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Monday, February 17, 2014

Response to a Comment: 'Negativity' of Orthodox Prayers

 Since a reader asked me to respond via the public comments, I thought I would make a new post for others who may have the same issue(s).  Just remember that most of us here have all the same struggles (in fact, I have yet to get an inquiry from anyone that I have not heard before from someone else.  If you want to scandalize me, please try a lot harder.  ;) ), and so the solution to your issue may help many more who are fighting in silence.

That being said, here's the pertinent excerpt:

1) I am convert to Orthodoxy in 2012. I become affected negatively with many of the Orthodox prayers - they seem to lack real hope for me - they focus so much on my own unworthiness in the guise of humility that they almost talk me out of even approaching God! Whereas in AA, there is encouragement and absolutes: God would and could if He were sought. Perhaps this is part of the problem in religion which you spoke about? (granted I have a lot of baggage: I as an unwanted and invisible child, so, I need God to be approachable and loving and wanting to help!)

2) I also struggle with God in AA being the same God of the bible and the same God of the Koran and the same God of the Hindu, and the same God/dess of the New Ager, or the same God of the Great Spirit of Native Americans, etc.

It is hard for me to pretend that the God of the bible is the same as the others. I don't know how to react to people in AA when they tell me that "oh, it's all the same!" I practiced many religtions before converting to Christianity in 2007. I can emphatically and authoritatively state that It's NOT the same. Yet, I know that God will keep them sober nevertheless.

I realize AA says "principles before personalities" - does that mean God is also putting principles before His own personality? That He has humbled Himself to the point of stripping off religion in the same way equality with God was not something He grasped at? (He has lowered Himself in order that He might raise us up past alcoholism?) To paraphrase Mel Webber: "God is even anonymous in AA".

3) Then further confusion comes in because I know people 20 years in sobriety whom God has not "revealed Himself" to them as anything other than the God of the 12 Steps, and I know a Jew who had visitations and spiritual revelations almost identical as a Christian in AA - It is confusing to me why God would give this consolation to a Jew without really letting her know it was Himself: Jesus Christ. I then wonder if it is God at all! 

I'm going to take on Point #1 in this post, and then follow up with the next two in the coming days.  That will keep this post from getting too long.

So, let's think about Orthodox prayers.  Who are they written for?  The answer is 'everyone.'  They are, by design, rather 'difficult' in the sense that the toughest battle most people have is getting really repentant.

The sad fact of the matter is that most of us are adept at shutting off our consciences.  We minimize our problem, even when the problem is death and destruction.  Unlike the Prodigal Son, we try to make the pigpen work for us.  We redecorate it.

These prayers are intended to remind us that we are in a real mess, and that only God can get us out.  They bring us back to the realization of the pigpen, and help us return to ourselves.  We are all sinners in need of salvation.

Our callous hearts need to be 'softened' through the constant reminder of our sins and broken condition.We must see the pigpen, and us in it, as it really is and as we really are.  Only then will we come out, and soon we will find the father rushing to us.

The other side of this has to do with ego and the over-inflated sense of self that we can also develop.  This is the ego response that says, "My problems are so bad, I must be hopeless!"  This ego response develops when someone has problems and no God to turn to.

The prayers of the Church only make sense if one really believes that God can do anything, and that He really wants to save us.  So long as we have doubts about God's goodness or ability, then the prayers make us feel hopeless.

That sense of hopelessness comes from our lack of trust in God.  We are constantly demanding that God prove that He is kind and generous and powerful, because we harbor doubts.

We are left with a choice: dump these false beliefs and embrace God as He truly is, or continue to ask for signs and assurances.  Sure, in the beginning these assurances are important, but for how long should we hang on to our doubts?

A good father confessor knows when to offer assurances and when to 'push' us out from under the doubts.  An experienced sponsor can do the same.  There are times when we offer gentle words, and other times when we challenge and cajole.

The prayers of the Church assume two things: a) I am a complete, helpless mess, and b) God can and will save me if I admit it.

Christ Himself said, "Your faith has made you well."  What did He mean?  Did people cure themselves?  No.  Because they overcame their doubts and asked, He healed them.  If you don't first believe He will, then you will never ask.

When He entered the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.”  (Matthew 9:28)

Why does Christ ask?  Why is it important?

Spiritual healing requires us to believe.  If we do not believe, we cannot expect God to somehow overcome our will.  He will not force Himself on us.

So, the struggle to not despair when reading the prayers is in itself one of their benefits.  They push us to believe by stretching us into a place that is painful without God.  We must either retreat, or believe.

If we truly believe, like the oft-quoted Desert Fathers, then we would be reading even harsher prayers, believing that the more we repent, the more God will come and manifest Himself to us.  However, since most of us have a hard time believing like that, we have the relatively 'mild' prayers that occasionally move us to tears.  If you prayed like the Desert Fathers, you end up living on a crust of bread in a cave out in the desert.

Modern psychology goes against this grain.  It has to: there is no God in psychology.  If a psychologist pushes a person beyond the endurance of the will, then the lack of belief will bring a person to utter despair.  Psychology, therefore, must build up the ego to then bear the load of reality, since there is no God to turn to to carry the weight of the world's cares.

Orthodox prayers are not 'ego builders.'  They do not offer self-assurances.  They do not offer self-motivation.  In fact, they offer the opposite.  That is because we need to stop relying on ourselves and our own egos.

If we are not careful, we can end up looking like this:

Orthodox Prayers are not Stuart Smalley approved.

AA and the 12 Steps are also not, fundamentally, self-motivational.  AA literature doesn't have to 'punch as hard' because the assumption is that, if you are reading it, you are already most of the way there when it comes to being honest with how bad things are.  Otherwise, you certainly would not want to go through the hassle of working the Steps.

When most 'normies' I know have tried to work the Steps, they almost invariably drop out because, "It is too hard."  Most of them discover that their annoyances are preferable to the real pain that bubbles up when they wrestle with their consciences.

But, there are also a lot of people who, after many years of sobriety, will tell you that just being in AA and reading 12 Step literature is not enough.  They know they need to grow, but AA is largely designed for dealing with the newcomer.  They want to grow.

For those of us in the Orthodox Church who came from 12 Step backgrounds, that's exactly why we can in.  We saw that the Church pushes us harder than AA or NA or OA, and that's exactly what we were looking for.

We asked for the tough prayers because we are hungry for God, and we understand that we need a lot of help to get out from under the ego-umbrella that we put up to 'shield' us from the world, when in fact we are blocking out the Sunshine of the Spirit.

I apologize this response is long, and there are several other points you raised.  But, I do hope this helps.

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