In the Image of God

In the life of the saints, “repetition” or “copying” is the most creative act: it is the mystery of the Tradition of the Holy Spirit. The way to the acquisition of this holy Tradition was first indicated by the great Apostle Paul, “Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart

I grew up as the son of an auto mechanic – who himself was the son of a mechanic. My uncle was a mechanic as well. By age 16 my older brother could do almost anything mechanically on a car – he had worked beside my father from the age of 12. I assumed, as I watched my brother from 5 years his junior, that at age 12 I would take my place beside the men and learn what the men in my family knew – auto mechanics.

Life has its own way of doing other than we imagine. By the time I was 12 my brother was heading off to college, the local economy had crashed, and the normalcy of business changed. My opportunity to apprentice beside my father came and went (which I sorely regretted).

Indeed, I never received my apprenticeship until my mid-20’s when I was in seminary and working by the side of a priest I admired. It was not my place in life to be an auto mechanic (though I like to “fiddle around” with cars). It has been in my later years that I’ve been able to look back and see the importance of apprenticeship.

Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, says that we learn to be virtuous people the same way a brickmason learns his trade – by watching and working side-by-side with someone who knows how to lay bricks. Virtue is formed and shaped in us by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Tradition – that is, the practiced lives of saints who have embodied the virtues of Christ through the ages.

Of course, we can’t just go out and sign ourselves up for apprenticeship with a saint. Good people are often rare and saints even rarer. But the principle of discipleship – learning by action in the Holy Spirit in the life of Holy Tradition – remains.

In some corners of Christianity (and probably some corners of Orthodox Christianity as well) discipleship has been abused – generally when someone without the proper gifts imposes obedience on others. Such gifts (such as eldership, etc.) are quite rare, even within Orthodox monasticism. My Archbishop has always been quick to instruct parish priests to avoid the monastic practice of obedience in the parish on account of its spiritual dangers in the wrong hands. Those whom I have known who do have this gift exercise it with fear and trembling.  

Nevertheless, discipleship remains the primary means of our spiritual growth. So what do we do in the absence of saints? First, we are never in the absence of saints. They are always present with us as we are, together with them, one body in Christ. We have the witness of their lives and the wisdom of their writings. We have the living Tradition of the worshipping Church in which the words of the saints bathe us with spiritual teaching.

Tito Coliander, in his little classic work, Way of the Ascetics, has this exquisite observation on obedience in our modern times:

Perhaps you ask: Whom shall I obey? The saints answer: you shall obey your leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Who are my leaders, you ask? Where shall I find any, now that it is so utterly hard to discover a genuine leader? Then the holy Fathers reply: The Church has foreseen this too. Therefore since the time of the apostles it has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.

God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of as suffering any lack or needing anything that we, the creatures of His making, could give Him. Nor does he crave anything from us, but, says John Chrysostom, He allows us to bring Him offerings for the sake of our own salvation.

The greatest offering we can present to the Lord is our self. We cannot do this without giving up our own will. We learn to do this through obedience, and obedience we learn through practice. The best form of practice is that provided by the Church in her prescribed fast days and seasons.

Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour.

Obedience breaks down many barriers. You achieve freedom and peace as your heart practices non-resistance. You show obedience, and thorny hedges give way before you. Then love has open space in which to move about. By obedience you crush your pride, your desire to contradict, your self-wisdom and stubbornness that imprison you within a hard shell. Inside that shell you cannot meet the God of love and freedom.

Thus, make it a habit to rejoice when an opportunity for obedience offers. It is quite unnecessary to seek one, for you may easily fall into a studied servility that leads you astray into self-righteous virtue. You may depend upon it that you are sent just as many opportunities for obedience as you need, and the very kind that are most suitable for you. But if you notice that you have let an opportunity slip by, reproach yourself; you have been like a sailor who has let a favourable wind go by unused.

For the wind it was a matter of indifference whether it was used or not. But for the sailor it was a means of reaching his destination sooner. Thus you should think of obedience, and all the means that are offered us by the Holy Trinity, in that way.

And so God provides us with guides and teaches us the practice of obedience, conforming us to His will. It is an apprenticeship of the Spirit – Who is everywhere present and filling all things.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


15 responses to “In the Image of God”

  1. […] Fasting as training in obedience I found this wonderful thought-provoking quote in Fr. Stephen Freeman’s latest blog entry: God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of […]

  2. Laura Emmelia Avatar
    Laura Emmelia

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This was exactly what I needed to hear! Today I had “ears to hear and eyes to see” and got a small glimpse of the Kingdom and my salvation path.

  3. selena Avatar

    Thank you Father. It brings to my mind the enormity of my task as a mother. My small children spend all their time with me, and I see myself reflected in their own words and actions. God have mercy! I am coming to realise that the most important thing to do as a mother is to pray and repent constantly.

  4. nichole3 Avatar

    I feel slow in body and spirit this morning. My husband and I spent 2 weeks in a large medical center and just got home on the 17th. This is especially meaningful to me as I care for my husband.

  5. Margaret Avatar

    I join with others, Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post! I certainly needed to be reminded that through obedience, through fasting, through the prayers of the saints, through my prayers and in many other, sometimes mundane, ways my God is constantly present in mercy filling all things! Was a comfort to be reminded that God’s love is ever present in my daily life tasks and the familiar places and faces. God bless you!

  6. coldfire Avatar

    Hi Father,
    Thank you for your post. Could you perhaps give me an example of someone who imposes obedience on others? What is the difference between someone who imposes and someone who is genuinely helping their body of believers?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    One probable characteristic would be when the obedience seems coercive. Obedience does not mean the loss of freedom. There is a difference between what I am describing as obedience and the penance (epitimia) that is sometimes associated with communion. But penance should be used for the healing of souls and not as a coercive force. Sometimes the difference is subtle, and I cannot judge another priest (that’s for his Bishop). I simply know the caveats and warnings I have been taught about such practices and their associated dangers, and I am aware of cases where abuses have occurred.

    An example might be the case of fasting. It’s not unusual for someone in my parish, for reasons of age, health, etc., to ask for a modification in the fasting regimen. This is normal and easily blessed. But if as a priest I become the fasting police, using my spiritual authority to try and enforce a particular application of rules – this could easily become coercive and abusive and do more harm than good. Fasting has its rules, but they must be freely embraced or their is no offering of self involved. The Church teaches, exhorting and encouraging, but we cannot save people by coercion.

    It’s the same way we raise our children – particularly when they become teens. You have rules and you enforce them – but you have to pay attention to their free will as well and work with that if you’re actually going to see them formed in a virtuous manner. Simply being strict with rules may achieve a form of obedience, but if beneath the obedience there is anger and resentment, then the result will likely be an angry and resentful teen – who will run in the other direction as soon as they get the chance. This is a delicate matter (for parents) and never easy or “by the book”. And we should not judge each other – but pray for each other and our children.

    I hope that’s helpful and explains what I meant by “imposing obedience.”

  8. Robert Avatar


    If I may add to Fr. Stephen’s response, the Shepherding Movement comes to mind, with which I have had personal experience. See:

    The imposition and consequently abuse occurs when, as Fr. Stephen points out, the following happens: “But if as a priest I become the fasting police, using my spiritual authority to try and enforce a particular application of rules – this could easily become coercive and abusive and do more harm than good.”

    In the Shepherding Movement this meant that to disobey one’s superior was equated to disobeying God.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    The phenomenon of spiritual coercion and abuse is an equal opportunity practice – and can be found in many places, regardless of tradition. Patriarch Alexey II (of Moscow) published an article (that I’ve been told about but have not found in English yet) in which he criticized “young elders” (an oxymoron in Russian even stronger than in English). By this he meant parish priests who were modeling their ministry on the patterns of stories about the great Russian elders, but who had none of the gifts. The results were abusive and the Patriarch condemned such practices. I would love to have the article in English if anyone has access to it.

    Often there is no evil intention in these abuses, but a zeal that is misguided or misinformed. The Orthodox Church, in cases such as the letter of Patriarch Alexey, has tried to address this in our contemporary world.

    An interesting case in point can be found in the descriptions of the work of Fr. Seraphim Rose, who is certainly to be considered a very traditional Orthodox monk. I offer this as an example of how the practice of restraint is widely understood and taught in Orthodoxy – lest someone suggest that my observations are simply those of a convert OCA priest. Forgive me for being a little sensitive:

    Fr. Alexey Young corroborates these observations: “One of the most striking aspects of Fr. Seraphim’s guidance was, first of all, his utter disinterest in controlling me or anyone else. Unlike some others, he did not play guru or give orders (he had spiritual children, not disciples). I asked for his opinion and he gave it—frankly—but always he left the final decision up to me. This meant that I was bound to make mistakes, but he knew that I would learn from the consequences of those mistakes. Also, whenever he felt the need to criticize something, he always balanced it with something positive, so that one did not feel somehow destroyed or discouraged about one’s work. This is an indication of spiritual health as opposed to the cult-like behavior of those who always think they know better.”

    Elsewhere Fr. Alexey writes that “Fr. Seraphim … warned against what he called ‘guru-ism,’ which is the temptation to treat certain people in authority as gurus or startsi (elders). This danger frightened him very much, for he saw a basic flaw in the American character: a flaw which leads some individuals—whether parish priests or monastics—to claim a spiritual authority that is not truly and authentically theirs because they themselves have not been purified and transformed by repentance, and which leads others to seek out false elders, giving their free will and control over even the most basic details of their lives to them. Fr. Seraphim repeatedly pointed out that real elders are extremely rare, that we do not deserve such spiritual guides and would not know how to treat them even if we did have them in our midst.” These quotes are from some of the writings of Fr. Alexey Young.

  10. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Being aware that real evil is still with us, is the flip side of conversion, even a consequence of it.

    It is also a reminder to seek the face of the Lord at all times and an opportunity to overcome evil, (in imitation of Christ), in wilful prayer and other fruits of the Holy Spirit.

    Very edifying, thank you!

  11. coldfire Avatar

    Thank you so much for your quick and rich response.

    You see, I am not going to be a formal leader in the church, but I will be working with students next year as I begin my student teaching. I went to a Christian university for four years, but could not afford another year at a private institution so I am doing my teacher credential work at a state school in California. I am quite obviously protestant, but I have read parts of the Orthodox Way and my girlfriend LOVES the Orthodox church. She was recently in Ukraine and got to see some of these churches up close and personal. She really loves religion in general, but she and I both find something in the mysticism and mystery of Eastern Orthodoxy that was missing from our combined Pentecostal/Evangelical Free/Baptist/Southern Baptist upbringing.

    I grew up thinking the Bible was something to be memorized in the AWANA program and not a living and powerful book that I now understand it to be. I don’t think I would ever join the Orthodox church only because I think protestant churches need just a little bit more mysticism and mystery to balance their largely reformation/englightenment thinking that so often dominates it.

    Father Alexey’s writings explain exactly the type of teacher I want to be and I loved the idea that we cannot coerce people to follow Christ. I have learned this a number of different ways from personal experience. Thank you for your encouragement here.

  12. Lucias Avatar

    If my wife wants me to take a raincoat to work……. ( I better not read this post to her 🙂

    To me it is very interesting that “in the image of God” means obedience, self denial, etc. Yet that is of course what it means.

    God continue to bless you for your service to us.

    Many thanks.


  13. Lucias Avatar

    Who is the gentleman in the photo and where is it taken Alaska ?

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is at Valaam monastery near the Russian-Finnish border. The monk is not named. Valaam monastery was the monastery from which the first Orthodox missionaries to America were sent, including St. Herman of Alaska. It has unique ties to the American Church, historically. The Abbpt who sent St. Herman and others had himself been a disciple of St. Seraphim of Sarov. The foundation of Orthodoxy in America was laid down by great saints.

  15. Anna Avatar

    Thank you Father.

    My husband and I are Protestant converts surrounded by a large Protestant community of friends and family. Each day I search for something to remind me that i am Orthodox and that there is community around me and seek to remember God. Today you have encouraged me and I thank you. Peace be with you.

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