Keep your mind in hell and despair not.
–A word from God given to St Silouan, an Eastern Orthodox Monk. (1866-1938)
For seven years I served as a pastor on a staff of a church in Colorado. As I engaged in pastoral ministry, I could feel myself slowly slipping into despair. As an extreme introvert I never felt relational enough to be a pastor. I often thought that my personality might impede the growth of this church. The despair went deeper with my own struggles with temptation and sin. “I am making no progress toward Christ-likeness,” I lamented. “I have no experiential authority to preach ‘victory over the flesh’ to this congregation. I am completely unworthy of God.”[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]
Meet St. Silouan
Simeon Ivanovich Antonov (St. Silouan) was a poet and monk of the St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mt. Athos. For more than 15 years he battled evil spirits. On his own, even through fervent prayer, he could not defeat the evil spirit-induced temptations and thoughts that tormented him day and night. Finally, God said to him, “The proud always suffer from devils.” And then, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” This ultimately freed Simeon from his despair over his perceived inability to be worthy of God as he sought “prayer with a pure mind.”
What is the Way of Christ?
The only way of salvation is the Way of Christ. The first Christians were known as those “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2), referring to the Way of Christ (“I am the Way…” John 14:6). This is the same Way, believes the ancient Church, spoken of prophetically by Jeremiah (6:16).
The Way of Christ includes emptying yourself (kenosis, Philippians 2:7). This means dying to any part of you that considers yourself worthy of God’s saving grace. To consider yourself worthy of God in any sense is to allow pride into your life and, like God told Simeon, to continue to “suffer from devils.” The Way of Christ requires that you do the hard work of descending with Him into the hell of your own unworthiness by admitting that hell is where you deserve to be. Only then can you ascend into heaven with Him by His grace (1Peter 3:18-20).
By not thinking more of yourself than you ought (Romans 12:3), you begin walking on the ancient path, the Way of Christ, learning to empty yourself. By the teaching of the Spirit, you very slowly learn to live in the tension between the heart-wrenching pain of your unworthiness before the One you love on one hand and hope in His great mercy on the other. This what is meant by keeping your mind in hell and despairing not.
As this truth begins to work its way into your life you begin to feel the earliest fruits of being set free. It is hard work. It is a descent into the hell to admit your own unworthiness in every aspect of your life.
I am learning to awake each morning praying, “Today I begin again.”
If you are unsure of how to begin to follow the Way of Christ, to keep your mind in hell yet despair not, then pray the prayer of St Basil the Great (330-379).
I, although unworthy both of heaven and of earth and of this temporary life, even I, a wretched sinner who has given myself over to every evil desire, despair not of salvation, though I have been wholly subject to sin, a slave to passion, and have defiled Your image within me, who am Your work. I trust in Your infinite compassion…
How does your own unworthiness factor into your relationship with God? Share your thoughts below or ask a question.