The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God

There are many things that bring us up against the hard reality of the Kingdom of God. The Gospel given to us by Christ, the verbal icon of the Kingdom, often gives us commands or parables that run radically counter to instinct (as we experience it) and, not infrequently, against reason (or so it seems).

No commandment in the teachings of Christ fits this description better than “forgive your enemies.” Our instinct is generally always to avoid and protect ourselves from our enemies, and, in extreme cases, to kill them or imprison them if possible. Again, this seems entirely reasonable for enemies may indeed be genuinely serving the cause of evil, and present a danger (physical, moral, etc.) to those around them.

It is this instinctual reasonableness that makes the teaching of Christ regarding our enemies difficult, and, frequently the subject of modification or amelioration. There are many who would brook no amelioration of Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, who will quickly agree to modifications on Christ’s teaching regarding our enemies.

There is a significant question to be asked: what is the meaning and purpose of Christ’s difficult teaching on the love of enemies? What do they reveal to us about the nature of God and the reality of the Kingdom? Christ Himself makes it clear that the commandments are an inherent part of our conformity to the Divine Image. His appeal is not to morals, but to the very goal of our salvation.

The commandments of Christ are not mere iterations of an abstract moral code: they are revelatory of who God is? To a degree they answer the question: “What kind of God would command such a thing?”

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.  Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).

Christ answers the question. A God who is kind to the unthankful and the evil, a God who is merciful is that “kind” of God who would command such a thing – and would do so in order to make us “sons of the Most High.”

Years (centuries) of scholastic torment have rendered the commandments of Christ of little effect, transforming them into virtual rabbinic arguments about the rightness and wrongness of certain actions. Their dynamic in the role of salvation is completely lost (particularly where salvation itself is seen through a forensic lens). Salvation is to be conformed to the image of Christ – a work of grace – a gift from God. However the distortion of that image becomes an enemy of grace and stumbling block to salvation.

And so we come back to our salvation and the commandments of Christ. It is a difficult thing to ponder and yet we must – who are my enemies that I should love? Why does my heart hate them so? Why do I rejoice at their downfall and not weep for the sins of another human being – who is – by definition – my brother?

The human heart is a complex matter – rendered complex by the presence of sin. Rather than simplicity and straight-forwardness, our hearts are fragmented producing both good things and bad. Our very core is distorted and we cannot trust our deepest instincts. This does not mean that we are “totally depraved,” but that we are damaged. The Christ who forgave His enemies from the Cross is more than an example of brave martyrdom – His pronouncement is a declaration of the heart of God and an icon of the kindness and goodness to which we are called to be conformed.

My own life, like that of others, is no stranger to enemies. Some of them are imagined (most, indeed) – some of them are well-defined and self-declared. My family has endured to murders over the years – one brutal and evil – the other stupid and senseless. In both cases the perpetrators were caught, tried and sentenced (none executed). Learning to pray for those who so hurt and injured not only my family – but changed its course in history – has been a difficult journey. I am not sure that all of my family has completed that trek.

But I know from this the pain that can drive the heart of vengeance and can also say that such pain never drives us closer to the Kingdom of God. We cry for justice – but only selectively. For myself, I do not want justice. I cry for mercy.

I have not killed – but I have wished others dead. I have not committed mass murder, but I have brought my curses down upon the heads of entire categories of people. As the heart of murderers are dark – so is my heart. Murder is the second oldest of human sins.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer, Raskolnikov, is advised by the prostitute Sophia:

Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go, will you go?

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 30

And the call goes out to all of us, hiding in the darkness of our hearts, “Will you go?” Our culture has witnessed the death of another mass-murderer. They come and go – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Osama bin Laden, etc. The crimes committed against humanity within the life-time of many of my readers is truly devastating. It is a deep pain which echoes the memory of Cain and Lamech and even our arch-enemy.

But our hearts were not created for righteous anger, just-retribution, or any such noble thing. They were created for conformity to the image of God, who is “kind to the unthankful and evil.” And so with great difficulty we strive to “pray for our enemies.” We do not pray because our enemies deserve such kindness – but because our hearts cannot bear the darkness of hate or the joy at their destruction. Such sentiments only remove us from conformity with Christ.

This is a most difficult matter – and I do not wish to judge anyone who has struggles with this commandment of Christ. I am not free from sin in this matter myself. But it is necessary for us, as Christians, to remind one another of the nature of our calling in God.

Let us pray for one another – that God may give us grace in a time of temptation – that He may lead us not into temptation – but deliver us from evil. Let us pray that He will be kind and merciful to our enemies – for we ask nothing less for ourselves.

Forgive me. God help us!

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.





74 responses to “The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God”

  1. Steven Clark Avatar

    Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to Thy great mercy,
    and according to the multitude of Thy compassions,
    wipe away my transgression.
    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and from my sin cleanse me.
    For I know my iniquity,
    and my sin is ever before my eyes.
    Towards Thee alone have I sinned,
    and evil have I done in Thy sight;
    So that Thou mayest be shown as righteous in Thy words,
    and victorious when Thou shalt be judged.

  2. handmaid leah Avatar

    well said, dear Father Stephen, well said…

  3. David Dickens Avatar

    “Look, if he was dying, he wouldn’t bother to carve ‘aaggggh’. He’d just say it!” — King Arthur, Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

    So here’s the thing, yeah? It hurts. No, I mean it. It really hurts when someone hits you, or when you needlessly lose a loved one, or watch someone waste away because of addiction. The knife blade bites, and the fire scorches flesh and the mind reels from it all and we are overcome.

    But I never hear in the stories of martyrs and confessors about them screaming out. It is as if even under mighty torment they retain volition. The closest I ever remember is in Fox’s Book of Christian martyrs where there’s a story of some friends who, out of love, collected additional firewood so that the condemned man would die more quickly and be spared some pain.

    I have not heard of any such thing as a point in one’s spiritual progress where sanctification makes it not so, makes the pain go away. In fact, it sounds like the great elders we do have left among us speak of the pain in their hearts for the whole of the world.

    Union with Christ may bring transformation of that suffering, but even Christ asked for the cup to pass. It hurts. People want the pain to stop. They want vengeance because they want the pain to stop. They drink because they want the pain to stop. They amass fortunes to wall up to protect themselves from the pain. They strike first, so they don’t have the blow fall on them and hurt.

    I have accepted Christ, I have accepted His Church, I suppose (though I have no proof of this) that I have accepted my own death that I might live again in Him. But the pain, that is not so easy to accept outside fantasy. In the moment, when bones break and guts clinch and the mind splits in half… how do we know that strength to do anything but cry out in a thousand curses?

    The beast does not knock at the door politely.

  4. Elizabeth Avatar

    Thank you for this Fr. Stephen; the icon in the picture/poster with this post – do you know what icon of Christ this is? I would love to know. Even without the full icon it is incredibly tender…

  5. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Elizabeth, I do not know which icon of Christ this is.

    David, you are right – pain is pain. It’s very difficult (the pain of enemies, etc.).

  7. Stan Shinn Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stephen,

    Given the timing of this post with the recent news of Bin Laden’s assassination, I’m a little unclear about the scope of what you’re trying to say. Are you including in your ‘don’t kill your enemies’ statement the notion that ‘capital punishment is wrong’, ‘countries should not wage war against their enemies’ or ‘societies should not kill to save lives’ (e.g. a SWAT team rescuing a hostage).


    Stan Shinn

  8. Elizabeth Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Thanks for letting me know, even though it was that you don’t know. It is powerful. Thanks again.

  9. s-p Avatar

    Good questions, Stan. On a “personal level” I believe Fr. Stephen has spoken eloquently and well regarding how “I” regard my personal enemies. If it is intended to be a template for non-Christian civil order, government and “world peace” in this fallen order I think it has real problems.

  10. (Jesse) Ignatius Avatar
    (Jesse) Ignatius

    Stan –

    Although I do not claim I know Fr. Stephen’s thoughts on the specific questions you ask, I believe his post primarily addresses the tendency of our hearts to rejoice when we hear that our enemy is dead. I don’t think there is anyone saying that the assassination of Bin Laden was for tactical reasons – everyone I have heard or read seems to believe that he was simply a figurehead at this point – but for revenge. Not an act of war, but a murder. Certainly he deserved to die, but then Christians believe that we ALL deserve to die (and of course that God does not desire our death). My first impulse when I heard of his death was one of rejoicing, and that reaction associates me with the serpent in the garden rejoicing at the fall, rather than Christ praying for the forgiveness of his murderers while dying on the cross.

  11. davidperi Avatar

    Thank you for posting. AFR podcast by Fr John Oliver..A Difficult Questions about the death of bin Laden is also difficult to face.

  12. Christopher Engel Avatar
    Christopher Engel

    Indeed, in some ways our reactions to Bin Laden’s death create difficult questions. But viewed from another angle, it is quite simple. Removing Bin Laden from the world was a technical act, akin to defusing a bomb. He presented a proven danger just by his act of still being alive. He place himself willingly in that position. In such cases there is a sense that he abandoned his own God-given humanity. We all do that a little, but he did it to such a degree as to separate himself from communion not just with God, but with his fellow, fallen mankind.

    Apparently, his 12 year old daughter was present, and she has told Pakistani authorities that US personnel had him in custody, alive, and then executed him. Whether it’s true or not, we don’t know, but assume it is. Can you imagine if we did capture him alive? Within 24 hours an American family would’ve been captured, maybe while visiting the Holy Land, and held with demands that Bin Laden be released. When we refused, we would’ve been treated to You Tube videos of a husband, wife, and two kids having their heads sawed off. I think we all know this scenario is not only likely, but probable. And this is the proof, hypothetical though it may be, that his mere living existence made him that much of a danger. Summary execution, then, would not be a moral or judicial act, but a technical one, the removal of a threat.

    This is how I’ve chosen to look at it, perhaps to assuage my own queasy little feeling about the tinge of joy I felt on hearing the news. It’s not right to celebrate the violent of another human being, but it’s perfectly fine to celebrate a heroic act that saves lives. Your mileage may vary.

  13. marsha Avatar

    I’m assuming (though I’m far from it) that there is a way to celebrate a heroic act that saved lives, and not to celebrate the death of a human being.
    But I see your point, Christopher Engel.

    And, David Dickens, simply beautiful, especially the last paragraph.

  14. amy Avatar

    David rejoices in the Psalms over the fall of his enemies, Joshua was triumphant over his enemies in Jericho by the guidance of Almighty God and our Father of Lights Himself caused the sea to consume the pursuing Egyptian armies and took their first born. And we rejoice for the salvation of the Israelites, sing about it in our hymns and chants of the Orthodox faith.

    If God would have us all to be pacifists, to lay down arms against our enemy, there would never be any christian nation on this earth. Never a soul to spread the Gospel because the enemy would always prevail. I see a distinction in Christ’s command to pray for our enemy and asking wisdom in justice on this earth, that is ever to be engaged in warfare because of its rule by the Prince of the Air.

    Corrie-Ten-Boom comes to mind, a survivor of the Holocaust, who was presented face to face with her sister’s murderer years later. He sought forgiveness from her — which she, by the grace of God, granted. Is this to say our armed forces, for whom we pray each Divine Liturgy, should have laid down their arms in the face of evil, to only pray for their enemy? To pray that God would miraculously deliver human beings who were being exterminated? Lord have mercy … God has granted us reason, strength and courage to face our enemies.

    God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow; Praise God for Elisha, who prayed for God to open the eyes of his servant, to see the chariots, the horses and fire surrounding their enemy. Angels engage in warfare daily; how much more should we, being the temple of Almighty God?

  15. […] A Christian responds to the event. […]

  16. Christopher Engel Avatar
    Christopher Engel

    I’m assuming (though I’m far from it) that there is a way to celebrate a heroic act that saved lives, and not to celebrate the death of a human being.

    I’m assuming that, too. Please see the first sentence of my last paragraph, wherein I hedge, equivocate, avoid, squirm, and otherwise maneuver in an attempt to avoid facing the moral issues… 😉

  17. Stan Shinn Avatar

    I think it is also helpful to consider the icons of so many of our saints — St. Demetrios, St. George, St. Andrew the Commander, etc. — where they bear arms since they were in the military. Did they kill in the name of the state in order to preserve justice and prevent anarchy? Yes, I believe many of them did. But no doubt they took no joy in the death of sinners.

    Consider what those icons would look like had they lived today — we would have icons of saints wearing camo and Kevlar, with M-16s and 9mm Glocks at their sides instead of swords, shields and spears. They would look very much like the Navy Seals who have been so celebrated in the media as of late.

  18. kay Avatar

    Sometimes wars last a very long time. This one has been going on for 1400 years, with an enemy that will not stop until the Dar al Harb (sp?) is gone. This is a sad fact of life in our broken world; I am glad that our military is civilized enough not to deem it necessary to engage in public grotesqueries mentioned above. There will be more to come in this war. It is an act of charity on the part of our military to engage these violent people and defeat them. It’s a hard job to do, and they get very little support from the public at large- even when Islamic terrorists strike recruiting centers, or shoot them in front of their homes…

    I pray daily for our military to use wisely the power they have to destroy, to shield their hearts from the love of killing, and as to their adversaries, entreat the Lord to sew confusion in the minds of those who hate.

    I also pray for help in the small war, the one inside my heart. I didn’t shout with glee at the OBL news; it’s great that he can’t personally cause more harm
    of course – it’s just a sadness – another broken person lost to God. Who am I to say that my brokenness is any better (less harmful) than his? It’s just a different kind of brokenness. We will all be judged. Lord have mercy on us all.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy recognizes that killing happens, that sometimes it seems the only option (in a fallen world), but still recognizes that the taking of a human life is a sin (though canons make distinctions within those killings). Murder is one thing, killing in war another, etc. Nevertheless, even killing in war is not a “good” thing, it damages the soul (as many veterans would agree). What I am describing is not a position of pacifism, but rather, if you will, a willingness to engage the humanity of all and, ultimately, to forgive everyone for everything. This is the spiritual legacy of the fathers. It’s a matter of the heart. Of course people will defend themselves (often) and nations will as well. Policemen will use their authority, etc. But none of those things shield the heart from the effects of our fallen world and our brokenness. My point is to recognize the struggle and work at yielding our hearts to God, and not to justify hatred or those things which harden the heart.
    It is a paradox that brings us up against the hard reality of the kingdom.
    I have been on the “right” side on a few occasions, and found my heart angry and bitter. Though the “rightness” did not change – I have had to struggle to allow my heart to change – lest I find myself “thrust out of the Kingdom” as one of the hymns of Holy Week describes it.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    You need to study the history of icons more carefully. They do not celebrate their military deeds. There is not a canonization of a saint for military prowess.

  21. Stan Shinn Avatar

    Fr. Stephen wrote: “You need to study the history of icons more carefully. They do not celebrate their military deeds. There is not a canonization of a saint for military prowess.”

    Please understand, I never said Orthodoxy celebrated military prowess. But there is clearly a recognition in Orthodoxy that many saints were in occupations like the military where killing was part of the vocation as part of the God-ordained civil order to prevent anarchy, seek justice, and provide safety. It didn’t take away from them being saints.

    Surely you don’t mean to indicate that the police and military are inherently more sinful by virtue of their vocation and acts to promote justice and order?

  22. Anon Avatar

    Prince Myshkin was undoubedtly the greatest Christ figure in world literature – reading the comments I am reminded that he was branded an “idiot” by specifically Christian – specifically Orthodox – characters. We want so desperately not to accept Christ’s directives – all of us.

    Imagine a Christian response to bin Laden – pronouncing ourselves guilty for his sin. Forgiving him and asking for forgiveness. Any public figure who would have done this would have been dismissed as an idiot, no doubt. I don’t think even a priest would be so foolish.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not imply the vocations such as soldier, policeman, etc., are inherently more sinful. But no policeman wants to kill as part of his job, and many suffer greatly (within their mind and soul) when they do.

    This is not a two-storey universe. There are no secular actions, no actions without spiritual consequence. Orthodoxy teaches the paradox of life in the fallen world, but does not become an apologist for the compromises made in that fallen world.

    The military actions, etc., of some could indeed have prevented their being saints (taking a human life is a canonical impediment to the priesthood). It depends on what happens in the heart. St. Alexander Nevsky died as a monk.

    Nothing makes someone more inherently sinful. But killing always carries consequence for the human heart – unless the human heart has become too hardened. I honor the men who did their duty in taking down Osama bin Laden, and I pray for their souls and that God help them as they recover from such duty.

    Orthodoxy is not a dry discussion of right and wrong (that’s the moralism of the West). Rather it is a frank acknowledgement of the truth of the human soul and body as made known to us in the commandments of Christ, and the living experience of the saints and ascetics of the Church.

  24. Anon Avatar

    Perhaps I am misrecollecting but I believe part of the historical function of Valaam was for military men to have a place to come to work out their repentance after service. That strikes me as a wonderful contrast to the continuous self justification that is expected of military and police officers whose very jobs do indeed have the power to corrupt and damage the human person.

  25. Stan Shinn Avatar

    Fr. Stephen wrote: “I honor the men who did their duty in taking down Osama bin Laden, and I pray for their souls and that God help them as they recover from such duty.”

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for the clarification. I can better understand where you’re coming from now.

    In this conversation, I’m mindful of St. Nestor, who with the blessing of St. Demetrios slew the evil-doer Lyaeus, before himself giving his life as a martyr. Both Ss. Demetrios and Nestor were soldiers if I recall correctly.

    An excellent article on this is here: gttp://

  26. A Genius of Compression Avatar
    A Genius of Compression

    “The human heart is a complex matter – rendered complex by the presence of sin. Rather than simplicity and straight-forwardness, our hearts are fragmented producing both good things and bad. Our very core is distorted and we cannot trust our deepest instincts. This does not mean that we are “totally depraved,” but that we are damaged.” – Father Stephen Freeman


    Isaiah 52:14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him–his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness–

    2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

  27. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    I willl try to form my response in questions rather than opinions which would only show my lack of knowledge and probably defects of character. Forgive them for they know not what they do–but what if they know exactly what they are doing? My view–and maybe I am wrong–is that Osama bin Laden knew what he was doing. He had other choices and options, he rejected Christ knowingly and willingly, and he apparently did not even follow the tenets of his own religion. Was he not unrepentent to the very end?

    My second question: why is there a hell? Is it not a reality that some people–no matter how much we might forgive them–are going to be cast into eternal hell? Where is Judas? Or Hitler? Aside from anger or revenge, are we not responsible for setting limits on destructive people or removing (imprisoning, killing if they resist) them from society?

    Among Christians who feel a sympathy for bin Laden’s outcome (not sorrow over the fallen condition of man and how bin Laden fits into that as we all do, but sympathy that he was killed), I would like to pose further questions. Did you pray for bin Laden? Do you reach out to Muslims?

    Did our country not love its enemy when bin Laden was granted a Muslim burial? After he killed our citizens and damaged our economy, did we not show the utmost consideration for his soul?

    For me, it is not about anger, hatred, or revenge, but about the protection of society–even though we will always have these types of people among us. If we care about them, it is not good for their own development and spirituality to be allowed to inflict damage on others. Allowing them to sin against mankind does not seem like a Christian response.

  28. Bill M Avatar

    The sermon at our church on Sunday was “Love Your Enemies” (from the Sermon on the Mount passage). Then came Monday’s news, and all the resulting ripples of chatter and analysis. Now there is your word on it, and the good conversation here.

    I wonder if Someone is trying to tell me something… 🙂

    Thanks again for your teaching here. The follow-up conversation/comments are especially helpful.

  29. Tiffani Avatar

    “I don’t think there is anyone saying that the assassination of Bin Laden was for tactical reasons – everyone I have heard or read seems to believe that he was simply a figurehead at this point – but for revenge. Not an act of war, but a murder.” (Jesse) Ignatius.

    Seriously?!! Allow me to repeat…Seriously?!!

    Apparently, Ignatius, you must be reading secure US military documents to have such clear knowledge, as the general public only gets the information that can be released safely to them during times of war. As the daughter of a man who spent many years working around the globe (and namely in the unforgiving Middle East) for US Air Force intelligence, I can promise you that you only know what no longer matters anymore. You do not know what actually happened and won’t for many years. It is not safe to spread the deepest of details.

    With all due respect, you really should be careful how you speak about people who you do not know and about whom you do not have very much direct and clear information. You just called strangers “murderers” and without much qualm.


  30. Tiffani Avatar

    Without any qualms.

  31. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Father bless!

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your website for quite awhile now. I am a prior military service Army officer who is married to another prior military service Army officer. Both of us saw combat in different wars. My husband is also a retired police officer while I will soon retire from my state’s correctional system. While neither my husband nor I have had to kill another human being, we have seen death very up close & very personal. Orthodoxy’s views on these fields of service was an important issue for me before I was received over 8 years ago into the Church. For years now my husband & I have struggled with integrating what we do or may have to do with our faiths; he with Roman Catholicism & myself with Orthodoxy.

    Given our past experiences, I do believe that you have outdone your self with this posting. It is both a wise & timely reminder of just what it means to accept & follow Christ versus the world.

    I heard about Bin Laden’s death while at work. While others around me were celebrating & rejoicing, my heart was saddened because a human being, created in the image of God, was now dead. Whether it was from an act of vengence, an act of war, prevention of terrorism, or whatever is irrelevant.

    We have read & seen in the media many stories about this & it has fueled much talk between us about God & faith. We read in a newspaper editorial comment from one reader how her loved ones & all of the thousands killed on 9/11 were now in heaven with God rejoicing & dancing at the death of this man whom naturally she deemed to be burning in hell. My husband commented how God never rejoices at the death of his children.

    I pity those who lost loved ones & friends on 9/11 & I in no way mean to belittle their hurt or loss as I too have lost people dear to me throughout my life. But revenge & vengence will not make them any happier nor lessen their grief nor bring the closure that they need. They may be happy right now, but eventually the pain & grief will return with its own vengence when their exuberance is spent. Only Christ can do that as you so eloquently stated.

    My local priest reminded me a while back that all are created in the image of God; it’s just that some hide it extremely well. I hesitantly & humbly add to his words that to an extent we ALL tend to hide it in some way or another…or at least I know I do.

  32. mark Avatar

    Rhonda, your comment, within the context of your own personal experience, is very moving for me to read. I think you have helped soften my heart a little. 🙂
    Thank you;
    -Mark Basil

  33. Rhonda Avatar

    Mark, thank you very much for your kind comments. It was not me that softened your heart, but rather the grace of Christ’s love acting on your willingness to let it work within you. May it continue to be so with you.

  34. Jamie Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen,
    Thank you so much for this post. This is the one of the most nuanced and deep reflections I have read on the Osama killing, even your comments have been very life giving for me.

    “Orthodoxy teaches the paradox of life in the fallen world, but does not become an apologist for the compromises made in that fallen world. ”

    I so appreciate the honesty about the corruption of the world, while still being honest about the cost of killing, even to brave men. But at any rate, we are called to forgive and not to hate.

    Thank you for this.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I am not sure how to answer the questions of Aunt Melanie. My thoughts are reflections not on “right or wrong” but on the heart and why we are called to love our enemies. Heaven and hell and the human heart are more subtle than most people think. Kalomiros’ exposition called “the River of Fire” which is on my sidebar, is useful in this matter, as is the reflection on heaven and hell on the sidebar by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev.

    The soldiers who stormed the compound recently, in a sense entered “hell.” It’s getting back out and not carrying hell within you that is the problem. Osama’s anger long ago created a “hell” around him. Christ enters hell in order to get us out. The story between Christ and Osama is one we do not know and cannot know (until perhaps the eschaton). Forgiveness and thanksgiving are keys given to us by Christ so that we need not live in our self-made hells, nor make them permanent domiciles.

    Some might find it of interest to go to the front page of my blog, and on its search engine type in “hell” and see what articles come up. Some may be of use in thinking about these things.

  36. easton Avatar

    thank you for your thoughtful words, father stephen. in our chaotic world, they are comforting.

  37. George Avatar

    Is it correct to say that it is good for the world and the social order that this man is no longer here to create death and destruction, but it is not good for my soul that anyone perishes outside of Christ? In my mind I can I can see the reasonbleness of this man being killed, but in my heart I can gieve for his soul.

  38. Dharmashaiva Avatar

    George, I would say that it is good for the world that no one creates death and destruction. Whether such a state of the world requires any one particular person’s death, is a different question.

  39. (Jesse) Ignatius Avatar
    (Jesse) Ignatius

    Tiffani (and others) –

    You are correct in calling me out on that – please forgive me for my offense. I (believe it or not) have a great deal of respect for the men and women of our military, but I also believe that by the very nature of their vocation, they often put their salvation at great risk. The point I was trying to make in my comment (and I did so poorly) was that we are sinning when we rejoice at another’s death. Rhonda said it better when she said “God never rejoices at the death of his children”. And of course, neither should we. I also did not mean to imply that bin Laden was a victim (at least as we tend to define victim in our secular society) rather than a perpetrator, or that he wa murdered in the same way that Christ was murdered (ouch – upon reread of my comment, that inadvertant analogy made me wince the most). Lesson learned – never post a comment to a blog after 2100.

  40. zeitungzeid Avatar

    Dharmashaiva (if I may):

    The question of what death actually looks like in the light of Pascha cannot easily be brushed under the eschatological carpet.

    Either Christ entered hell (everyone’s) and filled it in ascension or he did not.

    Or course Christians believe that he did; St. Paul and others speak of the event as past, present and future.

  41. zeitungzeid Avatar

    …and Stan (if I may):

    I am certain St. Michael the Taxiarch uses a sword.

  42. mark Avatar

    Dear Zeitungzeid;

    It is important not to confuse Christ’s Kingdom with the kingdoms of this world, or Spiritual warfare with material warfare:

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
    -Matt. 26:52-53

    “My Kingdom is not of this world; if my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I should be delivered from the Jews.”
    – John 18:36

    For though we walk in the flesh we do not war according to the flesh for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh.
    – II Corinthians 10:3-4

    Violence and killing, even in defense of justice and to protect the innocent, are similar to divorce and remarriage.
    Clearly they are not the Christian ideal but the Church in imitation of God’s mercy and condescension provides a way for all of us to find salvation, not heaping too great a burden on those who are not able to bear it.
    All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.
    -1Cor. 10:23-24

    As with divorce and remarriage, so with warfare and killing.
    While I personally would not go so far as Fr Stephen as to say that I “honour” those military persons who kill in defense of justice (how can I honour sinful acts?), I also do not know if I could bear the cross without the actions of the chariots of the princes and sons of men. I do know that the first Christians found the grace to do so, and with joy.

    In reflection on this post I would have to agree with a friend who found most poignant Father Stephen’s comment here:
    Orthodoxy teaches the paradox of life in the fallen world, but does not become an apologist for the compromises made in that fallen world.

    This is how I understand remarriage in the Church (explicitly forbidden by Christ in the gospel), and this is why the Church does not (anymore, consistently) prohibit her members from taking up arms in sober defense of the innocent.

    All who are reading this, I personally ask your prayers. I am a brother and this is a subject I wrestle with tremendously in my own faltering life in Christ.
    Please pray for me!
    And thank you so much Fr Stephen for your help.
    -Mark Basil

  43. Seraphim Avatar

    One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
    Nikolai of Zicha.

  44. Mark the Zealot Avatar
    Mark the Zealot

    I have been blessed with having a real enemy who tried to destroy me, at least economically. And it was for my efforts to protect the widow and orphan. While I knew I should be rejoicing, it was so hard not to continually slide into hatred and fantasies of retribution.

    I jouneyed out, through confession. And I read and meditated on St. Nikolai Velimirovich’s “Bless my Enemies” prayer, , but I was still not really ready to pray for and forgive my enemies. But I found a prayer I could pray, , at first mechanically, but after about three months of saying the prayer every morning, out loud, I began to see a change in my hard heart, at least I was no longer consumed with fantasies of revenge.

    O Jeus Christ, Son of God, forgive me a sinner, and grant me the grace to forgive others.

  45. Jerilyn Avatar

    I’ve always wondered why so many fundamentalist Christians seem so pro-war and hawkish yet are also staunchly anti-abortion. Killing is killing, right?

  46. zeitungzeid Avatar

    Jerilyn (if I may):

    Hating is killing.

    Thank you Seraphim.

  47. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    Don’t forget to pray for those 72 virgins now belonging to Osama.

  48. zeitungzeid Avatar

    James (if I just might):

    Could the “seventy two” refer to the nations and tongues of the ethnology of Genesis Ch 10 (at least in the reckoning of the Septuagint)? The Haggadah counts only seventy.

    I do wonder..

  49. easton Avatar

    jerilyn, and what about those who “hate” the doctors who do the abortions, even to the point of killing them?? shouldn’t we forgive and pray for the doctors, too?? i wonder how many who are anti-abortion are able to forgive the doctors–truly forgive in their hearts…

  50. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Is it permitted to offer a link? For an interesting perspective, readers might consider this article from Christianity Today: “Engaging the Islamic World after Osama,”

  51. Jerilyn Avatar

    Zeitungdzeit and easton, you are both so right. My oldest brother is an ultra right wing (hoping I don’t offend anyone with this term) Catholic and is pro-military to the extreme. He is also active with “pro-life” efforts and recently told me that if he would kill an abortion doctor if he could. That statement makes me kind of chuckle at the irony, but then it also sends chills down my spine because he’s serious.

  52. easton Avatar

    that is truly chilling, jerilyn. just goes to show how the mind tries to excuse and justify hate…

  53. Ruth Ann Avatar

    Father Stephen, I learn much and am often inspired by your posts. But, I’m one of those “terrible” Western Christians, from the Latin Rite. Truly, sometimes you stereotype us by over emphasizing the intellectual strand of our tradition. This is not to say that that strand doesn’t exist. But there’s so much more that is part and parcel of our Tradition. Both East and West, have the common heritage of the Church Fathers, whom we revere. Some of my personal favorites are St. Antony and St. Athanasius, to name two. Furthermore, there is another aspect to the spirituality of the West that is mystical. There is good and bad in every group and ideology. Only Christ and his holy mother, Mary are perfect.

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ruth Ann,
    Doubtless, I paint with a broad brush at times that fails to do justice to many details. And yet we also live under the broad brush of the West – which for years acted in a way that denied any validity to anything else – and gave rise to many false ideologies within our culture. I am not sure if Christianity can be redeemed in the context of a Western, or Latin Rite. I do not say that it cannot – but it must rise to the level of self-realization, which includes a self-criticism that has yet to occur. Without this, there fails to be a uniquely Christian consciousness. Forgive my awkward observations.

  55. joel in ga Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I liked your question. What kind of a God would command things like, Love your enemies? Seems there is a lot of Gospel presupposed in the commandments. Love your enemies, because God loves His enemies. Love is kind and patient, because God is such. John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, The Eternal Goodness, comes to mind.

  56. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    George: “Is it correct to say that it is good for the world and the social order that this man is no longer here to create death and destruction, but it is not good for my soul that anyone perishes outside of Christ?”

    I am intrigued by your question. I think it is not good for the individual that he perish outside of Christ–the alternative destination is hell, an eternity without love. The rest of us stilll have opportunity to repent–and that is good for the soul.

    As for society, now that we know bin Laden was still plotting destruction and still at the center of leadership, I must conclude that his removal has likely saved lives and prevented destruction. Some commentators on this blog will disagree with me.

    Yes, I will grieve in my heart for the loss of any soul–but I will also feel gratutude that an apparently unrepentent murderer is longer working evil in the world. And, I will learn a personal lesson about praying for my ‘enemies.’

  57. […] Stephan reminds us: The commandments of Christ are not mere iterations of an abstract moral code: they are revelatory […]

  58. Aaron Avatar

    But that’s just it, there is no way we can know if it will likely save lives and prevent destruction. If our recent past is any indication, ie, using violence to fight the so-called War on Terror with casualties in the tens if not hundreds of thousands, it seems more likely that this will only perpetuate the violence and add more misery to what we’ve already created in our actions as a nation.

    Only God knows the outcome of our actions and it seems tragic to me that He would direct us in how we should be and give us guidance, but then we discount it because we somehow know better. His ways are not our ways and His kingdom is “not of this world.”

  59. Ruth Ann Avatar

    I didn’t see your comment until just know, Fr. Stephen. Thank you for responding to what I wrote, and I hope you don’t mind my asking you to elaborate a bit, at least on what you said. I am sincerely interested in what you mean, and don’t know exactly what to infer about your observations.

    So these are the 4 things I wonder about:

    1. “acted in a way that denied any validity to anything else” What actions are these? Is it something specific or general?

    2. “gave rise to many false ideologies within our culture.” What particular ideologies are you talking about? Also, do you mean the U.S. (American) culture or something else? I say that because Catholics transcend or perhaps belong to a variety of cultures all over the world. My understanding is that Christians embrace what is good within cultures, but try to change or transform what is evil for the better.

    3. “not sure if Christianity can be redeemed in the context of a Western, or Latin Rite” This phrase is particularly nebulous to me me. I understand what redemption means—I think—but not in this context of redeeming Christianity. I hope you don’t mind enlightening me here.

    4. “a uniquely Christian consciousness” By consciousness do you mean a world view or something else?

    I don’t know if you even have time to address these questions of mine, but I would appreciate it if you could.

    I will reiterate that I find your essays, not only informative, but inspiring.

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ruth Ann,
    During the many years of captivity (under the Turks and even under some westernized Tsars) Christianity in the West used plenty of occasions (both Protestant and Catholics) to take advantage of the Orthodox, and to ridicule and diminish Orthodox understanding. When freedom was gained, the powers of the West (Protestant and Catholic) rushed to lay claim to the newly freed areas (at least ideologically and religiously). Thus they offered no validity to Orthodox thought, but treated it as inferior and “undeveloped.”

    The false ideologies I’m thinking of are modernism, secularism, historicism, and constant reform according to “modern understandings.” This has been influential in much of Catholicism even today.

    I do not know if a Western or Latin Rite has enough self-critical understanding to restore all that it has discarded. Without the liturgical and monastic heritage of Orthodoxy, it could easily have perished in the 20th century as well.

    By Christian consciousness, I mean a mind formed in the Tradition of the Church, regardless of culture. The modern mind stands outside the Tradition, and, at best, tries to appropriate what it likes in the Tradition – but can never have because it does not stand within the Tradition itself. For instance, the constant changing of canons in Rome, has reduced the traditional fast of Christianity to “Fridays in Lent”. It has forgotten the role and life of asceticism that is normative in the Tradition. Thus people think of “giving up something for Lent,” which is simply the modern self indulging its religious sentiments.

    This is a very short answer to questions that properly require much longer treatment. For instance, the period of the “Orthodox Captivity” is pretty much unknown in the West. Indeed, attitudes towards the Balkans and Russia continue in many places to encourage misunderstanding of Orthodoxy and to credit Orthodoxy with everything they don’t like about Eastern Europe. Many modern Orthodox are not truly aware of this period and the dangers it brought, or the heroic spiritual efforts of those who helped end that Captivity (in some ways that struggle is still continuing).

    Forgive me.

  61. Ruth Ann Avatar

    Thanks for elaborating. You’re giving me much to ponder. Concerning Fridays of Lent, the fast is even more abridged. We fast only two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The other Fridays are abstinence days (no meat). So, it’s worse than you thought! Yes, asceticism is weak. I was raised with more understanding and practice of asceticism, but most of those practices have disappeared. Many of the practices were imposed under pain to sin, but now, we are supposed to choose our own penitential practices and we are like little children who try to get away with as little as possible. One needs the support of a community to undertake asceticism, I believe.

    I’ve not heard too much about the times you mentioned with the Turkish captivity. If Protestants were involved, too, it must have happened after the 1500s. I know a lot more about early Church history up until the Fall of the Roman Empire, and a little about the history through the Middle Ages, but not much after that.

    I am just beginning to learn about modernism, secularism, and so forth. And I agree those ideas have messed up our religious sensibilities. But I didn’t realize the Church had that much to do with it.

    I learned something about Orthodox spirituality when I was in the Air Force many decades ago. I read the Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. I loved it, and it influenced me in my prayer life. But I also love the lives of the saints, and these would be Western saints. I guess my favorite part of being a Catholic Christian is the liturgy, the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours.

    If you ask forgiveness for stereotyping, then, I do forgive you. Other than that, I don’t see that you need forgiveness from me. I will continue to enjoy reading your posts.

  62. Bruce Avatar

    Today’s May 11th “For Consideration or Reflection” from Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich’s “The Prologue from Ohrid” seems especially relevant to this discussion. Perhaps it is an answer to prayer for those who have asked for guidance on this important topic.
    In the encampment of the Saracens they asked St. Cyril: “How could Christians wage war and at the same time keep the commandment of Christ about praying to God for their enemies?” To that, St. Cyril replied: “If two commandments were written in one law and given to men for fulfilling, which man will be a better follower of the law: the one who fulfills one commandment or the one who fulfills both?” To that, the Saracens replied: “Undoubtedly, he who fulfills both commandments.” St. Cyril continued: “Christ our God commands us to pray to God for those who persecute us and even to do good to them; but, He also said to us: greater love cannot be shown in this world than if one lay down his life for his friends.” “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (St. John 15:13). That is why we bear the insults which our enemies do to us individually and we pray to God for them; and, as a society, we defend one another and give up our lives, that you would not somehow enslave our brethren, would not enslave their souls with their bodies and would not kill them in body and soul.

  63. mark Avatar

    Dear Bruce;
    I think this hagiography bringss us to the heart of the Question we must ask: Do we look to Christ alone as the Way, or do we prefer an excuse to look somewhere else?

    If Christ is our measure, and if we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him… then I must disagree with this sentiment attributed to St Cyril. If we would be perfect as our Father in heaven, then we must love even our enemies as Christ loved his enemies. Of course we have the saints and their teachings to reinforce the Way. However only that which aligns with Christ is given to us by the Holy Spirit as Truth.

    Did friends of the proto-martyr Stephen do what Cyril says Christians do? No they did not. They did not weaponize themselves in defense of oneanother… instead they counted persecution as pure joy, not wishing to deprive each other of the crowns that await them. (Think also of St Ignatious begging his flock not to spare him from the crown.)

    We have other examples among the saints that contradict St Cyril’s opinion, and point to this way of the Cross. Ss Boris and Gleb the passion bearers come quickly to mind. And an oft overlooked point in the hagiography of St Martin of Tours: “At about the age of twenty, on the eve of a battle with the Gauls at Worms, his company was called to appear before the emperor to receive a war-bounty on the eve of battle. Refusing to accept such a reward, Martin explained: “Up to now I have served you as a soldier. Now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others — they are going to fight, but I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”
    This aligns with the early Church’s teaching about the incompatibility of bloodshed with the Christian Way. St Justin’s commentary on the change that happens at conversion illuminates this for us: “[New Christian converts] have fled for safety to the God of Jacob and God of Israel; and we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,— our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage, —and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.”
    Of course there is also the explicit Canon 14 of Hippolytus in the fourth century which states:
    “A Christian is not to become a soldier. A Christian must not become a soldier, unless he is compelled by a chief bearing the sword. He is not to burden himself with the sin of blood. But if he has shed blood, he is not to partake of the mysteries, unless he is purified by a punishment, tears, and wailing. He is not to come forward deceitfully but in the fear of God.”
    St Basil the Great later recommends 3yrs apart from the Eucharist for soldiers who shed blood, even in defense of the innocent.

    So why then do we have this hagiography of St Cyril that you bring to light?
    Some people argue this demonstrates there are ‘two traditions’ in response to our enemies: one fights for justice, another dies for love. But this makes no sense if we look to Christ for the Way. There is only one Holy Tradition as there is One Christ, one Cross, one Way. Love of enemies is not optional, it is the very heart and true test of Christian Love, the one quality that sets us apart from those who are of this world.

    I have already articulated an alternative explanation (see comment above): The Church in her wisdom does not lay too heavy a burden for us to bear. Let those who wish to fight, fight. (Many holy men have been soldiers in a early stage of their developing life in Christ.) Let those who wish to die for love, die. But only the latter is consistent with Christ’s own Way of the Cross. He did not come as the Military Mesiah– He did not fight to defend his Bride as St Cyril suggests, but died for her and even for his enemies, drawing all things to Himself thereby.
    So I personally believe this opinion attributed to St Cyril here is mistaken. I might tremble for I am far less a man the Cyril is. Yet I am emboldened because Christ Himself shows a contrary Way; my priest was bold enough to catechize me in Orthodox nonviolence, and my spiritual father has reinforced this in me.
    There is one way.

    For a deeper treatment of St Cyril’s poor exegesis, you may visit my blog where I examine it in detail.
    Asking your prayers!
    -Mark Basil

  64. mike Avatar

    ….Mark..thanks so much for your outstanding in agreement with you..i only wish i had said it first.

  65. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mark, I agree. Cyril’s treatment is poor. The paradox, even the tragedy, of the fact that we find ourselves in a fallen world and in certain circumstances feel we must defend ourselves and others around us seems missing in Cyril’s answer. The canons of the Church maintain the witness to the tragic nature of violence.

  66. Father Stephen Avatar

    How could any of us know these things? But with God, all things are possible.

  67. fatherstephen Avatar

    Marc, I strongly agree.

  68. Maggie Avatar

    (sory for my english, i´ll do my best)

    Heyy, this is just PERFECT. Kill your enemies, this is so clear to be wrong but humans are still doing it, and even worse they try to tell people and convince them that that´s a good action that will bring happiness and security among all the world. So we can go back to the famous phrase, that the goal doesn´t justify the means.

    But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:35-36).

    This is the most important message jesus left us, the one that make us diffetent, the so “strange” thing that goes against this world. Because jesus will never go with this world, the world will always be opossite to him and all His light. The world will always be a curtain or a cliff that will always try to show us whats right and wahts wrong. But nothing can erase whats written in our hearts, what rules us, and thats love, and thats God. Everything we do opossite to it, will make us unhappy in the end, because we were made to His image and similarity. The whole nature reflects God, He is everywhere, so the one rule is HIS. He is the only way to happiness.

  69. Maggie Avatar

    you are great father stephen and i completely admire you.

  70. fatherstephen Avatar

    God is good.

  71. Maggie Avatar

    That just sums up everything. Thanks for answering, im 16 and i want to learn so much about Him! 🙂 i want to study theology

  72. Jim Forest Avatar

    Just a word of thanks, Fr Stephen, for your posting and additional comments — and to others for their reflections.

    Your reflections remind me how unsentimental love is in its Gospel usage.

    In case you haven’t already read it, there is an essay (Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity) by the patristic scholar Fr John McGuckin on the Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site that you might find worth reading:

    Jim Forest

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