Sacramental Reality: Explaining Sin, Sickness, and Spiritual Growth
One of the big challenges we face in today’s post-Christian era is the near complete erosion of seeing and understanding reality sacramentally. It’s why I wrote my book Sacramental Living: Understanding Christianity as a Way of Life, why I do a podcast series of the same name, why I blog, teach, and write articles, and why I continue to strive to do my part to teach this truth.
We can’t fully embrace Orthodox Christianity, fully live as the Church tells us to live, and fully grow into the persons we are meant to become, without this understanding. How can we become increasingly Christ-like if we don’t fully embrace the reality of the Eucharist – where Christ offers Himself to us – His own body and blood – to have this union with us – if we think of this just as a symbol or think of reality as God is in some distant and future place as opposed to be fully present in every aspect of reality? We can’t. If there exists a dividing line in our hearts and minds that sees sacramental reality as something other than simply reality, we are creating conditions for ourselves that stunt our spiritual growth.
This gets “heady” for many people, especially our youth, so what I try to do is always try to think of simple ways to illustrate sacramental reality in the spirit of how Jesus did it in the parables. He took everyday things and situations and used them to teach about God, God’s kingdom, and true reality. It’s a model we should try to follow as best we can and to the best of our ability. So, I am going to offer a few exercises and teachings that have worked for me. In this blog, I am going to focus on discussing sin and spiritual growth. They are not perfect but I know that have made impressions on some due to the feedback I have received so maybe they will work for you in terms of how you explain things and teach the faith to youth and others in your life.
In a simple exercise, I have used with my own child and in my high school Sunday school class, I take a bowl or bag of broccoli, spinach, or frankly anything that I can think of that is healthy but that most kids don’t really want to eat and place it next to a bowl or bag of M&Ms, chocolate chip cookies or anything that I think they would reach for in a nanosecond. I put bowls in front of them and I then asked them to be totally honest and given the choice ask them which bowl would you eat from. In this era of wellness and health consciousness some of the more mature students, or the rare ones that simply don’t like or eat sweets, say the broccoli or spinach but most naturally say they would reach for the candy or cookies.
I then ask them why do you choose the sweets over the vegetables when you know the sweets are bad for you and the vegetables are good for you. My experience has been that some get cute and try to explain why the candy is actually good for you. They get clever. One told me one time that candy makes you happy and happiness has been linked to well-being and health. This isn’t the norm though and most either just say because it tastes good or simply don’t answer at all. So typically, the first thing I point out from this exercise is how easy it is to naturally choose that which is bad for us. I then asked them why this is so? Why is it so easy to make the wrong choice even if we want to make the right one? The answer I am looking for of course is “sin”.
My experience has been that they, like most adults too, tend to understand sin as a legal/moral transgression, or rule breaking as opposed to sickness. I tell them that as Orthodox Christians we understand sin more like infection than infraction[i]. I explain to them that this is important to understand for several reasons.
I find that our Orthodox kids don’t always know the Bible like they should so I try to use the Orthodox Study Bible in my explanations and point them to a few pages and explanatory notes. I will typically have them read Genesis 3:8 and its explanatory note. Genesis 3:8 reads:
“Then they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden that afternoon, and Adam and his wife hid themselves within the tree in the middle of the garden from the presence of the Lord God.”
In our discussion after reading this passage, I focus on the fact that Adam and Eve now hid. Before sin, they didn’t hide. They welcomed God’s presence. Now they don’t. They fled from him. I next have them read the corresponding note to this passage. It reads:
“Fallen man now has a fallen will, thus he has a tendency to run away from God. But the grace of Christ heals the will of those who return to Him through repentance, so they might freely pursue God and do His will.”
I stress that this passage and note show that it’s our will, or ability to choose correctly that is damaged. I also then have them read one more passage and explanatory note. It’s from Romans 7:15-17 where Paul describe sin as sickness or foreign agent that dwells within us and how, because of it, even when we want to do the right thing, we often do not.
“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 the sin that dwells within me.”
The corresponding OSB note reads:
“Man is not sinful by nature. The Orthodox Church rejects any teaching that man has a “sin nature” or that man's nature is depraved to the core. This passage clearly shows that sin is something distinct from our nature. Because we are created in the image of God (Gn 1:26), there is an indelible goodness in our nature that can never be undone. While we can become immersed in sin, we know that it is still not part of our nature, but a foreign force that dwells in us. Thus, sin is what we do, not what we are.”
That’s why it is so easy for us to choose that which is bad for us. We have a sickness in us. It’s not part of nature. Our nature is good. God says in Genesis that everything He created is good. But this sickness messes up our ability to choose. It makes us see God, and what is good for us, as undesirable and what is bad for us as desirable. Not all the time; but enough of the time.
My daughter says sometimes Church is boring. I tell I would expect it to be boring because the sin in us makes it feel so. We all feel tempted to sleep in or not go at times. I tell her that you see in the book of Isaiah and other places in the Bible the angels and hosts of Heaven continually praising and worshiping God. If we were as we should be we would want to go to Church and would not be boring at all. But we must exercise our free will and override our desire not to go sometimes.
A couple of other useful points you can use are to remind the kids that Christ says in Matthew 5:48:
“Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
He also says in Matthew 19:17:
“No one is good but One, that is, God.”
Youth, and some adults, think it is enough to be a good person, as if that is what our salvation is dependent upon – our own personal goodness. Yet Christ tells us no one is good but God. So, no matter what we do, no matter how much good or how good we think we are, we are never as good as God. Further, God is perfect and Christ tells us to be perfect but no matter how hard we try, we can never be completely perfect. That is why Christ came, to do for us, what we can’t do for ourselves. We can’t be good enough, we can’t be perfect, except through our union with Him. If we live sacramentally with the right heart– pray, fast, go to Church – receive His body and blood regularly- we grow in union with Him and become one with Him and His goodness and perfection.
Another useful point is to use this example to emphasize the point that we are in fact sick and unless we truly believe it, we will become complacent within our own notion of goodness and never do what we should to be cured of this sickness, which is namely to live the sacramental life. The other day after Church I was driving home with my daughter and I decided to try something. I turned to her and said, “You need to go to the doctor.” She replied, “Why.” I said ‘because you’re sick.” She, “No I am not.” I said “yes you are so you need to go the doctor.” “no I am not” “Yes you are” We went back and forth like this for a little bit until she got irritated and, “Dad, I am not sick and I am not going to the doctor.” That’s a good example of how we all feel. Unless we have a physical issue, we don’t go around feeling sick. But that’s the point. Because our will is damaged it’s not easy for us to recognize this and even accept this truth.
Regarding truth, one of the obstacles to accept truth is to hear truth as rules. No one really likes to be told what to do. Using the vegetables and the sweets as an example, I often explain to my daughter when I tell her to lay off the sweets and eat her fruits and veggies, and she fights me about it, she is not offending me. When she listens, she is not pleasing me in that I am happy for myself that she is obeying my rule like I am keeping score and how many times she listens versus disobeys and this determines how I feel about her. I am happy that she is obedient in that it shows respect and good character but just as important, I am happy because she is getting the proper nutrition I know she needs to be healthy I want her to do these things because I love her. I try to explain to her, and other kids I have taught, that our parents’ “rules”, God’s “rules” are given out of love to help guide us into health and well-being – sometimes because we don’t know better and sometimes because we don’t choose better.
I am fond of teaching that we should think of right and wrong as right means good for you and wrong means bad for you. It’s really that simple. But again, because of sin we tend to hear commands done in love meant for our own good as oppressive rules meant to make us miserable. It’s how Adam and Eve heard God’s commands, how the Israelites heard the law, and how we continue today.
This simple exercise of veggies and sweets can also be used to discuss sin, sickness, and salvation a bit but it can also be used to drive home the sacramental reality of spiritual growth. Again, using the virtues of the broccoli, spinach, or whatever vegetable you choose you believe will be undesirable, you can ask them what is the result of eating good foods like veggies, other than general health. Someone will inevitable say they help you grow. Using my daughter again as an example, the other day I was hugging her and I did that annoying thing we all say to our kids which “man, honey, have you really grown. I remember when I could carry cradle in my forearm. What are you, 5’3” or 5’4” now?”
She then sat down at the table to eat and something hit me so I said “do you remember a few years ago, when you were 4’5” and you were sitting at the table and all of sudden you grew two inches. You felt your bones and skin stretching for a few minutes and it really hurt until the two-inch growth was complete. She’s used to me by now and kind of rolled her eyes knowing I had some “Jesus point” and said “what are you talking about?”
I reminded her that mom and I try to get her to eat right, get rest, exercise and do these things so she can be healthy and grow. I pointed out to her that she had no recollection of growing except when she tries on her clothes, shoes, stands next to me, her mother, one of her friends – only then is she aware that she grew. I explained that how our spiritual growth takes place to. We do what Christ, through his Church, tells us to do. We strive to be obedient out of love and we grow spiritually. But how do we know this?
I wrote in my book an example from the original Karate Kid movie from the 1980s. When Daniel desired to learn karate from Mr. Miyagi he had a set of expectations on how it should be and what learning karate would be like. However, Mr. Miyagi began by having Daniel paint a fence in a very deliberate manner in terms of how he moved his arms and hands. He also had him wax a bunch of cars, again teaching him how to do it in a very deliberate manner – "wax on, wax off." After days of fence painting and car waxing Daniel got really upset and angry and quit. However, when Mr. Miyagi told him not to quit and then threw a series of punches and kicks at him, Daniel could block every one because of the motions that were now muscle memory to him because of what he had been doing. It now made sense to him. He had grown to learn karate by being obedient to his teacher and doing what his teacher said even though it didn’t make sense to him by his own rationale or even seemed stupid.
That example is packed with applicable learning. Our youth, even ourselves, may be tempted to think what the Church tells us to do is archaic, more applicable to another time. In our intellectualism, we can become dismissive of the Church. Further, due to the sin in our we are rebellious. We don’t like the idea of obedience. Further, because going to Church, receiving the Eucharist, participating in Divine Liturgies, fasting, prayer, confession, Bible study – which we are told are mystical – look and feel so ordinary, we may abandon them. Daniel wanted to learn karate, he wanted to experience the glamour of breaking bricks and wood and being able to fight and defeat bullies. He didn’t want to paint a stupid fence or waste time with the monotony of waxing cars. He had his own notions of how things should be and wasn’t submissive. But he eventually was obedient and realized the fruits of his labor. All of this was taught to him by a man that loved Him enough to invest himself in Daniel for Daniel’s own good.
That is why Christ created His Church and wants us to be obedient because He loves us and invests Himself in us through His crucifixion and resurrection and offers Himself to us for our own good. I tell my daughter and other young people despite what you feel, despite what others may say, despite how the world around you label you as archaic or superstitious, or dumb, you will grow spiritually in ways you won’t recognize, just like you don’t recognize your physical growth, until a situation arises that makes it clear.
So how does spiritual growth manifest itself in our life? Just as clothes getting shorter or tighter show us we have experienced physical growth; spiritual growth reveals itself too, mainly in our own spirits, and despite outward circumstances. What do I mean by this? I often use the analogy of cold blooded and warm blooded animals to explain. Cold blood animals are affected by the rising and falling of temperatures. Warm blooded animals maintain and consistent internal temperature regardless of the outside conditions. Christ said in John 14:27:
“My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
As we grow spiritually we find ourselves experiencing this transcendent peace Christ promises – not through exercise, or psychological techniques, or mindfulness or breathing techniques divorced from Christian practice that feel better to us because they are more about self then submitting to that other than self – but simply through an ever-growing awareness of Christ’s presence in our lives. As we grow spiritually in joyful humility we attain more of His wisdom, for He is the Logos, wisdom, and we take on more and more of His wisdom and make choices that are good for us.
We find ourselves experiencing more and more contentment and gratitude regardless of circumstance. We find ourselves wanting to pray more and go to Church more as our desires and priorities come more and more into alignment with whatever it takes to have deeper union with Him. It’s similar to compound interest. Spiritual growth starts small with us but continues to grow exponentially. We also find ourselves less preoccupied with ourselves because we are in fact dying to self, like He said, and finding our life as we lose it. I try to explain to my daughter it likes realizing the life we thought we wanted is not as good as the one someone who loves us wants to give us.
I promised my daughter a phone one time as a graduation present and I wanted her to have one in middle school. She was going to a performing arts school decently far away and I wanted to be able to reach her easily. She wanted an iPhone 5c and was fixated on it because of the colors it came in. I told her to wait, cases come in colors anyway so who cares and the iPhone 6 was coming out soon and it was better. But she didn’t want to wait. The phone she wanted wasn’t as good as the one I was prepared to give her. It’s a trivial, and perhaps indulgent example, but it’s something she can relate to to understand what I am trying to teach her.
The last thing I want to share in the blog is that despite everything I have written, the purpose of the sacramental life is not spiritual growth. The purpose is our salvation. It really isn’t about what spiritual growth looks or feels like; what is most important is that we are on the path to healing, wholeness, and salvation through our union with Christ. The by-product or fringe benefits are this growth that yields joy and peace and the priceless feeling of well-being within our circumstances.
[i] See http://frederica.com/writings/sin-infection-or-infraction.html