The Level of Difficulty


In the past weeks and months I have posts entitled, “How hard is it?” “How much is enough?” “How Much is Too Little?” “What is at Stake?” In all of these I have pointed towards the maximum as the standard by which we live the Christian faith – even if we cannot live at the maximum standard. This neatly coincides with the Scriptural notion of sin as “missing the mark.” Of course, if we cannot live at the maximum standard, then it is obvious that we will miss the mark. And of course we will.

In a culture that suffers from grade inflation (everybody wants an ‘A’) it is hard for some people to live with the idea of perpetually falling short and missing the mark. It is also easy to understand why so many churches are moving the mark. “Everybody’s Welcome!” a wonderful statement of hospitality can also be code language for, “We don’t think of anybody as a sinner here!”

In an Orthodox Church everybody is not just a sinner, but says aloud each week that of sinners, “I am the first.” At least we get to be first in something! This, of course, is much the same as Christians have confessed everywhere, for most of Christian history. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table,” used to be regular liturgical fare for Anglicans. My seminary ridiculed that particular prayer as only so much “groveling.”

Of course, we ought to grovel. It is, after all, God before Whom we stand in worship. The only proper response is to fall down before Him (even if Orthodoxy is a bit seasonal about when it’s proper to fall down). We cannot be healed and become what we were truly created to be by puffing ourselves up and making ourselves feel better about everything. It just won’t work because it’s not true.

Every child can make an ‘A’ in a classroom, but it every child does, then it is either a highly selective class, or the ‘A’ has come to mean nothing more than “not absent.” We want more than this of our salvation. For to dwell in heaven as I am now would quickly become torture for me and obvious for all around me. I am not ready nor fit, and if I die tonight, then I will hope that friends and family will begin to pray for me with great fervor – for I shall need it.

The only way up for us as Christians is the way down. Only as we follow Christ and the way of the Cross will we find the door that opens from Hades into Paradise. It is there and has been well trod. If it is a road of maximum effort, it is only because God would not want less than all of me to be saved.

I will miss the mark today. Perhaps I will be closer than yesterday – but if so – it will only be because I have learned how to let a steadier hand guide the bow, a more sure hand clasp the arrow, even if my hand is still there. Of sinners I am the first. But if I am to be last in anything, please, O God, let it be in the number of those who are saved!

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.



16 responses to “The Level of Difficulty”

  1. Martha Avatar

    Thank you Father for another excellent post getting to the heart of the matter. Where should we ‘park’ our soul . . . where is the most excellent hospital for the heart? And how can we daily attempt to follow Christ our God ?

  2. michael Avatar

    I like Henry Nouwen/Chrales Ringma in The Seeking Heart, “One of the dimensions of living the way of Christ, besides living a life of love, forgiveness, and service, is embracing the spirituality of downward mobility.”

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “A broken and contrite heart, God will not despise” Psalm 50 (51).

  4. The Scylding Avatar

    Yet it remains difficult to remind yourself of these things in a culture where everybody is special – which means that nobody is special. Self-deception is so easy!

    Of course, as Screwtape would like us to do,it is easy to start taking pride in our humility, in being great sinners.

  5. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    “The only proper response is to fall down before Him (even if Orthodoxy is a bit seasonal about when it’s proper to fall down). ”
    Bold statement to make in the middle of yet, another fasting season Father, though I know that this one is not THE fasting season, aren’t we all still in a lenten season? I know I am, so I should stop now…
    I understand what you saying, truly I do, we tend to gear up for Great Lent, a little less for the Nativity season and even less for the other fasting periods.
    Forgive me.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I had a conversation with a Protestant minister last week that was pretty amazing. During the convesation I mentioned that one thing that first attracted me to the Orthodox Church was that she lives in the “but”. St. Paul particularly stated the maximum standard for living the Christian life and that we could not possibly live any other way. Just as frequently he admonished us to “go boldly before the throne of Grace” The connection between the full complete Christian life and our constant inability to live that way is the “but” We must live the maximum there is no other acceptable choice, “but” when we fail we need to repent and receive God’s forgiveness.

    It is quite easy to fall into the legalistic condemnation of sin and sinners. Equally easy to fall prey to the delusion that God will/does forgive everything without our repentance. Neither leads to salvation.

  7. Death Bredon Avatar

    Was it not Gregory of Nyssa who coined the aphorism, “Progress, not perfection [at least in this world]”?

  8. Weedon Avatar

    Some wise pilgrim once said it like this:

    This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness;
    not health, but healing;
    not being, but becoming;
    not rest, but exercise.
    We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way;
    the process is not yet finished, but it has begun;
    this is not the goal, but it is road;
    at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being

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  10. Jason Avatar

    Hello Fr. Freeman,

    Regarding your following comment, [Quote] I am not ready nor fit, and if I die tonight, then I will hope that friends and family will begin to pray for me with great fervor – for I shall need it [End Quote].

    Father, how does this mentality fit in with the confidence that we Christians, we sinners, can have in the person and work of Christ? Surely none of us are ready for death and none of us will ever be ready or made fit in and of ourselves, but, thanks be to God, that the power of the Incarnation and the Cross makes us fit. I understand you sentiments about our sinful condition—and I whole-heartedly agree with it—but it seems, at times, Orthodoxy tends to focus on our great sin and the need to repent and preserve, at the expense of the comfort and salvation that Christ has already won for us.

    Yes, we won’t be ready, but by the grace of God, Christ in his mercy makes us ready and receives us as his own. This is the confidence that every believer should carry throughout his or her lives. Not in the sense to make us slothful or to give us a license to sin, but to bring comfort when they truly realize that they’ll always miss the mark and can never save themselves. There is section in Bo Giertz’s book the Hammer of God where one of the characters is dying and their friends ask them if they are thinking of Jesus, and he essentially tells them that he’s not able to, but he knows that Jesus is thinking of him. This to me simply illustrates the truth of Philippians 1:6 that he who began a good work in you will complete it. Glory be to Jesus Christ—the Author and Finisher of our faith.



  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jason, I have no doubt in the sufficiency of Christ. But when I think of Christ I do not separate Him from His Body the Church, for this would be to do what God has not done. And the prayers of the Church teach me not to think too highly of myself. I speak of the prayers of my brothers and sisters, who are in Christ, and know that their poor prayers only have sufficiency because of the grace and goodness of Christ. We mean nothing to be taken away from Christ, but our habit of speech contains the fullness of doctrine within it. Including the attitude of heart that God has seen fit to protect us from pride and the like. It has to be learned, but if you’ll read carefully St. Paul’s letters you’ll note how often he asked for prayers from the brethren. But all of our sufficiency is in Christ. We assume that in all that we do or say. But we do not forget the brethren, which is often the case in Church’s who have separated themselves from the fullness of the Church.

  12. Jason Avatar

    Thank you for your comments Fr. Stephen.

    I guess the only point I was trying to get across (my “big idea” if you will) is that Orthodoxy, at times, at least to me, seems to highlight the “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” more than the “for it is God that works in you for his good pleasure” truth of our salvation.

    I realize it’s not an either-or, but there are those moments when we truly realize that all our efforts as and all we can do as Christians will never live up to the perfection of God. It’s those moments, when we as sinners are crushed, that admonitions to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” cause us to fall on our knees and cry out “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And at just such a moment, do we not need the comfort and hope (and assurance?) that God has loved us and embraced us not because of what we are or what we’ve done, but rather because of who Christ is and what he has fully accomplished in us.



  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is the very love of Christ that enables us to perceive our sins and that enables us to repent. “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” We have received “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” We are ontologically changed by that. While we are still free to turn away from that gift and, to a certain extent, we all do, we have opened the door and the Holy Trinity who saves us, has come in. Every time we make the sign of the Cross, attend Liturgy, cry out for forgiveness the deeper doors in our soul are opened a little more. In my experience, they become difficult to close completely.

    It is equally true that we are all spiritually paralyzed and blind. The great hope I receive from the story of the paralytic was that Christ healed him because of the faith of his friends. Each act of prayer and sacrifice in community bears fruit for others which redounds to our own salvation.

    Salvation is not linear nor is our communion with God external. “Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee” By stepping into the Church, we have entered a reality that is infinite; transcending and interpentrating the deepest recesses of our being; uniting us with each other and all of our brothers and sisters in the “past” and in the “future” We are inextricably connected even in the created world, how much more in the Body of Christ.

    We pray for ourselves Lord have mercy, not because He is hard, but so that we may all enter into His love. As we do so, to a degree, all others for whom we pray also enter into that love. Why else do we ask for the intercession of the saints, especially Mary, the Theotokos.

    We simply do not have the words to come close to describing the greatness of God. The best we can do is describe our own unworthiness while at the same time acknowledging that for some inexplicable reason, He loves us. Unlike us, He is constant in His love.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jason, I don’t think I disagree at all. We speak of all those moments, but in the course of Orthodox services I would say the balance is more like 95% we can do nothing! Help us! to 5% work out your salvation. Which gives the message that working out your salvation is learning to let God work in you. We do not teach anything other than God working in us, even if we speak of cooperating with him.

  15. Jasmine Yedigarian Avatar
    Jasmine Yedigarian

    have you ever written a book before? I find all of your blog posts or articles to be worthy of reflection in my daily life, and was wondering if you ever plan on putting this collection of writings together one day..

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    I have not written a book as an Orthodox Christian. I am considering eventually gathering some of the writings from the blog for a book. Thank you for the encouragement.

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