In a world marked by such things as childhood trauma, terrorist attacks and a collapsing economy, the anxiety level is understandably high.
We have structured our lives in such a way as to shield ourselves as much as possible from the violence, corruption, sickness and death that provoke that anxiety. Yet most of us still live with uncomfortable amounts of stress, worry and assorted “problems.” It doesn’t help to remind ourselves that millions are starving in Africa, that thousands of women are sold every year into sexual slavery, that diseases such as the Ebola and HIV viruses are decimating entire populations, or that Christians are facing increasingly severe persecution in Muslim countries, including those we consider to be our allies. We Americans are tired, overworked and stressed out. And most of us are not happy about it.
Priests and pastors who are charged with preaching the Gospel tend to respond to this situation in a predictable way. With the best of intentions, they try to relieve the tensions and stresses of their parishioners by preaching a “good word,” an uplifting message of assurance and consolation. Their very genuine concern is to convey the promise of God’s love, forgiveness and tender mercy. Yet all too often their sermons, and the church service itself, take on the aspect of a therapy session. The pastor is driven by an unconscious need to make the people feel better about themselves and their lives. The resulting message, though, expresses emotion more than truth, pop-psychology more than the Gospel.
Whether it comes from the lips of an Orthodox priest or a Baptist preacher, that word is no longer God’s Word. This is because it has lost the vital element in all of Christian, and especially Orthodox Christian, life: the element of balance.
It is said that Sergei Verhovskoy, the late professor of dogmatic theology at St Vladimir’s Seminary, defined Orthodoxy as “the lack of one-sidedness.” This is a marvelous definition. It makes clear that heresy of every sort results less from conscious attempts to deny the faith, than from often noble attempts to stress one or more truths of the faith that, taken in isolation, create distortion or imbalance. (This is reflected most clearly in the unending christological debates of the first Christian millennium.)
Pastoral concerns have tended to focus in a one-sided way on all that is “positive” in the Gospel. Whether in sermons or in confession, priests very often emphasize the love, forgiveness and mercy of God while neglecting to stress the less acceptable and less consoling message of divine judgment.
Of all the New Testament passages in which judgment is a basic theme—from the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:13) to the Book of Revelation (22:12!)—one in particular comes to mind. It is no more condemnatory, no more “judgmental” than many others. Its force lies in the way it unmasks every false attempt to demonstrate self-righteousness or to create the criteria by which we may guarantee our salvation.
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers!’” (Mt 7:21-23)
As much as the parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25), these words make clear the depths of our blindness with regard to our actions and motivations. With the proper words (“Lord, Lord!”) and the proper deeds (prophecy, exorcism, miracles!), there comes the subtle temptation of “entitlement.” If we conform in word and deed to what we understand God expects of us, then He is duty bound to grant us our reward.
Yet God judges not words and actions, but the motivations of the heart.
This is why an Orthodox Christian can never claim to “be saved,” as though that were a once-for-all, established fact, an obligation on God’s part to make sure that our will be done. We can long and pray for salvation; but it is never guaranteed. There is no such thing as “once saved, always saved.” There can only be ongoing repentance and hope—with the firm conviction that God is faithful, not capricious, and that He desires from the depths of His heart that everyone be saved and come to full knowledge of His truth and His glory.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus declares, “He who hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). That hearing and believing, however, are ongoing, continuous. At every moment we stand before judgment because at every moment we can refuse to hear and refuse to believe. We may utter prophetic words and work astonishing miracles. And at the same time we can bring judgment and condemnation down upon ourselves, simply because what moves the heart is something other than the single-minded concern and desire to hear the Word of God and to do it.
All of us desperately need to hear the message of God’s love, mercy and saving grace. It is the only word that offers hope and the prospect of genuine peace to a world torn by violence, persecution, exploitation and death. It is the only word that really offers a solution to the stress, fatigue and anxiety that so many people bear today.
That message needs to be proclaimed everywhere and to everyone, since it remains the heart of the Gospel. Equally a part of the Gospel, however, is the word of judgment. And that word, too, needs to be preached and needs to be heard.