The Gospel of Success
As St. Gregory Palamas "made war against the heretic Barlaam" (so says one ancient account of his life read last Sunday at Matins), while I was a protestant I made my own little war against those who preached the health and wealth gospel. I despised the very notion and in time this would even extend to those non-denominational mega-churches that spewed forth the infomercial-like creed that Jesus' teachings were instruments able to make your life "full"...which was typically portrayed as being shiny and happy (i.e. less materialistic things will be a success: your parenting, your marriage, your relationships with EVERYONE etc). So much of it seemed to revolve around success. You'll notice that these groups NEVER talk about the martyrs. "Who are they?" they would likely wonder. Can you imagine? "And Jesus will make your life POWERFUL! You will experience the joy in the same way that Saint Ignatios of Antioch did when he was devoured by Lions in Rome! Imagine that POWER inserted into your everday relationships: at work or at home...your blood can be spilled all over the place. Furthermore, the joy of being sewn into a sack with ravenous rock badgers is yours to have if you would but put Jesus' teachings into practice..."
As so while I sat and listened to their sermons about how Jesus was going to make my life so joyful, so exciting, so full of LIFE...I kept wondering, as I watched all the people leaving in their SUV's: How did original followers of Jesus end up in life (see above hypothetical sermon)? And didn't Jesus talk a lot about persecution and suffering that we could expect to endure for his namesake? So in THAT context, what precisely is meant be "having life more abundantly?" I made it my personal mission to try and "combat" this theology. It eventually became as wearisome as combating a non-literal understanding of the Resurrection in the ECUSA. Holding to "o"rthodox Christianity is NOT the way to "fill the pews."
Maybe the rise of the health and wealth gospel (even if cleverly disguised) drove me to Orthodoxy? A Church where the martyrs are upheld as examples, and where we have a notion of everyday martyrdom. A Church that recognizes that "abundant life" often (perhaps usually) is something not seen with human eyes.
I have spoken at length here about what I perceive to be a coming persecution, and indeed I do not doubt that that will come though perhaps not in my lifetime. Orthodox and "o"rthodox Christians will continue to grow more and more ostracized from society. But, make no mistake about it, we ARE being persecuted now...but in a much more subtle, subversive, and far more dangerous way. THIS persecution leads us to destroy ourselves...often without even knowing it. The Pagan Romans, the Muslim Turks, and Athiestic Communists with their campaigns against the Church pale in comparison.
Consider which is better or more efficient at destruction:
- To suffer from lack of food, or to feel that you suffer from a lack of more cable channels?
- To be beheaded for refusing to deny Christ, or to behead your own soul for refusing to go and pray instead of clicking on that old familiar link that will take into a realm you ought not to go to.
- To watch your family be drowned by pagans, or to watch you family get hooked on any one of the many abundantly available drugs in the public schools and have their spirits slowly drowned?
- To not be allowed to go to Church, or to have the option and knowing that there is always next week, sleep in this sunday because the earlier saturday night showing of the movie was sold out and so you had to stay up late to see it?
- To be raped by heathen soldiers, or to be so indoctrinated by society (and it's sexual freedoms and infatuations) around you that you end up willingly offering yourself to heathens?
- To toss your babies into the Thames river rather than face the waiting persecution in Soviet Russia, or to be persuaded to toss your babies out of your womb rather than face the troubles of parental responsibilities?
I could go on and I am sure you are able to think of a few examples of your own. I guess what I am asking is this: Is it better to face death, or to be taught death? While I, by no means, would welcome outright persecution...one has to admit, that at least under those circumstances you knew where you stood. In this world and specifically in this society, I worry about being able to see the edge of the cliff that we are presently dancing around.
Maybe spending some time with the monastics this weekend will help me personally to see the cliff's edge in my own life...but we as Christians certainly need some powerful radar to discern things in this world and I think precious few of us have it. Thank God for the Church.