Can and should a church-going Orthodox person be a successful member of society? Can one take the path toward God and at the same time ascend the steps of a career ladder? Should one seek positions of authority or refuse them?
St. John Climacus (“of the Ladder”) wrote his famous “Ladder” on the subject of spiritual growth. His book does not contain advice about how to make a career for yourself. It would seem that the Holy Fathers gave little thought to the idea of making a success of yourself in society. They were concerned with the salvation of their spiritual children, not with their advancement in material success. But can these two goals not be combined? After all, that would be something wonderful: a person in society grows and advances, making a career for himself in the world, and while doing so, also develops spiritually, and with little effort, achieves salvation.
What do the Optina Elders tell us in this regard?
St. Ambrose counseled:
“It is best to live simply. Do not wrack your brain. Pray to God. The Lord will arrange everything, just live more simply. Do not agonize over how and what to do; let things take their course. That is what it means to live simply.”
“You should live, and not grieve and regret, you offend no one, vex no one, and say to all, ‘My regards!’”
Not grieve and regret? What does that mean?
“To live without regrets is to be content, come what may. There is nothing there to puzzle out.”
The Elder added a reminder:
“Give thanks to God for any annoyance, keeping in mind that it was sent to you for your benefit. Say to yourself, “I am not worthy even of what the Lord has granted unto me this day.”
We often forget that the Lord guides us through life, that there exists God’s Providence, about which Venerable Barsonuphius of Optina would say,
“Whoever has peace in his soul, has paradise even in hard labor, in penal servitude.”
“You will find peace only when you believe in God’s Providence.”
The Holy Fathers defined God’s Providence as action taken by God that places the individual in the position and circumstance best for him in terms of his finding salvation. The Lord has plans for each of us, and the circumstances of our life, the success or lack of success we have in our careers, is dependent upon God’s Providence.
The Optina Elders could clearly distinguish between when God’s Providence put someone in a position of leadership, and when the individual himself was seeking after power.
St. Ambrose emphasized the difference between those who attained power through legitimate means and those who seized it illicitly:
“According to St. John Chrysostom, those who have illicitly seized royal or any other kind of power are afraid to appear before their subjects in simple, humble fashion; rather, they strive in all ways possible to buttress their might through an authoritarian, proud, and cruel manner, out of fear of losing their power. Those who have gained authority legitimately and under the law, are not afraid to treat their subjects humbly and unpretentiously, for the qualities of simplicity and humility not only do not diminish great men, but, to the contrary, ennoble and extol them.”
The Elder cautioned:
I know from experience that the heavy cross of wielding authority becomes twice as heavy for those who were desirous of having that authority, and can be utterly unbearable for those who have striven to gain it.”
Likewise, St. Ambrose noted that responsibility entrusted to someone is nothing less than an obedience to God:
“If the work of redeeming the human race was accomplished by the obedience, even unto death, of the Incarnate Son of God to His Father, then any responsibility entrusted to anyone is nothing less than an obedience to God, for the several types of authority come from the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle had testified (I Corinthians 12:28).”
Elder Macarius wrote that one should not seek after a high position, but should not turn it down if it is offered:
“As to positions or obediences performed out of ambition – those one should not jump at, but rather avoid. However, when it is a calling from God, to resist it would be sinful. St. Gregory the Theologian directed that we should not rush to be in command, but not turn it down either, lest the entire hierarchical structure be disturbed. For example, if, as a result of your resistance to taking on a position someone unable to meet its requirements should fill it and harm should result, you would have to answer for that. We imagine that we are avoiding anticipated troubles attendant to the obedience. In that case, we need to pray, and take counsel with informed faith. It would be good for us to have sufficient humility to consider ourselves not only unworthy of such positions of authority, but in passing by those in such positions of authority, might hold them in high regard, as individuals exercising the ascetic labor of patience. But how often do we sometimes look at them with a critical eye, while we secretly emulate the Pharisee. What good comes from that?”
Elder Joseph consoles his spiritual children who doubt that they can manage a high position of authority:
“God also helps whoever has chosen to be in a leadership position.”
The Elder also counsels them not to give themselves over to sorrow or despondency, to feeling that their office is beyond their capabilities, but rather to offer up your sadness to the Lord, and expect both help and consolation from Him.
“Should you lament being in command, you may begin to question whether it was a sin to have taken on something beyond your capacity. Reflecting on the circumstances in which you took on the position of command, you can affirm that it was not a sin. As to the work being beyond your capacity, one must state that in fact it is beyond the capacity of any leader. However, if in everything you offer up your sorrow to the Lord, and both look for and expect help and instruction from Him alone, the Lord Himself will invisibly direct you and your works, so that in your heart you will exclaim, “Wondrous are Thy works, O Lord! (Ps. 138:14). In Thy divine Wisdom hast thou made them all, and now workest in me, in Thy sinful and unworthy servant!”
After all, the only things the Lord looks for us to do is to humble ourselves, to recognize our weakness, our insignificance, our accursed state, our utter unworthiness, to whole-heartedly turn to Him, and with all devotion ask His help. As He said through the Holy Prophet David: And call upon me in the day of thine affliction, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify Me. (Ps. 49:16). He also said: My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9).
And the Holy Apostle Paul said of himself, For when I am weak, then am I strong… (2 Cor. 12:10) – that is, strong in the almighty grace of God. When in his heart someone feels that he is a helpless child, he calls out to the Lord, “Help me, be merciful, and save me!” Then, in His boundless kindness, the Lord cannot but heed the tearful cry of the sinner’s appeal. He Himself spoke these words of consolation to us sinners: Can a woman forget …the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee…. (Is. 49:15).
St. Anatoly (Zertsalov) recommended that the bearing of the cross of being a leader should be accepted as an obedience, and that we should not choose to put it down, for the Lord gives it to us for the benefit of our soul and for the souls of others:
“Who would not want to rest from his labors? I have already been carrying the burden of service to my neighbor for twenty years. Now my health is failing, I suffer from shortness of breath and insomnia. Yet, who of his own accord can put off the obedience that our Most-good Lord has laid upon us for the good of our soul and those of others? While we might not see, and perhaps we provide little benefit to ourselves and others, the One Lord manages all, and does not deprive of His recompense the good intentions and disposition of the heart.”
When one of St. Joseph’s spiritual children complained to him of the troubles attendant to his management responsibilities, the Elder replied that one cannot live one’s life without experiencing troubles, and that if you try to cast off the cross granted you by the Lord, those troubles can only get worse:
“In describing your sorrowful circumstances, you ask me a sinner whether you should give up your position of control. Undoubtedly, you can give it up in order to avoid your troubles. But where would you be able to hide yourself from them? And who among men lives without troubles? It is no accident that our earthly life is called a vale of tears. In changing your way of life, your present sorrows can only change to others, but that will not make things any easier. To the contrary, your sorrows could intensify, as people in days of yore used to say, “Run away from the wolf, and you will encounter the bear.”
Nowhere in His Gospels did our Lord Jesus Christ direct His followers to avoid sorrows. Instead, he always taught them to be patient, saying to them, In your patience possess ye your souls (Lk. 21:19) and He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (Mt. 24:13). And he called those who endured abuse, persecution and all manner of woes “blessed.” All of the Saints of God achieved life eternal by following a path of sorrows. That is why, reverend mother, if you want to be wedded to Christ in the Heavenly bridal chamber, you should not refuse to carry the yoke of direction that was laid upon you by the Lord Himself; it is better that you submit to His holy will, for nothing happens to us without His will.”
Elder Jospeh noted that wisdom is particularly essential for one in a leadership position:
“The Lord said, Be ye therefore wise as serpents. (Mt. 10:16) Wisdom is particularly necessary for those in command.”
The Elder also warned that while expecting the Lord’s help, one should also maintain a clear conscience, i.e. one should strive to live and act in such a way that he not be tortured by pangs of conscience. In all matters, he should act in accordance with the Commandments. Should he stumble, he should not despair, but should repent and correct himself.
“Only strive to live and act according to your conscience. Even if you should stumble, do not be despondent, but offer your repentance to the Lord, with firm hope in God’s mercy.”
In response to a request to teach how to behave toward subordinates, St. Joseph recommended that one should always ask God’s help and instruction.
“May the Lord teach you how to treat them, and by what means, and may He give you the words that will be of benefit to them. Whenever you intend to say something to them, remember to mentally ask God’s help and instruction beforehand.”
In response to a spiritual child’s question about the permissibility of reprimanding one who is careless, and criticizing shortcomings, Elder Joseph counseled striving to avoid being irritated when making such comments.
“It is permissible to express someone’s shortcomings, as long as that is undertaken with humility, or by some means brought to the person’s attention.”
“When necessary, careless people should be criticized, without regard to whether they might become angry before going to sleep. Only try to do so without irritation. Should you see that the one you have criticized remains upset, do some prostrations on her behalf.”
St. Ambrose likewise never blessed making critical comments or reprimanding someone while upset. He related the story of how Archimandrite Moses had a cell attendant named Fr. Niphont, who once did something he should not have, and expected a severe dressing down. Yet the Archimandrite seemed not to notice anything amiss. Fr. Niphont came to him, still awaiting a reprimand, but the Archimandrite just gave him a variety of assignments. This happened a few times. On one occasion, Fr. Niphont came to the Archimandrite in a very cheerful humor, and the Archimandrite immediately locked the door and began to give him a talking-to.”
When a spiritual child confided to Elder Ambrose that he was troubled upon seeing those in command display passions that adversely affected their subordinates, the Elder would respond that there were very few dispassionate people, but that nonetheless, one should strive to live and act in accordance with the will of God; that is when the Lord will offer us His help.
“There are very few dispassionate people On earth, and wherever human passions are at work, especially among the higher authorities, it is impossible to see proper order. On the other hand, where the higher authorities are as careful as possible and act in accordance with God’s will, even if their subordinates are passionate, there can be order among them, in fulfillment of the psalm: Be ye not as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding: whose jaws thou must hold with bit and bridle, lest they come nigh unto thee. (Psalm 31:9) – i.e., separate from the Lord. Wherever people act according to the will of God, there God offers His help.”
St. Ambrose gave the following advice to a spiritual child who was appointed to a position of leadership:
“You write that you will have many who are senior to you. However much older or senior they might be, the superior is highest in rank. Give due honor to whomever necessary, but demand due order; and as you yourself formerly wrote to me, do not let the reins of direction slip out of your hands, so that nothing might be done without the knowledge and blessing of the director. Of course, in any matter, you should first ask how things used to be done and how they are done now; you should approve of what is good and change what is bad, if you have a better understanding of the matter. In fact, everything will be clearer.”
So, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, or the career ladder? Is it possible to climb both at the same time? Can and should one who is a believer, brought up in the Church, be a success in society?
He can be a success in society, or not. If his career does not interfere with the work of his salvation, he can have both authority and riches. The Apostle Paul said that he had learned to carry on his spiritual life regardless of external circumstances.
I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound, and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me [Phil. 4:11–13).
The Lord, for Whom anything is possible, has the power to arrange any external circumstance for His chosen ones. Undoubtedly, at the proper time, He will bring one who believes on Him to his proper place and into a setting appropriate for him.
However, by far not everyone successfully passes through the temptations of power and riches. These are extremely difficult trials for people. According to St. John Chrysostom, “Just as footwear that is too large rubs the foot sore, so a dwelling place too magnificent chafes the soul.”
The Apostle Paul wrote:
For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out… But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts (I Tim. 6:7,9).
This means that it is up to us to strive, and the Lord Himself will decide whether ascent along a career ladder will be beneficial to us. Should advancement in a career or wealth interfere with a person’s salvation, God’s providence will draw those temptations away from His faithful child.
It is better to be a humble worker and be saved, than to be a company president and perish. Thus, to be troubled by the fact that not all believers are successful in society or in professions, and that not all have attained a high level of advancement in a career, is to disbelieve in God’s Providence for each person, and to forget that the Lord promised His disciples salvation, and not earthly good and success in society.
Ascent along the Ladder of spiritual virtues is always more important than advancement along a career ladder.