Dear fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters: I’m a sinner, and I do not presume to instruct you on anything you have not heard, but those who are truly holy, more able to offer profound instruction, are few, so at least I offer encouragement that you remember your calling unto holiness this Lenten Season (Eph. 1:4).
“The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but a matter of power.” (1 Cor. 4:20)
Do you still believe the power of God can make you Holy?
These words, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk [unspiritual man’s “talk” lo,gw in the Greek Text], but a matter of power” [“power” duna,mei in the Greek text]come from the experiential life of holiness, profoundly exhibited in the life of apostle Paul (who wrote Corinthians), and similarly, among all spiritual people (1 Cor. 2:14). Paul is not here denying the power of God’s Word, for earlier in Corinthians, he declared, “my speech [spiritual man’s “my speech” lo,goj mou]and message were not with persuasive words of those who are arrogant, but demonstration of the Spirit [Holy Spirit], and with power [the same Greek word for “power” above duna,mewj]” (1 Cor. 2:4).
While unspiritual man’s speech has no power, Paul’s speech comes from God and thus has power. Paul is both reminding his readers that words given by God have power, and participating in the Christian life, as servants of the king, demands power, which is wholly a supernatural accomplishment. As Jesus said to Peter, when he came to know Jesus’ true identity, “blessed are you, Simon Barjonah, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”(Matt. 16:17), so holiness is an achievement of the divine economy and not the production of man’s will. Holiness is not something that can be taught by flesh and blood, nor is It something easily described with words (2 Cor. 12:4). Understanding holiness is a confidence only gained in experience (1 Cor. 2), for its source cannot be found within the creation. One cannot examine nature or read a book and find holiness.
The experience of holiness is increasingly becoming a rare commodity, for in time “the hearts of many…[have] grow cold.” (Matt. 24:12). The truth is, this erosion of holiness will most likely increase (2 Thess. 2:11). Incredibly, after studying with, and living in, Christian communities of more variety than I know any other to have experienced in such a short life as mine, I can affirm only a handful of men, whom I met along the way, that seem to have exhibited a constant demeanor of holiness. Others might think I’m being a bit critical, but such disapproval often (if not always) derives from those who either do not believe in holiness any longer and/or simply affirm a lowest common denominator kind of holiness—“the nice guy who loves Jesus is holy”. I’ve heard many good Christian folks casually suggest “the fathers of the Church were a bit nuts”—though some of them may have been. Indeed, even as God alone is holy, so holiness is a rare commodity, for few care more about the Kingdom of God than about their own kingdom; furthermore, few prove they believe the Kingdom of God can be found in this life (contrary to the teachings of Jesus cf. Luke 17:21), for they never fully seek it.
Jesus likens this kind of holiness to great pearl, very rare indeed (Matt. 13: 45-46). Perhaps this is why a friend of mine once remarked, “I note holy people, and I surround myself with them”. My friend’s statement presumes holiness is a possibility, and it presumes he desires to be holy. He understands the manifestations of holiness are great pearls. These two presumptions are often proof that the seeker has encountered the Holy (God). When a man encounters the Holy, he believes in the Holy, and he seeks for the Holy; he will give up anything for the hope of finding the sweet paradise of the Holy within his heart. The non-experience of the Holy has the opposite reaction. The person who only hears about the Holy does not believe holiness is a possibility, and so he does not bother seeking holy men, or holiness for himself, or the one who is himself the Holy.
These two attitudes towards holiness give rise to opposite displays of power: the one who affirms holiness finds power in the Holy, but the one who does not affirm the possibility of holiness only knows about the power of self-promotion.
We are comfortable and at home with that which we are used to. Men who are mighty with the power of self-promotion throw themselves into the world, and the world gladly receives them because the world only knows what is it’s own (cff. 1 John 4: 4-6; John 8:44-46), and can only appreciate the virtues of this age because these are the comforts the world offers its own. This age’s preferred talents belong to people who are good entertainers, tolerant of all things, good looking, natural leaders, highly intelligent, financially prosperous. These are the best things the world has to offer. I don’t mean to say these things are all bad. They are not, but they need not require the presence of God.
The ministers of this kind of religion only understand empirical and rationalistic religion. All that matters for this kind of earthly religion is that you can produce earthly comforts, and that you know enough information about religion? In reality, these are ministers of what Paul calls the “Letter” and not the “Spirit”(2 Cor. 3:6). If such men desire the two-fold path of repentance this lent, meaning, turning from sin, and turning towards God—they will find only temporary victories of the will over the internal desire to sin. That is to say, like an addict who suppresses his cravings for a moment, so is the man who’s power is found only within his will. He will look like a holy man for a season, but because man’s power is finite time will be his judge. He will wither away with neither concern for others, nor the hope of holiness. In due time, his natural gifting’s will fade, and the world will spew him up, for he was received in the first place because he satisfied the desires of godless men, but now he is useless, and his mind is fading. He has neither his natural gifting’s, nor his religion of the Letter to offer anyone.
On the contrary, It was said of the beloved disciple of Christ, John, that when he grew old he would only repeat the same simple phrase, “little Children, love one another.” It was this same John who said that truly religious men keep the commandments and they are not burdensome (1 Jhn. 5:3). That is, he is the one who has found the source of lasting victory over sin. Time could not suppress the infinite power of interior holiness that Christ bestowed upon his beloved, John. Men of this sort throw themselves into God, and he receives them (Jhn. 1:12). Then He sends them back out into the world, and the world rarely recognizes or receives them (cff. Matt. 10:16; John 15:20). I once met a holy man who was despised even by monks. He was neither intelligent, nor good looking, nor accomplished, nor did he have a single virtue of the world. Vladimir lived on the street, and he had for Twenty years. Vladimir lived on the street because he gave all he worked for to the poor. Time has bowed before Vladimir because he has proved the infinite power of holiness within.
If you Believe God wants to empower you with holiness, throw yourself upon God this Lenten season, and He will receive you as His own
If we are honest with ourselves, we each vacillate between belief in the pursuit of God’s power unto holiness, and the belief in pursuit of the power of self-promotion. For this reason it is the struggling Christian’s obligation to will belief in that which is not immediately accessible to the senses—the Holy One (Rom. 4:17). The possibility of holiness is offered from the one who is Holy and can thus offer the gift of holiness. Jesus exhorts,
“Ask [for holiness], and it will be given to you; seek [for holiness], and you will find; knock [for holiness], and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things [holiness]—Matthew 7:7-11
Once you taste his goodness then you will not only believe in holiness, but you will keep seeking it, and your victories will increase, for it will no longer be man’s power working in you, but God’s (Phil. 2:13).
The Lenton Season was given to us by God as an appointed time for attaining Holy-Power unto true repentance—turning from our sin, and turning unto God—finding the Holy. This, because during this repentant season of Lent the Church facilitates for us the well tested means of holiness:
Prayer and Fasting
Consider the power of holiness accessible to us in the kind of repentance produced through faithful prayer and fasting. The power given through “prayer and fasting” is unique because only in this discipline is our most serious, distorted, and debilitating sin overcome: In Matthew 17:14-21, and in the parallel account found in St. Mark 9: 17-29, we are exposed to an account of violent demonic possession. A boy is tortured by his demon. His father testifies, “he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for oftentimes he falls into the fire, and often into the water.” The father is hopeless to overcome this evil, for his last attempt has failed, “I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.” If we are familiar with the story, it is odd because in Matthew 10:1 the apostles were given authority to cast out demons. The power of sin seems too great, even for the apostles, at this point; however, there is one remedy for such dominant sin. Jesus’ answer is nearly formulaic. He teaches the apostles that Faith + Prayer and Fasting = Power to overcome even the greatest of sin.
When the apostles ask, “Why could we not cast him out?” First, “Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” But faith without works is dead (Jms. 2:14-26), and in this case, special works are needed, so Jesus says to them, “Nothing has the power [same word for “power” as used above, du,natai] to remove this kind [of demon], but prayer and fasting.” We see then, when one believes in the possibility of holiness, and fights to remove sin through the work of prayer and fasting, the power [du,natai]to overcome the greatest of sin is readily available. Now we see how to turn away from sin, but we must also consider how to turn unto God, for true repentance requires both. Praise be to God! because the simple solution is the same: Faith + Prayer and Fasting = Power to acquire Holiness/God
Thus, the power given through “prayer and fasting” gives one direct access to holy living. In Acts 4:17-33 The apostles are under threat not to preach in the name of Jesus, so they report the danger they face to their Christian community. This is where the following story picks up,
“And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that is in them …now, Lord, behold their threatening: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word, 30 By stretching forth thine hand…And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.
In parallel to the formula seen above: Through faith in God, the people pray, and what more they are given “power.” In this case, the holiness is manifested in “the filling of the Spirit,” unto presumed “healing,” “signs and wonders,” preaching with “boldness,” unity of “heart and soul,” self-giving, “great power,” and “grace.”
In both cases it is presumed, one must believe in the possibility of holiness to receive directly from God, and the means by which this faith is exercised with power unto true repentance—turning from sin and turning to God—is prayer and fasting.
It is natural to think these cases are isolated because many of us have not experienced powerful manifestations of the Holy, so we reason these situations are special. After all, these are the apostles, and this is the Bible. They are different, right? Not at all!—and the Saints have never suggested any such thing because they have experienced the Holy for themselves. We may again reason, but these were the Saints, but I’ll give you no such excuse, for God has even helped me believe in holiness. Indeed, God has given me my own stories, and this is helpful for you because you will see not only how sinful I am, but how faithful God is to respond to a sinner if he has faith, and seeks for holiness. All my life I have struggled with lust. At times I stopped believing in holiness; I thought I would never find a way to cease lusting. A cloud of darkness surrounded my soul. I entreated God; I asked council; I read books, but found little conciliation. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, I had the resolution to believe contrary to the condemning evidence, holiness is possible, even for me. I set out to continually pray the Jesus prayer (a prayer I had never consistently used before, consisting in the words, “lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”), and to fast until God broke my sinful cravings. In other words, I set out to find the Holy for myself. My prayer and fasting was not completely consistent. On occasions I ate more that I should have, and I struggled, and lost battles with lustful cravings. Because I chose to believe God wants holiness for me, I kept praying and fasting. I ate very small portions, but I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The point is, I kept going, but not like the saints we read about who eat near to nothing—I am weaker than that, I ate enough food to stay moderately healthy. But I prayed, continuously, even in bed, until I fell asleep. During the night, the demons waged war on me, giving me progressively viler dreams and hindering me from getting a good night’s rest. After a couple days, I felt very weary. A few days into the battle, a priest looked at me with worry in his eyes, and said, “you don’t look well at all. Are you ok?” Everything in the world indicated I should give up. Then it happened, after only one weak of meagerly and pathetic fasting, God’s power came to me, and the sin that once held me captive, and many others in fact, became only a shell of their former selves. The power of holiness is possible—even for me, a sinner.
On another occasion, when I was a teen, I struggled with faith in God. I don’t mean a struggle with belief about God; I mean I struggled to believe whether God existed or not. Much like the father in St. Matthew, I begged God to show himself, so as to help me with unbelief. I prayed with tears because I knew if God was real he would show himself if I searched for Him with all my heart. On the other hand, I should note that I was very immature and blatantly struggled with many childish sins, which put me way outside the category of a Saint humbly seeking God. I was searching and sinning at the same time. This is my unfiltered testimony; nevertheless, after a year of pleading, God’s powerful grace came to me, and he showed a sinner his true self—filled with the Spirit of holiness. If God could reveal so much of his holiness to me, a sinner (and I’ve not told you the half of my sin or of God’s graces toward me), why not choose to believe he will do the same for you?
In a prayer for supplication, in the Eastern Church, called Moleben, Jesus is called “the lover of mankind.” This, because It is his will the whole earth be filled with his holiness (Isa. 6:3). We all choose to either believe in His vision of holiness for us, or we choose the power of self-promotion to get us through life. This is a moment to moment decision, either “his kingdom come” or “my will be done”. These are the radically distinct worldviews we have option to choose between this Lent. If we decide to repent, through prayer and fasting, and with our whole heart, we may rest assured that the God of peace shall shortly bruise Satan under our feet, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ will soon be with us. (Rom. 16:8)