Learning to Not Be Judas

There are certain people in the Gospel that Scripture calls us to identify with; more often than not, the people that Christ exalts, forgives, and heals—both physically and spiritually—are not model citizens. They are not well-liked and are often relegated to the fringes of society. Some common examples come to mind: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. They are both people with whom Christ interacts and characters in his parables, and through both examples we learn how to become righteous and how to interact with God. It is these broken, dirty, unjust people to which Christ tends specifically, and they become models for all believers.

For example, in Luke 18 Christ tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The first, an allegedly knowledgeable, righteous, religious leader; the second, an untrusted, widely disliked tax collector. Christ tells the parable as follows:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. — Luke 18:10-14

It’s interesting that the Pharisee lists off the very types of people Christ spent so much time with as counter examples to his self-righteousness. But Christ teaches us through this parable that true righteousness is not achieved by surpassing others on the morality scale. We are called to be humble, like the tax collector. We must recognize our sin, and then we must also recognize our great need for God’s mercy, which he offers freely to all. As Psalm 51:19 reminds us,

A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit,

A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.

The parable of the tax collector teaches us that we are lost, but also that we are not without hope. This the Pharisee did not understand.

I think also of the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Christ. Luke 23 recounts:

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ — Luke 23:39-43

Again, we see the dichotomy of unrighteous and righteous, with the second thief gaining righteousness through his humility. Through such examples, Scripture teaches us that we ought to identify not with the self-righteous or those that society may exalt; but again, the point is not to be hopeless. Rather, we are to recognize our sinful state and approach God with humility to receive mercy and become sanctified. As my priest says every Sunday before communion: “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.” The first thief did not understand.

I felt particularly convicted by these truths during one of the Holy Week services in the days leading up to Easter this year. It’s a well-known and saddening phenomenon that churches seem to fill up the closer we are to Christmas and Easter. I never see the church more full than I do at Good Friday and Easter. Praise God for a full church during such an important time for our faith, but it’s deceptively easy to fall into the mindset of the Pharisee from Christ’s parable. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m in church every Sunday. Similar thoughts crossed my mind as I noticed more and more people I did not recognize filling the pews. In such moments, I am no better than the prideful Publican or the scornful thief. I do not understand.

But it was one reading in particular that pierced my heart that week. A little ways into the service, I read the following words in my service book:

Let us present our senses pure to Christ, and as His friends, let us offer our souls to Him. Let us not, like Judas, choke ourselves with the concerns of this world, but from our innermost depths, let us cry out: ‘Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil.’

In my experience, at least, I have not often been called to not be like Judas; beyond a basic understanding of Judas as evil, I’ve more or less discarded him from my thoughts. But these words abruptly reminded me how easy it is to be like Judas. I’ll be the first to admit that I “choke” myself “with the concerns of this world:” work-related stress, pining for worldly success and accomplishments, fretting over day-to-day struggles, and forgetting about God. It is not far from the truth to say that I often feel choked by such anxieties. I’d never before considered such things as similar to Judas’ sin, or considered myself similar to Judas in any way at all, and the comparison was almost shocking. Perhaps the underlying reminder is that it is through concerns of this world that Satan works himself into our hearts. Concerns like status and outward perfection (and who’s got higher church attendance), like those of the Pharisee. Rather, our concern should be for our souls and how we stand before God.

Our Father, deliver us from evil.

The service continues:

‘Be vigilant and pray, that you not be tempted;’ You, our God, were saying to Your Disciples; but the lawless Judas was unwilling to understand.

And so, this reading teaches another lesson about what we are called to be by reminding us who we are not to be—Judas. Reflecting on these lessons, I pray first for myself: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner. Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil. Lord, help me understand.

Ted Mosby Is Not a Hero

Full disclosure: I’ve seen all seasons of How I Met Your Mother available on Netflix, although I haven’t kept up with current episodes. It’s entertaining, it has it’s funny moments, and it’s a way to pass the time. But as I moved through the seasons, I began to get more and more uncomfortable with the show’s portrayal of relationships and less and less sympathetic toward Ted Mosby as a protagonist.

Ted’s character is, on the surface, presented to us as a hopeless romantic: an idealist with a lot of love to give, longing for the day he meets “the one” with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. We already know that he gets his happy ending, since the premise of the show is that Ted from the year 2030 is recounting his misadventures to his future children, i.e, the offspring Ted will share with “the one.”

But when I think about Ted Mosby, I see, perhaps hidden a little deeper beneath the laugh track, perhaps within the subconscious of the show itself (since I doubt that the show’s writers intend for Ted to come across this way), a man whose selfish actions are supposed to be somehow justified by the fact that he hopes to one day settle down, get married, have some kids, and for goodness’ sake stop sleeping around. I see a man who is just as selfish and casually promiscuous (or at least, just as nonchalant about being casually promiscuous) as Barney—the womanizer of whose lifestyle we’re supposed to kind of not approve (even the other characters on the show look down on his shallow behavior). And I’m supposed to root for this guy?

I’m bothered by the dichotomy of Ted the Romantic, whom we’re supposed to cheer for, and Barney the Womanizer, whom we’re supposed to find shallow and inappropriate (although I think even then in just a friendly, Barney-will-be-Barney sort of way). I think it’s dangerous to root for a protagonist like Ted Mosby, because Ted shows us that it’s perfectly fine to casually sleep around in your twenties-to-mid-thirties as long as you someday get responsible and have a family with “the one;” best of all, this lifestyle is virtually consequence free! And don’t worry, you’ll find “the one.” Everyone does!

This is, I believe, a reflection of contemporary norms regarding sexuality and relationships. And I think it’s dangerous that so many people are buying into Ted Mosby and what popular shows like How I Met Your Mother are telling us about what we should expect out of romantic relationships.

For instance: this concept of “the one.” Ted’s immoral means are supposedly justified by his “virtuous” end: finding his “one,” his soul mate, his future wife. This notion that there is a single person out there in the world who we are destined to be with encourages, I think, the same kind of unrealistic expectations as a Disney princess movie. Searching for “the one” is like waiting for Prince (or Princess) Charming: the only person in the world who can rescue us (from our insecurities, weaknesses, loneliness) and make us complete and truly happy. “The one” is the only person with whom we are meant to spend our lives, and once we find that person it’s time to cue the music, ride off into the sunset, and roll credits. If I put these kinds of expectations, and this kind of pressure, on my husband, I can only imagine how detrimental it would be to our relationship if and when he fails to meet them. After all, while my husband is absolutely an extraordinary man and my favorite person to be with, he is only human. And he is certainly not my savior.

This kind of thinking ignores the less-than-idealistic aspects of real-life relationships that take commitment, sacrifice, and work. Real relationships are not always easy or exactly what we want or expect them to be. This kind of thinking is both selfish and idolatrous: if we subscribe to the concept of “the one” we in turn must believe that the person we end up with will provide us with comfort, ease, and happiness. Further, believing someone to be “the one” sets them up on a pedestal of perfection akin to idol worship, because we are asking of them lowlier versions of things that we should be seeking from God: salvation (instead of comfort), sanctification (instead of ease), and eternal joy (instead of immediate happiness). (I feel I should clarify that marriage can be a vehicle through which God sanctifies people, but that’s different than another person being the sanctifier.)

In the end, I think Ted’s journey is misdirected, and that in turn those who perhaps identify with Ted’s journey are misdirected. Part of the human experience is to search for meaning: what will make us content? What will give our lives purpose? How do I find my own happy ending? The answer lies not with another person—a spouse, a soul mate, “the one”—but with Christ.

You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You. – St. Augustine, Confessions

Giving Up: The Significance of Sacrifice

I’ve been contemplating a new life motto:

“I give up.”

I consider this not in a self-loathing or self-pitying way, and this is not to say I don’t believe in my value or abilities (to an extent).

Rather, I think of it in a relational way, a spiritual way, even, considering certain types of fasting, a physical way.

My new motto was spurred by an Ingrid Michaelson song, “Giving Up,” which popped up on my Pandora station recently. I’d never heard it before, and I was immediately struck by the lyrics of the chorus (of course, it’s better listened to):

I am giving up on making passes

I am giving up on half-empty glasses

I am giving up on greener grasses

It’s a love song, and I find it to be a rather theologically sound take on Christian commitment in marriage. I once heard it put this way: “When you say, ‘I do,’ you’re also saying, ‘I don’t’ to everyone else.” When my husband and I got married, we committed ourselves to each other and our marriage, which means we promised to give up on things like flirting with or dating others, physical intimacy with anyone else, and most shades of emotional intimacy with others, too. We were (and are) giving up on living individualistically.

I don’t think everyone should or needs to get married—some are meant for singleness and celibacy. But I think those who resist marriage because they don’t want to give up their independence are missing out. They choose to sacrifice bigger, deeper, longer-lasting joys for smaller, more immediate pleasures.

I think it’s worth it, giving up.

And I think this idea has far-reaching spiritual and theological implications (which also encompass the physical aspect I mentioned). When the young rich man asked Christ, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” the Lord didn’t reply with, “Hoard your wealth, and focus on doing whatever you can to make yourself happy.” He said:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21)

In other words: give up. Give up your wealth, your comforts, your self-serving ways, for Christ. The apostles, when called, literally gave up their former lives—Christ called Peter and Andrew while they were fishing (doing their job), and Scripture tells us that “they immediately left their nets and followed Him.” (Matthew 4:20)

Christ doesn’t stop at possessions or trades, though; He takes it all the way: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24) So what do we need to do to serve Christ, to live fully as Christians?

Give up.

Finally, a thought on fasting, which is a very literal approach to giving up. Physical fasting, obviously, demands one to give up certain foods; many Christians also fast from certain activities or other indulgences. In the Church, this activity serves several spiritual purposes: to remind us of our limits as human beings and dependency upon God; to help us focus on things of God, instead of on serving our desires; and to remind us that faith and Christianity are active, not passive. They are effortful, requiring work, even pain, and especially sacrifice.

We are called to give up. Which is why I think this makes such a good marriage, spiritual, and life motto. This idea of giving up reminds me of two other related interests of mine: minimalism and monasticism. Minimalism, or the practice of living lightly on necessities rather than messily on luxuries, has many pragmatic benefits: it can help save space, reduce stress, and save money. But I also find it to have spiritual significance, similar to that of monastic living. Living simply puts into practice the monastic mindset of disconnecting from typical worldly desires or material goods for the sake of pursuing greater goods like spiritual clarity and fullness and a stronger devotion to God.

And that’s what all of this giving up is about, anyway. We give up so that we may gain more.

Finding Meaning

I saw a meme on Facebook the other day that read: “Join a Hilarious Adventure of a Lifetime! Work, Buy, Consume, Die.” It’s funny because it’s true…so it’s also not really that funny. Reflecting on it a bit further, I find it to be a provocative comment on what seems to be the norm in modern culture, especially in the United States.

We go to school. If we’re lucky, we get a job related to our degree and/or interests. Then we work for roughly forty years until we’re able to retire, which (if I understand retirement commercials correctly) is the time of life we all look forward to, the time we really get to do the things we love, spend time with our families, and enjoy some peace and quiet for our remaining fifteen or twenty-ish years (and that’s if we’re statistically fortunate; the current average life expectancy in the U.S is only seventy-eight).

This meme got me thinking about how we choose to live our lives and from where we derive meaning. What are the things to which we devote the most time and energy? For most people, at least based on what I’ve observed, it’s our job. We spend more hours at work than we do at home with our families, or relaxing, or enjoying hobbies, or in church.

I don’t want to look back when (God willing) I’m pushing eighty and see a life full of work- or money-related stress, too little time off, and too much energy put toward material things that ultimately fade away. I don’t want to live the life of the meme.

I want to do well in my work, sure; I want to be proud of what I accomplish, and I hope to accomplish something worthwhile. But ultimately, what I do for a living, what I buy with my money, and whatever successes or accolades I achieve (degrees, promotions, awards)—in the end, these things don’t define me. I’m not saying that our actions don’t shape or reflect our character; of course they do. But the “American Dream,” or maybe I should call it the “Retirement Dream,” is ultimately unfulfilling: work long and hard, save your money, settle down…and then what?

I recently read an article in The Atlantic called “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” The article tells of Jewish psychologist and neurologist Viktor Frankl who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and lived to write about it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the major points of his book is that the difference he observed between those in the camps who lived and those who died was a sense of meaning. The article includes one quotation in particular from Frankl’s book that resonates with me:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.

As a Christian, my cause, my purpose, my meaning lies with Christ. But it’s not just for me; I believe that meaning for all of humanity is found in Christ. It is our inheritance, freely given to us, in which we are created to participate. Everything else is secondary. And that, far more than any “American Dream” or narrative of hard work and success, gives me profound comfort.

Force Yourself: Why Spirituality Sometimes Sucks

When I was younger, I used to wonder why all of the best-tasting foods are usually the worst for you. Why can’t ice cream and chocolate and burgers be good for me? Or at the very least, why can’t I have cravings for fruits and vegetables? 

My husband shared an interesting insight in a Facebook status the other day: “When I eat poorly, all I want to do is eat poorly. When I eat well, I can’t believe I ever ate poorly.”

I’ve experienced this as well, as I’m sure many have. Even though it’s hard at first, the longer you sustain a habit of eating better, the harder it is to go back. If I’ve been doing well for a couple weeks and then I have a burger, I can feel the difference. The same thing goes for exercise; I’ve been training for my first 5k run and have been working out more regularly than I have in months. It sucks at first, but if you persevere it gets better. Although some days still suck. Some days I just don’t want to go run, or I feel too tired, or I’d rather sit on the couch and watch Hulu. Some days I just want to eat a burger and fries and not care.

Some days, I have to force myself.

A Facebook friend commented on my husband’s status, saying, “Replace ‘eat poorly’ with ‘sin’ and ‘eat well’ with ‘don’t sin,’ and you’ve pretty much got the story of my life.”

Do you ever feel too tired, or too busy, or too lazy to pray? Do you sometimes feel like you’d rather sleep in than go to church? Or do you ever find that you’re in church, but your heart really isn’t? I am guilty on all counts. For whatever reason, my personal spirituality is the most difficult for me to maintain. I’ve been a Christian since I was about twelve, and ever since then I’ve struggled to keep a regular regimen of prayer and Scripture study. It’s so easy to make excuses: it’s late, I’ve had a long day, and I’m tired…I’ll pray in the morning. And then: it’s early, I’m running late, and I don’t have time…I’ll read my Bible tonight.

But when I manage to get into a habit—usually my husband and I like to say our evening prayers before bed—and then I don’t do it, it feels especially wrong. Because when I don’t make time to pray or study Scripture, I’m ignoring God, and that fact is more obvious when I neglect my spiritual responsibilities after starting to get good at fulfilling them.

When it comes to most important things in life, I think “easy” is overrated; at least, I think it’s dangerous to believe that if something is right or worth doing it will always be easy.

I believe the opposite to be true sometimes: sin is apathy; sin is laziness; sin is easy. Righteousness is difficult.

St. Athanasius wrote in On the Incarnation that human nature is inherently akin to nothingness, and therefore at odds with God:

For the transgression of the commandment [sin] was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of nonexistence, so were they now on their way to returning, through corruption, to nonexistence again…By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of his power and he remains incorrupt.”

By the grace and salvation of God through Christ we’re able to return to holiness; we are made worthy to approach God once again. If we persevere, it becomes less difficult—I think the best way to put it is perhaps that, as with physical habits like diet and exercise, it becomes harder to turn away from spiritual goods once we’ve worked to build them into our lives and experienced their benefit. After all, that’s what we’re made for. But it’s not always easy, because thanks to sin, we are at odds with ourselves.

My husband once put it this way: “I have to remind myself that when I don’t want to pray, that’s the part of me that wants to go to hell.”

And so I think sometimes, what’s more important than having the right “feeling” about something—even more important than feeling like my heart is truly in it, or doing something because it always feels easy—is to do what I know is right and good for me and for the betterment of my soul, even if I have to force myself.

If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force. (Matthew 11:12)

– St. Ambrose of Optina