Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
The Aim and Means of Orthodox Spirituality
(1) Aim of Christian Life
Based on the teachings of the Gospel, the aim of man’s life is to “be partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and to be in union with God (henosis). The Fathers of the Church teach that union with God means our “deification” (i.e. sharing through grace in the Divine life, or to “become God”). This is difficult to understand, especially for the Arabic language speakers, because people may understand it incorrectly. But the Church Fathers talk always about it, emphasizing that this is the ultimate goal for which Christ came: to make us partakers of the divine nature, that is to say, to partake in His holy divine life.
What is meant by union with God or deification is participation of man in God’s life, receiving overflow of the divine life, and holding steadfastly to Him [abiding in Him (see Jn. 15:4)]. For this purpose God created man in His own image and likeness (see Gen. 1:26), and for this same reason God sent His only begotten Son to the world. Therefore, the aim of Christian life is to fulfill this one goal whether it is from man’s creation or from the incarnation of the Son of God, His death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead.
The Lord Jesus Christ came to fulfill for man what the fallen man failed to obtain in paradise, to unite with God and abide in Him forever.
At this point, we have to clarify that union with God that the Fathers have spoken of does not mean union in the divine essence, because this is not possible with the creation. It is only the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that are united together in essence and they have one essence. It is with the grace of God that Man is called by Him to fellowship in His divine life as a free gift from Him, through the work of the redeemer Jesus Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what our teacher St. Peter points to in his 2nd epistle when he says: “as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and Godliness … Him who called us by (His) glory and virtue … exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”(2Pet. 1:3, 4) St. Peter clearly says that the fruit of partaking of God’s nature is to flee from the corruption that is in the world through lust, i.e. we become partakers of God’s nature to become holy during our earthly existence.
Also, from the words of St. Peter “… you may become partakers of the divine nature”, we understand and feel that God called us to partake in His divine life. Also, The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said to The Father concerning the believers: “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent me and that You have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:23).
So, man is called by God to partake in an uncreated life, which is not man’s life, but is the life of God given to man through Christ the incarnate God.
The Beginning of Union with God and its Fulfillment: The full picture of union with God and its perfect fulfillment is reached at our resurrection in the second coming of Christ. However, union with God starts here on earth when we are in the flesh that it might be fulfilled in the age to come.
As members in the body of Christ, we are called to partake in His divine life from this time on. St. John the apostle says, “And truly our fellowship is with The Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:3,4). The union with God is partially fulfilled in the life of the believers by closeness with the Lord Jesus Christ, and abiding in Him by faith, love and obedience to His commandments through the power of prayer and union with His divine body, the glorified risen body from which flows the divine life in the Eucharist. For we receive the power of union with God through our union with Jesus Christ, from whose life-giving body flows the divine life into us. Thus, despite the fact that union with God is accomplished in the age to come, it starts now as we unite with Christ here.
The Overflowing Divine Love: This union or partaking of the divine life takes man into the depth of the life of the three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, themselves. In this life, the incessant stream of love flows between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This love expresses the very nature of God as pointed out by St. John, repeatedly, in his first epistle, “God is love” (1 John 4:8,16). Here, in this love, or inside this life in which love overflows without ceasing, or decreasing, the life into which man enters through Christ, exists man’s eternal bliss. He starts it now and it is fulfilled in the everlasting life when the Lord Jesus comes again, and man, both in the body and soul, participates in God’s Glory.
Union and the Heavenly Kingdom: Knowing this, we can now say that the union with God is the coming of His heavenly kingdom that was revealed in the Gospel. For the kingdom of God is His full ruling inside man; and when union with God happens, the kingdom of God is realized in him.
Union and the Commandment of Love: This union fulfills the commandment of love of which the Gospel speaks as the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets (Mt 22:40, Rom 13:10). It is only by the union with the life of the Trinity that man is able to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind, and his neighbor as himself. Without union with the life of God we cannot achieve complete love.
Images of union with God in the New Testament: The New Testament offers us several images for the final glorious state in which man will become, and which describes this union with God:
1- Christ’s wedding of the Church, 2- Seeing God face to face, 3- Incorruptible and unfading inheritance.
(To be continued)
 On the Incarnation of the Word by St. Athanasius, 54:3: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.”