Impious Piety

Counting out the dill and mint and cumin, while cordoning off one’s wealth so one didn’t have to take care of one’s parents. Straining gnats to swallow camels. Taking widow’s houses. Nasty business. And the Lord hated it, this impious piety. Lacking mercy it looked great on the outside but smelt like a charnel house on the inside.

But there are other ways to be piously impious. No Christian is totally immune from such. Perhaps those Christians whose faith makes use of ritual and liturgy and traditional practices are the most susceptible to pious impiety. Not of the sort for which Jesus castigated the religious leaders of his day, but rather for what might be a more insidious sort: one which promulgates irresponsible escapism and magical thinking.

Let’s face it: piety feels good. By piety I mean those sorts of actions and words which are motivated by a desire to feel closer to God, and those actions and words which God does in fact indwell. It is the Christian man moved in the midst of a worship service, and perhaps against all convention, who drops to his knees in prayer to God. It is the devout woman who, singing the well-worn words of the hymn she’s sung hundreds of times since she was a child, nonetheless feels the warmth of the heart which Christ’s presence and nearness invoke. Two thousand years of Church experience have tested the sorts of things Christians can do and say and sing which invoke and accomplish a closer proximity to the Holy Trinity and the love which flashes from the coinherence of the Three Persons. Yep. Piety feels great.

And like all good human feelings and activities, the devil likes to distort it and turn it into something horrid and debilitating. What began as a desire to worship God, will end in a desire to worship self. What began as a desire to follow and to do God’s will, will end in the attempt to bend God to our will. There’s no way around it, the goodness of piety can be distorted into impiety through irresponsible escapism and magical thinking.


Because the experience of God’s presence can feel so good, and because the end of piety–union with God–is what we’ve been designed for, it is easy to seek the experience of piety and it’s dividends even to the point of neglecting the very real duties God has given us in our personal life. It is especially tempting when our personal life isn’t that great.

Think if you will of the many conversions that happen during crisis moments. People who’ve not darkened a church door since they were a child, suddenly, when their business collapses, find themselves amen-ing at the next Sunday service. Those who’ve never said a prayer over a meal suddenly find the energy and imperative to bless the Wendy’s burger they are about to consume. As is not infrequently the case, once the crises pass, the amen’s fall silent and the next Wendy’s meal is devoured without the slightest thought of divinity.

Mind you, such “conversions” are not without exception, even if we might suppose they are the rule. Sometimes crisis conversions are real and lasting. But more often than not the new “piety” is simply an opportunity to escape from the chaos and uncertainty of the moment, to seek the experiences of calm and peace. Such a “piety” is little more than an escape from present reality.

That such escapism can endure for a long time does not validate the faux piety, though it can provide more opportunities for that which imitates the real to be overtaken by the real. Sometimes faux piety becomes real piety. We can never predict when. But when such “piety” continues long term, it can also simply solidify into a lifestyle of escapism. One continues the various practices (perhaps listening to a genre of music, reading certain books, attending certain services) on which one has been getting spiritually high, seeking again and again that first high, that hit which now retreats into the foreground of the horizon ever more quickly the more energetically we pursue.

It is, put more simply, that sort of person about whom we may say, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good.” When one’s religiosity (let’s not put up with calling it by what it’s not, piety) gets in the way of paying one’s bills, balancing one’s checkbook, dealing with one’s spouse in love, treating one’s co-workers with respect, parenting one’s children in the midst of teenage rebellion, then one is simply practicing religion as an escape so that one doesn’t have to deal with one’s own faults and deficiencies. When one takes more than one’s allotted breaks at work so that one may “pray the hours” then one is escaping responsibility. When one turns one’s back on one’s spouse to spend time in Bible reading instead of time in conversation, then one is escaping responsibility. When one volunteers for a mission trip instead of fulfilling a promise to take one’s son on a camping trip, then one is escaping responsibility.

When the prayers of the Church become a substitute for living the life in Christ, then one may simply be escaping from reality for that which feels better. In such instances, one’s faux piety is no better, and perhaps infinitely worse, than any narcotic.

Magical Thinking

Because God responds to our prayers and our devoted actions, and it feels quite good to know that he’s “in our corner,” we have his love and support, it is easy to seek the experience of piety as a means to getting what we want. Prayer and fasting for a day, or a week, or, for the super-Christians, for forty days, is certainly time-honored and is that for which we can find biblical examples. But “where two or more of you agree” is not license to gang up on God. God’s sovereignty is not trumped by majority vote, his providence is not outdone by numbers. And let’s face, we have it on the authority of a prophet like Isaiah, that the Deity is hardly impressed by our righteous actions. “Lord, Lord,” we may cry, “didn’t we pray the Jesus Prayer 500 times per day for 40 days? Why didn’t we get that job promotion?” At which point Jesus may well disavow knowledge of us.

Perhaps we want something far more noble and “Christian”: virtue, holiness, and so forth. And so we set forth like a military commando, observing the fasts, praying the hours, callousing our fingers for using our komboskini, and yet, our first reaction to being cut off in traffic is to cuss like a military commando. So much for “piety.”

Answers to prayer, “progress” in the Christian life, are not formulae, are not mechanical, are not magical. Just because you get two like-minded friends to pray the same thing you pray, just because you do the same things you heard Father So-and-So counsels his people to do (and goodness knows your own priest is so lax on these matters), just because you prayed the same prayer your friend prayed and her cancer got healed, means pretty much nothing. God does as he wills. He is not a plaything of human desire.

The Problem

The primary problem in both escapism and magical thinking is a lack of faith. Of course. And yet, it’s not really that obvious is it? If it were, would each of us find it so easy to succumb to the temptation to use piety to feel good and to get our way?

Faith, more than belief in particular intellectual content, is fundamentally a relationship of trust. It’s not primarily what we believe about God (though that is important), but rather that we believe in him. Escapism is faux piety that believes in the experience. Magical thinking is faux piety that believes in the process. But true piety is that which believes in God. Full stop.

Well, maybe a little bit more. True piety is that which believes God is love. That’s the crux of it isn’t it? We don’t believe we can experience the love of God in the midst of the awful tragedies of our daily lives and the suffering and discontent we are undergoing. There’s faux piety with its seductive charms: praying feels so good, and will take you out of your current suffering; if you make 40 prostrations today, God will answer that prayer tomorrow.

True piety however comes in and says, “God is love.” That’s it. “God is love.” But my life hurts. “Yes, I know. God loves you.” But I need that job to have money to feed my family. “Yes, I know. God loves you.” But I’m afraid, I have to do something! I hate the mess my life is, I want out! “Yes, I know. God loves you.”

True piety does not escape the horribleness of our daily lives. True piety simply prays and prostrates, gives and serves, looking for nothing except the opportunity to be with God–apart from any result of experience or changed circumstance.

St John Maximovitch taught that

for all the ‘mysticism’ of our Orthodox Church that is found in the Lives of the Saints and the writings of the Holy Fathers, the truly Orthodox person always has both feet firmly on the ground, facing whatever situation is right in front of him. It is in accepting given situations, which requires a loving heart, that one encounters God. (Father Seraphim Rose, God’s Revelation to the Human Heart, 25)

True piety looks for that encounter, in every moment of every real circumstance, good and bad, of one’s day. Faux piety doesn’t deliver on it’s promises, and puts one on an endless treadmill seeking ever greater highs, ever greater results. True piety accepts its place on the potter’s wheel, knowing that simply by being there one will experience the touch of God’s hand.

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