The Truth of Ourselves

Abba Poemen believed that the only time you could observe a person’s true character was when that person was tempted.

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

There is obvious wisdom in the saying about Abba Poemen: it is not our strengths that best define us, but our weaknesses. In our culture, where virtual reality – both of the entertainment world and the political world – are defined by carefully managed personalities (not to be confused with “person”), it is hard for us to deal straightforwardly with our weaknesses. There is a tendency to think of our weaknesses as something lacking – “what I am not good at” – and to define our reality by our strengths – “my talents, my gifts.”

I have long observed that a person’s strengths are rarely the things that comprise the gate to the Kingdom of God. People rarely turn to God or the Church because of the success of a “strength.” Frequently, we come to God in desperation in the midst of failure where our own frailty and mortality are best revealed.

St. Paul heard from God, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

I suspect that I am no different than others and that I prefer for people to see my strengths and talents and to cover my weaknesses as any other shameful thing. But it is a habit that hides from us the truth of ourselves. Not that we are defined by our weaknesses – but our weaknesses reveal the true character of who we are as we stand before God.

What would it mean for me to stand before God and say I have a talent for writing? Before Christ Who is the Word and Wisdom of God – what boasting would there be in a mediocre talent? In what way would such a talent, even a great talent reveal to us anything of who God is or who we are in Him?

And yet as we come to God in our weakness and in our failure, there we frequently find the door to our heart and the beginning of true prayer. Man’s proper existence before God is a state of constant repentance (not a cosmic guilt but a constant sense of our need of God and our emptiness before Him). What is there in our strength that ever brings us to repentance?

I have always found it troubling that many in our modern culture judge St. Paul rather harshly. He is caricatured as a misogynist, as judgmental, as very harsh. In truth, we know more about him than probably anyone in Scripture apart from Christ Himself. And we know much about his weakness – and only through his own testimony.

What humility is found in his words to the Corinthians (first letter)!

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God (2:1-5).

I try to imagine a modern day evangelist describing himself in such terms. We value success and crave to hear stories of success.

Life goes on, and despite our championing of success and strength, our weaknesses are often revealed, accompanied by shame and embarassment. For some, such revelations are the destruction of all they valued. But of course, all that is revealed is true character. For others, such revelations are like a new birth, the beginning of true knowledge and the gate of paradise.

But who would accept an invitation to shame?

Christ did.

19 Responses to “The Truth of Ourselves”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Picture: Caravaggio’s Conversion of St. Paul

  2. Elizabeth in Alaska Says:

    Thank you, father… your words, as always, touch my heart and make me think.

  3. Rebecca Trotter Says:

    Yet at the same time Paul had confidence enough in the work that God had done and was doing in his life to exhort others to imitate him. I have often thought that if someone, no matter how gifted, called and blessed, were to walk into a church today and speak of their faith as Paul does we would turn on them as terribly arrogant.

    Although weakness almost always opens the door, at some point I think that our gifts and strengths do lead us back to God. If we are using our gifts in such a way that they point people to the source of those gifts, and we understand that our talents are not of us or for us, I have found that an awe filled humility can develop. Awe because we know that we are being used as vessels for the Living God – something we are utterly unworthy of. And humility at knowing that what is good in us come from God and not our own strength.

    Our weaknesses allow room for God’s strengths. But I have seen where we can come to feel comfortable with the idea that we are weak while we hide the light which God has lit in us under a bushel basket. I always hate it when a leader at church or bible study says, “I’m struggling right along with everyone else.” We all struggle, but if that is the center of your walk with the Christ, then how is God being made manifest in your life? I wish more leaders had the nerve to say, “I am just a sinner like anyone else, yet God has chosen to do a great work in my life. I have been and am being transformed into more than I ever could have dreamed through the love of God and the indwelling of His Spirit. Let me show you so you can experience this great thing too.”

    So, I guess I would say that in the face of the Living God, I would view my gift for something like writing not as inadequate or irrelevant. Instead, I think I would express awe and gratitude that God would deign to dwell within my heart and make Himself manifest through me – no matter how small or large that way may be.

    Blessings!🙂
    Rebecca

  4. The Wandering Seeker Says:

    […] https://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/05/29/the-truth-of-ourselves/   « Philo of Alexandria |   […]

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Rebecca,

    But it is St. Paul who says, “I will boast of my weaknesses.” We have plenty of Church leaders out there who boast of their strengths – it’s a fairly common phenomenon. Humility is rarely seen – and weaknesses are generally well hidden. But it is in weakness that we will know God. God became weak for our sake and it is the weakness of the Cross we are invited to take up. St. Paul says that we should “have this mind among yourselves – how that Christ Jesus who though He was in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal to God, but emptied Himself…” Phil 2:5ff. It is in that same emptiness that we will find His fullness.

    It is not a normal practice in Orthodoxy to speak about “the great things God is doing in me,” at least not in a public setting – privately before a confessor or Spiritual Father perhaps – to be sure that God is at work and not my own delusion. But then to keep a matter secret. If God is doing something great within someone, it’s truth will be made manifest by its reality rather than by our words.

    This is not a rule of the Church, but simply what is the common spiritual practice. I think there is wisdom in it. There are Christian traditions that boast about spiritual gifts. It is foreign to Orthodox practice. We should be thankful to God for all things, but for some things we give thanks in secret.

  6. david p Says:

    Thank you for this insight..david

  7. starsofgrace Says:

    Thank you for the message. It is timely and needed in our lives lest we forget in pursuit of fame and success.

  8. Adevărul despre noi înşine sau despre ruşinea mântuirii « Teologie pentru azi Says:

    […] din limba engleză şi adaptare a textului părintelui Stephen Freeman, de Pr. Dorin Picioruş. Publicat […]

  9. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen. Thanks also for taking the time to respond to Rebecca Trotter. I appreciate her comments, also, but as someone still “new” to Orthodox practice and worship, I needed to hear your thoughts on her comments.

  10. Atlanta Says:

    Amen Father! What a beautiful post! Thank you. You are a gifted writer, you have penetrating insight. Keep going.

  11. Juliana Says:

    Christ is Risen!
    Thank you so much Father Stephen for this post and for you comments. To keep the good work God is doing in us “secret” is about as counter-cultural a thing as I can imagine. I was thinking about the people I know who are my modern day St. Pauls (those who inspire and point the way) and wondering if I could remember if they have ever held themselves up as examples of God’s goodness. I can unfailingly say that they have not. What they have done is love me in my weaknesses, prayed with me and for me, suggested good reading materials that shed God’s light on my many areas of darkness, and shown me , in their humble transparency, that God does indeed do Great Works in all of us. Never have they actually said, “follow my example.” And yet, it is their example I most want to follow. Yet another Christian paradox.
    Juliana

  12. The Scylding Says:

    This issue of shame/humility might be closely related to our insane views on happiness vs melancholy – happy and successfull is the ruling paradigm by which we measure everything. This morning I was listening to an interview on CBC radio with EricWilson on his new book on the subject – I made into a blogpost if anybody’s interested. But suffice to say that the long term effects of the happiness culture (and the success/strength-focussed culture written about here) is the impoverisation of humanity. Pain, melancholy, weakness, humility – often, those are the things the true saints, the real giants are made of.

  13. Lauren Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

  14. AR Says:

    While I appreciate the Christian humility that Orthodoxy encourages, I do think I understand why someone would say what Rebecca says here.

    It was essential for me to understand that we come from nothing, are nothing compared to God’s self-existance, and would go to nothing did he not sustain us. But I also needed to realize that, to use the current illustration, the meanest ability with words does image in some small way the glory of God the Word. I think it is necessary to defend this truth, not against Orthodox humility, but against those who would make of human beings a positive evil, slandering the image of God.

    The view of human sinfulness current today has us as so evil that nothing good can truly become part of us until heaven. This creates a very debilitating guilt. What’s more it creates discouragement. While I did meet up with a few who liked to vaunt their spiritual success, and while testimony circles certainly encouraged an unwise display of personal experience, I also became discouraged with the lack of trustworthy models of Christian maturity. It seemed the only spiritual experience we heard spoken to, credibly, was about the sin that never gave way and the darkness that never receded. To witness to this, and then equate one’s own religion to that of St. Paul, was indeed a denial of the power of Christ.

    So while Fr. Stephen’s warnings are so very needed for me as I begin to try to follow the Orthodox path, I do remember a time when I wanted to be reassured that there was any real experience of Christ available to me at all in our day.

    I don’t know for certain that this is what Rebecca was talking about, but her words seemed to speak to my past experience. And although I now have those models of Christian growth that I once lacked, it is only through experience that I realize how little they really need to say, in person, about themselves.

    On a very practical note, I think this void is one that, in Orthodoxy, is partly filled by saints. They are no longer in danger of pride and delusion, and we are not in danger of judging them too soon. Meanwhile, we experience the love and authority of which we hear them speak plainly, in a more veiled manner from the humble Christians around us.

  15. Fr. James Early Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Any chance you might gather up all your blog entries and combine them into a book? If so, I will be the first to buy it!

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    AR

    Your points are well made, indeed I thought in much the same vein wrestling whether to write what I did in response to Rebecca’s thoughtful comment. And I think you put your finger precisely on the place where we turn for encouragement – the lives of the saints – including contemporary or near contemporary saints. It saves us from speaking too much about ourselves, but I would not know anything about the inner life were it not for reading the writings of saints and the writings of those who knew them.

    St. Paul uses the clever device of saying, “I knew a man…” when he spoke of his most unutterable experiences. Our weakness and sin is something to be brought into the light of God where we are healed, and where, rightly treated, our weakness and sin birth humility and help us open our heart, indeed, in most cases, to first find the heart.

    Fr. James,

    I’ve had some book conversations, mostly about the 1 storey, 2 storey writings. I appreciate your encouragement.

  17. Al Says:

    Christ is Risen!

    Thank you for this writing. I enjoy reading the posts that you write, they help me.

    People rarely turn to God or the Church because of the success of a “strength.” Frequently, we come to God in desperation in the midst of failure where our own frailty and mortality are best revealed.

    The above is very true for myself, I often forget to thank God for the things that work out well and to my advantage, but when I am going through hard times that is when I usually always remember to ask for God’s help and I turn to Him.

  18. Daniel Says:

    Thank you for your challenging words. They have proven true in my own life. My strengths and “achievements” have often become a source of pride, and are the means of some of my greatest falls.

    That being said, I believe words from some artists such as Madeleine L’engle also have some validity. Her gift was as a writer. She believed that true art is sacramental, incarnational, and a form of prayer.

    While Madeleine L’engle was very humble about her own limited capabilities as a writer, she was also very aware of how her gift as a writer was what allowed her to recognize her own moral and spiritual weaknesses. It was when she slacked, and buried her “talent” that she could not cope with life. This was also where she felt blinded to her own self, regardless of what was going on around her.

    I have also talked with an iconographer on several occasions. Much like Madeleine L’engle, he warned me that my own weaknesses and unresolved issues will surely show through my own art. This is true no matter what the media, form or subject of the art may be.

    After finally starting to journal again, and now entering into the world of blogging, I can say with confidence that this is very true.

  19. Sbdn. Lucas Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Your post re-presents the question (for me): can we define ‘humility’ as simply ‘knowing the truth of oneself’ inasmuch as we are able, and with all that entails in the Light of Christ? [cf. the opposite of humility being ‘pride’ which could be defined as ‘delusion about oneself’?] Christos Voskrese!

    the sinner,
    Sbdn Lucas

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