Western thought frequently examines messages independently of their messengers (even insisting on the inherent value of such an “objective” approach). But in the spiritual life, discerning the identity of the Messenger is of utmost importance, regardless of any abstract merits of the message itself.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things build up.1
I’m frequently guilty of this when interpreting Scripture. Having been trained in the methodology and tools of historical criticism, I turn to my own reason and the interpretations of the academic guild before seeking the voice of God and listening to the Church Fathers.
Humanity’s interpretative choice
This is an ancient problem that precedes East and West. It goes back to the foundations of humanity:
And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, “You shall eat for food of every tree that is in the orchard, but of the tree for knowing good and evil, of it you shall not eat; on the day that you eat of it, you shall die by death….”
And the snake said to the woman, “Why is it that God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree that is in the orchard’?” And the woman said to the snake, “We shall eat of the fruit of the tree of the orchard, but of the fruit that is in the middle of the orchard, God said, ‘You shall not eat of it nor shall you even touch it, lest you die.'” And the snake said to the woman, “You will not die by death, for God knew that on the day you eat of it, your eyes would be opened, and you would be like gods knowing good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasing for the eyes to look at and it was beautiful to contemplate, and when she had taken of its fruits she ate, and she also gave some to her husband with her, and they ate.2
Dr. Mary Ford offers a great perspective on Eve’s decision:
In this account, Eve is faced with two interpretations of reality…. One interpretation of this fruit and why it was forbidden was given by God, Who created Eve and everything else, and another one was given by the serpent, a fellow creature….
Eve, we could say, at this point decides that all that matters is the “text” alone—the two interpretations or statements made—along with how things look on the surface to her own eyes, which is only the superficial, physical reality. Apparently she doesn’t stop to consider who it is giving each interpretation, and what her relationship is with each interpreter. Like many modern-day commentators, she thinks that interpretation can be impersonal, “objective.” “Don’t ask God about this,” the serpent implies; “He is not trustworthy. He doesn’t really love you. He doesn’t really want the best for you.” Then he implies, “And don’t ask Adam, either. Judge for yourself—you don’t need others to help you discern the truth.”
The fruit really is beautiful. It looks good to Eve, and what the serpent says seems reasonable to her “unaided reason,” so she decides to accept the interpretation he offers, and to act on his statement—an action which the serpent implies she can make completely independently. However, Eve doesn’t realize that in choosing the serpent’s interpretation, and in acting with her supposed autonomy, she in fact chooses communion with the serpent over, and instead of, communion with God and her husband.3
Dr. Ford goes on to quote St. Gregory the Theologian:
…[T]he tree of knowledge was not planted originally with any evil intent, nor was it forbidden in a spirit of jealousy. Let not the enemies of God make any such suggestion or think to imitate the serpent. On the contrary, it was good if eaten at the right time; for as I understand it, the fruit was contemplation, which is only safely attempted by those who have attained a more perfect state. But it was not good for those at a lower stage of development, … just as mature food is not profitable for those of tender years who still need milk.4
She then notes:
…[I]t was entirely right for Eve to want to be godlike—that was God’s plan all along. What was wrong was wanting this apart from God, and on her own terms and timetable.5
Humanity chose the creation over the Creator, independently evaluating the interpretation of the snake without considering our relationship with the interpreters.
A short story
Faysal had never experienced a vision from God, but he believed such things were possible. He found it perplexing that his friend Roya claimed to have had one. She seemed so confident the vision was from God, but Faysal wondered if she was mentally ill or otherwise being deceived. His pastor had never dealt with this before, but encouraged Faysal to practice discernment by comparing the message of the vision to the Bible. But the message seemed so personal and didn’t really conflict with any Bible verses Faysal could find.
He knew of an old hermit at a local monastery who daily sought God in prayer and decided to ask him for help the following morning. Perhaps he might have some guidance, Faysal hoped.
The next morning, Faysal went to visit the hermit, and asked how he could discern whether his friend’s vision was from God or not. He explained how he had looked up various Bible verses related to the message of the vision but wasn’t sure if any of it applied. After patiently listening to Faysal’s concerns, the hermit asked him, “Does Roya know God?”
“Well sure, she’s gone to church her whole life,” Faysal replied.
The hermit smiled and said, “It seems you’ve been focusing solely on the contents of the vision, rather than on the identity of the messenger. If the vision is from God, then there is no reason for concern.”
Faysal objected, “Well, surely some messages would clearly conflict with God’s Word and be evidence of deception.”
The hermit paused for a moment. Then he asked, “Do you have any children, Faysal?”
“Yes, a son,” he answered.
“If God spoke to you in a vision, and in that vision told you to murder your son, would you say that vision is not from God?”
Faysal shot back, “Of course that vision wouldn’t be from from God! It violates God’s commandment not to murder!”
“And yet,” the hermit replied gently, “Abraham obeyed God’s voice when given this very message as a test, and God blessed him because of his faith and obedience.” He continued, “Wouldn’t you agree that the messenger, and the recipient’s relationship with him, is of utmost importance?”6
1 1 Corinthians 10:23.
3 Mary S. Ford, The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2015), 50–51.
4 Oration 45:8 on Easter; excerpt given by Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 204; as quoted in Ford, 51.
5 Ford, 51.
6 This story was inspired by Ford, especially the above-quoted paragraphs and pp. 53–55. Full disclosure: I don’t write fiction. I apologize for the wooden dialogue.