The Antidote to the Temptation of Novelty

16 December 2021

Man has always had the temptation of novelty, for he is by nature a dynamic being. There is an inherent aspiration in the human soul that always seeks for something new. The spirit of man cannot remain static without falling into despondency: without the dynamics of life in God, he becomes bored and is drowned in despondency. Thus, he always needs to grow, to learn something new. Saint Paul says that we are destined for the increase of God (Col 2:19). Man acquires this increase of God when he makes continually a new beginning in his spiritual life. Man has this innate potential of being dynamic, but because he does not have the proper orientation to fulfil it, he suffers the temptation of being wasted in always seeking for false substitutes, for perpetual but created novelty, such as technology, philosophy or things of this world which do not impart any knowledge of God but end at the grave. He constantly strives to acquire some stability in his life, and he is satisfied when he achieves it, but this satisfaction is in fact enslavement to despondency.

The only time this constant renewal of life in the world is useful and blessed, is when at every new discovery in science or in arts, we stand before God with this novelty and say: ‘We thank You, Lord, for having given us this means to facilitate our sojourn on this earth.’ If every time we conquer a new domain of life through science, through arts or through the created mind of man, we give thanks to God, then we are blessed, and we will surely use the resulting achievements for the benefit of all. Unfortunately, however, most of the time, instead of blessing God, we chase Him from that area of our life, thinking that now we are great, now we know better, now we can live without God, and so that novelty becomes a curse.

We are in great need to understand the true dynamics of life, because more than ever before, modern man suffers from the temptation of novelty, looking down on faith as being a static phenomenon, boring, conservative, never changing, traditional. There is the line of demarcation between the despondency of the children of this world and the inspiration of the children of God.

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth and placed Adam and Eve in Paradise, commanding them to ‘work and keep’ the garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 2:15). Yet, the Lord says that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us (Luke 17:21), and we have the same commandment, to work and keep it. In other words, if we continually strive to come closer to the Lord, ‘working’, that is, ‘tilling’ our heart, uprooting all the weeds, receiving and keeping therein the traces of His grace, then there is dynamic life. The more we ‘work and keep’ Paradise, the more life in the Spirit increases. ‘For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath’ (Mark 4:25).

The idea of dynamic increase in God, in His righteousness, in His holiness, was already present in the Old Testament, where righteous spiritual life was considered to be running the way of the commandments: ‘I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou shalt enlarge my heart,’ says the long Psalm (Ps. 119:32). In Paradise, before the fall, God set Himself before man for emulation. Man only needed to look upon the Face of God and do his work, for he knew what was perfect, he knew the purpose of his coming to this world being created in the image and likeness of God. After the fall, however, man was bereaved, desolate and disorientated, having lost the vision of the Living God. He was now afraid of God’s presence, for he had the consciousness that it is impossible to see God and remain alive. In the New Testament things became more palpable, more tangible, more concrete in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. When He came and assumed human nature from the Holy Virgin, He brought again to the world the Face of the eternal Father (John 14:9) so that man be no longer lost, but have Him as his example for emulation, by running the way of His commandments. Saint Paul also speaks repeatedly about this dynamic increase in God. In the Epistle to the Philippians, he says that ‘I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:12). In other words, ‘I run in order to catch Him Who first caught me.’

The antidote to the temptation of novelty is to be renewed continually, to make a new beginning every day in order to receive new mercies from God, for the mercies of God are always new in the morning, as the prophet says (cf. Lam. 3:22-23). Then we sing to Him ‘a new song’ (Ps. 96:1) of gratitude and love. We are not even supposed to be constant in spiritual life, so we should not be discouraged when we see that we go up and down all the time, because then we make a constant effort not to stay low for very long. God is training us for a great mystery, teaching us to make a new beginning every day. This is how we learn His way: we go down and from there we rise up, and this passage from darkness to light is our personal Easter. By withdrawing His grace from us and ‘forcing us’ in a way to make a new beginning, God enables us to know this mystery of the way that leads to the eternal Passover, the mystery of the Day of the Lord which Abraham saw and rejoiced (see John 8:56).

Christian life is a dynamic life. True inspired Christians are never satisfied with what they achieve but always strive for the perfection that God set before them, according to the words of Saint Paul: ‘Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:13-14). Man lives worthily his destiny and his increase in God only when he strives for his sanctification day by day. We read in the New Testament that man must grow from faith to faith (Rom. 1:17), from hope to hope, from one fulness of love to greater fulness of love – there is a continual increase in his life.

Even the Lord said to Nathaniel: ‘Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.’ This is the continual initiation and growth in the mystery of God, wherein man sees ever greater things (John 1:50-51) and deepens his knowledge of the mystery and love of God. So, unless man strives continually for sanctification day by day perfecting holiness in the fear of God, he will not escape the temptation of novelty, being consumed with the cares of this life and wasting the precious time of salvation which he was given in order to redeem it and make it eternity, in order to prepare for the grandiose and wonderful meeting with his Creator.

Saint Paul says that salvation happens ‘in accordance with the power that worketh in us’ (Eph. 3:20). If this is the power of God, then how conscious can we be of this increase? We pray God to help us see our own sins, we do not ask Him to show us where the increase is in our life so that we can give thanks. The three categories of people from the parable of the Great Supper will be able to see an increase in their limited created life. The one who bought the land, will see the harvest. The one who married a wife, will see his child come to life. In spiritual life, too, if we do our work properly, we will see the fruit. Saint John of the Ladder says: ‘Thirst and vigil afflict the heart, and when the heart is afflicted the waters flow.’[1] When we fast and hunger for God, our heart is constrained, but through that godly constraint come rivers of tears that cleanse and sanctify us and bring us the joy of salvation. God never leaves Himself ‘without witness’ (Acts 14:17), He always gives tokens of His presence and of His life.

All the commandments of the Lord have this aspect. When Christ says: ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted’ (Matt. 5:4), we begin to mourn, but as we weep, we receive consolation, we are blessed and comforted with the comfort of the Holy Comforter. This is how spiritual progress comes naturally. Certainly, we do not think about seeing the grace, power and increase of God in us when we pray. We are only mindful of how to cleanse ourselves from ‘any thing that defileth’ (Rev. 21:27), of how to heal our soul from the pestilence of sin. Yet, while we continue in this struggle, in an imperceptible, secret way, that increase takes over, for ‘The kingdom of God cometh without observation’ (Luke 17:20).

Saint Gregory of Sinai says that, in the world to come, saints and angels never cease increasing in God but go from one fulness of perfection to a greater fulness of perfection. Thus, salvation is a dynamic increase in God. Saint Sophrony balances this theory by also adding the aspect of stability or ‘eternal rest’, in line with the teaching of Saint Maximus the Confessor.[2] He says that in the New Testament, especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews, salvation is also presented as eternal blessed repose in the Spirit of God. He writes:

This spiritual life of the Christian is of an exclusively dynamic nature. Never static, its manifestations are innumerable. On the one hand this demonstrates its amplitude. On the other, it is an indication of the perfection we have not yet achieved: in the life of the very Divinity of the Holy Trinity the dynamic and the static merge into a unity that passes our understanding. And this unity contains the real stability as promised to all who genuinely repent. The world is fast approaching the moment when ‘we shall all be changed… in the twinkling of an eye’; when ‘the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’; when ‘things that are shaken… are removed that those things which cannot be shaken may remain’ [cf. I Cor. 15:51-2; II Pet. 3:12; Heb. 12:26-28; Rev. 21:1]. To man will it be given to dwell in Divine fastness. And this is verily ‘eternal rest’.[3]

The two aspects, therefore, go hand in hand: there is a dynamic increase but there is also a perfect spiritual repose at every stage. There is no psychological anxiety or anguish at any point of man’s increase in God. Whether he has little, great or infinite grace, he never has any anguish, but feels blissfully accomplished at the measure of grace he has been given. Both aspects are present in salvation, the dynamic and continual increase in God and the perfect repose in God beyond the curtain of this life. This helps us understand better the Orthodox theory on redemption, which is not legalistic but dynamic.

Christ did not save us by bargaining with the Father and offering a sacrifice in order to appease His wrath. He saved us by coming to earth, living among us and going through all the circumstances of this life. He filled every part of creation with the energy of His grace. He filled the waters of Jordan with the grace of His Epiphany. He filled the earth by living among men and conversing with them. When He was risen from the dead, He ascended from the earth ‘slowly’, as Saint Nicolas Cabasilas shows, in order to fill the aethereal space with His energy. Thus, the Lord filled all the states of life in this world with the saving energy of His Person, so that man can meet Christ and be saved under any conditions, no matter where he is and in whatever state he may find himself: in despair, in the desert, in the city, in utter disdain, in extreme happiness. This is a dynamic conception of redemption, about which Saint Athanasios the Great speaks in his treatise on Incarnation.

This idea of dynamic increase is compatible with the words of Saint Paul about our destiny and calling to be the temple of the Living God, which is being built up continuously by gathering the traces of grace in our hearts, especially through the three most important means: the Name of Christ, the word of God and the Mystery of His Body and Blood. Without the dynamics of spiritual life, we cannot be edified. Thus, being ‘edified’ or ‘built up’ as a temple of the Living God is another way of expressing the dynamic life of the spirit, by which we are continually perfected as saints, as Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Ephesians: the Lord has established and perfected the Body of the Church in history to which He imparted all the gifts of the Holy Spirit ‘for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:11-12). We must continually be perfected and increasing in order to accommodate these gifts of the Holy Spirit and become the living temple of God.

Man must live this continual increase in God already from this life, so that he can enter the true increase of God in the next, for the momentum that leads him to the Kingdom begins on earth. For this reason, what truly matters in man’s whole life in this world, is his relationship with Christ, wherein he unceasingly becomes instructed in the mystery of His Person. When man receives such knowledge and is edified continually in this relationship, he comes to know the depths of the mind of God, the deep things of God, which only ‘the Spirit searcheth’ (see 1 Cor. 2:10), and he thus becomes an initiate in the great mystery of God.

Christ is for us the eternal life, and when our relationship with Him is strengthened and increased, then we truly become rich and we have a strong hope for a rich entrance into His Kingdom: ‘And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent’ (John 17:3).

[1] The Ladder, Step 6:13.

[2] See Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Truth and Life, (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2014), pp. 42-43.

[3] Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), We Shall See Him as He Is, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, (Tolleshunt Knights, Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, 2004), pp. 62-63.