Christianity in a Plain Brown Wrapper

moralsBut we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

Among the many losses within modern Christianity has been the place of transformation. Nineteenth century revival movements and theology emphasized a single experience that was associated with salvation. Those who concerned themselves with what came later, described growth in the Christian life as “sanctification,” and tended to imply that it was optional. Contemporary Christians have settled for a spiritual life in a plain brown wrapper ever since.

Though the word sanctification occurs in the New Testament, it is nowhere treated as subsequent to salvation itself. Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.

Many Christians recognize that a transformation is supposed to occur within a believer, but have adopted a model that postpones that change until after death. Thus we live in this world as one-time, once-and-for-all conversionists, and hope to simply wake up as saints in the life to come. And even this model is often weakened to a matter of heaven as paradise (imagined in starkly material forms).

The fullness of the Christian gospel, as found within Scripture and the Orthodox tradition, is radically committed to the transformation in this life of the believer.

Psychology Is Not Enough

In a self-help culture, saying that people need to change is merely an endorsement of what everyone already knows. But the movement sought within the culture needs no God. To become a better person (more fit, more affable, more kind, more considerate, etc.) is simply a description of a moral program. Morality has nothing particularly Christian about it. Morality is constituted by whatever agreed upon rules of behavior are desired at any given time. The psychological component of morality is no more than the interior adjustment to a desired behavior: behaving well and enjoying it.

The transformation wrought by Christ is the manifestation in this world of the Kingdom of God. In its fullness, it looks like the resurrected Christ Himself. It is the union of heaven and earth, the created and the uncreated. It is a transcendental reality.

That, of course, describes some few saints in some measure. But admittedly, it does not describe many, nor does it appear to describe Christians in general.

But this is a false judgment. In a psychological culture, morality and psychology are the only human realities we acknowledge. We do not see nor understand the nature of spiritual things. We are locked in a world of cause and effect and presume that everything works in such a manner. The landscape of psychological causes (and effects) is the world as we choose to see it. But it does not see the landscape of the Kingdom of God – that which is birthed in believers in their Baptism.

One of the great challenges in living an Orthodox Christian life is making the transition from psychology to true spirituality. Some teachers suggest that many will fail to do so – and will thus fail to realize the reality of their birthright in Christ.

To speak of this movement is difficult because we leave the world of cause and effect and step into the world of grace (though even the world of cause and effect is moment by moment sustained by grace). But grace works with faith and freedom – thus there is not cause and effect (else it would be forced upon us). It is this life of faith and freedom that are often so strange to us. We cling to what we know and reduce our understanding to a virtually mechanical world. There we engage in various therapies and moralities, which have the ability to change appearances but never the substance of reality.

I will use the Apostle Paul as an example in this article. He was an upright, moral man prior to becoming a Christian. He kept the Jewish law in the strictest possible manner as a member of the Pharisees. He was not a hypocrite. But neither did he know the true and living God. When he was converted on the road to Damascus, he did not suddenly take up a new moral code. He abandoned his moral ways and set himself on the road of grace. That path was one he described as “weakness.” He humbled himself. He emptied himself. He submitted to beatings and scourgings. He endured shipwrecks and the false accusations of his enemies.

But he is not a moral hero, or an example of great human achievement. What we see in his outward Christian life, is also the shape of his inmost heart. There, too, he strained towards what was impossible and beyond human reach. He pushed beyond what could be known in cause and effect. What he found was the very mystery of the Kingdom – union with God.

The result of this inward emptying can be seen in the fullness of grace God bestowed upon him. Miracles were worked even by cloths that had simply had contact with him. He raised the dead and cast out demons. He became so closely united to Christ that he could tell others to live as he lived.

From the outside, this manner of life can easily be mistaken for some version of moral psychology. But it is nothing of the sort. It is the impossible become reality, by the utter dependence upon the God of grace. As God told St. Paul, “My grace is enough.”

Moving from the psychological life to the spiritual life is often counter-intuitive. It sounds like it won’t work. To a certain degree it involves quitting. We quit trying to be good, and seek only to empty ourselves to God. The goodness of our lives thus becomes God’s goodness, and not our own.

The moral/psychological life is often one that cycles between effort, failure, shame and remorse only to begin again with renewed effort and promises of a better outcome. Some Christian lives never leave this cycle. It can be sheer misery. Most often it leads to disappointment and a quiet resignation to something less.

At first, embracing a spiritual life can feel like embracing failure. Indeed, it is embracing failure and weakness. The Elder Sophrony taught, “The way down is the way up.” It is, strangely, the only spiritual path that would actually be open to all believers. The worst of us can fail. Some of us learn to be very good at it!

Prayer as the emptying of self in the presence of God is a very different thing than great athletic efforts of well-kept rules. I have often advised people to keep a fast during Great Lent that is somewhat out of reach – for without some measure of failure during the fast we are in danger of reaching Pascha with a sense of satisfaction instead of true self-emptying gratitude.

Taken to an extreme, it is easy to ask (as was asked of St. Paul), “Should we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” St. Paul said “Of course not!” But the logic of the question flowed from his teaching and is more sound than the moral/psychological substitutes that others have put in its place.

But weakness is not sin. Failure is often not sin. Our emptiness is not sinful in the presence of God. True repentance (humility, brokenness, emptiness) is not a result of sin, but the return to our proper state before God.

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

To enter into a true spiritual life we must leave behind cause and effect and abandon ourselves to the Ground where God causelessly causes. And having embraced such weakness, we stand without defense before those who would slander our way of life.

And this is the ground on which the saints stand. We cannot explain their existence. The transcendent goodness of their lives and deeds, the wonders worked at their hands – all appear to have come into existence “out of nothing.” But like the whole universe that surrounds us (which was itself causelessly caused) – they nevertheless exist.

And this is the change of Most High. Glory to His name!

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.





56 responses to “Christianity in a Plain Brown Wrapper”

  1. Brian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Our prayers are with Kathryn. May the Lord be merciful to her and to your entire family.

  2. newenglandsun Avatar

    >>>>>And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.<<<<<
    I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant family that took me to a church that taught that it was impossible for us to be transformed to the image of Christ. It was impossible for us to be perfect as he is perfect. So they pretty much told us not to bother. I never understood why because it seemed like the Bible suggested otherwise. So I left that tradition.

  3. newenglandsun Avatar

    I liked this post because it made me realise that all of my recent problems with depression and cutting are because of my trying too hard. I should embrace my weaknesses.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your comment made my day! And you are spot on. The cycle of moral/psychological, as I noted, goes between a perfectionism and overwhelming shame, and produces a great deal of suffering in our lives. As we hear repeatedly in Orthodox services, “He is a good God and loves mankind!” God is utterly for us – not asking us to measure up but accepting us and taking us where we are – and as we allow ourselves to be empty – even to fail – in His presence – He fills us with Himself and He does the transforming. It’s not something we could do ourselves. May God give you grace!

  5. Allen Long Avatar

    Thank you, again,Fr. Stephen!

  6. Heather Avatar

    I really like this, Father Stephen, and I can relate to that pendulum cycle of perfectionism and shame. As with most spiritual truths, it is paradoxical: do nothing, so that God may do something. That is everything. Maybe that is an inaccurate rephrasing? Anyway, as a hopeless over-analyzer, I must ask, is there a practical first step that can be taken towards this kind of self-emptying humility? I’m still stuck wondering, okay, so what do I DO to do nothing? 🙂

  7. Dino Avatar

    Somewhere in the Philokalia (I think it is Saint Mark the Ascetic that says it) I remember being v. impressed with the perspicuousness of the saying that the greatest & most “savvy” testament to true repentance of sins is acceptance of what comes. Acceptance of all that befalls us (which obviously includes our weakness), justifying God in all.
    The peace and stillness that accompanies this trusting acceptance, (a heart-centred singular and total hope in Him alone, Him Who ‘can do all things’, while we can do nothing good) is the ground upon which all transformation is based.
    It is a mode of “being” (as in Maria sitting by Christ) rather than a mode of “acting” (as in Martha doing stuff), one which is not troubled by the trying distractions that inevitably test us, since this ‘mode’ accepts everything that befalls as if From the Father’s good providence – no matter how non-apparent this is.
    The ultimate example of this transcendence of the “horizontal” (as Fr. Zacharias describes this) to the “vertical”, is Christ Himself. Who being crucified by men, turned all his attention to the Father, calling what comes to Him from men: “the Cup of my Father”, and praying “Father forgive them for they know not” etc…

  8. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    You are always trying to give psychology a bad name! 🙂

    Seriously, I would not dare serve as a psychologist without Christ and do not know how anyone could. I would be a fool to try.

    I must learn from Him to self-empty so that His love and healing may be in my words and actions. (Of course, I am most inadequate at this but, indeed, that is the point.)

    It is unfortunate that too often my profession emphasizes the importance of remaining secular, as though bringing God into treatment were a contaminant. It would not be articulated as such but I’m afraid too many view it that way.

    When spirituality and psychology make efforts to come together, too often the what I see is either (1) a “born again” variety of Christian counseling that looks for answers in the Bible or (2) a sort of new age spirituality integrated into psychological practice that often has no real roots in God.

    To varying degrees, I find that many of my patients hunger for a spiritual truth and often have spiritual dilemmas that cannot be separated from their psychological problems.

    I am blessed to be their servant in Christ. Please pray for me. (I realize that my thoughts are a bit tangential to the overall direction of the article but I thank you for stirring this reflection in me nonetheless.)

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I suppose I run the risk of being misunderstood on psychology. I’m actually quite supportive – and find therapists to be essential tools in our lives. When I need one I use one, without embarrassment or apology. The change that can be wrought through psychology can save your life (at its best) and it can certainly change your life for the better. But, it the light of the transformation of which I am speaking in the article, it is simply helpless. No therapist would think they could raise the dead. And what I am describing belongs to that category of existence.

    The Elder Sophrony stated that most Christians will never get beyond the psychological – and if that is so – then it is so. It is not the loss of salvation. When I write in this vein it is to alert and educate that there is in fact something beyond the psychological/moral, for most people don’t know that. It is also to critique a form of Christianity that makes of the moral/psychological something that it is not, selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.

    Keep doing what you do. Be good at it!

  10. claire Avatar

    I so appreciate this article. Still, I worry about newenglandsun’s posting. Newenglandsun, are you still there? I think the seriousness of that poster’s struggle with cutting and depression necessitates both psychiatric and spiritual help together–those are medical issues having to do (among other things) with brain chemistry, and require medical intervention as well as spiritual insight.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, you are so correct in your assessment but one of the challenges faced by your profession is the desire by some to scrub Christianity in particular but faith in general from the practice of psychology. It is part of the ‘modern’ approach to things, IMO which is really sad.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, would you say that the path beyond the psychological is through deep concerted prayer?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your concern is on target. Cutting is symptomatic of things that need attention – from a therapist and not just a priest. Please seek help.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ll be writing another article on the psychology/spiritual question (it’s large in the work of Elder Sophrony). But it’s not at all an either/or situation. I strongly support psychology – and use it when I need it and quickly refer people for help. I almost never refer someone to a “Christian therapist” since in this part of the world that usually means an Evangelical whose doctrine of human beings deeply compromises their integrity and effectiveness as therapists (in my experience). I’d rather have an honest, empathetic atheist.

    I don’t ask my doctor what his religion is – I tend to ask where he got his degree, etc.

    Psychology necessarily crosses some religious boundaries. Most good psychologists, regardless of their religious views, respect those of their patients, unless their religious views are genuinely pathological – which is often true.

    A healthy soul – or a less neurotic psyche – stands a better chance in life than a deeply troubled personality. But I have no problem with psychotropic medications and the like, if they are required (I found a very good word concerning this recently from an elder on Mt. Athos).

    I would not want to create a dichotomy. I simply said, “It’s not enough.”

    The way forward, is indeed through prayer and repentance. Only prayer and repentance ever gain anything in the Kingdom of God.

  15. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen says:

    “The Elder Sophrony stated that most Christians will never get beyond the psychological – and if that is so – then it is so. It is not the loss of salvation.”

    Father, I admit I have not taken the time to read Elder Sophrony (though I am familiar with other contemporary elders). Does he put forward a sort of Orthodox “Stages of Faith” idea (similar to Fowler or perhaps not as systematized)?

    What you speak of here in this article “two ways of prayer” struck me last night when I learned that my town (well, small city now) is opening it’s first abortion mill today. I tried to start my way through my prayers, but I realized I was not present and kept coming back to this calamity – but how, how to pray, what can I say, what about the murder in my own heart, etc. My hand never left the first knot, and yet…

  16. Dino Avatar

    For any Greek speakers, Elder Sophrony’s concept of repentance on the psychological plane and repentance on the ontological dimension is analysed most clearly by Archimandrite Zacharias in his “Anaphora stē theologia tou Gerontos Sōphroniou” (Αναφορά στη θεολογία του Γέροντος Σωφρονίου), which does not as yet exist in English but contains the best explanation of the subject I have come across. If I get some time I’ll dig it out and translate a little quote.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    The best of all would be to weep before God. To weep for ourselves. Then to weep for those we love. Then to weep for those we hate. When we can finally weep for all, we will be like Christ.

    I don’t think the Elder had a notion of stages of faith. But the psychological is simply where we start in our own time. We are profoundly stuck in a somewhat false model of reality. Others in other places have not been so afflicted.

    We stood in Church yesterday morning with adult candidates being received. “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” I asked. “I do unite myself to Christ.” That is profoundly more than psychological, though an individual may only be able at first to say it in a psychological manner. But the sacrament is greater than we are. And whatever measure of emptiness, openness we offer to God, He begins to fill. The fullness itself is given to us in the sacrament. God only comes in fullness – there is no measuring of Him.

    But we avail ourselves of that fullness to varying degrees and in varying manners. The truth is, we can do amazing things just on the psychological level – not to take anything away from it. But the created can never compare with the uncreated. What is given to us in Baptism and the Eucharist, for example, is Uncreated. We receive the uncreated Life of God. And it is that to which we unite ourselves.

    In a healthy, well-directed monastic setting, the monastics are directed constantly towards the emptying of self towards God. Elder Sophrony said that on the Holy Mountain, if a monk was grumpy in the morning, it was said that he had not wept enough the night before.

    But we rarely weep in the spiritual manner – our hearts are very hardened and it is very difficult. Fr. Zacharias said to me, “You cannot weep and think of something else at the same time.” Spiritual tears give birth to purity of heart. And God can begin to fill such a heart.

    I will be writing about the Elder Thaddeus soon in an article that further offers thoughts on the movement from psychology to the spiritual.

  18. Dino Avatar

    (For Greek speakers), Elder Sophrony’s notion of ‘repentance on the psychological plane’ and ‘repentance on the ontological’ dimension is given the clearest exposition by Archimandrite Zacharias in his “Anaphora sit theologia tou Gerontos Sophroniou” (Αναφορά στη θεολογία του Γέροντος Σωφρονίου), which, as far as I know, does not as yet exist in the English language, but does contain the best explanation of the subject I have come across. If I get a chance I’ll dig it out to translate a little quote.

  19. Dino Avatar

    I recall Archimandrite Zacharias mentioning the movement from the “horizontal” to the “vertical” a few times, as one of the keys to spiritual/ontological rebirth, the movement from the psychological to the ontological, reminding us however that it is only once the encounter with God has reached a certain ‘fullness’ that this ‘transcendence’ genuinely comes to pass – through God’s Grace, attracted through our earlier ascetic humility and faith.
    As mentioned above, Christ is the ultimate example of this ontological ‘reorientation’ of the psychological, Who would (paradoxically) call the passion brought to Him by men: “My Father’s Cup”…

  20. FJE Avatar

    Dino. the book exists in English under a different title ‘Christ, our way and our life’

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I was not decrying psychology per say, merely the tendency to be increasingly secular and adamantly so. Of course, as you say the dogmatic religionists are just as bad. Neither recognize the greater dimensions of the human soul/psyche.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is now in English. Indeed Fr. Zacharias gave me a copy when I was with him in England. It is also available now on Kindle! St. Tikhon’s published the English translation. It was translated by the same nun who translated Fr. Sophrony.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    The work of the Elder Sophrony, as well as the subsequent labors of Fr. Zacharias and others, may be the most complete exposition to many spiritual topics that exists today – at least from a contemporary source. It has the added advantage of being embodied in the living witness of a monastic community – male and female. Of course, this is embodied in many places across the Church – but we do not have anything like such a complete exposition of its inner reality and its path.

  24. Sophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    You wrote to Mary Benton above: “The change that can be wrought through psychology can save your life (at its best) and it can certainly change your life for the better. But, it the light of the transformation of which I am speaking in the article, it is simply helpless. No therapist would think they could raise the dead. And what I am describing belongs to that category of existence.”

    I’m a student of depth psychology and Orthodox theology. What you wrote there brought out big unexpected tears of joy. Thank you!

  25. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini


    Your comment “What you speak of here in this article “two ways of prayer” struck me last night when I learned that my town (well, small city now) is opening it’s first abortion mill today. I tried to start my way through my prayers, but I realized I was not present and kept coming back to this calamity – but how, how to pray, what can I say, what about the murder in my own heart, etc. My hand never left the first knot, and yet…”

    reminded me of what I recently read in the newsletter from St. Barbara’s Monastery. I’ll just link to the whole thing and you can read the opening letter from Mother Victoria. She notes that the way forward is “to make our worries the very subject of our prayers.”

    Maybe you were already clear on this point, but it was helpful for me. When I discovered the Church, I stopped saying prayers in my own words almost entirely, preferring the discipline and sobriety of a rule. Now I find myself adding my “own” prayers in again, but in a less self-absorbed way. At least I hope so.

  26. Anastasios Avatar

    Hmm, reminds me of Mark Driscoll who once gave a sermon, criticizing his Catholic upbringing and its focus on saints. The sermon was called “I am a saint”….not I WILL be a saint, but I AM one, right now.

    Driscoll claimed that because he had been justified by Christ, he was therefore already a saint. The fact that the word saint refers to sanctification, NOT merely forensic justification was apparently lost on him. Maybe his belief that sanctification is unimportant is why he is such a pottymouth from the pulpit?

    It also reminds me of a quote, popular among evangelicals and Lutherans alike which was attributed to Martin Luther. It claimed that man is like a snow-covered dunghill, in that Christ’s righteousness covers him up so that he only _looks_ pure in God’s sight, yet is still a pile of dung. In other words, Jesus fools the Father into thinking we’re holy. That’s certainly something Luther could have said (he, like Mark Driscoll, was a pottymouth and actually did call himself a piece of s–t during his table talk of 1542-43.)

    The problem with that view of justification (which essentially denies that sanctification occurs at all) is that it means we are no different than the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned for being like whitewashed graves (Mt 23:27). If those Pharisees whom Jesus cursed were no different from us, we are in DEEP trouble. And, since when does God deceive God (for that is what the snow-covered dunghill analogy implies)?

  27. Randy Avatar

    I am stumbling over the terminology “leaving the world of cause and effect.” Either things have a cause, or they just happen for no reason — which is not what you are saying. Isn’t cause and effect simply a matter of logic?

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. Cause and effect describes a material process within the created order. When we speak of God, we are describing the Uncreated. Though the Fathers will speak of God as “Cause” – He is not a cause like the material causes of the created world. Thus we can say He “causelessly causes” – which is logically absurd, but not theologically. It’s just like saying God is unknowable, though we know Him.

    I am pushing the envelope. When we say that cause and effect is “a matter of logic” we subject God Himself to the same chain of logic as the created order, whether intended or not. My experience is that people think of God/prayer/God’s will, etc. in very cause and effect terms as though they were forces of the created order. I’m writing in a manner to make you rethink that.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Driscoll is a “discount saint.” It’s just bad theology and not faithful to the New Testament.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Randy, cause and effect proceeds in a pretty linear manner. Whereas in Christianity Christ is the lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world; he is the Alpha and Omega. Fully God and Fully man. Incarnate. His Resurrection is….well, His Resurrection.

    There is simply no way to wrap any of this up in a nice brown paper bundle in a neat logical, linear (cause and effect with the cause coming before the effect and in the past). The Law is cause and effect. The Spirit is not.

  31. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    The TV preachers seem to be all about energizing the psychological with a cheap Christian paint job. After reading this and your description of Paul I see that emptying myself is the only way. I hope you write more about that specifically, or point to where you may have already written abut it. I think I’ve known this inwardly for some time. But it is so easy to stay on the psychological treadmill.

  32. John Avatar

    For when I am weak then am I strong. What do you think from glory to glory means? Reminds me of from faith to faith in Romans 1.17.

  33. Jenny Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have been reading your blog for years, and wanted to thank you for your writing in general and especially what you said in the comment above about weeping. There have been times when grief and weeping have seemed to block out God, but other times when God has seemed to be, oddly enough, brightly present within the grief. It does not make sense. Sadness is supposed to be black. But apparently it isn’t always.

  34. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you for clarifying what you meant by the cause and effect remarks, Fr. Stephen. I didn’t realize that I was wondering about them until you clarified.

    I often talk to people who have had poor spiritual training (or none at all) and they often fall victim to expecting God to work by the rules of His material creation. For example, “I prayed and asked God for XYZ and didn’t get it”. This then becomes cause to doubt God’s existence or love, as though God were obligated to give on our terms because we asked.

    If closely examined, it is apparent that this view suggests that we can control God by subjecting Him to the rules (which is ridiculous). However, it not so hard for any of us to slip into variations on this manner of thinking, though perhaps in less obvious ways.

    Our human minds quite naturally approach things in the manner of our human nature. But I was greatly consoled a couple of weeks ago when 1 Cor 2:12-13,16 reminded me:

    We have not received the spirit of the world
    but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand the things freely given us by God. And we speak about them not with words taught by human wisdom, but with words taught by the Spirit, describing spiritual realities in spiritual terms…

    For “who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

    If we only fully understood what we have been given and what it means to have “the mind of Christ”!

    To Him be glory.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very, very few Christians have the rudiments of theology – no fault or blame there. But the most basic things of how God is not material, nor do such things and thoughts apply to him are not part of people’s ideas. Admittedly, the “apophatic” approach of the Fathers often causes very difficult thoughts for people – because it states things in a way that does not fit in the material world. “Causelessly causes” is among my favorite phrases to talk about God’s actions. “Transcendently particular” is another. Such expressions are necessary to speak correctly.

    Being able to apprehend such expressions is itself an exercise in “theoria” and can be very helpful spiritually. But it takes time.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Mary’s observation of people’s expectations is accurate. But what is one to make of John 14:13: And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

    This is one of the most problematic passages of Scripture for me. We are encouraged to ask without limitation on that for which we ask, yet we all know that such prayers don’t seem to be answered very often. The expectation that He would answer caused great and deep pain for my lovely wife when her previous husband was dying. When he did die, she felt as if God had abandoned her. It took a lot for her to get past the worst of it with the help of a loving community at the Wichita United Methodist Indian Mission and being brought into the Church once she met me.

    I have heard many, many ways around the plain brown wrapper explanation of this and similar verses, none of them satisfy. It is perplexing

    Would you please comment?

  37. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    Fr. Stephen,

    I just downloaded “Christ Our Way and Our Life” from Amazon and am excited to begin reading it. Would you also recommend the writings of Christopher Veniamin, who I notice is the editor of Archimandrite Zachariah’s works??

  38. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas


    I am also profoundly blessed by your response that contained the following statement.

    “We stood in Church yesterday morning with adult candidates being received. ‘Do you unite yourself to Christ?’ I asked. ‘I do unite myself to Christ.’ That is profoundly more than psychological, though an individual may only be able at first to say it in a psychological manner. But the sacrament is greater than we are. And whatever measure of emptiness, openness we offer to God, He begins to fill. The fullness itself is given to us in the sacrament. God only comes in fullness – there is no measuring of Him.”

    I loved the whole response …

    I/we start where we start and are loved by God there are invited/exhorted/comforted forward/inward/outward/upward on a journey from one stage of glory to yet another. Kind of a mysterious “already but not yet.”

  39. Dino Avatar

    Just some of my thoughts on this…(John 14:13): “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
    This in my mind is intently linked to the Jesus Prayer. And the Jesus prayer is quintessentially the prayer that utters “Thy Will be done”, by imploring “have mercy” (without advising God how to do this).
    It is ultimately the prayer that transforms us into Sons and daughters of the Father in the name of the Son, and to the glory of the Father. The finalised transformation comes through death.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, personally while I acknowledge the truth of what you are saying, it is not the whole. We cannot nor should we ‘spiritualize’ everything. He is fully human after all. He knows the weariness, the hunger all of that.

    The passage does not say anything about spiritual transformation or even ‘believing’. At least not to me.

    See, I still remember the first prayer I uttered when I really began to try and follow Jesus. I was on my way to the opening of a show I was performing in. I had a headache that was really bothering me. In my naïve trust, I said, “Jesus please remove my headache.” It went away instantly.

    My wife when she was raising 5 kids with no money to speak of frequently asked for money to come and it did–just enough. In fact that is one of the ways her late husband began to come to belief. She would pray for specific material things and they would come into their life. I have known the blessing and reality of the material providence of God.

    But…those prayers don’t always seem to get answered.

    My wife prayed diligently and faithfully for the recovery to life of her late husband as he lay dying. She even took water and did a lay baptism of him. (Interestingly enough after baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit she asked that the Spirit be sealed within him–no prior exposure to Orthodoxy).

    He awakened to consciousness right after that for a brief moment but it did not hold. I believe and she does too, now, that her act of love and faith allowed him to enter into a fuller life than if he had recovered physically. Still her faith was severely tested when he did not recover.

    All those kinds of things happen. No doubt. Spiritual transformation happens at an ontological level through prayer and that is a critically important focus of prayer, but not the only one and, in our culture, not one that is recognized very widely.

    I am not trying to be contentious. It just seems as if there ought to be a better answer or at least a more compassionate answer than “mystery”.

  41. […] sad but true. There is a huge need for education, educators, and educational resources. Christianity in a Plain Brown Wrapper –  from Glory 2 God, a reflection on what it means to be sanctified from an Orthodox point of view, […]

  42. Dino Avatar

    There are more than a few (of the Fathers who have concerned themselves with the Jesus Prayer) that come back to this notion about John 14:13

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I have no doubt that here is a connection but there is a more concrete, if that is the right word, type of prayer too that does bear fruit, or seem to….but not always.

    The common approaches to this question that I have experienced are one’s similar to yours or the equally common one “its a mystery”.

    That does not go very far when a broken hearted widow has prayed fervently and in great faith for the recovery of her loved husband and he did not recover or the son who has lost his mother despite faith and many prayers when the verse says “whatsoever you ask…”

    There is a mystery to it, sometimes the answer is unseen yet quite real..but there ought to be a more compassionate way of saying it.

  44. Dino Avatar

    The key here is the transcendence of all suffering.
    I think that making the connection with John 15:9 (to stay “in Him”), clarifies John 14:13 (“whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do”) somewhat (as well as the similar 16:24). The most ‘compassionate’ backing to this slightly ‘mysterious’ notion (of “not my will but Thine” Luke 22:42), is gleaned through the example of the Mother of God, under the Cross: Her praying did not immediately bring the fruit people might otherwise assume she was asking for, but, “staying in Him” was (and always is) the key to the transcendence, the ‘crucificial’ transcendence, of Her suffering, as well as of all suffering.
    The elder Aimilanos –along the lines of Saint Macarius and Saint Isaac the Syrian often repeated that once we have come to know God’s love for us, our trust will reach such a measure that we will never dare ask for anything in particular again, not even if we are assaulted with the gravest misfortunes of mankind! Great grace is, admittedly, required for that. May God grant such grace to all suffering souls.

  45. Dino Avatar

    Another aspect of being “in Him”, of remaining “in His name”, asking what the Spirit Himself utters through us is connected to the constant repetitions of this notion of His ‘Name’ in the old Testament. As if it is the key to solving all problems.
    I really do love these repetitions too -and they are endless…

    sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High
    all they that love Thy name shall glory in Thee

    our Lord, how wonderful is Thy name

    And let them that know Thy name put their hope in Thee

    Deliver us not up for ever, for Thy holy name’s sake

    let all flesh bless His holy name for ever

    I have remembered Thy name, in the night, O Lord, and have kept Thy law

    O give thanks unto the Lord, and call upon His name

    I’d better stop there…

  46. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as Dino but I addressed a similar question with a patient of mine recently.(Regarding delighting in the Lord and “He will grant your heart’s desire”.)

    I would not say the following to someone recently widowed, for grief must be moved through – and sometimes that includes anguish and anger toward God, that must be felt without attempts at explanation.

    Our human reality is that we do not really know how to ask in the Name of Jesus, fully and without reservation. And regarding my patient’s concern, we do not always desire what is right and good.

    At times when we are suffering, it might seem like I am playing with words to let God off the hook for not keeping His promises. But in reality, what does it mean to ask in the Name? To use an absurd example, if I asked to successfully rob a bank, and added at the end “in the name of Jesus”, would I then have a right to demand the help requested?

    Of course not. One cannot ask to rob a bank in the Name of Jesus. Certainly this does not compare in the least with asking for the survival of a good person. Yet the principle is similar to what I wrote of above – because of a passage of Scripture, I am trying to subject God to the rules. “You promised…”

    To ask in the Name must mean to ask in utter humility – for Jesus overcame the sin of our pride with His complete self-emptying humility. To know true humility (which I don’t) requires such a complete trust in God’s goodness that I am willing to sacrifice my own desire and suffer – as Christ did – for the Love that is beyond my understanding.

    However, even if we don’t ask in utter humility or we don’t desire rightly, I don’t think that this means that God doesn’t answer our prayers. It is not as though He is the divine perfectionist only responding to those who get their prayers just right.

    He loves bountifully – and often gives us MORE than we asked for. However, we may not recognize until later that that was the case.

  47. Brian Avatar


    I am anxious to hear Fr. Stephen’s reply. Without discounting anything that has been written in reply thus far, I suspect that it is important to place the promise of Christ our Lord, “Whatever you ask in my name…” within the context being an ambassador who seeks and asks not his own will, but that of the one who sent him.

    “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”

    This sort of brings us back to the previous threads on the will of God. We know it is the will of God that we love as He loves and that all turn to Him and know His eternal life. This He has clearly revealed to us. We can, therefore, be confident that prayer to this end is truly “in His Name” and will be honored. I am not at all certain that we have been given any assurance of exactly how He will honor such prayer in terms of this temporal life.

    The prayer for Peter when he was in jail for preaching the Gospel was “answered” in accordance with the will of God who sent His angel to release Him. Likewise his final prayer before being crucified upside down.

    If all this is true, the lack of understanding of what “in His Name” means has sadly been a great stumbling block for many.

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    Brian, et al
    John’s gospel is easily the most “mystical” of the gospels, with places that obviously draw us towards something deeper. I have recently come to see that St. John’s gospel should probably even be classed as an “apocalyptic” writing. That said, I’ll offer some thoughts.

    First, it is a mistake in understanding this to treat it in a merely historical manner, as in, “Christ said it, why doesn’t it happen?” Christ said many things, such that all the books of the world could not contain them, as St. John’s gospel says. These things, however, are written so that we might believe and have eternal life…that is…we have a very carefully chosen and edited presentation in St. John’s gospel.

    Now, at the time of its writing, plenty of people, just like today, already knew the reality that just saying “In Jesus name” did not and does not work like magic. Nor does simply doing so with great intensity and firm hope, and sincerity, etc. Thus, we have to approach the saying indeed as an obvious mystery (not in a plain brown wrapper). It is a mystery because it’s “plain sense” is obviously not true and the writer knows it, but included it “that we might believe.”

    Thus, Dino’s suggestion is much closer to the nature of the case.

    Personally, I think that to be “in the Name” to speak “in the Name” is an ontological reality (rather than simply a verbal reality). If we were truly in the Name – we would be truly properly united with Him. I indeed believe that such prayer is utterly “effective” inasmuch as it is ontologically the very voice of God Himself. As St. Paul says, “The Spirit in us cries, Abba, Father.” The Spirit speaks with the voice of the Son saying “Abba” It is the very life of the Trinity speaking within us – “In the Name” For “Abba” is the voice of the Son calling on the Father, and the Father always hears the Son.

    Thus, the point of the verse is not to teach us a method of prayer, but reveals the nature of the relationship of the Son and the Father. It is a Trinitarian verse.

  49. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Personally, I think that to be “in the Name” to speak “in the Name” is an ontological reality (rather than simply a verbal reality). If we were truly in the Name – we would be truly properly united with Him. I indeed believe that such prayer is utterly “effective” inasmuch as it is ontologically the very voice of God Himself. As St. Paul says, “The Spirit in us cries, Abba, Father.” The Spirit speaks with the voice of the Son saying “Abba” It is the very life of the Trinity speaking within us – “In the Name” For “Abba” is the voice of the Son calling on the Father, and the Father always hears the Son.

    Wow. You said that extraordinarily well, Fr. Stephen. You remind me why I need to read more and comment less. Thank you.

  50. John Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this post. I’ve read many of your posts, and never really understood what you mean when you say that living the Christian life has nothing to do with “morality” (and you’ve said this quite often). I always think, “But… Orthodoxy emphasizes that what we DO matters so much… how can the morality of our actions not matter??”

    This post has let me catch just a glimpse of what you mean, I think, and I am thankful for it.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Dino and all: Thank you for your comments and your insights most helpful.

    John, I was contemplating this discussion last night in light of some recent happenings in my life and it dawned upon me that there is a difference between morality and virtue.

    Morality is most often both cultural and an effort of human will. Virtue on the other hand partakes of the image and is ontological. Virtue will be constant without regard to the circumstances whereas morality is much more subject to whim and stress and pragmatic need. It can even be reduced to a simple “if it feels good and doesn’t harm anyone it.” That is a statement of morality.

    An example: I can long passionately to remain a virgin as a moral stance from my own will because it is the ‘right’ thing to do, but unless I work on acquiring the virtue of chastity, the temptations will, sooner or later, overwhelm my will. The same is true for anything we do.

    Put another way: Morality is what we do in this world largely out of self-interest. Virtue is who we are and who we are called to be in the kingdom demonstrating the image and likeness.

    That is why there are many atheists who are highly “moral”, but only saints approach true virtue.

    That is part of the answer I was seeking in my question concerning “whatsoever you ask, in my name.”

    Again we have to move away from linear cause and effect and into the realm of communion.

    Even with a life spent in a philosophy that was not linear, it is easy to lapse into linearity when it is almost all that is around you. How can we be linear when the Holy Spirit is everywhere present, filling all things?

    Is this about right Father?

  52. Christopher Avatar


    Thanks for the thoughts and link! They were helpful.


    I like your direction on a distinction between morality and virtue, though I suspect it comes down to definitions as virtue to can be defined in a way that would be to antithetical to Fr. Stephen’s thesis. I have been thinking of this in a slightly different way: the difference between mere morality and God’s commandments. A morality on self will will ultimately come down to as you say “if it feels good and doesn’t harm anyone it.” which is of course the prevailing morality of our culture and this age. By living God’s commandments, we are not living a mere “moral life” but are on the path to seeing the ontological life of the Spirit. The law itself does not save, so we are not to make it the end of our efforts, yet it is a part of turning to God. Alas, perhaps Fr. will say I am simply trying to rescue “morality” as such…;)

  53. […] Read the rest here – […]

  54. Lydia Avatar

    Good morning Fr Stephen. A friend shared this link with me in a group thread. I finally got the chance just now to read it. I’be been having a struggle for awhile now and am asking for your help because again, in your article, I am confronted with this.

    You said: ‘”Though the word sanctification occurs in the New Testament, it is nowhere treated as subsequent to salvation itself. Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.’”

    I was Protestant for my whole life bouncing around from varying denominations until God brought me to Orthodoxy. It will be 2 years this June that I was baptised & chrismated. I’m still in touch with my old friends who are still Protestant. I admit, the relationships are becoming more neglected because of differing opinions on God, worship, religion in general. I know Orthodoxy is home and my desire, for the longest time was to run out & share it with everybody I know. Still, I respect the path my Protestant sisters & brothers are on.

    When I was a Protestant & my friends who are still Protestant, ARE very much practicing Christianity *to the best ability in which they UNDERSTAND it by God’s Word to be*. Like I said earlier, God brought me to Orthodoxy. But, if we really trust God, isn’t it safe to say He also brought me to the Reformed church? The Baptist church? The Church of the Nazarene? The Assembly of God Church? The Methodist Church? I was growing as a Christian in these churches but always a little frustrated because there was always something missing….something off. Thus the reason I never stayed committed to any one denomination. They were all missing something, but they all had something very right too. In Orthodoxy, all the missing pieces are there, I am committed to this Church and I will not leave it – God willing.

    BUT. Back to all the other churches for a moment. They all did have one common factor. The people within their walls had a hunger & love for God as well as a desire to “walk in Christ” and the practical aspect of what that looks like. If I’m being really honest with you, my conversion to Orthodoxy is the laziest walk with God I’ve ever had. I have discussed & confeseed this with my Spiritual Father but I continue to have a much more dialed down passion for God which has translated to a sloppy prayer life and a lack of spending time in my bible. Can’t put my finger on it other than I was desperately seeking for years and now that I am home, I just want to rest. I don’t want to struggle anymore.

    So my problem (besides my lazy Christian walk) that keeps popping up and irritating me, is the Orthodox Christian judging other non – Orthodox Christians. This brings me back to the part of your blog that I quoted. Many Protestants may separate out the words & their meanings improperly. They may have it wrong on the doctrine paperwork within the denomination in which they are a part of. But their life….their “fruit”, they absolutely DO understand this transformative life to be the goal while here on earth. Some of them could put a lot of Orthodox Christians I see to shame as far as a transformed life. I admire the fire in my Protestant friends & recognize I once had that same passion to know God in my life. To walk this world as Jesus walked this world.

    I’m tired of hearing Orthodox Christians talk in such a manner that puts other Christians outside of Orthodoxy in a light that is “less than”. Really tired of it. Aren’t these criticisms really a criticism against the Holt Spirit? For truly, isn’t God in control of everything? Even *allowing* the Protestant to worship Him in whatever denomination they happen to be in for that time? Is it possible as Orthodox Christians to quit bragging how “we’re the one true church” and stop judging other Christians, using the perceived wrongness of their faith as a lesson for us? Quite honestly, Orthodox churches could take a lesson from some Protestant Churches on a few things.

    Thank you for your time.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My beloved, late Archbishop Dmitri, himself the first convert to become a bishop in the Western Hemisphere, always said, “Do not speak evil of the Church you came from. You probably found Christ there.” Thus I agree that we must see God’s hand at work in all things, even those things that can be seen as less than ideal.

    I write with a purpose of teaching. Much of that teaching is necessarily in the form of compare and contrast. Orthodoxy is profoundly different in many respects from the Christianity that many have known, or to which they are daily exposed. So I write. You might this article of mine of help.

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