Why Sin Is Not A Moral Problem

hilandar

Many readers have never before heard that there is no such thing as moral progress – so I am not surprised that I have been asked to write in more depth on the topic. I will start by focusing on the question of sin itself. If we rightly understand the nature of sin and its true character, the notion of moral progress will be seen more clearly. I will begin by clarifying the difference between the notion of morality and the theological understanding of sin. They are two very different worlds.

Morality (as I use the word) is a broad term that generally describes the adherence (or lack of adherence) to a set of standards or norms for behavior. In that understanding, everybody practices some form of morality. An atheist may not believe in God, but will still have an internalized sense of right or wrong as well as a set of expectations for himself and others. There has never been a universally agreed set of moral standards. Different people, different cultures have a variety of moral understandings and ways of discussing what it means to be “moral.”

I have observed and written that most people will not progress morally. This is to say that we do not generally get better at observing whatever standards and practices we consider to be morally correct. On the whole, we are about as morally correct as we ever will be.

This differs fundamentally with what is called “sin” in theological terms. The failure to adhere to certain moral standards may have certain aspects of “sin” beneath it, but moral failings are not the same thing as sin. In the same manner, moral correctness is not at all the same thing as “righteousness.” A person could have been morally correct throughout the whole of their lifetime (theoretically) and still be mired in sin. Understanding sin will make this clear.

“Sin” is a word that is used frequently in a wrong manner. Popularly it is used either to denote moral infractions (breaking the rules), or, religiously, breaking God’s rules. Thus when someone asks, “Is it a sin to do x,y, z?” what they mean is, “Is it against God’s rules to do x,y, z?” But this is incorrect. Properly, sin is something quite distinct from the breaking of rules – St. Paul speaks of it in quite a different manner:

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Rom 7:18-20)

“Sin that dwells in me?” Obviously “breaking the rules” is not a meaning that fits this use in any possible way. Sin has a completely different meaning. We can take its meaning again from St. Paul:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:20-23)

Here sin is something to which we can be in bondage, and whose end is death. So what is sin?

Sin is a word that describes a state of being – or, more properly, a state or process of non-being. It is a movement away from our proper existence – God’s gift to His creation. God alone has True Being – He alone is self-existing. Everything else that exists is contingent – it is utterly dependent at every moment upon God for is existence. When God created us, according to the Fathers, He gave us existence. As we grow in communion with Him we move towards well-being. His final gift for us, and that union towards which we properly move, is eternal being.

But there is an opposite to this life of grace. This is a movement towards non-existence, a movement away from God and a rejection of well-being. It is this movement that is called “sin.” We can be in bondage to it, like a leaf trapped in an eddy of water. Sin is not anything itself (for non-being has no existence). But it is described in Scripture by words such as “death” and “corruption.” Corruption or “rot” (φθορά) is an excellent word for describing sin. For it is the gradual dissolution (a dynamic movement or process) of a formerly living thing – its gradual decay into dust.

This differs strikingly from the idea of sin as the breaking of moral rules. The breaking of a rule implies only an outward error, a merely legal or forensic infraction. Nothing of substance is changed. But the Scriptures treat sin far more profoundly – it is itself a change in substance, a decay of our very being.

And here is where some creative re-thinking becomes necessary. The habits of our culture are to think of sin in moral terms. It is simple, takes very little effort, and agrees with what everyone around you thinks. But it is theologically incorrect. That is not to say that you can’t find such moralistic treatments within the writings of the Church – particularly from writings over the past several centuries. But the capture of the Church’s theology by moralism is a true captivity and not an expression of the Orthodox mind.

So how do we think of right and wrong, of spiritual growth, of salvation itself if sin is not a moral problem? We do not ignore our false choices and disordered passions (habits of behavior). But we see them as symptoms, as manifestations of a deeper process at work. The smell of a corpse is not the real problem and treating the smell is not at all the same thing as resurrection.

The work of Christ is the work of resurrection. Our life in Christ is not a matter of moral improvement – it is life from the dead. We are buried into His death – and it is a real death – complete with all that death means. But His death was not unto corruption. He destroyed corruption. Our Baptism into Christ’s death is a Baptism into incorruption, the healing of the fundamental break in our communion with God.

So what does that healing look like? Is it wrong to expect some kind of progress to be taking place?

My life experience (34 years as a priest) and reading of the Fathers and the Tradition suggest that such expectations are indeed misplaced. I puzzled over this for many years. I have come to think of our salvation as similar to the reality of the sacraments. What do you see in the Eucharist? Does the Bread and the Wine go through a progressive change? Do we see a transformation before our very eyes?

What seems to be true is that our salvation is largely hidden – sometimes even from ourselves. The Christian faith is “apocalyptic” in its very nature – it is a “revealing of that which is hidden.” The parables of filled with images of surprise: a treasure discovered, etc. Salvation has a way of just appearing. I often think of the liturgical drama in an Orthodox liturgy as imaging this very thing – thus the doors and the curtain and the “now you see it – now you don’t – now you really see it” flow of the service.

Finding our salvation means turning away from the appearance of things. It requires a deep and fundamental inward re-orientation of our lives. It requires the inward work of repentance. The moral life is lived on the surface – even atheists behave in a moral manner. When we turn towards Christ-in-us, we move beneath the surface. We begin to see how ephemeral and confused our actions are.

These actions are mostly the work of a false self, an ego that is broken and shamed and struggles frantically “to be better.” But the heart of the Christian spiritual life is not through this path of an improved ego, but through the path of “death to self,” in which we lose an existence that is not our true self, and learn an existence that is ours in Christ. But what we see is often something else. For while we are finding the truth, the other still clings to its false existence – and this is primarily what we see and what others see. The hidden work of salvation remains unseen.

It is not at all unusual in the lives of the saints for the sanctity of an individual to remain hidden until their death. This was the case for St. Nectarios of Aegina. He was dismissed by many, though seen truly by a few. But at his death, miracles began to flow from him, and suddenly the stories began to surface.

And mysteriously, it seems this hidden life is often just as hidden from the saint themselves (just as our own true life is hidden from us). I think God preserves us from the burden of this knowledge for the sake of our salvation.

Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory. (Col 3:2-4)

This is, again, the apocalyptic character of the Christian life. We are dead and our true lives are hid with Christ in God – and they will appear when He appears.

So what do we see in this life? The simple answer is clear: Christ. It is not our own improvement we search for, but Christ. Our own improvement slowly ceases to matter as we find Christ. And the more we find Him, the more clearly the false nature of the ego seems clear to us, and we can say, “I am the worst of all sinners.”

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.



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134 responses to “Why Sin Is Not A Moral Problem”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What I am beginning to realize is that each time I fail and acknowledge that failure, I am drawn closer to Jesus.

    When I try to control things through anger or depression or any other way–I am further from Him.

    “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.”. Psalm 118.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Some days the words of the Psalm is all that gets me out the door. Sometimes I have to read the whole Psalm.

    I pray to Mary daily to protect me from falling into anger, depression and despondency.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Everyone,
    If moral effort produced spiritual progress, there would have been no need for Christ…Moses and the Law would have been sufficient. Some will add, “But Christ gives us the Holy Spirit…” without really thinking about it. God gave His Spirit to the people of Israel. The prophets spoke by the Spirit, etc. But something is quite different in Christ. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” But people seem confused when I say that the old creation makes no progress and that the nature of the new creation cannot be described by progress.

    The truth is, we really still want a moral-effort religion. A cultus that will bless our efforts and tell us that we’re doing better and that we’re not too bad, about as good as others, and that if we stick with it we’ll be better still, etc. This is not the Christian faith. This is not the Orthodox Church. Show me a Christian Church that doesn’t think like this and do about as good a job as the next one. Do not think that being Orthodox will make you a better person than a Baptist, or even a Mormon (the Mormon will win).

    So what is our Orthodoxy?

    If it is not about an ontological answer to an ontological problem, then we should look elsewhere. Everything that is the Orthodox Church is only rightly understood in an ontological manner. Our ecclesiology, our sacraments. Everything is about union with God – and that union is ontological (on the level of our being) and not moral (on the level of mere behavior).

    And if all this is true…then what I have written here is true and worth pondering until the coin drops.

    But I’ll keep writing it, this way and that, again and again. I’m not tired.

    Oh, and I just ran across this. Thoughts from a wonderful Romanian monastic:

    Have you ever looked at your prayer book with the distinct feeling of ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you?’ Have you felt totally useless spiritually,  unable to move forward for one tiny step? Do you, in fact, feel that you are going backwards, rather than advancing in any way; that your prayer life is worse today than yesterday, and definitely worse than a year ago? Well, in that case, rejoice, for this is the sure sign that your prayer is working.

    This is the authentic voice of the Orthodox faith.

  4. Casey Avatar
    Casey

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This and your other recent posts have been very helpful clarifications for me in my spiritual life (and journey toward Orthodoxy). I’m very grateful for you and this blog. God’s blessings to you.

  5. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    Father,

    Regarding the quote from the monastic I was wondering if it is possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way? It seems like you are saying, “if it seems like Christ has done nothing for you to change who you are, then rest assured He is transforming you!” I personally feel that I would be a different person than I am today if I had never sought Christ to heal me. But I guess since I thought I noticed Christ working in my life I must be wrong.

    Then again, I’ve also noticed that there are some very dark things still lurking inside me that, quite frankly, verge on hatred for God. Like when I become afraid of dying, or loosing a loved one, my mind has a tendency to darken with mistrust and hatred for God for allowing such painful things. Is this really when I’m most United to Christ? It really is counter intuitive to think so.

  6. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    Also, what if someday while encountering traders and loss I come to notice that I no longer harbor mistrust or hatred for God? If I notice this can I confidently say Christ has healed me? Or would that be a delusion of progress on my part?

  7. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    Sorry, that’s supposed to say *tragedy* and loss.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle,
    The monastic’s insight is by no means a hard and fast principle. It is simply a way of saying that just because we see ourselves failing is not necessarily a reason to despair. Sometimes having the ability to actually see such a thing is a gift of grace. Nor is it absolutely the case that seeing what grace has done in us would be delusional. But to prevent the temptation that comes with our private sense of progress – it is best to simply give God thanks always for all things. Whether I succeed or fail, I give God thanks always for all things – for He is worthy – regardless of my own struggle.

    The paradox that is typical of Orthodox teaching should be left as a paradox and not turned upside down into a logical rule. It is like St. Paul’s “When I am weak, I am strong.”

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, isn’t this very paradoxical notion of faith that is the challenge to both our sense of self-justification and to the mind of the world that demands a linear progress to a pre-determined goal (an ideology that uses both false promises and a concomitant inculcation of fear to keep us moving on.)

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. I had not thought about the linear quality of progress. I tend to think very critically about linear models, since almost nothing is actually linear (other than a line).

  11. Robert Avatar
    Robert

    “The paradox that is typical of Orthodox teaching should be left as a paradox and not turned upside down into a logical rule”

    – thank you!

  12. Geri Avatar
    Geri

    Father bless–
    I would appreciate hearing from you and others how best to convey these insights to children or young people. I ask this because so often the questions they ask are looking for quick, simple answers—not patient enough for nuanced discussion. For example, a young person asked me a few months ago, “Is ___ a sin?” (fill in the blank with any number of current cultural topics.) I wanted to say, “well, what is sin?”…and delve deeper into some of what you are talking about here. But, this person wanted a quick, definitive answer. I’m afraid I “hemmed and hawed” because it didn’t seem so simple to me. What would you say is a way to handle these kinds of “moral” questions that are thrown at individual Christians—and the Church as a whole?

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Geri,
    It’s very hard to answer questions that someone isn’t asking. With children and young people, we need to give them the answers that they are actually asking. Often they just want guidance and don’t know how else to say it. I give a pretty simple answer to such questions. Yes. No. That’s a sin, etc.

    It’s as they grow older and the questions become more complex that we can start having conversations. But what we want are to have the first conversations – the real theological question is about God. How do I know Him.

    A conversation I sometimes work at having with adolescents and teens has to do with the “true self.” There is a deep crisis at that age (shrouded in shame). Adolescents and teens are searching for the self, often trying to hide or to invent themselves. It’s a very, very difficult time. They need to be treated with very deep respect and kindness. What I work with is helping come to know something of the path to the true self. For me, this is often part of what I do as confessor/spiritual father. I really am not sure if parents can do this – parents often have so many expectations that it’s hard for youth to let their guard down.

    I preach/teach a lot about “becoming truly human.” It’s a very safe way to talk about the spiritual path without overloading it with so much religious baggage that it’s off-putting. It’s so much easier to think about becoming truly human than about becoming righteous, etc.

    Sometimes I describe these things in psychological terms (such as “authentic” or “inauthentic”) simply because it’s a very easy vocabulary in our culture. It’s not sufficient to do proper theology – but I’m more interested in results than good vocabulary.

    One of the reason my blog is worth reading (if it is) has to do with language. If I said everything in very classical theological terms, it would be correct, but not interesting or very useful. When I was in England this summer, I was speaking in a group to some 20-somethings. In our group I made the assertion that “there is no such thing as progress.” We even argued a little. I kept it light, but I was relentless. The next day, one of the young women said she had a sleepless night, but was convinced that what I said was correct. It was like a lightbulb for her. And she was a very articulate leader within the group I was talking to. They really began to open up and ask questions about the faith. We talked about everything – gender questions – the works. I had not known that the progress question would be such a starter. But I can see on the blog that it is so.

    This latest article has had the second highest number of views of anything I’ve done. It strikes a nerve. When something works, I note it and will use it in one way or another repeatedly. It slowly allows the community of readers to build a common vocabulary and understanding. It’s a small piece of our theological conversation.

    Some things – like the sexuality stuff – are going to be huge in the coming years. All young people will have questions about it and they are going to almost always think the Church is wrong. We should therefore think long and hard about why the Church is right and about how to say it. I’m working on it here. This language of morality and sin is foundational for the conversations to come.

  14. Geri Avatar
    Geri

    Thank you…that was very helpful. I wish I could have listened in on that conversation with the 20’s group. There is so much confusion and despair among many young people and yet an unwillingness sometimes to explore the Way…often, I think, because of the way we speak about it. I certainly welcome your guidance. Thanks again.

  15. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    Ok, so this is what I think I’ve been seeing in the comment sections of these last couple of blogs about progress:

    When confronted with Father Stephen’s assertion that “there is no such thing as progress” many of the blog viewer’s here more or less ask themselves the same, or at least a similar question that I asked in my comment above, “is it possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way?” And then they answer themselves with a “Yes, because I’ve witnessed it within myself,” and then proceed to call the healing that they’ve witnessed in themselves progress. Why? Because they have progressed from wounded to healed in one way or another through Christ. I don’t know, though, that anyone here has actually denied that it is solely Christ’s righteousness working in them, and not in any way their own righteousness. And of course Father Stephen’s advice concerning the question I had asked is also relevant to all Christians who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves -“But to prevent the temptation that comes with our private sense of progress -it is best to simply give God thanks always for all things.”

  16. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    Michelle,

    Part of me also wants to rescue “progress”, but when I read this:

    “…all who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves”

    I want to then say that then there is no healing. There is no healing for the body, it “progressively” becomes worse and worse until it dies. There is no healing for my morality – Fr. Stephen is right my morality is the same as when I was 8 (I would push it back to even younger). There is no healing in my spirit – (speaking for myself) I have become more aware of just how sick in spirit I am but I commit the same sins over and over, I am still deeply delusional, etc. I was a “better person” before in my delusion and when I was a “moral” person. Now I can actually smell the rot. This seems to be what St. Paul said of himself (the thorn, I don’t do as I will, it’s not me it’s Christ, etc.).

    The ideal of progress is also sooo dangerous. If knowledge and persons and morals “progress” then anything can be justified. In our culture it is now what “feels good” (e.g. it “feels right” to some to justify their same-sex attraction, it “feels right” to some to declare gender a mere biological accident that “oppresses”, etc. etc.). This culture still believes “harming others” limits this worship of sentiment, but as abortion has revealed it is all to easy to define this away (by changing the definition of a person, etc.). Someday, this limit will be seen for what it is and be done away with – then it will be alright as long as it feels right and you have the power (as it is with unborn children today).

    If human beings truly do “progress”, then we might as well throw all this Christianity stuff out the window and join the culture in worshiping the future when all things will be perfected according to the cult of “progress”.

  17. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    “Pride is not going deep enough. There are a few “primary” emotions. Shame and fear are perhaps the deepest. Both are quickly changed – so that we don’t notice them. ”

    Father, could you point me to a resource to learn more about the primary emotions and how they morph?

  18. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    Christopher,

    You say, “I want to then say that then there is no healing.”

    Would you want to say that Christ has not healed you? But if He has healed you would you want to say that it is totally impossible for you to notice such healing? Because the last comment I made was related to my previous comment, which was this:
    “Regarding the quote from the monastic I was wondering if it is possible at all for a Christian to recognize in themselves when or if Christ has healed them in any way? It seems like you are saying, “if it seems like Christ has done nothing for you to change who you are, then rest assured He is transforming you!” I personally feel that I would be a different person than I am today if I had never sought Christ to heal me. But I guess since I thought I noticed Christ working in my life I must be wrong.
    Then again, I’ve also noticed that there are some very dark things still lurking inside me that, quite frankly, verge on hatred for God. Like when I become afraid of dying, or loosing a loved one, my mind has a tendency to darken with mistrust and hatred for God for allowing such painful things. Is this really when I’m most United to Christ? It really is counter intuitive to think so.”

    So, with this in mind, if someday I notice that I no longer harbor any mistrust or hatred towards God in the midst of tragedy or loss am I free admit that Christ has granted me grace (with the definition of grace being “the gift of God’s own presence and action in His creation,” as it says in the back of my Orthodox Study Bible)? And then may I say that I have progressed from hatred towards God to love towards God by this very grace? Because that is what I meant by ““…all who have witnessed a “progression” from wounded to healed within themselves.”

    You also say, “There is no healing in my spirit – (speaking for myself) I have become more aware of just how sick in spirit I am but I commit the same sins over and over.”

    I also have become aware of how sick I am when I realized sometimes I harbor feelings of mistrust and hatred for God, and I think that this realization in itself is a kind of healing and gift of grace. If I had feelings of hatred toward God and neither thought there was anything wrong with it, but instead embraced it whole heartedly, then I there would be no saving repentance. So let me ask if one goes from reveling with glee in hatred towards God, to realizing their sickness and wanting salvation from this sickness, could they not say to themselves they have progressed from one state of being to another state of being by grace (and remember I am defining grace as God’s presence and action)?

    I think that the way I’ve described “progression” is how many Christians think of it rather than in a works righteousness sort of way.

  19. Michelle Avatar
    Michelle

    The “progression” I’m trying describe is a passive progression, where God alone ontologically moves me from one state ( a sin state) to another (a resurrected state). Im not talking about me causing myself to progress to some future goal, but rather God bringing me to life, and I’m just simply using the word progression to describe going from dead to alive. And I’m not saying we absolutely have to use the word “progression,” or even that it’s the best word to use (I personally don’t think it is), I’m just claiming that there is a harmless way to use such a word, and I personally think this harmless way is how many Christians use the word, particularly various Christian commenters on this blogs.

  20. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Michelle & Christopher,
    My kneejerk thought regarding a Christian’s appreciation of their healing and transformation [their “progress” if you like, even though that sounds unfitting, a bit like calling ‘ripening’ ‘evolution’) is that it need not be an ‘either or’ condition.
    The key, however, must be the notion of that particular paradox found in our tradition, and exemplified in the image the Elder Sophrony employed, of ‘the Tree’; the deeper its invisible roots go, the higher its visible portion can soar.
    The more lucidly one sees how deserving of “keeping their mind in hell” they are, the more powerfully they become capable of “not despairing”. And vice versa, the more they are purified, healed, illumined and the closer to Christ they move, the more they understand the profoundness of their weakness and their distance from their beloved One. Blessed despair from oneself and utter hope / single-minded focus on Christ are in proportion to each other.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle,
    When speaking about the culture – I said there was change but no progress – that progress was a myth. That myth is often transferred into our lives. But there is certainly change and transformation. And there is certainly a harmless way to use the word progress.

    My experience intentionally pushes back, however, because there is a lot of delusion in the concept. The transformation and progress that takes place in us is of such a nature that progress is a problematic expression. It is better to simply give thanks than to take stock. But I understand your well-made point.

  22. Nathan Avatar
    Nathan

    Father,

    “There is every difference between Christ in me, and me doing something myself because Christ told me to. And that difference is the whole of the gospel.”

    I can certainly agree with that. I guess that, strictly speaking, I never see me as doing anything myself (if I do that would be sin!). No time to read all the other comments now, but I look forward to catching up on them.

    Thanks again for the answer.

    -Nathan

  23. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    I am the mother of an agnositic Orthodox Christian in college and a practicing Orthodox Christian in high school. Fr. Stephen, What you say here in the comments “Some things – like the sexuality stuff – are going to be huge in the coming years. All young people will have questions about it and they are going to almost always think the Church is wrong. We should therefore think long and hard about why the Church is right and about how to say it. I’m working on it here. This language of morality and sin is foundational for the conversations to come.”

    This is the big reason why I pray for you and look forward to your next publication. (And you requested prayer from your readers concerning this, Godspeed your efforts!)

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Margaret,
    Thank you ever so much for your prayers. Book is in the works.

  25. Ray Klassen Avatar
    Ray Klassen

    Well maybe this all makes sense within the context of the Lily report, a document I’ve never heard of, nor find myself compelled at this time to seek out, but it makes no sense to me. Morality and righteousness, while not synonyms are not distinct from each other and while sin may not merely be a moral problem, morality is involved. Morality is not exclusively a code of actions, although it may be merely that for some. Even Paul doesn’t just use sin to describe the inner workings of death, but also as a verb to refer to our actions which break faith with God and ‘fall short.’ — sin as “breaking the rules” is a valid usage. I took issue with the title and the content of this post because, while it may be a helpful way of looking at the issue it addresses, it can only be one angle among many and not exclusive of all others as it seems to claim.

  26. Ray Klassen Avatar
    Ray Klassen

    errata …Morality is not merely a code of rules… (not actions)

  27. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    These recent posted have been very interesting. Our understanding of our ontological root and its only remedy is sorely misunderstood, so I take great comfort seeing this being addressed. Thank you Fr. Stephen for this.

    When we convince ourselves of progress, we’re quickly starting to blur the lines of our understanding – not deepen them. If I’m aware of my progress I am more closely gaining Self-assurances that is autonomous. This is a great danger. This is getting close to a self sufficiency and an autonomy, which is ultimately non-being. i.e., outside of God. No one is alone in the kingdom. Be united to Christ.

    *Keep thyself in hell and fear not” These were the words of Christ to Silouan. What was asked of Silouan? Was it growth? Progress? In any sense of external measurement which is about “getting better?” Did he have this sense of things at all?? Rather, was it the experiencing at a greater depth of something that Already exists that was the hope of his calling? To know the reality of our true selves, is the gift of God – it is also our hell – no one wants this – this is difficult ; to know the True God is the gift of God: to know the ontological state of ourselves as we relate (incarnationally) to God is the ultimate gift and to know his all consuming good elicits a response.

    The deepening awareness of ours and God’s ontological states is the Experience of the kingdom.; it is the revelation of Jesus Christ; it is a call and response to a message that is freely given and already given (Heb 9:28). Be united to Christ. This is the breadth, length, depth and height of our calling (Col 1:27, Eph 3:18) Our response is rooted in something and that is our awareness of these ontological states (that already exist). This becomes the means by which we live out our faith. I need to understand these states so I can have the only response proper to it.

    Was not this path i.e., an awareness that informed Silouan, that Christ showed him? Was not this path i.e., this awareness, the thing that moved him forward? (Always in weakness); this movement (or procession) was informed by the understanding of the fullness (reality) of the ontological content of the God-Man (Theanthropos) and our utterly unworthy, futile and impoverished means to be united to Christ. … All is the gift of God.

    Was it not this fullness of understanding of the ontological content (not mere ideas; the kingdom is rooted in ontology or it is rooted in nothing!) that informed Paul’s only response – that, truly I am the chief of all sinners; simultaneously, that one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of God the father, amen. Truly – keep yourself in hell and fear not.

    The response is to live liturgically, offering our ourselves, the world, living united to Christ, which is always a life “offered”. We become enlarged over time….. or in a moment. As Silouan said “Until you pray for the world you will not cease from your sin.”

    What “progress” do I offer back to God? My ontological ‘root’ affords me no such thing. I toil in my brokenness here. …. John 21:17 & Col 1:27…. be united to Christ.

  28. Kathryn Patitsas Avatar
    Kathryn Patitsas

    I can’t thank you enough for writing this. I have been saying such things for several years now, mostly because of the examples of many spiritual fathers over these past 25 years and the examples of my very simple grandparents who clearly loved God with all their hearts, and yet did not master themselves for the burden of being in the world. . . but nowhere could I express this near the eloquence that you have, bringing to others the understanding that you have brought to the subject in English. One of the things that truly gives me patience in this life is the understanding that our salvation is mostly hidden, as you say, and with this in mind, I do not have to detach myself from others to live with them.. . that is when I am mindful of these truths. When I am not, I make the mistake of the “old man” in thinking that I have better knowledge and this makes me a better person, which is a terrible sin, and also brings an unnecessary pain. I will refer to this many times. Thank you again and God give you strength to pray for us.

  29. francis m witty Avatar
    francis m witty

    This is very illuminating and I like this. Really this message put me at peace and give reason to live the real live

  30. Josh Burns Avatar
    Josh Burns

    Dear sir,
    I am Protestant, but believe this article is correct and raised it with a debate with my atheist friend the other day. He responded that sin and forgiveness has to be moral and “forensic” because Jesus tells the woman in Luke 7 that “her sins are forgiven,” as in the plural sum of all her moral transgressions rather than her ontological privation. How would you respond to that?
    Blessings in Christ,
    Josh

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Josh,
    I love it when atheists tell Christians what the Scripture means. Christ forgives the paralytic and then, when challenged, said “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” Essentially saying that the two are interchangeable. We do not have a legal problem with God. Your friend has spent too much time listening to Protestants explain Christianity. The Orthodox reading is much older. The ontological understanding undergirds all of the doctrines of the Great Councils.

    I should add, that as someone who hears confessions and pronounces the absolution on a regular basis – it’s not the legal issue that is of any real bother. It’s what sin does to us (ontologically). It makes us sick. It kills us (“the wages of sin is death”). God has no need to punish us. Death is something we bring on ourselves. It is why the death and resurrection of Christ are necessary to our forgiveness. We are Baptized into His death (He takes our death upon Himself) and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. Resurrection (for us) is what forgiveness actually looks like.

  32. Richard Holt Avatar
    Richard Holt

    Thank you Father! The Eastern spirituality is much more in-depth than the Western.

  33. Laura Avatar
    Laura

    Fr. Stephen,
    I realize this is an old post, but I have been reading some of these old posts along this same idea-a very interesting way of thinking of things that challenges me in a good way –but I have a question that keeps coming to mind as I read. What about the fruit of the Spirit? Perhaps we may have trouble accurately seeing this in ourselves- but shouldn’t we see this in other Christians- especially as they draw nearer to God?

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laura,
    Yes, the fruit of the Spirit is visible (quite often). But they do not represent fixed character-traits that we accumulate over time. They are fruit of the Spirit – that is – they come from our living communion with God. However, given that the Church honors saints, it would seem obvious that we see the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of others. It has certainly been my experience through the years. Nevertheless, I do not think the fruit of the Spirit can be described as moral improvement.

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