Bishop's Message

The ladder of perfection

Feb 2006    

ARSENIUS, one of the Desert Fathers who lived in the early centuries of the Church, joined his fellow pilgrims in a serious pursuit of God and His righteousness. His life was marked with a deep hunger for God and a determined effort to be totally available to God.

His longing to be Christ-like and to welcome the returning Christ is described in the following way:

On Saturday evening preparing for the glory of Sunday, Arsenius would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards heaven till once again the sun shone on his face.

What a remarkable description of the intense pursuit of God! Indeed, it is a wonderful way of understanding Christian discipleship. Too many Christians fail to recognise the deep purposes of God in saving us. They think, in a narrow and limited way, that salvation is nothing more than God rescuing us from hell. But that is certainly not the whole story.

To be saved is not only to be spared the punishment in hell due us, but also to be prepared for heaven. Or to put it the way John Wesley rightly understood it: salvation is not only being free from the penalty of sin, but also being free from the power of sin.

We suffer not only from the guilt of sin, but also from the disease of sin. This means that after conversion, there is much to be done. We need to submit ourselves to God so that we can become victorious over sin and grow into Christ-likeness.

Wesley insisted (e.g. in his classic sermon “Christian Perfection”) that we must make disciplined and determined progress in our Christian lives, which he saw as having many stages. In all of this, we are to grow into maturity as we grow in holiness and love. This would be characterised by increasing freedom from sin and from sinful thoughts, emotions, and actions. That we should grow into Christian perfection has become one of the key teachings of Methodism. Wesley would remind us of the words of our Lord Jesus: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48).

This is to say that while we recognise that we are saved entirely by grace, and through the finished work of Christ, and by placing our faith in Him, God also expects us to allow Him to work in and with us to bring forth holiness. As Paul wrote, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12).

The Christian life is not simply getting on the right bus to heaven and then going to sleep. It is more like getting to the right flock, or rather Shepherd, and following the Shepherd all the way home. It calls for moment by moment awareness of the Shepherd, faith, and obedience. A living relationship with the Shepherd, kept fresh each day, is necessary.

To follow Christ in this way of freedom and perfection is not easy. It often involves intense battle and struggle. It calls for the single-mindedness of a soldier, the diligence of a farmer, and the discipline of an athlete (2 Tim. 2:1-7). It involves determined self-discipline and self-denial (1 Cor. 9:27).

A BOOK that captures this very well is the Christian classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by John Climacus who lived in the 2nd half of the sixth century. John lived an austere life as a monk, and spent 40 years in solitude, seeking and communing with God.

In the book, he lists 30 steps to Christian perfection. In a picture reminiscent of the dream that Jacob had, when he saw a ladder reaching to heaven and God at the top of the ladder, John envisaged the Christian life as climbing a spiritual ladder. It is not an easy ladder to climb, for while angels help us along the way, there are demons who would try to make us fall off the ladder. In climbing this ladder, we are to combat our sinful selves and the forces of darkness that work against our souls.

To our modern ears, the 30 steps might sound like another great spiritual tool, technique, or programme, but it is not meant to be so. Rather, it helps us to understand what is involved in spiritual formation and growth into Christ-likeness (and therefore salvation). John’s Ladder begins with Renunciation and ends in Love, akin to the way Peter describes how faith grows into love in a series of stages (2 Pet. 1:5-7).

According to John, love is the only true motive. All other passions are suspect. In the Orthodox tradition, passions are seen with suspicion. This might be a helpful corrective in our own modern church where we give so much prominence to religious passion. But a lack of understanding of the pervasiveness of sin would result in our embracing of sin hidden in what we consider to be honourable passions. Thus, ambition, pride, and greed may dress themselves in nice religious clothes, as they often do in our churches today.

John’s Ladder shows us the danger of the deadly sins and passions, and instructs us how we can unmask and overcome them. It also shows us the Christian virtues we must cultivate, and how these are related to one another, often being built on one another. Reading The Ladder will make us spiritually more alert and wiser, and aware of the spiritual battle that must take place within us to make us holy. Not being aware will leave us in the superficial shores of immaturity, for indeed Christ is our Ladder to Heaven (John 1:51).

The Ladder gives such profound spiritual advice that it has been held in the highest regard in Orthodox Christianity. Every Lent, it is read aloud in churches and monasteries. It might profit our souls to do the same this Lent, as we commit ourselves totally and seriously to the life that God has called us to – as God purges our souls from sin, and fills them with His holiness and love.

Like good old Arsenius we must learn to turn our backs to all evil – in our false and sinful selves and our sick and rebellious world – until the sun shines on our faces, and our faces reflect the glory of Christ.


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