by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate or continue below.]
[This is an article I wrote a few years ago, but I thought it worth recycling since it deals with themes that are ever-present in our spiritual lives and that are also ever-challenging, because we are ever-failing to get it right! So here's another reminder.]
“The road is long, with many a winding turn,” as the old song goes. That can be said about the spiritual life, and anyone who has been at it for some years knows that it is indeed a long process of enlightenment, struggle, and growth—ultimately unto a real inner transformation or theosis. But our inner transformation, if it is genuine, cannot be unrelated to our outer behavior. “The mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart” (Luke 6:45), and we are expected to be doers, not just hearers, of God’s word (James 1:22-25).
In reflecting on this long, winding road of spiritual life, it occurred to me that it can perhaps be summarized as a journey from selfishness to sacrifice, with a kind of a middle stage that engages the Golden Rule. Now it must be said at the outset that “stages” in the spiritual life cannot be fixed or inflexible, and there may be considerable overlapping and even regression to the more imperfect stages. This is simply because free human beings cannot be forced into pre-conceived molds, and especially because the process of spiritual growth depends upon a living and personal relationship with God, which implies the somewhat unpredictable nature of any dynamic relationship. That doesn’t mean we can’t say anything about it, because God has established certain parameters for the kind of human behavior that is pleasing to Him, and the history of the saints reveals some general patterns of spiritual enlightenment and growth. Then there’s common sense…
I’d like to use three citations from the Gospels to help illustrate the spiritual passage from selfishness to sacrifice: Luke 12:19, Matthew 7:12, and John 15:13.
The first Gospel passage expresses the beginning point of selfishness, one which perhaps many of us have never grown out of. It is something that dogs us all through our spiritual life and is the greatest enemy to growth in love. “And I will say to myself: you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” Most of us probably aren’t as wealthy as that man, but the point is not the amount of his possessions, but the fact that he “laid treasure up for himself, and was not rich in God’s sight” (v. 21). To be rich in God’s sight would have been, in his case, to share his goods with the poor, and to live a devout life. Divine judgment on the selfish is swift and severe: “You fool! This very night your life is required of you…”
Original sin seems to have burdened us with an innate selfishness, which is something that we have to work at: first to become aware of, and then to overcome in practice. Selfishness is something that lies hidden beneath much of what we think, say, and do. People don’t often confess it, probably because they’re not aware that almost all the sins they do confess are in some way rooted in selfishness. Any choosing of our own will over God’s, any seeking of our own advantage, especially at the expense of others, and any thoughtless assumption that our own needs take priority over anyone else’s, are manifestations of selfishness.
Even when we set out on a “spiritual” path, we usually do not leave our selfishness behind. We find ways to build up our ego, to seem knowledgeable or holy in the eyes of others, and generally to control things until we reach a certain measure of self-satisfaction. We haven’t really begun the true conversion process, because we haven’t begun to let go of our own desires, expectations, and self-centered approach to life.
As we begin to recognize the extent of our selfishness through prayer (and probably the remarks of others), we undertake by God’s grace the work of repentance, of changing attitudes and behaviors, so as to break out of our self-centered world view. We begin to realize that it doesn’t work anymore, if we really want to follow Jesus.
The first step out of living for ourselves, out of storing up riches, as it were, for ourselves, is to apply the Golden Rule to our lives, which is merely a matter of fundamental justice. You see, selfishness is a kind of injustice, because it hoards all goods and pleasures to itself, attracts all attention, honor, etc, to itself, unconcerned about the needs of others. So we might describe the spiritual journey of Selfishness–Golden Rule–Sacrifice also in this way: Injustice–Justice–Love.
“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” This is the second of the biblical passages. These words simply express the call to exercise basic justice in human relations—a morality that shouldn’t even need explanation, because it ought to be self-evident. But alas, it is so rarely practiced, even among religious people. If everyone put only these words of Jesus into practice, the whole world would change overnight. We want others to do good to us, but we hesitate or resist doing good to others. We want others to bless and encourage us, but we don’t do so for them. We demand to be served, but bristle when called to serve. We even expect others to go out of their way to meet our needs, but we hardly even think of doing the same for others (unless there’s something in it for us). Why is that? Because we are selfish, of course!
To move out of selfishness is to move toward others, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). This really is a major step in our spiritual progress, as I’m sure any honest examination of conscience will reveal. It moves the center of attention from ourselves to others, so that we can grow personally and be a blessing for others. It teaches us the value of other people; it helps purify and expand our narrow attitudes, and enables us to gain some inner equilibrium by shedding some of that ancient weight of “original selfishness.” What we do for others, moreover, is not merely done because that’s how we too wish to be treated, but because Jesus said that what we do for them we do for Him. There is always a deeper, spiritual dimension to the Christian life. We are called to see Christ in our neighbor.
At the conclusion of the verse which we call the Golden Rule, Jesus adds: “for this is the law and the prophets.” This means, first of all, that it is a summary of God’s revelation up to that point. But “law and prophets” are not yet the fullness of the Gospel of Christ. If we are to be fully remade in the image of Christ, we have to move even beyond justice, beyond the Golden Rule. We have to learn the meaning of sacrifice, of love, and these must become our way of life.
To be continued…