St. Isaac the Syrian in his seventy-second homily tells us, “As soon as Grace sees that a little self-esteem has begun to steal into a man’s thoughts, and that he has begun to think great things of himself, She [Grace] immediately permits the temptations opposing him to gain in strength and prevail, until he learns his weakness…and seeks refuge with God in humility.”
Our problem that we need to be saved from is self-esteem, thinking great things of ourself. These great things, according to St. Isaac, are actually the everyday things that we normally think we can do without divine assistance and the comforts we expect as a result of the things that we do. So, for example, I expect that, with a little effort, I can get out of bed in the morning, go to work, do a good job, earn a living and enjoy a few of life’s comforts: a warm, dry place to live, comfortable clothes, a car that works, some fun on the weekends, maybe even sexual fulfillment. We consider this normal, and any diminution in this expectation we consider a failure, an oppression, a falling short of normal.
However, St. Isaac, and generally the whole Orthodox Spiritual tradition, considers such an attitude towards one’s life to be evidence of self-esteem. Doesn’t St. James say something similar in his epistle?
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
You see part of our problem with overcoming temptation is that we don’t understand what temptations are for, what they are meant to accomplish in our lives. We wrongly think that temptations exist to test us to see if we will be “good.” We still haven’t believed the words of Jesus who said: “There is no one good but God.” Temptations come not to test us to see if we will be good; rather, temptations come to show us that we are not good and that we need to flee in humility to God for refuge. Temptations come because we think we can make it through the day without God’s constant help. Temptations come because we think a comfortable life is normal, rather than a gift from God. This is what the saints call self-esteem.
Have you ever noticed that when things don’t go as you expect (your car breaks down, your basement floods, your boss yells at you, your spouse or children betray you) have you ever noticed that at such moments we almost always say to ourselves, “what did I do to deserve this?” Think about how these words reveal our self-esteem. First, these words reveal that I think that it’s normal for things to go well for me, and when they don’t go well for me, something must be wrong. Second, such a question reveals that I could/should/might/ought to have done something to avoid the problem—as if life were under my control. This is not how the saints think.
The saints realize that because they are sinners living in a fallen world full of other sinners, things should normally go wrong. The bad result is normal, to be expected. If I should happen to get through the winter with a dry basement, it is a gift to be thankful for. Self-esteem, on the other hand, says that the basement is dry because I figured out how to seal it. But humility says that God helped me seal it, yet even then I may not have done it correctly: God must continue to help me. If my child lies to me and disrespects me, a saint says “Of course she would not trust me, I am a sinner.” Self-esteem says, “what’s wrong with her?” If I get publicly humiliated at work for a mistake someone else made, a saint says, “God knows I have made other mistakes that I did not get rebuked for; God knows that I need humility and He is granting it to me.” Self-esteem quotes the words of the first Adam and says it is someone else’s fault.
Self-esteem is that perspective we hold of ourselves and of the world that says I am basically good and, if I do the right things, life will work out well for me. This, by the way, is the same worldview of Job’s three friends, the ones of whom God said “they have not spoken of me what is right.” And, of course, life itself teaches us that self-esteem is not the way to go. Even when we try very hard and do indeed do the right things (as far as I can perceive it), things often go terribly wrong. And so we blame others, maybe even God.
But if we can learn to live with low expectations, “if, in every place, and under every circumstance, and on every occasion, in all that you undertake, you set labours and grief as the aim of your resolution,” then the number and intensity of the temptations in our life will dramatically decrease. St. Isaac tells us, “all thoughts that dismay and frighten you will take flight from you, since these are customarily engendered in men by thoughts that look to comfort.”
However, low expectations of ourselves and of our experience in this world are only helpful if we have high expectations of God. When we look to God to be our help and to save us, then difficult times will no longer be trials, a diminution of the smooth sailing that most people expect their life to be; but rather the bumps and failures and difficulties of life will be nothing more than just life, life for a sinner in a fallen world. Moreover, every difficulty will for us be yet another opportunity to draw near to God to be saved, another chance for “patience to have its perfect work” in us (as St. Jame’s puts it in his epistle).
The advice of St. Isaac is not the advice you get in the world. The world teaches us the opposite. The world teaches us that a comfortable life is normal, that it is normal to be fulfilled, content and satisfied. And the world teaches us that if you are not experiencing such a happy life, it’s someone’s fault, and probably not yours. And even though it’s not your fault, the world teaches us, that it is up to you to do something about it, to affix blame on someone, to fight for your rights, your right to a normal life as the world defines it.
The advice of St. Isaac and the saints is very different. Here we are advised to have low expectations of this life. To expect things to be difficult, to go sideways when you least expect it. Jesus, did say, “In this world you will have tribulations.” However, our low expectations of this world are to be matched by a very high expectation that God loves us and will be good to us and will work every circumstance for our salvation. That is, in whatever life in this fallen world throws at us, God will give us the Grace to become more like Christ through it. God will be near us and help us. God will not abandon us.