Friday, July 30, 2010

The Sin of Discontentment

Andrew posted a comment on "Work and Priesthood" that was particularly pointed:
"Out of curiosity, do all the positive responses to your blog also swell your ego? Not to be an arse or anything but it seems disingenuous to post a confession that you know will result in praise. To me, this "confession" has the aura of bragging about it." 

I don't know if Andrew is new to the blog (coming up on six years and over 600 posts old) but one of the things that I think is clear to my long time readers is that I'm no stranger to my own ego and the manifold and subtle ways pride and vainglory can be passed off as humility and piety. If it can be done, I've done it (he proudly claimed...). But his question is a legitimate one that gets to the heart of the human condition: rarely is something pure or a motive is without a tinge of hypocrisy or self-serving. But we live in the condition unaware that our existence is being rotted away at its core by such a tiny cancer.

One of the things that was integral to my struggle with ordination was the realization that I've spent most of my life being discontent with one thing or another regarding my life's circumstances. One of the things that kept me from Orthodoxy was the prospect of being a "talented layman" in the context of a clerical structure where a robe (or collar) gave instant "cred" to some (in my estimation) pretty sketchy people. At that time my perception was that, as a layman with little prospect for ordination, I would have to give up teaching and writing and sit in the back pew and shut up for the rest of my life.  I knew I had a gift for teaching, but I knew (at least my perception was) that if you didn't have a robe no one would regard you as a "real" teacher. I converted anyway with a mixed bag of humility and false expectations (like most of us do I've come to realize).  I was partly ready to sit quietly, but ordination was still a remote possibility though not a promise. In the back of my mind I would be the one that would get the "economia", the bending of the canons because... well, because I was special, of course. Over the years I got plenty of recommendations, attempts, Synodical votes, and when those didn't pan out I got lots of advice from clergy, laity and monastics about where to go and who to schmooze to get ordained. I've been enough of an "screw authority anarchist" throughout my life that I refused to play the "schmooze or lose game" even with the Church, so I never followed up on any of the advice. But that's not the point.

In the first year of my Orthodox life I began my stint as an "Orthodox radio show personality". The short story is, I and my friend Allan were invited as "new convert guests" on a local live Orthodox radio program.  Fr. Andrew (Barakos) essentially turned it over to us the next week. For the next ten years I did a weekly radio show that eventually became "Our Life in Christ" with Bill Gould and was for a season the most popular Orthodox internet radio broadcast on earth via Ancient Faith Radio. Bill and I ran out of things to say about a year and a half ago, and I started the solo podcast "Steve the Builder".  In the meantime I blogged, I started Mission parishes and I built monasteries. Yeah, I know this looks a lot like more vainglorious self promotion in the guise of confessional literature. But its just a rehash of stuff already on the blog.

But the point is I came into the Church with an ego and an agenda based on my ego. Ego and vainglory are what Mp. Jonah calls "the false self". Ego constructs a facade, a mask, a projection, it creates an idol within yourself, a false god of "you" that you bow down to and serve. Part of the problem is that the false self is partly constructed of the real self's attributes.  One's true talents and even God given gifts are aspects of the idol, just as most idols are partly human, partly God and partly something other than human or God.

And therein lies the ultimate sin of ego: it is discontent. The ego can know no contentment in the life in the fullness of the one true God.  I look back on all the stuff I've done and Andrew's question would be the obvious one:  Doesn't your ego get inflated when you get praise for doing all that stuff?  Well, no. My ego was already inflated.  I was already serving my self constructed idol "Fr. Wannabesoon". While I know I was legitimately using my talents for good purposes and objectively I did a lot of good things for a lot of people, I was not content.  I was not what I desired to be. I could only pay lip service to being grateful and humbled by what had been given to me to do... as a layman.  I was a layman, and thus could not "find contentment in whatever state I was in" (Phil. 4:11). Everything was subservient to the desire for the priesthood.  I could not enjoy the "present moment" in God. I lived in the past, my sins (ahem, "impediments"), the future, my illusions, my delusions, my dreams, my image, my orchestrations and manipulations, anywhere else but the present moment in God.  And so, I was discontent. Like the Israelites in the wilderness with manna to spare, I wanted the Egypt of my past, I wanted more than what I found in the morning, I wanted what was not given... yet, or perhaps ever.

What I didn't realize was I had imported my "I Corinthians 10 self" into the Orthodox Church.  As a Protestant, I was an egotistical self-worshipper, an idolater. Not far behind the narcissism of self-idolatry is immorality. I tried the Lord, I grumbled because I was only given bland manna, not the meat I desired. I thought I was standing and I fell.  When I entered the Orthodox Church, I renounced my former delusions, but I was so deluded I didn't know reality from illusion. Or more precisely, I knew it (perhaps not its true depths), but was not willing to crucify it. My idol was still my self-perception.  I was still ruled by my passions even though I could fast and pray in public quite admirably.  I continued to test God, to make deals, to look for signs, to throw out the fleece and check it in the morning.  I was in the wilderness between the Egypt of the surety of ordination in a former Church and the hope of a Promised Land. My grumbling was against His mercies and provisions and providences in my wilderness.  Rather than seeing the radio programs and building and teaching opportunities as true blessings (and yes, I truly had a sense of gratitude for them all... I'm not totally depraved, and did them with a mixed bag of ego, zeal and humility, and yes Andrew, I delighted in the praises), I still regarded them as scraps from the Master's table... I was being thrown a bone by God, given a consolation prize for finishing last in the "priest race".

So, I was not content. In the final analysis, I was ungrateful.  And this was the same sin that led me to my former downfall.  And as St. Paul says in the Corinthian verses regarding idolatrous, ungrateful, immoral Israel, "With most of them God was not well pleased..."  This is probably why I am a blogger, a cartoonist, and a podcaster and not a priest.  But, just as God continued to feed Israel, and even gave them the quail they grumbled for "until it came out their noses"... God continues to feed me and even give me some of the things I grumbled for before I came to the Church and since, because He is merciful to the idolater, the immoral, the grumbler, the proud.

So I've learned the hard way, even though the Scriptures told me clearly, discontentment is a flashing red light, a warning sign that something deep within the soul is in desperate need of fixing.  There is a fine line between having an aspiration and being discontented with the present moment in God, even if we think it is a wilderness. If we are not content where we are, as the Fathers say, "Look to yourself" rather than at your circumstances. It is when we can delight in the ordinariness of life, of mysterious manna given only day by day, and follow God closely only as far as He moves and no further is when we find our true self and the Promised Land He is leading us to.  In the end, this is the will of God for your life.


margaret said...

I thought your ordination post was good from the angle that lots of people struggle with the idea of a calling not seeing the honour and opportunities for real service right where they are. Lives are blighted that way. I think it's good to be able to talk about it - that you've reached the point where you can - it does help others. And no-one, as you say, is ever completely honest and unassuming, it's just not our current nature to be so. Here's one of my favourite Austen quotes, from 'Emma': Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.

Discourse said...

People, it's a blog. Chill.

SP, I will assert you've been nothing but an arrogant jackass in all your comments on my blog. ;)

We're all sinners. Pride feels like fear to me, something we turn to in order to pretend fear is not what it is.

My priest was talking to me this week about the evil one, and reminded me that evil doesn't exist. Evil persons, evil ideas, evil emotions, evil actions exist, but evil (as a "force", like Star Wars or something) does not. It is the evil personhood that we fight against, and a lot of the time it is our own personhood we are battling.

Chrys said...

Holy Moly! Once again, except for some particulars (namely successful ministry and actual talent), you have given an astonishingly accurate rendition of my own struggles.

Though my godfather pointed out two decades ago that I was very depreciative, it took years to see how thoroughly and deeply imbued this discontent was.
Unfortunately, grumbling, discontent, depreciation and a lack of thanksgiving (which is actually a manner of complaining about how God has ordered one's life) remain at toxic levels in my life.

Nonetheless, I didn't see it. While my self-perception was of an easy-going, take life as it comes guy who likes most folks, that was only the thin public veneer. Surprising, I was the one most fooled by it. (I love the old saying: "Your friends won't tell you what your enemies already know." Others tend to see us more accurately than we often do ourselves.) And this despite a lifelong pride in being determined to "brutally honest" about "what really is" in my life. As I have said elsewhere, the depth and distortion (delusion) of the ego is much, much more pervasive than I had ever imagined.

Just as unfortunately, seeing the problem is only the first step. Changing the deeply ingrained and habitual mode is every bit as hard. Hence the importance of the ascetic struggle to dethrone what you have rightly identified as the source: the ego.

Yet, ego-drenched as we are, this is how we all start, and what we all journey against. (In fact, it takes a struggle just to see that what we thought was vital to our life is actually a threat to it - that what we thought was "our life" is actually the death of us and we are better off losing it in order to gain real life.)

And God loves us through it - even though the more we discover about our ego, the more we discover how ugly it is. Which makes His love all the more astonishing.
Andrew is not wrong to "call out" the potential appeal to the ego, yet what seems to be intended as an indictment actually just reflects how we ALL start, and - and for the most part - will be throughout our lives. This is not to excuse the ego; it is just to recognize that we are who we are. This is the self we journey with. Only saints have begun to be free of it. If giving too much place to the ego disqualifies us for service, the Church would be empty. But then, why would we disqualify the wounded from attending God's hospital? This is how we come to the Church.

My experience of Protestantism was the same, as well. While it there is much that it does well, I found the individualism at the base of it to be too conducive to the ego. Because the limited self is the ultimate arbiter, because verything (even the "leading of the Holy Spirit") was ultimately subject to the appraisal of the self, it is unable to transcend the ego. Yet as my egotism became too toxic even for me, I just wanted to find a place which could help me realize the promises of Christ to transform the heart - to become a saint. Finding that place - the Orthodox Church - felt like a long, arduous journey. In fact, that was the easy part. The ascetical struggle since has been MUCH tougher and has reveal a horrific depth of egotism, whose extent was hidden below view, much like an iceberg. So, I too, have found that I seem to learn only "the hard way."

Thanks for another rich, candid, power, and - for me astonishingly accurate post.

Clint said...

I have struggled with both issues these two posts have covered. I spent nearly 15 years as a protestant minister/missionary. I gave it all up to become Orthodox.

That is fine.

I would be lying if I never considered the possibility of ordination in the future. There are times when I hope that it comes to pass at some point. There are times when I wonder if it is better if I never do.

Honestly, I just don't know.

I have come to terms with the possibility that either of those two scenarios might come to pass. I am content with either one.

The way that I have navigated these waters is to just sit back and wait. My priest (the recently departed Fr. Matthew Mackay - may his memory be eternal!) suggested that I enroll in the St. Stephen's course. With his support, I did so.

Will it ever lead to ordination? No clue. But I will not "push" for it. I figure that if there is a need, then the doors will open. If there is not, then they won't.

These ramblings basically say that I am just going to muddle through it. It is hard to get that earlier 15 years of ministry out of my system. I enjoyed the role of minister (which is a bit different than that of an Orthodox priest) and wouldn't mind being in that sort of role again. At the same time, I don't want ordination to be because I want the status as a priest.

So I will just be glad with where I am and take things as they come.

Melanie said...

Thank you for another wonderful post. The danger of blogging is that we expose our deepest thoughts to public criticism, which can be humbling, and challenging, all of which allow for growth if handled the right way, which you certainly just did.

Ruth said...

I have heard that a good question to ask onself in times of considering public ministry is "whose kingdom am I building?"

David Dickens said...

I wonder who I would be, if I stopped being discontent with who I was.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I like Ruth and David's questions. Much to ponder.

s-p said...

David, Good question. Discontentment with circumstances usually has its roots in discontentment with "what I see myself as" which translates into "what I want to do". But it seems a lot of times that has no specific "moral component" (like desiring to be a minister). Where it ends up being "sin" is when the desire is rooted in a false self assessment (Romans 12:6) and then what we do to pursue the goal that damages us and our relationships. Discontentment with being sinful or a slave to the passions is a good thing, but as anyone who has taken on the spiritual warfare knows Satan knows Aikido and skillfully turns our own weapons on us, and because of our false self assessment we attempt to pick up weapons beyond our skill set and maturity to wield properly and without hurting ourselves and others. The whole issue is confused I think by our being raised in a "self-image psychology" culture in which we are told "we are OK" and everything we want or think we can do is OK too, just go for it. Add God to the mix and you have a lot of people "called". In a very real sense in this situation, I found my "real self" when I ceased being dissatisfied with myself. On the other hand, there are still a lot of things I'm dissatisfied with that I need to change (and my wife is too, but her list is longer than mine... :)

Ranger said...

Perhaps you need a disclaimer:
Yes, I know that I am vain, see Ecclesiastes. Or yes I know I am fallen, see Genesis. For all those who do not wish to contribute to my ego, refrain from commenting. For all those who wish to not contribute to their own ego, see above.To those who wish to assist God in his humbling me, go ahead, dish it out.

s-p said...

Ranger, LOL! I love it! I need an app for the sidebar that says "DISHERS". :)

Athanasia said...

Got slapped with this cold fish during a Bible study about two months ago. Across from me sat a woman who I had decided didn't know squatta about Orthodoxy though she had been Orthodox her whole life - and of course, as a convert I knew more since I had read more, studied more, blah blah blah.

My humility is quite false. My pride is as large as the universe. The fish tastes terrible and smells worse.

Thank God for confession and a merciful Savior.

The Hermit said...

Thanks S-P. I needed to read this, especially today.

thegeekywife said...

much to ponder, as usual. :)

I've been praying recently for help in being content with where God has placed me. Life is so peculiar, I've finally learned....

I don't know if I commented on the work/priest post, but I really found that one edifying and encouraging too.