I recently wrote about the Restless Emptiness that so many of us feel. As I mentioned before, the reason we feel restless and empty inside is because we have these alien tyrants called the “passions” ruling us from the throne of our hearts.
My recent posts have followed the same theme: diagnosing and finding the proper therapy for the emptiness that we have within us. This post falls within that theme.
Most of this blog will be based on the teachings of Elder Paisios; taken from the book Spiritual Struggle. I will often refer to him as “the Elder.”
ON NOT JUSTIFYING OURSELVES
Like the Beatitudes that Jesus taught, the teachings on judgment and justice of the Orthodox Church take the wisdom of the world, turn it upside down, and slam it on its head.
Both the scriptures and the fathers of the Church are clear on this topic. And the teaching is likely the opposite of anything you’ve heard growing up in our culture:
If we are ridiculed or judged because we have done even the slightest amount of wrong (which is 99.9% of the time for me), then we are to endure the judgment, ridicule, and harsh words of others as a healing balm for our souls. This is part of taking up the cross and following Jesus, who did not die to free us from suffering but rather that we could suffer and die with Him. We cannot be raised with Him if we are not willing to die with Him.
When I am criticized, I find that if I carefully examine my thoughts, motivations, and actions, then I can usually find some degree of fault within myself. In doing so, I realize I must accept the insult and injury as a form of crucifying my ego.
Regarding this topic Elder Paisios states, “One who justifies himself with excuses makes no progress in the spiritual life, nor can he find any inner peace.” While speaking with a group of nuns, he expounded this saying,
I must understand that when I try to justify myself with excuses, I’m in a wrong state of mind. I cut off my communication with God and am deprived of divine Grace, because divine Grace does not come to one who is in a wrong state. The moment a person justifies the unjustifiable, he is separated from God…There is no stronger barrier to the Grace of God than excuses!
BUT WHAT IF…??!!
“But what if it really isn’t my fault, and I am the victim?”
There are times that we are accused of wrong doing, whether through a misunderstanding or the malicious intent of another person. Whatever the case, the Church Fathers teach us that we must endure this persecution as Christ endured the cross. This is happening for our salvation.
Elder Paisios states that there are four stages of maturity in receiving injustice. For example, let’s say somebody hurls an insult at you.
- Stage 1 – We hurl an insult back and we feel upset or perhaps we believe we have a “righteous” anger.
- Stage 2 – We feel anger arising inside of us; we are hurt, but we hold our tongue and walk away.
- Stage 3 – The insult does not upset us.
- Stage 4 – Elated joyfulness at suffering injustice. This is what the apostles experienced when they were persecuted and they rejoiced, praising God that they were found worthy to suffer for Him. (Acts 5:41)
Again, the Elder teaches:
When you accept an injustice and are prepared to justify your neighbor, you accept Christ himself into your heart, Who was often wronged and maligned. It is then that Christ cannot be evicted from your heart and fills you with peace and gladness.
For me, this is by far the minority as there is often fault within myself when faced with a difficult situation. If we do not find fault within ourselves, we still must be careful of not falling into the trap of the “martyr complex” and assuming everyone is out to persecute us. When that happens, we become blind to the passions within us and slowly die spiritually as we pat ourselves on the back every time we’re insulated saying, “You’re such a good person; God is going to richly reward you for suffering this persecution.”
The exceptions to quietly accepting injustice include a gentle and careful explanation of ourselves if our perceived actions/intentions have hurt others because of a misunderstanding, or if we are attempting to support a family and the false accusations could cause financial distress (i.e. being falsely accused of a crime or being fired for a misunderstanding at work), or if it could tear a family apart (i.e. if someone falsely accuses a married person of having an affair).
Aside from those few exceptions (and perhaps others given to you by your spiritual father), we should receive injustice with joy knowing that by doing so we are co-suffering with Christ and will receive the reward of His rich presence and Grace in our lives. If Christ could endure insults, spitting, mocking, beatings, and crucifixion for us, can’t we endure an occasional unjustified insult for Him?
BUT WHAT IF WE KNOW THAT SOMEBODY ELSE IS WRONG
There are times we see others performing actions that we know are wrong. What should we do then? The Elder provides a couple of examples,
He who does his spiritual work correctly finds excuses for everyone else in order to justify their shortcomings, but never justifies himself, even when he is in the right…
For example, he sees someone stealing and thinks to himself, “If I had not been helped by God, I would now be stealing more than he is”…Or, if he sees a certain shortcoming in another person, be it serious or trivial, he will excuse him with good and positive thoughts. He thinks of his own many shortcomings…
In other words, we are to take all of that creative energy we previously used to justify our own behavior and use it instead to excuse the sins that we perceive in others. Two exceptions would be when we are in a position of spiritual authority or if someone is asking us for some form of guidance.
Self-justification leads to our destruction.
We read about it in the opening chapters of Genesis when Adam and Eve fell. What did they do? Adam blamed Eve who in turn blamed the serpent. Then they were all exiled from Paradise. And in the same way, when we excuse our behavior, we exile ourselves from experiencing Paradise right now with God and possibly in the future.
When someone is constantly justifying himself, considering that others don’t understand him, others are unjust, and he is the suffering victim, from then on such a person is beyond control…Self-justification is a satanic interpretation of reality.
The Elder goes on to state that those who refuse to receive insults or even reprimands are beyond spiritual help. They have abandoned the way of God and, no matter how religious they appear, they are on a very dark road.
WRAPPING IT UP
This blog is meant to be merely a brief introduction to this relevant subject that most of us face. For a more in-depth treatment, books such as Spiritual Struggle, The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, and The Arena may help.
As Americans, we are taught to claim our rights. In fact, in this modern age with its ideas of progress, the teachings of Christ and His Church are thought to be backward. “What do you mean accept injustice? That’s so barbaric!” And we begin to find all sorts of reason or excuses, no matter how extreme, to say that this stuff isn’t true and doesn’t apply to us.
But as the scriptures make clear, God’s ways are not the world’s ways, no matter how much the world says their ideas are good, progressive, or modern. Unfortunately, most of us here in this culture have been brainwashed by its message of feel-good self-justification. Those attitudes contribute to a culture that struggles greatly with depression, despondency, and even suicide. In this we see the Church’s wisdom: turn the other cheek and do not judge others.
It is difficult, especially at first. What I found to be helpful was when I felt irritation or anger arising in me, to quickly stop and examine myself. I try to find some degree of fault within me and then pray that the Lord blesses the one who made me upset. By doing so I judge myself in a healthy manner and strive with the Lord toward purification of my heart. If I truly am not at fault, then I will try to remember to praise God for allowing me to suffer with Him.
I’m far from being perfect in what I outlined above. It is a process, and like everything else in the spiritual life, there won’t be any overnight success. But becoming aware of a spiritual sickness is the first step toward healing.