#25 of a Series on Psalm 50 – “Restore unto me the joy of salvation and uphold me with Your guiding Spirit.” (Orthodox Study Bible)
The track of Psalm 50 now shows us how repentance leads us from one blessing to another, or as St. John the Apostle or St. Paul might have put it, ‘grace upon grace.’ (Jn.1:16) While joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, especially those restored in the Spirit through penance, we can see additional graces building within the soul of those who are renewed through repentance. Perhaps these gifts are offered to us only after repentance, because only then can we actually receive them. While we are in sin our awareness of God’s gifts is dulled and our desire or capacity to act in a godly and virtuous manner diminished or even effectively destroyed. With repentance also comes a desire to live a virtuous life in the service of the Lord, and others.
Uphold me with a Your guiding Spirit. Again, this verse references the ‘Spirit of God’ as we are praying for His guiding Spirit to come to us. The verb ‘uphold’ here is interesting. I think everyone who has tried to walk the Christian walk can identify with the idea. Especially those who have failed.
David is asking to be upheld. Now the opposite of being upheld, is to fall, or perhaps better, collapse. Perhaps we catch here a glimpse of the Spirit of humility illumining David’s thought? How many of us have not asked God to uphold us – simply because we didn’t think we needed it! We think, “I’m strong enough now – I can handle this.” As the oft-quoted proverb reminds us, “Pride precedes the fall.” (Prov. 16:18) This has certainly been true in my life, and my falls. A wise priest told me years ago that men are tempted usually in one of three big areas – pride, sexual sin, and avarice. My experience is that all three are an ongoing struggle (!), but the one I thought would be the ‘easiest’ to deal with, is the one that slays me all too frequently. We have this idea that somehow that isn’t going to be my problem – at least until God allows the circumstances in life to show us the truth about such things. I would suspect that maybe David’s experience of the burning lust was something he thought he could ‘handle’. He didn’t do what he needed to protect his eyes and his heart. Similarly, we don’t recognize our weakness and susceptibility in part because we really haven’t been tested. But when we are – BOOM! – and the fall is catastrophic.
How are we Upheld (in Grace)?
The way of repentance shows David and us all that we must be upheld in Christ, by grace. While our wills can open us to that redemptive power, on our own (even after repentance) we will fall unless the grace of God sustains us and as David’s prayer identifies, the Spirit guides us to confront life and its temptations while being upheld.
The image that comes to mind here is what we read about in the story of Exodus 17. God has sent the Israelites to conquer the idolatrous tribes in the desert, and they face off with the Amalakites, with Joshua leading the charge. Moses is to hold up his arms (ostensibly with his staff in hand) for hours while the battle rages. So, human that he is, Moses gets tired. Exodus 17:11f says,
“As long as Moses held up his arms, the Israelites won, but when he put his arms down, the Amalekites started winning. When Moses’ arms grew tired, Aaron and Hur brought a stone for him to sit on, while they stood beside him and held up his arms, holding them steady until the sun went down.” (New International Version)
At sunset, the battle was finally won and the Amalekites defeated. The battle goes well only when the arms of Moses are upheld. If he weakens and his arms fall, the tide turns against the Israelites. The guys on the battlefield are doing the fighting, but their fate is in the hands of Moses (so to speak) and the special grace is coming through Moses. His role is seemingly simple – keep his arms lifted up – but humanly difficult.
Arms Reaching Out
Now this passage is full of images and lessons. In Orthodox biblical interpretation, the outstretched arms are a prefigurement of the outstretched arms of Christ on the Cross, which was the source of the ultimate Victory over sin and the Enemy which is Death and the demons who fight us. As with Moses in the Old Testament, so Christ in the New Testament is the pattern set. (Jn 1:17) The hymnography for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross refers to this event in the desert and the symbolism of the Victory of Moses as an anticipation of the Triumph of the Cross. Our human collapse into sin has been reversed – defeat has been changed to victory by God’s ‘holding us up’. The exaltation – uplifting also alludes spiritually to the uplifting/offering of Christ on the Cross. This sacred offering of Himself, concluded at the ninth hour, with the sacrificial death and the ultimate Victory of Christ in glory. We can also find interest in the ‘sitting on the stone’ which shows up in the Resurrection narrative when the Angel who proclaims the Resurrection sits upon it. To be seated in this way lends the sense of the power of God present and the authority given to the Angel to reveal the Victory in the Resurrection.
In another way, in the ancient Church, Christians prayed with their arms uplifted. This is refered to biblically in 1Tim. 2:8 reflecting the Hebrew practice in Psalm 63:4 and elsewhere. So Christians ‘lift up their hands and bless the Lord’ as well. Several traditional icon styles of Mary in prayer (Gr. Orans), such as the ‘platytera’, portrays her with her hands uplifted to the Lord. It is a common gesture prescribed in the ritual rubrics for priests at various points in the liturgical services. This lifting up of hands was an ancient gesture of recognition, honor and openness to another, culturally, which was extended to God specially. And we can see the importance of the Spirit praying within us (Gal. 4:6) that ‘upholds’ our spirit and our own hands and arms as we pray.
So the people are upheld by God, and by Moses, through his arms. Now there is an interesting aspect to the Exodus narrative here – namely, that Moses can do it on his own – but only for so long. Even with the almighty grace of God present and winning the victory, Moses grows weak and his arms droop and the battle turn ugly. But then what happens? We see that Aaron and Hur literally prop up the arms of Moses, themselves, sustaining him and his ministry, so that it can reach its glorious end.
Where’s the Support?
I can only say that this image of ‘support’ is as essential as it is powerful to all of us. For those of us in ministry in the Church, the uplifting strength of others is essential – that it be present, and that those so serving can draw upon it.
The assistance of others comes from many sources. For example, our Lord Jesus gave us the model of this in his own ministry. He had twelve apostles gathered close to him in a sustaining way – and he called upon them constantly to help and participate in his life and work – whether it was his empowering them to carry out the saving tasks of preaching, healing and casting out demons in the villages, to preparing the Passover Supper, or in countless other ways – even like managing the purse![i] And let us not forget that riveting passage in Mt. 26:36ff where Jesus asks the disciples to be with him, and pray for ‘one hour’ – but they failed him. Let’s also note the faithful women who also accompanied Jesus from the beginning and met many of his needs, including the special spiritual balm preparing Him for his burial (Mt. 26:12) They would process with Jesus all the way to the Cross, and then would carry out the gruesome burial preparations because the male apostles (save for John) had fled the scene. These acts of care and support of his ministry would foster love in their hearts – imperfect at first – but as with Aaron and Hur, a sustaining uplifting necessary, given the weakness of the human condition in the flesh. In the end, ultimately, victory.
Recognition of this need for others as sustaining people and relationships is a hallmark of healthy ministry in the lives of who serve in the name of Christ. For clergy, we are called to ‘uplift’ others in the Spirit and there is great strength in the spiritual gifts afforded by the Lord to care for His people and grant them victory in their spiritual battles. But it is a heavy burden, even when the battle is going well, others need to be present[ii] to ‘prop up’ those who are serving in support of this battle even if they’re not, like Joshua, on the front lines.
I know from my ministry[iii] over the years that such support has come from many different people in many different ways. Certainly, having a spouse who supports one in such a ministry is something I would deem critically important. (Those who are celibate must find support from others in their clergy/monastic circle.) It really helps to have others in team approach to local ministry who can hold one another up in their various aspects of service. I know that when that teamwork is absent or weak, upholding even the status quo is difficult, and collapse imminent.[iv] The ministry of many has been destroyed because they thought they could ‘go it alone’ with the grace of God of course. The image of the scriptures hints otherwise.
I’ve seen support for those in ministry come from so many places – starting with family (spouse), godly friends, parish members and others who are ‘served[v]’, other clergy/professional colleagues[vi] and yes, hierarchs, who as the servants of the servants, really need to be upheld.[vii] There are countless ways that this support manifests itself and in some ways, like quiet prayers offered silently for those who serve[viii], they are not visible.
But many are visible – in simple gestures of affirmation, kind words of encouragement, a simple compliment[ix], offers to help, practical support like assisting with projects or just providing food. Children can provide an amazing gift of joyous support in the Church or other contexts where service is going on. Sometimes any support is desperately needed, other times (attention any bishops reading this!) specific support is needed that can provided by only one person. Sometimes a person needs support only until ‘nightfall’ – a passing moment. Other times, it seems like a lifetime need.
And yes, Moses needs to allow his brethren to prop him up – without them he can’t do it. Each has a role – Joshua on the front lines, Moses upholding the battle, Aaron and Hur upholding Moses. God working through them all by grace to bring Victory. That’s the picture.
A Word about Guidance
The Holy Spirit provides guidance.
The repentant one is in a position to be guided – the counsel[x] of the Spirit will not fall on deaf ears if a person is repentant. Spiritual openness to guidance is the mark of one maturing in Christ because he or she is being led. While this is a spiritual reality (the Spirit leads) we can use the biblical analogy above to also better appreciate how the ministry of spiritual guidance works in the Church. In Orthodoxy, the spiritual guidance by the ‘elders’ (Gr. presbyters = priests) is usually present – but not always mature or well-utilized. Much of spiritual guidance in traditional Orthodox countries eventually became the purview of monastics who rightly were recognized to potentially have deep spiritual gifts of wisdom and insight.[xi] Others provide counsel, including laity. One good example is in the essential counsel of parents and godparents to children. Another example is the love and counsel provided by Church school teachers, adult catechists and other ‘elders’ in the parish community.
A Desperate Need Today
Before I close this, again speaking from experience, I would say that this type of guidance may be one of the most desperate needs of the Church in our age. People need help now or eventually realize that they need spiritual help, and guidance. Will they will look to Christ, the Church, or her ministers?[xii] This guidance is essentially the fulfillment of the Gospel mandate in Matthew 28, “Go … and make disciples”. The making of disciples is the work of the Holy Spirit – but advanced through the ministry of those entrusted to provide them guidance – then continue to uphold them as they are baptized and live their Christian lives.
This topic of guidance/ discipleship needs a lot of exploration in our day – maybe in a future discussion here.
May God’s mercy uphold us, even as we also provide love and care for others as they serve and ‘do battle’ in their own lives. Ω
[i] Sometimes the apostles failed in their service in upholding the work of Jesus. Judas, the keeper of the purse, failed horrifically. (Jn.13:29)
[ii] If not continually, then frequently.
[iii] I speak here from my experience as a priest (first Catholic then Orthodox). I am assuming that the work of others in ministry mirrors the priestly ministry in our need for others to support us. That support may take very different forms some times.
[iv] I fear that, for far too long, we’ve assumed that the institutional aspects of the Church would carry it forth through the battle. We are finding today that not only can the institutions no longer carry the Church, the institutions are themselves in need of interpersonal and relational support internally (in many forms) with which they will collapse. This is true across Christian Churches/denominations. The Church is always people.
[v] I don’t want to promote the falsehood that ‘the clergy serve and the laity are served’. All are called to serve and from my experience I have received powerful sustaining support from laity in many different ways, as I’ve tried to support them in their ministry. That said, clergy need certain things from other clergy and often, that is woefully lacking.
[vi] Such as the counseling professions which become ministries.
[vii] This is why the Church prays for the hierarchs so frequently in the liturgical prayers – they need them.
[viii] Worthy of note is that we pray in our services (litanies) “For those who serve…” in God’s holy churches, and the anaphoras of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom are explicit – for example, we pray for ‘those who serve the poor’. All of the ministries are vital, and need to be ‘upheld’.
[ix] As the Fathers constantly warned about vainglory and praise from others, this must be noted. But it’s also worth noting that psychologists today can demonstrate that those who do not receive affirmation often fail in their efforts – again ostensibly because they are alone and may even feel abandoned. Where are Aaron and Hur when you need them?
[x] There is a great biblical and spiritual tradition on the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Good Counsel. (Is. 11:2)
[xi] A simple example in our day is St. Porphyrios who reposed in the Lord in and was acclaimed a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2013. His legacy of spiritual help to countless thousands continues through his spiritual intercession for us and through the witness of people and publications that attest the ways he provided this type of spiritual guidance.
[xii] There is an interesting nascent development where people are advocating for a restoration of the female diaconate in the Orthodox Church. The special needs of women for sound spiritual guidance may be a great, but unmet, need and deaconesses may be able to provide this ministry. If you are interested I this topic, let me know.