In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I often hear people say that spiritually they’re still struggling with the first rung of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and one thing I would say about that is that we should all understand is that as long as we are sincerely struggling and trusting in God in his mercy, we can be saved, no matter how spiritually advanced we may or may not be. But I wonder how many people would say that they even know what the first rung of The Ladder is. If you look in the book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which was written by St. John Climacus, whose memory we celebrate today, you’ll find that the first step of The Ladder is the renunciation of the world.
And if you know anything about this book, you would know that the book is focused primarily on the monastic life, but it’s not just for monastics. But you might think when it talks about renouncing the world, that this is the first steps for monastics but maybe not for the laity—but that is not the case. If you pay attention to the high priestly prayer of Christ that we read on the Sundays of the Holy Fathers, you hear Christ saying that his disciples are in the world, but they are not of the world. That’s how we’re supposed to be. A monastic renounces the world in a particular way, but all Christians are supposed to be in the world but not of the world, so all of us are to renounce the world.
When we speak of the world in Scripture, there are different senses in which it’s used, usually one of three. One is the physical universe or the visible creation that we all see around us. The other one is the people that are in the world, in the verse that we all know, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believed in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God so loved the world—the people in the world. But there’s another sense, a negative sense in which the world is used, and that’s in reference to human society which is organized in opposition to God, and it’s characterized by base desires, false values, and selfishness in particular.
We certainly live in the physical universe, but we also live in a fallen society which is opposed to God, and we have to live in it; we don’t have any choice. We have to deal with the people in this world. St. Paul said we’d have to be out of the world, not to deal with the unrighteous that are around us. But we are not supposed to belong to this world; we’re not supposed to allow the world to suck us into its evils. We should not be worldly, which means to be like the world; we’re supposed to be governed by a different set of values. Different cultures can be more or less evil. The fact that you hardly ever hear the word “worldly” used any more in our culture today but I used to hear it all the time when I was a child would show that perhaps our culture has gone further away from God in my short lifetime.
St. John, in his first epistle, chapter two, beginning with verse 15, says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” That states it in pretty stark terms: if we love the world, we can’t love God. You can’t have it both ways. It’s not possible for the same person to have such contrary loves. The world glorifies satisfying the passions and seeking our own desires, seeking ourselves, self-actualization, and all that kind of stuff that you hear the psycho-babble gobbledy-gook that is popular in our culture. But this is the opposite of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. You can love the world, or you can love God and your neighbor, but you cannot love both.
James, in his epistle, chapter four, verse four, says it perhaps in more striking terms. He says, “You adulterers and you adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” Then St. John says, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” What does he mean when he talks about the lust of the flesh? We all have natural bodily desires that are not sinful. We get hungry, and we want to eat. We get thirsty, and we want to drink. We get tired, and we want to sleep. If we are cold, we want to be warm. If we’re hot, we want to get cool. Also, God has given all of us a natural desire to love and to be loved. We also have a natural desire to find a mate and to have children. All these things are not sinful in and of themselves, but when we talk about the lust of the flesh, what we’re talking about is a desire to satisfy these things in a way that is sinful, when we seek to satisfy ourselves in ways that hurt other people or which God has forbidden us to do.
For example, if I’m hungry, that’s natural, but if I eat excessively, in a way that’s not healthy, that’s sinful. If I want bodily comforts, that’s natural, but if I spend all of my life focused more and more on getting these bodily comforts, more than I really need, then it becomes sinful. Exactly where that line is is not always easy to discern, and it’s the reason why we always have to be on guard, because the line can be crossed very easily, very imperceptibly, and so it’s something that we constantly have to ask God to show us if there’s anything in our lives that we need to change, if there’s any way in us that is evil. If I want to have a wife and to love her and to be loved by her, that’s natural. If I simply seek to satisfy my sexual passions with whomever I have the opportunity to do that with, that’s sinful. If I enjoy the love of friends and family, that’s good and that’s natural, but if I live to be praised by others and to have my ego stroked constantly, this is sinful.
To avoid the lust of the flesh, we have to learn how to restrain our natural and good desires and to keep them from wandering into those things that are base, destructive, and selfish, which is one of the reasons why we as Orthodox Christians spend close to half of the year fasting: because we are trying to train ourselves to say no to one of the most basic natural desires that we have, which is to eat what we want. That’s a discipline that we are learning. It’s not inherently sinful to eat a Big Mac, but if you can learn to say no to a Big Mac during the fast, then you will start to develop the self-restraint to say no to other things that are more serious temptations.
When St. John talks about the lust of the eyes— We all have a desire to see. Even people who are born blind, they have a sense that there’s something missing, and they certainly would love to see. People pay a great amount of money if they’ve lost their sight to try to regain it. It’s seen as a great thing. It’s a blessing that we don’t appreciate unless we ever get to the point where we don’t have that ability. Then all of a sudden we realize what we had. But the lust of the eye is the desire to see and to know things that appeal to and feed the lust of the flesh.
In the Psalms we are told, “I have no unlawful thing before mine eyes.” That means we don’t put things before our eyes, we don’t seek out things that are going to tempt us. We don’t go looking for evil things. We don’t dwell upon base things. Psalm 118 tells us—it’s a prayer to God—“Turn away mine eyes, that I might not see vanity. Quicken thou me in thy way.” And St. Paul tells us in the epistle to the Romans, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but yield yourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.”
So our eyes are good, seen as a good thing, but we have to make sure that our eye doesn’t become an instrument of sin, but that we make it an instrument of righteousness, that we dwell on the good things, that we go looking for the good things, we spend our time doing good things and trying to learn new things that are good, not just things that are either evil or things that are just not worth our time. This is probably a problem that we have much more today than people of any previous generation, because now we can spend the entire day on the internet, looking for something new. And we might not be looking for porn, we might not be looking for anything evil, but if we just spend all our time on the internet, looking for things that are worthless, things that are occupying our time, that means that we’re not spending our time thinking about the things of God or doing the good things that we need to do.
We have to make sure that we’re not allowing ourselves to indulge in excess. One of the Desert Fathers said, “All things that are of excess are of the demons,” and that’s true of even good things. You can take fasting to such an extent that it becomes sinful, because you are filled up with pride and you are destroying your health. But it’s certainly true of how much time we spend in things that are wasteful in terms of our time.
When St. John talks about the pride of life— Pride was the sin that led the devil into rebellion against God. There is no virtue that pride cannot turn into a sin. Learning, achievements, beauty, skill—all of these things are good in and of themselves, but pride can distort these things into ugliness, arrogance, selfishness, and even good works and charity can be distorted by pride into a meanness to self-aggrandizement to make other people think better of us. Again, we don’t want to stop doing good because we are tempted to be prideful about doing good, but we have to watch our heart to make sure that we’re not allowing ourselves to fall into those traps.
St. Augustine compares the good things in lives that are distorted by the lust that St. John was talking about to a wedding ring that a bridegroom gives to his bride. God gives us all of these good things that the devil wants to distort, but how strange it would be, how foolish and evil it would be, if the bride came to love the ring more than her husband, if she put greater value on that thing that was a gift from her husband and ignored her husband himself. Then it would become a sinful thing. She should enjoy the ring. The ring is a great gift that her husband has given to her. But if she puts that above the husband, then it’s become a sinful thing. All the good things we have in this life are that way. All these things have their place, but they can’t be put before God.
Then he says, “And the world passeth away and the lusts thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” The question for us is: What do we want to attach ourselves to? Do we want to attach ourselves to things that are temporal, or do we want to attach ourselves to things that are abiding? As Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore, whoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him to a wise man which built his house upon a rock, and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock. And everyone that heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not shall be likened unto a foolish man which built his house upon sand, and the rain descended and the floods came and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
Let us cling to the immovable rock of Christ and not place our hopes in the sinking sand of the pleasures of this life. Amen.