Do Not Idolize the Means

Happy Feast of Saint Sharbel! Every July 24th we remember this wise monk and shepherd who lived in Lebanon from 1828-1898.

Holiness is the true goal of our life, the entire purpose of our human existence. As we all aim for that ultimate goal, Sharbel identifies one of the subtlest and most common pitfalls – making an idol of the means. Even incredibly good and beautiful things like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can become hindrances if we idolize them: “Prayer sanctifies you; do not sanctify it. Fasting strengthens you; do not make it a god. Mortifications purify you; do not adore them. Your singing is designed to praise God, but do not glorify it.”

God himself gave us these means. He commanded penance and fasting; he inspired the psalms that King David sang; he invites us to gather and worship him. These means serve us well when we receive them in gratitude, and give them back freely to the Lord, the true object of our desire. But if we make an idol of the means, we fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

Echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, Sharbel warns us not to confuse the temple with the living God who dwells in it: “The safe can never be more important than the treasure it contains, nor the glass more important than the wine it contains, nor the bakery more important than the bread, nor the tabernacle more important than the Blessed Sacrament.”

Even with something as wonderful as Scripture, Sharbel warns not to idolize the means: “Christianity is neither the religion of the temple nor the religion of the book. Christianity is the person of Jesus himself.” An important distinction! We call Scripture “the word of God” – and so it is, but only because by means of it we encounter Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word. All Scripture points to him. Sharbel compares Scripture to a mirror that reflects God’s light. As wonderful as the mirror is, our true destiny is the light itself. It is quite possible to cling to verses of Scripture while keeping Jesus at a safe distance from the depths of our heart.

It is also very possible to turn to God or to religious practices as an attempt to escape the pain of our problems. Sharbel cautions, “Do not seek refuge in God in order to flee from yourself … Do not let the world push you toward God. Allow God to attract you.”

Allowing our fear to give way to love – this is what distinguishes the disciple from the Pharisee. The disciple of Jesus discovers God in the deep yearnings of his heart, and refuses to numb those desires, no matter how painful the waiting can be.

It is in the desire of our heart that the Father attracts us, drawing us more and more deeply into Jesus (John 6:44). As we encounter Jesus, the Holy Spirit transforms us, casting out the spirit of fear that binds us up in slavery, and maturing us in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8).

Without desire, our conversion will hit a wall. We will either get stuck in the land of religious idols, or (when they fail to satisfy) we will revert to our old idolatry of sin. I know, because it’s been my story! For too many years, I was more often motivated by fear than by desire. I toggled back and forth between firm and resolute observance of all the rules and then numbing myself out with addictive behaviors. In both cases I was motivated by fear rather than by love. I was avoiding authentic vulnerability, trust, surrender, intimacy, and the deepest desires of my heart. God has been inviting me to leave the ways of fear behind and to discover him in the depths of my heart, where he has always been present.

Granted, fear can be a great motivator – especially in the very first motion of turning away from evil. But it will never fuel a full conversion in Christ. Only desire can propel me away from the orbit of my past life of sin. If I do not open up in vulnerability and trust, if I do not allow myself to feel the depths of desire (which can be painful!) I will not grow in love.

Sometimes it feels so much safer to cling rigidly to the means – especially those that God made so good and beautiful. Clinging to them, I can avoid vulnerability, resist surrender, and bury my unfulfilled desire. When I idolize the means, I feel in control. Unfortunately, without vulnerability there is no love. Without surrender, there is no faith. Without desire, there is no hope.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Not because he is a God of fear, but because all our illusions melt away in his presence. Our pretending and protecting hold no sway. He tolerates them with great patience. He respects our resistance – because he always respects our dignity and freedom, which he gave to us. He patiently waits. He entices and attracts, turning even our stumbling into wonderful opportunity. But only we can say “yes” and allow his love to be awakened deeply within in our heart.

Often, when the real growth begins, it is in ways we never expected. We spend so much of our time trying to force a path of holiness that is not for us. We grasp at means that may work well for others, but do not match with our own story. Sharbel invites us to discover our truest and deepest identity, and embrace the means of holiness most suitable to the situation God has placed us in. “The cedars and the oaks do not grow in the sand of the seashore, nor banana and orange groves among the rocks on the mountain. Do your work with the available tools, and flourish and bear fruit where God has planted you.”

Our deepest desires have always been there. The Father put them there in the first place. We just need to get reconnected with them, allow ourselves to feel them, to grow in them, and (propelled by them) to return to the Father. As this process unfolds for each of us I think we will find that we are experiencing what the poet T.S. Eliot once described in these words:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.