Evangelism and the Ego
Fr. Stephen Freeman · December 6, 2012
In his recent series on the true and false self, Fr. Stephen looks at evangelism of the heart.
Do I have a responsibility to rescue the ego-driven narrative of your life? Does the gospel of Christ exist to confirm your opinions and strengthen your arguments against the threats of a world-gone-mad? How should we evangelize the neurotic? I use the term “neurotic” lightly, under the assumption that we can all be described by the term to a greater or lesser extent. The ego, as I’ve used it here and most recently in several other podcasts, refers to a false-self, created by our distorted thoughts and feelings:
Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego is a sense of self that slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed often as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), also as something of paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and just are simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without a trace”). This is the ego.
The problem we encounter with the ego is that it is often that part of ourselves which is presented to the world around us: the heart (nous), remains relatively hidden. And it is largely the ego that we meet in argument (both someone else’s as well as our own). Such an encounter is the meeting of two figments of the imagination, an event that is destined for non-existence.
Sharing the gospel of Christ with another human being is not intended for the ego. The ego can be very “religious,” but not to its salvation or the salvation of the heart. For it is in the heart, the “true self,” that we meet Christ. Effective evangelism is the difficult task of speaking heart-to-heart. Christ says this, from Matthew 13.:
Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
The ego never understands. This false self judges, compares, even “tries an idea on for size,” but never understands. Understanding is a function of the heart. The ego is riddled with anxiety. Its existence is often maintained indeed by constant anxiety. Cares and deceit will rob it of any true planting of the word. In truth, there is no soil in the ego. The heart is the place where we have “root” in ourselves. It is the seat of understanding. There, and there alone, the seed of the Kingdom bears fruit.
But to speak to the heart requires a word from the heart. The famous visit of St. Vladimir’s envoys to Byzantium is an excellent example. The story is relayed in the Chronicle of Nestor. It says:
Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices in which they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations for we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell here any longer.
“We cannot dwell here any longer.” These are the words of the heart. The famous encounter in Byzantium was with beauty – but beauty in such a manner that they said, “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”
My small parish doesn’t appear to be a Church from the outside. It is plain. We have given much work to its interior, that we might worship God in beauty. A recent evening visit by a couple surprised me. Walking into the Narthex, the woman began to weep, and said “What is that smell?”
“Incense,” I answered.
“It smells like heaven,” she said. She went on, opening her heart and expressing a desire to know more about the faith.
There is no argument or explanation that rivals the simple odor of Divine worship. It is, of course, true that the couple had come to the Church searching. And they were thus leading with their hearts. Where the gospel is effectively preached, the heart is speaking, and the speaker is listening to hear the sound of the heart’s own door opening. The Elder Paisios famously offered this observation. He says:
Often we see a person and we say a couple spiritual words to him and he converts. Later we say, “Ah, I saved someone.” I believe that the person who has the disposition and goodness within him, if he doesn’t convert from what we say, would convert from the sight of a bear or a fox or from anything else. Let us beware of false evangelization.
Our egos speak in order to hear themselves. We listen to our own “evangelization” and admire the argument and think ourselves to be “obedient” to the gospel, or to be doing a good work. God is so merciful that he takes words from us (using them like a “fox” or “bear”) and makes them into arrows for the heart. Those whose conversions follow such encounters are not the fruit of our efforts – they bear fruit despite our efforts.
Evangelization of the ego yields fragile converts. Their own ego-driven needs may create a great deal of energy, but with possibly destructive consequences. Fascination with fasts, feast days, cultural artifacts, correctness, all of these are things which interest the ego, and they create a pastoral nightmare and a parish riddled with conflict.
True conversion, which happens over an extended period, occurs as we learn to dwell in the heart. Such conversion is an equal requirement within the Church. When it comes to life in the heart, we are all “converts” at best. Glory to God.