Believing in God


There was a time in my life that I thought belief in God was easy, and that those who did not believe in God were just obstinate or wrong-headed. As years have gone on, I’ve come to think that belief in God is a very hard thing – perhaps the hardest thing of all.

Much of my change of mind has to do with my understanding of belief in God. The more belief has become a matter of the heart (of “willed knowing” to use a Hebrew concept) and not a matter of the intellect, the harder it has become. At the same time, it seems to me that everything has become much clearer. Ninety-five percent or so of America says it “believes in God.” Given the life of our nation, it must mean that the phrase is fairly empty.

In The Pilgrim Continues His Way, the attached sequel to The Way of a Pilgrim, the little anonymous gem of Russian spiritual writing, there is something of a model confession. It begins simply:

Turning my gaze at myself and attentively observing the course of my interior life I am convinced, through experience, that I love neither God nor my neighbor, that I have no faith, and that I am full of pride and sensuality. This realization is the result of careful examination of my feelings and actions.

The guide goes on to detail each of these observations.

I do not love God. For if I loved Him, then I would be constantly thinking of Him with heartfelt satisfaction; every thought of God would fill me with joy and delight. On the contrary, I think more and with greater eagerness about worldly things, while thoughts of God present difficulty and aridity.

This model confession continues in this manner for several pages – absolutely spot on.

It is because belief cannot be isolated to intellectual activity that makes it becomes so hard. To believe, as I noted, is a “willful knowing,” the opposite of “ignoring,” if you will. It is a knowing, a believing that always results in action, whether it is how I speak, how I think, how I act, or where my attention is directed, etc. Belief in God is an activity that should unite my being rather than fragment it.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a common expression is “pay attention to yourself.” Oddly, it carries the same meaning as “the constant remembrance of God.”

The year of my conversion to Orthodoxy, belief in God was the absolute question of every day. Orthodoxy did not provoke a crisis of faith – I had been convinced in every possible way of the truth of the Orthodox faith for a matter of years. The difference was that the nuts and bolts of my day were completely shattered by the consequences of my conversion. Job change, financial change, existential change – I was doing something, solely on the basis of what I believed while the world around me thought I was largely nuts (or something). The most troubling expression I heard from people at the time was the patronizing comfort, “Well, you have to do what’s true for you.”

I always thought at the time, “No! I’m doing this because I think it’s true for everyone!” To have put my family through the trauma of conversion in order to feel better about myself was woefully inadequate. I was being asked to believe in God in a manner that I thought was worth asking my children to suffer for.

In hindsight – though the first year or so was hard – I was right. My children, I believe, would curse me now if I had turned back then (considering the fact that the oldest two are now married to Orthodox priests speaks for itself).

But as the crisis of conversion moves further into the past, the crisis of faith remains. To be an Orthodox priest can be as complacent a position as any other. To believe in God remains an effort. The commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength.” Apparently anything less than all is simply not sufficient.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





15 responses to “Believing in God”

  1. […] Go read Father Stephen’s blog today. Good stuff on belief. […]

  2. Alyssa Avatar

    This idea of “willfull knowing” or believing with our lives and our minds makes so much sense–but in some ways, very counter to how evangelical protestants view “belief”.

    My years as a campus minister at a local college had me in many discussions and training sessions about evangelism and how to help non-believers come to know Jesus. Our motivations were good, but I think our understanding was lacking because we always ended up talking about what was the bare bones needed for someone to accept/believe in order for them to become a Christian. If someone would acknowledge God as God and if they recognized Jesus as Lord and “want to give their lives over to him”, then they’ve crossed the line. (Granted, we all believed and taught that once you make that decision you spend the rest of your life working out your faith, allowing your actions to be conformed to God’s will).

    But as you say, “belief in God” is so much, much more. As a new catechumen, it was suprising to me to learn that in the early days one remained a catechumen for years before being recieved into the church. It seems to me that there is a lot of wisdom in that. I do not think that we spend nearly enough time considering the “cost” of believing…the day to day consequences, as you say.

    Of course, perhaps like marriage, if we truly knew what we were getting ourselves into, we might not do it. Maybe it is God’s grace to give us just what we need, a little at a time, that allows us to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar
    Fr. Stephen Freeman

    It’s grace, whatever is going on. I have been putting thoughts together on “belief” recently, mostly as I’ve been reading Fr. Sophrony Sakharov. He was the first one I read or heard to speak about the Hebrew “Yada” “to know” having this idea of “willful knowledge” about it. His suggestion (in the negative sense) of the word “ignore” as the closest concept we have was very helpful. Think of Christ’s words to those who did not feed, clothe, visit, etc., “Depart from me…I never knew you.” If you will, what they have just done is “ignore” him in the least of these his brethren. It’s not that he’s not there, but our ignorance is a willful ignorance. If you turn it around, my knowing must have that component of will as well. I believe, so what? As St. James says, “You do well to say you believe in God, the demons believe and tremble.” He knows that faith must be put into action. I think it’s why we must bow to the floor at Baptism and “worship” God, before we can recite the Creed. The tough part is remembering to fall to the floor (figuratively) throughout the day as we seek to believe.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    By the way,

    The photograph is from the feast of Theophany several years ago. Though it appears that I am standing on the water (what strength of faith!) I am not. Cameras do funny things. The young man holding the banner is now the priest, Fr. Hermogen Holste, my son-in-law. My server is Subdeacon Innocent who is in the Diaconal Training Program. The photograph was a great source of amusement in the parish at the time.

  5. Alyssa Avatar

    Thanks for clarifying! I actually did have to do a double take to make sure you weren’t walking on water…

  6. Gina Avatar

    Alyssa, I also was in campus ministry, for about 10 years. It seems there are still some of us “Becoming Orthodox” in the Fr. Peter Gilquist tradition. 🙂

    Fr. Stephen, the idea that we must still struggle to believe in God (or as Fr. Deacon Raphael Barberg says, “the struggle IS Orthodoxy”) has been a hopeful thing to me. Whether we meant to or not, as Protestants there was an expectation that we had “arrived” by being saved. Then I was left wondering why it was still so hard every day to be a Christian.

  7. Eric Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    I have been enjoying (well, enjoying is not quite the right sentiment . . . taking to heart? finding meaningful? helpful) your posts here on the new ‘blog and particularly found this post to speak to me. I enjoyed your calm and thoughtful posts at Pontifications in the past.

    I’ve shied away from ‘Way of a Pilgrim’ as perhaps too ‘above’ my place right now.

    But the confession you quote above is like an arrow to my heart – it is just the thing I see in myself. I do not know or love God in the way that I should.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  8. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen


    I obviously agree. I think there is a hole in our language, somehow, that does not give us good words for the reality of belief in God – perhaps it is somehow wordless. I was greatly helped by the concept of “Willing knowledge” or however it would be phrased when I was reading in Fr. Sophrony’s writings about St. Silouan. It gave me at least a concept to say something that I knew but had no words for. Belief has been so tied up with intellectual assent that, much less a once and for all sort of thing, that untangling it has been its own work. Part of the help of Orthodoxy is its demand of new vocabulary. Some words can transfer over, and some cannot. For some things entire new words are needed.


    The Way of a Pilgrim is actually probably not the best book for someone who wants to pursue the use of the Jesus Prayer, but it’s a good book to read. The little book typically appended to it: “The Pilgrim Continues His Way” is quite different in many respects. The third chapter or so in it is the place where I took the quotes on confession. That is very good to look up and read. I’ve often excerpted it and given to people to read as a preparation for confession. In some ways it is so helpful because it just says it like it is: “I do not love God…etc.” Which is probably more helpful to say than, “Lately I do not think that I’ve loved God like I should,” which is so much more like our typical confessions. We often repent in moderation because he confess in moderation – all in all yielding moderation. It’s like Salieri in the play Amadeus, shouting at the end, “Mediocrity!” He murders Mozart to make the world safe for mediocrity. How frightfully true.

  9. Priest Matthew Jackson Avatar

    As I read your post and then the comments, I couldn’t help but think of a comment I made to my adult class on belief in God, that also came from a recent re-reading of Elder Sophrony on St. Silouan. I won’t repeat what you wrote, but will say (in addition) that St. Silouan also tells us that there comes a point in a man’s walk with God that he no longer struggles to believe–he knows. He has had unquestionable experience of God, first hand knowledge, and he now knows beyond the shadow of any doubt that God exists, that Jesus Christ is our Saviour, and that the Holy Spirit is here to lead us into the Kingdom. And this knowledge of God puts all of our failures (sins) in a different perspective–now we haven’t just violated a commandment, now we don’t just say “I don’t love God,” we know it.

  10. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    Fr. Matthew, I would think that with such knowledge the ante is raised even higher. One assumption that I make, is that knowledge, true knowledge, also changes the one who knows. Thus salvation can be described as to “know Thee the only True God and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.” And I would also say that there should always be some knowing, ever growing, of God. But in this life, for me at least, the struggle remains. Even with knowledge – to be faithful to Him whom I know, etc. Thank you for your note.

  11. Athanasius Avatar

    Father I ask your blessing,

    What a joy to find your blog! I look forward to reading more. Shortly before my conversion to Orthodoxy belief in God was also the subject that haunted me. During college I was a religious studies major, and I was deep into the Tubingen School of Biblical criticism–dangerous territory. I just reached a point where I had to put Gunther Bornkamm back on the shelf and ask myself: “Do I believe anymore?” This “lightbulb” moment was to be the cornerstone of a renewed faith in Christ and a fundamentally new understanding of the Church that led to Holy Orthodoxy.

    Take care.

  12. Constantine Shepherd Avatar
    Constantine Shepherd

    Fr. Bless,

    I enjoyed your blog. I found out about it from Fr. Joseph Hunneycutt’s blog. In reading through your post I was so happy to see your reference to the “perfect confession” from The Pilgrim. i have not read it in a few years and seeing it today was a wonderful reminder.Thank-you for making me look at myself today.


  13. Roland Avatar

    Over the past two weeks I have continued to think about this quote from your post:

    “I do not love God. For if I loved Him, then I would be constantly thinking of Him with heartfelt satisfaction; every thought of God would fill me with joy and delight. On the contrary, I think more and with greater eagerness about worldly things, while thoughts of God present difficulty and aridity.”

    In preparing for Confession, I have sometimes used the Summary of the Law: “Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. . . .”

    I wondered, “Do I love God?” When I asked my confessors what it means to love God, they would brush off the question, assuring me that my life proved my love for God. But this response never quite felt right to me.

    The above quote, OTOH, does feel right to me. My problem is that I don’t love God – or at least don’t love him very much. Having been in love a time or two, I know what it means to be “constantly thinking of [someone] with heartfelt satisfaction.” My thinking about God does not meet this standard.

  14. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course, as noted, this comment comes from a Classic Orthodox source, so I cannot claim to be the author of such wisdom. But it is truly “spot on” when it comes to diagnosing the heart. We get almost nowhere in our confessions so long as we allow ourselves to be measured by some bourgeoise measuring stick that says, “yes I love God,” when of course I don’t. But our modern psychological training keeps us from letting someone make such a statement. I’ll be running an exerpt from one of the Fr. Arseny books soon that will show the power of not letting ourselves get by with poor confessions. If we are ever to find the place of the heart, then we cannot be afraid of speaking the truth, even when the truth sounds positively atheistic. I want God, and I need to want him with all my heart sould and mind, and it does me no good to settle for something less than that. Hang in there.

  15. David Brent Avatar
    David Brent

    You have blessed me over and over. What a great blog site. I have learned so much about Orthodoxy, and have an appetite to learn more. I sit at your feet and listen. I am so appreciative of your training and recall. Never would I be able to know where to look to find the treasures you share on this blog. I know you are a blessing to many.

    I have just put my finger on one great blessing I have received from you. You have taught me more about myself than I wanted to see. And for this, I keep coming back. Thank you my friend.

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