Freedom and Slavery – 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 to 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 St. John the Solitary seem 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 depression that rather than repent, we simply quit.

Most of us would never be so hard on someone else. 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.

St. 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. The liberty that is ours in Christ is not a liberty to sin – but a true liberty to be free in the Spirit of God.

The freedom that is ours in Christ abides forever. It is not an idea nor an ideal, but the truth as it is made known 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 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.





23 responses to “Freedom and Slavery – A Word to Neurotic Christians”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo comes from a trip to Red Rock State Park in Nevada. If you enlarge the photo you can see more clearly the figure of a man free-climbing up the rock face.

  2. Christina Douglas Avatar

    You have no idea how timely this post is. Thank you.

  3. Jenny Avatar

    Father Bless. According to the DSM-IV-TR (the 4th edition diagnostic manual for mental disorders) Neurosis is a general term used to describe a cluster of categorized mental disorders. Anxiety disorders, dissociative disorders, mood disorders, and somatoform disorders. Neither of these mental disorders (which are caused by physical abnormalities in the brain) are voluntary. Mental disorders should never be used to describe a person as having a bad character. We can’t go around describing people who take on to many worries as being neurotic. People who are truly neurotic have an illness which they cannot simply ‘choose’ their way out of. Obsessive compulsive disorder is categorized as an anxiety disorder and is often times referred to as a form of neurosis. This form of neurosis is also caused by a physical abnormality in the brain and is believed to be genetic. An example of a dissociative disorder that was once referred to as Multiple personality disorder, but now goes by ‘dissociative identity disorder’, is caused by unimaginable psychological trauma which is so severe that certain structures of the human brain become altered.

  4. Jenny Avatar

    Bless. “Neither is the path of true freedom as a Christian.”

    I am a sufferer of Obsessive Complusive Disorder, and the Lord has set me free.

  5. […] St. John the Solitary, Letter to Hesychias, 25-28. HT Father Stephen Freeman. […]

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jenny, I have an “anxiety disorder” – and understand the physical component in such things. But it’s the hand I’ve been dealt. But I also see that it’s the stuff I have to work with in my life as I struggle in my life in Christ. I’m use the term “neurotic” in its general cultural usage (the DSM does own our vocabulary). I would certainly not hesitate to number myself among the neurotic Christians. I find St. John the Solitary’s advice to be useful, regardless of the disorders of the brain. We describe things in the modern world according to our own model which is clearly useful. But I’ve also noted that though things such as medications are very helpful, they seem not to actually change our character. Character is formed by many factors – an important part of which is “how we deal with what we’ve been dealt.” I have known Christians who outwardly would still seem plagued by a disorder beyond their control, but inwardly are truly heroic, perhaps even saints, given what they have been able to do despite their handicap. Mental disorders should not be the subject of judgment (I certainly do not judge this) but despite that, when you have one, you have to do something with it. It’s part of your life. So we struggle. Others may not understand the nature of that struggle – and we should not fall into judging ourselves (as St. John says ‘don’t make rules for yourself’). But we still struggle to gain Christ – who sets us free.

  7. davidperi Avatar

    The Philokalia and especially the writings of Metro Nafpatktos Hierotheos have been a great help in dissecting and noting the stillness of the heart is what we really need. This leads us into the area of Orthodox psychology & psyotherapy and their emphasis of what the early church, the church fathers say so we don´t become neurotic. Christians are bombard on every side by a secular society where Christianity is scoffed at and the religious scene is just as bad in many ways. Please take a heed on what the Church says on this.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed, I do take such heed – this is the “struggle” to which I refer. I would note, however, that “stillness of the heart” is something that many Orthodox Christians read about but rarely have – indeed very few monks have such stillness. It’s the proper goal in our ascesis. But living with various disorders is not as simple as getting our ideology correct – it also includes making progress and dealing with life in Christ day to day. Met. Hierotheos does an excellent job of describing the path to inner stillness. I particularly like Fr. Dumitru Staniloae’s work and find it very complete and balanced. “Neurosis” in its popular American usage, can almost be a synonym for the disorder that is the state of sinful man – the point where each of us begins this journey as we enter the baptismal font.

  9. Jenny Avatar

    Father bless and forgive this sinner. It is not my intention to judge or shame. And I am very sorry if that is how I have made anyone feel and wish that I could take the shame upon myself instead of having it placed upon anyone else. As you already know, we live in an ever-progessing world where science and faith sometimes clash with one another. I understand now that you are not referring to neurotic christians as christians who suffer from mental illness. One does not choose their genetics, but as many of us Christians have found, our obstacles have proven to be more of a blessing in how they heighten our awareness of the need to fully rely on God. What could be better than to be utterly reliant on our merciful loving God? An illness which effects our perception and sight of the world is a blessing because we are forced to walk like the blind holding a cane to guide us, and that cane is God and the Church. It is truly a blessing. And David, I am an Orthodox Christian and count myself unworthy to have that spiritual advantage. Ahh, the world we live in.

    Much love in Christ, Jenny

  10. Daniel Avatar

    Thank you father stephen for your writings here. And thank you to all the others who post.

    I am enjoying your book by the way, but am a fairly slow reader of writings I truly enjoy (actually I go back and reread). So not sure when I will finish. Looking forward to a sophomore effort!.

  11. St. Nikolai Velimirovich Avatar

    Open yourself to light, O soul, and light will come into you.

    The walls that stand between you and truth and loom up before you like colossal mountains, which you have been trying to cross by running to the point of exhaustion, are your own creation and are more fragile than the white foam on the lake. If only you could open your eyes wide enough not to see them. Truly, the existence of these walls depends upon your seeing them. If you did not wish to see them, they would not exist.

    I once watched a chicken on top of a blackboard running around inside a circle that had been drawn on it with white chalk. I watched him for a long time as he ran to and fro and hesitated to jump over the white line, which he probably perceived to be a living creature or a high wall.

    This is like my soul, I said in sorrow, when she thinks that she is cut off from her freedom either by some mighty giants or by frightful towering walls. In actual fact, between her prison and her freedom there exists only an imaginary line, thinner than a hair.

    All the walls of your prison, my soul, consist of your fear of the world, of your desire for the world and of your thoughts about the world. All these walls you yourself have built according to the instructions of your senses from the material that they have given you, a material that is truly more fragile than foam.

    In the beginning you did not have senses, my soul, and you were not separated from truth. After you became blind, you sent out your senses to chase after truth. And those greyhounds have been chasing and fetching the closest and easiest game, and bringing back wolves to their blind master, who has been eating them as though they were venison.

    Do not run, my soul, for it is characteristic of the senses to run. Servants and slaves run, but a master remains peacefully still.

  12. David Edmisten Avatar

    Thanks for shedding some light on this issue. I find it can be a heavy temptation, for myself and others, to decide what a “Christian” looks like, and then create our own structure and rules to achieve that. When rather what is needed is surrender, so that the Spirit can fill us and guide us.

    Really, all that’s needed is to rely on the Spirit’s power to gives us the courage and strength to obey God no matter what. When obedience to God is our only law, we can enjoy freedom.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would agree that obedience to God should be our only law – but in the strange twist of Christian groups that have departed from tradition, ultimately they are back in the place that St. John the Solitary warns of – reading the Scripture and creating a law by their own interpretation. I always found that “obedience” (when I was a Protestant) was really difficult in that everyone is his own authority. Life within the fullness of Orthodox tradition does not create new laws, but it does place your life and your will within a context that allows obedience to actually be possible. I don’t know if this point makes sense – but it has been very important in my own life.

  14. No name No city Avatar
    No name No city

    Thank you for this post. Very wise words indeed.

  15. aoibhinngrainne Avatar

    Fr Stephen, forgive me as I struggle with the questions that come to me from those outside Orthodoxy and how they affect me. But I have some questions about your post…

    The traditions of the Church, indeed, one of the most basic, found in Law 8 (IIRC) of the Didache about our rule of fasting, is most often flung at me as a “man-made law” in light of St Paul’s teaching on food and days holy to some and not others (Romans 14). Whilst I understand, in the most rudimentary way, the fasts, how do I approach the often hurtful sneers that Orthodoxy is nothing but man-made law? a step-backwards into a New Testament Torah and another enslavement into that from which we have been so wondrously freed in Christ?

    I don’t feel enslaved; neither do I believe myself enslaved. Since con/reverting to Orthodoxy, I feel wondrously and marvelously freed in Christ…especially when compared to the years I lived in Calvinism.

    Any thoughts or helps are greatly appreciated, Father.

    Thank you.


  16. Father Stephen Avatar

    As usual, those from outside lack understanding. They will admit that Christ mentions the fact that his disciples will fast (when the Bridegroom is taken away). What they cannot bear is that such fasting is done in any manner other than pure individual choice. Such choice is not the life of the Church. Fasting was generally the actions of a community (as was so among the Jews). There were no large penalties for failure to keep the fast. It is often mitigated for those who need it mitigated. But we live a common life. We meet on a common day (how silly it would be to just meet any an individual wanted – no one else would be there). Obviously we live with rules, just as Protestants do. The difference is whether we live in bondage (which we don’t), and whether those rules are properly integrated into the common life we have in Christ.

    Do they oppose Lent?

    Christianity lived in a particularly individual way is not according to the Scripture and is not salutary. It’s a make-believe Christianity, governed by self-directed people who do not know where to direct themselves.

    Archpriest Stephen+

  17. aoibhinngrainne Avatar

    Thank you, Father. As usual, you have put these issues back into perspective for me.

    Yes, indeed, most of the folk I interact with on these issues acknowledge the point of Jesus saying, “when you fast…”, “when you pray…”, “when you give alms…” as if this were a normal part of daily living. But the idea of a corporate rule of fasting, much less a season of fasting, mandated by a liturgical (read “man-made” according to this lexicon) calendar is tantamount to “law”. So Lent would fall into this as would any other period of preparation and training.

    Historically, so much of this appears to go back to the excessive dislike of all thing “Romish” and the unfortunate idea that all things “Romish” are “Orthodox” as well. The Puritans, as well as the Calvinists both past and present, are so much “sola scriptura”, that if the Apostle Paul himself didn’t write it, it can’t possibly be true. Period, full-stop. And since he never mentions Lent…well, there you go then. No Lent in the New Testament, no Lent in *my* church! Lent was a trapping of Popish-ness. Off with it’s head…


    God in His mercy has seen fit to wander me through Catholic and Calvinist ways before bringing me to His Ark. I am truly grateful for my years in this wilderness for it makes the sweetness of His mercy that much sweeter. And I realise, truly realise, I know nothing of any worth or value except Him.


  18. Anon Avatar

    “Do they oppose Lent?”

    The majority of Evangelical who do not have overt hostility to Lent at least tacitly reject the practice altogether in my experience – so I think the answer is yes.

  19. Karen Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Father. In my experience, too, it is always a struggle to lay down self-effort and rest in God’s provision (or what appears to be for the moment a lack thereof, i.e., the ascesis God in His mercy and wisdom imposes on us, rather than that we impose on ourselves). I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice this in the last few weeks.

    (BTW, I was tantalizingly close to your parish this past week, having visited Gatlinburg for a week’s vacation and reunion with extended family. Alas, it was not possible to visit, but I hope next time that will be different. Your area near the Smoky Mountains is one of my favorites in the country–the scenic beauty, not the tourist traps, that is! My dream is to revisit often.)

  20. Miladin Avatar

    Thank You

  21. mic Avatar

    This post is a blessing to me Fr., thank you…very profound!


  22. […] Freedom and Slavery – A Word to Neurotic Christians ( […]

  23. Stuart Davis Avatar
    Stuart Davis

    I have been researching this over the past weeks. I always asked why I was why I was. I was tormented in questions of why I lived as I did. I felt so guilty for living as I have. Many have suffered from it. I wish I had realized this and learned what you have said many years ago. Thank you for writing this article!

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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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