Sermon: Saturday of the 1st Week / St Silouan the Athonite

Saturday of the 1st Week

St Silouan the Athonite

I Corinthians 4:1-5

In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul reminds us that God alone knows the things that are hidden in the heart of each person, and, consequently, that only He is fit to judge. While it is possible for us to discern what is objectively right or wrong, and to declare a particular action sinful or righteous based on what God has revealed to us both through Holy Tradition and through that law written on the heart of every human being (Romans 2:15), to presume to judge the heart of another person is not just impossible to do justly, since we don’t have all the facts — and remember that ‘with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged’ (Matthew 7:2) — but when we judge another, we in effect attempt to usurp the place of God. 

‘Who are you to judge another’s servant?’, St Paul says elsewhere, ‘To his own master he stands or falls’ (Romans 14:4), and so when we judge another, we assume the place of the master, we repeat that ancient error of Adam and Eve, who haughtily sought to become like God without God, which is what caused us to lose our freedom. And what St Paul says in today’s Epistle concerns the question of how we can regain that freedom, the freedom that comes from knowing that God alone is judge. 

“With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court […] It is the Lord who judges me”. In other words, he is no longer a slave to the opinions and judgements of others, trying to be who others want him to be; he is free to simply be himself, who he is supposed to be, knowing that God alone is judge.

It’s true that many people, especially later in life, come to realise that there is freedom to be found in not caring about what people think of you, and so it might not seem like much of a spiritual insight. And, of course, not caring about the opinions of others can often come from a place of arrogance: I don’t care what others think because only my opinion matters. 

However, St Paul is saying something very different: he is not saying that only his opinion matters, he is saying that only God’s opinion matters. What gives his words a spiritual character, a Christian character, is when he says that, “I do not even judge myself”. This statement is fundamental for any kind of spiritual progress.

What we just said about not judging someone else’s servant doesn’t only apply to not judging other people. I am also a servant of God, and therefore if I try to judge myself, if I make my own judgement the criterion by which I assess myself, I am again, in effect, putting myself in the place of God and turning myself into an idol. And when we say that God alone knows the heart, that includes my heart. How many people can claim to have true self-knowledge? I may have an awareness of what I’m thinking or feeling at any given moment, but can I really claim to know the depth of my own self? The truth is that our passions have dulled our spiritual senses and impaired our spiritual vision, while the endless thoughts streaming through a scattered mind leave us feeling confused and uncertain.

This is why the story of salvation in the Bible begins with renunciation: ‘Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). No spiritual progress and no freedom is possible until we relinquish our claim to God’s throne, until we learn to ‘entrust ourselves and one another and all our lives unto Christ our God’ rather than trusting in ourselves.

St Silouan the Athonite says that, “It is a great good to give oneself over to the Divine will. Then the Lord alone occupies the soul. No thought can enter in, and the soul, undistracted, prays to God, and is full of love for God even though the body be suffering. When the soul is entirely given over to the will of God, the Lord Himself takes her in hand, and the soul learns directly from God […] The proud man does not want to live according to God’s will: he likes to be his own master, and does not see that man has not wisdom enough to guide himself without God […] Life is much easier for the man who is given over to the will of God, since in illness, in poverty and persecution, he reflects thus: “Such is God’s pleasure” (p.333).

Elsewhere, he says that, “The obedient man has put his whole trust in God, wherefore his soul dwells continually in God, and the Lord gives him grace; and this grace instructs him in every good thing, and gives him the strength to abide in goodness. […] The obedient man has surrendered himself to God’s will, wherefore he is given the gifts of freedom and rest in God, and he prays with mind untrammelled; but the proud and disobedient cannot pray with a single mind […] The obedient man has given himself over to the will of God and has no fear of death, for his soul is accustomed to live with God, and loves God. He has excised his own will and so neither in soul nor body is he troubled by the conflict which torments the rebellious and self-willed” (Ibid., 4201).

What St Paul says about judgement, then, is not just about how we treat others, but how we approach God, and is an invitation to a life of freedom. So, whenever we are confronted by anything — a thought, a feeling, the stirrings of the passions, the actions of others — let us not be troubled, but in response simply say to ourselves, “It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time”. Amen.

Fr Kristian Akselberg