Approaching God for the Right Reason

Approaching God for the Right Reason

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At Vespers last Saturday evening, the Orthodox Church began the use of the Lenten Triodion–a service book that provides the texts for the Divine Services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation, for Great Lent and for Holy Week.

Last Sunday was that of the Publican and the Pharisee, quite familiar to all of us. It is a story that is only found in Luke’s Gospel and is often framed within the context of the virtue of humility. The Pharisee brags about the good he has done and the Publican (tax-collector) is bowed and bent and cries out, “O God be merciful to me a sinner.”

St. Peter of Damascus, in writing of this Lucan parable, says, “In the end, the righteous will be recognized only by their humility and their considering themselves worthless, and not by good deeds, even if they have done them. This is the true attitude.”

Humility is one lesson from that Gospel passage. I suggest another. It is the story of religiosity versus faith. The Pharisee had followed all of the external rules of uprightness according to the Law. He fasted twice a week, he gave tithes of what he possessed, and really kept all the rules. And this was true; he really did keep all the rules: he did everything correctly on the outside.

The Publican, on the other hand, had broken all the rules. He did not keep the laws, he did not fast twice a week, he did not give tithes. On the contrary. He stole money from his fellow Jews. Nevertheless, when he came into the temple, he didn’t dare stand up in front, like the Pharisee did; he didn’t dare thank God that he was not like other people, he didn’t get in God’s face and say “Look at me!”

At that moment the Publican knew who he was and what he was because he had had a real inner experience of God and in that encounter with God, he knew the dark side of his person and he said, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The late theologian, Fr. Thomas Hopko reminded us: “Maybe the Publican kept on sinning; how do we know? But in any case, at that moment before God, bowing down to the earth in the back of the building, his prayer was heard because his prayer was true. But the Pharisee’s prayer was not even a prayer; it was just a rehearsal of his own righteousness before his own mind.”

Why was the Publican’s prayer “true”? It was authentic because it arose out of an awareness of an admittedly fragile relationship with God, an honest struggling, an open encounter with the One who would show mercy. His cry for mercy grew out of compunction. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was concerned with all the externals, with fulfilling the Mosaic prescriptions of the law, with boasting rather than compunction, with religion rather than faith. He approached God as if God were a score-keeper. It is the same for us.

If we have an ongoing, intimate relationship with God, that is, faith, we will have a true awareness of our need. If we are satisfied with merely doing the external actions and activities of religion, we will be out of touch with the real health of our soul and easily estranged from the One who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” (Psalm 103:8; 145:8)

Last Sunday’s Gospel called us to remember three things: that there is a difference between faith and religion, that difference can only be known through genuine self-awareness, and self-awareness is linked inextricably to silence and prayer.

Faith and Religion

The esteemed Greek Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras, wrote: “The greatest problem of Western Christianity—and of the Orthodox also—is that they have ‘religionized’ Christianity and have turned the Church into a religion.”

He means the externals of religion (rules, practices, activities, institutions, tithing, and ethnic identity) have taken precedence over the internal experience of faith and koinonia–a relationship, intimacy, and encounter with God in the human heart. In doing this, we mistake the external things for genuine interior spirituality. That was the error of the Pharisee. He mistook fidelity to external actions for an actual, living relationship with God in his heart.

We are often guilty of the same mistake, figuring that in keeping the externals we are living the Orthodox faith. Without an ongoing, personal relationship with God/Christ, without a daily intimacy, all external manifestations are empty and of little meaning. In the words of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, “If a person puts all their righteousness in external actions—like it seems that the Pharisee did—and thinks that they’re really living the spiritual life, well, they are just in the hands of devil.”

Discovering Faith through Self-Awareness

Nurturing this kind of internal faith calls us to develop spiritual self-awareness, or self-knowledge. Self-awareness is about understanding our own needs, desires, failings, habits, passions, and everything else that makes us who we are and creates the seedbed for a relationship with God. Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana writes, “To know God is to know ourselves, and to know ourselves is to know the One who woos us into a relationship with Himself.”

This was one of the foundational principles of the Desert Fathers. For the Publican, the reason why he begged God for mercy, was because he knew himself deep within, his strengths (I’m sure he had some!) and his sins and failings. Each of us needs to do that kind of introspection not with the sole purpose of seeing how BAD we are, but of realizing how much we are loved by Him who said, “Behold, I have loved you with an everlasting love and with lovingkindness, I have drawn you unto myself.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

We’re driven today to keep aware of our physical health and monitor our wellbeing. We need to develop the same awareness and daily care for our souls, where the stakes are much greater.

Self-Awareness is Linked to Silence and Prayer

To be aware of our spiritual selves, to get to know our heart and tend our soul better, silence and prayer are needed. We spend so much of our day running from or purposely avoiding silence. It makes us uneasy or we are afraid of what we will discover in ourselves when all the distracting noise dies down. We become forgetful of Socrates’ adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

But as Father John Breck, an American Orthodox theologian, expresses it, “Silence fosters stillness; it is indispensable for stillness. Inner stillness, however, goes beyond silence insofar as its aim is to purify the heart and bring us to knowledge of ourselves and of God.”

This is a challenge for Orthodox Christians living in the “chaos of noise” that we call society. Every day, each of us has to find our personal kellia (cell)—that quiet space and time, apart from others, where we can allow stillness to calm us, to rest our bodies, and to focus our inner attention and prayer on what St. Paul calls “our life hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)

In the end, God will pierce through the cacophony of the noise outside us and within us to say, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

The parable of the Publican and Pharisee is not only about humility, it is about genuine faith, self-awareness, and the power of silence and prayer. I pray that each of you may come to know yourself as loved and chosen by God. Please pray for me.

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Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas

Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.