To know and to do the will of God

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Thursday of the Eighth Week of Matthew 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord calls His disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. 

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.  For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.  Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. Matthew 16: 24-28 

What does it mean to deny ourselves?   St. Theophan the Recluse tells us that this is quite straightforward and simple:  We have to put aside our own preferences and obey the commandments God has revealed to us: 

The Lord demands decisive self-denial of those who want to follow Him: Let him deny himself, He says. It could be expressed like this: Cast aside your interests and pursue only the interests of the Lord. You will be fulfilling this when you always do what is pleasing to Him. How can one do this? Mind carefully what is in you, and what around you on the outside, and discern strictly in one or another situation, be it internal or external, how to act in the way that is most pleasing to God—then, not pitying yourself and not inserting your own calculations, act accordingly, with complete self-denial. You say, “It is hard to determine this.” No, it is not hard. We have been given clear and fixed commandments— they express what we can do to be pleasing to the Lord. All that remains is to apply them to the given situation, and this does not present any great problem. Having common sense is enough. If you cannot figure something out, ask your spiritual father or someone else whose words you respect, and act according to his directions. But it is always better to sharpen your discernment through reading the word of God and writings of the fathers, so that you will always have a decision-maker with you. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 155-156

The saint’s advice given here is old-fashioned, straightforward, and simple:  Study God’s word and the writings of the fathers, use some common sense, and obey the commandments in every situation.  When we live this way, life becomes simple:  Every day when we wake up, we make our cross and say, “O Lord, today enable me to do Thy will, to do what is pleasing to Thee.”  Then at every moment we obey the voice of conscience enlightened by diligent study of the truth of God taught by the Church.  If we fail, we repent and move on.  We live this way daily until we die, with the Lord imperceptibly granting us the grace of perseverance, and we thereby acquire a firm hope in our salvation.  

St. Theophan concludes his comments with advice that may surprise us:  Don’t rely on other people all the time to tell you what to do.  Take responsibility for your own discernment for daily situations.   This seems to contradict the oft-repeated teaching that we should not trust our own judgment but rather always defer to the judgment of our priest confessor or other spiritual authorities.  In reality, however, there is no contradiction here.   St. Theophan is writing here not for monks living in strict obedience in monasteries, who reveal every thought to their superiors and get permission for the smallest actions.   For us living in the world, this is not possible, nor is it even desirable or healthy for us to treat our spiritual fathers as if we were monks and they were our monastic elders.  (And, to tell the truth, constant revelation of thoughts and asking permission for minute daily functions is not possible even in many monasteries).  A good spiritual father will always encourage us to stand on our own two feet.   Yes, he will pray for us, but we have to pray too!   Yes, he will study and give advice to us, but we have to study too, and use our common sense to make daily decisions!    The mark of a good spiritual father is the same as the mark of a good earthly father:  He is always there for us, but he enables us to live independently, without needing his constant support and advice.  He wants us to grow. 

What we see in real life is that those who study, pray, and constantly sharpen their consciences also have the best relationship with their father confessors, seek their advice when it is really needed, and act prudently on the counsel that is given.  They try to stand on their own two feet, but they alsoopen their minds to their spiritual fathers regularly in confession and seek their counsel on occasion when difficult situations arise.  By contrast, those who do not do their own spiritual homework will either get stuck in a childish relationship with their spiritual fathers, depending on them for everything and never growing up, or they go to the opposite extreme, isolate themselves, and abandon the practice of regular confession, with the result that they fall into pseudo-spiritual delusion or give up on spiritual life altogether. 

Our All-Provident Creator has endowed each of us with mind, conscience, and will, and, moreover, He has resurrected these faculties of the soul when they were dead through sin, and He has enlivened and empowered them with divine power by His grace.  Let each of us resolve today to be a good steward of these priceless powers bestowed upon him, to take responsibility for his own soul, and to act according to the divine commandments given him by God. 

Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.  Blessed is he that searcheth out Thy commandments, that he should keep them most diligently.   O, how I have loved Thy law, O Lord!  It is my meditation day and night.  – Ps. 118 


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