Love Is Before All Things


Spiritual struggle is frequently counter-intuitive – and is almost always learned from those who have walked its paths successfully before us. The following is a small passage from the teachings of the Elder Porphyrios. Its wisdom speaks for itself. If you would gain the victory in spiritual struggle, then above all things, seek to love.

Forget about all your weaknesses so that the adverse spirit does not realize what is going on and grab you and pin you down and cause you grief.  Make no effort to free yourself from these weaknesses.  Make your struggle with calmness and simplicity, without contortion and anxiety.  Don’t say, “I’ll force myself and I’ll pray to acquire love and become good.” It is not profitable to afflict yourself to become good.  In this way your negative response will be worse.  Everything should be done in a natural way, calmly and freely.  Nor should you pray, “O God, free me from my anger, my sorrow, etc.”   It is not good to pray about or think about the specific passion; something happens in our soul (when we do) and we become even more enmeshed in the passion.  Attack your passion head on, and you’ll see how strongly it will entwine you and grip you and you won’t be able to do anything.

Don’t struggle directly with temptation, don’t pray for it to go away, don’t say, “Take it from me, O God!”  Then you are acknowledging the strength of the temptation and it takes hold of you.  Because, although you are saying “Take it from me, O God,” basically you are bringing it to mind and fomenting even more.  Your desire to be free of the passion will, of course, be there, but it will exist in a hidden and discreet way, without appearing outwardly.  Remember what Scripture says, Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Let all your strength be turned to love for God, worship of God and adhesion to God.  In this way your release from evil and from your weaknesses will happen in a mystical manner, without your being aware of it and without exertion.

This is the kind of effort I make.  I have found that the bloodless mode is the best mode of sanctification.  It is better, that is, to devote ourselves to love through the study of the hymns and psalms.  This study and preoccupation directs the mind to Christ and refreshes my heart without my realizing it.  At the same time, I pray, opening my arms in longing, love and joy, and the Lord takes me up into His love.  That is our aim – to attain to that love. 

From Wounded by Love: the Life and the Wisdom of the Elder Porphyrios

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.


22 responses to “Love Is Before All Things”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Surely this is true! May God be praised for this encouragement!

  2. Carl Avatar

    This seems very similar to wuwei of Daoism. At the very least, I can attest that this negative admonishment is true. From my own experience, focusing on a problem only exacerbates it.

  3. Canadian Avatar

    This works! Scripture says that we have turned from idols to serve the living God. Too often, we are assaulted with a besetting sin and are consumed with turning FROM the idol without turning TO serve the living God. Our hearts by nature are always loving something. If we do not set our love on Christ, our attempts to stop our love for sin will fail because the heart must love. You can sweep the house clean, but the demons will return sevenfold if the heart has not put up a no vacancy sign because of a greater love. Thanks for this Father.

  4. stephen Avatar

    Very helpful, and for me, timely advice. Thanks.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Accidentally deleted from Artisticmisfit:

    Lord have mercy, this is so beautiful. I first heard about Elder Porphyrios from a priest in a sermon, and from some reason my attention was caught. Recently we celebrated the feast day of another Porphyrios.
    Please post more from him. His writing is very accessible and relevant and most of all fresh.

  6. quodvultdeus88 Avatar


    I recently started a blog to chronicle my journey through church history and catholicty. I’d welcome any feedback from an Orthodox perspective.

  7. nsittler Avatar

    It took a long time to figure out what the 12 steps (AA, etc) tradition meant by “surrender.” I thought how can I surrender without giving myself over to my sin? “Walk off the battlefield,” was an idea that I came across a lot. It finally started making sense when I started looking into Orthodoxy. This makes it all the clearer. Thanks to God!

  8. Jason Avatar

    I mean this in absolutely no disrespectful manner, but how does the Elder’s words then fit with confession and repentance? If one focuses only on love and the good, how does one then repent?

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    By naming the sin without anger towards yourself – tears if God gives them and accept the grace of God given in the sacrament. I don’t think we need to spend a great deal of time in the sacrament condemning or judging ourselves. Just speak the truth without analyzing your sin (we Americans do this much too often).

    But it is quite possible to come to confession with the sense that you’ve done wrong and it is your job to not do this anymore. It is our task to present our sinful and broken heart to God, but only God can give me the grace not to sin again. I certainly don’t go to confession intending to sin again, but it is not mine to judge myself, how strong I am, etc. Just to confess what I have done.

  10. Steve Avatar

    This may be the most liberating concept I have ever encountered. It is so amazing in its simplicity.

    May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

    God have mercy, God have mercy, God have mercy.

  11. Timothy Avatar

    Last weekend I finished reading the book that contains this passage. Outstanding, highly recommended!

  12. Seraphim Avatar

    “…it is not mine to judge myself, how strong I am, etc. Just to confess what I have done.”

    How refreshing.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sometimes, priests can mistakenly see confession as a time of spiritual direction. My Archbishop says, if the priest says more in the confession than the person confessing, there may be a problem. My experience is generally that we Americans, especially, over analyze these things (our sins) which, in truth, we do not fathom at all. Rather than the humility of just saying the ugly truth, we explain, etc. It is good to name the sin, and let God be the judge. Neither the priest (who should not judge) nor the confessee (who does not truly know enough to judge – nor do any of us) needs judge sin, just name it. God forgives, and gives the grace to heal. The healing may take a long time. We come for healing, not for explanation. In truth, if your reason understood the whole of your sin (motivation, etiology, etc.) you’d be no closer to repentance and healing. Repentance itself is a gift of grace, as is the healing and forgiveness. It is the coming to God that is important. A session with a psychologist is almost a perfect example of what we do not need to do in confession. The two have almost nothing in common.

  14. AR Avatar

    Perhaps this is related to the fact that our spiritual warfare involves being attacked by evil spirits. The worst thing to do is to challenge…one of them. I think of Jacob wrestling till daybreak; not with the devil but with God.

  15. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Jason raises an important question, which Father Stephen handles deftly in my opinion. The confessor and spiritual director roles coalesce, only sometimes, in the same person. In fact, repentance, confession, absolution, and “penance” for one’s sin do not require much, if any, insight as to the sin’s “triggers.” Instead, what appears to be required is only enough foresight to not go a given direction because the direction leads to one of the “triggers.” Foresight and insight, if confused, amplify the ambivalence over what a spiritual director and confessor do–how long to spend in confession or ho much to say Also, I want to add a comment to the Elder’s encouragement to “study” hymns and Psalms. Such study hastens my mind to Christ, and the mind of Christ becomes alive within my consciousness even without much effort. Psalm 138/139 is but one example of Psalms to call me into confession.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a difference between confession and “spiritual direction” and yet more between either and that of the relationship with a spiritual “elder.” Most priest are given the faculty to hear confessions, and some small direction may be given. Spiritual direction calls for more experience and some discernment. The Patriarch of Moscow a few years back issued a paper warning about “young elders” an oxymoron, where young priests who have read too many books fancy themselves to be elders and think that the laity should practice obedience towards them as though they were some sort of elder and the laity some sort of monk. Much damage has come from such ill-thought out approaches, which the Patriarch offered warnings about.

    A priest, at least most of the ones I know, should confine themselves to hearing confessions, and then pray regularly for their flock. We should not profess to know what we do not know. Genuine ignorance, properly admitted, is no shame, but a mark of humility. Priests don’t have to be St. Seraphim.

  17. Ioannis Freeman Avatar
    Ioannis Freeman

    Please say more, Father Stephen, about the qualities that define the “elder.” I have seen, first-hand, the damage left in the wake of the variety of self-proclaimed “elder,” about whom the Moscow Patriarch warned. Thank you, in advance, for your assistance.

  18. Joseph Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    You often remark on how misguided most Americans are when it comes to Confession, i.e. too much introspection, trying to figure out why we sinned, etc…

    Would you consider writing some pieces along these lines to better clarify what you believe Confession should look like for us? I am always very intrigued when you start to bark up this tree, but I believe that I and others would greatly, I mean greatly, benefit from a lengthier assessment (especially with Lent right around the corner).


  19. handmaid Avatar

    There can be much benefit in such “warnings” to the laity about young priests, however, having had such a priest in my experience and it was not a good experience at the time, I did learn that the only thing that is actually needed by anyone in this situation is love and forgiveness.

    Praying for our priesthood, supporting our young priests – as the learning curve is very steep and the priesthood is precious. Not all are cut out to be parish priests, that is a gift, but it also takes time to learn.

    Time also to season them and allow them to grow as priests in wisdom and love. To learn to juggle family & parish.

    The laity would do well to realize their responsibility towards the priesthood and the Church. We are not passive in the Orthodox Church: love, forgiveness & prayer, are at the top of that list of responsibilities.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have benefitted greatly by the repeated instruction of my hierarch, Archbishop DMITRI, of the South, who spends time on the subject of confession everytime he meets with his priests. He is a storehouse of wisdom in the matter and I have learned much. Some things you learn by reading writings by good confessors, talking with older more experienced priests who are known to be good confessors, and by listening to yourself and paying attention that you in fact try to do what you have been instructed to do. The prayers of my congregation for me are utterly essential (I’m sure I would have failed or died long before now without them).

    I treasure small writings such as the one shared in this post where very practical and helpful instruction in the spiritual life is given by a knowledgable elder. It is tremendously helpful.

    I hesitate to write too much, more than the hints I give now and again, lest I set myself as an expert when I am not. I have some small observations that I think are helpful. Some, particularly about our American introspective habits. I would love to have lengthy conversations with priests whose experience was largely non-American (to compare notes) and test my observations. In time, as God wills, I may say more.

  21. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, and other commentators, concerning the importance of encouraging and praying for the priesthood. I know that one reason I could not stay in Anglicanism was that I saw no support for the priesthood from the bishops or the church and very little support for the importance of the office from the laity, much as our congregation loved our priest and his family. God has certainly blessed us through Orthodoxy. I pray that God strengthens all offices of the Orthodox Church, including the priesthood of the laity.

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