23 April OS 2020 – Third Wednesday of Pascha; Holy Great Martyr George
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:18-25), St. Peter rebukes Simon Magus for trying to buy the grace of the Holy Spirit:
In those days: When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me. And they, when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.
St. Theophan the Recluse takes St. Peter’s expression, “…the thought of thine heart…” and expounds upon it:
St. Peter says to Simon: “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” Thou hast no part…But Simon did not even begin to think that he had gone so far astray. Outwardly he had not done anything outrageous; only his thinking was wrong – so wrong, that the Apostle was uncertain as to whether it would be forgiven him even if he repented and entreated God. That is how important the heart’s disposition is, and the thoughts that proceed from it according to this disposition! Judging by this, a person may be one way on the outside, and completely different on the inside. Only God sees this inner state, and those to whom the Spirit of God, Who tries all hearts, reveals it. With what fear and trembling must we work out our salvation! And how sincerely and zealously must we pray to God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me (Ps. 50:10). Then, at the Judgment, something terrible and amazing will happen. The Lord will say: “I know you not (Matt. 25:12)” to those who not only were sure of their own godliness, but who also appeared godly to everyone else. What remains for us to do? Only to cry out: “Thou who knowest all things, save us, O Lord” As Thou knowest, grant a saving formation to our heart! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 96
People with depraved minds misuse this teaching of the Church – that we cannot know the inner workings of the heart, that God alone knows the heart – to justify all kinds of evil today. They proclaim that people performing the most abominable and filthy deeds, leading lives openly opposed to God’s Law, and teaching others to do the same, have “good hearts,” and therefore we must not “judge them,” thus giving a free pass to every kind of evil under the sun. Apparently, to this way of thinking, only those who try to uphold God’s Law are evil, because they are “mean,” and everyone else – especially the most openly defiant of God’s Law – has a “good heart.” No doubt St. Theophan the Recluse, not to mention the Holy Apostle Peter, would be extremely surprised by this interpretation.
The truth is quite otherwise, of course. We must believe in the Faith that God Himself has revealed, fulfill the outward Law of God, and in addition cleanse the inner man constantly to fight even the least thought that contravenes His holy Law. Without this foundation – the true Faith (orthodoxy) and the moral struggle to fulfill God’s Law (orthopraxy) – we cannot even begin to work on the heart, which is a fathomless abyss, and in which we will discover new evils every day, if we look closely enough. A good heart does not mean being “nice” instead of “mean.” It means being cleansed of all the passions and of all ignorance, acquiring profound humility, and being in constant converse with God, constant awareness of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness, and constant gratitude, with tears, for His great and abundant mercy. A person who actually has a good heart constantly regards himself as a debtor to every commandment of God’s Law. Until one acquires this inner state, one should never claim to have a good heart. And if one does acquire such an inner state, the idea that he has a good heart will never occur to him.
The Orthodox concept of salvation, then, is maximalist to an extent inconceivable to modern man, something forgotten or not noticed by many purported apologists for Orthodoxy today. I do not know where the idea started, but I have noticed that one “pitch” that modernized “salesmen” for Orthodoxy use today is that the Western Christian God is “mean,” because He is all about laws and punishment, while the Eastern Orthodox God is “nice,” because He is all about “healing” and “love.” Of course, a one-dimensional paper doll “God” like this, all hugs and lollipops, appeals to people today, who would rather not be inconvenienced: “Give me pleasant experiences, only, please!” The reality, however, is that the Orthodox God makes the Western Christian God look like a pansy. If one really took seriously the lofty ascetical and mystical writings these “salesmen” claim as evidence for their “nice” God, one would doubt seriously the likelihood of salvation for most contemporary Orthodox, much less for most people one meets today.
The right response to this Orthodox maximalism, however, is not gloom and doom, but humility and hope. We are in the Church, we plan to stay there – God’s grace helping us – and therefore we have a firm hope in our salvation, if only we keep working out our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Humility is the key. We have to put our heads down, accept God’s mysterious judgments with all our hearts, trust in His all-wise Providence over us, and constantly cry with the voice of the Publican, the Thief, and the Harlot: “Have mercy on me!” Hope in salvation will spring up, with the quiet joy of salvation, which we must guard with all the vigilance we can muster. Just never, ever, think that you have arrived, and never, ever, claim to have a “good heart.” Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.
O Thou that knowest the hearts, spare our souls!
O Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!
Thou hast taken to Thyself, O Lord, the firm and divine-voiced preachers, the chief Apostles, for the enjoyment of Thy blessings and for repose; for Thou didst accept their labors and death as above all sacrifice, O Thou Who alone knowest the secrets of our hearts.