Sunday, August 24, 2008

Growth through Failure

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel lesson (Matthew 17:14-23), we saw that the disciples of our Lord were unable to expel a demon from a severely troubled young man. As we consider this failure, we need to keep in mind that the disciples had previously been given authority by Christ to cast out demons, and had succeeded at this many times. Nevertheless, this particular demon proved too much for them, requiring Christ Himself to remove it and restore the boy to his father. Following this, the disciples met with the Lord privately to ask Him why they could not cast it out. As we heard, He gave them two reasons. First, that they lacked sufficient faith, and second, that this type of demon could be removed only through prayer and fasting.

Chances are most of us will never be called upon to perform any exorcisms in the course of our lives, but that doesn’t mean that any of us are exempt from what has been called the unseen war. Spiritual warfare is a characteristic of the Christian’s life in this fallen world, and no one of us is immune to this reality. We may not seek the fight, but it is brought to us on a daily basis and we must stand and answer or be destroyed.

St. Peter wrote, “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Far too many Christians ignore this warning and willingly engage in sinful deeds and habits as if they were not inviting their own destruction by the lion of souls.

St. Paul informed us that, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:1). And on a level a little closer to home and easier to understand, we wrestle also against our own sins and carnal passions, against the wrong desires and powerful urgings emanating from our broken humanity. We wrestle against every force or impulse, whether acting upon us internally or externally, that would have us abandon God and His path of healing to choose a way leading to our certain destruction.

Because the nature of Christianity is one of spiritual warfare and because the stakes for us are so high, the answer that Jesus gave to His disciples regarding why they failed their spiritual challenge is one that we should pay close attention to as well. It doesn’t matter if we’re apostles, monastics, or just ordinary Orthodox faithful, the principles He presented here are equally applicable and important to all of us.

Our Lord spoke first of the need for faith, telling the disciples that they failed to subdue the demon because they lacked faith. Now that might seem a bit strange since, as I pointed out, the disciples had been going about casting out demons in Christ’s name as well as healing all manners of disease. Why suddenly would they seem to lose faith? Perhaps the problem was that they never really had faith to begin with, and it took this incident to reveal that.

Is it possible to cast out demons or cause miraculous healings in the name of Jesus and not have faith? Let’s ask another question: is it possible to call oneself a Christian, to be baptized, to live morally, to go to church every week for years, and not have faith? Actually, that is entirely possible isn’t it? It is very easy for us to settle for a superficial Christian experience in place of anything truly transformational and sanctifying.

We might simply settle for emotional comfort, as if finally sensing the love of God for us makes everything right in our lives. We might settle for intellectual satisfaction, as if being the biblical or patristic expert made us all the more Orthodox. We might settle for a sense of duty and purpose by constantly volunteering in the parish, or by pursuing some ministry or “calling” we feel we have received. There are all kinds of things we settle for because on some level they meet a need within us and filling that need feels good. Many Christians become trapped by these things, mistaking them for an experience of God Himself.

The disciples had been given temporary power to cast out demons and to heal the sick. But the Lord knew that they were nowhere near being mature in their faith, that they did not yet truly know God and had not learned to trust in Him. He knew that they had many hidden sins within them, and that they were still men of the flesh more than men of the Spirit. Thus He allowed them to see the limitations of this “power” in order to open their hearts and minds to something better.

It’s as if the Lord said to them, “To be given authority over unclean spirits is a small thing. I will show you something greater, a life of faith and prayer and fasting, of ascetic discipline and spiritual struggle, a way by which you can put to death the old man and reveal the new man, formed by the Spirit of God. I will show you the way to become true warriors and victors over every form of evil, beginning first with that evil which still lingers within you. I will show you the way of salvation”.

When the Lord spoke to them of faith, prayer and fasting, He was introducing them to nothing less than the Christian life itself, which would be ushered in at Pentecost. And please notice He does not speak of faith only, but of faith and prayer and fasting. Asceticism is not something that was made up by later monks and church fathers looking for something to do; it was practiced and taught by our Lord Himself. Jesus prayed and fasted, not because He needed to, but as an example to us of what we need. Ascetical practices are just as important as faith to the renewal of man because transformation and salvation is an experience of the whole man, soul and body.

As an aside, I find it interesting that Jesus allowed His disciples to first involve themselves with the healing and exorcising of others before He directed them to the the greater work of the healing and spiritual cleansing of themselves. Over the years, I have observed that most Christians follow a nearly identical pattern, with our first instinct always being to try to change other people. We want to “save” others perhaps, or improve or correct them; we want to make them see things our way, or force them to act in ways we think are best. Some people live their entire lives this way and I fear that hell awaits them, for such never turn their attention inward toward their own repentance and salvation.

How much better it is when we become painfully aware of our own personal mix of sins and imperfections and bad habits and realize that it is these that are keeping us from God and from happiness in all our relationships. Although this can often prompt a period of crisis and turmoil, it is ultimately a good thing if it leads us away from focusing on externals, to focusing inward on dying to our own sins and changing ourselves.

One thing that today’s gospel lesson certainly teaches us is that something that may appear to be a failure may actually be the opportunity for great spiritual growth. The disciples learned this when they failed to cast out the demon, and brought their failure to Christ, enabling Him to teach them of far greater things to come. Our failures and frustrations in life may also be opportunities for great growth, if we follow the example of the disciples and bring them to Christ. Many times we don’t want to do that, we want to just keep banging our head against the wall, but this is wrong. Imagine if the disciples had pridefully refused to come to Jesus and just kept on trying to wage the spiritual war without Him. That’s when we realize how foolish it is for us to do the same.

Let us learn to give glory to God in all things, and to seek Him even in the midst of our failures, that He might be able to lead us to far greater things in the Christian life.

+To the glory of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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