As Lent approaches we need to be reminded of the goal. The goal of Lent is not spiritual athleticism but an increase of love in and through disciplines that address the passions (vainglory, pride, and self-love). The goal is not more information about love but “lived Love” as Jesus the Christ lives and expresses His life in us and through us for the salvation of the world. This involves purgation and establishment and release.
One danger, and there are many, is legalism and pride in the observance of the very disciplines that are designed to bear the fruit of love.
The warning of Jesus is clear. As a matter of fact it is so important that in the Western Church, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, which is the passage in which Jesus issues His warning about legalism and pride is the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.
Notice that Jesus does not counsel “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” He does not say, “Don’t observe the disciplines.” He doesn’t label them as unnecessary. For Jesus, it is not “if” but “how” the disciplines are observed. The form is not to be abandoned, but rather filled with right content – the humble and contrite desire for love. Indeed, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
So, the warning is not just a warning. It is an invitation that holds a promise – abundant life in Him.
Here is the counsel of Elder Paisios the Athonite on the subject:
A Christian must not be fanatic; he must have love for and be sensitive towards all people. Those who inconsiderately toss out comments, even if they are true, can cause harm.
I once met a theologian who was extremely pious, but who had the habit of speaking to the (secular) people around him in a very blunt manner; his method penetrated so deeply that it shook them very severely. He told me once: “During a gathering, I said such and such a thing to a lady.” But the way that he said it, crushed her. “Look”, I said to him, “you may be tossing golden crowns studded with diamonds to other people, but the way that you throw them can smash heads, not only the sensitive ones, but the sound ones also.”
Let’s not stone our fellow-man in a so-called “Christian manner.” The person who – in the presence of others – checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved by the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.
The way of the Church is LOVE; it differs from the way of the legalists. The Church sees everything with tolerance and seeks to help each person, whatever he may have done, however sinful he may be.
I have observed a peculiar kind of logic in certain pious people. Their piety is a good thing, and their predisposition for good is also a good thing; however, a certain spiritual discernment and amplitude is required so that their piety is not accompanied by narrow-mindedness or strong-headedness. Someone who is truly in a spiritual state must possess and exemplify spiritual discernment; otherwise he will forever remain attached to the “letter of the Law”, and the letter of the Law can be quite deadly.
A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher; he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.
A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes. Spiritual Counsels II: Spiritual Awakening, by Elder Paisios of Mount Athos.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.17-20)
From my vantage point all of this is Good News to me a sinner.