Give us help from affliction, for vain is the salvation of man. In God we shall work mighty deeds, and He will bring to nought our enemies. Psalm 107
Scripture speaks to the hearts of men about the heart of man. The Holy Fathers strove to untangle the vain imaginings of the heart of man. They sought to uproot the tares choking out the good growth.
Man is proud from his youth. We are filled with a spirit of self reliance and rebelliousness. True, as a child we rely upon the nurturing of our parents. But it is not long before we utter the phrase: “I can do it by myself”. A strong constitution is necessary to combat the challenges of this world, but we must not place a false hope in our own abilities for only God can save us. Man cannot save man, for “vain is the salvation of man”. Only the God-man, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, can save us.
These contemporary times speak of self, self-actualization, and the knowledge of self. The demigods of this age build us up into false gods, bestowing power – power to determine what is best for us, while under the heavy constraints laid upon us by these same demigods. We are led to believe that we are beautiful, that everything around us is beautiful. We are lulled into a sense of false euphoria for we can do what we want, so long as it hurts none. We are led down the path of falsehood, trained to believe that we design our own path to fulfillment and that morality is all relative.
The spirit of these times fills us with false hopes and dreams, encourages us to explore new ideas, lifestyles, and all manner of sensuality. The spirit of these times teaches us to look at ourselves, to do what pleases us. The spirit of these times indoctrinates us to believe that we know what is best for us. The “holy trinity” of the world is “I, Me, My”.
We are deluded. We are filled with self love. We are self-wise. We are wise in our own conceits. So disparate is reality that we have become like unto the King of the fable who had no clothes. He thought he was adorned in robes of inwoven gold and precious stones. In his foolishness he could not recognize his own folly. And thus is our plight in these days.
When we believe that we know what is best, we are lulled into a terrible form of pride. We become like a reed shaking in the wind or as a ship that is without a rudder. We are directionless, moving to-and-fro as the forces direct us. We are without a guide or a compass. We bend to our every whim and become non-rational like the beasts, which act on impulse.
The “sin of I know best” leads us to damnation as be have ceased worshiping the God of our Fathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but rather to worship ourselves. Lonely and sad is he who places his hope in men and not in the Lord!
Is there a solution to this evil? What is the cure? What would the doctors say? We need only look to how the righteous answer. Saint Philaret the Confessor, a true light of our times explains the solution as follows:
According to the teachings of our Holy and God-bearing Fathers — the athletes and lamps of Christian piety — the first of all Christian virtues is humility. Without this virtue, no other virtue can be acquired, and the spiritual perfection of a Christian is unthinkable. Christ the Savior begins His New Testament precepts of blessedness with the precept of humility. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the Heavens!”
In the usual sense of the word, we consider a person poor who has nothing and must ask others for help. The Christian (whether materially rich or poor) must recognize that he is spiritually poor, that there is no good of his own within him. Everything good in us is from God. From our own selves, we add only evil — self-love, caprices of sensuality, and sinful pride. Each of us must remember this, for it is not in vain that the Holy Scripture says: “God opposes the proud and gives Grace to the humble.”
As we have already said, without humility, no other virtue is possible, for if man does not fulfil virtue in a spirit of humility, he will inevitably fall into God-opposing pride, and will fall away from God’s mercy.
Together with a true, deep humility, each Christian must have a spiritual approach such as that spoken of in the second precept of blessedness. We know that humility abases and judges one. Often, however, this is not a profound, constant frame of mind and experience of the soul, but a superficial, shallow feeling. The Holy Fathers indicated one manner by which the sincerity and depth of humility can be tested:
Begin to reproach a person to his face, for those very sins and in those very expressions in which he “humbly” judges himself. If his humility is sincere, he will hear out the reproaches without anger, and sometimes will thank you for the humbling instruction. If he does not have true humility, he will not endure the reproaches but will become angry, since his pride will rear up on its haunches from the reproaches and accusations.
The spirit of reproach is love. It is not in judgement. Humility and self abasement are increased through reproach. In our daily lives, we recognize that we grow in learning and experience when we accept reproach in the form of feedback of constructive criticism. In our jobs and school our performance is determined by the guidance of a teacher, a coach, or a supervisor. We grow when we take the test results or performance review with integrity and honesty, seeking to benefit and learn from it. If we do not seek the gain and benefit from these reproaches, our spirits are darkened. If we take the easy way, we blame others for our failures and we sink deeper and deeper in the mire. This easy way to believe that “I know best”.
Behold the words of Saint Philaret once more:
The Lord says, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” In other words, blessed are they who not only sorrow over their own imperfection and unworthiness, but mourn over it. By mourning, we understand, first of all, spiritual mourning — weeping over sins and the resultant loss of God’s Kingdom. Moreover, amidst ascetics of Christianity, there were many who, filled with love and compassion, wept over other people — over their sins, falls and sufferings. It is also in keeping with the spirit of the Gospel to account as mourners all those sorrowing and unfortunate people who accept their sorrow in a Christian way: humbly and submissively. They are truly blessed, for they shall be comforted by God, with love. And those who, on the contrary, seek to obtain only pleasure and enjoyment in the earthly life, are not at all blessed. Although they consider themselves fortunate, and others consider them as such, according to the spirit of the Gospel teaching, they are most unfortunate people. It is precisely to them that this threatening warning of the Lord is directed: “Woe unto you wealthy! For you have received your consolation. Woe unto you who are full! For you shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! For you shall mourn and weep.”
The spirit of “I know best” wrestles with our morality constantly. As athletes need constant training to keep “on the top of their game”, so also do we need constant effort to keep on top of life and not fall victim to the snares of self-delusion. These efforts are not merely for Sunday-morning, but for every moment of every day.
O Holy Martyrs, who have contested well. Intercede ye with the Lord, that we be granted great mercy!