The hustle and bustle of life can oftentimes distract us from drawing near to God. Life has become increasingly busy for most, especially in today’s climate, and it seems that even if we aren’t busy, we find ways to occupy our time and minds. Is busyness altogether negative? Not at all. At times the things God calls us to can occupy much of our time. However, do we pay attention to the busyness within our minds? What occupies our thoughts: the cares of this world, or the things of the Kingdom? The Word of God exhorts us to bring every thought into captivity (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to set our eyes on the things above (Colossians 3:2). This was the way of the Early Church; a life of devout faith, pursuing to consider only the things of God and withdrawing from the distractions that plague the mind.
Throughout Scripture, we see numerous examples of God’s aversion towards idolatry, in fact, God clearly commands us in His Law (Torah) that “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image- any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3–4). You may be questioning how idolatry is related to the subject at hand? This is most likely because we have very simply viewed idols or carved images as literal statues of false gods (or actual false entities). However, the Early Church understood idolatry in a spiritual manner, seeing beyond the face value of God’s command. Below, second-third century church father, Origen, explains that we are at risk of worshiping alien gods, when we put something before God in our lives.
Thus the Word literally said to them: “As you have forsaken me and served other gods in your land, you shall serve in a land not your own.” (Jeremiah 5:19) But every person who makes something a god serves alien gods. Do you deify food and drink? Your god is the belly (Philippians 9:19). Do you honor silver and the wealth here below as a great good? Your god and lord is Mammon. For Jesus spoke of the lord himself of the love of money when he said: You cannot serve God and Mammon. No one can serve two masters (Luke 16:12). … Therefore we are now in an alien land and pray to do the opposite of what the sons of Israel did in the holy land. For they in the holy land gave worship to alien gods, but we in an alien land worship the God who is an alien to the land, an alien to earthly concerns. (1)
Origen explains that it is not just entities or statues that are false gods, rather the things we serve (before serving the Lord) are the alien gods we worship. This interpretation makes the Word of God much more pertinent to us today, as it personalizes how we can view this commandment. Origen explains that things such as food and money can be gods, and when these things are our focus, we are serving an alien god. He goes on to highlight that we should be aliens to this land (cf. 1 Peter 2:11), just as the Word states: our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20); meaning the cares of this world should not be our priority, just as our God is alien to earthly concerns. Does this mean we completely neglect the things of this world that need our tending to? No, rather our attention should be drawn to the volition of our hearts- what are the tenants of our thoughts? (cf. Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45).
In another place, Origen states, “That which someone cherishes above all else, admires and loves above all, this is that person’s God.” (2) Now, above we read Origen names food and money as idols, or things we can place before God, however there are many other things in this world that could substitute these if we pay attention to what takes occupancy in our minds. Perhaps fear is our god? Are we occupied with anxiety and worry, neglecting to cast all our burdens on the Lord? (1 Peter 2:7; Philippians 4:6). Or maybe poverty and distrust has become our god? Or are our thoughts plagued by our current lack, when God tells us He will supply our every need if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:25-33). Perhaps we are like Martha, who instead of sitting at the feet of Jesus, was busied by worries and troubled by many things (Luke 10:38-42). Could we be missing opportunities to draw near to the Lord, by being too occupied in our minds?
Clement of Alexandria, another second-third century church father, comments on this below by referencing the parable of The Rich Young Man who wished to be saved (see Matthew 19:16-30 for full parable):
But he [the Rich Young Man] departed displeased, vexed at the commandment of the life, on account of which he supplicated. For he did not truly wish life, as he averred, but aimed at the mere reputation of the good choice. And he was capable of busying himself about many things; but the one thing, the work of life, he was powerless, and disinclined, and unable to accomplish. Such also was what the Lord said to Martha, who was occupied with many things, and distracted and troubled with serving; while she blamed her sister, because, leaving serving, she set herself at His feet, devoting her time to learning: “Thou art troubled about many things, but Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41, Luke 10:42). So also He [Jesus] bade him leave his busy life, and cleave to One and adhere to the grace of Him who offered everlasting life. (3)
In both cases that Clement puts forward we see examples of people being too occupied and distracted by the cares of their life, that they neglect the good part (Christ) that is offered to them. We see something similar in the parable of the Seed and the Sower, in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). In this parable Jesus is not teaching how to plant and grow crops, He is expressing a very important spiritual concept. The seed, being the Word of God (Luke 8:11) is sown into us (the land), however unless we are rid of the cares of this world, the things that occupy our lands, we will be futile. Jesus stated, “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22).
Concerning fruitlessness, we read in the Shepherd of Hermas a conversation between the Angel of the Lord and Hermas in which they distinguish between trees that bear fruit and those that do not.
He showed me again many trees, some budding, and others withered. And he said to me, “Do you see these trees?” “I see, sir,” I replied, “some putting forth buds, and others withered.” “Those,” he said, “which are budding are the righteous who are to live in the world to come; for the coming world is the summer of the righteous, but the winter of sinners. … And refrain from much business, and you will never sin: for they who are occupied with much business commit also many sins, being distracted about their affairs, and not at all serving their Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:30-35; Romans 12:11) How, then,” he continued, “can such a one ask and obtain anything from the Lord, if he serve Him not? They who serve Him shall obtain their requests, but they who serve Him not shall receive nothing. And in the performance even of a single action a man can serve the Lord; for his mind will not be perverted from the Lord, but he will serve Him, having a pure mind. If, therefore, you do these things, you shall be able to bear fruit for the life to come. And every one who will do these things shall bear fruit.” (4)
Clearly, we can gather Hermas is not speaking of literal trees, rather these are representative of people. When our focus is on the world to come, the Kingdom, we become trees that bear (spiritual) fruit, because are eyes are lifted from the cares of this world to the things of God (cf. Matthew 6:19-21). Just as Origen and Clement aforementioned, we read an exhortation in this similitude to refrain from much busyness, as it distracts us from serving the Lord. He highlights that even within our minds we serve God, which draws us back to our premise; are our minds occupied by the things of our flesh, or is our focus on God? Are we “weakened by worldly occupations [giving ourselves] up to sloth… not [casting our] cares upon the Lord.”? (5) Or are we meditating on the Lord day and night? (Psalm 1:2).
We leave you with a beautiful exposition from the recognitions of Clement, concerning the Christian life:
But Peter said: “Who is he that is earnest toward instruction, and that studiously inquires into every particular, except him who loves his own soul to salvation, and renounces all the affairs of this world, that he may have leisure to attend to the word of God only? Such is he whom alone the true Prophet deems wise, even he who sells all that he has and buys the one true pearl, (Matthew 13:46) who understands what is the difference between temporal things and eternal, small and great, men and God. For he understands what is the eternal hope in presence of the true and good God. But who is he that loves God, save him who knows His wisdom? And how can any one obtain knowledge of God’s wisdom, unless he be constant in hearing His word? Whence it comes, that he conceives a love for Him, and venerates Him with worthy honour, pouring out hymns and prayers to Him, and most pleasantly resting in these, accounteth it his greatest damage if at any time he speak or do aught else even for a moment of time; because, in reality, the soul which is filled with the love of God can neither look upon anything except what pertains to God, nor, by reason of love of Him, can be satisfied with meditating upon those things which it knows to be pleasing to Him. (6)
The Early Church passionately inclined to the Word of God, knowing that it is living and active, able to divide the soul (our thoughts) and the spirit (God’s thoughts) (Hebrews 4:12). A wise man seeks to understand that which is eternal, leaving behind the temporal cares of this world. He occupies his mind with the knowledge of God through devotion to His Word, and thus, conceives a love for God, not wanting to be occupied by anything else. Let us keep our gaze fixed on the things above and cleave to the One who gives us rest for our souls, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
- Origen, Jeremiah Homily 7. [emphasis added]
- Origen, Spirit & Fire, Pg. 210
- Clement, Who is the Rich Man who shall be saved? Chap. X. [emphasis added]
- Hermas, The Pastor of Hermas, Book Third, Similitude fourth. [emphasis added]
- Hermas, The Pastor of Hermas, Book First, Chap. XI
- Recognitions of Clement. (Cont.) Book III, Chap. LXII. [emphasis added]