What Is Good for Us?

southwest-trip-604.jpg

We live in a culture that has a fairly clear idea of what is good for a human being. We have notions of the “American Dream” and other ideals. Self-help books abound, each with its own understanding of what it means to be healthy, successful, well-balanced, etc. Frequently these cultural norms run counter to the writings of the Church fathers – sometimes scandalously so. Consider the following excerpt from the Desert Fathers:

Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.

I am certain that were I to end a meeting in my parish with such a blessing many people would be either confused, maybe even outraged. There are things in our culture that treat fear as always a bad thing; almost nothing in our culture promotes humility (consider things like “American Idol”), lack of food is a curse and Godly sorrow is just the opposite of the spiritual life marketed through most of our culture.

But the writings of the desert fathers have a different point of view. Their goal is the salvation of the human person. There is a recognition that hardship, whether in the form of fear, humiliation, famine or sorrow are frequent tools in the hand of God to bring about the sanctification of our lives and to re-create us a holy beings.

Christ immediately sets out to fast for 40 days following His Baptism. He does not begin His ministry without such hunger. He did not make Himself a stranger to sorrow, but purposefully delayed His travel to help his dying friend Lazarus. There He encounters weeping and anger, questioning and heartache. And there He raised the dead.

I cannot think of a single saint in the Church, from St. Paul and the Apostles forward who were stranger to any of the benedictions offered by Abba Euprepius. But modernized Christianity has made itself a stranger to these things. Theologians of various stripes go so far as to abandon the faith in the face of suffering and sorrow and discover they have no root in themselves. (A recent interview on NPR offers a very thin reason by the scholar Bart Ehrman, of the University of North Carolina, of why he no longer believes in God. Of course, he never knew or was a part of Orthodox Christianity and has simply reached a trajectory set by the modern academy).

The quote from Abba Euprepius is a demonstration of the Tradition – one that not only knew and understood the meaning of suffering and did not fear to offer such a blessing. But such knowledge can only be known in the heart. It is not a syllogism that satisfies the mind. Thus, we are forced to remember that the great and only battleground of the Christian faith is the human heart. Someone’s unbelief only tells me something of their heart at a particular moment. Unbelief does not tell us of the ultimate end of a person, for only the God who know the human heart can know such a thing. But only the human heart can truly know God. For in the heart all things dwell: heaven, hell, God, the demons. Everything is there.

It is little wonder that we seek to live somewhere else. But every other world is but a false or poor construct of the human heart. We must make that difficult journey and enter through the narrow gate if we are to find the wideness of God’s mercy and the infinity that is the fullness of the human person.

20 Responses to “What Is Good for Us?”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The photo is from a state park in Nevada. If you click on the photo, you will see a very small person (the photo was from a distance) free-climbing the rock face. It reminded me of much of my spiritual experience (as seen in my blindness).

  2. CAL Says:

    Father, I’m curious what you think about the heart and its role in the decisions we make for our lives.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the verse quoted, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of Your heart,” and in a number of interpretations. The prevailing notion is that God created us uniquely to do and want different things, and we should not ignore what He has presumably instilled in us. Granted, not everything we want is good for us (a fact I know all too well). But what are we to make of our desires, and how should we handle them—especially regarding vocation, moving and other such life decisions?

  3. skovranok Says:

    It always grieves me to hear Christianity spoken of as “a religion of peace,” when peace is only obtained by incessant spiritual warfare. I wonder how many would feel compelled to abandon Christianity if they encountered it in its “battle array,” instead of the washed-out, wimped-out modern version.

  4. NewTrollObserver Says:

    Father, is the English word “fear” a proper, or accurate, translation? I’m presuming that the “fear” referred to is a bit different than the fear a traveler has of thieves, or the fear a villager has of a lurking tiger.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    I would assume the same. Not the fear that brings bondage. There is also Jude 1:23 “And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.”

    CAL I think in many ways the desires of our heart are overblown, and have as much to do with a consumer society as anything. Most cultures in history have not been so rich as to allow for the kinds of decisions we make. Rather, whatever you do, “do it as unto the Lord,” and “give thanks to God for all things.” Our culture will drive us crazy focusing on what “we want.”

  6. evedyahu Says:

    Father – I agree with you that the desert fathers had a much deeper (and real) faith than many (most?) western (American) Christians these days.

    BUT – are the eastern Christians better? I am afraid that many of them are even more shallow (and definitely less knowledgeable) than many in the West.

    In any case – I like your message. Thank you very much.

  7. November In My Soul Says:

    Father,

    I heard the interview on NPR where Bart Ehrman spoke about losing his faith and becoming an agnostic because Christianity offered him no answer to the question of, “Why is there suffering in the world?” I stumbled over this same question for many years. When I saw all the abused children in our community, when I saw innocents subjected to unspeakable cruelties I asked, like Mr. Ehrman did, “If God is just how can he let this happen?”

    If I remember correctly he basically explained away his existential dilemma by saying that even though there is no just God we should strive to be good people and promote goodness in the world. He failed to fit God into his box.

    I grew up in a world/family where abuse and alcoholism ran rampant. We had to be tough to survive and while I would not wish what happened to me upon anyone else I learned a lot of important lessons. I never expected my life to be easy and had enough sense to try to learn from my mistakes. The same holds true for my spiritual walk. I know it will be tough, I know I will fall down, I know I will partake of many activities that are better left alone. Through this falling down, through this testing I am refined.

    A lot of factors, including the so-called prosperity gospel, instant gratification and affluence run wild contribute to our culture where we fail to see the value of walking through the proverbial fire, of doing without, of putting our egos aside. Great Lent approaches. May we all learn what hunger and humility have to teach us.

  8. Anastasia Theodoridis Says:

    Reminds me of a card I was startled to receive when I was baptized, wishing me “a good struggle”!

  9. epiphanist Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen. I have been trying to find my own blessings in my very limited experience of poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness and persecution. Can’t claim purity of heart unfortunately, except in the sense of being forgiven or washed clean. The blessings are there as promised.

  10. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! I find the blessing of Abba Euprepius very difficult, but as I watch my family live and cope with our wealthy American culture, I cannot help but come to agreement that his words are indeed meant as blessing and direction for children of God.

    Concerning “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart,” I assumed — from my pre-Orthodox days — that this verse meant that when you delight yourself in God, the desire of your heart is God and He will fill your heart with Himself.

    Concerning Bart Erhman, I had heard of the interview, thank you for the link, but I probably do not need to hear the word for word to agree with your “take” on his confession of disbelief. I also agree that a person’s statement of unbelief is only telling of where they are at that moment. I do so appreciate your taking the time to say this as a priest of the Church. You are such an encouragement!

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    everdayahu,

    The desert fathers were both Eastern and Western, European, mideastern, and African. Not the unique property of Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Are Eastern Christians better than others, only God would know. Is Eastern Orthodoxy the Church founded by Christ, yes. Which holds me to a heavier judgment.

  12. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Thursday Highlights Says:

    […] A prayer “Euprepius blessed us with this benediction: May fear, humility, lack of food and Godly sorrow be with you.” and a meditation on what that means. […]

  13. Michelle Says:

    If we are not willing to suffer then are we truly wanting the things of God? As Paul stated, “…it has been granted to you to suffer…” in Philippians. I have been taught that if you are suffering, then you are learning. Ease leads to complacency, I feel.

    That said, it sure is hard to endure.

  14. Dave Whalen Says:

    Once again Father, a great post and a much needed post that I needed. Lately, I have been reading the Seven ecumenical Councils of the Church and found that the Pope of Rome did not have jurisdiction over the whole Church, but was the Patriarch of the West.
    I have found being a Roman Catholic that all the infighting (and much of it very bitter) is a result of the idea of the Supreme Pontiff. Some Catholics want to hold to Traditional ways and Scripture, while others only obey whatever the Pope says. All the fighting within itself surrounds this one idea of the chair of St. Peter being the Vicar of Christ.
    I’m getting tired of it and worn out by it.
    I know that the Orthodox Church is not perfect (for Christ teaches that there will be wheat and tares in it till he returns), but the emphasis is different. My wife and I are wanting to visit an American Orthodox Church not to far from our home. But then there’s that threat of self-excommunication by Rome that anyone who leaves the Pope excommunicates himself. I’m so tired of these threats.
    Not sure what to do. Your posts really help me out and many times bring me comfort knowing that what I believe is right.
    Pray for me.
    Thanks,
    Dave

  15. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Thanks, Father. I am so blessd by this and, as this deserves a wide reading, I have linked to it here: http://teachgoodwriting.blogspot.com

  16. The Scylding Says:

    Good post. The ironical thing is that the headless pursuit of the “American dream”, which is by no means uniquely American, will provide an excess of the affluent equivalent of fear and hunger – namely stress. It too takes away sleep, plays havoc with digestion, and induces all kinds of psychological maladies. Only – it bears no fruit unto salvation, no blessings for eternity.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Scylding,

    To a degree, the “American Dream” is just a marketing slogan as we market our culture to ourselves in a form that makes it sound benign, without examining its consequences to the larger culture, or to many individuals, who for whatever reasons, are not endowed by nature to compete so very well. They unfortunately have to watch the dream on tv. And the even greater tragedy is the baptism of that “dream” by false teachers who in the name of prosperity actually present this as God’s will for believers. It falls so far short of the kingdom of God and the fullness of salvation in Christ. I can think of few instances in history when Christ has been so hijacked to underwrite someone else’s dream (though there are certainly other instances).

    I have stated it this way: In America, we want the spiritual life of Mother Teresa and all the shoes of Imelda Marcos.

  18. Milton Says:

    Great post! I do have a question about one part of it, though:

    “He did not make Himself a stranger to sorrow, but purposefully delayed His travel to help his dying friend Lazarus. There He encounters weeping and anger, questioning and heartache. And there He raised the dead.”

    Didn’t Jesus make clear that He intentionally delayed coming immediately to Lazarus when Mary and Martha sent word to Him that Lazarus was sick? And that so that Lazarus would die and so that Jesus’ raising him from from the dead was for the purpose of showing the glory of God and the glory of the Son of God and that they would believe that the Father did indeed send Him? It makes a long quote here but it seems to me that John 11: 1-42 makes Jesus’ purpose clear, that it was not to get to Jerusalem a few days late to allow time for a quick healing stop but to deliberately give Lazarus time to die so Jesus could raise him as a sign. Or do I misunderstand your post?

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Milton,

    I think you misunderstood. I am following the Scriptures in which it is clear Jesus delays his trip, in order to allow Lazarus time to die that he might rasie him from the dead, to the glory of God. But in so doing, He also Himself entered into sorrow. At the grave, “Jesus wept.” Thus sanctifying our sorrow. “He was acquainted with grief,” Isaiah says.

    Lazarus is a sign, but Jesus was still grieved at His death. Death is indeed a great grief and He did not treat it, or the grief of Mary and Martha lightly.

  20. Milton Says:

    Got it! Thanks for the clarification, and I very much agree with you. I know and feel the living presence of Jesus who rejoices in my joys in Him and bears me up through my sorrows that He also shares. Glory to God!

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