Do you seek out self-help programs for your self-satisfaction? I did. I have had experience with many of the self-help programs that continue to be offered. Meditation centers, for example, call people to”inner peace” and prove their power with studies that show they reduce stress. For a long time I thought this was what it meant to become spiritual. To get in touch with your “inner-self,” to find “peace” within,to become what you were meant to be. The problem is that these goals are al self defined. Fr. Deacon Matthew Steenberg sums it up well in his recent article in The Orthodox Word. He writes,
...the mantra of society is largely one of self-satisfaction. It is true that by this world we are called at times to examine ourselves; but we are charged to do so to discover how to be happy an content with ourselves, either as we are or with the “true self”… Humanity is at its best when it comes to be content with itself as it is, deep within. We are to look inwards, to discover and define the “self” with whom we must learn to be comfortable and content.
For many years, I thought that looking inward was seeking the inner soul. But, I now know that this “inner being” i sought was of my own creation. I was really pursing my own vision, my self-actualization, my contentment with who I am as I defined it. This is a delusion. Fr. Deacon Matthew goes on to describe two forms of this delusion.
Firstly, there is the simplistic belief that one can and should be whatever one wishes to be, however one wishes to be it, so long as one does not harm others…. the goal of an self-examination is the discovery of the “me” with whom to be happy and satisfied…. the very core so such a mindset is that any attempt to particularize belief and action imposes upon the freedom of the will in a negative way.
A more nuanced, refined form exists, in the various contours of the “new age” and”self-help” movements… which still orbit around the central point of self-satisfaction and contentment with the true self…. they oftentimes do involve calls to change and transformation… there remains however a solid foundation in self-definition. the “true-self” one aims to discover and love through shedding of such false selves, is still a self defined by one’s will and desires… they root of both is the same: satisfaction gained through contentment in the self, as defined by the self.
This view generally rejects all forms of formal religion and you here the claim, I am spiritual but not religious. Things like sin are rejected as being outdated or old fashioned and even superstitious. There is a reliance on the psychological interpretation of reality instead. and don’t even think of mentioning demons or the devil or heaven and hell. these are no more than “outmoded myths aimed at enforcing moral codes’. there is no acknowledgment that everything of this world is the result of a Creator. We tend to believe n theories like the Big Bang theory and a random process of evolution as truth. As a result the call to change to become in the likeness of Christ is lost. Instead, we can only cope by accepting things as they are and find contentment with the present state.
Fr. Deacon Matthew says that this is a deception and a trap to the Christian.
The human person is to instigate whatever helps, whatever modification to his life and lifestyle may bring about a deeper satisfaction with whom and what he is, He is charged not to become something else…, but to become happy with the self that lies hidden.
So what is that we are called to as Christians if this is not the case. from my own experience this is difficult to discern as we re easily deceived by our current societal norms.
Fr. Deacon Matthew says the following,
Christianity is a life rooted in Christ’s own. Its charge is not to live for self but to live for Christ; and its goal is not satisfaction but transformation. the Christian is called to become, to enter into a newness of life that is another’s––that is Christ’s. He is to discover the “self” of his current existence, precisely so that he can work to change it into a life not defined by his on will, but defined and made real by another––by God Himself. the life in Christ is a life of transformation into a New Man. It is a life that works toward resurrection, when the body of this death shall pass away and the glorified man will know the Lord of Golory.
What I discovered after many false paths, is that this involves a surrender. A giving up of our own definition of our “self.” We have to find a religious tradition that we can trust and make a choice to follow its guidelines so we can be transformed into the image of Christ. This does not promise happiness or contentment with the nature of this way of life we may now enjoy. But a refocusing of our entire attention on the Kingdom of God.
Again Fr. DeaconMatthew,
If we struggle authentically toward our sanctification and redemption, this orientation towards and into the Kingdom must become paramount in us. Every act must be considered from the perspective of that future life and its attainment. When we do not act in such a way, we reduce our choices and our behaviors to the limited perspective of the brief sojourn. Rather than see the context of our behaviors , actions, and decisions as the eternal life of God’s abiding Kingdom, we see it as the short span of this life, and adjust our whole vision and world view accordingly.
Orthodox Christians to day must reclaim this focus. It stands at the heart and center of the whole life in Christ.
This authentic kind of Christian life involves a constant struggle with our desires and passions. We need to learn humility and self-discipline. It is a daily task, a battle that needs to taken on each and every day.
Saint Basil the Great writes
Examine what sort of being you are. Know your own nature, that your body is mortal but your soul is immortal, and that our life is twofold in kind. One kind is proper to the flesh, quickly passing by, while the other is akin to the soul, not admitting of circumscription. therefore be attentive to yourself (Deut 15:9), neither remaining in mortal things as if there were eternal, nor despising eternal things as if they were passing…. Understand yourself with all exactness, that you may know what gift to apportion to each––for the flesh nourishment and coverings, and for the soul doctrines of piety, education in courtesy, training in virtue, correction of the passions. (St. Basil, Homily on the words “Be attentive to yourself.”)
This is what the Orthodox way of life is al about.
Fr. Deacon Matthew's complete article “Taking Stock of Our Struggle” in available in The Orthodox Word, No 263, 2008.
He serves in the Parish of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Oxford, England. He received his doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford and is currently Professor of Theology and Head o htTheology & religious Studies at Leeds trinity and All Saints College, England. He has authored many books and is the creator of www.monachos.net, a valuable resource of Orthodox patristic theology.