the place where I wanted to be–in front of people! My own journey to Orthodoxy revealed to me exactly what you (and St. Isaac) wrote about. Thank you for the reminder of who I was and who I am.