Monday, August 22, 2011

The Difficulty of Devotion

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

At first glance, our two scripture lessons this morning [Corinthians 4:9-16, Matthew 17:14-23] seem to have only the slightest connection. From the epistle we heard the pleas of a spiritual father, the great apostle Paul, beseeching his spiritual children in Corinth to lay aside their smug and comfortable lifestyle to become imitators of him even as he, in his voluntary privation and suffering, was an imitator of Christ. In our gospel lesson we see another father, this time pleading with the apostles to heal his demon-possessed son. As it turned out, they were stymied in their attempts and could do nothing for the boy because of a lack of faith on both their part and that of the father himself. Our Lord stepped in to correct the father’s faith and healed his son with a word, and later took His apostles to school on the need to enliven spiritual labors with faith, prayer and fasting.

If we look closer at these two passages, we may find a connection that runs deeper than just two fathers urgently seeking to help their children. I believe these passages combine to speak to us of our need to engage and live out the Christian life to the fullest degree possible, while revealing the difficulties we face whenever we make such an effort.

I think if we were to take a poll, most of us would admit that we feel the need to live a “better” Christian life. We might claim a need to pray more, to improve and deepen our understanding of the faith, to be more repentant and less excusing of our sins, and to be generally more focused on Christ than on ourselves every hour of the day. But if we admit this, why do we find it so hard to act on it? Why is it so hard for us to pray, be devoted to Christ, or forsake our sins? When we come to the priests with our sins and the hope that they can heal us, do we find their ministrations to be as powerless as the apostles in this morning’s gospel lesson and our various demons still clinging to us even after confession? Why is it so hard for us to be healed? Could it be that our desire for healing simply isn’t as great as our desire for so many other things in this life?

What in the world could possibly render us so weak-willed that we would not desire and work for our salvation more than any other thing? Well, the world is a pretty big place and filled with many things that fallen people will tend to love more than God. In addition to this, each of us carries about an entire world within himself, filled with thoughts and inclinations and passionate habits that constantly thwart and grieve the Holy Spirit of God. We are not a simple people by any means, focused only on the kingdom of heaven. We tend to be a people divided in our interests and a little too devoted to the middle-class ethos of living a comfortable life.

Be assured I’m not picking on us. It seems to me this was the exact same problem St. Paul faced with the believers at Corinth. In the passage we read today he seems to start out praising the Corinthians, telling them that they were wise, they were strong, they were held in high honor among men. How nice! Who among us wouldn’t want to hear ourselves described in this way? Soon however we realize that Paul wasn’t giving them praise but was revealing their fundamental problem. It was because they so valued good standing in the world that they had so little to do with Christ. Paul contrasted the noble and happy Corinthians with himself, telling them, “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless”. St. Paul was hardly a poster-child for the modern prosperity gospel! On top of this he revealed to the Corinthians a very different attitude than the one commonly held by those in love with this world. He reminded them, “When [we are] reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things”. In other words, Paul had adopted the mind of Christ, living out the true gospel in such a way that worldly comfort and good treatment by men meant little to him, but seeking the kingdom of God meant everything.

We may have more in common with the Corinthians than with their devout spiritual father. We love taking comfort wherever we can find it, surrounding ourselves if at all possible with nice things, lovely experiences, good friends and pleasant social activities. We almost never question whether all this pleasure-taking is beneficial to our souls, or whether it is in fact harmful to them in the long run. The middle-class suburban lifestyle to which many aspire hardly equips a person for any rigorous self-denial in the Christian life. More often it subverts the Christian life to its rules, judging Christianity to be good if it adds to or accommodates our pleasure, but a thing to be avoided if it makes any demands we don’t wish to fulfill.

Comfort and pleasure are so important to us that we rarely think of anything else. This not only manifests itself in the lifestyle choices we make, but in our basic daily attitudes. If someone hurts us, we hate them. If someone has it better in life than we do, we envy them. If our health or financial well-being are jeopardized, we resent God for allowing it to happen. If anyone offends us in even the most minor way, God help them and the horse they rode in on because we’ll do everything in our power to avenge our pride, or failing that, will be snippy and judgmental for years to come. All of these responses are ultimately rooted in our love of comfort and pleasure, because we want to fully enjoy our present lives in this world and are unwilling to endure anything that might lessen that enjoyment in the slightest degree.

Is it any wonder then that we find it so difficult to follow the way of Christ? It isn’t that comfort and pleasure are inherently sinful; it’s just that we become so addicted to them that we can’t tolerate anything less. Thus self-denial in any form becomes repugnant to us. Prayer and fasting sound good in theory, but since they reward us with no immediate pleasure, and actually detract from our pleasure, they are habitually set aside. If our sins produce even the most fleeting delight we will keep milking them for all they’re worth. If tithing faithfully conflicts with our having what other people have, can anyone seriously expect us to settle for less? And if there is a need for faithful volunteers in the parish to vacuum carpets and clean toilets, do we forsake such chores because we are “too busy” to sacrifice our valuable time merely to serve others?

It is so difficult for us to say no to ourselves and deny ourselves any immediate gratification for the sake of God’s eternal kingdom. This is why some sins, like some demons, do not come out of us easily. A life that is almost completely self-absorbed is the most difficult thing to change because it requires us to go against our instinct to please ourselves and do only what we like to do. What selfish person is willing to take upon himself the mind of Christ and say, “I will empty myself, I will settle for less than I deserve, I will become the servant of all”?

With the help of the Holy Spirit who indwells us, such radical change is possible, but only when we are willing to start paying the price. Are we willing to do what we don’t like to do if all it does is bring us closer to God? Will we come to confession with a renewed desire for change and to actually follow our father-confessor’s counsel? What good does it do to listen to our priest, only to continue to live as we please? Will we strive to be more faithful in prayer and fasting and repentance, even though these things are a struggle for us? Will we invest more in our parish in terms of time, service and money rather than being content to let a handful of faithful people carry the burden alone? These are not fun things, but necessary things. No good parent wishes to raise spoiled, self-indulgent children who can think of no one but themselves. The same is true for our Heavenly Father, who has given us works to do that we might mature into useful, productive Christian people.

My brothers and sisters, I ask your forgiveness, since I too am a selfish person. Let us not be content to remain as we are. God would set us free from every spiritual force that oppresses us and most especially from enslavement to our own desires. Let us engage the life of devotion to Christ in an ever-increasing way each day. If we give our Christianity the attention it deserves, all of life can become a movement away from preoccupation with the self toward a true communion with one another and the God who loves us.

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