Serving God brings with it a grave and self-defeating danger.
Our Lord enjoins us to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect. In the Orthodox Church in particular, we are also surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses”, saints whose lives we celebrate and seek to emulate. The servant of God is filled with passion for the beauty of this holiness, and strives with all their might to inspire others to aspire to it.
And then, the devil strikes. He will leave the servant to work others up into a frenzy of zeal, and then strike the servant; not with disease or disaster or even death, but with the servant’s own weakness. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. And when they fall, those who had come closer to God through their service face a crisis.
We see this pattern occasionally in the news. The regularity with which it happens among the “tele-evangelists” is one reason for their poor reputation in general. But it also happens within our own Church. The saddest thing is that it is not necessary, and, I believe, it is not Christian.
Let’s go to St Paul for some advice on this matter. He does indeed urge us to imitate those who have lived in intimacy with God and to learn from them: “…imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:12). He even goes so far as to blatantly hold himself up as template for his flock: “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16). Some servants of God take these words and run with them, assuming that they too can become this perfect model; nay, that God has called them to be this perfect model for the salvation of others. Thus do they fall into the trap, for they do not read the rest of what St Paul has to say on the matter…
You see, St Paul never claimed that the example he set was a perfect one. He was not calling others to see him as perfect and thus to strive to become as perfect as he. He was calling others to see that he is trying, struggling with his own weakness and frail humanity to raise his spirit above the mean level of worldliness and sin. He was not a Perfect Model but a Fellow Traveller. And that makes a huge difference.
How do we know this? “Imitate me,” he repeats in 1 Corinthians 11:1, this time adding the explanation, “just as I also imitate Christ.” The perfect template is not St Paul, but Christ Himself, and St Paul is merely calling on others to join him in the struggle to become Christlike. We look to Jesus and Jesus alone as our perfect model. But if we want a model of human weakness striving to become like Jesus, then we can look to St Paul. He never claims to have succeeded. Instead, he often goes to great pains to record in writing that he is still frail and faulty, yet never losing hope or giving up:
1 Corinthians 9:27
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
Not that I have already attained , or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.
Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.
For what I am doing, I do not understand.
For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.
If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good.
But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells;
for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.
For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.
Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.
For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.
But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
O wretched man that I am!
Who will deliver me from this body of death?
I thank God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
Does that weakness ring any bells?
We have then, a servant of God who presents himself, warts and all, not as a perfect person, needing to constantly maintain that perfection, but as a weak and sinful person, constantly striving to improve. He is not at the top, trying not to fall, but at the bottom, always striving to rise up. His call to others is not “be perfect as I am perfect” but “strive to overcome weakness as I strive”.
To hold oneself up as perfect, to believe one’s own publicity, as it were, is a delight to the devil, and abominable lie to the Lord. That way lies all kinds of hypocrisy, pride, envy and deceit. It was the attitude of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned so harshly. Because of this misconceived idea of service, many good people have refused to serve, discerning the falseness in it, yet not knowing any alternative. Because of it, many good people have been made to stumble, when their servant who was held up as being perfect inevitably shattered them by turning out to be just as weak as anyone else. All really quite unnecessary, had they sought truth, however uncomfortable, rather than a pleasant lie.
Truth is a nicer place to live.