Fr Luke A Veronis

“In God we Trust.” It is interesting that this is the official motto of the United States. In a country where many contemporary people like to highlight the separation of church and state, thinking that faith should be kept separate from our civil, secular lives, we still say “In God We Trust.” Actually, this motto was adopted by Congress in 1956 and replaced the previous official motto “Out of Many, One.” And even as recently as 2003, 90% of Americans approved of this motto to continue be stamped on our coins and money.

Of course, we could have a serious discussion and debate about whether “In God We Trust” should be the official motto of the USA, especially discussing whether Americans themselves actually put their trust in God. For this morning, however, I’m not interested in debating the appropriateness of this American motto. Instead, I want to ask each one of us who call ourselves Orthodox Christians, can we honestly say “In God We Trust.” In our own lives, do we truly live as if we put our complete trust in the Lord Almighty? Do we live our lives in a way that reflects deep trust and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ?

I’m afraid that instead of “In God We Trust,” the motto for many of us would be “I Trust In Myself.” Our rugged, individualistic, American mentality praises the person who can be “self-made.” We laud the myth of a person who doesn’t need help from others but can do it all by themselves.

Such a worldview is utter nonsense. No one succeeds on their own, and there is no such thing as a self-made person. We live in community with one another. We need one another. Life is full of opportunities that have little to do with us. We have inherited much of who we are, from our genes, our intelligence, our ancestry, our family, our health, and our faith. No one is an island unto himself. We are all a part of one another.

This can be all the more emphasized when we talk about our spiritual lives. There is no such thing as a self-made Christian. As one of the famous sayings in the ancient church highlighted, “One Christian is no Christian!” You can’t be a follower of Christ alone. We can journey toward our Lord only together. And yet, how many of us still hold on to the facade “I Trust In Myself?”

Unfortunately, too many people hold on to this deception, and sometimes the worst culprits are religious people. This is the reason why Jesus told one of his most famous parables precisely for people who trusted in themselves, for those who believed they were righteous and good.

The Pharisee in today’s Gospel, this religious leader who tried to follow the letter of the law, did so many good things. He prayed three times a day. He fasted twice a week. He gave 10% of his possessions back to God. He was careful not to give in to many of his temptations and vices – he wasn’t greedy, he wasn’t unjust, he didn’t commit adultery. In many ways, he lived an exemplary life as a man of God. But he trusted in himself.

Because he did so many good things, he began to deceive himself by trusting in his own goodness. He believed he was worthy of God’s grace and love. He saw himself as a good man! How many of us fall into this same deception? We come to Church every week. We pray every day. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. We don’t give in to the baser, sinful vices and we basically live good lives. Thus, we think of ourselves as good. We may even see ourselves as worthy of God.

This self-assurance of our own goodness, however, can lead us to not only trust in ourselves, but because we think we are good, to put ourselves in a position where we judge others. We become self-righteous. Just like the Pharisee, who compared himself to the sinful, corrupt tax-collector, the religious leader came to the conclusion of praising himself for not being like that faithless scoundrel.

“In God We Trust” OR do we trust in ourselves? It can’t be both!

In the vast treasure of Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, we learn clearly that the most dangerous and deceptive vice is pride. Our arrogance and pride can destroy any good that we do. The antidote of pride, humility, is the most difficult virtue to cultivate; yet, it is central for us if we hope to progress toward God. In the spirit of humility, saints throughout the ages understood that the closer one comes to God, the clearer they see themselves only compared to God, and thus realize how unworthy they are before Divine Love. No matter what good anyone does on earth, and no matter how we share that love, our human earthly love falls far short of the perfect Divine Love of God. This humble realization keeps us from pride.

This is why the greatest saints, from the Apostle Paul to Saint John Chrysostom, whose prayer we recite before Holy Communion every Sunday, always confessed that they were the first among sinners, completely unworthy of God’s goodness and grace. These pillars of faith never trusted in their own goodness. They knew themselves and trusted only in God’s goodness and mercy and grace. They could honestly profess “In God We Trust.”

Of course, this sense of unworthiness didn’t make them sad. They actually lived lives of divine joy and happiness, trusting solely in the grace of God. Their sense of unworthiness didn’t prevent them from standing in utter awe before God’s Presence when they participated in His divine gifts. Their sense of unworthiness allowed them to “to taste and see how good the Lord is.”

The self-assurance of the Pharisee, and our own self-assurance as “good Christians,” is a deceptive lie that turns us away from God and turns us away from one another. When we are self-assured, we begin to judge others, seeing ourselves better than others.

We begin the pre-Lenten season of the Triodion with Christ’s story to those who were sure of themselves. Be careful. Be on guard. The Church reminds us that we can draw closer to God only when we remember, with humility, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” starting with ME! We ourselves are the first among those sinners and we can come closer to God only when we understand this, trusting solely in Him and not in ourselves.

In Whom do we trust? In ourselves or in God? This is the question with which we begin our Pre-Lenten journey!



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