In Chapter one of Unseen Warfare, it is stated clearly from the outset that “perfection” is the goal of the Christian life.
“We all naturally wish, and are commanded to be perfect. The Lord commands: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. V. 48).”
But the meaning and content of “Christian perfection,” is not necessarily understood by all. The danger of a misunderstanding of what our Lord and the Apostles mean by Christian perfection should be a concern to us. If you have ever sailed a boat or gone on a hike, you know the disastrous effect of being off course by 5°. Over time, the miscalculation will result not only in missing your desired destination but becoming completely lost. The spiritual application of this analogy is obvious.
“But if you, my reader beloved in Christi, wish to attain to such heights, you must first learn in what Christian perfection consists. For if you have not learnt this, you may turn off the right path and go in a totally different direction, while thinking that you make progress towards perfection.”
So, what is Christian perfection?
“I will tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.”
Such a statement, while brief and to the point, is not enough. There are many practices that can seem like the pursuit of perfection but miss the mark. It is easy to confuse means and ends. As a result, the author(s) makes it clear what does not qualify as the right pursuit of perfection.
“There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflexions, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority, limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all those virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.”
To practice the spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves is worse than not practicing them at all! They fall into the trap of pride. This is an extremely dangerous condition for a disciple.
“On the other hand, these same virtues may do more harm than their open omission, to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope; not from their nature, since they are righteous and holy, but through the fault of those, who use them not as they should be used; that is, when they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues, and leave their heart to be moved by their own volitions and the volitions of the devil…”
Righteousness doesn’t consist in mere outward observance of the disciplines.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matthew 23.23-28)
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2.14-29)
“Fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem they are not good. In everything that we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive.” Saint Maximos the Confessor
“Going through the fast does not consist in merely going through the time, but in going through it with amendment of manners (behavior and motive). Let us consider this; whether we have become more diligent; whether we have corrected any of our defects; whether we have washed away our sins?” Saint John Chrysostom
“Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being saved must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.” Saint John Chrysostom
“Love sinners, but hate their works, and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same. Remember that you share the earthly nature of Adam and that you are clothed with his infirmity.” St. Isaac the Syrian
The disciplines, in as much as they have been created by the Holy Spirit to bring about our salvation, are a matter of the heart. Why? Because salvation is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of words and deeds (Matthew 7.13-29 and Romans 10.8-10). The disciplines are a necessary means to a greater end. The end cannot be achieved without them but they are not the end in themselves. You cannot be saved by them but you cannot be saved without them.
The fault in this scenario lies not in the spiritual discipline but in the disciple who practices it. That is of immense importance. Over the course of the history of the Church, effective disciplines have been mistakenly and tragically excluded because of their misappropriation by errant Christians. The Christian who practices the disciplines as ends and not means, eventually begins to judge others as inferior to him. What is more, this confusion of means and ends begins to be taught to new believers, leading them astray as well.
The disciplines of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, a two edged sword. They are designed to save but they can serve to destroy. For those who diligently seek the Lord with all of their heart (even though they struggle to be faithful), the disciplines purify and establish in joy. But, for those who seek to only to promote and themselves and their own interests, they serve only to further separate the wayward from the Lord (see, for example, St. Paul’s intense exhortation regarding the spiritual discipline of Holy Eucharist – 1Corinthians 11.17-30). The result of practicing the disciplines of the faith in a manner that doesn’t proceed from a spirit of humility and gratitude in response to God’s mercy is spiritual delusion.
“Experiencing with this certain spiritual stirrings and consolations, such people begin to imagine that they have already reached the state of angels and feel that God Himself is present in them. And at times, engrossed in the contemplation of some abstract and unearthly things, they imagine that they have completely transcended the sphere of this world and have been ravished to the third heaven…
If desirous of bringing them to self-knowledge and leading them to the right path of perfection… they refuse to bend their necks to the yoke of God’s will and to trust in His righteous and secret judgments. They do not want to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Who humbled Himself and suffered for our sakes, and they refuse to be humble, to consider themselves the lowest of all creatures, and to regard their persecutors as their good friends, the tools of the divine bounty shown to them and helpers in their salvation.”
Delusion is accompanied by an almost complete refusal to submit to and receive correction.
“Thus it is clear that they are in great danger. Their inner eye, that is their mind, being darkened, they see themselves with this and see wrongly. Thinking of their external pious works and deeming them good, they imagine that they have already reached perfection and, puffing themselves up, begin to judge others. After this it is impossible for any man to turn such people, except through God’s special influence. An evident sinner will turn towards good more easily than a secret sinner, hiding under the cloak of visible virtues.”
So, having been given an example of the dire consequences of misunderstanding the meaning and content of perfection and how to pursue it, the author proceeds to outline the proper understanding and approach toward the disciplines. What should the attitude of our heart and mind? So now the author takes up where he left off.
“Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning. With this is connected a heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with consciousness of our own nothingness and our proneness to every evil; love of God and dislike of ourselves; submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God; renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God; and moreover desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.”
Wow… Now that is clear and to the point! No wiggle room. As was said above, this must be “heartfelt.” External observance that doesn’t issue from a heart of humility and gratitude is worthless. Less than worthless, down right damning!
It is worth listing them again just to be crystal clear:
- A heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God
- Consciousness of our dislike (distrust) of ourselves
- Submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God
- Renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God
- Desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.
Now, just to make sure that we GET IT, the author(s) says:
“This is the law of love, inscribed by the finger of God Himself in the hearts of His true servants!”
Get it?! Love… Not the law of self but the law of Christ. Not the law of merit and performance that issues from self, but the law of merit and performance that proceeds from Christ Jesus – the power of the Holy Spirit to do all things in and through disciples who abide in Christ and have Christ abiding in them (Isaiah 40.28-31; Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.25-27; Romans 5.5; Philippians 4.7-13; 2 Timothy 1.8). The law of freedom and power in Christ Jesus.
This law of love involves a mandate to obedience that is filled with grace and yet unwavering in its demands.
“This is the renunciation of ourselves that God demands of us! This is the blessed yoke of Jesus Christ and His burden that is light! This is the submission to God’s will, which our Redeemer and Teacher demands from us both by His word and by His example! For did not our Master and the Author of our salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ, tell us to say when praying to the heavenly Father: ‘Our Father, … Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. vi. 10)? And did not He Himself exclaim on the eve of His passion: ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke xxii. 42)! And did not He say of His whole work: ‘For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me’ (John vi. 38)?”
Do you hear the power behind and within these words? Do you hear the excitement and zeal? If the author were here in flesh and blood, I imagine him to be standing on tip-toe with hands outstretched, deeply desiring to have me join in his excitement!! These words thrill my heart every time I read them!
“Blessed be your zeal!”
But, be aware of the cost of this zeal and desire. It is not a cheap grace to which we have married ourselves…
“But prepare yourself also for labour, sweat and struggle form your first steps on the path. You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. Yet you will meet in yourself as many wills as you have powers and wants, which all clamour for satisfaction, irrespective of whether it is in accordance with the will of God or not.”
Remember? It is a warfare, unseen though it be.
“Therefore, to reach your desired aim…”
And what is the aim?? “…coming near to God and union with Him.”
“Therefore, to reach your desired aim, it is first of all necessary to stifle your own wills and finally to extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own wills, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown – attainment of your desired aim – is given to none except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers.”
I love those words too!! I hear the echoes of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” in the background, don’t you. I know, it is not the “in thing” or the “spiritually politically correct thing” to couple the spiritual life with images of warfare. But, you know, it is what it is. Who am I to call it anything else?! I believe one of the reasons we don’t enjoy a certain quality of transformation lies in this squeamishness regarding the language and the images.
Is it ALL about warfare? Are those the only images we have been given by our Lord to use? By no means! We have a myriad of images and analogies and stories. But, let us not shy away from this one and think we can use another just as well. It does not work that way. If it did, then Jesus would have told only a couple of parables and they would have sounded pretty much the same. But, He drew on a huge variety of images and plot lines to portray the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s ministry within and among us. Here is a point of obedience that you and I need to heed.
This unseen war is a hard war. Why? Because it is against OURSELVES! As the little possum in the old “Pogo” comic strip said on one occasion, “We has met the enemy and he is us.” Or as Charlie Brown said on a lot of occasions, usually flat on his back after having been convinced by Lucy to try and kick the football that she was holding, “Good Grief!”
But if this is the hardest of all wars – since in fighting against ourselves it is in ourselves that we meet opposition – victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God.
Are we willing forsake all to gain mastery over ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God? Are we willing to take “the road less travelled?” Are we willing to join St. Paul in saying:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3.7-11)
The author(s) of Unseen Warfare echo St. Paul’s distinction between a false righteousness, the kind that proceeds out of self powered obedience, and a true righteousness that is the fruit of a grace powered obedience that is a synergy of our will and the will of God. Once again, we are reminded of that self-powered observance of the spiritual disciplines is a dead end (it avails us nothing).
“For if, inspired by fervour, you overcome and put death your unruly passions, your lusts and wills, you will please God more, and will work for Him more beautifully, than if you flog yourself till you draw blood or exhaust yourself by fasts more than any ancient hermit of the desert. Even if you redeem hundreds of Christian slaves from the infidels and give them freedom, it will not save you, if with this you remain yourself a slave to your own passions. And whatever work you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may accomplish it, it will not lead you to your desired aim, if you leave your passions without attention, giving them freedom to live and act in you.”
Truly, we may do great deeds in the name of God but if our passions are left unaddressed and our hearts are darkened and enslaved by them, they are as filthy rags in the sight of God (Isaiah 64.6).
So, having defined perfection, enlightened us regarding the danger of using the spiritual disciplines as ends rather than means, and the rewards of joining the Holy Spirit in confronting our passions the author(s) bring the first chapter to an end. We are presented with four dispositions and activities that arm us for the warfare.
“…if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer.”
In the following chapters, our guide(s) will instruct us in the meaning, content, and conduct of these dispositions that constitute the weapons of our unseen warfare.
“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go! (Refrain) Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.”
Note – All quotes from Unseen Warfare are from Chapter One, pgs. 77-81