More on the Will of God

crosssnowThe priest, Seraphim, spent 30 years of his life in the Soviet Gulag. During that period he was tortured from time to time and was assigned the duty of cleaning out the contents of the latrines. Other prisoners avoided him because of the stench that hung about him at all times. He was a living saint and saved the souls of many around him.

His story, in brief, is told in the book, Fr. Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses.

I mention him because his story came to my attention while I have been thinking about the topic of the will of God. He came from a noble family. He was a prince. But he found that he was drawn to the monastic life – and – over the objections of his family – entered a monastery. He spoke of his incarceration:

Later the camp administration decided that monks, priests and bishops would be perfect for cleaning out the latrines and digging out human excrement. Twenty-eight of my thirty years in camp I spent working on that assignment! Whichever camp I was sent to, I was immediately assigned to this job—perhaps it was suggested in my file. It is heavy work, especially in wintertime: you have to chisel out the frozen mass and transport it away on sleds or carry it in pails. The smell penetrated your clothing, your hands, your face—people would avoid you, swear at you, and sometimes beat you up. The camp administration took special pleasure in sending clergy to do such work, saying, “This is just the job for you, you are a priest, aren’t you?” and they would add blasphemy about the Church and its rites.

He found himself overcome by the work and the filth. Worst of all, he said, he could not make the sign of the cross, his hands were so filthy. And thoughts began to attack him. But he met a holy Bishop who was performing the same task. The Bishop gave him advice:

“‘It is essential to pray,” said Vladyko Ilarion, “so that the surrounding world disappears and only your prayer remains. Do not cross yourself with a dirty hand, but lift your eyes up, then down, then to the right and to the left. You will have made the sign of the cross, but when you are back in the barracks and are clean, do cross yourself with your hand. When you pray during your work, when you are deep in prayer, you will not see the dirt or smell the stink. That is what I do and it does help me to bear the horror of it all. God will protect you from vain thoughts….Help everyone in any way you can—this is the law of God.”

Fr. Arseny said of him:

“I saw Father Seraphim…as a restorer of souls who had been covered with dirt. Yes, he was a true restorer. Carefully, just like those who restore icons by removing layers of dried oil and dirt with a scalpel, taking care not to harm the original, Father Seraphim would carefully, gently approach a man and remove layers of sin from his soul, revealing first a small window of purity and then making this window bigger and bigger, and then finally clean up his whole soul. How careful you must be, how spiritually attentive to the injured soul not to harm it in trying to direct the man to the path of light. You must not hurt his pride, you must not show him how sinful he is—you could end up pushing him away so that he might think, ‘I am such a sinner that I cannot be saved!’ For a long time I used to observe Father Seraphim attentively. I wanted to borrow his spiritual experience from him and sometimes I could not understand how he could give light to the soul of a man who did not seem to deserve forgiveness.”

It is a frightful thing to think about the will of God in the context of such holy souls. Much of our contemporary thought on the will of God is centered around the “American Dream,” or some version of success. It is not wrong to desire a home and to provide for a family. But neither should these things be the object of our concern:

 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:31-24)

The mystery of the will of God is the mystery of our salvation. Whether I eat, or what I eat is of little concern, or, rather, is beside the point. But there are things about eating and all other things that indeed pertain to our salvation. And regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, those circumstances are working to our salvation, by the good will of God who will not be thwarted by evil or our own incompetence. If our salvation depended on knowing the will of God, no one would be saved.

You desire and you do not have – you kill and covet and yet you are not able to obtain. You quarrel and fight and yet you don’t have because you do not ask. You ask and yet you don’t receive because you ask badly, so that you can spend it on your desires. (James 4:2-3)

We seek the “will of God,” but we seek it badly when we ignore His commandments in the process. We are told to “seek first the Kingdom” and to “give thanks for all things.”

Perhaps the most disordered version of the Christian faith is its reduction to the status of religion. Every culture in every place and time has had a religion. Cultures have sought the blessings of whatever deities they honored for fertility, prosperity, and happiness. They also sought blessings for the destruction of their enemies and many other things as well. What sets Christ apart from such culture servants? Christ did not come in order to compete for the underwriting of our culture’s success. He came to deliver us from the destruction of sin and unite us with His Divine Life.

It is certainly possible to know the will of God, just as it is possible to know God. But this is a very difficult thing at first and filled with problems. Fr. Zacharias of Essex writes that:

…discernment is necessary so as to refute every delusory suggestion, because the will of God in this world is manifested in the same relative outward forms in which the natural human will and the demonic will present themselves to the human mind.

The will of God does not belong to the world of cause and effect – it is not part of the material order. The Father “causelessly causes” all things that exist. That creation exists is manifestly true – but how it exists eludes us. Rational rules of contradiction and non-contradiction are of no use in exploring the will of God.

And so, we keep the commandments and give thanks always for all things. In this manner of life, within the community of the Church, we have a measure of safety (as all children need). And we grow, learning to discern our way forward. My own experience tells me that the more one grows, the less concern there is for choices and decisions. Whatever comes to hand becomes increasingly sufficient. If we have Christ, it is enough – and glory to God for all things!

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.


18 responses to “More on the Will of God”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for these articles. They support, clarify, inspire and console.

  2. Sam Gibson Avatar
    Sam Gibson

    Thanks for this article. The following statement interested me:

    “The will of God does not belong to the world of cause and effect – it is not part of the material order. The Father “causelessly causes” all things that exist. That creation exists is manifestly true – but how it exists eludes us. Rational rules of contradiction and non-contradiction are of no use in exploring the will of God.”

    What does it mean to ’causelessly cause’ all that is? Relatedly, what is the Patristic view on creation in the ‘image’ of God? How can we be created in the image of the unknowable? Is this mere metaphorical or else analogical language (as in e.g. Aquinas), or does the Orthodox tradition have a different view in mind? Are there writings of the fathers which deal with the issue of God’s will in relation to the mystery of creation?

  3. Darrell Spencer Avatar
    Darrell Spencer

    Follow up on Father Arseny, there were two books written about people’s personal experiences with Father Arseny:

    the first, is titled Father Arseny 1893-1973, Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father.

    The second book is titled: Father Arseny, A Cloud of Witnesses.

    Both books are translated from the Russian by Vera Bouteneff and published by the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press

  4. Efraim Shultz Avatar
    Efraim Shultz

    It is humbling to hear the story of priests that were so covered with filth that they could not even cross them selves. It makes me aware of how much I take for granted every day and how I would probably be one of those avoiding them because of the stench and I am ashamed. Lord have mercy.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. Maximus is among the most profound writers on God and creation, but St Basil treats it, as do some of the others. What does it mean to “causelessly cause”? It means God is the cause – but that the nature of the cause is “uncreated” and therefore not like anything we know of in all of creation. I would say that the language is “apophatic” rather than analogical or metaphorical. It’s not “like” something else. But stating that it is not like something is also a revelation (or the start) of what it is. God makes Himself known (and His causes) but that knowledge is as gift (in the Divine Energies) but not as something we can “find out” or “figure out.”

    I frankly think the best treatment of being created “in the image” is in the contemporary work of the Elder Sophrony in his treatment of the “hypostatic principle.” We are created in the image of God – able to become truly personal – as God is personal (hypostatic). But this is potential only at first. It is in being conformed to the image of Christ that we truly express the image of God. And there are no created categories for this conformity. It belongs to the Divine Personhood. Fr. Zacharias’ Christ Our Way and Our Life has the fullest treatment of this topic.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    This priest said that he was assigned this job for 28 of the 30 years he served in the Gulag. I cannot fathom such a thing. But such a man lived and was known by others. And he intercedes for us before the throne of grace. Think rather of how we avoid the stench of our own sins by self-loathing and seeking to hide them, rather than bringing our shame to confession and finding grace for healing. Think that he found a way, even in such a stench, to pray. And we can rise up from our own sins and pray – not because we are clean – but because we are dirty – and because Christ our brother has taken a place at our side. He became sin that we might become His righteousness.

  7. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen…
    Thank you for this heart touching article. Truly the will of God is not part of the world of cause and effect…of the material order.
    My heart is heavy at this moment as I only now received the news of the passing of a former student of mine. He was a missionary in a children’s orphanage in Haiti. He leaves behind a wife and three young daughters, at age 39. He died of melanoma cancer. He was a very pious man who gave himself to the Lord with his whole being…though not Orthodox. Please pray to Christ with me for the family, through the intercessions of our most blessed Lady the Theotokos.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    May paradise be his and may the Mother of God intercede for his family.

  9. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you again, Fr. Stephen, for so much more to reflect on. Interestingly, I just ordered one of the books on Fr. Arseny two days ago, never having heard of him before. God seems to be sending me yet another invitation to know Him more deeply. Reading of such holy people reminds me that I am only beginning to learn what it means to believe.

    (off topic) With your kind permission, Fr. Stephen, I had e-mailed you 4 days ago and today received a notice that my e-mail was not deliverable because the destination computer was not reachable. I used the e-mail address on your church’s website. Is there another I should use? Or perhaps it is not God’s will that I e-mail you 🙂

  10. davidp Avatar

    We in the West have no understanding nor knowledge of these precious saints of what they have gone through. I wonder if we find a person now, say a christian from the Iraq, Syria or Egypt, could we have empathy toward them or would our so-called Western ideals cloud our sentiments(?)

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    davidp: the secular western culture has no regard for Christianity at all especially those in the Islamic ruled lands or in Israel. I mean just look at how long it took the U.S. press to even begin to get the faith tradition of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim correct. They thought initially that she belonged to a cult of some sort.

    But, the witness of the martyrs and confessors touches every heart that is at all open to them. Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Lutheran who suffered under Communism did much in making known the suffering of Christian martyrs around the world with is Voice of the Martyrs organization.

    Here is one of my favorite vignettes that Pastor Wurmbrand told:

    ,strong> Always Rejoice

    The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.

    This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail — one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face — there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”

    One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’ — you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”

    He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars — many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”

    In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face.

    Even when unknown to us and nameless, they are the most human among us and it is that very humanity which touches us the most.

  12. Boyd Avatar

    This is great stuff. I have recently discovered a lecture by Thomas Hopko on similar themes.

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar

    A couple thoughts on knowing the “will of God” topic:

    I believe the reason we Western Christians obsess on it so much is rooted in fear. We need very much to make sure we succeed in life, and as it has been mentioned, the mantra has been drummed into us that good things come to those who do good.

    So Lord, please show me how to do good so that I can get good. I very much want happiness (really we mean pleasure) and to avoid evil (really we’re talking about pain). So please, please speak to me clearly so I can get it right and live a trouble-free life.

    We have no idea at the time that this is what we’re really asking of course. And by the way we aren’t actually interested in having a relationship with God; we just want His guidance. To paraphrase Fr. Stephen: information, not transformation please.

    Hearing again stories from Fr. Arseny and Richard Wurmbrand help put it in perspective. They didn’t believe that God was punishing them for bad choices or sins of their ancestors; they focused on the daily task of serving him the best they could.

    We should serve Him as the children we are, asking when we need something, taking what guidance we get from Him (and others and Scripture,etc.) and making decisions the best we can.

    This life is not about making the right choices and therefore becoming a success; it is about learning to serve God by dying daily to our broken and imperfect will. The more we are successful in those little deaths, the more the passions and the trash is cleared out of our hearts and the more we begin to see the will of God without looking for it.

    I say these things not as someone who has achieved, but as one who presses on to the high calling of being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. May the Lord have mercy on us all.

  14. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Darrell Spencer,

    Thanks for the Fr. Arseny sources. I have the first book and can confirm that it’s very inspiring, reminiscent of Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ.

  15. Panayiota Avatar

    Thank you Father,
    As I read and re-read this article, I can’t help but think about when Satan tries to tempt Christ.

    As a young women, I kept secrectly, wondering why Jesus didn’t show Satan His divinity at that point?

    I knew I had must to learn, and made some mental notes along the way that helped me kind of sort it out. However, as I contemplate this article, I keep hearing Christ’s Words that “Man does not live by bread alone….”

    It’s so hard for us to obey. Most of us seek God for guidance, that He will be able to direct us, but only as much as it agree with our plans.

  16. Amanda Avatar

    This is so humbling…as a stay at home mom of five…homeschooling…my house is a real source of stress for me. It gets really chaotic around here with all the laundry and dishes and school projects/books/toys etc. Sometimes I feel like if I can just get it picked up a bit and looking halfway decent then I can pray. Something about order and prayer are connected for me. This article made tears come to my eyes. My situation is nothing like Father Seraphim’s, but in a honest way I understand his filthiness. I also understand his struggle to pray in filth. However, your comment to Efraim spoke deeply to me as a mother…”And we can rise up from our own sins and pray – not because we are clean – but because we are dirty – and because Christ our brother has taken a place at our side. He became sin that we might become His righteousness.” I should pray because my house is dirty…not because it is clean. I will try to not hide my sins and to make the sign of the cross…accepting humbly all that my day brings. Thank you for expounding on this…what a consolation.

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