Success & Failure!
Have you ever thought of how ‘coincidental’ it is that we are so successful in our lives when we are close to God, and how things always seem to go wrong no matter how hard we try, when we’re not very close to Him? It is no coincidence – our successes and triumphs depend wholly on the direct intervention of God in our hearts, based on our faithfulness and proximity to Him; "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (Jas 4:8).
When we sin against God, we immediately forfeit His presence or our existence with Him (sin = separation from God). His Holiness Pope Shenouda states that when a person commits a sin, he is not in a state of being aware of God’s presence…God is not before his eyes, or in his thoughts or heart…Such a person is actually in a state of being cut off from God, because light can have no fellowship with darkness.
When this happens, the grace and power of God is withdrawn from us, and we are left to stumble and face defeat from our adversaries on our own, since we have turned our backs and rejected our God. We lose our insights and wisdom in our hearts, which God had graced upon us, and as a result we fall into a cycle of error after error (hence failure), as we are left as the weak humans that we are, without our God.
Our Lord provided a practical example of this in the defeat of the people of Israel against the village of Ai: “There are devoted things in the midst of you, O Israel; you cannot stand before your enemies” (Josh 7:13). “I will be with you no more unless you destroy the devoted things from among you” (Josh 7:12); “Israel had sinned, they have transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things [by reason of the lust for possession and the pleasure of ownership]; they have stolen and lied, and put them among their own things” (Josh 7:11). Also, the depth of the separation from God was evident when Cain cried out to the Lord saying, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today You are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from Your presence.” (Gen. 4:13-14).
When a person goes far away from God, they feel that God is far away from them, and in such a state, the sinner cries aloud saying, “Do not cast me from Your presence nor take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Ps. 51) and “Do not hide Your face from me,” (Ps. 27:9). Also in this state of separation from God, a person will experience feelings of fear; and fear does not come from faith. Thus the psalmist would say, “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).
For those who have dedicated their lives to God, lack of purity is a transgression against God's covenant and a robbery of what they had offered to God in His holy altar the day they offered their life to Him. In the same manner, cessation of prayer and fulfilment of the commandments of worship is held against the dedicated person as an apostasy from fellowship with the living God.
It is a setback to dependence on the self apart from God rather than dependence on Him, and on sheer works, apart from the living faith: "far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you” (I Sam. 12:23). Here ceasing to pray is portrayed as a sin aimed directly against God. "But my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him" (Heb. 10:38).
It is for this reason that the cessation of regular and fervent prayer and that of a strong and close fellowship with God in the confidence of faith, results in the withdrawal of God; His presence, and of His power and help. Then the enemy is free to continuously provide opportunities for us to fall into error and sin, without any Divine power standing in his way; and when the enemy strikes, those who rely on themselves are repeatedly defeated. Their lives are exposed as being without aid and they appear naked, and unclothed of grace.
Also, in the same manner, lack of confessing our sins stands as an insurmountable barrier for God to return to our hearts. When one has an unconfessed sin lying in their heart, it blocks the way for our Lord Jesus to enter, and so they continue living a life of dryness and emptiness, not experiencing the joy of true fellowship with God, until they have cleared their heart of all sins for our Lord to return and reside there. Once again, we see an example in Israel's defeat before Ai: the endurance of God's wrath until the cause of sin and lawlessness which is in us is openly exposed and punished. Only then, when the sin was removed, could the people return to their power and victory in the Lord's presence. This is a practical way of life for us to live in order to experience God’s presence continually in our lives; not until we besiege our soul, acknowledging its sin and transgression, will God return to his mercy and grant us His power again. The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ has been dearly paid as a price for every sin which we confess in sorrow, grief, and regret: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Jn. 1:9).
Thus we can conclude that through sin, (which is separation from God), we lose His grace and our fellowship with Him, and are left to stand against the enemy with our weak human nature, thus causing error and failure, unless we free ourselves from the sins, and regain the right to be placed back into God’s presence and His hands.
When our God finds us ‘knee-deep’ in failure because of our sins, and our separation from Him, He is eager to comfort us, His children, and make us aware of His presence, from which we had edged away, during all our adversities. At the time of sin, God is very often surrounding us, in order to save us from it, just as He surrounds us in a time of danger or fear, in order to rescue us. But unfortunately we may not feel God’s hand touching us to rouse us or strengthen us. This is evident in St Augustine’s profound words, “ O Lord, You were with me, but I, because of my great distress, was not with You.” The presence of God is one thing, but feeling His presence is something else; and it is something which we are stripped of when we sin against Him.
We cannot experience and enjoy true success unless God Himself dwells within our hearts. Our Lord hates sin, and so, He uses many ways to get us to realise the reasons for our fall, and to rise up and return to Him, with repenting hearts. “Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5), and “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains [i.e. the weakness of the flesh] and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rev 3:1-3). These apparent threats actually spring from the amazing and over- bountiful love of our God. He does not wish that the sinner die in their sin, but instead, for them to repent and live. God ‘threatens’ us, not because He hates us, but because He hates the sin to which we cling, and seem to be inclined to act upon, and so, He hides his face from us so that He no longer sees us nor we Him. He loves us and has paid the price of our salvation, and now He only wishes us to enjoy His company and rejoice in Him and in His strength: "for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh 8:10); "rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men" (Prov 8:31); "peace among men with whom He is pleased" (Lk 2:14).
When a person feels that God is with them, it gives them strength and confidence. Thus God’s mercies and comfort make a person aware that God is with them, so that they feels comforted and take courage, and feel emboldened in their heart by God’s grace, to face every hardship. They no longer fear their enemies, however powerful they may be.
The perpetuity of success has a prerequisite: the perpetuity of God's presence, joy, and strength inside our hearts and minds. This requires constant pruning and examining of the soul and all that moves in our hearts and minds. Only when our hearts and minds are kept from going loose in the world is the enemy denied any chance to plant his tares in the mind or heart, and we are saved from losing God's company, His strength, the joy of our salvation, and our dedication is not concluded as being in vain. It is impossible to keep in God's company while continually fondling sin, as it is impossible to drink of both the cup of Christ and of Satan (we can only worship one true God). The perpetuity of success is therefore also the perpetuity of repentance, of watching over one's heart and thought in continual prayer. Our Lord commanded us to pray at all times for no reason other than to live continually in the mystery of His existence, strength, and joy. He warned us, "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation" (Mt 26:41), for there is no better immunity against temptation than prayer. Constant prayer, in the heart, in God's presence, is a blaze of fire which burns up the passion and all the pleasures of the flesh. The Lord said, "I came to cast fire upon the earth" (Lk 12:49).
St. Paul the Apostle revealed the secret of the connection between prayer and joy and thankfulness, "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). The endurance of joy springs from the endurance of success which spurs the soul on to the endurance of thankfulness. The only weapon is ceaseless prayer; true prayer is never interrupted except by sin. No matter how much time is consumed in good works, especially those toward others, prayer is never interrupted.
Nothing quenches the fiery Divine love created by the Lord's presence except the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, for "friendship with the world is enmity with God" (Jas 4:4).
Therefore, the secret of constant success is within our reach. Our Lord invites us to it as if by a covenant with us: "Lo, I am with you always" (Mt 28:20); "I will not leave you desolate" (Jn 14:18); "having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end" (Jn 13:1). St. Paul, who considered himself the foremost of all sinners, became sure of this promise of the Lord, and so he said confidently, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).
May the Lord grant us that we may forever remain in His presence, and live a spiritually successful life with Him, guiding us to the ultimate Heavenly success, Amen.
- Being with God; 3rd edition (1998); H.H. Pope Shenouda III
- Lord, How? : Contemplations on Psalm III; 2nd edition (1992); H.H. Pope Shenouda III
- Return to God; 3rd edition (1998); H.H. Pope Shenouda III
- Life of Faith; 3rd edition (2000); H.H. Pope Shenouda III
- Is there a Divine Justice? - By Fr Tadros Malaty
- St Mary & St Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church:
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