God can accomplish great things through any person, using him or her as an instrument. Just as in the hands of a true master a cheap fiddle can be made to sound almost like a Stradivarius, or a brand new outfit can be sewn from scraps of material, even so the Lord can create something important and wonderful through everyone and through anyone. He can, but He is not in a hurry to do so.
A priest cannot help thinking about this when he pronounces the dismissals at the end of services. Day by day we commemorate saints to whose name is added—rather as the term “Guards” indicates an elite military rank—the word “wonderworker”. “So-and-So of all Russia, Wonderworker”; “So-and-So, Victory-Bearer and Wonderworker.” God’s light streamed through such people during their lifetime, as if through a cleanly scrubbed window pane, and it continues to do so today. It is through these people that God—the source of power, peace, and miracles—lavishes his gifts and realizes his plans. The question arises as to why certain people transmit the divine power so freely, just as water conducts electricity, and others do not. It is as if, to continue the comparison with the conducting of electricity, they are more like rubber or wood?
No one is holy in and of himself. Holiness in man is possible, but not normative. It does not come from within, from our nature, but from outside. It is an assumed or adopted sanctification. The Divine Liturgy teaches us to think in this way. It teaches us absolutely everything, and teaches correctly. When the priest breaks the holy bread, he says: “The Holy Things for the holy,” meaning that the holy gifts will be given to holy people. But the people humbly proclaim and profess that “One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father”. Thus, we profess that Christ is the only Sinless One and the Giver of all holiness. Man, if he is holy, is so through participation in the Source.
There is one particular sin that stands like a guard on the border where the waves of grace roll onto the shore of life, and who does not allow grace to enter life and change it. This sin is vanity. It is because of this sin that good deeds remain within the framework of poor, weak human efforts, and do not become that joint work (that “synergy”, as the theologians say) of God and man together, which constitutes a genuine miracle and a truly blessed life.
A vain person is a thief. He is a thief of divine glory. If he does something great with God's help and in God's name, he will nevertheless say: “I did it”. He will certainly think like this and so will become like Satan, who one day fell in love with the glory and beauty that had been given him. Therefore, the vain man who speaks or thinks in this way, instead of coming closer to God, will move away from him and come closer to perdition. So it is for our own good that the Lord does not perform great works through us, lest we become proud and perish.
All the same, the Lord is calling us to perfection. “Be holy,” he says, “for I am holy” (1 Pt 1.16; cf. Lev 11. 44). The complete fulfilment of this commandment is impossible to achieve by human efforts alone, which are always feeble and limited. We need the help of grace. But God is not in a hurry to give us the assistance of this all-powerful grace—out of love for us, so that man does not become a devil. He allows us to become bogged down in our own weakness and to lose faith in ourselves, but so that we may come to realize that without Him we are nothing. Only then should we seek and ask for grace and, having received it, refrain from being proud.
Holy people are those who did not say or think, “I did it. My hands, my talents, my efforts have created something.” And God was not afraid to endow such people with power and wisdom. I mean, He was not afraid for them. He was not afraid that they would become proud and flawed. It is precisely clear-sighted humility that makes people conductors of the divine power and, in our eyes, miracle workers.
Moses talked with God, divided the sea, performed signs, in fact was steeped in miracles. And yet, it is said of him that he “was very meek, more than all men on the face of the earth” (Num 12. 3). That is just the way it is. An arrogant person predisposed to boasting could not, in Moses’ place, have become an instrument of such glorious deeds of God. Such a man without fail, perhaps every step of the way, would have added to God’s will something of his own, and thus have perverted Providence.
Man is only too willing to say “I”, yet this short word resounds like a shot aimed at the heart of a potential miracle. “I did it, I achieved it, I managed it,” says the thief of divine glory. But since God is jealous of the truth, He knows how to humble the proud. For example, Nebuchadnezzar, walking about his royal palaces, said: “Is not this the great Babylon, which I built as a home for my kingdom, by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty!” (Dan 4.30). “I built ... my power ... my majesty ...” In just a single sentence the king allowed his self-love and admiration for his own abundant talents to find ample expression. However, “while the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, your kingdom has passed from you, and they shall drive you from men. Your dwelling shall be with the wild animals, and they shall make you eat grass like an ox. Seven years shall bring this change upon you, until you know that the Most High rules over the kingdom of men, and will give it to whomever He will.’ That very hour the word was accomplished upon Nebuchadnezzar” (Dan 4.31–32).
A saint is someone who willingly places himself like a scalpel in the hands of a surgeon or like a spade in the hands of a gardener. He consciously devotes himself to the service of God and wisely submits to God’s will. God can, of course, compel anyone and make use of anyone by force, but such a person would deserve no praise or credit. A holy person is one who agrees to be an instrument and also agrees not to ascribe glory to himself.
Shall the axe boast itself against him who chops with it?
Or shall the saw exalt itself against him who saws with it?
As if a rod should shake them that lift it up,
Or as if a staff should lift up him that is not wood (Isa10.15).
This is true humility before God, genuine spiritual poverty, which is an indispensable condition for holiness and for active participation in God’s work. We see this already in the case of the elderly monk Jonah, who was ordered by the Mother of God to build a new monastery in Kiev. He was afraid and refused, invoking his old age and infirmities. The Mother of the Lord of heaven and earth told him then that she would do everything herself and that in her hands Jonah would simply be a shovel and a rake, which is how it soon came to pass.
The world would be completely different if everyone had faith. Even more so, the world would be different and life would be different, if that faith were clear-sighted and humble. It is such a faith that is spoken of in the Psalms: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for Your mercy, and Your truth” (Ps 113.9).
As already mentioned, a vain person is a thief, a thief of divine glory. Perhaps we have not all reached for the pocket of our beloved or stolen apples from a neighbour’s garden. But it is absolutely true that each of us has attributed to himself successes and good luck, and forgotten to give glory to God. It is bitter and embarrassing. Bitter and harmful. It is fitting here to remember the words of Jeremiah: “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and a bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord, the LORD of hosts” (Jer 2.19).
Moreover, had we been humble, the Lord would have performed many wonderful and glorious deeds through us, both great and small. If He does not do so, it is not because He cannot, but because He pities us and does not wish us any harm. If by chance we were to work some miracle or other and receive increased mercy we would become proud, and it would be to our detriment. Therefore, the good God keeps us on starvation rations, and we, blind as we are, ask: “Where are Your mercies of old, Lord? Why is everything as it is now, but before it was different? ”
So, the world is starving and yet God’s larder is full of food. In order to open its doors, however, it is necessary that the storekeeper be pious, so that he does not cry out, “Come here! I will feed you! It is I who am your breadwinner and benefactor!”
It is not easy to find a humble storekeeper. It turns out that a vain person is not only a thief of divine glory, but also someone who prevents divine grace from pouring into the world so as to heal, comfort, and sanctify human nature.