I have frequently mentioned that one of the great benefits of reading both Western and Eastern Christian theology is that the body breathes best when it uses both lungs. Pope John Paul II used this expression when he referred to the Christian East and suggested by it that we truly needed one another. I have made this a part of my own journey for about five years now. Let me illustrate one profound way the East has helped me think more deeply about my life in Christ.
If you ask a Western Christian what is the aim of the Christian life I think most would say something about the glory of God. "The chief end of man is to love him and glorify him forever." I like that and believe there is much in this emphasis to commend itself. I also find it lacking something that is more specific and concrete. When I came across the writings of St. Seraphim of Sarov discussing the purpose of the Christian life I was stunned and then profoundly helped. He says, following Orthodox theology, that the whole purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Before you respond remember this is a deeply and consciously Trinitarian perspective.
Here is how St. Seraphim (icon at left) puts it:
Prayer, fasting, vigils, and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, certainly do not constitute the aim of our Christian life: they are but the indispensable means of attaining that aim. For the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts. vigils, prayer, and alms-giving, and other good works done in the name of Christ, they are only the means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Note well that it is only good works done in the name of Christ that bring us to the fruits of the Spirit.
Vladimir Lossky, a great theologian of the Orthodox Church, says this statement may appear to be too simple but it "sums up the whole spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church." Theodore, a disciple of St. Pachomius, said, "What is greater than to possess the Holy Spirit?"
I find this truth a great corrective and one that has a great deal of Scripture to commend it to us. I have long believed that Luke 11:13 was one of the most overlooked texts in the whole Bible, at least in the West. We have a very mechanical view of the Holy Spirit in much of Western Christianity, which is one reason the charismatic movement has so powerfully impacted many Christians in the West.
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I have found your posts very enlightening the last couple of weeks. Thanks for taking the time to blog. Could you pass along some book recommendations about the Christian Life from the Eastern perspective?
Wow. I don’t even know how to begin thinking in those terms. My failure reflects that “very mechanical view of the Holy Spirit in much of Western Christianity.” How do we begin to incorporate such a worthy aspiration into our understanding of the faith?
I second Richard. Could you post a few book titles to get one started engaging Eastern Orthodox thinking?
If you hold a bottle of water the bottle possesses the water, if you throw that bottle in the ocean the ocean possesses the bottle. If the cap is off the water flows in and out and the bottle is fully immersed, possessed, in the flow, directed and moved by the ocean current.
I don’t want to possess, I want to be possessed.
That’s why Jesus said “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father
promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with
water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:4b-5.
Baptism MEANS immersion, plunging beneath, in…
That was AFTER he had breathed on them John 20:22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
One was Possessing (the bottle in the hand), the other is Baptizing, being possessed, of the Spirit of God. Immersed. Flowing. controlled by something greater than the bottle.
And that is the reason the Charismatic Movement has been so strong.
It’s not that complicated and I’m always amazed that it’s so hard to comprehend for so many.
The Acts 19 account shows simple disciples of John the Baptist comprehending this with ease and entering in.
Why is this such a hard thing for so many in the church to understand?
Or, does Jesus still say to us today what he said in Mark 7:13?
I’ll let you look that one up.
“Acquisition of the Holy Spirit”? That seems open to misunderstanding, like the Holy Spirit is a possession. I would rather say that the purpose of the Christian life is to “manifest the Spirit of God more and more in our lives” For example, being more and more humble in our marriages because God exudes humility.
Are you implying, then, that it’s possible to be a Christian without having “acquired” the Holy Spirit? Or might Orthodox theologians really be suggesting that those who have been born of the Spirit need to “acquire” more of Him? Or is it actually that the Holy Spirit who dwells in us needs to “acquire” more of us?
While I applaud your openness to the insights of theologians from other traditions, I’m having a hard time reconciling this quest for the Holy Spirit with passages in the New Testament that teach that anyone who does not presently “have” the Spirit of Christ simply does not belong to him (cf. Rom 8:9).
Please help me understand how the Orthodox quest for the Spirit can be harmonized with those passages that teach that true believers are already indwelt by the Spirit.
Two good sources for futher study on these areas—one by an Orthodox teacher (1) “The Orthdox Way” by Timothy Ware and the other; by an Evangelical (2) James Payton, jr. “Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition.”
I am enjoying this post and the conversation it has evoked in the comments.
I would like to add that because theological language is analogical, it does not provide a blueprint for nor does it completely elucidate the realities it addresses. Consequently I think it is appropriate to think of our relationship with the Holy Spirit as one in which we possess and are more deeply possessed. We possess more of God’s Spirit insofar as the likeness of Christ can ever increasingly manifest itself in our personal character. We are possessed of God’s Spirit, insofar as the Spirit is “the Lord and giver of life” the one to whom we submit. In both instances our relationship to the Holy Spirit is not a reality that can be quantified, neither can it be directly linked to any kind of cause and effect relationship as we are accustomed to experiencing in the world. Again, the idea of possessing and being possessed is analogous to the actual reality of our relationship to God’s Spirit.
Finally, since I like to synthesize whenever appropriate, regarding the aim of the Christian life, could we say something like, “The aim of the Christian life is to love and glorify God more and more through an ever increasing participation in and possession of the Holy Spirit.” I am sure it could be worded more eloquently, as I am just shooting from the hip.