Debbie posted a comment with some good questions in my previous post that I wanted to address. Since, I knew my response would be lengthy, I chose to respond in a new post rather than in the comments. Also, I may not be the most reliable person to answer these questions. This is simply my personal opinion and everyone is welcome to disagree.
Fr Stephen Freeman has a great often-repeated quote, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live.” In this statement, Fr Stephen touches upon the real issue of our sin and distortion. Spiritual death — sin, corruption and death — is the devastating result of humanity’s rebellion and separation from God. All of humanity and creation have become broken and distorted. A destructive disharmony exists between humanity and God, between humans themselves and between humanity and creation.
The primary issue is our estrangement from God and its subsequent spiritual death. We are separated from the very Source of Life and therefore our very nature as human beings has become corrupted.
Therefore, our salvation is the renewal of the image of God in us through restored communion with God. Jesus is our Savior because he first vanquishes the death and corruption that enslaves all creation at the cosmic level and then invites us to appropriate this reality at a personal level through a cooperative life with God that restores communion with God.
This cooperative life with God is described in various ways in the New Testament. Jesus described it as denying yourself and taking up your cross. St Peter called it “participating in the divine nature.” St Paul described it as taking off the old self with its practices and putting on the new self which is being renewed in the image of its creator. He described it in another place as offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice by not being conformed to the pattern of this broken world and by being transformed through the renewal of our mind.
In other words, the key to salvation or transformation is a life immersed in God’s grace that progressively discards our old nature and acquires the new nature, which Christ fully embodied. In Orthodox theology, we call this theosis. Here’s a definition from Orthodoxwiki:
Theosis (“deification,” “divinization”) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (“missing the mark”), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection. For Orthodox Christians, Théōsis (see 2 Pet. 1:4) is salvation. Théōsis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity. Therefore, an infant or an adult worshiper is saved from the state of unholiness (hamartía — which is not to be confused with hamártēma “sin”) for participation in the Life (zōé, not simply bíos) of the Trinity — which is everlasting.
Theosis is a divinely empowered transformation of our nature through participating in the Life of God.
So what does this look like in daily practice? Moving further from theology and closer to practice, it is a life consisting of two simultaneous dimensions — an ascetical dimension and a sacramental dimension — both lived out within the overall life of the Church.
The ascetical dimension is struggling against our passions (our evil and distorted desires) with God’s grace. This is much more than behavioral modification, as important as that may be. For example, in 1Corinthians 13, we read St Paul describing love as not being easily angered. And so, many people expend a lot of energy not displaying anger even though they may be seething internally. That is not love. St Paul is not making a list of proper Christian behavior nor a description of how to act lovingly. Rather, he’s painting a portrait of what divine love looks like in human form when a person is genuinely transformed into the very love that God is. And that can only occur with God’s divine power.
So the ascetical dimension is a life of fighting and struggling as we baby-step our passions into proper order. This is practiced in cooperation with God’s grace and preferably under the direction of a wise spiritual father and within the collective wisdom of the Church. This is why fasting is a primary and almost universal ascetical practice within the Church. It is a practice that Jesus taught and that the Church has honed through the centuries. So we infuse our lives with this discipline and these small steps, when practiced wisely, help us struggle against our distorted wills in God’s grace.
Certainly, other practices may help. Regulating what we take in through our eyes and ears can be helpful, especially depending on what God is doing in our lives. But there are a couple things to remember as we engage in the ascetical life. First, we must remember that such practices don’t make a person a “good” or a “bad” Christian. We should never judge ourselves or others based on our successes or failures in these practices. Second, we can actually hinder God’s work in us by unwisely embracing practices that God hasn’t given to us. We can easily be crushed by joyless misery or swell with pride at our accomplishments. This is why the advice of a spiritual father and the collective wisdom of the Church is highly recommended.
The sacramental dimension is the mystical participation in divine grace. As Orthodox Christians, we have very specific Sacraments or Mysteries in which we participate in the life and grace of God. These specific moments, and in a more generic way all aspects of life, draw us into koinonia (participation in and shared lives) with God. Our lives are transformed into the likeness of Christ by the energies of God.
Like the ascetical life, there are a few important matters worth remembering. First, we must remember that transformation is a slow lifelong process. It is neither instantaneous nor experienced in great leaps and bounds. It will only be consummated in the New Creation. Second, the natural byproduct of transformation will be the dispassion of perfected love of God and others, not just modified behavior. Our distorted passions will be ordered and aligned with our healed will and soul. Third, we are not the ones who are overcoming our own sins. There is not a direct one-to-one correlation between the amount of our participation in the ascetical and sacramental life and our personal transformation. Only God transforms us. St Macarius wrote:
To uproot sin and the evil that is so imbedded in our sinning can be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man’s competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot, however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own, what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord?
Debbie voiced a desire that I believe many people share, “I want to see that kind of humanity [as embodied in Jesus] lived out.” But we must be very careful neither to shape that vision in our own image nor hold unattainable expectations for ourselves and others. Our eyes must always be turned inwardly to the kingdom of God within and not toward judging the success of others nor what we hope others may see in us.
In regard to training our children, we must help them live within the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church. We must also help them live within the world while simultaneously guarding their hearts from the influence of the broken world. Here is some instruction from St Basil:
Young people must be made to distinguish between helpful and injurious knowledge, keeping clearly in mind the Christian’s purpose in life. So, like the athlete or the musician, they must bend every energy to one task, the winning of the heavenly crown.
This includes helping our children (and ourselves) to form proper thinking, feeling, acting and relating through instruction, encouragement, prohibitions and boundaries. This isn’t legalistic as long as obedience or disobedience to all of this is not associated with being either a “good” or “bad” Christian or as somehow altering God’s love for us.
Again, I need to repeat that the primary issue in all of us, parents and children alike, is separation from God and the resultant spiritual death. So, the primary focus is always restored communion with God as we discussed above. And our role as parents is to make that available to our children, model it for them, encourage them to enter and pray, pray, pray for them.
Again, all of this is opinion and is subject to correction and change.