The Opacity of Sin

“And this is the condemnation: that the light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

There is an opacity to sin: we do not see through it. Sin sheds light on nothing beyond itself. It refers only to itself and because of this it is darkness.

It is the nature of light to give beyond itself and what it illumines becomes light as well to a certain extent. Light always reaches out. Light is never turned inwards.

In the painting of icons – the use of “light” is extremely important. Generally, icons are painted beginning with darker colors, each successive color being lighter. The very last touches are themselves called “the light.” Often they are white (sometimes gold) and, to a degree, mark those places that are closest to the viewer. It is also of importance that shadow is usually not part of an icon. The exception to this is the darkness of figures such as the demons when they are portrayed at all. It is also of note that holy figures in icons are never portrayed in pure profile or with their faces turned completely away from the viewer. We may see them turned slightly, gazing on the Savior, but never in pure profile.

I am not an iconographer, but what little I have learned over the years has been instructive and the subject of frequent reflection. The use of light and the rules for its use are a representation of the holy life and the character of righteousness, as well as the character of sin.

I recall a conversation with a very iconographer once about materials. The traditional medium for a panel icon is egg-tempera. I asked about other materials, such as oil paint. I received an immediate response (almost of disgust). “No. It is opaque!”

Light cannot enter and pass back from such a medium – certainly not in a manner similar to that of egg tempera.

But my point in writing is not to think of icon-technique, but rather the opacity of sin. Reflection on icons is deeply important, for we ourselves are icons (images). Icons are not meant to be opaque.

The light of the glory of God is not given to us in order to “spotlight” us as though we were an antique on display. The light shines and illumines us by becoming both part of us and being reflected from within us. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The light that shines from us is not our own light, but the reflected glory of God. Neither are the works our works, but the works of God given to us by grace. Thus the light that shines from us reveals the glory of God, the author of all good things.

Light and grace shine on everything and everyone. Without the grace of God (which is His life) nothing would exist or live. The creation is not self-existent but is rather contingent. The opacity of sin is not a quality of the light which it receives, but rather the quality of its own existence, such that it is turned away from the light and has reference only to itself. The most common word used by the fathers for the “root” sin is philautia (“self-love”). Turned towards ourselves and our own contingent existence, the light of grace simply disappears within us. It is given and received (else we would cease to be) but it does not do as is intended. It does not lighten and reflect. It simply disappears within the self-sustained shadows of our own world.

This is the existential hades of human life. Traditinally, hades, or sheol, was understood to be a place where no sound was heard, though the silence was not the stillness of heaven. It is the voiceless void where no praise and thanksgiving are heard. It is not a silence that is fullness, but a silence that is emptiness. “In the grave who shall give you thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).

When Job speaks of Sheol he says:

I go to the place from which I shall not return,
To the land of darkness and the shadow of death,
A land as dark as darkness itself,
As the shadow of death, without any order,
Where even the light is like darkness.

However we are to understand Hades and Hell in a metaphysical sense, we can already understand them on an existential level – particularly in the imagery given us by Christ as the preference of darkness to light (because our deeds are evil). No light comes from evil deeds for they are not the works of grace. Rather, they are our own self-generated actions whose purpose is utterly self-referential. Brought into the light, they are revealed as lacking any true existence. They are opaque.

Repentance, in these terms, can be easily understood: it is a turning from darkness to light (metanoia). The cry of repentance is not, “I promise to do good deeds from now on,” but the cry, “Lord, have mercy!” For we have no good deeds of our own to perform. We have nothing self-referential that has the character of offering. Instead we say, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!” “Lord, have mercy!” is a cry for the light and a turning to the light. It is a renunciation of a self-referential existence and an embracing of true existence – one lived in and through the light.

And the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it. Though our evil deeds disappear in the clear light of God’s grace, we ourselves are saved (1 Cor. 3:15).

To live as the image of God is to live fully in the light of God – the opacity of our hearts transformed.

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).


…if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

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.





27 responses to “The Opacity of Sin”

  1. Bill Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    This post reminds me of some of N.T. Wright’s work about our being image-bearing creatures and of this significance for sin, evil, and even eschatology.

    To be fully human is to reflect the glory of God through worship, prayer, and love for others. Many times people think “religion” is constrictive. Rather, as you point out, it offers a path to our true destiny and full humanity in proper relationship to God and man.

    Thank the Lord for his mercy.

  2. Atlas Lifting Up the World on His Shoulders Avatar
    Atlas Lifting Up the World on His Shoulders

    “There is an opacity to sin: we do not see through it. Sin sheds light on nothing beyond itself. It refers only to itself and because of this it is darkness.” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Psalm 97:2 Clouds and thick darkness surround him

    Was David describing the effect of carrying the sins of the whole world, and in,

    Psalm 139:12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you –

    Was David describing how Jesus was dealing with the sins of the whole world in carrying them and in crying out “it is finished” (Cf. John 19:30)?

  3. Steve Avatar

    Both St. John and St. Paul speak of a “man of sin”, a person who has become so completely opaque, that he has forfeited his personhood.

    By contrast, the redeemed retain within themselves (by grace), an image that is faithful to the Son of God.

    This is not to say that a man of sin cannot be redeemed; for whilst there remains life, there remains the forgiveness of sins.

    Such is the power of God’s Uncreated Light that everything (even the devil and death itself) have become translucent (and in so doing lose their power).

    Allelúia, Allelúia!

  4. Steve Avatar


    Translucence is not the same as Redemption. “Things” are translucent.

    The Redeemed on the other hand, are Persons and not things.

  5. elena Avatar

    Fr Stephen, I would need some help, because in little time I want to make some sort of confession of all the sins ever committed that I am aware of to a priest that I have never confessed before, in English (I am Romanian). I’ve never done this kind of confession and I don’t have an English guide. Do you think you can help me with some advice (on e-mail)? Thank you very much. Christ is in our midst!

  6. Isaac Avatar

    1 Cor. 3:15 refers to those who end up in Gehenna. To quote St. Mark of Ephesus, who is quoting Ss. Chrysostom and Basil, “St. Chrysostom devoted a special treatise to this one passage… For the expression that the sinner is ‘saved as through fire’ signifies that he will remain tormented in fire and will not be destroyed together with his evil works and evil disposition of soul. Basil the Great also speaks of this in his ‘Morals’ in interpreting the passage of Scripture, ‘the voice of the Lord Who divideth the flame of fire (Ps. 28:7)… And if anyone has interpreted it differently and understood ‘salvation’ as ‘deliverance from punishment’ and ‘going through fire’ as ‘purgatory’– such a one, if we may so express ourselves, understands this passage in an entirely wrong way.”

    On the whole, though, I like your post.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have availed myself of the liberty of a priest to use a passage of Scripture to illumine an aspect of our daily struggle – not tried to draw its eschatological consequences. I hold to St. Basil and St. Chrysostom, of course. But, like them, also use Scripture on occasion in ways that are not intended to be a definitive exegesis. The article is on the opacity of sin, not on the exegesis of 1 Cor. 3:15. However, the verse, as I have used it, can certainly describe the “cleansing” effect of fire (light) spoken of commonly by the fathers, certainly within this lifetime (of which I am writing). Its eschatological disposition rests largely within the realm of dogma, upon which I am not writing.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The total burden of our combined ignorance is easily overwhelming.”

    Wow, I need to put that up on my wall. There is an inkling in that statement of the necessity for obedience and sobriety in these most un-sober times.

  9. Isaac Avatar

    I see now, Father. As in mystery of penitence we expose our sins to the light so that they can be cleansed. Good point, and a good clarification.

  10. Isaac Avatar

    Michael, that quotation needs to be on one of those corporate inspiration posters under a word like “Teamwork” 😉

  11. Patty Joanna Avatar
    Patty Joanna


    A lovely Romanian woman in our parish sent me an amazing preparation for confession questions. I had not seen anything like this as far as breadth and depth. It is in Excel, in English. If you would like me to send it to you, send ME an email at p a t t y DOT s k y r e b AT g m a i l DOT c o m (take out the spaces and use the symbols for DOT and AT).

    Kind regards,
    Patty Joanna

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Bless you. You guys are good sports – I’d be glad to have you on my team anytime.

  13. coffeezombie Avatar

    I can’t *quite* put my finger on why, but this post reminded me somewhat of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation”.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isaac, I was thinking the same thing. Shows how corrupt my mind is. It is a great quote in any case.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Then we’ll have to make a different approach.

    Relatedly, I suppose I am a strong advocate of apophaticism, if only to come to terms with the deluge of misperceptions that accompany much of our encounter with the world and with God. For instance, the “thick darkness” which you cited, treated by the fathers as the hiddenness of God, is not something given in order to keep us from knowing, but to draw us toward knowing aright.

    By the same token, a ready confession of our own ignorance is not to keep us from knowing, but is, perhaps, the beginning of knowledge.

    Oddly, there is also a “darkness of ignorance” which has a sinful quality to it. “Ignore” is one of the only verbs in English related to the word “to know” (ultimately from the same root, I think) which carries some sense of the will’s participation. To “ignore” something, implies a willful not knowing (or it can imply this). It interests me because we do not have a verb that carries the same sense in a positive direction. The Hebrew verb, yada, does have an element of choice within it, though positively, as in “Adam knew (yada) his wife.

    We can and properly recognize that we have ignorance in the passive sense (things we do not know because we are creatures or just plain sinners). It is a beginning of knowledge. Discursive reason as a means of acquiring knowledge of God seems to me to miss the mark, for it does not of itself, yield a knowledge of God that is participatory in nature. God can be known because He makes Himself known in a manner that is communion (koinonia). Discursive reason alone (which would include some approaches to Scripture) would treat God as a fact or knowledge of God as facts to be known – which is not true, or truly complete knowledge. To know that ‘God is good’ as a fact, is interesting, but not the same as knowing ‘God is good’ by means of participation in His life. One is an idea, the other is an inward living reality that is changing us from glory to glory.

    Apophaticism, properly applied, draws us not to ignorance, but to knowledge in the sense of participation.

    As Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it: “You cannot know God. But you have to know Him to know that.”

  16. yannis Avatar

    Yannis slipped away as a commentator, because his stay as such had outlived the purpose he started writing for.

    He is still however here as a lurker, and he also likes F. Stephen too.

    Don’t put words in my mouth please.



  17. yannis Avatar

    Careful with that world Atlas, we are all counting on you…



  18. Carolina Avatar

    Father Stephens,

    Could you possible reflect upon the situation where there is a crises, similar to that which has happened in Haiti. It always seems that many people who survive are prone to say that they were saved by the grace of God. Which infers, to me at least, that the people who died did not receive the grace of God, which I do not believe.

  19. Michael Z Avatar
    Michael Z

    Christ is born!

  20. Steve Avatar


    Apophaticism properly applied, points to the fulfillment and rightful end of all creation, the Eschaton.

    The problem (from the ontological perspective of fallen man) is that this fulfillment, invariably, is at odds with the way his objective world has been constructed. In his fallenness, he will see smoke, but the saint will see a lake of gold (in the allegory of St. Nikolai of the Lake) when the true nature (or substance) of all things is revealed.

    This is no inconvenient truth (if I might be permitted to borrow a phrase coined by post-modernism).

    In the end as now, it is thisThe Truth that matters; for there is not a thing concealed that will not be disclosed, not even a thought (Luke 12:2).

  21. handmaid leah Avatar

    “The Hebrew verb, yada, does have an element of choice within it, though positively, as in “Adam knew (yada) his wife.”

    So… when people use “yada, yada, yada..” when explaining something to those who already “know” or should know what is being said, the word actually is more than nonsensical filler?

  22. Steve Avatar


    Adam knew his wife, but who or rather where is she?

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    No, I think it’s just NY/NJ nonsense (possibly Italian in origin). The accent would be different in Hebrew (accent more or less on the second syllable).

  24. Micah Avatar

    The following quote from the above post, is to my mind, as good an exposition of the English word repentance as any, although, I’m not quite sure that it’s meaning is fully carried forward from the Greek Metanoia —compounded from the preposition after and the verb to perceive.

    “The cry of repentance is not, ‘I promise to do good deeds from now on,’ but the cry, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ For we have no good deeds of our own to perform. We have nothing self-referential that has the character of offering. Instead we say, ‘Thine own of thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!’ ‘Lord, have mercy!’ is a cry for the light and a turning to the light. It is a renunciation of a self-referential existence and an embracing of true existence – one lived in and through the light. –Fr. Stephen

    I think in this, Orthodoxy shows herself to be that faithful witness of the Gospel of grace (cf. John 1–15).

    Lord have mercy.

  25. Micah Avatar

    To clarify: the true meaning of the word repentance is hidden from fallen man — covered up by layer upon layer of complexity as if complexity somehow differentiated man from animal.

    This perhaps, is what Vladimir Lossky meant when he spoke of the “gifts which restore and vivify the deepest nature of man”, for without true repentance there can be no reconciliation with the divine.

    If repentance is the greatest of all the gifts, it is because it allows man to take on the divinity intended by the Creator at the foundation of the world.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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