A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLIII.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLIII. December 27, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“God is good, dispassionate and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, while turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure.”[1] We shouldn’t think of God in human terms, thinking of human passions for him, looking for pleasure the way we do.[2] “He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same.”[3] When we do good, we become united with God, while when we do evil, we find ourselves away from him.[4] “It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us, and expose us to the demons who punish us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.”[5]

The eternal act of God is the unchanging good act of love. As St. Gregory of Nyssa relates, our faith denotes many things about God, including “the idea of His Goodness, His Justice, His Omnipotence: that He admits of no variableness nor alteration, but is always the same; incapable of changing to worse or changing to better, because the first is not His nature, the second He does not admit of; for what can be higher than the Highest, what can be better than the Best?”[6] God does not change, for there is nothing in him which needs changing and any alteration of himself would move him away from the perfection that he already has. His being as well as his act is eternal, and he gives all of himself in that eternal act of love.

While God does not change, we do, and in our changing, our relationship with God changes. In this fashion, it will appear God is changing – but the appearance is really a reflection of our own state and our own change. If we move around a mirror, we will see different images; the mirror is not changing, but our perspective is. It is like this with God. Our shifting perspective of the eternal God changes according to our spiritual position in the world. The closer we move to him, the more we will see the goodness and light, the mercy and grace, the love which he is giving to the whole of creation. The further we move away, the darker the image, the more obscure it will be, and the more frightening it might appear to us as what we see becomes monstrously distorted. If we put something between ourselves and God, if we sin, that will also appear in the reflection, showing its true, dark character as it hinders our vision of God.  The consequences of our action will show up – not because God is changing his action toward us, but rather, because we have changed our action toward him and we see God in that new, distorted perspective. The wrath of God is really the reflection of the evil we create, while the love of God is the undistorted image of God which we experience as we move closer to God and put away anything, any sin, which would hinder our vision of him.

Scripture reflects the real experiences of people with God. However, to understand it, we must understand the shifting nature of the human relationship with God meant that, at an earlier stage of the progression, things will be seen in God which are not God. Scripture speaks truly of encounters with God and the ways people experienced God, but we must understand the nature of the human experience and so not treat the words as literal. They represent spiritual truths, and so are worthy of being preserved. They are indeed inspired. But they are inspired through a human medium and we must not forget this. “For ourselves, however, whenever we read of the anger of God, whether in the Old or the New Testament, we do not take such statements literally, but look for the spiritual meaning in them, endeavouring to understand them in a way that is worthy of God.”[7]  We must remember just as, “all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, ”[8]   so to when we see God acting in Scripture, it is a reflection of the one eternal act of God and words which indicate change in God are symbolic of our changing experience with him.

We must remember God is love, God is all-merciful, God is all-loving, and God is working for the salvation of everyone. He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45 RSV). But is actions, his act of love, shows that he sides with the poor, the needy, the oppressed. He seeks to lift them up. Those who stand against him will find the consequences of their action, of their sin, as they move further and further away from God and see only the reflection of sin in their lives. The hate, the anger, the wrath they will see is their own. God does not hate or even have anger towards the oppressor. He loves them, but in his love, because he loves all, he rejection their sin, he rejects their unjust treatment of others and requires them to change and purify themselves if they want to see him as he truly is. Their experience will be like that of a young child being sent to their room: they might feel as God does not love them, but God does, and he has given them what they desire, with all the darkness and loneliness that comes from it. They can come back to God, just as children can come out of their room, if they change their ways. They must overcome themselves if they want to see God face to face and know him for the love which he is, but if they get stuck in themselves, they will only see coming from God the visage they put on him, the visage of their own sin.

God does not want fake reverence. False piety might encourage respect among one’s peers, but in one’s relationship with God, it only turns one further and further away from him. The praise given by others is the reward they sought and the reward they get; since they do not seek God, but only appear to seek God, they will be far from God despite their prideful boasts. He is not swayed but rather, waits for the person to be swayed to actually seek him and come to him. The proud sinner will find in God retribution for their pride, while the humble will find in their humility the love of God, as St Caesarius of Alres points out: “Because the proud are stiff-necked. Therefore, realize that only the proud will be struck with this blow. Those who are humble should thank God and remain in humility to the end of their lives. Thus, the blessing of the angels and patriarchs and prophets and apostles and all the Scripture will come upon them, as is given to all who persevere in humility.”[9] To encounter God stiff-necked and proud is to feel as if one is encountering an unbending, unchanging force which repels such pride. To encounter God in humility is to be pliant and so capable of uniting with God, because one is able to be moved according to the good direction of providence instead of demanding and insisting on one’s own limited plans. The harm in the encounter comes from the stance of the one who comes face to face with God, not from God who is attempting to move us for our own good so as to be united in him in a way which brings us the best, most happy outcome possible.

The distinctively Origenist aspect of this passage is exactly the kind of sentiment we should expect from St. Anthony if Samuel Rubenson is correct about the Origenist influence on Anthony. “To Antony, as well as to Origen, it is the spiritual meaning, allegorized in the text, that is of importance. The Bible is the story about how God as Creator cares for man and acts to restore him to his original constitution, how he seek to resurrect man’s spiritual essence, i.e., to restore order and knowledge.”[10] One influenced by Origen for their spirituality is to understand God in this fashion. The immutability of God must be preserved, and the way this is preserved is to highlight the mutability of the human condition. History is the record of humanity as it changes its relationship with God, not about God’s changing ways with humanity. It shows us how and why certain acts lead us closer to or further from God. For this reason, this reads as authentically Anthonite, as long as one understand Anthony as being influenced by Origen and his spirituality being a reworking of Origen’s spiritual principles.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 352 (#150).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 352 (#150).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 352 (#150).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 352 (#150).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 352 (#150).

[6] St Gregory of Nyssa, “Letter XVII” in NPNF2(5): 543.

[7] Origen,On First Principles, 100.

[8] St John of Damascus, “On the Orthodox Faith” in NPNF2(9): 13.

[9] St. Caesarius of Arles, “Sermon 48” in St. Caesarius of Arles Sermons 1-80. Trans. Sister Mary Magdalene Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 248.

[10] Samuel Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, 72.

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