On guarding oneself from the good that is proper to fallen human nature

Has some good thought come to you? Stop! Whatever you do, do not rush to implement it or carry it out over-hastily, without thinking. Have you felt some good impulse or inclination in your heart? Stop! Do not dare to be drawn by it. Check it with the Gospel. See whether your good thought and your heart’s good impulse tally with the Lord’s holy teaching.

You will soon see that there is no agreement whatever between the good of the Gospel and the good of fallen human nature. The good of our fallen nature is mixed with evil, and therefore this good has itself become evil, just as delicious and wholesome food becomes poison when it is mixed with poison.

Guard yourself from doing the good of fallen nature. By doing this good, you develop your own fall, you develop within you self-opinion and pride, and you will attain the closest conformity with demons. On the other hand, by doing the good of the Gospel as a true and faithful disciple of the God-Man, you will become like the God-Man. ‘He who loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it in eternal life.’1 ‘If anyone wants to follow in My steps, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me and for the Gospel will save it.’2

The Lord orders the complete renunciation of fallen nature, and hatred for its motives and impulses, not only for those that are obviously evil, but for all without exception, even the apparently good. It is a great disaster to follow the righteousness of fallen nature. This implies and involves rejection of the Gospel, rejection of the Redeemer, rejection of salvation. ‘Whoever does not hate his own life cannot be My disciple’, said the Lord.3

Explaining the above words of our Lord, Barsanuphius the Great says: ‘How does a man renounce himself? Simply by forsaking his natural desires and following the Lord. That is why the Lord speaks here strictly of what is natural, and not of what is unnatural For it anyone forsakes only what is unnatural, he has not yet forsaken anything of his own for God’s sake, because what is unnatural does not properly belong to him. But whoever has forsaken what is natural, always says with the Apostle Peter, “We have left everything and followed You. What will there be for us?”4 And he hears the blessed voice of the Lord, and by His promise is assured of the inheritance and possession of eternal life.5 Since Peter was not rich, what did he renounce and what was his claim? Surely he renounced his own natural desires? For unless a man dies to the flesh and lives in the spirit, his soul cannot rise. Just as in a corpse there are no natural desires whatever, so too there are none in a person who is spiritually dead to the flesh. If you have died to the flesh, how can natural desires live in you? But if you have not attained this measure of spirituality, and are mentally still in your infancy, humble yourself before a teacher, that he may correct you with mercy,6 and do nothing without advice7 even though it may seem to you apparently good. For the light of demons eventually turns to darkness.’8

Exactly the same must be said also about the light of fallen human nature. The following of this light and its development within oneself produces a total inner darkness and completely estranges the soul from Christ. A stranger to Christ is a stranger to God. ‘No one who denies the Son has the Father”9–he is godless.

In our time the majority of people, proud of their progress and claiming to be Christians who do a lot of good, have been striving for the perfection of the righteousness of fallen nature and have turned their backs with scorn on the righteousness of the Gospel; Let this majority listen to what the Lord says:

“This people draws near to Me with their mouth And honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. So they worship Me in vain, while teaching the doctrines and commandments of men.”10

The man who practices human righteousness is full of self-opinion, arrogance, and self-deception. He preaches and blows his own trumpet about his good deeds without paying the least attention to what our Lord forbids.”11 He repays with hatred and revenge those who dare to open their mouths for the most reasonable and well-meaning contradiction of his righteousness. He considers himself deserving and more than deserving of both earthly and heavenly rewards.

On the other hand, one who practices the commandments of the Gospel is always immersed in humility. Comparing the loftiness and purity of the holy commandments with his own fulfillment of them, he constantly admits that his efforts are extremely unsatisfactory and unworthy of God. He sees himself meriting temporal and eternal punishments for his sins, for his unbroken fellowship with Satan, for the fall that is common to all men, for his own continuance in a fallen state, and finally for his insufficient and frequently fickle fulfillment of the commandments. Whenever trouble or suffering comes his way by the ordering of Divine Providence, he submissively bows his head, knowing that by means of suffering God trains and educates His servants during their earthly pilgrimage. He is kind and merciful to his enemies and prays for them as brothers who have been allured away by demons, as members of one body who are spiritually sick, as his benefactors, and as instruments of the providence of God.

1 Or: 'The man who loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself in this world will be, kept safe throughout eternal life' (John 12:25).
2 Mark 8:34, 35.
3 Luke 14:26.
4 Matthew 19:27.
5 Matthew 19:28-30.
6 Psalm 140:5
7 Ecclesiasticus 32:19.
8 Answer 59.
9 1 John 2:23.
10 Matthew 15:8.
11 Matthew 6:1-18.

From The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov), translated from the Russian by Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 16-18. This is one of the most important books for our times on the spiritual life. Do not let the title fool you. Though written primarily as an "offering to contemporary [late 19th century] monasticism," it contains much wisdom for laypeople as well. The Arena represents a portion of the works written late in his life, reflecting his extensive experience, balance, and patristic wisdom. This book cannot be too highly recommended for all serious Orthodox Christians.