For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. –Mark 8:35
What clearer call to martyrdom could there be than to hear Jesus say, “If you willingly give up your life for my sake, then you will be saved”? But it’s not only a commandment for the martyrs–you, too, are asked to lose your life for the sake of True Life by denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Christ.
There’s a bit of a paradox in the command, “Deny yourself,” because the self you are asked to deny isn’t really your true self. Who you really are rests in God. The divine spark of the Holy Spirit is already in each of us and has been fueled and fanned by our baptism and chrismation. And this is who you really are–your true self is Christ in you.
Christ asks, then, that we deny ourselves in the sense that we deny the false self–the selfish ego and the passionate desires that seem to be who we are but which are merely distortions that mask our deeper, truer being. Christ asks that we deny ourselves so that we can find ourselves. He tells us, “The ego must go, your passions and selfish desires cannot reign in you if I am to reign in your heart.”
Take Up Your Cross
The way of self-denial is the way of the Cross. To strip the passions of their power is neither easy nor painless. And it’s not a one-time deal, but a constant, life-long struggle. As our true self is being uncovered, the false, egotistical self constantly struggles to win out, and the heart is the battleground where we fight this war.
There are two kinds of crosses we will be asked to bear in this battle. The first are the crosses of circumstance. These are the difficulties, the temptations, and the situations which are out of our control. We do not ask for illness and death to enter our lives, we do not control the propensities towards certain sins that we have inherited or acquired through our upbringing, we do not plan to have a boss that’s unkind or a friend that betrays us. Nonetheless, these things all confront us and require our response.
The crosses of circumstance, though initially thrust upon us, can still be voluntarily taken up. It is an act of self-denial to bear illness with faith and hope. It is an act of self-denial to live a life of purity when faced with strong propensity toward sexual sin. It is an act of self-denial not to exact revenge on a person who has hurt you. These crosses will grieve us, yes, and they may even seem senseless and unfair when we try to fight them. But if we accept them, if we pray, “God, enter into this suffering, be with me, may this cross lead me to a resurrection,” then the suffering and sorrow of the crosses of circumstance will be transformed with hope and light and will allow us to thank God for all things as we begin to see Him act in our lives.
The second kind of crosses we will be asked to bear are the crosses of asceticism. These are the voluntary acts of self-denial we pursue to crucify our passions. This is our response to the usurping, selfish, ego that desires to reign on the throne of our hearts. The false self tells us, “Be angry, you are justified,” and we respond, “I shall not murder my brother, but will let peace reign among us.” The false self tells us, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die,” and we respond, “For my brother’s sake, for the sake of love, I shall take less than my share so that he might have more.” The false self tell us, “You are a good person, you are certainly better than the great sinners,” and we respond, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The Church gives us many small crosses of asceticism that we can voluntarily take up so that our will can be formed to the will of the Father. We don’t have to make up an ascetical practice ourselves but simply allow our lives to be shaped by the life of the Church. We fast when and how the Church tells us to fast. We pray with the words of the Church. We give alms though it deprives us of material wealth. We submit in obedience and love to our parents, our spiritual father, our spouse, our bishop. These small acts of self-denial help us face and battle the thoughts and promptings of our ego and of the Evil One.
Together, the crosses of circumstance and the crosses of asceticism slowly uncover Christ in us and strip away the false self. We should expect that crucifixion will be painful and difficult. As the character of C. S. Lewis says in The Shadowlands:
You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt so much, are what makes us perfect.
The last and perhaps most essential part of Christ’s command for us to live everyday as martyrs is this: Follow Me. We are asked not only to deny our selfish desires and bear the suffering that denial will bring, but to move towards Christ. It is the completion of the denial of the false self to allow Christ in us to shine through, for the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, words, and deeds.
Follow Me also means that the way of the Cross that we are to walk is the way that Christ has already walked. He does not ask us to bear anything that He Himself has not already borne. He assures us that any difficulty we face, He will face with us. He asks only that we unite ourselves to Him with faith and love.
Christ says to us, “Follow Me, do as I have done, love as I have loved, and most of all, trust that I will love you and walk with you on the path.”
It is striking that the Lord does not force us to follow this path, to bear the cross, to live a life of everyday martyrdom, but says, “If anyone is willing, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” May we have the strength and faith to become everyday martyrs, dying to sin so that we can be alive in Christ.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):
Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:
- Get a job
- Keep a job
- Make more money
OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.
I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.
Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,
Who am I at my core?
This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world: Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.
College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?
This is a guest post from Thano Prokos, Great Lakes Regional Student Leader on the 2013-2014 Student Advisory Board. Thano is a junior at DePaul University, majoring in Secondary Education. This is his first year serving OCF on the SAB.
The Kontakion of the Life-Giving Spring reads,
O Lady graced by God,
you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,
the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.
I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,
to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,
“Hail redemptive waters.”
It’s really neat to think that Orthodoxy alludes to our lives as being like a spring, gushing forth the waters of God’s grace. But even as an Orthodox Christian deeply involved in OCF and other ministries, I often feel like my life is more of a leaky faucet than a spring. We live in a secular world, and God’s presence often goes unfelt. Drawing water to gush forth can be a vexing challenge.
The difficulty in finding spiritual inspiration and fulfillment often helps me identify with a lot of my atheist friends. I believe in God. I love my Orthodox roots, and my goal is to do His work, but sometimes I feel like a little “Keep going, Thano, you’re doing great!” from up above would be nice. When I find myself asking for that affirmation, and I don’t hear it, I start to wonder if the religious life is a life well-spent.
One of my all-time favorite musicians, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, expresses a similar sentiment to mine in a lot of his music. The chorus to the band’s song “Unbelievers” reminds me a lot of the Life-Giving Spring model. It goes like this:
I’m not excited [about God], but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you,
and you love the sea,
but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”
A prevalent theme in the band’s latest album is an honest desire to believe in God, but an ultimate inability to do so. “Unbelievers’” chorus demonstrates that Koenig isn’t full of the Orthodox understanding of spirituality; he gushes forth just a little drop.
But why is this so? As he describes in the song “Ya Hey” it’s because God doesn’t make his presence prevalent enough. Koenig feels like God ought to blatantly reveal himself to us since so much of the world hates Him.
Oh sweet thing,
Zion doesn’t love you,
and Babylon don’t love you…
So I could never love you,
in spite of everything.
In the song’s reference to Moses, Koenig points out that God was never clear with humanity in telling us who He is.
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name,
only “I am that I am.”
Clearly, Koenig feels that there’s a disconnect between the divine and the human, and as a result he’s decided that spirituality isn’t for him.
So, if you suffer from the same concern that Ezra Koenig and I have faced, you have to ask yourself this important question: How do I make God identifiable and real to me?
According to Fr. Stanley Harakas, many in the early church blamed others’ lack of belief as a result of Christians inadequately embodying the characteristics of Christ. Orthodoxy also firmly holds onto the belief of Theosis: since we were created in the image and likeness of God, it’s our goal to eventually become god-like. Both of these ideas demonstrate that Orthodoxy teaches a very real connection between the divine and the human. If we need help making the concept of God real, then all we need to do is look at each other.
The Orthodox believe that Christ is both God and man. We believe that God is love. We believe that whatever we do to our fellow man we do to Christ. Therefore, we believe that God made Himself known to us 2000 years ago, and makes Himself known to us today. When a mother calls you every day and sends care packages of food or when a roommate drops what he’s doing to hear about your day, that’s love. And that’s the Christ we’re supposed to see in each other.
The struggle to connect with God is real for every type of Christian. Being presented with struggles in our faith often gives us the opportunity to better understand what we believe. Often faith leaves us with the false idea that we’re not supposed to see what we believe in; we’re just supposed to see it in a different way. I see who I believe in manifested in myself and everyone around me, and that is where I draw my spiritual fulfillment.