A SANE FAMILY IN AN INSANE WORLD
By Presbyter Seraphim Johnson
“Take heed to thyself, and keep thine heart diligently: forget not any of the things which thine eyes have seen, and let them not depart from thine heart all the days of thy life. And teach them to thy children and thy grandchildren.” —Deuteronomy 4:9.
The Fallen World is Insane.
God has given all men clear principles for living in the world He created. These principles are most clearly stated in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church and shown in the lives of the Saints, but they are also written in our hearts, as the Apostle Paul says. They are the truth about the world as it really is. But we don’t want to follow these principles because they hinder our living as we want to live. So we have two choices: “In the intellectual life, one either conforms desire to truth or truth to desire.”1 That is, we can adjust the way we live to bring it into agreement with the truth that God has revealed to us, or we can distort the truth to make it agree with the way we choose to live. One of these ways is sanity: to live in the real world made by God. The other way is insanity: to live in a fantasy world of our creation.
As Christians, we all would confess that the world is fallen; i.e., it has departed from God and the purpose for which He created it. The world is corrupt, bent, and perverted; it is no longer the true world which God created. But in our lives we act all too often as if this fallen world is the way God meant it to be. We proclaim the truth of the spiritual life with our lips, but in our hearts we are not really too sure that it is real. We are caught up in what our senses tell us, and we have trouble going behind them to see the spiritual reality of our fallen world, with the result that in our daily lives we forget the truth that this world is not our home. If our senses were reliable, it would not be so dangerous to depend on them, but because of the fall and our disobedience, our senses are corrupted. They do not show us the world as it really is, but rather they filter it through a screen of error and lies. The result is that we live in a world of fantasy. Of course, I don’t mean a world like Harry Potter or Star Wars. We know these worlds are fantasies, but we think we live in the “real world.” And we don’t.
Our fantasies tell us that we can have all the things we want, that we can live however we want, ignoring God and His commandments. God is an abstract concept in this fantasy, rather than the Source of everything and the Ruler of everything. In our blindness, we think we can live in ways He tells us not to, that we can fool Him and hide from Him; as the Psalmist says, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Ps. 13:1). Now, let us stop and think for a minute. What do we call someone who thinks he is all-powerful? Who thinks he can command the elements? Who thinks he is Napoleon, or Jesus Christ, or Alexander the Great? We call them “insane.” Insane because they are living in a fantasy world, a world which is unreal, a world of delusion. And yet when we deny God’s created world and live in our own made-up world, are we not just as insane?
This insanity is all around us. It informs the thinking of virtually all the “wise” men and women of this world. Those who have been the leaders of thought in recent centuries, who have laid the foundation for the world in which we live, have chosen to conform truth to their desires, rather than subjecting their desires to the truth. In doing this, they have taught false principles which have filtered into the thinking of almost every person in Western culture. As the English scholar C. S. Lewis notes: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”2
The characteristic of many of the founders of our modern world has in fact been uncontrolled sexual passion, expressed as adultery or homosexuality. Margaret Mead and Edward Sapir, the founders of the social science of anthropology, were adulterers and Mead was also a lesbian; they wrote their accounts of the lives of primitive people, supposedly unaffected by the evils of civilization and therefore displaying mankind in its “original” and “proper” form, to support their own immoral lives.3 Freud, the founder of the modern “talking therapy” psychoanalysis, which acts as a secular substitute for the Church’s Mystery of Confession, engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister-in-law for years, and based his Oedipus theory on his own sexual perversions.4 The father of modern economic theory, John Maynard Keynes, was part of a group of active, promiscuous homosexuals, and his economic theories encouraging deficits and debt have guided Western governments for decades.5 We could go on, citing examples from art, literature, the universities, etc. But the point is clear: the leading thinkers of our civilization chose their desires over the truth. And therefore, the leading thinkers of our civilization were truly and literally insane, out of touch with reality; and the world they created is insane, because it denies the reality of God and His Will.
There is another fact we need to note about the perverted thinking of these “leading intellectuals.” Homosexuals cannot have children, and adulterers above all do not want to have children. Both are strongly anti-child, because either they cannot have them, or having them might reveal their sinful way of life to the world. This anti-child attitude has several consequences. The first is shortsightedness. Having children is an investment in the future. When you have a child, you are participating in God’s plan for the continuation of the world. And you care about the future. You care what happens to your child, you care what kind of life your child will lead, you care what kind of world your child will live in. But when you have decided against children, your focus is on yourself and your own immediate desires. Who cares about the future, since “in the long run we will all be dead”? This is so vividly clear in Keynesian economic theory, which encourages building up huge debts through spending beyond one’s income so that the present life will be comfortable, but it has no concern for future generations that will inherit these debts.
The anti-child view of life is expressed in another way: children are a burden which we should try to be rid of. If the birth of a child would be inconvenient, the mother should have the right to kill it in the womb through abortion. Once the child is born, the parents should not allow themselves to be inconvenienced by it unduly, but should put the child in day-care as soon as possible, so the mother can return to self-fulfillment through working outside the home. It has become somehow wrong and even “sick” for a mother to prefer to raise her children, rather than to get rid of them as soon as possible and go back to work. Don’t sacrifice for your children; let them sacrifice for you! Again, disciplining children and raising them to be civilized rather than savages is difficult and time-consuming work. It interferes constantly with the parents’ self-fulfillment and enjoyment. So those who have absorbed the anti-child, anti-future way of thinking taught, for example, by the infamous Dr. Spock, ignore raising their children. The child is a burden to be ignored and shunned as much as possible. “Let the schools train them, let their peers train them, let anyone train them, but leave me alone!” And the result is children who have been ruined, who have no sense of being loved, who have no limits, who have no self-control because they have never been controlled. Children who are themselves insane, because they have been raised by insane parents who ignored their God-given responsibility to train up their children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6).
As the social philosophies of these insane thinkers have infiltrated all our institutions – schools and universities, art, movies and literature, political thinking, and even churches – they have taken over the minds of almost everyone living in Western civilization. Their insanity is plainly seen in many of our social policies. For decades we paid unmarried mothers a subsidy from the government, and then we were shocked to find more illegitimate children. We have a whole social and tax system which discourages marriage, and then we wonder why so many people live together without getting married. This is insanity! And, sadly, most Christians share in this insanity. Surveys by the Barna group show that 64% of all American adults and 83% of teenagers think there is no absolute moral truth, but that truth is relative to the individual; i.e., that we should conform the truth to our desires. But even more discouraging is the fact that only 32% of so-called “born again” Christian adults and 9% of “born-again” teenagers in America believe in moral absolutes.6 I wonder what the figures would be for Orthodox Christians. I fear they would not be much better. The Christian Task is to Restore Sanity.
Thanks be to God, though, for He has not abandoned us Orthodox Christians to insanity. Our Lord Jesus Christ was born into this insane world for one reason, and only for one reason: to restore fallen, insane human beings to sanity. True sanity is obedience to God. Sanity is taking your God-given place in the great fabric of creation and fulfilling the tasks God has placed before you. But for fallen, disobedient mankind, this is not possible. Only the God-Man Jesus Christ could restore the possibility of obedience to the fallen creation, and only through obedience can we become sane. “Let us remember that man’s body and soul are called equally. Both are to be united to God through virtue: to be sanctified, deified, glorified, and to manifest in this world God’s glory and the first fruits of the Kingdom through the transfiguring presence of the Spirit. ‘I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness’ (I Cor. 6:19-20). It is clear, according to the Apostle’s teaching, that the body’s proper and natural purpose is to be consecrated to God, to glorify God, and to be a bearer of the Holy Spirit, every bit as much as the soul with which it is united.”7 Before our Lord Jesus Christ, men created religions of their own to try to make the gods conform to their wishes. All the world’s religions are designed either to propitiate angry, capricious gods and keep them from harming people or to attract the gods’ favor so they will do what their worshippers want. In either case, they are another attempt to conform the truth to our desires, rather than our desires to the truth. We want to do what we want, but we fear we might offend the gods, so we come up with rituals and sacrifices to buy them off, to make them leave us alone. That way, we hope to be able to get away with living our own way and avoid their punishment. Or we think we can bribe the gods with our prayers, offerings, and rites so that they will do what we want. Many pagan religions have elaborate spells and rituals which supposedly can compel spirit beings to do what the magician or shaman wants. Their religion manipulates the gods so that they will allow men to live as they wish. Even the apparently higher religions like Buddhism are subtle ways of having one’s own will. The Buddhist who follows the higher, purer forms of his religion recognizes no god at all. He is on his own in the world. He may find certain principles of living which will supposedly detach him from the power of the world, but in the end he is living as he wishes with no authority over him.
The attraction Islam has for so many people at the present time is of the same sort. It has a set of external acts that must be performed: prayer five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, almsgiving, pilgrimage, avoiding alcohol, etc. These will satisfy Allah, and a man is then free to do what he wants, to be as vicious and power-hungry as he wants. God saw mankind following all sorts of religions, all of them derived from Satan, all of them in truth ways for human beings to try to conform the world to their desires. When he decided to rescue His fallen creatures, He revealed Himself to selected individuals: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. God gave the Jews the Law so that they might come to understand His nature and see their own disobedience, and be prepared for our Lord who would show them how to return to obedience. But they turned the Law into just another religion, another system for buying God off. They tabulated the rules, then they made additional rules, so that if you kept their new rules, you wouldn’t violate God’s rules. And if you kept all the rules, then you were worthy of God’s kingdom. But in fact, a Jew does not even have to believe in God; he just has to keep the rules. He can lie and cheat and deceive non-Jews, since the Law does not forbid this, and he is still a good Jew. All religions have the same purpose: follow the rules, and the gods/Allah/spirits will leave you alone and let you do what you want. That is, 98% of your life is your own, to live as you wish, so long as you give 2% to your rituals. But sadly, this is just more insanity.
Christianity, though, is not one more religion among all these others. Our Lord’s purpose was not to give us a set of rules and rites to follow to buy God off. He did not come to show us how to appease God, He came to show us how to please God. Christianity is not a set of rules, but a way of life designed to cure the sickness of disobedience. The purpose of Christianity is to change men’s hearts and minds so they are conformed to God and become healthy again as before the Fall. Christianity is not rules; it is life, it is sanity. It makes it possible for us to live a sane life in the world God has made. A Christian can never properly say, “There, I’ve followed all the rules, so God is in my debt and can’t punish me.” Insane followers of religions can say this (although they’re wrong), but all a sane Christian can ever say is, “I’m a sinner who has fallen short of God’s will for me.”8
Of course, this means that Christianity is hard, because it demands that we conform our wills to the world God has created. It would be so much easier to force the world to obey us! To use our religious rituals or our science to make the world the way we want it! But Christianity says that we have to do the opposite: we have to make ourselves the way God wants us. And we don’t want to do that. After all, that’s what the Fall was about in the first place: Adam and Eve wanted the world on their terms, not God’s. And even after Baptism, we continue to want the world our own way.
Because of this, Christians all through history have busily been converting Christianity into a religion. Seeing that it’s hard to transform one’s whole life through total obedience to God, they try to adjust Christianity, to make it a set of rules and rituals. Then they can follow the rules, and the rest of life is their own. So we take the need to pray always, and we turn it into reading prayers for 10 minutes in the morning and the evening. We take the need to deny ourselves, and turn it into fasting on Wednesday and Friday (or at least abstaining from certain kinds of food on those days, even though we still eat as much as we want). We take the need to live constantly in God’s presence, and turn it into a requirement to go to Liturgy for two hours on Sunday morning. We take the requirement to be holy, even as our God is holy, and turn it into the Ten Commandments. Some of us even use vows and promises to try to force God to do our will. In other words, many Orthodox Christians work hard to turn Christianity into just another systems of rules and rituals. When that happens, we stop conforming our wills to God, and we start trying to conform the world to our desires. We take the tremendous gift our Lord has given us – the gift of restoring our relationship with God, of making it possible for us to be what we were created to be – and we destroy it. We turn it into something corrupt and pointless. And we destroy any chance of being healed from the sickness of disobedience. We turn from the hope of sanity and go back to the insanity of the fallen world. And then we wonder why Christianity doesn’t seem to have any power. Why it doesn’t seem to make a difference in our lives. And, even worse, we destroy the hope of sanity for our families.
Creating a Sane Family. We have seen that our task as Christians is to become sane, but if we live in a family, we have an additional task: to make our family sane too. As spouses, we need to help our spouse to sanity; and as parents, we need to lead our children to sanity. But just as we so often lose sight of our quest for sanity in our own lives, even more do we forget about it with our families. And then, as one elder in Greece said:
“Just think, parents come and complain about all sorts of problems they face with their sons and daughters. I remind them that whatever they consider to be their child’s problem is really not the primary issue. The primary issue is whether their son or daughter has an authentic relationship with the living God. If not, then this vacuum will unavoidably be filled by vices such as drugs, promiscuity, drinking, sloth, you name it. But when they establish a right relationship with God, then all other problems will eventually find their resolution. That’s how things work.”9
So often we parents forget about restoring sanity to our children and settle instead for trying to make them be good. We give them a set of rules we expect them to follow, and then we get angry or sad when they don’t follow them. But we do not set before them the real goal of Christian living. Remember, God does not want you or your children to be good, He wants you all to be holy. These are not the same thing at all. Goodness is following the rules, holiness is becoming like God. Deification is the route to sanity. Of course, if you become like God, you will generally be good, although at times your “goodness” will not agree with the world’s definition of goodness. But being good will never make you holy.
Parents at home are likely to reinforce this misunderstanding. They stress outward behavior. They want their children to be “good” in public; i.e., not to throw tantrums when they’re little, not to drink too much, or use drugs, or drive too fast when they get older. But they don’t hold up the ideal of holiness. And even worse, they don’t show it in their own lives. Children are very perceptive. They see what really matters to their parents, and all too often they see that the Christian life is not what matters to their parents. They are expected to go to church on Sunday and major feast days, to fast, to say prayers in a rote way morning and evening, not to talk back, and generally not to fight too blatantly with their brothers and sisters. When they get older, they are told not to drink too much, not to give in to sexual temptations, not to drive too fast. And that’s it. That’s Christianity as far as they are concerned. These poor children can’t see any reason for the rules they’re given. They are just arbitrary. Who cares if you eat meat on Friday? Is God some kind of judge who keeps track of your faults in a big book? That idea is soon outgrown, and then there is no motivation for “being good.” Then the parents wonder why their children are not turning out the way they want them to. Why aren’t they going to church and being good Orthodox Christians?
But a better question is: why should they be good Orthodox Christians if they have never been given an understanding of what Orthodox Christianity is? If we raise them to think Christianity is no more than a set of unmotivated rules, imposed arbitrarily by a distant God for Whom we have no feeling and of Whom we have no knowledge, why would we expect them to follow those rules when they are old enough to start thinking for themselves. We have made Christianity just another of the many competing religions, not the way to come to know the living God and become like Him. We have deprived our children of motivation, and they respond by being unmotivated.
So what can we do? The husband and wife have to start with themselves and their mutual relationship. Each of them must keep the true goal of Christianity before their eyes all the time, and they must use all the weapons and tools the Church offers to become sane Christians. They must be on guard all the time, lest they be corrupted and misled by the insanity of the world around them. They must think, study, compare, always asking if this thought or action is compatible with Christian sanity. They must be vigilant and watchful in their own lives, and focus on establishing a living relationship with God, a relationship which is not just intellectual, but which determines how they live in all aspects of their lives.
Along with this focus on their own individual holiness, the husband and the wife must each make it their goal in life to bring their spouse to holiness. Following the ideals of the world, even Christian people marry for completely wrong reasons. Some marry for sexual satisfaction, some marry for companionship, but in almost all cases they marry because they expect to get something from the marriage: support when they are down, understanding, etc. But a Christian should marry, not for what he or she can get, but for what they can give. The purpose of Christian marriage is not to be supported, but to support; not to be encouraged, but to encourage; not even to attain one’s own salvation, but to help another to salvation. Too often a husband and wife act like fleas on a dog: all they want is to draw their own nourishment, not to nourish the other. But as Christians, our first concern must be our spouse’s relationship with the Lord, leading to transfiguration and salvation. Husbands, you need to help your wives become holy! Wives, you need to lead your husbands to become like God! If you are saved without your spouse, what a grief and shame that would be!
This is the major reason the Church discourages, or even prohibits, marriage to non-Orthodox Christians. How can you attain the primary purpose of marriage – mutual holiness – if you do not even have the same goal in life? How can an insane person help you become sane? And can you really live a sane life when you are yoked to an insane person? Will you not constantly be drawing apart, heading in different directions? Or will you, the Orthodox spouse, in fact be drawn in the direction of the world and insanity?
The husband and wife are crowned in marriage, because God intends them to be a new kingdom on this earth. The husband is the king, the wife the queen; together they are to create an island of sanity in the midst of an insane world. And when they are given children, these are their subjects, to be trained as citizens of the sane kingdom, the Kingdom of God in the larger sense, and the kingdom of the sane family in the narrower sense. There is nothing more important for the father and mother, after their mutual salvation, than the sanity of their children.
To raise sane children in a sane kingdom, you cannot be satisfied with a set of rules. This is itself insanity, since it does not offer a reason for obedience to these rules. The children must be presented from their earliest years with the vision of what it means to lead a sane life, and they must be cautioned to understand that the world around them is insane in its opposition to God. Parents cannot let their children immerse themselves in the music, books, television, and way of life of the fallen world and then think that prayers in the morning and evening, fasting on Wednesday and Friday, and church on most Sundays will make their children Orthodox Christians. If your children are filled with the mythologies of Star Wars or Harry Potter, which are not in any way Christian; if they learn from their friends that sexual purity is “no big deal”; if they fill their waking hours with music which is Satanic in its inspiration, this is what will determine their outlook. And no amount of time in church, fasting, or prayers read from a book will influence them.
We Orthodox Christians have the most amazing, most powerful, most wonderful possibility offered to us: to become like God, to be deified, to be transfigured! But we don’t present that possibility to our children, because we don’t accept it for ourselves. Children are not stupid or blind. They see much more than we want them to see. We pay lip service to sanity, while we pursue the good things of this insane world in our own lives and we think that our children will not notice. But they do! They see what we really care about. And if they see we don’t care about mutual support in the way of deification, they most assuredly won’t care about it either! We wonder why our children are not the Orthodox Christians we would like them to be, when the answer is perfectly plain: we are not the Orthodox Christians we are called to be, and they are simply following our example. If we don’t take the wondrous possibility of deification seriously, no set of rules we try to impose on our children (or ourselves, for that matter) will produce true Orthodox Christians.
Of course, you cannot force another person to holiness. It is always possible that your spouse or child will turn from God for a time or for good. You cannot stop them, if that is their free choice, but if you have not encouraged them and helped them by modeling for them the true life in Christ, you will answer before God for neglecting what is in fact the primary task He gave you in life. But if you fail to grow in Christ yourself and to lead your spouse and children to growth in Christ, you have no hope of creating a sane family. You will end your days in insanity, and you will bring down your family with you into the insanity of rebellion against God and His creation. What a fall that will be! What a loss! May God grant that all Orthodox Christians keep their focus on His sanity and guide each other into His Kingdom!
So What Do I Do Now?
Now I am going to do something very risky. After talking about the danger of reducing Christianity to rules, I am going to talk about some very practical things Orthodox Christians can do to become sane. Sanity, after all, is not an abstract state: it is knowing God as a person Who loves us, Who cares for us, and Whom we want to be like. Have you ever watched a little child follow his father or her mother around? They have their little lawn mowers or stoves so they can be like Mommy or Daddy, and that’s a good model for us with God. Copy His life as shown in the Gospels and in the lives of the saints so that you become like Him.
The very first thing you have to do is recognize that the world is insane, and you are infected with insanity too. If you think you’re healthy, you can’t be cured. But if you know you’re sick, out of touch with reality, then there is hope for you to be healed. Knowing the Orthodox Faith and reading books which remind us of the Faith and its true view of the world is essential for recognizing our sickness and being healed from it.
However, academic knowledge alone is not enough to save us. Most of you probably already know a lot of facts about Orthodoxy, but these facts have to become real before they affect you. And the only way they become real is by constant contact with the only doctor who can heal our insanity – our Lord Jesus Christ. His Name is our weapon of healing. It was through this weapon that the Saints were made whole and sane. If you don’t know God, you can’t become like Him. And the only way to get to know Him is by talking with Him. We need to call on His Name constantly. This means constant prayer during the day. Prayer can’t be just ten minutes morning and evening; it has to be a part of your whole life. Every time you have a moment when you have to wait for something or someone, call on the Lord Jesus Christ. When you are working at manual tasks, call on the Lord Jesus. Call on Him, but remember to stop and listen sometimes, in case He wants to tell you something. You received the grace of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and that grace will lead you to constant prayer, if you let it. But you have to cooperate with it. Call on the Holy Spirit to remind you to pray and to guide you in prayer, and then PRAY.
In addition to praying the Jesus Prayer or similar brief prayers calling for God’s help, it is vital for the members of a healthy family to be praying for each other. Husbands, pray for your wives. Every time you think of them during the day, say a brief prayer for them. When you know they have a temptation or a special task, pray for them. Wives, do the same for your husbands. Show your love for each other by asking God to help your spouse frequently throughout the day. And pray for your children. Don’t just worry about them; pray for them. Let them understand that you pray for them, and ask them to pray for you. Teach them that a family is only held together through mutual prayer. Children, pray for your parents all through the day, but especially when you know they have worries or problems. Bind the family together in love through mutual prayer.
Many Saints’ lives give us examples of the power of prayer to create a Christian family. Consider Sts. Gregory and Nonna, the parents of St. Gregory the Theologian and two other children who became saints (January 1); Sts. Xenophon and Mary and their children, all of whom were faithful to our Lord in great trials, and all of whom came to sanctity (January 26); or Sts. Emmelia and Basil the Elder, parents of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Peter of Sebaste, St. Macrina the Younger, and St. Naucratius (May 30). These and many other saints give us examples of sane family living. We should study their lives and then pray to them for help. They should be our friends, our guides, our confidants as we build our own families.
So we see that we have to go beyond weekly attendance at Liturgy. We have to make our whole week a preparation for union with God in His Holy Mysteries, and in that union we will be united as a family. Holy Communion and the Liturgy can only take their rightful place in your life if they are the culmination of a constant effort to grow closer to God, to root out insanity, and to be conformed to the real world God has created. If we take the Lord’s Body and Blood without this preparation, while we are still living in insanity, we are more likely to be harmed, as the Apostle says, than to be helped. But with a life of sanity, the Body and Blood of our Lord bring us together with all the sane people who have ever lived, unite us as a family, and prepare us for a life of union with God forever in His Kingdom, the Kingdom of the truly sane.
1. Jones, E. Michael, Degenerate Moderns, San Francisco, 1993, p. 16.
2. Lewis, C.S., The Abolition of Man, New York, 1947, p. 88.
3. Jones, op. cit., pp. 19-49.
4. Ibid., pp. 153-233.
5. Ibid., pp. 51-78.
6. Cited in Virtuosity, 10 May 2002.
7. Larchet, Jean-Claude, Thérapeutique des maladies spirituelles, Paris, 2000, p. 172.
8. A number of recent Orthodox authors have clarified the difference between Christianity and religion, showing that only Christianity leads to health and sanity. These include, for example: Romanides, John, The Cure of the Neurobiological Sickness of Religion, 1996; Vlachos, Hierotheos, Orthodox Psychotherapy, 1994; and Larchet, Jean-Claude, Thérapeutique des maladies spirtuelles, 2000; Théologie de la maladie, 2001; and, Thérapeutique des maladies mentales, 1992.
9. Markides, Kyriacos C., The Mountain of Silence, New York, 2001, p. 193.