Popular New Age thought postulates that everyone has a god within. It’s a pleasant way of saying that we’re all special while making “god” to be rather banal. But there is a clear teaching of classical Christianity regarding Christ within us, and it is essential to our Orthodox way of life. We should not understand our relationship with God to be an external matter, as if we were one individual and God another. Our union with God, birthed in us at holy baptism, is far more profound. In fact, Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:17).
God does not help us in the manner of encouraging us or simply arranging for things to work out. Rather, He is in us, working in union with our work. The mystery of ascesis, that is, the practice of prayer, fasting, self-denial, etc., only makes true sense for us in this context, that God himself works in us and through us. Those who look at Orthodoxy from the outside often accuse us of practicing “works-righteousness,” meaning that we believe we can earn favor with God by doing good works. This is utterly false. God’s good favor is his gift, and it cannot be earned.
However, the Orthodox life is similar to the life of Christ himself. In John 5, Christ says:
Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father do; for whatever he does, the Son also does in like manner.
And also, in John 14, he says:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father.
The “works” that a Christian does, are properly done in union with Christ, such that the works are not those of an individual, but of our common life with and in Christ. When we fast, it is Christ who fasts in us. When we pray, it is Christ who prays in us. When we give alms it is Christ who gives alms in us.
And we should understand that Christ-in-us longs to fast. Christ-in-us longs to pray. Christ-in-us longs to show mercy. The disciplines of the Church are not a prescription for behaving ourselves or a map of moral perfection. Rather, the commandments of Christ (as manifest in the life of the Church) are themselves a description, an icon, of Christ himself. John 14:
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him. We will come to him and make our home with him.”
Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, great Romanian theologian, said:
At the beginning Christ is, so to speak, buried in the commandments and in us, in the measure in which we are committed to them, by his power which is in us. By this collaboration we gain the virtues as living traits; they reflect the image of the Lord, and Christ is raised even brighter from under these veils. (Orthodox Spirituality)
This way of “union” is the very heart of Orthodox faith and practice. Sadly, much of Christianity has created an “extrinsic” view of our relationship with God and the path of salvation, as if I’m here and God is there, and this relationship is something between two separated individuals, as it were. In this, God is seen as exterior to our life, and our relationship with him being analogous to the individualized, contractual relationships of modern culture. As such, the Christian relationship with God is reduced to psychology and morality.
It is reduced to psychology in that the concern is shifted to God’s “attitude” towards us. The psychologized atonement concerns itself with God’s wrath. It is reduced to morality in that our behavior is no more than our private efforts to conform to an external set of rules and norms. We are considered “good” or “bad” based on our performance, but without regard to the nature of that performance. St. Paul says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Only our lives-lived-in-union-with-Christ have the nature of true salvation, true humanity. This is the proper meaning of being “saved by grace.” In Philippians, Paul says, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to do for his good pleasure,” and in 1 John we read:
You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
And in Colossians we read:
To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
There is a second part of this mystery (Christ in us) that presses its importance upon us. This is the suffering of Christ within us. Fr. Stăniloae, to quote him again, writes:
Jesus takes part in all our sufferings, making them easier. He helps us with our struggle against temptations and sin; he strives with us in our quest for virtues: He uncovers our true nature from under the leaves of sin. Quoting St. Maximus, he comments: “Until the end of the world he always suffers with us, secretly, because of his goodness according to [and in proportion to] the suffering found in each one.”
The Cross recapitulates the suffering and sin of humanity—it gathers it up—but it extends throughout the life and experience of all people. It is the foundation of Christ’s statement: “Inasmuch as you did it [or did it not] unto the least of these my brethren, you did it [or did it not] unto me.”
The hypostatic union of the Person of Christ extends into the life of every person. There is something of a perichoresis or coinherence in our daily relationship with Christ. 1 Corinthians, Paul says, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” This must be given the strongest possible reading. If any one of us suffers, Christ suffers. There is no specific human suffering to which Christ is alien.
It is the moment-by-moment pressing into this commonality, this koinonia, that is the foundation of Christian existence. It is the point of baptism (we are buried with him). It is the point of the Eucharist (“whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”). It is the point of every action and thought.
It is the life of grace. Glory to God.