And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed.
As do many of you every year in January, I began new daily devotional readings from two different sources for my time of prayer and reflection. This year, one of the daily devotionals I use is taken from the Philokalia, which is a four-volume work with writings from the fourth-fourteenth centuries. The other daily devotional I picked up is written by a devout, passionate evangelical, whose writing I happened across at some point last year. I chose the two devotionals because I knew they would be different, but I don’t think I realized just how different they would be.
The Philokalia was introduced to me while in seminary, though not as part of a class. I have read from it before, and the depth of devotion to Jesus Christ and the amazing wisdom and experience of the various writers over the centuries always leave me in awe, humbled by the intimacy of their relationships with the Holy Trinity. It is rich fare indeed. I am, however, less enamored with the writer’s daily observations or applications of the various quotes.
The devotionals written by the evangelical have proven to be very meaningful as well. I am encouraged, comforted, uplifted, and bolstered, and I am still in the first month of devotionals. Every day, the reading drives home Christ’s love for us, the goodness of God on our behalf, the hope we have in Jesus, and more. My faith rests on these bedrock promises of God to me. I need this evangelical impulse in my life, which is why I chose this particular devotional. I am no Saint Anybody, and I need for God to find me and love me.
The challenge is this: every morning, when I read my two devotionals, my brain practically short-circuits. I feel like that emoji with googly eyes. To read Saints Isaiah and Evagrios, and then to read a contemporary writer is both intellectually and spiritually jarring. It is also good for the soul.
The evangelical author speaks to me in a powerful way, reminding me that God is my salvation, my hope, my redeemer. Each day, she says something important about God’s commitment to me. It’s the Gospel with which I most familiar, the one that meets me at my deepest point of need. But the readings from the Philokalia have an entirely different emphasis, and the thing is, the emphasis is on Jesus Christ, not on me. Even harder, the writers – and I am still in the fourth century right now – drive home the need to be changed, to be prepared to meet Jesus face-to-face. They call me out of myself and to the throne of God in repentance, seeking grace and strength to change, that I might draw close to Christ. In other words, instead of propping me up in my faith, as contemporary Christianity seems to do, the daily readings strip down my pride and arrogance. I may well be God’s precious child, but I am also His unworthy child.
Such reading sounds hard to accept, but if we think so, we miss the point. Our true deepest need as human beings is to be saved from ourselves. I don’t need God to tell me I’m wonderful. I need God to set me free – free from delusions of self-importance and righteous obedience, free to receive all that the Spirit wants to give. We cannot be full of ourselves and filled with the Spirit. But in emptying ourselves and allowing the Spirit to fill us, we discover a person of greater worth and lesser importance than we guessed ourselves to be.
This emphasis is not unknown among us. We sing it the Christmas carol, “fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.” Is there some sense in which we imagine eternal life will look like life in our world today? If not, why are we not seeking to become fit for that life now? Rick Warren began his widely-used, 1990s study, The Purpose Driven Life, with the words, “It’s not about you.” Exactly so.
The passage above records Jesus’ prayer with His disciples shortly before His arrest. He says something that is so important for us to hear. “And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Everything that Christianity has to offer comes from knowing God. I make that point because the devotional by the evangelical writer emphasizes all God is doing and has promised to do in my life. Yet, everything He promises to do in my life, in the whole of creation, comes from Who He is, and we can only experience the essence of Christian life when we know God Himself.
The Christian message these days too often supports us in worldly living rather than godly living. We want Jesus to come along and enrich our busy lives, giving them some sort of moral structure and comforting reassurance. St. Isaiah would tell us no. He’d tell us instead to be still, to be silent, to allow the Spirit to seep into our hearts and minds until we draw close enough to Jesus for His joy to arise in us and for the beauty of other hearts and minds, of all creation, to be revealed to us.
To put it simply (and probably a little too generalized), the evangelical devotional is incarnational. It’s all about “God with us.” I need that message. I need to hear “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The Philokalia, on the other hand, is resurrectional (if that’s a word). It’s all about “us with God.” The second option is the other half of game. That’s the goal, the prize for which we strive. The problem for so many of us is that between the Incarnation and the Resurrection, there is the whole issue of death, a nasty, unpleasant, and difficult business, to be sure, but the only pathway to a glorious, new life.
Intentionally or not, American Christianity has competed with the culture on the culture’s terms. If our society is anything, it is enamored with the self. But the glory God gave Jesus, the glory that is our inheritance and destiny, is not a personal glory. It’s the glory of the life and light of the Holy Trinity poured out upon us when we know Him well enough to enter His presence. It is everything you have ever wanted, more than you’ve ever dreamed, and less of what you thought – handed to you when you begin dying to self.
The Incarnation is the wondrous first half of the story, but it’s the second half of the story that is so astounding, so full of life and promise, joy and love. It’s Resurrection. You want the whole story. Yes, Jesus is propping you up and carrying you along because He loves you. He’s on your side, and He’s got mercy, forgiveness, and grace in abundance for you. But He is also calling you to humble yourself, sacrifice your wishes and dreams, and kneel before Him to receive what He wants to give.
In Christ –
© 2019 – Published 1-17-2019