The Difference Between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Spirituality

250px-MenasAlthough grossly oversimplified, the differences between spiritual transformation in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy might be articulated as follows. The cross of Christ is central to spiritual formation in Roman Catholicism (i.e., imitating the pattern Christ set for us to follow by loving others sacrificially with humility). “The glorious light” is central to formation in Eastern Orthodoxy (i.e., allowing to heart to be exposed to the illumining glory of the exalted enthroned Christ who presently sits at the right hand of God the Father). In Eastern Orthodoxy PARTICIPATION in God’s grace as given by the Holy Spirit is central. In Roman Catholic spirituality IMITATION of Christ’s earthly humanity is the emphasis. In Catholic modes of contemplation (or meditation), the humanity of Christ in His earthly life and ministry serves as the focus. In Eastern Orthodoxy the glorious divinity of Christ is to be one’s focus. Imagination plays a key role in Catholic meditation, far lesser so in Eastern Orthodoxy. Both traditions would likely acknowledge the necessity of both imitation and participation. However, it seems that each tradition lends greater emphasis to one over the other.

The comparison I have just given is a bit too general. There are many varieties and sub-groupings within these two traditions. There is far more complexity to this matter than what I am presenting in this short post. Please don’t be too harsh in my attempt to bring such an elusive and enthralling matter to order.

There is one piece that is missing from both traditions: Paul’s theme of justification by faith alone in Christ’s death. In contrast to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century understood that justification by faith alone is the starting point of the spiritual journey. As Richard Lovelace aptly writes, “Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith [at what the Cross accomplished] and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification [holiness] as faith is active in love and gratitude” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 101).

The Reformers also believed that, according to Scripture, union with God is already, but not yet (Rom. 6:5; Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 6:17; 12:13; Eph. 1:6; 2:5-6). In other words, the Christian life begins and ends with union with God. This stands in contrast to union with God as a stage one reaches over a period of time, a prevalent view within certain Roman Catholic spiritual traditions.

John Wesley (1703-1791) read and appreciated certain Eastern Orthodox fathers. Yet, he observed that they were oblivious to justification as a starting point for spiritual growth. Wesley maintained that “[the] first point in the religion of Christ is the not having our own righteousness” (Sermons, 1:314ff.). Wesley believed that people must be first delivered from the condemnation of sin before they can be delivered from the power of sin.

All that said, spiritual transformation does involve BOTH imitation and participation. Though very closely linked, I maintain that participation MUST precede the imitation. The wisdom of Julie Canless is much appreciated: “When obedience is seen as response rather than participation, we end up with exhaustion. Furthermore, when obedience is not seen as participation in Christ’s own sonship, it is rendered contentless, only to be filled by a reaction to whatever is perceived to be vices in the culture” (Canless, Calvin’s Ladder, 252).

What all this means is this. When we attempt to imitate Christ without spiritual dependency, chances are we will become exhausted moralists–and quite possibly proud. Without the starting point of a justified status before God, and without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, the imitation of Christ can become a soul-exhausting duty. Duty to God and people without Spirit-empowered love can easily degrade into compulsive, guilt-driven, scrupulously self-focused religion.

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Heavenly Abba, I cannot do what you ask me to do as a follower of Jesus. Holy Spirit, I give You my heart, my thoughts, emotions, and choices; influence and guide them; may my heart be present and responsive to the Holy Spirit so that Jesus Christ is glorified in all that I do today.


Complaining to God: The Need for Lament

When asked, “Is it is ever a good idea to complain to God?,” many Christians might answer, “probably not.” There are, after all, those accounts of the children of Israel in the OT where their “grumbling” resulted in the judgment of God. And the Apostle Paul himself wrote, “Do all things without grumbling . . . so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14-15).

But if you ask the question using different wording, “Is it ever okay to offer lament to God?,” you might get a blank stare. Or, someone might ask, “What is lament?” To be sure, the word “lament” seems to be a bit out of style. We are somewhat familiar with the idea of lament because there is a book in the Bible called “Lamentations.” While there are some notable exceptions to the rule, you don’t hear a lot about lament in mainstream Christian faith and practice.

“Lament” is “that unsettling biblical tradition of prayer that includes expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair, and protest to God” (Billman and Migliore, Rachel’s Cry, 6). Lament as an expression of prayer is seen throughout the Bible. One place where its presence is quite notable is in the Book of Psalms. There are Psalms of individual or personal lament (e.g., Pss. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89, 120, 139, 141, 142), and Psalms of corporate or communal lament (e.g., Pss. 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129).

Brown and Miller delineate the features of biblical lament found in specific Psalms of the OT Scripture.

  • “The prayers of Scripture take shape in a form that is consistent enough to impress itself upon the community of faith as a mode of praying that merits imitation in our own prayers.”
  • “That form or structure may itself be the vehicle for carrying the one praying beyond the present predicament into a new mode of trust and confidence.”
  • “Central to such praying is a large element of . . . complaint [lament]: lament in the sense of bemoaning the troubles that one has undergone and that evoke the present prayer; complaint in the sense of arguing with and complaining to God about one’s situation and protesting its continuation.”
  • “Identifying lament and complaint as central elements of biblical prayer has uncovered the possibility, if not the inevitability, of both rage about one’s condition and anger against God as legitimate dimensions of prayer.”
  • “Nearly all of the lament prayers move to some expression of confidence or assurance of being heard. The complaint without trust is not the lament. The complaint is itself an act of trust (see Psalm 22:3-4).”
  • “Such psalms are not merely complaints or laments about one’s condition. They have at their center petitions for God’s help.”
  • “Inasmuch as the fundamental aim of the laments is to seek God’s deliverance from troubles, the various elements of the prayer, including the laments about one’s condition and the complaints against God, are to be understood as acts of persuasion, motivations laid out to persuade God to act in behalf of the innocent, the victim, and the sufferer, that is, to persuade God to be God.”
  • “The lament prayer is not an act of mourning; it is an act of protest” (Brown and Miller, “Introduction,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, xiv-xv).

This aspect of biblical prayer does have a place in our present day faith and practice. Jesus himself lamented to His Father when in his final words he recited a line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46 cf. Ps. 22:1).

Be these things as they may, so many of God’s people today believe that it is wrong to complain to God. Do you?

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What is “Hope”?


To hope is to carry within me the private assurance that however black things may seem, my present intolerable situation cannot be final; there must be some way out.

Gabriel Marcel, Mystery of Being, Vol. II, 178-79.

You Know the Holy Spirit is Working When . . .

The brilliant pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a principal figure in America’s First Great Awakening. In 1741  he wrote The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this essay, Edwards wanted his readers to know, “what are the true, certain, and distinguishing evidences of a work of the Spirit of God, by which we may safely proceed in judging of any operation we find in ourselves, or see in others” (87).

He begins his essay by stating that certain signs, events, experiences, or phenomena might be indicators of the Spirit’s movement; they might not. One cannot say for sure. Edwards then presents five signs which are indeed sure and certain evidence of the Spirit’s work.

Based on his exposition of 1 John 4:1-6, a sure and certain evidence of the Spirit’s work,

  • brings people to a deeper understanding of, devotion to, and conviction that Jesus is the Christ and has come in the flesh
  • resists the interests of Satan’s kingdom, which encourages sin and nurtures people’s worldly lusts
  • gives rise to a greater regard for the truthfulness and divine authority of the Scriptures
  • leads persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true
  • fosters a greater love for God and for people in general.

Throughout the essay Edwards makes the point that Satan cannot and will not produce these signs in people. In regards to the unusual physical responses that happen to some people in response to preaching, Edwards wrote,

“when there is an extraordinary influence or operation appearing on the minds of a people, if these things [the sure signs mentioned above] are found . . .  we are safe in determining that it is the work of God. . . . These marks  . . . plainly show the finger of God, and are sufficient to outweigh a thousand such little objections, as many make from oddities, irregularities, errors in conduct, and the delusions and scandals of some professors” (118-19).

He then makes some practical observations.

  • Genuineness of the Spirit’s work can be ascertained,”when it is observed in a great multitude of people of all sorts and in various places, than when it is only seen in a few, in some particular place, that have been much conversant one with another” (122).
  • Intense bodily responses can be understood as  either “great distress from an apprehension of . . . sin and misery,” or “a sweet sense of the greatness, wonderfulness, and excellency of divine things” (123).
  • “there have been very few in whom there has been any appearance of feigning or affecting such manifestations, and very many for whom it would have been undoubtedly utterly impossible for them to avoid” (124).
  • As a rule, those experiencing these bodily reactions, “appeared to be in the perfect exercise of their reason; and . . . I never yet knew one lastingly deprived of their reason” (124).
  • Young people respond to the movements of God according to their present levels of maturity; “[they] have less steadiness and experience, and being in the heat of youth are much more ready to run to extremes” (129).
  • When ministers do not provide sufficient guidance, people wander into excess (129).

Edwards exhorted his readers: “Let us all be hence warned, by no means to oppose, or do any thing in the least to clog or hinder the work; but, on the contrary, do our utmost to promote it” (130). He recognizes that seeming chaos and messiness might be noticed, but a “work of God without stumbling-blocks is never to be expected. . . . There never yet was any great manifestation that God made of himself to the world, without many difficulties attending it” (133). Decorum and propriety must be sought, but when the Spirit moves His stirrings may not always look pretty. No genuine revival is free from “difficulties” and “stumbling blocks.”

The essay concludes with a series of warnings against,

    • misconduct and confusing behavior
    • spiritual pride that comes from experiences 
    • putting experience over human learning
    • making judgments about hypocrites or unsaved.

In 1743 Edwards wrote a second more fully developed essay on the nature of revival: Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England. His writings on this topic continue to speak with timeless relevance. His profound spiritual discernment serves as a helpful litmus test whenever great movements of the Holy Spirit are claimed in our present generation.

Self-Loathing is Rooted in Pride

Be careful .  .  . not to allow your mind to dwell much on your weaknesses and unworthiness. These excessive feelings spring from a root of pride and a love for our own excellence. To become discouraged weakens your prayer life, and this is worse than your imperfections themselves. The more miserable you see yourself, the more it should cause you to abandon yourself to God. Press in to have a more intimate relationship with Him.

“The Lord shall fight for you” (Exod. 14:14)

Madame Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer, 56.

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Why is it So Hard to “Be Still”?

One of the reasons most of us are limited in our ability to be present to others and ourselves is that we possess so little inner stillness. We are too full to be truly still–full of distractions, preoccupations, plans, worries, regrets, things that need to be rehearsed, and things that need to be reviewed. Our inner world is a churning cauldron–endless motion and endless noise. Birds in cities often respond to the incessant urban noise by imitating the sounds of the city, not simply singing their songs of nature. Like birds, we also adapt to our environments. We allow the external noise to mask our inner noise.

Sometimes we say that we long for silence and wish we could be still. We may go to a retreat center or some other place where we can be alone, but when we do we quickly discover that the inner noise and lack of stillness has followed us. Our busyness–which we often blame for our lack of inner stillness–is not the cause of the problem but a way of avoiding it. While we may be attracted to solitude and silence, we also fear them because with each comes an inevitable confrontation with everything that we are trying to avoid. External silence confronts us with the realities of our inner world.

Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and Christian mystic, said that all human evil comes from people’s inability to sit still in a room. Peace with myself in stillness is the precondition of being able to be genuinely present to and live peaceably with others. It is me that I want to run from when I am unable to remain at peace in the stillness, silence, and solitude of that room that Pascal is watching. The inner demons that surface when I am still, alone, and quiet must ultimately be confronted if I am to be able to be present to myself and others.

Solitude, silence, and stillness each have an inner and an outer dimension. The outer expression of solitude is aloneness. Some times of being alone are essential if we are to cultivate inner solitude, but they are not sufficient. It is inner solitude that is essential–not simply a place where we are alone but a place where we can be present to our self. Inner solitude is a state of peaceful being with myself.

Silence also has an outer and inner expression. One can be externally silent by not talking. While all of us could probably benefit from more of this external silence (those of us who live by our words probably more so than most!), being mute does not translate into inner silence. In fact, we quickly become aware of the difference between inner and outer silence after a day or so of a silent retreat when we may be vocally quiet while the noise from our inner world is deafening. Inner silence is not just refraining from speech. It is being attentive. With inner silence I move from talking to listening. Most essentially, it is a posture of being open and alert.

Inner stillness is the most difficult of the three, and it is the most important if we are to learn to be fully present in the moment to our self and others. Outer stillness is simply not moving. It is being able to sit in a chair in a room–at least for a while–without getting up and walking around. While this is almost impossible for some, inner stillness–just like inner silence and inner solitude–is challenging for everyone. Inner stillness is letting go. Rather than trying to drive away the distractions, the posture of inner stillness is simply to release them. Being still is, therefore, being free from the distraction of my attachments. It is a state of detachment from all that moves me off center and out of alignment.

We cannot truly become still at our center until we deal with that which pulls us off center. By far the most significant contributors to this decentering are our inordinate attachments and disordered desires . . . . Desiring anything or anyone more than God robs us our stillness and makes us present only to our cravings and the illusions they spin . . . . Psalm 46, thought to be possibly written by the prophet Isaiah, presents the following invitation from the mouth of Yahweh: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10 ASV). The one whose name is “I Am” and whose existence makes possible our own invites us to a knowing that can be found only in stillness. This stillness is letting go of striving. It is being present to our selves and to God. It is a state of being , not simply an achievement of doing or not-doing.

David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, 146-149.

“Mindfulness” through a Christian Filter

2a89f86In the past decade “mindfulness” has become a buzz phrase in American popular culture. Reality- and talk-television, leadership seminars, self-help blogs and books encourage us to be “mindful” in the midst of our trying circumstances and challenging relationships. With regard to “mindfulness” as a prudent discernment of our passions, I am especially helped by the nuanced reflections of Thomas J. Bushlack.

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“Jon-Kabat-Zinn . . . defines mindfulness as ‘the intentional cultivation of non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness.’ However, as the founder of the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society, he has primarily drawn upon Buddhist notions mindfulness in developing his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. Christian mindfulness, however, is tethered to distinctively Christian notions of contemplation–that is, total attention to the present moment and to God’s loving presence within each moment . . . . such contemplative mindfulness puts us ‘in communion with the real and the Real.’ Therefore, Christian mindfulness takes us beyond the simple non-judgmental attention to the moment that is typically captured in Buddhist thought and deeper into the experience of the Ultimate Reality who is God. In other words, Christian mindfulness is not an end in itself, but is at the service of a deeper perception of the presence of God in each moment . . . . What I find most helpful in . . . Kabat-Zinn’s definition is his appreciation for the ways in which the initial suspension of judgment in response to one’s passions enables a wiser engagement with and discernment of one’s passionate desires.”

Thomas J. Bushlack, “Mindfulness and the Discernment of Passions: Insights from Thomas Aquinas,” Spiritus 14 (2014): 144.

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The ability to discern and name the emotions we feel in the moment is a wonderful gift. Especially is this so in the midst of circumstancial or relational challenges. But I would add the following. I would want to learn to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit in those same situations (cf. Ps. 42:5-11; Rom. 9:1-2). In other words, What does God have to say about what I am feeling in this VERY moment? Are my feelings aligning with the emotions of Christ? Does Christ understand how I feel? How is God present in this moment in the midst of my passions? Is there a scripture that speaks to that which I am presently mindful? Beyond emotional self-awareness, Christian mindfulness must invite the Trinity into the self-awareness process. And Christian mindfulness must invite Spirit-prompted Scripture into that process. Christian mindfulness aligns with Gospel-mindedness. Perhaps, in some small part, this is what it means to have “the mind of Christ.”

Maybe mindfulness could look like this. The next time you find yourself bored in a conversation or a meeting, you could tell yourself internally, “I feel bored at this very moment.” Then you could say, “Jesus what do you think about the boredom I am feeling right now?” “Holy Spirit, I invite your presence into this moment. Allow me to reflect the glory of Christ to others in the midst of what I am feeling. And, if necessary, say a word, think a God-honoring thought, bask in your beauty. Sustain me.”

Easier said than done!

I do not presently exercise this kind of mindfulness–not to the degree that I am presently satisified. Yet, I desire to allow this to become a greater reality for me as the years go by.


The Irony of Shame

. . . one of shame’s most acute byproducts is the fear of exposure, the very thing that, paradoxically, is required for shame’s healing. It requires great courage to reveal ourselves in the face of the abject terror that we will be seen and then rejected. To expose our real self–our weaknesses, flaws, mistakes, and brokenness, along with our desires, needs, and hopes–to others who may hurt us involves the risk that we may be criticized, judged, and dismissed.

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame, 183.

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The Intentionally Manipulative Spouse

Caucasian couple arguing on sofa

A key trait of the intentionally manipulative spouse is the lack of remorse after an explosion. The argument or incident is inevitably turned back on the offended spouse, and even supposed apologies are accusatory.

There are several danger signs of an intentionally manipulative self-centered spouse. The first is that she isolates the offended spouse from family and friends unless she is present. A big part of intentional manipulation is defining the world of the victim. This requires being aware of what other people are saying so that she can encounter what does not align with her agenda.

Often family and friends are vilified for not adhering to positions that the self-centered spouse claims are essential. The abused spouse is shamed for wanting to associate with people who would not agree with the manipulative spouse’s standards. Combining shame with isolation makes it more likely that the abused spouse will not step out of her control.

The second danger is setup scenarios. The manipulative spouse says, “You can [blank] if you want to,” but if the abused spouse takes him up on this offer, there will be hell to pay. Or this may come in the form of a question that leads in one direction, while the “right” answer is the opposite.

Outbursts of anger or shame after these setup scenarios lead the abused spouse to question her judgment about everything. Choices become social land minds. Isolation is reinforced by this fear-based paralysis.

The third danger sign is answering questions with questions. When given time to think, the abused spouse can put what is happening into reasonable questions. These moments of clarity bring flashes of hope that she will be heard. But in order to avoid the only logical response (which would require admission of abuse), the self-centered spouse counters with a question.

The return question either changes the subject (“But you’re missing the point; what about . . .?) or is condemning (“How could you think . . . ?” “But what about when you . . . ?”). The abused spouse is placed in a dangerous position at this point: rebut and risk being attacked, or acquiesce and surrender to his version of reality.

The fourth danger sign is the consistent tone of condescension toward those with whom she disagrees. It takes great emotional and relational strength to stand up to condescension. Imagine the strength and skill necessary to politely respond to someone asking, “Do you really think . . . ?” or “What good will it do . . . ?” when these questions are followed by a simplistic caricature of what was just said.

The intentionally manipulative self-centered spouse will not remain in a relationship with anyone who can answer her condescending tone. To be able to answer her questions is to show a level of authority, competency, and clarity in conflict that does not allow her to rule.

In a counseling case like this, it is important to realize that the self-centered spouse will quickly seek to undermine counseling. For this reason, the initial counseling objectives have to do with protecting the abused spouse from being drawn back into isolation.

  1. If the abused spouse comes alone to the first appointment, then patiently do a thorough assessment of the type of abuse before inviting or alerting the abusive spouse to the counseling.
  2. If a separation is needed for safety, then strongly reinforce to the abused spouse that she should expect intense pressure to return home (anger, shaming, promises, and so). The question, “How can we work on our marriage if we’re not in the same home?” is a manipulative one. It dodges the fact that the primary problem is abuse. This is a form of the third danger sign, one that seeks to get the abused spouse to begin taking partial responsibility for the abuse.
  3. When you are talking with the self-centered spouse, the primary point to make is that he has created an unsafe environment for his family to live in. “Progress” will have begun when he can, over a number of sessions, see that his approach to emotions, conflicts, and relationships has been unsafe. It is important for the counselor not to entertain other starting points or become exasperated about the manipulative spouse’s failure to see this. Those responses will be used against the counselor.

Brad Hambrick, Self-Centered Spouse, 20-23.

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Are You a Submissive Listener?

Submission involves surrendering people to God. Instead of trying to control them, we leave them with all their freedom intact. Instead of wishing that people did what we wanted them to do, we ask God, How can I be part of what you are doing in this person? How might I be restorative instead of accusative?

Perhaps the greatest form of submission is listening deeply to them. Being totally present to others and quieting our minds is hard work. It involves not interrupting, not finishing sentences, not inserting little jokes when people talk, and not thinking about other things while they talk. Listening is minute-by-minute submission. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the “half-listening” phenomenon:

There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person [Life Together, 98].

Perhaps it seems to harsh to say that to listen inattentively is to despise a person. But despising someone is the opposite of respecting them, and respect is a core expression of love. To listen to one another is one of the greatest services we can give another person.

Jan Johnson, “Contagious: The Surprising Things that Make Community Transformational,” Conversations, 13:1, 24-25.

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