One of the difficult transitions or junctures of the spiritual life is the movement between what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the second and third degrees of knowledge. Keep in mind that the language of degrees is metaphorical. It describes spiritual experience and ways of encountering and knowing God.
Many of us have gone through seasons of our life in which we have striven with great intention and zeal to do and be what we thought and/or were taught was obedient to God. We attended church regularly—maybe whenever the door was open. We said our prayers. We were scrupulous about activities: what we ate and didn’t eat, who we spent our time with, how we dressed, where we went, what we did or didn’t do, etc. However, with this fervour of righteous activity and focus came a certain expectation. Some have gone through such a season with an expectation that they would see a miracle. Others have expected that they would become more spiritual (in a way that they would perceive and recognize). Others have expected that they would experience Grace in a form that would erase doubt from their minds or make some difficult aspect of their life easier to bear. Others have expected that such effort would save them from calamity or failure in school, business or relationships.
However, what often happens is that our expectations go unfulfilled. There is no miracle—at least not the miracle we wanted. We do not seem to be more spiritual—we struggle more than ever with temptations and weaknesses. Doubt increases; calamity strikes; businesses and relationships fail. What is going on? Why does God seem to abandon us when we have tried so hard to follow Him?
I would like to suggest that the problem lies not with God but with us, with our expectation of what spiritual growth and Grace active in our life will look like. Early in our spiritual life, or at a foundational stage of our spiritual life (what St. Isaac would refer to as the movement from the first to the second degree of knowledge), we begin to become aware of the reality of God through our careful observation or contemplation of the world around us (including the religious world we find ourselves in). This awareness leads us to action motivated by what is often called the fear of God, or the awareness that God is real and that it behooves me to do what God says—in whatever ways I may understand it means in my particular circumstance or place in life. This conformity to what I think or am taught that God says or wants of me is called striving for virtue.
However, it is in the striving for virtue that an important but subtle shift has to take place if we are going to move from the second to the third degree of knowledge. In the second degree of knowledge, our conceptions of what God expects of us and what we expect of God are based on our reflection on created things and result in an almost legalistic paradigm. That is, we can come to expect that if we fulfill certain obligations (things we do or do not do), then God will bless the material aspect of our lives in certain desirable ways. However, this is a very business-like relationship with God, a relationship like that of the older brother with his Father in the parable of the prodigal son. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a necessary stage or degree of one’s growing relationship with God, and it is certainly a step up from the complete selfishness and spiritual ignorance of living only according to one’s calculating mind and animal passions.
This business-like relationship with God seems to lead to at least four possible outcomes (that I can think of). One is pride. If one has the wealth and the religious or societal standing to maintain an image of him or her self as successful, then one develops pride in having done the right things to please God and thus receiving His blessing. For example, there was a time in my Christian journey when I was part of a community that taught explicitly that the reason why America was so wealthy was because God was blessing America for all of the missionaries supported by Christians in the U.S. This may seem like an extreme example (especially to those who are not Americans), but this same arrogance and semi-intentional blindness can and does take place on family and personal levels too. Many self-help books are saturated in this arrogance: ‘just apply these seven principles to a happy family (or successful career, or well-managed wealth, or even a more fulfilling spiritual life), apply these principles and you will succeed.’ And if you do succeed, if your expectations are met, then you can become so proud as to think that you have brought this success on yourself and that you know why others are not so successful: it’s their own fault: they are too lazy or stupid or sinful to do what needs to be done.
The next three possible outcomes of the business-like relationship with God are either guilt, anger or humility. Many of us do not have the wealth or luck or societal standing to maintain an illusion of success. Or some of us are just plain honest. We reject the illusions we might hide behind to accept the cold reality that despite our sincere efforts at pleasing God, the specific outcomes we had expected did not materialize. And here we tend to have one of the three responses—or maybe all three at once as we are confused and struggle within ourselves, not knowing what to do or how to respond. On the one hand we feel broken, on the other hand we feel betrayed. We don’t want to blame God, so we blame ourselves or, like Job, we cannot deny that we did indeed try with all of our might—or at least most of our might—to do the right thing, to pray and fast and behave as we should. This experience is like a crucible, a pressure cooker that renders us to the core of our being, stripping away all of the layers of falsehood and imaginations to lay bare what is really there. It is the experience of Job.
Many of us have gone through such experiences of disappointment with God and come out of it bitter and angry. This anger generally does not express itself as rage. No, rather, it is like a calm determination in those who are strong, in those who have the means (intelligence, wealth or societal connections) to make their own choices, to bring about their own blessings, leaving God pretty much out of the picture all together. In others, in those who are dependent, who do not have (or do not perceive that they have) much power to make their own choices or their own way in the world, for these, anger at God often takes the form of depression and self-destructive behaviour. Anger, whether of the cold, determined kind or of the depressive, self-destructive kind, maintains its hold on us through a stream of endless inner chatter. Self-talk, justifying and arguing, blaming and accusing, becomes the endless soundtrack of our mind. Our self-talk convinces us and reassures us that we are right, that we are justified, that we are victims and that it is not our fault. And this chorus can at times chant so loudly in our mind that we cannot listen to anyone who might suggest a different version of the story.
Some of us struggle with guilt. When life does not turn out the way we expect, we often experience an overwhelming burden of guilt. Sometimes we can think of specific failures or areas of our life where we could have / should have / might have done better. But guilt doesn’t need any specific cause. Just the fact that life isn’t working out the way we expected causes us to assume, not only that it is our fault, but more importantly, that if we had worked harder, paid closer attention or prayed more fervently, things would have turned out better. In a sense, guilt is a species of pride. It comes from having a business-like relationship with God that assumes that we could have (if we had tried harder, etc.) fulfilled our end of the bargain with God. The fact that things are not turning out as we expected becomes evidence for us that we obviously failed God in some significant way. In my experience, guilt can only be healed by humility and leaving behind a business-like relationship with God.
But, thank God, neither anger nor depression nor guilt are necessarily permanent. They can be transformed. They can be transformed into humility. Sometimes, it seems, we have to rage, or pout or feel guilty for a while, before we come to our senses, before we figure out that we are only hurting ourselves and that God is silently waiting for us to return to the silence. In silence, everything gives way to humility, the humility of a broken and contrite heart, the humility of a child who has had a good cry after not getting what she wanted, a cry in the arms of her Father. And it is this humility that brings us into the third degree of knowledge, the love of God that swallows the fear of God. It brings us to the knowledge of God beyond consideration of created things, the knowledge of God that can say with Job: “even if he slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).
The Apostle Paul said that he had learned in all things to be content, whether he abounds or is abased (Phil. 4:12). This is the movement from the second to the third degree of the knowledge of God. In the third degree we enter the silence, the silence of abasement, the silence of not knowing, the silence of not understanding. Here we come to know God in a different way, a way not tied to the created reality, in a way not dependent on whether or not things go my way, not dependent on whether or not my priest or bishop is as holy as he should be, not dependent on whether or not God meets my expectations of what a relationship with Him should be like. Learning to know God in the silence is deification, it is a transfiguration that makes us shine with a light from another world, a light that makes the huts of this world seem irrelevant (c.f. Matt. 17:4). But it is a difficult and on-going transition. That is, throughout our lives we are continually encountering disappointment, abasement abounds, you might say. Like Cain, sin is always crouching at the door and we must overcome it again and again (c.f. Gen. 4: 7).
And while moving from anger or depression or guilt to humility is never easy, with practice it does, nonetheless, become more predictable. With practice, you begin to notice the signs in yourself, the unhealthy self-talk, the cooling of your love, the intentional ignoring of God. You recognize the signs and you take a deep breath. OK. I know what’s happening. Lord have mercy. And then you struggle to enter the rest, to return to the silence, to the place where can you let go of disappointment and let go of expectation. There are generally tears along the way, which are sometimes preceded by a Job-like argument with God. But in the end, we know the drill. We have been to Gethsemane before, although each time is unique, each struggle breaks a different part of our hard, stubborn hearts. But if we return and wait, wait until all false hopes wither, there is peace. There is the knowledge of the love and nearness of God.