Servanthood and Freedom – A Word to Neurotic Christians

Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are subject to God, but free in that you are not enslaved to anything – either to empty praise or to any of the passions.

Release your soul from the bonds of sin; abide in liberty, for Christ has liberated you; acquire the freedom of the New World during this temporal life of yours. Do not be enslaved to love of money or to the praise resulting from pleasing people.

Do not lay down a law for yourself, otherwise you may become enslaved these laws of yours. Be a free person, one who is in a position to do what he likes. Do not become like those who have their own law, and are unable to turn aside from it, either out of fear in their own minds, or because of the wish to please others; in this way they have enslaved themselves to the coercion of their law, with their necks yoked to their own law, seeing that they have decreed for themselves their own special law – just when Christ had released them from the yoke of the Law!

Do not make hard and fast decisions over anything in the future, for you are a created being and your will is subject to changes. Decide in whatever matters you have to reach a decision, but without fixing in your mind that you will not be moved to other things. For it is not by small changes in what you eat that your faithfulness is altered: your service to the Lord of all is performed in the mind, in your inner person; that is where the ministry to Christ takes place.

St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25-28.

I have entitled this post, in part, “A word to neurotic Christians.” We all suffer from our personalities, that cluster of fears and fearlessness, of anxiety and over-confidence, of false images and hopeful dreams, guilt and cares – and our “religion” is often lived out precisely in that arena. My meager understanding of modern psychology uses the term “neurotic” to describe those who tend to take more responsibility upon themselves than is appropriate. Those who take too little responsibility are far more difficult personalities – falling generally somewhere in the category of “narcissists.” Neither is the path of true freedom as a Christian.

The “neurotic” path can seem extremely religious, precisely because of its deep sense of responsibility. Those of us who are “neurotic” always feel responsible. The troubles of the world are not something we ignore – and the closer the troubles come to our doorstep the more responsible we feel. Many clergy are neurotic – if we didn’t care so much we would never have yielded ourselves to this level of responsibility. Sometimes – even often – those reponsibilities crush us.

The words of John the Solitary seemed particularly appropriate to many in our modern age. Not satisfied with striving to keep Christ’s commandments, we create laws for ourselves, our internal rules, which hound us and persecute us and grind us into dust (greatly driven by the enemy of our faith as well as our own proclivities). Frequently, we give more weight to these self-made laws than to the true law of Christ (love).

We establish a rule of prayer (sometimes without so much as the blessing of a spiritual father). Our failure for even a few days (sometimes just one) can send us into such a spiritual funk that rather than repent, we simply quit.

Most of us would never be so hard on another. We find ourselves able to extend mercy to all but ourselves – or we extend mercy to ourselves where we should be strict and strict with ourselves where we should be merciful.

John the Solitary’s words (from the early 5th century) demonstrate how unchanged the inner life of human beings has remained despite the passage of time. The outward concerns of our culture are perhaps little more than phantasmagoria, while our inner lives remain the same. And thus his sane advice to our modern neurotics continues to read true.

There is indeed a marvelous freedom vouchsafed us in the mercy of Christ our God. His liberty is often more than we are willing to grant to ourselves. And thus we remain slaves – indeed worse than that – we become both Pharaoh and slave.

But the freedom that is ours in Christ abides forever. It is not an idea nor an ideal, but the truth as it has been established in Christ. Thus, if we err, and submit ourselves again to a yoke of bondage, our true liberator remains by our side, speaking a word of liberty and calling us to the life of the Spirit which is manifest in the life of love.

Many of us are tormented by the continuing process of life that confuses us and returns us to various yokes of bondage. But the good God, who loves mankind, is persistent and steadfast. He will not yield until every yoke of bondage is destroyed and we are established in His true freedom.

Glory to Christ who has made us free!

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.



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25 responses to “Servanthood and Freedom – A Word to Neurotic Christians”

  1. Vladislav Zarayskiy Avatar
    Vladislav Zarayskiy

    Thank you, Father, for the great quote and much needed words on our true liberty.
    Do you have a book of St. John the Solitary writings? I can find only different quotes here and there on the web and would like to read more of his works.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Veronica du Bruyn and Fabio Leite, Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο. Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο said: Servanthood and Freedom – A Word to Neurotic Christians: Be both a servant, and free: a servant in that you are su… http://bit.ly/d7xd5P […]

  3. Jeremiah Avatar

    I just listened to a podcast by Fr Thomas Hopko on thoughts, feelings and the like, and how they effect our spiritual life. This post fits with that one perfectly.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    The quote was drawn from material in the book by Sebastian Brock on the Syriac Fathers.

  5. David B Avatar

    Father,

    I am currently in seminary and seeking ordination. I am printing out this post (God willing, I’ll actually remember to read it and not beat myself up if and when I forget), as I imagine that I’ll need to refer to it often. You’ve pegged me here. Keep me and my family in your prayers.

    David

  6. Yannis Avatar
    Yannis

    Father Stephen,
    following your definitions (with which i find no reason to disagree), i am a neurotic narcicist. Or actually i am a narcicist when i am not a neurotic 🙂

    I have lived half a life time in these two modes which are (in myself) two sides of the same coin. Ego, Ego, Ego. The holy trinity. Gah.

    Mercy.

  7. Yannis Avatar
    Yannis

    Give us your word to narcicist Christians in a subsequent post too if you will, F.Stephen.

    It can certainly benefit a part of your audience 🙂

  8. Christos Jonathan Hayward Avatar

    Thank you so much, Fr. Stephen!

  9. Barbara Avatar
    Barbara

    Yannis, LOL! I was thinking the same thing. Mercy, indeed.

  10. Troy Avatar
    Troy

    Father,

    How do you reconcile this truth, of our liberty and the neurosis of making ourselves responsible for the world, with the teaching of many in the church that we should consider ourselves responsible for the sins of the whole world. Put another way, in the translated words of Dostoevsky,

    “There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.”

  11. Yannis Avatar
    Yannis

    Happy that someone else goes through the same Barbara – ehm, yes i meant “i’m sorry to hear that” 😉

    The classic Dostoyeski character that does exactly that is Elder Zoshima, from the Bross Karamazov. He is many things, but he is not a neurotic by any stretch of the imagination.

    The key for me is why, and hence how, someone cares. There is care and “care”. Care is never off balance – it has dignity and moderation; it lets other be while it cares for them.”Care” on the other hand is overdoing it – simply because there is something else that we try to achieve, from the start or en route. There are fears and desires entagled in that “care”. Of course for most people care always has a bit of “care” too. Its hard to find purity of intention.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Troy,
    I think the difference lies entirely within the realm of freedom. The admonition within Dostoevsky’s character (the Elder Zossima) is an admonition that can only be obeyed in the freedom of love. To take such a responsibility upon oneself, freely, as an act of love, is not neurosis. Of course, it is possibly good that we start a little smaller.

  13. Thom Avatar

    I always find your postings to have real insight and to be beneficial to my spiritual developemnt. It is great to read and to be encouraged by someone who can write so well of the struggles I have in everday life…especially here about being neurotic.

    Thank you Father

  14. Justin Kolodziej Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej

    Yes , thank you Father. Also Dostoevsky’s quote reminds me, not that my opinion counts for much, that Jesus took that exact responsibility for every man’s sins on Himself. And is He neurotic? We can only do so to the extent we participate in His life.

  15. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Thank you, Father! This is very familiar territory for me, too.

    Troy, istm, the answer to your question lies in what is at the root of the motivation of the heart. I find neurotic over-responsibility is motivated ultimately by a need to please (appease) people. It happens when our sense of security and significance is dependent upon the approval or opinions of others, rather than in God’s unconditional love. It is motivated by the desire for praise or avoidance of human condemnation or criticism, rather than freely extended out of love for the other and drawing from God’s love as its Source (as Fr. Stephen has pointed out above). I find that the latter virtue of the conviction of our genuine solidarity with all other sinners (i.e., genuine humility) can be acquired only as a gift of God’s grace. It is given as our perception of Him, ourselves, and the world begins to correspond more and more fully to reality, rather than the fantasies and fears of our imagination. Like all other virtues, it is the fruit of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, cultivated through contemplation of God, the continual struggle to reorient ourselves toward God as He reveals Himself in Christ instead of created things (whether conceptual or material).

  16. Virginia Molinari Avatar
    Virginia Molinari

    There is a cost to this freedom. Death to egoism! It is a joyful crucifixion! The joy and freedom are commensurate to the death. Thank you for this wonderful reflection, Father.

  17. Yannis Avatar
    Yannis

    Yes, its joyful after, that is, one has steped out of the ego perspective. But while its happening and one is still in the ego perspective its like carrying a corpse all around wherever you go. Dreadful really.

  18. easton Avatar
    easton

    thank you for this, father stephen. now i am neurotic about being a narcissist;)

  19. […] Servanthood and Freedom – A Word to Neurotic Christians […]

  20. davdperi Avatar

    Been reading logismoi or assaultive thoughts…this may help as to understand what may be happening and getting control. Click on the article call “Logismoi or assaultive thoughts” at: http://www.orthodoxcounselor.com/logismoi.htm

    Also, Tito Colliander´s “Way of the Ascetics”. If anyone has the Philokalia it is useful if you go to the index in the back of these books to see the collection of each topic, for example, self control or images. Good to review at times.

  21. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Thank you Father. I found St. Gregory’s writings here:
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.toc.html

  22. Byzantine Jewess Avatar

    “Do not become like those who have their own law, and are unable to turn aside from it, either out of fear in their own minds, or because of the wish to please others.”

    This is in particular hits home for me – I know that far too often I am entrapped by either a) what people think of/gaining and keeping their approval and b) the cherished ideas I have in my mind of what kind of person I am and how I imagine my future unfolding…

  23. Micah Avatar
    Micah

    We simply live our lives, there is no time (or space) for the imaginary. ‘I have come’ says the Lord, ‘that they might have life (by definition without limit)…’

  24. Miha Avatar
    Miha

    Bless, Father! Thank you for another brilliant post in which I see also my own reflection.

    I would much value your thoughts on the subject of being suspicious against our loved-ones, spouses etc. I am very often in agony over thoughts of my partner’s infidelity, friends betraying me and alike. Sometimes my thoughts were/are proven correct, but I need a way to, firstly, forgive, and secondly, not to think these thoughts over and over again. I would be grateful for some words of spiritual guidance or maybe even a new post on this subject.

  25. drchoneydew Avatar

    i’m in the hood and love’n it …lol

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