The Big Picture is What Matters

A central tenet of cognitive theory is that the meaning we assign to things, events, situations, and ambitions is what determine how emotionally invested we are in those aspects of our world. It shapes the quality of life and even more crucially the quality of our character. Therapy looks at the small picture of reactions to family stressors, work dissatisfaction, and other parts of life that we may respond to in less than helpful ways. Christianity always looks at the widest possible picture, even wider than this whole world and our entire life. And in that wider picture is our salvation. Again and again, saints throughout the ages emphasize this fundamental truth.

St Nazarius of Valaam 2For example, Elder Nazarius lived in the 18th century and became abbot of the Russian monastery Valaam during a period of great spiritual decline.  Through his example and holy life, Valaam experienced a spiritual renewal which led to the eventual missionary efforts in America by Saint Herman and Saint Juvenal.  Elder Nazarius once said, “Beguiling and deceptive is the life of the world, fruitless its labor, perilous its delight, poor its riches, delusive its honors, inconstant, insignificant; and woe to those who hope in its seeming goods: because of this many die without repentance. Blessed and most blessed are those who depart from the world and its desires.” What he is describing is the problem of not looking at the world through the wider picture of Christian revelation, but through the narrow picture of this stressor and that, this aim and that, this desire and that, a way of looking at life which not only misleads us and causes us to chase shadows, but ultimately leaves us feeling empty, because with such things as the guiding stars of our lives, we really are.

The situation which Elder Nazarius encountered mirrors the cultural situation we experience today.  Father Stephen Freeman in his blog,, writes about Christians who have created a bifurcated two story universe.  In this two-story universe, God is relegated to the second story as an ineffectual, distant, and unengaged deity.  For those who live on the first floor, it is even questionable whether anyone inhabits the second floor.

This bifurcated universe is not Christian, but unfortunately Christians can be duped into espousing it, because it pretends to pay homage to a God who doesn’t really exist in the heart of the one who professes this worldview.  In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I’ve described in great detail the manner in which Christians would be well-advised to make their way in the world.  That way must start with a Christian worldview.  “Christian teaching illumines created reality and the events of history. . . In like manner, an Orthodox Christian theological worldview can be employed as a frame of reference for evaluating the philosophical worldview underlying cognitive therapy, thereby removing what is false and misleading so that what is true and informative can be put to proper use.”

A proper Christian worldview maintains a one-story universe in which the uncreated God of our fathers is present, active, and sustaining life and love. This particular worldview is essential since it colors the perceptions of our daily experiences and encounters, for they are placed in a context wider than the universe and timeframe longer than time itself.  The words of Elder Nazarius warn us about the dangers of a worldview in which life, labors, ambitions, honors, and wealth are all viewed from a false perspective that only the time of our life is important, that only those in direct contact with us matter, and worst of all that God is absent from the equation of our life.  The Elder Nazarius’s seemingly austere words do not condemn the world, but short-sightedness and existential errors in meaning assignment.

If our thoughts determine our lives, the structure of those thoughts is determined by the worldview that we live by (and not merely what we profess on Sundays).  As I mention in ACW, “A human narrative of creation, the fall, and redemption offers a background theory about the universe, human nature, the human predicament, and its resolution.”

A Christian living in the world is to be salt and light to the world.  “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” These are aims worthy of the Christian life and can only be achieved by accepting the wider picture of salvation as the context for what we think, what we say, and what we do.

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