What I expect

This week, someone had occasion to remind me that I am human.

Off and on in the course of my life, people who cared about me and were trying to be of help have issued similar reminders.

I have often found this curious. I have never had any doubts about my status as part of the group called homo sapiens. Is there something that parents failed to tell me?

As best as I can discern, these loving individuals were actually trying to communicate a concern about how much I expect of myself – with the implication that my expectations were perhaps a bit high.

While I certainly cannot fault these compassionate people for making such an observation, there is something paradoxical about considering any expectation “too high” in the realm of the Spirit.

What self-expectation can be considered excessive, when the Lord Christ Himself commanded us, “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)?

Are the issuers of these reminders encouraging me to accept as inevitable that I can be nothing more than a half-hearted Christian?

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Of course not.

Whether they were consciously thinking of it in these terms or not, what these kind people were actually doing was gently pointing out my sinfulness and need to repent.

What they could see (and I could not) was that my expectations of myself were built on a foundation of pride.

There is something subtle enough here that it merits further discussion.

Let’s suppose that someone has dealt me an offensive blow in the course of my professional life. And let’s suppose I feel really, really angry with this person and the systems or individuals who have turned a blind eye to this injustice.

Let us further imagine (since this a hypothetical scenario) that I am versed in the Gospel and call to mind Christ’s command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5: 44).

I take seriously this clear instruction from the Lord but I am faced with a dilemma. How can I possibly love these “enemies” whom I recently discovered I have? Or even pray for them – when I cannot stop my mind from reviewing over and over how wrongly they behaved?

At first glance, it may seem that I have only two options: either I suppress my anger and rage, hiding them beneath a cloak of piety, or I give in to it, acknowledging that I cannot love this enemy, for I am “only human”.

The former course is likely to make me ill, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, it has done so in the past.

The latter course seems to suggest that it is all right for me to disregard the Lord’s instructions in some circumstances because, after all, I am human. I cannot expect so much of myself.

It is, indeed, a good thing that there exists a third path.

+++

Both of the options above contain an element of truth.

In the first case, I am recognizing an essential tenet of the Faith and making an effort not to let my anger run amok.

In the second case, I am accepting that I am weak and cannot carry out the Lord’s directives on my own.

In the third option, these truths come together.

My human weakness can never be an excuse to disregard the teachings of Christ. He would not instruct us to do something that is impossible for us.

On the other hand, nowhere does Jesus say or even suggest that it will be through our own strength or virtue alone that we will be able to carry out His directives.

In fact, He tells us quite the opposite. Let us listen in as Jesus gives His final discourse to the apostles before His death.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (John 14: 12-18)

The Lord Jesus promised His followers then and promises us now all the support we could possibly need: the Advocate. He knows that we are neither strong enough nor wise enough to even remember His instructions, much less carry them out without the Spirit of truth among us.

For me to try to do otherwise is, quite simply, one more dimension of the pride that so often infects my soul.

+++

So what does this mean for me if I am to embrace both the Gospel and my humanness? What do I expect of myself lest I fall into one trap or the other?

St. Paul gives witness to what he was told by the Lord when he was faced with a similar dilemma:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9)

And so I expect myself to be weak.

This is not permission to sin or disregard any aspect of the Gospel. Rather, it is an expectation that I accept the truth about myself.

This is the very heart of humility. And, ironically, part of this acceptance of my weakness is the knowledge that I cannot even become humble without the intervention of God’s grace.

Yet I also know that my Savior never forces His help upon me.

So I also expect myself to be obedient and to pray for His help. (Knowing, of course, that I can be neither obedient nor prayerful without the aid of His divine mercy.)

Is there anything else I expect?

Yes. Yes, indeed, there is…

+++

I expect myself to stumble and fall. I expect myself to make mistakes. I expect myself to lose control. I even expect myself to sin.

I expect myself to fear and to question and to doubt. I expect that some days I will hear not a whisper from the heavens and my heart will feel like a heavy stone lodged in my body.

I expect that some days I will not want to pray  – or that I will forget – or that I will pray mechanically as my mind wanders to everything from troubles to trivia. And I will feel helpless as it does so.

I also expect that, at other times, I will feel hopeful and joyous and very good about myself and my life – only to discover that I have once again fallen into self-admiration rather than having truly turned my heart God-wards.

I expect myself in times of hurt or heartbreak to cry, to sob, to wail. To pound on the floor, with tears streaming down my face, as I scream “Why?” at the ceiling.

Then I expect myself to fall in a heap at the foot of the Cross and beg Him to forgive me, to be merciful, to help me.

And then I expect that He will come to me, wrapping me in His love and mercy, wiping my tears away…

And then, I expect we will repeat this process many, many times over as He purifies my heart for love alone.

+++

Knowing who and what I am, I cannot expect that He will succeed. This can never be an “expectation”.

But I can trust. I can trust that, in the end, His love will be far stronger and more powerful than any weakness or sin that I can lay before Him.

And so it shall be.

All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit…

9 thoughts on “What I expect

  1. jacksson

    Lord, give me the strength to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely on Your holy will. Reveal Your will to me every hour of the day. Bless my dealings with all people. Teach me to treat all people who come to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unexpected events, let me not forget that all are sent by you. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me the physical strength to bear the labors of this day. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray in me. Amen.

    Asking Jesus to pray in us is very important; I do not know how to rightly pray, but He does.

  2. mary Post author

    Thank you, Jacksson, for sharing this beautiful prayer with me and my readers. (Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe it originated with St. Philaret of Moscow. Although I am sure there are no copyright issues, I Iike to give proper attributions as some of my readers may not be familiar with him and may wish to learn more.)

    Although it is wonderful beyond our comprehension, when the Lord God comes to dwell within us, there is indeed prayer from Him coming within our own unworthy hearts. We are told that the Spirit “intercedes” or prays from within us “for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). In the same passage (v. 28), St. Paul also writes that Jesus “intercedes” for us.

    In John (14: 23), Jesus tell us, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

    Though I certainly do not claim to understand the Trinity, what this suggests to me is that the Father, Son and Spirit may come to dwell in us. In their three Persons yet perfect unity, they are always actively in loving communion with each other (“praying” if you will).

    That this indwelling and perfect prayer can occur with my tiny human self is, indeed, too glorious for words. Yet we are indeed called to share in the Divine life. Despite our current lowly state, afflicted by sin and not yet purified, He comes; we are taught and transformed.

    As painful as our purification may be for us at times, it opens us to the Divine life and thus is ultimately but a transitory trial we pass through. (Of course, it feels like something much worse to me while I am in the middle of it – because I am indeed human. 🙂 )

  3. jacksson

    Being a lay person, with a B.A. in Biblical and Religious Studies (Protestant), and now being Eastern Orthodox, I find it hard to not ‘preach’, at least a little bit. I try to allow the priest and the abbess of the nearby monastery where I attend church to do all of the preaching and teaching. But, that being said, I still am asked questions and occasionally get carried away with my egotistical loving to ‘preach’ the word.

    I like your quote in the comment above, “In John (14: 23), Jesus tell us, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

    Though I certainly do not claim to understand the Trinity, what this suggests to me is that the Father, Son and Spirit may come to dwell in us. In their three Persons yet perfect unity, they are always actively in loving communion with each other (“praying” if you will).”

    This quote made me think about the next stage in the Christian life that not many people realize; that is the glorious state of ‘being in Christ” as stated in John 14:19-20, ” Yet a little while, and the world sees Me no longer, but you see Me; because I live, you shall live also. In that day you shall know that I am in the Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” This statement is one of many that presents the awesome state of the believer being ‘in Christ.’

    For many years I had read these statements by the Lord about being in Him, but it had never really sunk into my nous (soul). Then one day I was reading my daily gospel reading and ran across (using The Holy Gospels text from the Dormition Skete of the Holy Gospel Convent which is translated from the Greek a little more accurately than most English translations) the reading for Matthew 10:32 where the text read “Everyone therefore who shall confess IN before men, I also will confess IN him before My Father Who is in the heavens.” For the first, noticing the IN that are part of the text, I immediately went to my Greek texts and found that the Greek word for IN (εν) right there in front of me. The English translations (with one exception), had completely ignored that in-ness.

    Many of us can quote and internalize the fact the Jesus Christ is in us (the hope of glory), but very few of us can realize that there is an additional benefit of belonging to Christ and that is being in Him. My next concern after I did a thorough search of the scriptures for all of the many (and there are many) places where the Lord states something about being in Him, was, how do I attain to being in Him? Finally, after some time, I read in the prayer by Saint Symeon the New Theologian in the preparatory prayers for receiving Holy Communion,

    “For Thou has said, O Master mine,
    Each one that eateth of My Flesh,
    And drinketh likewise of my Blood–
    He doth indeed abide in Me,
    And I in him likewise am found.”
    (A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

    At that point, I realized that when I depart from the Chalise, having received Holy Communion, I am IN Christ. My problem is, how long will I stay there, my sin quickly causes a problem as usually my judgement attitude or my love of self kicks in. Lord have mercy. Anyway, to sum it up, our ontological position should be IN Christ as well as Christ IN us.

  4. jacksson

    The first sentence in Matt. 10:32 (above) should read: “He who confesses IN Me before men, … I left out the Me. There are a few other grammatical mistakes, please forgive me, I should read what I post before I post it.

  5. mary Post author

    Preach away! I obviously find it hard to resist as well, given how much time I spend writing about things that I do not truly understand. (I can only pray that God direct my words and remove my ego from the process.)

    I fully agree with you about “being in Christ” – as well as Christ dwelling in me. I cannot say that I truly understand either experience (who can?) but they are both very meaningful. I am reminded of a much-loved phrase from Scripture, “In Him we live and move and have our being”. (Act 17: 28)

    I get the impression that you view “being in Christ” as a stage the follows “Christ being in me”. Is there are reason you hold this perspective? Or am I misunderstanding you? I am unable to separate them in my mind. Thanks for your comments.

  6. jacksson

    When we come into the church through baptism, we finish by walking around a font in the case of an infant and around a small table for adults three times singing “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.” So, we put on Christ at baptism, and confession is called a baptism, thus confession is a putting on of Christ. and as I pointed out above, we put on Christ at the cup of communion, the chalice.

    I find that the church states these things and it is not my opinion at all, being in Christ is a fact as well as Christ being in His people. Both are there and available to the believer; the problem is our sin removes the strength of the connection to put in electrical terms. I am His and in Him and He is in me, but an awful lot of the time most of us just don’t realize our position in Him.

    There is hope though; as Saint Isaac the Syrian says:

    “God’s recompense to sinners is that, instead of a just recompense, God rewards them with resurrection.”
    and
    “O my Hope, pour into my heart the inebriation that consists in the hope of you. O Jesus Christ, the resurrection and light of all worlds, place upon my soul’s head the crown of knowledge of you; open before me all of a sudden the door of mercies, cause the rays of your grace to shine out in my heart.”

  7. albert

    “But I can trust.” Yes, I say that over and over. It keeps me going.

    I am blessed to be here toread also. That helps to keep me trusting. I’m glad, Mary, that you are open to the thoughts that visit you, and that you take your time in telling them clearly and in an orderly manner. Often I get lost in complicated discussions about religion. You have a way of bringing issues down to our everyday level.

  8. mary Post author

    Yes, I can trust – but even that can be a struggle at times. Still, it is a comfort that I can practice it as an act of the will. Regardless of whether or not I “feel” trust, I can continue to entrust myself to God through volition when assailed by doubts or discouragement. This is something the enemy cannot take from us.

    And so I begin another day today, trusting that God’s goodness and mercy far exceed my weakness.

  9. albert

    We are together on that, all of us who trust. And yes, it has to be an act of the will sometimes, maybe all the time, but God is “everywhere present” even as we choose. So I am saddened for friends, and anyone, who don’t even know that they CAN choose (maybe from discouragement, from lack of role models, or from inability to shake off or stand outside the current cultural scene.). I pray for them too.

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