Personal Issues

refusing confession by RepinThe title of this post is quite misleading – for in proper theological language – there are no “personal issues.” Our culture is quite fond of issues – both the politico-entertainment industry – and many individuals. It is a word and a phenomenon that has been baptized by the culture such that “being concerned with the issues” makes someone sound as if things matter to them in a significant way. The Orthodox response to the issues should generally be – not to respond.

The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.

In the meantime it is possible to avoid all this by concerning ourselves with issues. Some concern themselves with political issues, particularly if those issues carry a moral component. But it is as possible to take the “right” position on a political issue as a wretched sinner as it is to take the “right” position on a political issue as a saint – though saints often have a strange way of not being involved in “political issues.” 

Others set their sights in other places and concern themselves with theological issues or local issues such as the goings-on in a parish. 

I would offer a brief definition of “issue” as I am using it here: any subject or situation with which we may concern ourselves, that having been addressed, leaves ourselves and others involved no closer to our salvation than when we began (and perhaps farther away).

The transformation of the world will not come about through the successive addressing of issues. It will, according to the Fathers of the Church, come about through the transformation of human persons, whom, having been restored to the proper image and likeness of Christ, are able to restore others and creation around them. It is thus that the “movers and shapers” of our world may never be acknowledged by the world itself. 

It is significant that the world admires Christ as a moral teacher – for He was not a moral teacher. Christ, the God-Man, was an is the Mediator between God and man, the means by which our distorted selves may be restored and transfigured and all creation set free. That transformation is simply impossible through “moral” effort.

Classical monastic spiritual teaching would speak instead about the purification of the passions and the illumination and deification of man. More recent Orthodox writers and teachers, such as St. Silouan and the Elder Sophrony have addressed the same teaching in terms of personhood. However, in both cases the nature of our salvation is described in the most profound terms of the inner life. 

Orthodoxy is a seamless garment. The sacramental life and the ascetical life are not two separate compartments. Both have to do with the healing of the soul. It is for such a reason that communion in the Orthodox Church is always linked with fasting and confession, however the discipline is applied. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch. But that same medicine must be received by a heart that has prepared itself through fasting and repentance. As Christ Himself proclaimed, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” So too, we approach the Kingdom in the Cup of Christ, and our hearts must greet it with repentance.

Our issues are not intellectual or political – but existential. Our brokenness is at the very level of our existence. 

Some years ago I heard the abbot of a monastery describe the young people who came for retreats during the 60’s and early 70’s. “They were so angry about peace,” he said. He added this thought: “The contemplative need go no further than his own heart than to find the source of all violence in the world.” 

This, indeed, is the issue.

Dostoevsky, the great 19th century Russian writer, spent his early adulthood deeply involved in a group of semi-revolutionary writers, artists and intellectuals. As a group, they were deeply committed and involved in the issues of the world. The reform of the Russian state – and in some corners – the reform of the Russian Church was an all-consuming passion. The Romanticism of the 19th century – its belief in the perfectibility of man, if only the proper state and economic system were employed – yielded the various experiments of the 20th century – with generally disastrous results.

Dostoevsky’s own existential crisis occurred when he and a small group of similar conspirators were arrested for sedition and sentenced to death. At the last moment their sentences were commuted to short terms in the Tsar’s Siberian prison system. It was in the few minutes that preceded his commutation – during which the great writer had opportunity to ponder death and his short life – that an inner change occurred. It is not that he saw everything in a flash – but rather that the issues moved away from an intellectual stage and into the deepest parts of his heart.

In what are perhaps his two greatest novels – the heart of man is revealed in the crime of murder. In Crime and Punishment a young man, Raskolnikov, convinces himself that only the will to power matters, and that he should be able to rob and kill a wretched old woman because he would put her money to better use. He succeeds in killing her only to discover that his “philosophy” is bankrupt. Utility (what works) is insufficient for the human soul. He finds salvation in prison through the unrelenting love of God.

In The Brothers Karamazov, murder again is at the center of man’s “issues.” Again it becomes the catalyst for a crisis in which the truth of God is revealed. The moral reform of the characters of the novel is a non-issue. Indeed, the most “moral” of the Karamazov brothers is arguably the unbeliever, Ivan. But Ivan, interestingly, is the devil. It takes little character to argue about justice and to be concerned with fairness. In my experience, even unredeemed humanity is born with an instinct for such arguments.

Most of us do not see ourselves as murderers and are thus content with lesser “issues,” none of which will push us to the point of repentance. I often think that Jesus asked those who sought to follow Him to give everything to the poor precisely to bring them to the point of crisis. To give away everything in the name of Christ raises the question about the name and nature of Christ to its proper place. Either He is worthy of such an action or He is not worthy of any action. The Kingdom of God is never found in half-measures, or in carefully measured actions of any sort. Anxiety and care cannot map the road into the Kingdom.

I am not suggesting that we cease to care about people or the things that effect them. I am suggesting that our concern for “issues” falls far short of actually caring about people and the things that effect them. It is possible to love humanity and actually hate people. I have seen it far too often and have done it myself.

It is much easier to trust someone who wants to “save the world,” if they have also bothered first to “save themselves” (yet another paradoxical statement). It shouldn’t take an arrest by the Tsar to bring us to our senses – though for Dostoevsky it seems to have helped. Perhaps it would be sufficient if we would recognize that we ourselves are murderers and that no amount of moral reform will return the life we have taken. Nothing short of resurrection will present us with the medicine for which our souls thirst.

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.


21 responses to “Personal Issues”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Painting: Refusal of Confession by Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

  2. David Avatar

    Speaking of things which once accomplished bring us no closer to salvation… this blog is not among them. It is through such posts I was led to Orthodoxy. God has blessed you with the ability to say everything each time you say something, Fr Stephen. Saying thank you, remains insufficient.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very kind words, David. Thank you.

  4. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    So many things to add my amen to. . . . This does prompt a question, however. How is one to make a distinction between the struggle against the passions to which we must bring our wills in submission to Christ in order for purification, illumination, and deification to take place on the one hand and mere moral effort on the other? I’m a bit fuzzy on that (in terms of heart commitment and attitude). I tend to see them both as attempts or an inner commitment to obey the commandments of Christ. I see a “moralistic” approach, however, as tending to see things only in terms of external behaviors (and tending to define such behavior around obvious legal infractions), rather than a disposition of the heart. Perhaps I am making more of a distinction between moralism and moral effort than you are. Thanks for any clarity you can bring to this for me.

  5. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Fr., bless!

    Your definition of issues is perceptive and accurate. Thank you for articulating for me the reasons why for years I have held the belief that for a Christian to be identified with any “issue” is dis-service to Christ and a hurt to their own soul.

  6. katia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,amen and thank you!

    Hi Karen,

    I hope, this citation will answer your question

    “… There is one thing that is essential, and without it, all the spiritual discipline in the world is but vanity. That essential element is repentance.

    Jesus tells the story.The Pharisee is in the Temple. He is a man of piety, a man of faith, who fasts and tithes of all that he has. Yet, he never realized that spiritual discipline was meant to produce humility and repentance. Yet, his spiritual discipline had produced pride and not humility. How is it possible that a good tree can produce rotten fruit?

    Then, we see the publican, a tax collector, and tax collectors were not known for their piety. Yet, with little or no piety (as the Pharisees understood it), he found repentance and humility and left the Temple justified.

    We too must learn that all of our spiritual effort, all of our Orthodox disciplines-fasting, prayer, tithing, attending services is meant to create in us a broken heart. Then, having no illusions about who we are, like the publican, we will cry out for mercy and find holiness.”

    Fr. John Moses – Ramblings of Redneck Priest

  7. To Be or Not To Be Avatar
    To Be or Not To Be

    “The true “issue” of our time and of all times is the salvation of our souls. And, it is important to note, this is not a “legal” or “forensic” issue, but a matter of the deep healing of the spiritual disease that infects us, and, through us, all the world around us. We do not see things as they are (we are spiritually blind); we do not think as we ought (we are spiritually ignorant); we do not feel about things in a proper way (we are spiritually disordered in our emotions). Coming to grips with the passions and their disordered state (which effects our mind, emotions and our body) is very difficult work. It requires insight and honesty and a deep commitment to the Truth of Christ, through Whom we may alone find healing and salvation.”

    Ah, the true issue is salvation of our souls……my Orthodox husband has an addiction to alcohol and too much pride to face it. He is actually very spiritual and attends Liturgy every Sunday, but I do worry about his soul none-the-less because he is so troubled and denies it vehemently. As I learn about Orthodoxy I don’t understand how he could confess this sin, yet still do it over and over. I know it’s a sickness, but he has refused help from so many sides that I am at a loss. Do I have to ask him to leave to get him to see? HE thinks the issues are anything but him-classic I know. As his wife I’d like to nudge him to face the one and only important issue, and have tried. Anyone with any insights out there.

  8. Ruth Avatar

    Tobeornottobe –

    I don’t know much about alcohol addictions, but Fr. Meletios Webber, the Archimandrite at St. John of San Francisco monastery does. He has a written a couple of books that I know of, Steps of Transformation and Bread & Water, Wine and Oil.

    Here are a talk he gave:

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Alcoholism is a classic “disease of the soul” one of many ways that our brokenness manifests itself. Dealing with addiction is indeed one of the many facets of the salvation of our souls. I also recommend Meletios Webber’s Steps of Transformation, at least for a look at alcoholism in Orthodox understanding. For an alcoholic, alcoholism is indeed the “issue” because little if anything in life will work correctly unless and until it is addressed. I will pray for him and for you. It’s a difficult thing. Fr. Webber’s book might also be a good read for his priest.

    I would encourage you as well to be careful not to resent your husband’s spiritual struggle, or to wonder why after confession nothing seems to change. You could have an alcoholic husband who never went to Church, and never struggled spiritually and never admitted he had a problem. Believe me, this would be worse. AA would be a “spiritual path” that would be of help to your husband (as Fr. Meletios describes). But Al-Anon, an organization for family members of alcoholics would be good for yourself and others in the family – and you don’t have to wait on a spouse in order to be a part of it. It provides insight and support into the nature of alcoholism and how to take care of yourself and to be helpful.

    My family is no stranger to alcoholism. I know the pain of family members in this spiritual struggle (and it is indeed a spiritual struggle rather than a “moral” struggle). I will pray for God’s mercies for all of you. I have also seen many persons who became sober through AA and the mercies of God. It can be like night and day. There is hope.

  10. Jim Avatar

    In my experience, it takes a long while to come around to even begin to understand this. My phases range from Christian pugilism to social acitivism, and I am embarrassed about how I thought of myself, and how I was perceived.

    This essay recalls something CS Lewis wrote about the danger of any sacred cow:

    “Where passions have the privilege to work
    And never hear the sound of their own names.” (Wordsworth)

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    One way of discerning the difference is that a “moralistic” approach ultimately need have no reference to the living Christ. For instance, the commandments of Christ should never be separated from Christ Himself and used as a set of criteria for behavior. Christ said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Thus the first thing we must do in keeping His commandments is to abide in Him through prayer and love and faith, etc. It is a litmus test I put to myself very often. Am I trying to do this (whatever) without Christ?

  12. Karen Avatar

    Father Stephen and Katia, thank you both for your helpful comments/quote.

    I think I have trouble discerning when I am letting go in order to make room for Christ to work, trusting that He will truly work through my brokenness of heart, and when I am just giving way to sloth and giving up the fight. (Father Stephen, that quote about learning to tolerate patiently being displeasing to oneself–or words to that effect–come to mind.) I also have a difficult time not equating the disapproval of others (or the perceived disapproval of others), especially those in authority over me, with God’s disapproval. Perhaps what is most distressing is I tend to take disapproval of some action or statement of mine as disapproval of my whole self, which is irrational. The bottom line is I’m relying on a certain unattainable “perfection” in myself for my sense of security and acceptance, rather than on the perfection Christ gives me when I repent as best I can in the moment and keep on faithfully showing up to receive His grace. I know that, by Orthodox definition, it is impossible to be perfect apart from Communion with Christ anyway, but my irrational beliefs and insecurities persist. Any thoughts on how to combat this from those who have struggled likewise would be appreciated.

  13. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I have been feeling so discouraged since learning of the SCOBA “encyclical” concerning Prison Ministries Sunday — not that such a thing is unimportant, but it seems to me to be just another leap onto the Politically Correct bandwagon, getting ourselves all hot and bothered about some perceived Issue that really, we can do very little about. If we really wanted to make a difference to the prison population, wouldn’t it make more sense to strive for healing and community in our own hearts before attempting to minister to others just as broken as we are?! Of particular concern to me is the other side of the coin, the lack of ministry to law enforcement, who are just as needy (if not more so — at least Christendom recognizes the need for ministry in prisons, but law enforcement is far too often seen as part of the problem, and no attempt made to minister to people who see more real evil in a week than most clergy see in a lifetime).

    Then I read this post. My sense of order and correct understanding is restored. Thank you so much, Father. You remain in my prayers.

  14. Basil Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    Dear Mrs Mutton;
    I read the encyclical. It is not perfect.
    However as I understand it, and as I experience it, when we do the tremendously difficult task of tending the weeds of our heart we increasingly become free and able to respond rightly to the world– to Christ in our desperate neighbour.
    For the right reasons and from the right place, and in the right order, then, it seems good and right to open our hearts more to the suffering imprisoned (in a very unOrthodox punitive prison system nonetheless). And for some of us as Christ puts our hearts in order, this will mean action.
    Probably, even, for many of us, this will mean more action.

    with love;
    -Mark Basil

  15. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Basil —

    And this is why I object to this Call-to-Action kind of encyclical — if you are genuinely called to prison ministry, then you know it, and you should talk to your priest about setting you up with it. Obviously there is some kind of Orthodox involvement in this ministry, or this silly bit of political correctness would never have been written. *But that ministry is not for everyone,* and to expect that it should be a Church-wide initiative is to ignore the needs of the many fine men and women on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    In fact, I had a priest who once suggested prison ministry. That suggestion died when he learned that there are more cops in my family than some local forces have cops. Bottom line: God calls each of us to the time and place and circumstances of His own choosing, and when we try to step out of those circumstances, we offend Him. This is not to say that we are stuck with our lot in life, but to say that our convictions in life should only be changed if, on examination, we find them wanting. I see nothing wanting about keeping law and order and the civic peace.

    Oh, and to those who believe that “Jesus had a special place in His heart for the outcasts” — yeah. That included the centurion, who was much more of an oppressor than the average cop will ever be. And who’s more of an outcast, the guy locked up for murder who gets regular prison-ministry visits, or the guy called “pig” who no one even thinks needs ministering?!

  16. Basil Avatar

    Mrs Mutton;

    You make some good points.
    I will pray for the police in your family.
    Please pray for the criminals in mine.

    -Mark Basil

  17. Meg Avatar

    Basil — easily done. There are two things any mother dreads: one, of course, is the death of her child, and the other is that he ends up in prison. I will pray for their mothers, also.

    I once worked for a cop in Internal Affairs whose guiding motto was, “There but for the grace of God,” and over time, I came to appreciate the truth of his attitude. It seemed to pain him to arrest people; but when you work in Internal Affairs, you realize how thin the line is between cop and criminal — one reason I think it’s so important to pray for law-enforcement people. And as I already noted, the divorce rate and suicide rate are outrageously high, the suicide rate being much higher than the suicide rate of criminals (but being in prison is its own “living death”).

  18. Meg Avatar

    Sorry, Father — Mark Basil and I seem to have hijacked your blog. Your post still did help me get back on track, believe it or not.

  19. cipherchronicles Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you so much for your prolific work on this blog. I stumbled across it incidentally through my own interest in/commitment to existential philosophy, and this post in particular has been very helpful to me and my wife as we struggle to relate with others in a way that is more existentially significant than modernity’s virulent communication of “issues.” Your clear and concise definition of said “issues” was invaluable. Thanks again for the heartening inspiration.


  20. anymouse Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    You don’t have to post this, it seems extraneous after the other posts concerning people’s personal issues. All the best. -John

    My wife and I are reading “Alexander Dolgun’s Story, an American in the Gulag.” It’s interesting to learn that the productivity of the Soviet state in the 1950s was based in part on slave labor from the gulag, yet our capitalist world considers itself correct even though we export labor costs to countries with similar slave labor and sweatshop conditions.

    Neither capitalism nor communism nor anything else could be perfectly implemented as in theory because we are human. Even if they could be, they would create cold, merciless societies. Love and mercy are more important than the specific system, they render fairness, and their presence means that God is with us. Fortunately, the mystery of being human is that we include God even when we try not to!

  21. Samuel JG Miller Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you very much for your steady provision of nourishment for my mind and soul (are they distinct?!) I was an Episcopal priest before I answered God’s call to join the Orthodox Church in 2000. Not without embarrassment, I feel, even now, that I am only beginning to grasp what being Orthodox means for me mentally, physically, spiritually. As a pastoral counselor, I find your posts often entering my mind as resources during my sessions. Personally, your posts and the consistently excellent responses happen to meet my current need just right for support in my desire to grow in the knowledge and works of love of our Lord. May He continue to bless you and your ministries in is Name.
    Samuel Miller, AAPC, LMHC

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