If someone asked you "What do you desire?", you might think of a favorite food, a nice place to visit, maybe even simple peace and quiet.
Have you ever thought about your desire for God? You may say, "Of course I have a desire for God. That's why I go to Church." But think this through. Do you miss God when you're away from Him for a while? Do you yearn for Him like you yearn for warmer weather in the winter?
The Orthodox Christian Tradition teaches a foundational truth: Every desire we have, whether it be for food, sex, companionship, for example, is a reflection of our desire for God. God created us in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). Every creature longs to know its Creator.
If we want to know who we are and how we work, where should we go? To our Creator. "Yes, in the way of Your judgments, O Lord, we have waited for You; The desire of our soul is for Your name; And for the remembrance of You" (Isaiah 26:8).
How is your relationship with God? Do you know Jesus Christ? How much time do you spend with Him, talking with Him in prayer? Do you visit His house -- the Church? Do you read His letters to you -- the Scripture? Are you friendly to His sons and daughters, whom He loves as much as He loves you?
Often we short-change God. We have many reasons for ignoring God but it comes down to thinking that we don't need Him. Then the terrible cycle of sin starts: having grown further away from God, we feel His presence less and less in our lives. We believe that the soul's persistent longing for God can be satisfied apart from Him. But the emptiness does not go away because nothing can substitute for the love of God.
Trapped within this cycle, fullfilling our natural desires for things like food and companionship becomes the way that we try to satisfy our desire for God. Sometimes these physical desires can be supplanted by more abstract longings like the desire for wealth, power, or control over others that can gain a strong foot-hold in our lives. Since nothing can fulfill our desire for God except God alone, we keep eating, controlling, spending, whatever the vice may be, until these desires begin controlling us. Discipline breaks down and we spin out of control. Addictions are the extreme examples of this cycle.
"In our hearts is the heavenly fire of grace. If we pray and meditate on the love of Christ, we add wood to the fire and our hearts burn with longing for God. If, on the contrary, we are negligent and give our attention to worldly affairs, vice enters the heart, takes it over and torments us," wrote St. Makarios (Homily 40). The scripture says "But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:14-15).
Some people recognize the need for God in their life but take the wrong path. A recent encyclical of the Orthodox Christian bishops in America warned:
As we observed above, people have gone searching to fulfill their need for meaning. Yet this search often involves popular and personal spiritualities that lack a coherent theology. "New Age" religions that mix and match according to personal taste give the illusion of spiritual fulfillment, but lack the qualities of true worship. The substitution of purely humanistic social and political movements for a true relationship with God is another example. . .Remaking oneself without grounding in true existence is a recipe for confusion and even disaster. The newness that we desire can only be found in God.
Some recognize their dependence on God but are naive to the dangers of a solitary Christianity. The encyclical continues:
There is an ancient Christian saying: unus Christianus, nullus Christianus -- a single Christian is no Christian. . .Still others pervert Christianity, even Orthodoxy, into their own interpretation through ritualism or a smorgasbord pick and choose approach. Sometimes we forget that religion is not about "religion" but about our relationship to God, to one another, and to creation.
How does Church help us quench our thirst? One way is through the Three Pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. "One of the distinctive characteristics of Orthodox Christian thinking is that it sees the Gospel message not as law, but as relationship, the encyclical states. Everything we learn in the Church should gear us towards building and deepening our relationship with our Creator and direct us toward loving our neighbor.
We can learn how to pray through the worship of the Church and studying the lives of the Saints. We cannot draw close to God without spending time alone with Him in prayer. He wants our undivided attention, if only for a short while each day. Prayer enlivens us, grants us fulfillment, gives us joy, instructs us, and fills us with God's peace.
Fasting is also important. The Great Fast of Lent is a purifying experience. The purification is not just physical but also spiritual because it reorients our desire towards God. We are called to fast not just from food, but from sinful thoughts, words and actions. We need repentance and confession to accomplish this spiritual cleansing. To skip by confession during Lent says once again, "God I don't need you and I don't need the people you place in my life to help me."
Finally, almsgiving, the sacrificial offerings to the poor and needy, reinforce the teaching that our relationship with God is dependent on the quality of our relationship with others. "True joy, true happiness, true community, true fulfillment comes only through the giving of ourselves out of love for our brother and sister," reads the encyclical. This is what the Lord means when He says: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Luke 17:33). We find true joy in our love for the other, the same love our Lord showed us on the Cross.
Coming to God is not an insurmountable task only capable by a select few. God is available to everyone. Some say that when we take one step towards God, He comes running the rest of the way to reach us. "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" wrote James (James 4:8). The Psalmist says, "The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; he also will hear their cry and save them. The LORD preserves all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy" (Psalm 145:18-19).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the priest of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.