We often hear the phrase, “Everything happens for reason.” For example: “I lost my job, but then I got a better one. Everything happens for reason.” Or, “I got sick but it caused me to slow down and spend more time with my family, so I guess everything happens for a reason.” This is almost – but only almost – a statement of faith and belief in God's providence. Maybe we should call it “providence-lite”, except I fear that even that gives it too much credit.
This sort of philosophy amounts to simply looking on the bright side, or a belief that God is micro-managing all of the stuff around our lives to make it all work out for the best in the long run. The problem, of course, is that this way of thinking is backwards, assuming that God is hard at work coordinating everything to turn out according to our plans and our will. You know, sort of like the Lord’s Prayer does not say: “my kingdom come, my will be done….”
A truer understanding of providence, though, would say, “Yes, everything happens for a reason. However, God’s ‘reason’ is our salvation.”
It is common for the Fathers to refer to this life as a gymnasium or training ground for Heaven. The English poet William Blake says something very similar but in a rather more lovely way: “we are put on earth a little space, That we may learn to bear the beams of love....”
When we speak of God’s ‘reason’ being our salvation we mean more than just going to heaven when we die. Salvation means becoming heavenly beings now, in the present life. One rather succinct way of saying this is, “You can’t go to heaven; you have to become heaven.”
Now, for the Orthodox Tradition, this “Learning to bear the beams of love” or “becoming Heaven” means, as an essential first step, the acquisition of the virtues. This might strange to you. For many of us, virtue is associated simply with ethics or morality, trying to do or be good, or having good character. But the Orthodox Tradition has a much more profound understanding of virtue and the virtues. In Orthodox spiritual theology, the essential first step to “becoming Heaven” is acquiring the virtues.
Think, for example, of that classic Orthodox text, The Ladder of Divine Ascent: 27 of the 30 rungs of the Ladder are about purifying the passions and acquiring the virtues. Likewise the entire first stage of salvation/theosis in Orthodox teaching is purification of the passions and the corresponding acquisition of the virtues, without which one cannot advance to the higher stages of illumination and contemplation.
In others words, rather than believing that God is micro-managing the universe to eventually get my life just the way I like it, I must come to terms with the fact that what God is actually doing is saving me - from evil, from sin, and even from my own plans and schemes. He is able to make all of that stuff that I think of as “bad” work out for my good, no doubt, but for it to really have an effect I must understand what is truly good. It isn’t a job, a house, or even health and wealth, and to the degree that my faith in God is aimed at securing those things, I am going to be profoundly disillusioned. I might even lose my faith.
Of course, if that is all that my faith is, the sooner it is lost the better. For as long as I am hung up on trying to get God to make everything happen for my reasons, I am really not concerned with his reason, which is saving me. Once I grasp that profound and simple truth, however, then everything becomes an occasion for me to grow in virtue, that is, in Christ. And only then I can see what was true all along: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and the gate of Heaven is everywhere.
With love in Christ,