From Mud to Light – the Saving Work of Christ

Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
St. Gregory of Nyssa


How do you create a God? How do you create a being that has true freedom, true love and thus, true existence?

This is obviously not an entirely rational question – but it is a serious question for Christian thought. For, as St. Gregory of Nyssa notes, the creation of man is more than the story in early Genesis. The creation stories of Genesis are only a prelude to the greater story fulfilled in Christ. In Christ, the mud has become light.

Freedom and love are necessary to true existence – at least true existence as made known in Jesus Christ. For things do not have existence in themselves – everything that exists does so because it is brought into being and sustained in its being by the good God who created it.  But to human beings a greater existence is gifted. In the Genesis account that gift is to exist “in the image and likeness of God.”

To exist as God exists – requires freedom. For if our existence is a requirement (if we must exist), then we are not free. We are simply here by someone else’s will and not our own. This is not the image and likeness of God. To exist in the image and likeness of God, we must be given the power to freely exist (or not exist).

Not only must we be able to exist freely – but true existence (such as God Himself has) – is not a purely self-referential matter. God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God Who freely exists, does so in love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and so on. Met. John Zizioulas, following the thought of St. Basil the Great, notes that God “constitutes” His existence in the free act of love that is the very meaning of personhood.

To exist in the image and likeness of God, is to exist as person. We do this in a free act of love in which we give ourselves to the other, even as we accept the existence of the other.

This is much more thought than we usually give to words such as “exist,” and it gives shape to the phrase “image and likeness of God,” in such a manner as to rescue it from the dustbin of banality.

The Christian faith is the story of this creation – in the fullness of its telling.

St. Irenaeus (2nd century) described Adam and Eve as “adolescents.” They were not “perfect” in the sense of “complete.” They represent a beginning and an intention – but something that not only remained unfulfilled – but even something that had deviated from its intended path. From “mud commanded to become Gods,” they became beings unable to be truly human. Death and corruption mark their existence. The stories in Genesis include fratricide among their children. The early chapters of Genesis are not the record of a promising start – they are the record of the start of promises.

That promise begins with Eve, who is told that her “seed” will someday “bruise the head of the serpent.” On the most primitive level, the statement can mean as little as, “your offspring will hate snakes.” But in the ears of Christians it is a promise of the One to come who will destroy the bondage of death and the distorted path.

The story of man’s salvation, on the lips of Orthodox Christians, is not a tale of abstract theology. There is no offended justice and original sin, no theories of predetermined schemes and imputed goodness. There is the story of a movement from a rejected possibility to a realized divinity. God’s own entrance into the story is that of God become man so that man could become God. Christ, according to St. Paul, is the “second Adam.” He, in both His humanity and divinity, is both the promise and the fulfillment of the promise. And so, St. Paul describes the path of salvation as being “conformed to the image of Christ,” who is the “image of the invisible God.” This is the fulfillment of man created in the image and likeness of God. In the words of St. John Chrysostom:

It was [God] Who brought us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away [He] raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until [He] had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with [His] kingdom which is to come.

This is the direct line of the work of God, the saving work of Christ. It is our “re-creation” in the image of God. But it is a story that requires our freedom and our love. For we cannot exist in His image, except we do so freely and with love. Our re-creation requires our cooperation.

Why didn’t God just create us the way He wanted without all of the suffering and death that continue to occur? Isn’t this a cruel creation?

Our suffering and death are the story of Adam lived in each of us. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die”…and we do. But our suffering and death are also the path of our freedom and love. The true Image of God takes up the same path of suffering and death and transforms what would otherwise be tragedy into the victory of Pascha. This is the true story of Adam. God became man so that man could become God.

The harshest judgment of this story comes from the lips of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s greatest novel.

And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price….  They have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan’s poignant description of suffering children is perhaps the most effective argument ever offered against the love of God. Is the journey from mud to God worth the suffering of children? Can true existence in freedom and love be worth such a price?

I’m not certain that any rational answer is sufficient. I do understand that Christ has made the suffering of children (and of us all) His own. “In the day you eat of it you will surely die,” can also be stated, “In the day you eat of it innocent children will suffer.” And the most innocent of children takes His place on the Cross precisely in the midst of that suffering. “Let the little children come to me,” He says – for He has come for them.

Like Ivan, we can refuse the ticket. We can declare that the innocent suffering of even a single child is not worth all the journeys from mud to deification. But we are told in the larger Christian story that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth.” The suffering of that single child, and of every child (and us all), is clearly foreseen in God’s creation. Our path towards suffering and death comes as no surprise. Apparently there can be no freedom and love in creation that does not embrace that path. And yet God says, “Let there be light.” It is not only the proclamation of the beginning of creation, but a declaration of its end – for the mud becomes light.

But how can we weigh the price? God has weighed it and found it worth the price (a price He Himself has paid). The great Russian saint, Seraphim Sarovsky, once said:

Oh, if you only knew what joy, what sweetness awaits a righteous soul in Heaven! You would decide in this mortal life to bear any sorrows, persecutions and slander with gratitude. If this very cell of ours was filled with worms, and these worms were to eat our flesh for our entire life on earth, we should agree to it with total desire, in order not to lose, by any chance, that heavenly joy which God has prepared for those who love Him.

I accept his witness and hold it in wonder. What must it mean, to exist truly, in freedom and in love, as God Himself exists? For what possible joy would a good God create us, though the path to that joy be marked both by our own and His own great suffering? We are told that Christ went to the Cross “for the joy set before Him.”

I cannot imagine. But I accept the ticket.









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.


207 responses to “From Mud to Light – the Saving Work of Christ”

  1. […] Mud to Light – the Saving Work of Christ, Nov 15th 9:48 pmclick to expand…On The Formation Of Preachers […]

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will offer this comment as an addendum for John Shores (whom I was thinking about as I wrote this piece). Christ’s Pascha requires a radical re-reading of the OT. Christ is the definition of God – thus St. John says, “No one has seen God at any time…the Only Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the father, he has made Him known [literally, “exegeted” Him].
    Thus, I have to take Christ to every story of the OT, and using Christ, I “exegete” the Father from the text. I cannot take the text, arrive at an opinion about God, and then go back and argue with Christ about who his father is. At least, that is not how it is properly done in Orthodoxy. Thus many Orthodox fathers, read many things in the OT in a more or less allegorical way, in which the God whom we see in any story, is the God made known to us in Christ and no other. This is a radical re-reading of the OT, taught to the Apostles and carried on in the fathers. The historicized reading carried on in the West, particularly in Protestantism, is a departure from this practice, and gives very bizarre results from a Christian point-of-view. I haven’t got a clue about God, other than as He has been made known to me in Christ. I am a Christian, not a Biblicist. Protestants often read the Bible like Muslims read the Koran (and sometimes have a similar conclusion about God). This is foreign to me and to the Orthodox faith. In Christ, and in Him alone, do I see that God is a good God. Because I see this, and have been taught how to read the OT by Christ, I see the good God there, too. If you insist on a literalist approach, it will yield something other than what Christ taught. I am willing to read the OT in the manner that Christ read it. It seems sufficient to me.

  3. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    This is wonderful, Father Stephen. I will need to re-read it to fully absorb it.

    I relate deeply to your reflections on human suffering. In my own blogging on the subject, one of the most outstanding concepts to come to me is that God chooses to suffer – most clearly in the humanity of Jesus – but also joining each of us in our suffering. I agree that there is no sufficient “rational answer” to the suffering of a child: this kind of love is not rational by any human standard.

    I also very much appreciate your addendum because, out of the context of Christ, much of the OT seems to make little sense. I have often felt that it reflected the development of people’s understanding of God, from primitive (God kills my enemies for me) to the full understanding of Divine love in Christ (love your enemy). In Jesus, we can understand how God led his people, preparing them for this fullness. Without Jesus, we could easily see God as the barbarian, not the people he was leading.

  4. davidp Avatar

    I have really enjoyed what St Ephrem of Syria wrote in his theological approach to Biblical themes. He did it through hymns or poetry (or teaching hymns) that expanse into wonder and love whereas definitions and boundaries impose restrictions on these themes. Here is one example on the value of the body:

    If our Lord had despised the body
    as something unclean or hateful and foul,
    then the Bread and the cup of salvation
    should also be something hateful and unclean to these
    for how could Christ have despised the body
    yet clothed himself in the Bread,
    seeing that bread is related to that feeble body.
    And if he was pleased with dumb bread,
    how much more so with the body endowed with
    speech and reason?

  5. dinoship Avatar

    This is a masterpiece of succinctness Father. I mean to say it is heart-warmingly to the point! We are grateful for what you offer us…

  6. breadeater77 Avatar

    We at St. Timothy Orthodox Church in Toccoa, GA had a visit from Fr. John Behr who gave a lecture titled “Jesus Christ-The Fulfillment of Man” and I want to make it available here for any who would like to lend it an ear.

    This lecture very much parallels what you have written here as he makes the connection between the creation acount in Genesis and the Gospel of John. When Christ utters the words “It is finished” from the cross, He is referring to the creation of humanity.

  7. SteveL Avatar

    I stopped reading Bros. K for several months after I read that section. It was so disturbing I could not take it.

  8. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Please forgive me if much of this sounds symplistic in its logic, but I do not believe God’s ways are complex. They are simple enough for a child to grasp.
    Since the fall, God has been trying to bring humankind back from evil. In the flood, He removed all but a remnent,saving the only righteous ones left. Then he decided to center in on one person and his posteritym to work with them to try and bring them to holiness. He had to deal harshly with the others and even the Israelites in order to preserve His plan. Eventually He realized that he could not bring the entire people out of sin, So He worked within His people to bring about one pure and righteous enough to be His mother and through her become incarnate.

  9. Karen Avatar

    George E., I have a bit of trouble as an Orthodox Christian with your phrase “Eventually He realized . . . ” Is it not true that God has foreknowledge of all and that He does not need to “realize” anything? Or are you in the camp of the progressive “process theologians” who believe that God doesn’t know our “future” choices? As I see it, it would be more correct to understand that God is patient with our weaknesses as human beings and waits until the fullness of time (and human cooperation–and, yes, it may come down at times to only one such cooperative human being) to fully unfold His plan.

  10. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you for your critique. I used “realized”, I guess, because I couldn’t think of another way of saying it. I too am Orthodox and do believe that He has forknowledge of everything and does not need to realize anything. I guess, I was thinking that from our position in space and time it might appear that God might change His mind, when from an eternal/infinite position, that would not be the case. Still, god is dealing with us in space and time and it does seem He has changed His tactics in order to bring about His purpose of saving us. Again this is from the limited position of one in space and time using a finite mind using language that has limits as far as giving true meaning to this.
    Sorry if this is rambling. Hard to talk about things infinite with finite tools.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would highly recommend that anyone take the time to listen to this lecture. Fr. John is far more articulate than I am and his words are clear. Thank you for the link!

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    One of the things I admire about Dostoevsky is the fact that he does not flinch. Instead of tip-toeing around the most obvious arguments against his faith, he embraced them. He himself worried later that he may have done “too well” the job of stating Ivan’s argument. But those very things (the examples he used actually came from real news articles of the day) troubled him deeply. Our embrace of Christ, I think, must come in the very face of these things – for I think sometimes that if we do not comprehend the depth of the question, we will not comprehend the depth of the answer.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    We cannot say of God, “eventually He realized.” He knows all of this from the beginning – from the foundation of the earth. What He has done, has always been for a single purpose – fulfilled in Christ.

  14. dinoship Avatar

    George Engelhard,
    I am not a fan of time-bound language, and time-bound concepts applied to God -unless they are used in a pedagogic context, in which case they can be very effective. Nevertheless, you reminded me of what a monk was once telling me about the All Holy Mother of God (which I had long forgotten until I read your comment in combination with this fantastic article by Father Stephen). I hope it is not irrelevant:

    He had a sort of vision, the authenticity of which I admittedly cannot ascertain. It was given to him to comprehend Genesis 1:1 “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” As actually meaning God incubating the “tiny nest of the Cosmos” called Earth for what seemed like an eternity, until it would freely produce an opening for Him. When this divine Door -ie: Mary- appeared, He instantly rushed in, full of “impatience” (to use an anthropomorphic word for His desire for our salvation) and became One of us, or rather became us as we had never managed to become. He finished the creation of ‘Man’ only when He spoke the word τετέλεσται (it is finished) on the Cross. (from mud all the way to Light)

  15. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you for your critique. I do understand and believe what you said. I just am unable to express it in any other way from my limited perspective with my finite mind. I commented more fully on this elswhere.

  16. PJ Avatar

    “I have often felt that it reflected the development of people’s understanding of God, from primitive (God kills my enemies for me) to the full understanding of Divine love in Christ (love your enemy)”

    This may have some truth to it, but only some. Even in the earliest books of Scripture, there are great acts of mercy and fine exhortations to charity.

    Frankly, part of the reason the OT is so daunting and strange is that we don’t study it as deeply or regularly as we should. Fr. Patrick Reardon is always going on about this. Fr. Hopko, too, although from a somewhat different perspective.

  17. PJ Avatar

    ” Thus many Orthodox fathers, read many things in the OT in a more or less allegorical way, in which the God whom we see in any story, is the God made known to us in Christ and no other. This is a radical re-reading of the OT, taught to the Apostles and carried on in the fathers.”


    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you’re not overstating your case at points. I don’t know of any father who would, for instance, read the plagues of Egypt as pure allegory: the mass killing of the first born sons obviously has many layers of meaning, but they don’t erase the reality of the event, which was seen by the fathers as a great act of God in history, and is seen as agnostics like John as wicked and monstrous.

    The things that trouble John — the slaughter of the Amelkites, to use another example he proffered — didn’t seem to bother many, even most, of the fathers. Consider John Chrysostom, who wrote: “Caleb then and Joshua, because they agreed not with those who did not believe, escaped the vengeance that was sent forth against them.”

    I am no expert. Maybe I misunderstand.

  18. Athanasios Avatar

    I have struggled with and in some ways continue to struggle with this same argument, and if I had not read Dostoevsky, I doubt I ever could have come to terms with it. He does not feat to present life as-is, with all the grittiness and dirt (especially Stavrogin’s Confession, which was deemed to shocking for publication). Yet he points beyond to something more.

    In the face of this world, where children suffer and die (I think especially right now of the children in Israel-Palestine suffering for the sins of their fathers), the only recourse I have is found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, referenced in connection with the slaughter of the Innocents, “they shall return from the land of their enemy” (31:16 in the Hebrew numbering). If one does not believe in the resurrection and the eventual abolishment of death and suffering, then I cannot see how one could believe in God.

  19. Rhonda Avatar


    Please forgive me if much of this sounds symplistic in its logic, but I do not believe God’s ways are complex. They are simple enough for a child to grasp.

    Grasp–yes! Understand–no! God would not be God otherwise.

    God has been trying…Then he decided…to try…He had to deal harshly…in order to preserve His plan…Eventually He realized…that he could not…so He worked…

    I have trouble with more than just the phrase “eventually He realized…”. These things do not fit with the “Good God that lovest mankind” who is “everywhere present filling all things”. Taken as a whole, these statements in essence subordinate goodness to evil & the infinite to the finite.

    The only phrase I can begin to agree with, & even then only with reservation, is

    …He worked within His people to bring about one pure and righteous enough to be His mother and through her become incarnate.

    Notice that I began the quote with “He worked” & not “So He worked”. That little word “So” changes entire meaning of the sentence for me. Even with this omission though, the phrase “bring about one pure & righteous enough” gives me pause because the fall was neither a change of legal status from law-abiding citizen to convicted criminal nor of total righteousness to total depravity. Furthermore, the Crucifixion was neither God’s fall-back position (Plan B)nor was it the reversal of these. As Fr. Stephen wrote:

    The story of man’s salvation, on the lips of Orthodox Christians, is not a tale of abstract theology. There is no offended justice and original sin, no theories of predetermined schemes and imputed goodness.

    We (including us Orthodox) can think too hard about these things just as we can think to simplistically. When we do either we end up with an “abstract theology” of empty & useless metaphysical, philosophical constructs. The simple reality is that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8,16), the simple reality that is unfathomable.

  20. Rhonda Avatar


    Beautiful quote!

  21. SteveL Avatar

    It’s not a criticism of Dostoevsky that I had to put him down. He is a master, and because of that, I put it down after reading that section. Several months later I continued and had to stop at a later section. I haven’t picked up Bros. K since. I presume that I will at some later date when I have more emotional fortitude to absorb his blows.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your question goes where we cannot go. The everlasting fire describes a state that their freedom has taken them – but the ultimate outcome of that experience (whatever it may mean) is unknown to us. Some, such as St. Isaac of Syria, believe that it is resolved in their salvation – but there is no doctrine in this matter.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, you’re right about many of the fathers. I press our liberty in Christ found in some fathers for the purposes of the gospel. We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things – and I think that we have to answer this question in a way that uses that liberty at its extreme edge. At least I find that I have to do so – and that doing so is well within the borders of the Orthodox tradition.

    Some of the fathers speak of these distinctions as being between those of “understanding” and others (using a variety of terms). Thus, the “spiritual” meaning of a passage was frequently considered the higher and better meaning, but recognized that many clung to and valued the literal. My 21st century take on this is that many will not be able to come to faith under a literal approach (to many passages) just as many would not be able to maintain faith without the liberty of allegory.

    Some of this is because the literal has been so abused by so many Christians over the centuries, justifying their wicked acts by an interpretation that yields an equally wicked God. It simply cannot be sustained.

    The literal/historical method of reading the Scriptures, though certainly having a witness and many advocates, is, I believe, inadequate to many things (theologically) and problematic as well (given the clear problems that historical critical studies have revealed).

    I confess that I find the approach championed by Fr. John Behr at St. Vlad’s to be the most useful approach – and consistent with a patristic reading. I don’t claim that this is the only way things are read within the fathers (there is no “only” way). However, I think it is increasingly becoming the only useful way.

    Under various influences, many are quite comfortable with God ordering the wholesale slaughter of children, etc. I’m not. I believe that God is free and can do whatever He wills, but I do not think Him cruel or wicked, capricious or so lacking in creativity that He needs to resort to wholesale slaughter to achieve our salvation.

    Thus, like many fathers, I do not read “smash their little one’s heads against the stones” in the Psalms as a license to do anything like this in a literal fashion – and that although the Psalm likely meant that to its writer – I think the writer was wrong. In Christ, I read the Psalm to refer to the demons and the troubling thoughts that arise – which should be smashed against the Rock, that is, Christ.

    It is a liberty that we have in Christ – a liberty that is sometimes a necessity if we are to follow Christ’s own lead. But I will not waste any of my time trying to defend a literalism that insists on wrath and punishment, brimstone and slaughter as literal instruments of God’s own causation. I don’t think it is necessary.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is, perhaps, a deeper way of looking at this. In the modern world, certainly in the West, we tend to look at things from an individual context: my sin is my sin only.

    Tribal people have a different outlook: the sin of one in the tribe is the sin of all. Even the animals are defiled. Thus even children are not innocent. They partake of the same sin and are subject to the same consequences. Thus the scapegoat or sacrificial lamb is effective in releiving the sin of the whole people.

    Without Christ Incarnate perhaps that is actually the way it is, but once He took on the sin of humanity (the agony of the Garden) and became the Lamb scarficed once for all, we became free of the burden of the tribal, anscestral or original sin and are able to address our own sins in communion with Him. His Incarnation made us persons in a way we were not before.

    The Resurrection is the victory over sin and death and allows us to participate in His Life and Glory.

    Apologizing for or minimizing God’s actions in the Old Testament has never seemed a particularly good thing to me. Perahps it is our individualized, democratic/leveling, humanist perspective that minimizes the gravity of sin and its effect that needs to be apologized for.

    I have studied history most of my adult life. I have come to the conclusion that the Old Testament cannot be interpreted from a linear, historical perspective because the Incarnation changed all of history: past, present and future (inadequate descriptors). It is all a moving shadow.

    We can never really know what actually ‘happened’ let alone why anything happened before Christ took on our body and our nature. All of it and us have been transformed by that kenotic act. Thus it is actually far easier to know God than to know what ‘really’ happened in the past. Thus to look upon the actions of un-transformed human beings (directed by God or not) from the perspective of an, at least partially, transformed human nature is impossible. History is always the creation of the past by the present anyway because history is not a collection of facts and occurences that speak for themselves. History is a narrative of man’s heart and mind in our quest to know ourselves and our God. As we change, so does history.

    When we think of history as immutable, especially when we attempt to use it as a defense against our living interrelationship with God, history becomes an idol.

  25. PJ Avatar


    Thank you for your thorough and honest response. But let me press you a little more. You say, “But I will not waste any of my time trying to defend a literalism that insists on wrath and punishment, brimstone and slaughter as literal instruments of God’s own causation. I don’t think it is necessary.” Does this mean, say, that you don’t believe in the death of the Egyptian firstborns? Or in the death of Ananias and Sapphira? Etc. Is every and any place in Scripture wherein God takes life … well … fictitious? What does this say about Scripture? What does it say about a Church which put such faith in the literal as well as the spiritual for some eighteen centuries?

    I guess I’m just trying to figure out the “scope” of your rejection of the “punishing God.”

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have a great deal of respect for historical accuracy in Scripture – though I probably fall short of the measure many would set. There’s a world of difference in “what happened” and how we understand its meaning for us as Christians. Your question, in a sense, still has a notion that it’s all about historical facts and that an allegorical interpretation of something means that you reject the “facts” of its history. It’s not this at all.

    It’s also not as simple as saying, “I like this passage, but not this one.” It’s pushing past the face of a story and into its depth and the perception of Pascha.

    Fact is, in my life I leave a number of things unanswered – I simply don’t always know how to fit everything together. So, sometimes I would have to say, “I don’t know about that.” But I would affirm that “God is good.” This I see in His Pascha.

    There is a perception, hard to describe, in which I accept some things – even very difficult things – and leave them unexplained to myself. I have no acceptable way to say to someone, “God killed your child and He is good.” Is it possible to embrace the truth of Christ’s Pascha, and stand perplexed about some things – and yet refuse to say of those things something you think is not true (God orders genocide…).

    What I find disturbing is how lightly so many Christians make efforts to justify a brutal God. I think it is unnecessary, even if it leaves me perplexed.

    At the resurrection of Christ, we say, “Christ is risen!” We don’t say, “Ah! That explains everything!” I’m sure that on some level, Christ explains everything. I’m just not living on that level.

  27. dinoship Avatar

    as someone who knows both the Eastern (Byzantine) as well as the modern (Westernised) way of thinking, I have noticed something interesting concerning your point here. It starts to make sense to me more and more:
    I have met many true westerners, deeply influenced by post renaissance thinking, who are extremely disturbed by the idea of death as punishment (in the OT). However, they are also the people who can justify “crucifying the other” rather than “their own self” when a “tricky” situation arises (e.g. aborting rather than adopting a severely handicapped child).
    On the other hand I have met some very old-school (often very old too) traditional Orthodox in Greece, who have no problem with death as a punishment from God, however, they are the ones who would always rather “crucify themselves” rather than the other in “tricky” situations…
    Their understanding of death is distinctly Orthodox in that they see it NOT as the bad thing it is seen in Western thought. In fact, they clearly see it as “the second biggest beneficence” granted us by God as the fathers say…
    It is as if they are constantly disregarding all negativity associated to it and simply thinking (as one of the 40 great martyrs of Sebastia said to the other), that ‘we will all die one day, sooner or later, but a sacrificial or heroic or even a punishing death has far more potential of being salvific’.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ananias & Sapphira lied too the Holy Spirit so His life was withdrawn, IMO. Death is the wages of sin
    Weather such death is a natural consequence or due to God’s direct act or by the hands of a righteous man it is still death; it is always brutal. Sometimes it is necessary. When it is necessary, we can rarely know
    Only in Christ can we be free
    Before He came, death ruled.

  29. PJ Avatar

    “I have a great deal of respect for historical accuracy in Scripture – though I probably fall short of the measure many would set. There’s a world of difference in “what happened” and how we understand its meaning for us as Christians. Your question, in a sense, still has a notion that it’s all about historical facts and that an allegorical interpretation of something means that you reject the “facts” of its history. It’s not this at all. ”

    I certainly don’t think it’s “all about” historical facts. I also don’t believe that allegory demands rejecting the letter of the text.

    But I’m wary of dismissing whole chunks of Scripture because they make us uncomfortable, because they don’t sit well with our modern, western sensibilities.

    To be perfectly honest, I’m mostly just trying to get my bearings, so to speak. I’ve been a Christian for two years and I still struggle to get a foothold. In our society, there is no consensus about what the Bible means or how it is interpreted rightly. Even within the traditional churches, yours included, there is great diversity — as you admit. What is true? What is historical? Are the truth and the historical one and the same? How do you distinguish one from the other? What can be rejected in good faith? Are we uncomfortable with the destruction of the Amelkites because we are sensitized to the value of human life — or desensitized to sin?

    I guess I’m just awfully confused…

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ananias and Sapphira clearly die. As you note, how we describe that is left open even in its telling. Their lie and their death are connected and that’s pretty much all the story says. I’ve heard many sermons that fill in the blanks. I’m suggesting they be left blank.

  31. PJ Avatar

    Good insight, Dino. Thanks a lot.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    I also think that death can have an ambiguous take. We pray for a good death in every Orthodox service. “Painless, shameless, etc.” I would rather have a painful death if such pain was for my salvation. And I do not think that God refrains from pain in the work of our salvation. But there remains a mystery.

    I do not want to profess the bland God of contemporary liberalism. Suffering is real, and has to be seen. In a culture so deeply marked by heretical forms of Calvinism, it’s hard to say these things in an acceptable way. Thus I affirm God’s goodness and the triumph of Christ’s Pascha as ascendant above all things.

  33. Greg Avatar

    PJ wrote: “Father,

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you’re not overstating your case at points. I don’t know of any father who would, for instance, read the plagues of Egypt as pure allegory: the mass killing of the first born sons obviously has many layers of meaning, but they don’t erase the reality of the event, which was seen by the fathers as a great act of God in history, and is seen as agnostics like John as wicked and monstrous. ”

    St Gregory of Nyssa in the Life of Moses explicitly states that this account can only be understood in an allegorical sense as we may not attribute evil to God.

  34. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Thank you Father. I guess I was, with my earlier explanitory posts trying to get rid of the mystery and get rid of faith and have it all make sense. It doesn’t all make sense. Glory to God!!

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you acknowledge that pain and suffering are not just existential realities, but in some unknown (to us) and probably impenatrable way, such pain and suffering may be connected to our salvaation.

    If we cannot know it for ourselves and our loved ones who we can see, touch, etc. How can we possible penetrate the mystery of the death and even destruction that is chronicled in much of the OT?

    It just seems a bit to easy to dismiss it by using the ‘radical re-interpretation’ approaoch. The violence in the OT is a common, knee-jerk defense use to reject the reality of Jesus Christ; His salvific work; His love and kneotic suffering.

    To me, if we are going to re-interpret it (as the Apostolic teaching demands) that a re-interpretation in the light of Christ’s own suffering.death and ressurection would make more sense than an allegorical approach. Many people think that if it is ‘allegorical’ it is not real but a fantasy made up by the person they are talking to in order to avoid the truth.

    Either way, the linear, reductionist, just the facts and nothing but the facts, approach is insufficient and distorting of the truth.

    Maybe you are saying much the same thing as I am but I’m misunderstanding what you.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    I haven’t made a case for pure allegory.

    Also, I think you misunderstand my use of the term allegory. Allegory refers to how something is read and not the nature of the text. Many things that are quite historical can be read in an allegorical manner. To read something allegorically makes no judgment on the nature of the text’s historical character. It simply makes a case for how the text is read.

    Actually, viz. the fathers, there are some who read all kinds of things allegorically. It was often a favorite way of reading things. Oddly, even parables got read allegorically, which takes them well beyond the level of parable. When you start reading in the spiritual writings (rather than sermons and the like) many historical texts get treated allegorically, in order to extract their “deeper” meaning. Origen was famous for his use of allegorical interpretation – but he was famous for it because it was so popular and he was good at it. It has its limitations.

    I would also add, that the opinion of any particular father concerning the historical character of a particular Biblical event is neither here nor there, unless the historical character of the event is germane to the doctrine of the faith. In such a case (where it is not germane) the thought of a father on such a thing is simply “opinion,” not dogma.

    Some want to treat the fathers as a collective fundamentalist Bible…i.e. “the fathers say…” And of course most who make such quotes have barely dabbled in the fathers and know nothing of their larger context, etc. There is a strain, found among some Orthodox, that says that the fathers are “inspired” by the Spirit and treat them like infallible sources of revelation on anything they write about. This is simply an abuse of the fathers and another means of avoiding the difficult character of Orthodox life and thought. It simplifies everything – but it simply substitutes one fundamentalism for another – yields the fruit of judgmentalism and opinionism. It does not save souls.

    Strangely, in these discussions, I think I take history more seriously than those who have difficulty with my train of thought. To take the Scriptures as prima facie accurate about historical matters in all cases, is not the same thing as having a high regard for history. It is simply having an interesting view of Scripture. The same thought can yield a 6000 year-old earth. That’s not a regard for science, history or good reason.

    The Scriptures give us a highly “iconic” account of events. The story of Moses in Egypt is a case in point. It is highly structured for a variety of reasons, many of which may have little to do with the historical shape of the events described. They are a theologically-shaped account. To ask purely historical questions is problematic. So, if someone asks me about the firstborn of Egypt, I can only answer with what the text says. I cannot step outside the text and talk about an event in Egypt (we don’t even know which Pharoah it was) as though I have any information outside the text.

    The fathers and the Church commonly speak from inside the text, and as such, the language of the Church, like that of the text, is fairly straight-foward. But it still gives us nothing with which to stand outside the text and make historical judgments.

    There are noted exceptions to this. The resurrection would be a case in point – one where the very historical character of the event is itself a matter of primary importance (hence 1 Cor. 15). But the gospels do not share St. Paul’s concern from 1 Cor. 15. They give us very theologically-shaped accounts of the resurrection. Thus St. Paul’s chapter is extremely helpful and important.

    Just more thoughts in the conversation…

    Thanks for the citation!

  37. PJ Avatar


    I’d be interested to read Gregory’s exact words. Do you have a quote? Of course, of all the fathers, he is certainly the most likely to say such a thing.

  38. dinoship Avatar

    I haven’t the words but I also remember that he is particularly (singularly even) interested in pedagogically inspiring through mystical deeper meanings in that work.

  39. PJ Avatar


    Good response. I appreciate it.

  40. Andrew Avatar

    We always approach Pascha from a blind corner:

    “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father…”

    It would not be inappropriate to say of Pascha that it shapes & colours theology — properly. Another way of saying this is that theology is resurrection shaped — “it is finished” John 19:30.

  41. Greg Avatar

    I don’t have bandwidth to transcribe it right now, but I suspect the Life of Moses is almost certainly available online somewhere. I am not sure Gregory is any more likely to assert an allegorical reading of this text than many of the Fathers that wrote on mystical theology though.

  42. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Re: suffering…(sorry this is so long)

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a psychologist and have, for many years, walked with people through some of the most horrific events one can imagine. As I have grown spiritually, I have discovered in this experience something almost too sacred for words.

    In some of the deepest of these times, I know it is not just the patient and me in the room. Regardless of the faith of my patient, I know the crucified and resurrected Christ is there. I experience Him and we are bound together in a love that heals. Without Him there, I am utterly helpless in the face of such great suffering. With Him, there is a Love that transcends the deepest of pain – as He embraces the pain. (I too have been a recipient of this Love in my times of suffering.)

    If we read Scripture wrongly, we may think that God causes suffering – that he slaughters one group of people to save another group of people. (And perhaps the chosen people at that time viewed their “passover” with that interpretation, being able to see that God was with them and seemingly not with their enemy.) When the Egyptians charioteers drowned, it was their obstinancy that killed them. (Scripture says that, but often it is read as though God killed them to save the Israelites.)

    The message from these OT stories thus is not that God will save me by killing my enemies, but that God is with me in my suffering to carry me from death to life. Following God through the desert, I will indeed suffer, but His Way will help me not be destroyed by my obstinancy. He is in the desert with me.

    In the crucified Christ, we find the God who meets us in our suffering. In the resurrected Christ, we discover the God who takes the suffering created by our sins and transforms it into a supreme act of healing Love. As we are healed, we are joined to Him, embracing suffering as He does, so that His healing Love may reach more and more of His beloved children who are still lost in the desert.

    Thanks to those who recommended reading “Christ the Eternal Tao”. I am still early in the book but was struck by these words:

    “The trees, the birds, the rivers and winds:
    These had no choice but to follow the Way.
    Man alone is given choice;
    Man alone csn follow or go his own way.
    If he follows the Way, he will suffer with the pain of the world,
    But He will find the Original Harmony.
    If he follows his own way, he will suffer only with himself,
    and within him will be chaos.”

  43. PJ Avatar


    You make some good points, but we should be clear that Scripture plainly says that that the Lord, through the hand of Moses, draws the waters in upon the Egyptian army. Their hearts were hardened, but that’s only part of it. And, to be specific, it says the Lord hardened their hearts. Of coure, we can consider what that means exactly …

  44. Andrew Avatar


    I recall Met Kallistos saying that we have a tendency to look at the crucified Christ and to see only man. At Pascha, we look at God and see man. This necessitates a radical rethinking of the NT also…

  45. dinoship Avatar

    you are surely aware that there is not much point in bringing home the point that “to be specific, it says the Lord hardened their hearts”. Even adding “Of coure, we can consider what that means exactly …” almost reminds me of the Calvinist misunderstanding of Scripture, as if the Fathers had not explained time and again this type of anthropomorphic language, or the “three wills of God”, the perfect will of Whom is that ALL be saved (that includes the Pharaoh who’s heart God allowed to be heartened)

  46. dinoship Avatar

    Sorry, I meant: “who’s heart God allowed to be hardened

  47. PJ Avatar


    I’m probably not as much of a libertarian as you are. I’m Catholic, and therefore submissive to councils like Orange and Trent, and I’m very influenced by Augustine.

  48. Andrew Avatar

    PJ – that sounds painful 🙂

  49. poseponder Avatar

    Father, I wonder if you might elaborate a bit further on this:

    >> We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things…

    Is it be possible to be over-sensitive? (Speaking myself as one who tends this way…)

    Would it be only innocent suffering, or suffering in general? (Could it ever be deserved?)

    Surely, on the flip side, there is no lack of cruelty.

  50. Karen Avatar

    Wonderful conversation! Thank you, Father, Rhonda, Mary, Michael and Dinoship especially for some wonderful observations and insights.

    This seems like a good place to recommend for reading again David Bentley Hart’s wonderful little book on a Christian response to suffering in *The Doors of the Sea.* Using the thought of St. Isaac and Dostoyevsky in Bros. K, Hart paints a beautiful picture with words of the implications of Christ’s Pascha as God’s answer to suffering and evil. He never resolves the question in the simplistic way that some might want it to (in fact he addresses this very desire on the part of human beings as presenting a logical problem in itself, given the nature of the God revealed in Christ), but rather seeks to do so in a way that is truly faithful to the revelation of the gospel in the NT.

    It is perhaps no accident that Hart’s critique of various sub-Christian explanations of suffering and evil (usually an attempt to exonerate God in the face of atheistic attacks on faith, which was the context for his writing this book) is most pointed when it is directed at a certain species of rigorist Calvinism.

    PJ, I observe that two years as a Christian is a very short time to have had to begin to really absorb the import and implications of the gospel. I love the way you like to wrestle with all this stuff, but in my experience, there’s no substitute for the place of our real experience and personal struggle to grow in Christ with God for beginning to get a grasp on some of these things (or to begin to grasp how inadequate our explanations and understanding of the gospel really is!). It has taken me 40+ years of consciously trying to follow Christ to get where I am now and I still feel completely inadequate in the face of such questions. Most of the time, I feel silence is the best I have to offer.

  51. PJ Avatar


    “I observe that two years as a Christian is a very short time to have had to begin to really absorb the import and implications of the gospel.”

    I won’t argue with this.

    I’m not trying to assert anything definitive. As you say, I am “wrestling.” There is so much to consider — fathers, councils, Scripture, personal experience. Often times, equally significant figures and sources are in tension, or even some degree of conflict. My discussions on this blog have helped me do a lot of sorting, but I am definitely still on the journey of understanding. Probably it will not end until kingdom come. For now, I am happy to pray and meditate, read and ponder — any talk with wonderful folks like yourselves, learning from those wiser than I am. : – )


    Sometimes. 😉 That said, I do think that Orthodox could afford to spend more time on St. Augustine — as westerners could afford to spend more time on, say, St. Maximus. One reason I like Fr. Reardon so much is that he is very familiar with the western fathers, Augustine in particular, and is trying to integrate them into the theology of the east.

  52. Agnikan Avatar

    Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god.
    – St. Gregory of Nyssa

    Sounds like theistic evolution. No wonder I’ve always liked St. Gregory of Nyssa.

  53. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Father Stephen,

    Less than 24 hours ago, I attended the funeral of a dear and devout Methodist friend. Several people who spoke alluded to the notion of time: how our lives intersected with that of Helen’s temporarily here on Earth; how we will all be together again in “the blink of an eye” in Heaven; and the verse in “Amazing Grace” about being there ten thousand years, and having “no less days”, etc.

    The notion of time as it relates to theology is of great interst to me, especially with what we are learning through quantum physics.

    After the service I asked the minister if he knew of any books or websites that dealt with this subject. He didn’t and that surprised me.

    Today, by sheer coincidence (or really the hand of God) I discovered your blog and Mary’s comment about the chapter of your book that deals with time.I download iyour book and just got through reading it in a single sitting.

    Thank you! While my Presbyterian heritage gives me pause on the idea of the role of icons, I enjoyed it immensely and will no doubt read it repeatedly. It has already had a profound impact on my consideration of, and relationship with, the Almighty.

  54. dinoship Avatar


    Sounds like theistic evolution

    I guess we could (in St Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphorical words) “plunder the Egyptians”. 🙂 In other words “appropriate an essentially scientific term into a theological one”

  55. Andrew Avatar

    PJ – quite 🙂

  56. Karen Avatar

    PJ, truly the journey is never ending, and I also enjoy learning from those wiser or more knowledgable than I am (which, depending on the subject, no doubt also includes you!). 🙂

  57. dinoship Avatar

    Father Stephen said:

    In Christ, and in Him alone, do I see that God is a good God.

    Considering how a truly spiritual life eventually makes a person more and more into ‘Christ’, I would paraphrase the late Father Epiphanios’s (Theodoropoulos) saying:

    Sin is that which prevents us from believing. Not logic. For this reason, if you tell an unbeliever to live for six months according to the Gospel, and he does it, he will become a believer without even realizing it

    Sin is that which prevents us from seeing the goodness of God in EVERYTHING. Not logic. For this reason, if an unbeliever (in God’s goodness) could live for six months as a true saint, he would automatically marvel at God’s goodness revealed to him in EVERYTHING.

    Admittedly, that is not easy. But in that state of purity one finds himself living “In that day”, when “you will not question Me about anything” -John (16:23)

  58. Rhonda Avatar

    Ann K:
    As one raised as a Presbyterian, I can wholeheartedly attest that icons are definitely not an issue 🙂 Feel free to enjoy & experience them for the window (glimpse) into heaven that they truly are. When you look at a picture of a friend or family member, do you think of the paper & ink you hold in your hands or of the person depicted that influence(s/d)your heart?

  59. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I know that some here have strong reactions to the term “evolution” but the term really is not limited to Darwin or even science. We can say this has evolved into a really wonderful discussion, i.e. it has grown and developed in a positive direction.

    This is part of what I was getting at in talking about the OT narratives about God’s seemingly violent and brutal acts. One reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelations might conclude that God got “nicer” over time. Yet God, of course, did not change. I do believe that God’s people “evolved” (and still do – note how we struggle and grow) so that the way God’s salvation is described is different in the NT than it was in the OT.

    If we were to tell a story about Jesus to 7 year olds and listen to them retell it, we would hear some pretty immature interpretations of the event. The event itself would be no less true but the telling would reflect the incomplete understanding of a child. In the OT, we have people telling the story of God saving His people with an immature understanding as well. How could it be otherwise, i.e. fully mature without knowledge of the Christ?

    This, I think, puts in some perspective the seeming violence of God as related by the OT writers. Although I could not have said it as well as Father Stephen has, reading backwards from Christ’s resurrection is the way to approach Scripture. I suspect that many other things that we do not now understand will be understood when we have more fully “evolved” in our ability to know Christ.

    PJ – I too am a Catholic, you know 🙂 I respect the depth of your knowledge but I could not tell you a thing about the councils of Trent or Orange much less feel compelled to submit to them!

  60. PJ Avatar

    ” I too am a Catholic, you know I respect the depth of your knowledge but I could not tell you a thing about the councils of Trent or Orange much less feel compelled to submit to them!”

    That’s a little surprising. I can see perhaps disregarding Orange, since it was regional, but Trent was an ecumenical council, just like Vatican II. I suppose, though, that we all prefer certain pillars of the faith to others, for better or for worse …

  61. PJ Avatar

    Interestingly, I just stumbled upon this quote from St. Ephrem, on Christ’s healing of the blind man in John 9: “A little saliva from your mouth, and again, a great wonder: Light from mud.” Light from mud …

  62. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    PJ- I did not mean to come across as having disregard for the councils of the church. At this stage in my life, my faith is more heart-centered; my historical knowledge is rather scant.

    I meant the comment to be light-hearted. I apologize if it sounded like anything else.

  63. fatherstephen Avatar

    Poseponder: You asked:

    >> We have a much keener appreciation or sensitivity to innocent suffering at present – engendered by many, many things…

    Is it be possible to be over-sensitive? (Speaking myself as one who tends this way…)

    Would it be only innocent suffering, or suffering in general? (Could it ever be deserved?)

    My thought was that we are culturally very sensitive to certain kinds of suffering (including that of animals). Not that we always do anything about the suffering that surrounds us. So, accurately, I would have to say that we are very “sentimental” about suffering. Most people in the modern world have never watched another human being die (or be born). Thus sentiment would be the correct word.

    I don’t think it’s possible to be “over-sensitive” if it were true empathy (as Christ or the saints would have). Some people’s over-sensitivity is just a neurosis. Not worth noting. But the modern mind struggles a great deal with the so-called “problem of evil.” Not enough, of course, to quit killing innocent people by the tens of thousands.

    I know nothing of deserved and undeserved. There is no justice in pain. Just a lot of hurt.

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton, without going any further into the discussion I just need to say you do not seem to understand that the ‘evolution’ of scientism is not the same as the evolution of which you speak.

    In traditional Christian faith there is always adaptation and new applications of the faith delivered to the Apostles and understandings that are unique to a particular environment, but there is no change in the faith into something else drastically different.

    The hierarchy of life demanded by scientistic evolution is the opposite of the hierarchy of life revealed in the Scriptures and the life of the saints.

  65. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have found that connective aspect (communion) to be important as well. Christ’s death is my death, and vice versa. Somehow, though it does not “explain” suffering, it makes it bearable. Whatever this existence is about, God is in it with us.

  66. PJ Avatar

    No worries, Mary. Didn’t mean to go all Grand Inquisitor on you. ; – )

  67. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Michael B.

    Just a clarification, because I think you may have misunderstood me. I noted that I was using the word “evolution” apart from its meaning in modern science so as to avoid stirring up debate again about Darwinism.

    I was wanting to use the term in a different context: how God’s people grew over time in the depth of their understanding – and thus in the way they interpreted events, the attributions they made to God and therefore the manner in which they related the stories of God’s saving power in their lives. If we try to read their stories outside of the context of their pre-Christian awareness (as though they were a history book), we may come away with a distorted notion of God.

    I was affirming that the Truth itself does not evolve or change. And, in the coming of Christ, the core of Christian faith does not evolve/change over time.

    Yet I see in my own life that the way I understand and think about the faith DOES change, hopefully in a positive direction – “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Cor:13:12)

  68. […] This, however, is the beginnings of an Orthodox theodicy of of sorts: Man is mud whom God has commanded to become god. – St. Gregory of Nyssa […]

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton, thank you for the clarification. It is helpful. (I was also reacting to the jab at St.Gregory prior to you post) Sorry if I came across too strong.

    I do want to mention that evolution is also used in a theological context to denote the actual changing of doctrine over time into something more and better. It comes, I think, out of the 19th century’s ideas about progress, the perfectability of man and the increased mechanization of our life.

    I’ve only heard it from Catholics but I don’t know if is really part of the Catholic teaching or not. Perhaps you could shed light on that?

    Evolution is a tricky word that get obscured on prupose sometimes. It is important to know for sure how it is being used.

  70. Martin Avatar

    „The everlasting fire describes a state that their freedom has taken them – but the ultimate outcome of that experience (whatever it may mean) is unknown to us. Some, such as St. Isaac of Syria, believe that it is resolved in their salvation – but there is no doctrine in this matter.“
    I am one of those who is very much attracted by this position and I thought this was the general view in Orthodoxy. But then a visiting priest in our church in his sermon preached what I had considered the protestant view, i.e., that we have a chance to repent and be saved in this life only and not after death. When I asked him about this and told him that a bilieved people could repent even after death, he told me that this is the minority position within Orthodoxy but that it is OK if i hold this view.
    After some time the topic came out again with another brother in our parish whom I respect very much and again he was trying to expalin to me that those who will not repent in this life will have no chance to do so after death.
    I am fine with people with differing opinions, but what should I teach my own children and how should I respond to friends when they ask me about my faith?
    Is it irresponsible if I tell them the minority position?

  71. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    Thank you very much for your book “Everywhere Present” which arrived yesterday and which I completed today -clear, concise and revelatory.

    I ordered the book after following this blog for a little while and I appreciate as a Christian what you are doing here and in your other work. The blog items are normally very insightful and helpful. It’s just this one which disturbed me a little.

    My own thoughts on the subject are that it’s sloppy thinking to deny the existence of God because of suffering and pain in the world.

    The key question is ‘What is the alternative?’ If the world was totally without pain -if God stepped in to remove all suffering whenever and wherever it occurred- what sort of world would it be? An anaestheised world, in which bodies would operate without risk or growth; an anodyne world where all relationships would be moulded until they were bland and without romance of any kind; a robotic world where occupations would be controlled and packaged in cotton wool. A piece of music all at the same note and tone; a book consisting of one word; a painting of one colour.

    Growth, change, life, drama would all be impossible. Static growth, zero risk, no responsibility, no romance, maximum control, minimum sensation: this is the world that would result from the intervention of a god who wished to remove all pain and suffering from the world.

    A cold, solid and static state is by definition not alive. A creator who made such a world would have made a lifeless one. Even injecting into that static clay some kind of electric current would only cause a temporary spasmodic and robotic response; true life means true liberty to move, to act, to choose, to experience and to learn. Thus there has to be a scale, a spectrum, a range -and that has to include pain and loss and suffering.

    To create true life means creating the potential for suffering.

    But what about those who suffer? Is there any recompense? Is there any healing?

    Christ still had His wounds after He was resurrected; He outlived the pain, outcreated the suffering, but never negated it or removed it. In effect, He transcended it. That’s hardly imaginable to us, who are on the ‘wrong side’ of pain. Pain for us warns of a threat to life and happiness and is something to be avoided, loathed and rejected; pain transcended speaks of something beyond Life, beyond threat -not something to be welcomed exactly but almost a kind of badge, to be respected and honoured. When it is possible to perceive a threat to Life, physical and emotional pain is a measuring system; but where Life itself is transcended, it becomes raiment.

    I can see that it’s possible that those who suffer the most will be clothed in glory. Not to ‘make up for what they had to go through’ but simply because in a world where Life is eternal, pain has a different function. One’s humanity can be measured by one’s genuine suffering. If one didn’t suffer at all, an eternal life would simply be an extension of blandness. Suffering gives depth and meaning to eternity in a way that we can’t really grasp, and for which we have few better images than the wounds of Christ after the Resurrection.

    BUT -and it’s a big but- surely God doesn’t want us to reflect on suffering only to come to the conclusion that it must be accepted as part of a Divine Plan? Surely we are supposed to reject, oppose and fight to overcome all suffering, especially for the innocent? This has plagued me recently. I don’t want to live in a universe where we must just accept pain; surely our place here is to work to defeat it in whatever way we can?

    Theological arguments can get lost in abstractions. God surely wanted us to act rather than to cogitate.


  72. Barbara Avatar

    My priest recently said something very helpful to me in relation to suffering. He said, “You seem to think that suffering is something to get through rather than be transformed by?”

    These words landed directly in my heart and I am very grateful for this correction.

  73. dinoship Avatar

    Indeed, Barbara!
    In the Light of the Cross and the Resurrection, that which the world labels suffering, true Christianity would often call Glory!
    We have a fantastic example and testament of this “inverted logic” in the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch, sent to those who would pray for his ‘…salvation’ (when he was being transported to the Colosseum to be eaten alive by the beasts), which he obviously viewed as a ‘perdition’. He viewed his continuation in this life as death, his death and suffering as a Martyr as “Life” and Birth; he even considered himself not to have yet become human until he had undergone that suffering and death that would liken him onto the Divine Logos…
    To a lesser extent, any suffering can become transformative in a way that brings us closer to Christ and releases us from the bonds of the futility of this world; while pleasure has the opposite potential of enslaving us to this world and separating us from Christ….

  74. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I have been graced recently with deep sorrow, sometimes with tears and groaning, for the my own falleness and the falleness of the world in which I once so robustly participated.It may seem paridoxical but the deeper I am in this sorrow, the more human I feel and the closer to God I feel and the more in love I am with humanity, with every human being, with every person I encounter .

  75. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is ok if you share your faith, I think, and it’s good to say that some Orthodox are unsure about this. It’s ok for children to understand that some things we do not know, always.

    The thought that we cannot repent after death is rather common among some in Orthodoxy, but those who say so quickly add that our prayers for the departed of therefore of even greater value. Thus, even those who hold that there is no repentance after death, do not properly hold that there is no change or salvation after death. But that this change now shifts to the mercy of God and the prayers of the Church. That seems quite fine to me. I will trust in Christ’s mercy and the compassionate prayers of the saints.

    “For there is no man that liveth and sinneth not.”

    God alone is my resurrection – not the rightness of my decisions.

  76. fatherstephen Avatar

    Absolutely, Grant. The cogitating without action is the most extreme form of 2-storey living. Compassion, a “suffering together with,” should certainly draw us to action and not just pain. In this post I wanted to take as seriously as possible the objections to our faith which those who consider suffering often raise. I do not think that Orthodoxy shrinks from this. The answers are not always rationally satisfactory – by I personally find them more than satisfactory on an existential level. That God has entered into the deepest of suffering, in union with us, and does so in order to heal us and raise us above all suffering is sufficient for me. Suffering alone is perhaps the only unbearable thing in this life.

    It should move us to relieve suffering wherever we can, and to bear one another’s burdens everywhere.

    One of my professors used to say that the real problem of evil was not, “Why is there evil?” But “What kind of community should the Church be in order to be a place where we can bear the burden of suffering?” It is, I think, a better and more pertinent question.

  77. Martin Avatar

    Thank you father for your kind and assuring words,
    the priest that I mentioned previously actually preached about our prayers for the departed ones when he mentioned they could not repent after death and that we, when praying for them, are actually praying for them because of our own salvation. That is why it was so disturbing for me. But I am so glad that there are other Orthodox christians who believe otherwise, because it gives me much hope.

  78. Grant Avatar

    Thank you Father. Wise words. I draw much inspiration from this blog and the comments arising around it. I think it has helped to deepen my prayer life and to consider the world very differently. Your book has helped too. Please continue the good work and praise be to God.

  79. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Michael B.

    I am not particularly well-read regarding church history and doctrine so I don’t know the answer to your question. (I was hoping PJ would answer :-))

    However, my common sense reaction is that is that human beings, individually and societally, need to change/grow in a positive direction (I’ll avoid the word “evolve”, despite my fondness for it) but the Eternal Truth does not need to. If one is using the word “doctrine” to describe this truth, doctrine does not change. If the term is being used to describe our human understanding of the truth, than it does – for our understanding is always imperfect.

    However, this change would not come about automatically but can only occur if we allow God to guide us.

  80. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    Of course I do not speak for Orthodoxy, but I wanted to share a thought on your question regarding repentance after death.

    I have had patients who died of suicide or who died clinging to atheism – people I truly cared about. I would never say that they lost their chance to find union with God. Only God can understand the experiences, illnesses and struggles that led to the “choices” I witnessed. I do not doubt that God offers a complete healing of all that distorts one’s ability to choose correctly in this life.

    We are not in a position to distinguish those refuse to see God’s truth (and repent) from those who cannot see because they have been blinded by illness or cruelty in this world. So I trust in God’s mercy for He knows all…

  81. dinoship Avatar

    I agree. In fact we might go so far as saying that we only become human beings in the Image of God through suffering and ultimately death.
    (St Ignatius again is a fine example of this thinking…)
    However, concerning the suffering of ‘others’ we see around us, we in no way must coldly state anything of the like!
    We must be rather prepared to suffer ourselves, with, and for them…
    Transformative though it is for all, suffering and death must be adopted by me for and on behalf of all the others. Would not that make one a true follower of the Crucified and exalted Lord?

  82. dinoship Avatar

    The ‘voluntarization’ (I knew spell checker wouldn’t like that word), of suffering and death is, in a sense, what makes one into a saint.
    Embracing suffering makes you look uncannily like Christ. And this is not just my own ‘individual’ suffering but all suffering. Numerous saintly ascetics would therefore spend their entire nights in thousands of tearful prostrations for the salvation of all of humankind, for the deceased, for the damned, for the yet unborn…
    And how Mary Benton seems to think, (I have heard) is correct on many levels. A most crucial level being that, trusting in God’s goodness and mercy concerning those who might, in some way, appear ‘lost’ is in, and of, itself a kind of powerful prayer for them.
    If I say “Lord have mercy on me” with such trust on his mercy for all, I am somehow also praying for all the deceased etc….

  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    In God’s eternal purpose, “to gather all things together in one all things in Christ,” he wills a union in which we are not just “together,” but that we are together in a true union, of which our co-suffering prayer for one another through the ages is but one expression. In this way, those who ask “how do you know the saints pray for you?” do not understand that it is always the will of God expressed through them that they pray for us. The refusal to unite our prayers with those of the saints is simply one more block to our union that their prayers (and those of others) will hve to overcome. The kind of “individualism” expressed in some modern forms of Christianity is simply contrary to the revealed purpose of God.

  84. Andrew Avatar


    As Mary intimates, everything, including history is transformed by Pascha (= “divine love”). It is quite impossible to arrive at this conclusion using logic and the conditional “if”. The opposite of death (and therefore suffering) is Pascha — the datum set by God against which everything (the entire universe) is measured. Everything leads to it…

  85. Marie Avatar

    Hi Father Stephen, thank you for your posts, I have been reading for a couple of years now. I am Catholic, and have stumbled across your site. This question is not directly related to today’s post. Mother Theresa according to her spiritual director, underwent years of “dark night of the soul” to use St. John of the Cross’s phrase. How could God allow this to happen? Would Orthodox spiritual direction have alleviated her suffering? I don’t see how it is right for a spiritual director to divulge this, in the interest of a greater truth? Thank you and God bless

  86. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, it’s impossible to say in Mother Theresa’s personal case – without actually knowing her and the details. Orthodoxy has not tended to speak about a “dark night” but there are many cases that are quite similar. The Athonite monk, St. Silouan, endured 15 years in which he was “in hell,” tormented by demons, etc. His disciple, the Elder Sophrony, also wrote about the topic. He particularly stressed the voluntary sharing of suffering. In the cases like St. Silouan’s, the suffering seems to have been a means of drawing them into deeper union with God. Thus, alleviating it would have been contrary to the desires of their lives. The suffering I have known in my life is almost entirely self-inflicted, and yet I know that it has been miraculously to my benefit – to such an extent that I can only be grateful for it. It’s a mystery.

  87. Martin Avatar

    Father, Marc, mary benton, dinoship, thank you for your reassuring words, they are very helpful because this hope that there still may exist the possibility for repentance after we leave this present world and this present body has been one of the main things that has led me to Orthodoxy. Thank you.

  88. dinoship Avatar

    My brother sent me this link of a talk by Father John Behr on this very subject of transformative suffering and death today -I marvelled at the coincidence! Extremely pertinent, especially the second half with all the questions and answers and the references to the Martyrs…

  89. PJ Avatar


    “I do want to mention that evolution is also used in a theological context to denote the actual changing of doctrine over time into something more and better. It comes, I think, out of the 19th century’s ideas about progress, the perfectability of man and the increased mechanization of our life.

    I’ve only heard it from Catholics but I don’t know if is really part of the Catholic teaching or not. Perhaps you could shed light on that?”

    Catholics believe in the “development of doctrine,” by which we mean that our understanding of the central truths and abiding mysteries of the Faith deepens over time, thus leading to a fuller picture of God and His economy of grace. For instance, what passed for orthodox theology in the second century would be heterodox by the fourth century. Take St. Justin Martyr: His trinitarianism was satisfactory for his era, but it would be insufficient and defective today.

    The analogy isn’t so much evolution as the growth of a great big tree, though that image has its problems, too.

  90. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    When I ask for God’s mercy, unless I am in a bad spot (fallen into sin or greatly tempted to do so), I usually do not ask just mercy for myself, but for all. I prefer Holy God or the western prayer:
    Oh, Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us (2X)
    Oh,Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace
    If I am in a restaurant, I say grace for everyone there.

  91. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Father Stephen,
    I am reading “We Shall See Him As He Is” by Elder Saphrony.
    In it he says that as we come to know God, as God reveals Himself to us, we become more and more aware of our own retchedness and are led to great sorrow.
    Is the dark night of the soul the purging of our own understanding of God so that God may truly reveal Himself to us?

  92. Rhonda Avatar

    God is Good! All of the time!

    On several occasions throughout this blog we have reaffirmed either directly or indirectly this quote. As usual we have delved into many topics from the original blog posting. When it comes to understanding pain, suffering, death, God’s actions, God’s will, God’s judgement, God’s love & our actions, our will, our judgements & etc. I do not think that we can have all of the answers nor can we rationalize these things nor can we understand in the fullest sense of these words. But let us remember than any reading or interpretation or understanding or rationalizations or logic or philosophy that renders, or would render, us with any belief(s) other than “God is Love” is erroneous. When discussing the topics that we have thus far discussed I would like to amend our original to:

    God is ALL Good! ALL of the time!

  93. dinoship Avatar

    according to Elder Sophrony, seeing one’s own wretchedness and the resulting compunction is NOT the same as pedagogical apparent “God-forsakeness” -the 2nd stage as he terms it of the three stages of spiritual advancement (which relates to the western dark night of the soul- though he really never like that term at all)

  94. Ray Avatar


    Try to see the dark night St John of the Cross describes as a good thing. Here is one verse of his poem about it.

    O guiding night!
    O night more lovely than the dawn!
    O night that has united
    the Lover with his beloved,
    Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

    God allows it when one desires intimate communion with God. St John calls it transforming as someone in an earlier post mentioned concerning suffering. I would say, when Mother Teresa wrapped her arms around suffering she was in a face to face embrace with her saviour on the cross.

  95. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I have listened to Fr. John behr’s talk and it is excellent.
    I highly recommend it.

  96. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I should have put the question in a seperate post. I was not likening the Dark Night to cumpunction. It was a seperate inquiry. In complete stillness I loose all thought, all concepts including concepts of God. I was asking if this was the Dark night.

  97. dinoship Avatar

    That is not it. The Dark Night equivalent (loosely) in the teaching of certain Orthodox Fathers (and especially the late Elder Sophrony), simply describes the longest and most fertile yet also “driest” period of spiritual evolvement in ones life.
    This middle period is simply what follows the Grace-filled, enthusiastic first period that attracts the soul to the path of Salvation and first fans the flames of (a yet not-“tested”) love. (The testing is mainly for the sake of the one being tested…) The suffering of this second period in which God might seem to have forsaken the soul, and the strong feeling of Grace has withdrawn, varies hugely with every person. This is the period we are talking about here. It can last most of one’s life. It is by far the most fertile period, when I have the unique opportunity of proving to God and myself that I love Him, rather than simply being enamoured with (addicted to, even) His gifts…
    The final period is when the Holy Spirit has permanently made its abode in Man, (the Grace filled 3rd period , rather than 1st period grace, as in the final reinstatement of Job).

  98. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    But I loose all sense of God’s grace and love. I don’t like it. I am drawn to it. It seems to be what comes as I progress in my quest. It is attractive but very frighteneing at the same time. Help me. I have been coming up against this all my life it seems and running away from it.

  99. dinoship Avatar

    It is certainly not unrelated to the 2nd period. We all have that feeling at times, it is extremely common…
    Our “sense” of God’s grace and love is not as important (profoundly exhilarating and transformative though it is) as our “belief” in His Grace and love!
    It is not so much what we “feel” that we must concentrate on but what we believe in (God’s omnipresence and total goodness) that cements the bond of union to Him.
    You must have a Spiritual Father who can guide you through this period (as all other)

  100. dinoship Avatar

    Sorry I meant as through all other periods…

    It is also paramount that we pay no heed to our thoughts our feelings even but our trust in God’s providence no matter what.
    “I have been coming up against this all my life it seems” is a classsic 2nd period thought. One thinks it was and always will be raining while it rains, or that it was always and always will be sunny when while the sun shines…
    Even if I am hanging on a Cross, I must strive never to pay more attention to my ordeal than to my Joy for knowing that God is overseeing me lovingly.
    It might feel like he is deaf, but I concentrate NOT on what I feel but on what I believe…

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