Do Faith to Have Faith

desert-monk1-266x300There is an adage, “Do faith until you have faith.” It is often attributed to John Wesley, who said something like it. I’ve generally ignored such slogans – bumper-sticker Christianity troubles me. But there is something worth considering beneath this nostrum.

St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom 12:2). But how is the mind renewed?

There is a very mistaken approach to spiritual matters on the part of many. The assumption is that spiritual things must happen “spiritually.” And by this people mean, “Mental things must happen mentally.”  There is an almost gnostic view within contemporary Christianity that equates spiritual with mental.

The mind is not changed by trying to think new thoughts.

Anyone who has ever tried to stop thinking about something, or who is dogged by obsessions knows how impossible it is to control thoughts. It is certainly more effective to try to replace a thought than to change it. But the very nature of thoughts make them easy to become repetitive and obsessive.

How do we come to think? How do we come to know?

There are many popular ideas about thoughts that are simply wrong. We rarely choose our thoughts. When we intentionally think about something, there is a decisional aspect involved. But thoughts arise by association, by suggestion, by habit, by fears, anxieties, desires, etc. Thoughts are only occasionally the result of a rational process. We are human beings – thinking bodies – our minds are not the “ghost in the machine.”

The great learning theorist, Jean Piaget, wrote about the part that “play” has in the learning of children. In many respects, play is a ritualized activity. Children “playing house,” go through rituals of housekeeping. I have sat at “tea” before at the table of a young daughter, sharing the meal with stuffed animals and dolls. The activity might have been “play,” but it was quite serious and important.

Children do not learn in a manner that differs from adults – they just do so much more of it! Adults learn by ritualized behaviors as well. Even learning to be a sales person is an effort to learn the “ritual” of selling things to people. I bought a car recently  with one of my adult children. The “ritual” at the dealership was comical when it was not insulting. The salesman had to excuse himself to discuss a “deal” he offered me. I know that he will return with the sad news that his manager thinks it should be a little more than we agreed. I’ve been around long enough to know that there was very likely no conversation with the manager. I challenged the man (and the ritual) and we settled on a “deal” that was mutually satisfactory.

Very few human activities have no ritual component. It is both how we learn, and often how we act. When we meet strangers we usually  greet them in one of several ritual manners, with words that are known to be well-accepted. If we had to think of new greetings for every stranger, human contact would be tedious, difficult, and even dangerous.

The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has written repeatedly and convincingly about the nature of the virtues. Things such as courage, patience, kindness, generosity, etc., are almost never spontaneous actions. They belong to what he terms a “set of practices.” His favorite example is his father’s profession: bricklaying. To lay brick, one works with a master brickmason. The apprentice learns the “practice” of laying brick. He does not think his way through the process – he learns to lay brick by repeating the rituals of the trade – its practices.

Hauerwas says that the Christian faith is a set of practices. Virtues are the habits acquired through the repeated work of the Christian life. If you have to think about being courageous, you will most likely fail.

Hauerwas’ thought, like most that is good in contemporary theology, is just a restatement of what the fathers have always taught. Christ states the nature of our faith quite clearly:

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Joh 8:31-32)

We imagine this process to be in reverse. Our modern misunderstanding tells us that first, we will know the truth, then on the basis of that knowledge, we will abide in Christ’s word. But it is the “abiding,” the repeated doing of Christ’s commandments, that yields knowledge of the truth. Thus it is generally useless to argue about the truth of the faith. Until someone lives it, they will often not see its truth. We come to the faith, not because we see everything – its fullness. We come because, by grace, we have been allowed to see something. But we will only know the truth of that something if we ourselves do it.

Much of the Orthodox life is marked by ritual. There is a way of praying. There is a way of fasting. There is a way that we engage in worship. There is a way that we honor the saints and the icons. This life is called the “Orthodox Way.” It is indeed a set of practices. There are no ideas that are not also embodied in the way of life. It is said, “Lex orandi, lex credendi”: The “law of praying is the law of believing.” And in Orthodoxy, “praying,” is a practice, not just an expression of ideas. It is the reason that Orthodox liturgy rarely changes, and then only in a modest, incremental manner. To engage in liturgical reform is to risk the way of life. The danger of wholesale reform has been tried repeatedly in various Christian groups, generally with disastrous results.

If you want to be a saint, pray like one. Do faith until you have faith.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


38 responses to “Do Faith to Have Faith”

  1. Grant Avatar

    Brilliant and practical. Thank you again, Father.

  2. Allen Avatar


    Thank you so much for this article, I am really struggling with this subject and I am printing this article out to reflect on it.

    I had gone to a counselor, and they focused on cognitive behavioral therapy, but it seemed to make things worse. I did some reading, and realized that modern CBT in a sense seems to be based on Stoic philosophy.

    What you describe seems to be an important difference between modern interpretation of Stoic philosophy and traditional church teachings. I am trying to gain more understanding of this problem, because it is having a profound impact related to some problems in my family.

    If you have any more thoughts on the subject, or early church fathers who talk about it, I would be very interested.

  3. […] My journey continues in understanding the right way to think about our thoughts, and I ran across another gem from Father Stephen: […]

  4. Paul Avatar

    Very helpful Father.
    Doing and acting bears much more fruit than just thinking or thinking about thinking.
    A friend of mine struggled with depression for sometime and he visited a monastery where he was put to hard physical work. He thinks that doing hard physical work helped him climb out of his depression.
    In our modern age, idleness can kill the soul and we have to fight against that daily.

  5. Albert Avatar

    I understand, and have experienced, that behaving like a Christian brings both happiness and deep satisfaction in addition to strengthening faith. What troubled me for many years was theology, especially certain incomprehensible concepts that a Christian is expected to assent to and support; e.g., the Trinity, Communion, hell, God’s love in the face of suffering. For me, practicing christianity–i.e., attending liturgies regularly, praying, loving others (including enemies), acknowledging sins

  6. Albert Avatar

    … Sharing goods, helping those in need–all the behaviors taught and modeled by Christ: these do not make it easier to think like a Christian, and I am troubled by that. When I am not in church, not praying, not doing things for others, I still keep thinking like an agnostic at best, like an unbeliever at worst. I know what St Paul said about these things, but I keep forgetting what he meant. In this case, doing does not seem to influence thinking. And it definitely does not keep out all sorts of negative destructive, sinful thoughts. Perhaps I am expecting too much.

    The main reason I bring this up is that, newly Christmated, I am still confused about the issue of confession. I know that thoughts are not sinful unless assented to. My priest taught me that. But the fact that they are present so often makes me wonder if my Christianity is only “skin deep” (like an actor in a play). I am not looking for answers here. I probably know what they are–IF they are. Rather, I am thinking about your post, Father, and about the meanings of faith.

  7. David Bowden Avatar
    David Bowden

    One recurrent question that I get from those looking outside in at our church is the issue of faith and works. Western thinking tends to separate these concepts. But they are not really notional things at all. Our faith IS our works and our works faith.

  8. Agnikan Avatar

    It’s no coincidence that the origin of the noun ‘faith’ is the Latin verb ‘fidere’, ‘to trust’.

  9. Lina Avatar

    For a long time in my life I thought of faith as trusting God to work things out but then some where along the way I learned that faith also involved my doing things His way and not my way. Much later I came across the verse from John 7:17
    “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on my own authority.” We gain understanding by living life His way, not vice versa.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thoughts have lots of “origins.” As I noted in the article, they’re only occasionally “intentional” thoughts. Much more often they’re more like echoes, habits, the noise of our neuroses, etc. As such, they do not constitute sin, as your confessor has noted for you. Unless we consent.

    But I sometimes like to move the whole discussion to a different place. “Sin” is often dominated by forensic and legal images. “This is wrong,” “this is not wrong,” etc. In truth, as I write many times, sins are really better understood as symptoms of an underlying disease. That disease goes by the name “sin” (in the singular). It is a process of death, of corruption, of disintegration, the result of our lives moving away from God and the direction He has set for a human being. It is like a spiritual entropy. We “unravel.”

    As such, the individual “sins” are sometimes not the specific issues – they are the evidence of the unraveling. They may be the only things we notice. The greater problem is the underlying condition. We are either unraveling, or we are being healed, being made whole, becoming truly integrated with the Way of God. Kindness and love, gentleness, etc. are the “evidence” of this healing.

    A good pastor is always paying attention to his sheep. He is noting whether the “condition” of their lives is “unraveling” or becoming more whole. In truth, you can hardly note such a thing except over time. Thus frequent confession is not nearly so much about getting legally clean, it’s about checking in, revealing ourselves to God and our confessor.

    When sin is doing its unraveling work, we tend to want to shy away from confession. We are embarrassed or ashamed. We feel like we’ve failed, etc. But that is all the more reason to run to confession. I don’t wait until I’m well to go to my doctor!

    The noise of our thoughts is its own battle. Many things produce them. There are psychological or biochemical conditions that create very noisy brains (here I think of Attention Deficit Disorder – very noisy!). Our spiritual struggles can be quite relative. I have a friend with ADD, who once, visiting with me in a monastery where the Jesus Prayer was done in a common service, for 2 and a half hours continuously, told me after the service, “I could only pay attention for about 45 minutes…and then got up and went outside.” 45 minutes was actually quite an accomplishment for this person – far more than they knew.

    It sounds to me like you’re doing the right things…sharing…helping, etc. They don’t immediately make us “think like a Christian.” But they have a long-term effect. Thus the Scripture is always counseling patience. The older I get, the more obvious it seems to me that I should have been more patient over the years.

  11. Jeremiah Avatar

    Albert, as Fr Stephen has wisely shared above, our thoughts are often evidence of this unraveling nature of ours. It is good to hear that you are aware of your thoughts. That’s an extremely important step.

    Something that has helped and continues to help me significantly is the Jesus Prayer. I have joked around that I feel like I have a perpetual Sponge Bob in my brain throwing thoughts at me at a million miles an hour. However, communing with God in a very intentional manner through prayer throughout the day has done a lot to put my mind at peace.

    Lastly, this being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” is a process. I wanted to throw my hands up and say, “This is too much!” many times after joining the Church. The fact that we’re aware of our struggle shows evidence that we are already in the process of transformation.

  12. […] (Fr. Stephen Freeman, who also offers some tips on how to abide in Christ.) […]

  13. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    I love this: “frequent confession is not nearly so much about getting legally clean, it’s about checking in, revealing ourselves to God and our confessor.” Thank you!

    Father Thomas Hopko said something similar to your title here: Not just to speak the truth but to “Do the truth in love.”

  14. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    PS I put my full name because there is another Jane who comments on this blog

  15. George Avatar

    Amor ergo sum (probably misspelled)

  16. Karen Avatar

    Very helpful reflection (and comment to Albert). Thank you, Father!

    Paul, I’ve read in more than one place that one of the best treatments for mild to moderate depression is exercise. (More severe forms typically also need medical intervention.)

    Lina, John 7:17 was key for me, too, in my understanding of how Scripture becomes intelligible to us.

  17. […] Do Faith to Have Faith – Glory to God Fo All Things […]

  18. Jeff Avatar

    Sorry about the digression.. But Father, do you have favorites that u recommend from St. Symeon the new theologian and st. Maximus the confessor ?

  19. dino Avatar

    St Symeon the New Theologian is sublime and so poetic; he is very very easy to misunderstand, especially since he is speaking from the high summit of a lover who sees Love Himself – face to face in the Uncreated Light…

    I do not know of any translations in English that do the original justice – especially since it is in the form of poetry. I do particularly love this one (my own rendering in English):

    “Leave me be in my cell, alone, locked away;
    let me be with God, who alone is good.
    Stay away from me, far away.
    Let me die alone before my God who has created me…”

  20. Yannis Avatar

    On the subject of “sin” vs “sins”:

    These are more easily distinguished in Greek, where we have the words ἁμαρτία and ἁμάρτημα. The latter is something one does, while the former is what afflicts them.

    This has also made me think at times that the Western notion of transmission of “original sin” would be strange in Greek: What we call the προπατορικόν ἁμάρτημα cannot be transmitted as the word clearly refers to an act.

  21. dino Avatar

    thanks for pointing that out. Good point…

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    Extremely helpful point. Translations so often fail. Here the Italian proverb is fulfilled: traduttore tradittore (the translator is a betrayer).

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Allen –

    I just wanted to add a note for you about cognitive-behavioral therapy. It can be helpful – though what will be helpful for YOU, of course, I cannot know. Change, using any method, is often a difficult process and things may seem to get worse before they get better. It is, I think, especially important to find a therapist whom you feel understands your issues and spiritual values.

    If you are interested in an Orthodox perspective related to CBT, Fr. Alex Trader has an excellent blog:

    Many blessings as you seek help with your troubles…

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    I highly recommend Fr Trader’s work as well.

  25. Albert Avatar

    I checked out “ancientchristianwisdom” and immediately found more than one entry that meant a lot to me. Also I was very interested in Fr Trader’s story; fascinated and inspired. I lived in Thessaloniki once, teaching at the University there (Fulbright grant), but at the time had lapsed from my childhood faith and felt no attraction to Orthodoxy. Strange (well, providential) how life surprises. Even though I struggle with an attraction/resistance issue, I believe that it’s “all in my head.” I manage to keep making good choices, with the help of grace and supportive persons. Thank you, Mary B. and Father, for mentioning Fr Trader. Your reflections and his — you may never know how important they are to readers like me. It is so nice to have a chance to trade thoughts & experiences. I was struck when I looked at the first reading for today (Paul to Timothy) by this part: “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.” That last warning probably fits a lot of places, but not here. Με αγάπη και ευγνωμοσύνη. . .

  26. […] Much to be gleaned in this piece . . . […]

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Romanides can be strident, but his view of sin is pretty mainstream. The author of the article you referenced is highly unreliable. I will say no more lest I break my own rules. He is beyond the pale.

  28. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    I’ve found Fr. Thomas Hopko’s CD set on sin very helpful. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary press has it for $16: “Sin, Primordial, Generational, Personal”

  29. Jeff Avatar

    Ok, good enough, didn’t know he was mainstream , in Constructions of the west by George Decampolous’s/ Papanikolaou , the Fordham university professor s don’t have anything good to say of his and Yanarres theology , they say ( Pantelis Kalaitzidis ) ‘the anti westernism running throughout Romiosoyne and Yanarres theology is a construction , a contrived new version of Church history and theology ‘ …., and some orthodox felt Vlad’s critique was at least substantive ,

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    I cannot discuss Moss. As noted, he is beyond the pale for me.

    But, on the other matters. Yes. Romanides (and the Romiosyne website stuff) certainly pushes some things too far. Which means they should be read with discretion – and that requires broader reading. Unfortunately, some contemporaries fail to discuss the present state of Orthodox theology in light of where it has been and how it got here.

    G. Forovsky is probably the most important historical figure in 20th century Orthodox thought. He wrote masterfully about the history of Russian thought (unequalled to my way of thinking). It was in the light of that magisterial treatment that he could accurately speak and define what he called a “Western Captivity.” The captivity was an undo and uninformed influence from Western sources, both Protestant and Catholic. Orthodox theology, both in Russia and Greece and elsewhere, was largely “manual” theology. That is, it went little further than “manuals of theology” that were compiled for study – very, very secondary. And those manuals were often only lightly airbrushed versions of Western manuals. The result was the wholesale importation of very typically Western sources – and not the best ones of them – but the Western “manuals.” They were shallow and built largely out of formulas – they were full of formulae but without enough depth or training to produce judgment or discernment.

    Florovsky urged a “return to the sources” that he termed a “neo-patristic synthesis.” Some critique him now, and perhaps his own project was too narrow and contrived, but its result was a flowering of Orthodox thought, and a generation of scholars who are now themselves the great teachers of Orthodoxy. Romanides was a student of Florovsky – and he takes things a bit far.

    But in Romanides’ defense, it is worth noting that when he presented his dissertation at the Univ. of Athens, he was criticized for his disagreements with Aquinas! His work more or less developed a sort of intellectual conspiracy theory to explain the West that clearly went too far.

    Yannaras is a different kettle of fish. He more or less stands alone. He draws deeply from some Western thought (particularly various existential philosophers). But he does this in a manner that brings their thought into dialog with Orthodox thought and then does very interesting applications to social theory. He’s very nonaligned politically (from an American’s point-of-view) and therefore often insightful.

    Zizioulas was a student of Florovsky (as were many others). His work has its own broad influences.

    It’s interesting, I think, to note that Papanikolaou’s work would have been impossible two generation’s ago. I think contemporary writers would do better to acknowledge their own debt.

    The critique of the West, through Post-modernist literary criticism (and similar movements), has taken a very firm place within academic circles. When I was studying at Duke, as virtually the only student of Orthodox thought, everybody else was involved in some form of Western critique. The Enlightenment is highly discredited in many ways, its shortcoming’s thoroughly exposed.

    Orthodoxy does not need to take up a reactionary position – it is not a reactionary theology. Orthodox thought exists without reaction to anything else. It is not a critique but an affirmation. But that affirmation can be the basis of a critique. The “foundationalism” of Western thought (to use an example within contemporary philosophical conversation) has been pretty seriously undermined by Wittgenstein and similar thinkers – perhaps irreparably. It would be a very serious mistake for Orthodox thinkers to suddenly rush to the rescue of something that never had much (if any) place in Eastern Christian thought.

    What has happened in the last generation or two, is that though Florovsky and others did not see it coming, they freed Orthodoxy from a faulty world-view just in time for it to use its sources in the contemporary conversations within academic theology. The result is a greater interest and influence from Orthodox theology than any time in the past thousand years.

    Romanides, by moving too far in a direction, as well as adding the element of conspiracy theory, marginalized himself and created a lot of scandal within his work. Papanikolaou and others pretty much have to distance themselves from Romanides in order to be taken seriously. Romanides and his followers, who frankly don’t give a fig for what anyone outside of Orthodoxy thinks about anything, have done Orthodoxy few favors by becoming too shrill and extreme.

  31. Dino Avatar

    I agree with Father Stephen on Moss and Romanides. As a Greek I completely understand what Romanides says and he is a breath of fresh air and truth, however, as someone who is also living in the West, I wouldn’t recommend his more polemical works without discretion. However, this is true of many others too.
    Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos has written a great big book on Romanides’ Theology, he admires him greatly

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    One of the problems with Romanides, is that people (especially those new to Orthodox studies) come across his stuff and pick up on his extreme denunciations of the West. Then everyone who critiques the West (including me) gets painted with the same brush. And so I hear, “I’m tired of the Orthodox bashing the West.” Well, critique and bash are two different things. I certainly do not venture further in my bashing than my post-modernist, anti-foundationalist Western friends do. The difference, is that as an Eastern Christian, I actually have somewhere to stand when I critique the West.

    I think the critique is extremely important. But I think that the right sources are primarily liturgical. The liturgical and devotional life of the Church is the primary life of the Church. We read the Fathers through the prayers. This is something not as dominant in Florovsky. Zizioulas movement to a Eucharistic center is a useful part of this, though sometimes it can get a bit too abstracted.

    My own poor work has been to write from the point of the life-lived-and-prayed. This is true theology. I think that it doesn’t have to be too abstracted (and thus too professional), though I read the professional stuff. It’s just that until I can digest it and live it, I consider it of little use. I can only write about what I know – existentially.

  33. Stephanie Avatar

    Father Stephen, I absolutely love how efficiently you get your point across, while stating it so beautifully!

    Stephanie B.

  34. Jeff Avatar

    The Ancestral sin is a good book, but after 1975 when Romiosoyne came out , the whole Romiosoyne/ Francosyne dichotomy started and the west is demonized and proclaimed responsible for all the misfortunes of the Orthodox , both theological and historical / national , —from Pantelis Kalaitzidis , in Orthodox constructions of the west

    , these are great authors , a new generation , including Marcus plested, ( orthodox readings of Aquinas ), …., your great too!,

  35. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you, very helpful , I really like John Zizioulas’, Being and communion ,

  36. […] I have an idea of what the answer to this particular dilemma is.  Sometimes one must “do faith to have faith,” to “fake it till you make it” (to put it crudely).  The idea is that one needs […]

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