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Ladder of Divine Ascent

In a recent blog, Father Stephen Freeman described faith as loyalty, perhaps as a simple as choosing sides. I found that to be a wonderful pragmatic definition of faith, one that tied in so nicely with my other, recent reading and writing.

In my own previous musing on the reality of the spiritual battle between good and evil, I mentioned that we must choose a side in the battle. As I continue to contemplate the true nature of reality, I am convinced that there is no middle ground available for us, no neutral territory for us to inhabit. One may claim to be agnostic; however, that, too, is to choose a side. There is only a binary choice available to us.

How can this be?

To be human is to be made for worship. It is how we were created. Throughout history, humans have worshipped many things. We have and continue to worship a god or gods or other people. We can worship immaterial things, such as knowledge, feelings, security, science, and religion. We can worship money. We can worship any number of material things: clothes, cars, hobbies, boats, jewelry, books, etc. (this could be a very long list!).

What does it mean to worship something?

Our common understanding of worship someone or some thing means that we offer a sacrifice to that which we worship. Historically, sacrifices have consisted of such things as blood—human or animal—crops, prepared food or drink, jewels, and money. Over time, we humans have offered as a sacrifice anything we consider precious—that which we treasure most—to some one or some thing we have worshipped.

As modern humans, we typically no longer think in this way. We believe that worship and sacrifice are for primitive people, that we are well beyond those silly, unscientific things. Yet, to us modern people, the most precious thing we have is our time and our money. To what, then, do we offer our time and money? Just look at your calendar or your checkbook or your screen time (phone, tablet, computer, or television). Find where you spend your time and money and you will know who or what it is that you worship.

This is not an original thought from me. Jesus said it first: “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.”

If, then, to be human is to be a worshiping being, then so also to be human is to choose that which we will worship. And, choosing who or what we worship constitutes choosing sides in the battle. So, find where you put what you treasure and you will find who or what side you have chosen by knowing who or what you worship.

Why choose? Isn’t it enough to just do good things and to be kind to others?

St Gregory Palamas said, “If God does not act in us everything done by us is sin.” To our modern ears, that sounds like such a harsh, judgmental statement. To use the modern language, Palamas’ statement sounds shaming and cancelling. But that’s only because Christianity, in many circles, has become a moral religion aimed at appeasing a wrathful God rather than an ongoing, relational existence with a loving God. It is fashionable to think that if I “do good” or am generally a “good person” (and how we define “good” is a subject for another blog), then God will not be mad at me and I will go to heaven or obtain whatever other reward I may imagine.

But, as someone said, Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good. He came to make dead people alive. Sin is rightly defined as our turning away from God, turning toward death rather than life. Sin—death—is our broken relationship with God, not the bad deed.

Here is a better image of reality. We are in a war zone, caught between two warring factions: God and His angels vs. the fallen angels (demons). Like when the Allied forces began marching across Europe in WWII, God is advancing on His enemies. God’s victory in the spiritual war is inevitable; however, also like WWII, the battles will continue to the very end. And here is a most important point. We, humankind, are not God’s enemies. Et me say that again. Humankind are not Enemies of God. We are caught in the crossfire and God is trying to save us. We have been enslaved by the enemy and God offers all of us the path to freedom. The choice is ours. Each of us can choose either to turn to God or to remain with God’s enemy.

The decision to choose God brings the battle to us. More literally, it ignites the battle within us. The sin that has infected us and is within us is a powerful enemy. The Apostle, St Paul, admits of his own, ongoing struggle against sin: “..the good that I want to do, I do not do; but the evil I want not to do, that I practice.” Choosing God is not a one-time decision, even for a saint like Paul. We choose God day-by-day, sometimes moment-by-moment. The great St Anthony once said, “Each day I arise from bed and say to myself, ‘Today I begin again’.”

So, what does it look like to choose God moment-by-moment?

Below are 55 practical ways to choose the Christian God in everyday life; they are ways we can offer our worship to Him. Before you read them, remember two things. First, this is not a “to do” list. Recall Palamas’ words, above…without God, doing all of these things is still sin because Christianity is primarily about relationship. Second, Christianity is not about becoming a “better” human. It is about turning to God and joining in His life. These 55 things are simply things that help us to join in with God’s life. But here’s the catch: you will fail at them. Often. In this life you can actually expect very little “improvement” in yourself. So, when you fail, turn back to God, confess your failure, ask Him for forgiveness, then get back in the battle.

Choose God. You are not alone in the battle.

55 Maxims for Christian Living
Father Thomas Hopko

  1. Be always with Christ.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you want.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.
  5. Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation.
  8. Keep the Church’s fasting rules.
  9. Spend some time in silence every day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical church services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. Cut them off at the start.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings regularly to a trusted person.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person.
  19. Be polite with everyone.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, and a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all, with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, and then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful in all things.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and be attentive.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly and directly.
  37. Flee imagination, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, mumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  41. Don’t seek or expect praise or pity from anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God alone.
  46. Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
  47. Give advice to others only when asked or obligated to do so.
  48. Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and with others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.
  54. When we fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear and without shame.