Renunciation - March 10, 2023by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher
Saint John of the Ladder (Gk., Klimakos) begins the classic Orthodox exposition of the Christian journey to heaven with this first step: Renunciation (of the world). In this, he is repeating the Apostolic teaching, for instance:
- “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal. 6:14)
- “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
- “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)
The world (Gk., kosmos) created by God is good – “For God so loved the world…” (Jn. 3:16); however, because of sin and death, “all the world has become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19) and is in need of redemption. The world (like the flesh; see Rom. 8:5-8; Gal. 5:16-17) has been corrupted into a place of separation from God under the rule of the devil (John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4). The decaying and dying world and the flesh, if used as ends in and of themselves, enslave us in sins and death. Therefore, we must be liberated from attachment to this world if we are to pursue the genuine path to life intended by God. Therefore, the beginning of our journey to genuine life begins with renunciation of the world.
Saint John of the Ladder continues: “Those who aim at ascending with the body to heaven, indeed need violence and constant suffering, especially in the early stages of their renunciation, until our pleasure-loving dispositions and unfeeling hearts attain to love of God and chastity by manifest sorrow” (1.8). Assuaging the sinful world means seeking sensual pleasure and avoiding pain. The path to heaven involves the opposite: enduring pain in pursuit of pleasures with spiritual senses (purified eyes of the heart, hearing inaccessible to idle words, intoxicated with the Spirit, etc.), and this takes violence, or force, against our passionate, carnal habits (see Matt. 11:12).
“Those who enter this contest must renounce all things, despise all things, deride all things, and shake off all things, that they may lay a firm foundation. A good foundation of three layers and three pillars is innocence, fasting, and temperance (Gk., sophrosyne; “chastity” [Prayer of St. Ephraim], lit., “whole-mindedness”) (The Ladder, 1.10). “In the very beginning of our renunciation, it is certainly with labor and grief that we practice the virtues. But when we have made progress in them, we not longer feel sorrow, or we feel little sorrow. But as soon as our mortal mind is consumed and mastered by our zeal, we practice them with joy and eagerness, with love and with divine fire” (The Ladder, 1.16).
Our Lord Jesus prays to the Father for His renunciants: “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours and Mine, and I am glorified in them…I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:9-10, 15-16). We are called into being by God, created to be in the world, but we are called anew in Christ to be not of the world but of heaven. “Our Father who art in heaven…” Saint John of the Ladder merely reminds us to be true to the calling we first received in Christ at our Baptism, an act preceded by and necessarily including the “renunciation of Satan.” The Priest turns the person to be baptized to the west (the direction of the world under the rule of Satan opposite the east, the direction of the Resurrection to which our churches are built); then, the Priest says: “Do you renounce Satan, and all his angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride?” The person, or sponsor in case of an infant, says: “I do.” This is repeated three times.
We might ask ourselves each and every day the same question which follows in the baptismal service: “Have you renounced Satan?” Have we renounced not just the devil, that fallen leader of the evil angels (demons), but his sphere of prideful influence, the pompa diaboli (i.e., idolatry, the service of self, and the many-splendored cult of created things)? Have we renounced the world? Having been baptized into the hope of the age to come, do we remain worldly people?
Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out the real dangers of worldliness afflicting us, religious people, undoing our renunciation of the world. “It is when the world became ‘Christian’ and identified itself with Christian faith and Christian cult (outward performance of religion) that the meaning of this renunciation began to be progressively lost so as to be viewed today as an archaic and anachronistic rite, as a curiosity not to be taken seriously. Christians became so accustomed to Christianity as an integral part of the world, and to the Church as simply the religious expression of their worldly ‘values,’ that they very idea of a tension or conflict between their Christian faith and the world faded from their life. And even today, after the miserable collapse of all these so-called ‘Christian’ worlds, empires, nations, states, so many Christians are still convinced that there is nothing basically wrong with the world and that one can very happily accept its ‘way of life,’ all its values and ‘priorities,’ while fulfilling at the same time one’s ‘religious duties.’ Moreover, the Church herself and Christianity itself are viewed mainly as aids for achieving a successful and peaceful worldly life, as spiritual therapy resolving all tensions, all conflicts, giving that ‘peace of mind’ which assures success, stability, happiness.” (“Of Water and the Spirit,” pp. 28-29 ) That was written 50 years ago.
Furthermore, “[The overwhelming majority of Christians] are blind to the fact that the demonic consists primarily in falsification and counterfeit, in deviating even positive values from their true meaning, in presenting black as white and vice versa, in a subtle and vicious lie and confusion. They do not understand that such seemingly positive and even Christian notions as ‘freedom’ and ’liberation,’ ‘love,’ ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘achievement,’ ‘growth,’ ‘self-fulfillment’ – notions which truly shape modern man and modern society, their motivations and their ideologies – can in fact be deviated from their real significance and become vehicles of the demonic…To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire worldview made up of pride and self-affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death, and hell.” (“Of Water and the Spirit,” pg. 29, 30)
The Apostle Paul writes: “I beseech you therefore, brethren…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:1, 2). “But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on…those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29, 31). Our Lord says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it…Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:13-14, 21).
Our first step to the Kingdom of God is renunciation of the world under the deceptive sway of the devil. This is not merely an outward, material struggle, as we must especially renounce all worldliness within our minds and hearts. Renunciation requires great and unremitting effort, yet there is no greater work we can possibly do if we want to have eternal life with God. Any superficial trappings of Christianity, Orthodoxy, or religion cannot aid us in this task if we have not renounced the world in our thoughts and actions. “Behold! Hearing is better than a good sacrifice and obedience than the fat of rams” (1 Kgm. 15:22). But now is the time for us be renewed in that to which we have been called in Jesus Christ our Lord.