The Man Who is His Own Spiritual Director
David: I read the article "The Ravi Zacharias Implosion" yesterday and was greatly saddened. I had heard about the matter a few weeks ago but hadn’t really dwelt on it as I’d never followed RZ that closely, but realizing what a black eye his case is for Christian apologetics hit me harder with that article.
Then today I came across this post on FB, and it seemed like an illustration of what happened (or what didn’t happen) in the case of poor Ravi. He was a very smart man and seemed to be well intentioned, but without accountability he didn’t end very well. Very sobering.
Similarities between the trainer and the confessor
Just after my graduation from college I moved to Portland, Oregon, where I worked at various jobs, including waiting tables in an upscale restaurant (to this day, I'm a good tipper), bartender in a small Irish pub (I'm a Scotsman), and working as an orderly in a trauma center. All these jobs contributed in important ways to my ultimate vocation as a priest and a monk. (I'll leave it to my readers to figure that one out.)
Shortly after my move to Portland, I decided that I wanted to work out at a local weight lifting gym (what young man doesn't want to be buff?). After asking around, I discovered Laprinzi's Gym, a Portland institution to this day. Laprinzi's has always been known for having some of the best trainers, and I knew that success at weightlifting would require professional help and direction.
Being a skinny college grad, I felt somewhat intimidated as I walked into a gym filled with Olympic style weightlifters, but I was soon made to feel at ease after one of the trainers approached me, offering to help me get started. Grateful for the direction, I began what was to be a mainstay of my physical exercise for years to come. I didn't stop weight lifting until I'd become a monk, and have regretted the decision to stop until this very day. Long distance running was my other passion, leading ultimately to hip replacement surgery some fourteen years ago, according to my surgeon.
The very day I walked into Laprinzi's Gym, another young man walked in for his first try at weightlifting. But, unlike myself, he was too prideful to accept direction from anyone. He stupidly turned down the offer of a trainer, and proceeded to weight lift without professional guidance. Some six months later, my trainer quietly pointed to the other young man, saying, "David, do you notice the difference between your body and his? Since he has been his own trainer, he sees only his front side, so his muscle development is concentrated in his upper arms and chest. His back muscles and legs are underdeveloped, so he looks like a skinny ape".
I share this story because of the saying in Orthodoxy, "The man who is his own spiritual director, becomes the disciple of a fool.” When we embark on the spiritual path, we need the direction and foresight of someone who is experienced, for there are all sorts of traps ahead, including pride. In choosing a spiritual father or mother as our guide, we are directed on the path to Christ by someone who knows us, and is able to point out those traps that would snare us. This guide, like the trainer described above, sees us from a perspective that is otherwise hidden from us, and like the weightlifter who desires to look buff, the man on a quest for spiritual transformation, needs a spiritual father who can point to those sins and omissions that need our attention.
"A priest is a spiritual physician. Show your wounds to him without shame, sincerely, openly, trusting and confiding in him as his son; for the confessor is your spiritual father, who should love you more than your own father and mother; for Christ's love is higher than any natural love. He must give an answer to God for you (Saint John of Kronstadt, 'My Life in Christ')."
With love in Christ, Abbot Tryphon
ForeverSailing: Here's a link to an excellent talk by Tim Keller about "A Community of Justice" which tackles the topic of the need for community to safeguard each other.
Tom: “The only way I can explain it is that either you must be psychotically double-minded, or you must not really believe in God.” I don’t know, does Rod Dreher bite the same dust as RZ here in that he now succumbs to the self righteousness (that of course so easily besets us all)? Atheists included, sometimes in spades, though in general they are given a pass because they aren’t ostensibly claiming to be righteous, even while in fact they claim as much. All have sinned and come short, including those who are attributed hero status because they are gifted in apologetics, or preaching or debate. Maybe there is a way to yet embrace the wisdom and logic and truth that RZ imparted if we can embrace his humanity, celebrate his salvation by Grace and consider that the greater miracle was God using another broken vessel to deliver His truth.
David: My reason for passing those articles on was not to engage in Ravi bashing (there but by the grace of God go I); I also am not concerned with defending Rod Dreher. [I could be wrong, but I wonder if that statement you referred to, Tom, about RZ either being psychotically double-minded or not even a believer, was not so much motivated by self-righteousness as by an attempt to understand how things could have gotten to such a state with him. Being a journalist and also a practicing Christian, Rod has been involved in church-related sex scandals for a while now, and it’s something that also impacted his personal life. He became a Roman Catholic when coming to the faith in his college years and took that seriously as a young adult, so when all the child abuse stuff started coming out and he was covering it in depth and realizing the way it was being protected by hierarchs in the church, and then realizing that he honestly didn’t have the faith to keep his young children in the church. It wasn’t merely something he dealt with as an impartial professional, “cold-bloodedly” so to speak. So I guess it’s impossible for him not to put his thumb on the scale.]
Nor do I argue with not letting someone’s personal life interfere with our profiting from whatever good teaching he might offer. We all ought to be able to learn from everyone. And I think the “he that is without sin among you cast the first stone” principle applies just as much to self-righteousness as to sexual conduct, probably even more so.
Maybe it’s impossible to deal with something like this impartially, since we all have our strong opinions on things. But what impressed me, in the appearance of those two articles one after the other, was how this man who was considered by many to be an authority (and who apparently accepted the acclaim) and an interpreter and teacher of Scripture could have thought he could keep something like his irregular sex life a secret, when one of our Lord’s clear teachings was that there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed. Rod’s extreme pronouncement provokes more head scratching than stone throwing in my own head, and I found the way Abbot Tryphon’s article came to my attention the next day to be helpful.
The conclusion I have come to is that nobody is above being deceived, and the only way to safeguard against the negative effects of delusion is to be embedded in a safe structure, tradition, support group—whatever you want to call it. That was the point of that article “The Gym, The similarities between the trainer and the confessor.” When you are your own spiritual director, in other words, you are making it certain you will miss the mark.
Tom: I didn't think you were taking opportunity to bash someone for their failures, I just felt like Rod Dreher could have extended a little grace towards a casualty of war, as it may be. I guess it just seemed particularly harsh to conclude he was either psychotic or not a believer...neither of which I think are logical conclusions. They seem to ignore the simple power of sin, of our spiritual adversary, of the need for grace, of human nature, etc. I understand that sometimes it feels hard to get our heads around actions done in secret (especially if they're sinful or salacious) that seem so clearly destined to be exposed, but yet we are surrounded by examples of it in both history and the nightly news. Seems like ultimately we are all weak creatures, sin is powerful, and there is none righteous. And the bigger they are the harder they fall.
It's an interesting point about the need for safeguards, structures, traditions, fellowship, etc. It seems an important component to include. At the same time, so many church leaders fall even in the midst of those very structures.
David: Forgive me if I sound self-righteous and offensive and holier than thou here, and please believe me when I say that I regard myself as utterly bereft of righteousness and as unholy as they come. I like the way someone put it in an article I read some time ago and can’t find right now to quote exactly: “I have come to the stage in my spiritual life in which I know nothing whatsoever about the spiritual life.” I merely share the following opinion as my two cents’ worth. I share it because I feel like I’m the only one barking up this tree, but I sincerely think this is where what we’ve been hunting for is to be found. The same applies to what I will say and post about Eastern Orthodoxy. The essence of Orthodoxy is humility, even the most seemingly outrageous claims. Humility is always the aim, and the truly orthodox are the first to confess falling miserably short of that aim.
I sometimes think of spiritual stability, and other things like historical awareness and cultural memory, in horizontal and vertical terms, particularly with regards to your observation, Tom: “It's an interesting point about the need for safeguards, structures, traditions, fellowship, etc. It seems an important component to include. At the same time, so many church leaders fall even in the midst of those very structures.”
On that, perhaps safeguards are available but those who fall choose not to submit to them, or those structures have been corrupted and compromised due to sin, fear of man, etc., or the structures that are in place are simply inadequate for the need. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that a lot of what happens in a lot of churches nowadays is like that verse (Judges 21:25) “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” ...
I [feel it's] helpful to have a form of regular self-evaluation. But assuming you do feel a need for safeguarding and have ruled out yourself as sufficient, if your stability lies in others who are basically in the same boat as you, it will be slightly better, at best. Take the twelve apostles for example, just about anywhere in the synoptic Gospels. There was a certain amount of solidarity and sense of orientation among them, but they just didn’t get it most of the time, generally speaking, and had to be continually corrected and enlightened by the Lord. Even during the momentous last supper (Luke 22) they were disputing over who would be the greatest. That’s horizontal stability for you (the disciples), with the Lord providing the vertical.
Or in history, if our only reference points are our peers, those alive right now (horizontal), and we don’t inform ourselves of those who have gone before us in the past (vertical), we will merely repeat history, and we won’t even realize that we’re in a loop.
The way I see it is that the only truly new thing under the sun that has ever happened in all of history is the incarnation of the Son of God, and the only way to partake of that newness and break out of the going around in circles of sinful men trying to take motes out of everybody else’s eyes while laser-focused on error themselves is by being grafted into the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” (The Nicene Creed) that Jesus founded while in the flesh and which has continued uninterruptedly from then on.
Admittedly, its history has been patchy and not very pretty some of the time, but neither has it been without multitudes of men and women of passions like ours who led lives that were truly exemplary throughout its history, and that the Lord has been adding daily to their number those who are being saved (Acts 2:47). I freely admit that buttons are missing on its vest today, but if you have found a church anywhere on earth making the same claims and having all its buttons intact, please let me know.
On the point of sexual misconduct, it’s interesting to contrast RZ with Billy Graham. I remember reading about the latter that he made it a matter of standard policy to never be alone with any woman other than his wife at any time or under any circumstances. Every single encounter with the opposite sex was scrupulously chaperoned. Maybe one reason RZ didn’t do that or perhaps didn’t take sexual issues as seriously as BG was the way public opinion in general changed on that during our lifetimes. We are all children of our age.
I’ll be forever indebted to NT Wright for opening my eyes to the concept of worldview. Basically, it can be compared to the glasses you look through when you look at the world around you. I think that “invisible gorilla” experiment might also apply here. The world doesn’t change, but what we see is definitely affected by how we look at it and what we are looking for. NT Wright maintains that all of us in the West have what he called an “Enlightenment worldview,” one we inherited from the “enlightened” people of the 17th century who posited that reason, not God, is the ultimate authority.
I wish I were well versed enough to give a decent summary of the last few centuries of history in western civilization. I’m afraid mine is pretty sketchy and not at all adequate, but in a few words, among many other things, ideas began back in the enlightenment that gradually led to the sexual revolution of the 60s, and I think it’s safe to say that most people of our generation subscribed to it. I sure did, just speaking for myself.
So it was not terribly difficult for me to take it on board when the Family fit it in to its basically fundamentalist version of protestant Christianity. It made sense to me at the time. It was only after getting well underway with my DIY study of Christian doctrine and history afterwards that I realized you couldn’t do that and still consider yourself a Christian, even in the most generic sense of the term. The scriptural definition of adultery/fornication simply did not give you that kind of wiggle room.
I thought “New Improved Truth” was a pretty clever and accurate way to describe what we had found and were doing, but as I have gotten a little more perspective on things, I’ve seen that even though I still believe we truly began as a movement of the Holy Spirit, due to our lack of accountability to the greater Christian world, both present and past, we were unable to sustain substantial growth, sort of the way you can cross a horse and a donkey and come up with a mule but that mule can’t reproduce. Similarly, you can cross Christianity with the spirit of the age and come up with something that looks convincing and is actually alive, but it can’t reproduce, and innovations like that are not really improvements. (I do also believe that all things work together for good and that good can come from anywhere, God is that awesome. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.)
I came across another post from Abbot Tryphon yesterday (see attachment, “Evangelical and apostolic faith”) that expresses pretty well the distinction between the kind of safeguards and structures on offer most places today and the kind the Orthodox Church is offering.
Sergio: I would have more sympathy for him if all he did was to have sexual escapades throughout his ministry, but he was very manipulative and even blackmailed some of his victims, which goes beyond sexual escapades. But I think his greatest sin was hypocrisy. For some reason I find in the Scriptures that God in the OT and Jesus in the NT find hypocrisy the greatest offense. Ravi wrote books and gave so many sermons on marriage, fidelity, etc., and portrayed himself as a symbol of integrity while at the same time he was exploiting the spiritually and economically poor women he had a relationship with. Without becoming cynical --a path many have taken in the late years of their life --Tolstoy, Bardot, Salinger, etc. -- I find it safer to admire the works of man when they are worthy of admiration instead of admiring the man, which can only be done superficially because God is the only one who truly knows their heart. It's a safer way not to get disappointed. Even Billy Graham, who as you mentioned was so careful to protect his marital life, wasn't too careful with other lives when he spent the night praying with Bush senior for his success in bombing Iraq the next morning, all under a false narrative, resulting in enormous civilian casualty. The Scriptures don't say that some men have a desperately wicked heart, it says "the heart of man." It reminds me of one of Ravi's anecdotes about Billy Graham and Konrad Adenauer when Graham was visiting post-war Germany. Adenauer asked if Graham believed in the hope of Christ and when Graham responded positively, the Chancellor looked from his window and contemplated the destroyed city of Berlin's said, "He is the only hope I find in life."
David: Regarding the power of sin and the state of the world, summed up pretty well by Paul when he said “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived (2Tim 3:13), I have heard it said in a few different places that towards the end things will have gotten so bad that the person who merely keeps the faith and does not apostatize will be of a spiritual stature like that of those who could raise the dead in earlier times.
Tom: I agree, Sergio, that it’s easier to give a pass for lesser sins, or what we can kind of attribute to stumbling in a moment of weakness, stretch it even to repeated stumbling in a weak area or an addiction, but then it becomes hard to accept when it’s this kind of premeditated/repeated preying upon the disadvantaged and at the same time pontificating with powerful sermons that turn out to be hypocritical at the same time. “Woe unto you teachers,” was certainly not uttered without reason. I guess I understand now a little more Rod Dreher’s wondering if it’s a psychosis or if RZ was even truly Christian. (Turns out I’m the SR one as regards Rod. Ah well, nothing new to see here).
That said, it’s helpful to try to plumb the situation for its lessons. I think for me, I wonder though if where I want to draw a line because of the severity of the sin, or the distastefulness of it, or the fact that it’s someone on my team and who I cringe to discover or who I’m sad because it adversely affects the Great Commission, is still not where the Lord draws any line. Kind of brings to mind some of the principles William Young tries to bring out in The Shack, that sin is sin and grace is bigger and more comprehensive than we can imagine.
David, I appreciate your sharing of what you have found in Orthodoxy. In another set of circumstances I might have easily traveled the same path. I’m happy that it’s given you the spiritual encouragement and home that it’s given you. That’s a great thing!
Sergio: Good points, Tom. It had come to my mind exactly the verse you got: "Woe unto you teachers." All we can do is hope that the confused sheep won't throw everything out and that those personally affected by him will find some comfort in the Lord and friends.
A good weekend to all.
Grant: 2 Corinthians 4:7 "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us" OR as per the NIV version: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."
I have a lot of respect for Ravi and Rod; I like and agree with most of their writings/teachings, and though learning about RZ's implosion was massive, I was equally saddened by RD's article/reaction. In my mind in their raw elements there's no difference in gravity. Regardless of explanations it seems that, yes, Ravi should've safeguarded himself (as all leaders in similar shoes should), but Rod should have extended an olive branch of grace as well. Nothing worse than self-righteousness ... I said--but like David quoted, "I've come to the stage in my spiritual life in which I know nothing whatsoever about the spiritual life."
"To whom much is given, much will be required."
My friends, ask gladness from God. Be glad as children, as birds in the sky. And let man's sin not disturb you in your efforts, do not fear that it will dampen your endeavor and keep it from being fulfilled, do not say, “Sin is strong, impiety is strong, the bad environment is strong, and we are lonely and powerless, the bad environment will dampen us and keep our good endeavor from being fulfilled.’’
Flee from such despondency, my children! There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan's pride and murmuring against God.
Why does humility lead up to the heights of righteousness, whereas self-conceit leads down to the depths of sin? Because anybody who thinks he is something great, even before God, is rightly abandoned by God, as one who thinks that he does not need His help. Anybody who despises himself, on the other hand, and relies on mercy from above, wins God’s sympathy, help and grace. As it says, “The Lord resisteth the proud: but He giveth grace to unto the lowly” (Proverbs 3:34).
Commentary on the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee: A case study in how to and how not to think of oneself. In our day (and perhaps in any day, although the difference in our day is that technology and media bolster bad attitudes and try to squelch good ones) conceit clouds the minds of most people. It is a rare person who can honestly see themselves for what they are. This is only possible for the humble.
Another side of conceit is self-loathing. Our world is also inundated by this passion. To “despise oneself”, as St Gregory describes, is not the same as having “poor self-esteem”. The true Christian knows that he is a sinner, above all other men, and yet has confidence in God’s mercy, because God sees his humility and comforts him.
It takes a lifetime to learn this lesson.