Thanks for everything

Praying Old Man
Detail from Praying Old Man by Julian Falat (National Museum, Warsaw; Wikimedia Commons)

Get this scene: A monk sits on a train. A fellow passenger approaches and offers him a cigarette. Monks aren’t much known to smoke, but this monk was once a soldier and gratefully accepts the gift.

Holding the slender item, the monk suggests to his benefactor that they should make the sign of the cross before they smoke. The man is torn. Isn’t it, he asks, improper to make the sign of the cross before smoking?

The monk answers that if an activity doesn’t square with the sign of the cross, then a person shouldn’t do it at all.

The statement of the monk (who, by the way, was St. Silouan the Athonite—it’s a true story) provides a helpful guide for quickly judging our actions.

Making the sign of the cross is a physical way to express thanks to God for something, to bless something, to offer it to God. It’s a prayer, as I’ve discussed before, and St. Silouan’s point should be read to include verbal prayers as well. Put it on a 3×5 card and keep it in your wallet:

If you can’t say grace over it, then you shouldn’t do it.

This is one of the things that underlies St. Paul’s discussion about the scruples and liberties of weaker and stronger believers.

“If I partake with thankfulness,” he says, “why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” The main takeaway from these passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians is that a believer with greater freedom should abstain in love if exercising his freedom causes another brother to fall. (Side note: I think it is an odd occurrence of our time that we appeal to these passages to support our freedoms—“all things are lawful”—but not our commensurate responsibility to love our neighbor, but that’s another blog post).

The thing to note is that for Paul the act of thanking God is central either way. This is particularly obvious in the Romans passage. Whether we’re the weaker or stronger brother, we should only do that for which we can offer thanks.

If you feel like you cannot thank God for an activity you’re about to undertake, if you feel like you cannot ask God to bless a particular task, then you probably shouldn’t do it at all.

Here’s a challenge: Any time you consciously do something today, try to thank God for it or ask him to bless it. If you are about to do something you know is wrong or doubt is right, does this change anything for you?

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  • (On the side note: I’m right there with you and have written frequently myself about the “with freedom comes responsibility” thing. We have that tendency though, it seems. To pick one piece and mentioning the other comes at the risk of being called legalistic and not understanding grace. But I’ll leave further comment for the future post. ;-))

    In the meantime, I like the thought that we could stop and ask if we would pray about the thing we’re about to do. It might help us more deeply understand that God is always with us too.
    All the best!

    • I think your mast point there is particularly important. I don’t know about others but I struggle to keep God in mind at times. Being watchful enough to be thankful could be a way of training mind and heart to stay focused on God throughout the day.

  • Joel,

    I love this! Not only does it help us reject what is unworthy, it cultivates gratitude for the many lovely gifts and opportunities each day brings. I’m gonna try it. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

    • Cultivating gratitude is so important. I think little exercises like thus just help us remember that we have to be mindful about the inclination of our heart through the day. Would love to hear how it goes.

  • Benita Teems

    Great post!

  • Kingsly

    My 3×5 card is ready with the following words…

    If you can’t say grace over it, then you shouldn’t do it.

    It has been 30 mins since i read this post and it has already helped me twice. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Wow. I love the story about St. Silouan. Excellent point.

    • The book I found it in, The Sign of The Cross, is a little gem. I really recommend it.

  • Jack Repenning

    There’s always the opposite risk, of course: in this case, there’s the risk of the sign and prayer becoming so habitual they’re meaningless, or the reflexive check of God and conscience becoming self-deception and self-endorsement. I think our best defense against all that is the body: frequently discussing these experiences with other believers, to get the benefit of someone else’s conversations with God.

    • That’s a good word. The fellowship of believers is the proper place in which to pursue holiness.

  • Joel, brilliant post. As Sheila said it helps us so much with grattude too. Appreciate you alerting me to the book The Sign of the Cross and the story of St. Silouan – I will carry the card and am sure benefit greatly from it. Thank you

    • As I mentioned above it’s a gem. I really found it to be helpful.

  • Good word! While I do not feel the need to cross myself, I really like the idea of approaching all things in an attitude of prayer. Thanks! – Not a Camouflaged Soul

  • Dalene

    Great post – I’m doing this starting now!

  • Great post Joel. It reminds me of “My Utmost for His Highest” which manage to be convicting, theologically profound, and highly practical in about 2 paragraphs, but of course with an Orthodox slant. I particularly enjoy how the Blessed Silouan manages to reach the soldier exactly where he is at, challenging the man’s faith without belittling a generous gift or humiliating the man. This is something we all need to learn to do when invited to participate in an unholy activity at work.

  • I hadn’t heard the story of the monk and the cigarette, but that’s a great story, and a great interpretation of Paul’s words. I think people almost get weary of the freedom that is available in Christ, and decide they just want a set of rules, a checklist to follow. Thus, Fundamentalism sprouts up so people don’t have to do all the work of interpreting what is permissible and profitable.

  • Is not this the “original sin”: man partook of something for which he could not be grateful as it had not been given to him?