The Un-Moral Christian

In recent articles I have challenged the place of contemporary morality in the Christian life. Some have had difficulty with this, wondering how we should then think about the commandments that are directed towards our behavior. Others have suggested that my challenge is merely semantic. There are certainly semantic distinctions being made here – but the reason for them is important and goes beyond mere words. But if it is not proper to think of ourselves as “moral” beings, how should we think? How do we confess our sins if morality is not the issue?

Our culture sees morality as the rules and standards by which we guide ourselves. These rules of conduct are external and can be described and discussed. They are the rules by which we choose how to behave and by which we sometimes judge others. In this, everybody can be said to be “moral.” Atheists invariably adhere to some standard of conduct – it is just what human beings do. We are sometimes inconsistent and often cannot explain very well the philosophical underpinnings of our actions – but everyone has rules for themselves and standards that they expect of others.

But it is precisely this that sets Christians apart – that makes them “unmoral” (not “immoral”). The nature of the Christian life is not rightly described as the adherence to an external set of norms and standards, even if those norms and standards are described as being “from God.” The “unmoral” life of Christians is a different mode of existence. The Christian life is not described so much by what it does as by how it does.

This “unmoral” life is not distinguished by its behavior. If this were not so, then an atheist “acting” like a Christian, would seem to be a Christian. Indeed, at one point in our culture, a “Christian gentleman” meant nothing more than a “gentleman.” This is often the case in public morality. Most Christians seem to be little different from their non-Christian friends. They cannot describe how it is that they differ other than to say that they “think” certain things about God and the universe. But did Christ die only to give us certain ideas?

If the unmoral life is not about behavior, what is it about?

It is about being a god.

This, of course, is shocking language, but it is the Christian faith. The life of a fish is about being a fish. It is not about swimming or breathing water (though these certainly are part of a fish’s life). But a man with a special device can breathe water and swim for days without ever becoming a fish. In the same way, the Christian life is not about improving our human behavior, it is about taking on a new kind of existence. And that existence is nothing less than divine life.

But is our primary confession simply that we fail at being gods? As difficult as it may be to understand, this confession is closer to the point than repeatedly admitting that we’re only marginally good at being moral. One of the failures of morality is that it seems so tantalizingly possible. And so we distract ourselves as we wrestle with our morals, condemning ourselves for what we somehow imagine that we can and should do.

But think carefully about the commandments of Christ: “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Morality withers in the face of such a statement. Christ’s teaching destroys our moral pretensions. He doesn’t say, “Tithe!” (Priests and preachers say “tithe”). Christ says, “Give it all away.” He doesn’t just say, “Love your neighbor.” He says, “Love your enemy.” Such statements should properly send us into an existential crisis.

The disciples recognized this. “Who then can be saved?” They wondered.

Christ responded, “With men it is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”

The modern fascination with morality is a theological travesty for Christians. It is the reduction of the Kingdom of God to the Democracy of the Mediocre: “I give thanks to God, for I’m doing better and making progress!”

But the Kingdom of God is found in what we cannot do. Morality is not a treasure buried in a field – that treasure is nothing less than the Divine Life of God.

So how do we live the Divine Life of God?

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)

This is the life in which we moment by moment offer ourselves up to God. We voluntarily empty ourselves before Him and yield ourselves to what He can do in us.

…to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us…be glory. (Eph 3:20-21)

The root of this life is our communion with God. And the rupture of this communion is the true nature of sin.

…for whatever is not from faith is sin. (Rom 14:23)

And this is the proper character of our life. We eat Christ. We drink Christ. We breathe Christ. We do all things in Him and through Him. Learning this manner of life is the task of our faith. It is the path of the saints and the teaching of the Fathers.

We could describe our lives in a “moral” manner, but this would not touch upon our communion with Christ. Our “moral” efforts, when done apart from Christ, do not have the character of salvation about them. Christ does not die in order for us to act in a certain manner. He died in order to enter into our death that through our dying we might enter into His life.

In confession, it is our communion that should most concern us. We do many things that are contrary to Christ’s commandments, and they are worth mentioning. But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most. Morality is little more than our feeble attempt at self-sufficiency.

Apart from Me, you can do nothing. (Jn. 15:5)

Confession is the sacrament of repentance, our turning to God. It is not the sacrament of the second chance and the harder try. Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention. This emptiness and futility of lives is often experienced with shame and embarrassment. We feel that we should somehow be able to do better. But Christ intends to bring us to this recognition of our futility. It is why our salvation begins at the point of death (the ultimate futility). Since everyone can die, everyone is capable of salvation. But it is death that we most fear.

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb 2:14-15)

Our fear of death is a place of bondage because our new life can only begin there.

 Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luk 17:33)

The point of confession is to lose our life. If moral failure is part of that – well and good. But moral success can be just as problematic. Witness the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph: “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart … what more should I do?” The elder stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”

Indeed. Why not?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



101 responses to “The Un-Moral Christian”

  1. David Avatar

    Auuuuuggghh! This is a hard saying.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Perhaps in the book I’m working on at present I will take this understanding into some of the contemporary hot-button moral issues. The Church’s teaching in all of the present questions is quite clear and will not/should not change. But the lens of this approach makes the questions far more understandable. “This is immoral,” “You’re a bad person,” etc. all of the useless debates engendered by a legal/forensic approach change in the light of this understanding. Jesus isn’t trying to condemn anyone. Only to save. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (Joh 3:17)

  3. Kristofer Carlson Avatar
    Kristofer Carlson

    If the Christian life is about taking on a new kind of existence, does this mean that salvation is ontological? And if so, what does that say about the fall?

  4. Rev. John Cox Avatar

    The Holy Maximus (the confessor) says that the fall is ontological in a negative sense. That is, we become less than we are made to be. In the fall we lose the glory of God and this causes the mode (not the nature) of our existence to change as well. We become creatures *of* rather than simply in the body while the intellect (nous, heart), which is supposed to be the ruling faculty of our being and the organ of our communion with God, is rendered (mostly) inert.

  5. August Avatar

    I have had to deal with this late American Roman Catholic descent into a popular and protestant evangelism. Rather than merely repeating slogans that have sent more people running from Christ than ever before (the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus coincides with the largest number of people falling away, possibly ever), I started to ask myself why the pagans had chosen to convert to Christianity.
    The pagans wanted to be perfect.
    The men who want to be perfect now run from this incipient mess and go fool around with Buddhism, or even go down to Peru and drink hallucinogens.
    The same answer is there, assuming they don’ t get ensnared- we can’t be perfect. It is only in the mystery of the Trinity that we see how we could become perfect.

  6. Amanda Avatar

    In preparing for confession…how should I examine my life in light of this empty moralism you speak of? Confession is something I truly long to be fruitful, but sometimes I feel like a gerbil in a wheel. I know I am sick, in need of healing. How do I begin to confess in a way that brings about healing? Confessing my moral shortcomings is necessary, sort of like peeling an onion, but I want to be healed…I don’t want to be a “good person.” What is true illness? How do I get off the wheel?

  7. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Can you expound on “being a god” please?

    The idea of “god” is pretty firmly fixed in most people’s minds. It carries certain attributes and powers that are separate from those of humans. What “powers” or “attributes” would this human-god exhibit that would be recognized by other people as anything other than “human”?

  8. Mary Avatar

    “The modern fascination with morality is a theological travesty for Christians. It is the reduction of the Kingdom of God to the Democracy of the Mediocre: “I give thanks to God, for I’m doing better and making progress!””

    Hi, I read your blog fairly regularly, most of it goes over my head, but when I read this, I want help to understand, how can morality be a bad thing? The way that I and others conduct themselves, doesn’t this help to combat some of the ill in our culture?

    I think I understand the second part, about being able to give thanks to God, because in thinking I am making progress, isn’t there a possibility of pride entering into me that by my effort, I am making things happen and there is progress in my life? correct me if I am wrong, I want to understand.

  9. davidp Avatar

    Generally most christians think that the law in the OT is negative and they will not follow this law. Back then, I had a conflict with the OT Law and the Gospel. What changed was in the mid-90s, I was studying 1st Ct Jewish-Christian and Second Temple times. I will tell it this way through a story I read regarding Daniel 6:8. This was a time when the Jews were in captivity. The king made a law (dath) and those who would break this law would be kill, torture or be put in prison. They told a story that a king made a law (dath), broke this law and the ruling counsel killed the king and skinned him and put the skin on the throne. When a new king came, the the counsel said to this new king pointing to the throne,
    “You will be like that if you bread your law!”

    Non-Jewish Nations always thought that the Jewish law was this way. Harsh and brutal….Break it or else! But, the Jews never thought their law was this way. It was a law (Torah, Mitzvah, Mitzvot) of Loving-kindness. After I read and studied these things, my whole attitude changed

  10. Roman Avatar

    Every christian should read this. Thank you for the post Father.

  11. Proto Milan Medakovic Avatar

    Ethics creates an adaptive sort of morality that is based in human logic to establish what things do and how they behave.

    When speaking of Orthodox ethics one must first be rooted in the theology and doctrine of the Church.

    Metropolitan John Ziziulas points out in his article “Ontology and Ethics”(Sabornost VI 2012 -1) that morality and ethics cannot be divorced from the dogmatic theology of the Church. He note that the term ethics is very rarely used by the Fathers of the Church. Ziziulas points out “It is tragic… that we cannot monitor the volatility and instability that characterize the ethics of the West because of conservatism that characterizes our Church. This creates a continuous and progressive gap between our Church and society, which is, by its nature, forced to adapt to the ethical changes that are taking place in … societies…. Variability of ethics testifies that in itself it cannot justify its existence, nor claim an absolute authority and importance. The importance of ethics and authority, for those who believe in God, …springs up from the will of God expressed in the Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Church’s life.”

  12. Byron Avatar

    A wonderful article that I will have re-read and chew on for a while to absorb! Thank you, Father. I very much look forward to the book on which you are working. Thank you again, Father!

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    John Shores,
    I would think not much would be obvious. The fixed idea of “god” in most people’s mind is delusional and has very little to do with the true and living God, for example. And, strangely, the true existence of God is not about “powers” and “abilities,” etc. Foremost, God is the only truly existing One. You and I (all of us) only have contingent being. We did not make ourselves exist and we do not sustain ourselves in existence. There is no reason whatsoever within us that accounts for why we exist.

    But, that we exist, is the gift of God who alone has true existence. He “causes” all things to exist – but we cannot even describe what that means or how this is so.

    According to the Fathers, our first gift is our existence. It is God’s intention that we not only exist (have being) but that we have “well-being.” Ultimately, and beyond all this, it is His intention that we have “eternal being.” And this is not just “existence” (plain being) stretched out over an infinitely long time. It is better described as a kind or mode of existence.

    Now. The first thing I would expect to find in “god” (or someone traveling along that path), is some evidence of “well-being.” I have encountered this a few times in my life. And, I’m sure most people might not even notice it. If you met Jesus, you might have liked Him (or not), but you wouldn’t have necessarily thought to yourself, “Now. That’s a God.” But He is. So, it is largely hidden.

    And though you might point to the miracles, etc., and think they are some sort of proof – they are not. Jesus didn’t do anything particularly that wasn’t done by someone before or some folks after (including raising someone from the dead).

    There is no “objective” knowledge of God or “a god,” because God is not an object. He cannot be known or proved like an object. And that which is “divine” in the Christian life isn’t a set of moral performances and miracles, etc.

    But, as I said, I have met such people a few times. There is a largeness of presence with them that I cannot explain. It’s almost like being with the “Eldils” in Lewis’ space trilogy, where the sense gravity is altered – at least that’s a weird comparison that has come to my mind.

    I will say that I’ve also experienced a profound peace and a sense of well-being myself in the presence of these few individuals, but I could well imagine that even the opposite might be experienced.

    But I am aware of my own nothingness and contingency in their presence (and more profoundly, of course, in the presence of God Himself). But, I think, that whatever it is, it may be doubted. There is no objective experience of God that cannot be doubted.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not said that morality is a bad thing. Morality (life lived according to some set of rules) is simply not enough nor even the point of our Christian life. It will certain combat certain ills in our society – but it doesn’t require Christians to do this – just nice people, moral people. God has made it known that He wants to do something deeper in us that is far more profound than making us behave ourselves. When St. Seraphim said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved,” he did not mean that if we behave in a peaceful way it will influence other people. That might or might not be true. Rather, it is that the Spirit of Peace (the Holy Spirit) is what saves souls around us. The effect of St. Seraphim on the lives of those around him was profound – and they probably couldn’t explain how it was so. That’s some thoughts to think on.

  15. Dino Avatar

    I consider this the majestic culmination of the recent ‘series’. As Roman exclaimed, “every Christian should read this”. I am looking forward to your book with great anticipation… Thank you so much for getting to the real core so clearly!

  16. Rayla Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    As someone who has come from deep sin, you can’t imagine what a profound sense of relief it has brought. I understand. I’m not going to try and put in words, because I’m sure I’d mess it up and get all sorts of responses “correcting me”. But I get it!
    I thank you profoundly. May God richly bless you and your family.

  17. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    Thank you so much for making straight paths for the Lord. I have been planning to go to confession this evening. I’d been wrestling with just what I would say in spite of specific sins I knew I would mention, wrestling because I wanted to rid myself of feeling like I was putting a notch on the morality belt though I knew that wasn’t my intention. This has greatly helped me to simplify my entire outlook and cease carrying a load I should never have picked up. May the Lord return blessings on you.

  18. John Shores Avatar
    John Shores

    Fr. Stephen – Thank you.

  19. Jeff Avatar

    Not mutually exclusive , given the teleogical point of creation : Maximos : “For the sake of love the saints all resist sin continually, finding no meaning in this present life, and they endure many forms of death , that they may be gathered from this world to themselves and to God, and unite in themselves the fractures of nature . It is a personal intervention of the love of God that heals the fractures and grants the blessing of freedom from death.

  20. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most……. I think this statement is profoundly true!

  21. Chris Avatar

    Thank you, Father. This helps clarify the moral confusion for me. Recently I’ve been trying to shift my focus from “behaving better,” or “adhering better to local and societal norms,” to a mode of complete self-emptying. This has been very difficult for me. I try to be humble before Christ, but often slip into the mindset (or existence) of putting myself within a moral framework and assessing my “success.” Most of my life I have strived for straight A’s with morality, and am just beginning to realize our Christian life should not be self-assessed; that it’s Christ’s righteousness that is offered.

  22. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    This blog is such a gift from God!!

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  23. Fr. Carlos Raines Avatar
    Fr. Carlos Raines

    Very edifying…life-giving. Thanks for good teaching.

  24. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H


    Thank you for your posts. If I’m understanding the theme of your last few posts correctly (semantics aside) they’re about the difference between a forensic model of “salvation” vs. an ontological one. Regardless of the semantics, I think that what you’re saying isn’t so much that “morality” is bad, just that thinking about “salvation” in forensic terms is a categorical mistake. But stepping away from a forensic model might require that we deeply rethink a great many things, leading to your posts.

    One of the first scriptures that you referenced in your post was “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I’ve encountered many different ideas of what this verse means and how it fits in the within the sermon on the mount, and what the point of the sermon of the mount even is. Some protestant/reformed type folks believe, in light of this final verse, that the whole point of the sermon on the mount is to make people see how incredibly GUILTY they are (in a forensic sense). It’s not to teach wisdom or to reveal the character of God or to teach us to DO anything (that would be “works”). The intent of the sermon on the mount then, in this view, is basically to make you afraid or to see what a terd and a constant failure you are to God since the whole purpose of the “gospel” is to obtain legal pardon. Am I incorrect in seeing some of that same concept in the orthodox model – not in the legal sense but to make people see how ontologically broken they are? That the point is not to do any of it or to even bother trying – the point is that you can’t? But I simply cannot see how, given the overall tone of the sermon on the mount and the teachings within, there isn’t some sense in which the teachings are supposed to play a role in our actual existence and not simply as a tool to “convict”.

    In the end, I’m left wondering what “self emptying” looks like in the Orthodox view. Might DOING the sermon on the mount (for example) itself be an example of what “moment by moment offering ourselves up to God” looks like? Might the call to love and forgive those around us be the way by which we “commune” with God? Just thinking out loud. We must DO something after all. Does the forensic/ontological difference, then, end up being one of motivation? Where existence/morality are about “communing” rather than existing to “follow the rules”?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mike H.
    I think an ontological approach to the Sermon on the Mount both reveals our emptiness, but also points to a pathway, by God working in us. In Orthodoxy that pathway is probably best illustrated in the monastic life. We see monasticism and general Orthodox practice as one single thing, of which the monastic practice is simply more rigorous.

    St. Silouan taught, “My brother is my life.” We could also say, “My enemy is my life” (he would have agreed with that). Indeed, he said, “We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.” To a large extent, the monastic life is the fulfillment of the Sermon on the Mount. If you are married, you obviously have financial obligations that change certain things – but to whatever measure we are able – we strive towards the monastic ideal.

    Orthodoxy does not tend to see monasticism as a “special” calling or a unique vocation. It is simply a pattern of life (celibacy, etc.) that make it possible to practice the commandments of Christ in their fullest manner. By the same token, we are sometimes “extreme” in other places as well. Priests may not marry – I’ll qualify that. A married man may become a priest, so long as he is the husband of one wife and neither has been previously married. But once he is a priest, he may not marry again, even should his wife die. The are some other strictures placed on the priesthood that are not “unique” just more stringent. The one marriage in a lifetime is an ideal for all Orthodox Christians – though we allow a merciful treatment under the proper circumstances.

    The only fasting rules in the Church are “monastic” fasting rules (or monks are just about the only ones who can keep them in their fullness). Orthodoxy on the whole never asks, “What is the least we may ask of Christians?” We also state the maximum – and then exercise a judicious application of that standard. This has inappropriately given us the reputation of being “strict,” or even as “legalists,” when we are quite the opposite. But we believe that the Kingdom of God “suffers violence,” and that we must seek to truly lose our lives in order to save them. We think Jesus really meant what He said.

    I think the difference between the forensic and ontological approaches are almost too many to list. It touches almost every aspect of our lives and our practice of the faith.

  26. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    It seems to me that progress is being made here, (fun reference intended) but once again the subject of confession raises its head. I submit to you that once we “get” the true understanding of morality and sin and progress (or the lack thereof), one of the things we will need to revisit more fully is the topic of confession.

    How do I confess? How do I prepare for the encounter? How do I go to the priest without bringing a laundry list of my sins? Or if I go ahead and bring the list, how do I not view it in terms of getting better or worse?

    If confession is to survive as the very necessary sacrament that it is, then we need a new lens through which to view it. Please put that on your To Do list – so you can become a better person. (grin)

  27. Dino Avatar

    Mike H,
    “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is strongly manifested in the motives for one’s call towards monasticism.
    But it is the failure to attain that -of our own accord- that is revealed to us soon after we enter that path. This is often experienced by the lay, ‘spiritual warrior’ also. It is, ultimately, God’s Uncreated Light –even though it is still hidden from us- that sheds light and reveals to us this failure/darkness we had previously been oblivious too…
    And it is this very Light we are all called to with the words, “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Union with that personal Light is our calling. But it is the promise of this Light that even the adversary has founded his ensnarement and deception on from the very start, and it is this personal/hypostatic Light (Christ) we unconsciously seek in every wrong turn we have taken.
    How could Christ God not divulge this supreme calling with the words: “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? And how can we ever avoid the snares of the enemy if we don’t acknowledge our failure (in order to remain humble and grateful rather than demanding)? The prideful sense of entitlement for It places us in the land of delusion, it is what blocks us from It more than anything. The recognition of our weakness is what places us in the land of truth and humility and safety, attracting It.

  28. Dino Avatar

    if I may, the list is sometimes very useful. Just like some people who have an extra hour to sleep on an off day/morning, must set an alarm clock (at 1 hour later than usual) so that they will not actually wake up a lot earlier in a panic of being late, worrying that they have overslept much more than the hour they had and thus ruin their lye-in.
    A common problem with confession to our spiritual Fathers is that we might discover that upon encountering their countenance, we forget all our problems, we cry in compunction or joy, yet have forgotten all the things we had to say (which we will surely remember afterwards though).
    So a list is not the main thing but it is useful sometimes like scaffolding.

  29. Wordsmyth Avatar

    What does it mean to “become all flame”? I have seen you reference this quote in the past, and it has always puzzled me. But it has come to mind many times too.

  30. Mike Henry Avatar
    Mike Henry

    Fr. Stephen,

    While reading this, I thought about the concern of a lot of contemporary American conservative Christians worrying about the “moral decay of America,” and how futile this worrying is. (It may also be because I read this article previous to yours,, which I think is related).

    Given your comment above to Dean, I think this is on your mind too. If I may ask, what are your thoughts on this obsession on the part of many contemporary Christians of “cleansing” America when it comes to public (and private) morality?

    Instead of focusing on this “moral decay,” what do you envision as the more proper approach for a Christian? I guess I am asking, if we release ourselves from this focus on morality in our personal lives, what will that look like for our place in society as Christians?

    Thanks for your time,


  31. Peter Avatar


    You said,

    Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention. This emptiness and futility of lives is often experienced with shame and embarrassment. We feel that we should somehow be able to do better. But Christ intends to bring us to this recognition of our futility. It is why our salvation begins at the point of death (the ultimate futility). Since everyone can die, everyone is capable of salvation. But it is death that we most fear.


    The point of confession is to lose our life. If moral failure is part of that – well and good. But moral success can be just as problematic. Witness the Desert Fathers:
    Abba Lot said to Abba Joseph: “Father … I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart … what more should I do?” The elder stretched up his hands to heaven and his fingers became fire. He said, “Why not become all flame?”

    The story of St Mary of Egypt speaks well to the life you are talking about. The Church elevates her story to really, the highest stature possible on the Church calendar, leading right into Palm Sunday or should I say Lazarus Saturday, where our dead works are in its grave and only Christ’s resurrection is able to raise it, him and us. This is no accident.

    This notion of progress, was it not Elder Zosima that held a notion of this? St Mary of Egypt held onto a notion of sinfulness (progress? What progress?). Truly, the Church puts at the heart of her calendar a portrait of what our experience of the Life in Christ authentically is.

    Indeed, moral “progress” is to operating as our false selves Every Bit as much as is our more obvious moral failure, is to operating as our false selves, to operate in either is to exercise a false choice.

    There is one path. Does “progress” or moral failure produce flame? The question is absurd. What is authentic is true ontologically and produces what it possesses. (it both “is” and “is becoming” in us)

    Thank you for your clarity of these matters Father. A seminal work on this is Christos Yannaras’ Freedom of Morality. It is grossly underexposed and is an excellent reference and/or starting point for those that are comes into the paradigm of the Church.

  32. Michelle Avatar

    I’m going to veer of course a bit with this question, and Im sorry for this, but I just happened to be in conversation with a Lutheran Pastor (who is my brother) and am having a hard time explaining the Orthodox perspective to him concerning synergy. I’ve explained the notion of our ontological emptiness/nothingness that is a death-state of being to him, and that personal “moral” sins are the symptoms of this death-state, and I think he understands that just fine. However, I do not know how to explain our freedom to synergistically cooperate with grace while we are in the midst of this death-state, or rather ontological state of being out of communion with God?

    Dino’s comment highlights the trouble Im having:

    “But it is the failure to attain that -of our own accord- that is revealed to us soon after we enter that path. This is often experienced by the lay, ‘spiritual warrior’ also. It is, ultimately, God’s Uncreated Light –even though it is still hidden from us- that sheds light and reveals to us this failure/darkness we had previously been oblivious too…
    And it is this very Light we are all called to with the words, “Be perfect. Even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Union with that personal Light is our calling.”

    So, we need the Uncreated Light to grace us with knowledge of our emptiness, this very Light which is also our calling. But, according to a Lutheran Pastor, we need grace to see, recognize, penetrate our impenetrable hearts, and accept what is revealed by the Light, leaving no room for our synergistic cooperation. And all of this seems to agree with Dino’s statement. We are not free unless the Light frees us.

    Help anyone? I would really like to be able to explain this better to him.

  33. Michelle Avatar

    veer *off* course…sorry.

  34. Robert Chapman Avatar
    Robert Chapman

    Fr. Freeman, we are not God, we are not divine, we are not called upon to breathe in the divine. To claim to be so appears to me to be a deep and perniciously idolatrous belief.

    We live moral lives because we live among them and we love them and honor them by treating them well according to the highest standards of behavior and integrity we can devise.

    We honor God with our worship and our love and we trust entirely in God that He is pleased and in some small measure glorified by them.

  35. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    Mr Chapman,

    At first blush, as a former Calvinist (25 yrs) I would have agreed with your assessment. It would have been however a superficial shallow assessment based upon reaction and not much else.

    Unfortunately, it is an assessment completely divorced from the witness of the scripture and the entire early history until the reformation.

    We are not God, but we are called to be gods, not by nature, but by grace. We are called on to become “partakers of the divine nature”. 2 peter 1:4. If this claim is pernicious idolatry then Peter himself, along with the rest of the apostles are to be judged by you similarly. Can you stand on such ground? No. I fear you will fall.

    As someone who once shared such views, I can only pray for you and ask you to “come and see”.

    Engage with these truths… Honestly, forthrightly and in prayer and humility and you’re life will be changed.

  36. Judith Warren-Brown Avatar
    Judith Warren-Brown

    I understand your meaning of “unmoral.” However, the word itself will most likely be misunderstood. Morality is evidenced in our outward behaviours. The motivations for those behaviours will differ among people. As a Christian who has been justified by the blood of Christ, I am now regenerated by the Holy Spirit to walk with God and to become more perfect in Christ through sanctification, through the power of God. At no point will I see myself as a god or as part divine. Neither will I denigrate myself as a woeful sinner because my guilt is unnecessary due to the fact that Christ’s blood covers my sins once and for all. This all goes beyond morality in the sense of keeping external rules. Yet, I do keep those external rules but not for the sake of being a moral person. I am keeping the moral rules because I am becoming more perfect in my relationship with my Trinitarian God. My actions are more like the fruits of the Spirit, and I continue to cooperate with the Spirit as I live in Christ.

  37. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    Oh boy.

  38. Dino Avatar

    “We are not free unless the Light frees us.”
    Yes, But…

    When He shines upon us and reveals the darkness lurking in our hearts in all its poignancy, we have a choice. We can:

    1) accept it and run ‘naked’ to our Father and Healer in repentant trust and hopeful hopelessness


    2) hide our nakedness with fig leaves. As someone said earlier: “Human beings are supremely good at putting lipstick on a pig.”

  39. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I


    My two cents. Perhaps the best thing to do is leave Jesus to explain synergia.

    Matthew 13:1-23. The parable of the sower. All are bestowed the same grace, however synergia is accepting that gift and nurturing it.

    Synergia, is not an interaction between two equals, God reached out first, “while we were yet sinners.” It can be equally true to say that God’s grace is necessary for ALL things, including illumination – and to say that humanity is free to choose light or darkness –

    John 3. Illustrates synergia in this way;
    19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

    Going deeper- as a Former Protestent- The real issue here is probably the difference in understanding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God…and what it means to be fallen. .The two traditions use the same words to describe wholly different understandings. Original sin vs. ancestral sin and its effects on human nature. Without addressing this difference…there is a lot of apples and oranges discussion on the subject of synergia.

    Hope this helps…

  40. Fr. Marty Watt Avatar

    I often tell my parishioners, and anyone else who will listen, that forgiveness for actions is easy and in fact has already been given to us by God. It is the perfection, the movement toward incarnating Christ within ourselves, that is hard. I have to believe and confess that God understands intimately the failings of humanity, and our difficulty in achieving (under our own power) “moral” or “ethical” perfection. In fact, “moral” and “ethical” perfection, as you have explained, isn’t possible, and itself falls short of perfection.

    The essence of our sin – missing the mark – is in the indulgence of our will, and our desire. The ascetical life in Christ is about completely neglecting our will and wants, and unifying that will and those wants with God, and becoming by grace what He is by nature. So the choice in the garden of Eden, is less about obedience to a command, than the exercise (indulgence?) of “my” will and “my” desire, outside of union with God.

    The “key” scriptural event, to me, was Christ in Gethsemane. The essence of our salvation is found in “not my will but Thine”. This is then lived out through the Cross. But (in my limited mind) it begins in the Garden.

    Confession becomes not about actions, but about our will, and the places where we indulge our will, our independence from God. Interestingly (to me at least) I think it is possible to behave in a very moral and “Christian” way, as you mention, and still be fully indulging our own will – and indulging fully in sin in the process. This is what disturbs me most about our witness to the world as Christians in the past few decades. We offer the world – do as I say, or “as I say that Jesus says”, not as I do. That never works.

  41. ted perantinides Avatar
    ted perantinides

    FR.FREEMAN,you are 100%correct.i understand your post to be THEOSIS.if i am correct,let me know.most evangelicals,born again,etc,etc.say they have a personal relationship with JESUS and/or GOD. this is hiding their true thoughts and feelings.finally,thank you for your post and GOD bless you and your family.we ORTHODOX need more clergymen such as yourself.

  42. Karen Avatar

    Robert and Judith,

    Your comments well describe the Protestant teaching (in which many of us were raised and ultimately have found wanting), but do not touch the depth of the fully biblical and Orthodox teaching as it is revealed in Christ–His Incarnation, Death and Resurrection–and in the fullness of the apostolic and patristic witness about this.

    Being “a god” (Psalm 82:6; John 10:34) in biblical parlance is how God describes the new man resurrected in Christ in whom His word is planted and has borne fruit. As Aaron has pointed out above, the Apostle Peter describes this transformation as a “participation in the divine nature.” Picking up on this wording from Scripture, the Fathers used the term “god” to describe the quality/mode of life of the one who lives in union with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (i.e., grace). He is not “God” by nature (as is Jesus Christ), but participates in the Divine Nature through grace, effectively making him a “god”, i.e., a human being in whom the potential of the image of God in which he was created has been fulfilled through his being transformed into the very likeness of Christ, which may only be accomplished through the indwelling and infilling of the Holy Spirit (grace). Just as being in Christ makes him a Christian (“little Christ”), being united to God through Christ makes him a “god.” (It should go without saying this is in the fully biblical, not the New Age, sense.) This is what salvation as union (communion) in Christ through the Holy Spirit with the Holy Trinity means. It is not a forensic “position” (legal status) in Christ. It is a real, spiritual participation in God (a transformed mode of existence). This mode of existence is “hidden in Christ” from the view of those who see things only from the perspective of the flesh (which, to be frank since we are all a work in progress, is most of us most of the time!).

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Actually ted, there are many fine Orthodox clergy. Most of them are just not as visible as Fr. Stephen. I am fortunate to know a number of them. Faithful men who are in the trenches with their parishioners. Not that more are not welcome.

  44. Michelle Avatar


    Thank you for jogging my memory with good Scriptural examples. That’s very helpful. And you are absolutely right about it really being a difference in the what we believe about original sin vs ancestral sin, and the fall. I’ve been explaining these differences to him, as well as the ontological way to view our human condition in regard to these issues. I get the impression he had believed that Orthodoxy and Lutheranism were almost identical, and he was surprised to hear how different we actually believe when considering these issues above. His only stumbling block seems to be the issue of synergy. Lutherans believe that God directs even the choices we have that Dino brought up in a very “God turns into a puppet in order to save you” sort of way when it comes to free will (although they would disagree with the way Im putting it. They say its a mystery why God causes some persons will to soften, while yet other persons will remain hardened).

    Dino, thank you too. I appreciate your what you’ve said. It seems so obvious to me, but for him he’s been indoctrinated to believe that if allows himself any choice towards salvation, then he’s lost his salvation by attempting to “save himself” (works righteousness, in other words).

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a kind of “dance” that makes up synergeia. God “leads.” We do not initiate the dance. But if you were trying to dance with a dummy or something, in which they participated in no way, what a silly, useless thing it would be. God always leads – it’s His dance. But we must dance ourselves, though we step on his feet and fall down and are clumsy, etc. But He has asked us to dance.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course we are not God. Only God is God. But the Fathers of the Church, following language such as 2 Peter 1:4), acknowledged that “God became what we are that we might, by grace, become what He is.” We never become God by nature. But, the Fathers were bold enough to say that we became “gods” by grace. This is a great mystery, belonging to that category of things which “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has entered into the heart of man the good things God has prepared.” In Orthodox tradition, we describe sanctification as “theosis,” the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It would be possible to deeply misunderstand this and say something wrong, which is why we are very careful with our speech and our theology.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am visible (frighteningly so), but I am among the least of them. I know so many priests that excel me in every way. If the blog were fueled by my excellence, not a single pixel would light up.

  48. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    Very helpful analogy. What a silly thing it would be indeed!

  49. Jeff Avatar

    Michelle: Luther said:

    ( from the book) PARTAKING IN DIVINE NATURE

    Earlier at Christmas 1514 Luther had preached that
    Just as the word of God became flesh, so it is certainly also necessary
    that the flesh become word. For the word becomes flesh precisely so
    that the flesh may become word. In other words: God becomes man so
    that man may become God. Thus power becomes powerless so that weakness may become powerful. The logos puts on our form and

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father and so it is with the priests who are less visible to the world. They serve God and their parishioners and their families in simple, faithful ways that humble me and leave me in awe. Yet they take no credit.

    The Church is blessed by all of you. Thank you one and all.

  51. Michelle Avatar


    Yes, this is why my brother, a Lutheran Pastor, was under the impression that Lutheranism and Orthodoxy were very similar. But there are many differences that rightfully impede communion. Namely the Lutheran acceptance of total depravity (which derives from different views of original sin and the fall) that leads to a monergistic understanding of conversion, as well as other things (different views of Apostolic Succession, adhering to the confessions of the Ausgburg Confession, as opposed to adhering to the Tradition of the Ancient Church and the Ecumenical Councils, etc.)

  52. Michael Avatar

    Glory to God! Thank you so much father for this clear communicated Truth. I can do nothing else but copy and paste your comments that passionately warm my soul!

    “Christ does not die in order for us to act in a certain manner. He died in order to enter into our death that through our dying we might enter into His life.”

    “In confession, it is our communion that should most concern us. We do many things that are contrary to Christ’s commandments, and they are worth mentioning. But we miss the point of our existence if we fail to see that it is our broken communion that matters most.”

    “Our failures, including our moral failures, are but symptoms. It is the disease itself that should demand our attention.”

    “Our fear of death is a place of bondage because our new life can only begin there.”

    “Why not become all flame?”

    Amen! Lord may it be so!

  53. Alice Linsley Avatar

    Is salvation ontological? Interesting question, but the ontologically significant state is not “saved” but “justified.” Once justified always justified, but salvation and sanctification are a process whereby God brings us to the fulfillment or realization of God’s perfect plan or purpose. We can be confident of God’s power to do this in us. OUr part is to co-operate with the help of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s epistles this outworking of divine purpose is called energeia, a term first used by Aristotle. Energeia refers to Aristotle’s concept of act or actuality; the realization of potential; the fulfillment of telos.

  54. Leonard Nugent Avatar

    I was reading “The Problem of Pain” by CS Lewis and he puts it in a way that I never could…….Some modern theologians have, quite rightly, protested against an excessively moralistic interpretation of Christianity. The Holiness of God is something more and other than moral perfection: His claim on us is something more and other than moral duty. I do not deny it: but this conception, like that of corporate guilt, is very easily used as an evasion of the real issue. God may be more than moral goodness: He is not less. The road to the promised land runs past Sinai. The moral law may exist to be transcended: but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure.

  55. Nancy Ann Avatar
    Nancy Ann

    Thank you for your words on this very difficult subject. I feel like there is truth in your words but they are not sticking to me. I can’t take them completely in. I guess, I just don’t know what this means in a daily life. I am a mother of 2, I home educate my children, I suffer from depression and anxiety and I just don’t see how all of this works in my daily life. Right now I am overwhelmed with Christmas, I have a brother coming who is in deep need of family love, there is just so much stuff to do, even though I am constantly knocking stuff off my to do list. But, in general raising children, home educating them, being a wife and taking care of the home and participating in the life of the church the best I can is just so overwhelming. Not to mention suffering with anxiety and depression and I have a father who is dying of cancer and a nephew who has drank so much alcohol his liver is not functioning and it’s doubtful he will get a transplant. But, it seems life is always like this, so overwhelming with concerns and things to do. So, when the discussion about how to live a Divine Life and about emptying ourselves… I just can’t grasp.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Tradition in the East makes little to no distinction between justification (being made righteous) and sanctification (being made holy). How can one be righteous and not holy? The Baptismal rite invokes them both in the same sentence.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nancy Ann,
    I dare say that as a mother of 2, you empty yourself every day. Your note is filled with concerns for others, and though you have your own burdens of anxiety and depression, nevertheless you have concern for others. Only a self-emptying can have such concern. Very often this divine life is hidden, least known to the very one in which in it is hidden. May God give you strengthening grace and help you bear the daily burdens of life. I will remember you in my prayers.

  58. Dino Avatar

    Take courage. Father Paisios would often -oddly and almost abruptly- remind his listeners of those others who are much worse off than they are. He’d think up all sorts of shocking realities others on Earth have to face. It sounded incongruous until you realised that he did this in order to bring you to be able to say ‘thank you God for all – as it is!’ Nothing more is needed in a certain sense! Anyone capable of giving thanks is capable of being saved. May the Lord bless you and your whole family…

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “To become all flame” is to be truly united with God and transfigured by the Divine Energies. That said (it’s sort of the end of the matter) we do this all the time as we yield ourselves to God, giving ourselves over to Him, simply for the sake of being with Him and loving Him.

    This is so difficult for us. We are people of “technique.” It is our genius. But it is sort of an “un-technique” and very hard to describe.

    I think of it like this. We are commanded to love our neighbor. And so we turn our attention to love. But this misses the point. The “object” is our neighbor, not our love. And so, I open myself to my neighbor. I practice a “hospitality” of the Spirit, making room for him and space for him, and letting him be the focus and not me (or my “love”). When it is said and done, we will not be interested in speaking of our love, but only of our neighbor.

    One theologian said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in His Son…” and this seems right to me, at least in the manner that I’ve described. There is an immature love that speaks about itself. How “intense” is my love, etc. But true love would say nothing of love and everything of the beloved.

    We “become all flame” when we make room and space for the fire (our God is a “consuming fire”). Those who want to see “theosis” in themselves will never see it. Those who want to see God will have theosis but will only know God.

    The disciple in the story knew all about his own ascesis. He “had his reward.” The Abba had God and was all flame.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am being roasted this evening on one stream of internet conversation. I removed myself from it. The charges (it’s from some other “Orthodox” folks) are that my critical use of “morality” departs from the Fathers. And, of course, lots of quotes are thrown in showing the Fathers using the term in a positive way.

    This is a kind of linguistic simple-mindedness. What does someone mean by the word they use? Are they allowed to offer a definition?

    There is also a pretense of doing theology when someone says, “Where does he find this in the Fathers?” It presumes a sort of chapter and verse, proof-texting that needs no interpretation or understanding.

    All I can say is that I do not write or think in such a manner. I read and digest and then work at living out these things. And then they are written in a manner that hopefully engages people in a useful way.

    This latest article has been the most-read piece over a two-day period in the history of the blog (which is saying something). It indicates to me that it touches some serious questions in a way that people find interesting and worth pondering and sharing.

    I have a little less hair tonight, having scratched my head too many times! Lord, have mercy.

  61. Red Avatar

    I saw that train wreck. They have a real lord of the flies thing going on over there. You are however putting things out there a bit beyond where most people are spiritually, I doubt if I would have understood this a year ago. For me anyway, when I find something I don’t understand, instead of throwing rocks at what I don’t understand and remaining in ignorance, I set it aside and come back to it later. Most often I find there is something of value there.

  62. Brian Avatar

    Very wise advice, Red.

  63. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Take heart, Father. This is tough stuff you’re putting out. So many of us converts have a hard time changing our way of thinking about this, and feathers are going to be ruffled… All I know is that, like the sound of a deep bell, something way in my innards knows this is all true. I was weeping when I first read through the comments, especially Aaron’s, on the “Terrorists and Torturers thread. Your writing and some of the other commenters make it possible for me to understand whatever it is I understand of this – has done so for years now. The shame thing with confession has been very useful, indeed. Thank you again.

    May the Lord grant you & family a very holy and blessed Nativity, and may he continue to comfort your daughter and all of you in your recent loss.

    with affection-

  64. Karen Avatar

    “I am being roasted on one stream of internet conversation.”

    In your case, Father, judging from the effect of your blog on me over the years, I believe you are in good company and are being “roasted” for the right reasons. Glad I didn’t see that conversation, though. I get tired of those battles. Lord, have mercy!

  65. Byron Avatar

    Bless you, Father! I find the depth of your wisdom to be very challenging but it draws me to God in a new way that, as a Prot, I have never before experienced. Thank you for both your articles and for your concern and courtesy in answering our questions here.

  66. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dana, Karen, et al
    Thanks for your words. It was a difficult day apart from the blog. So I was caught sort of tired tonight. My sins trail along behind me for all to see…(to quote one of the desert fathers).

  67. tess Avatar

    Take heart, Father! Your message is part of the stumbling block of Truth. We are always most defensive when the Truth comes closest to our carefully constructed self-deceptions.

  68. Casey Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, this article and your others recently have been a deep inspiration for me, and evidently for so many others. I pray for your peace & strength, and a blessed Christmas.

  69. Sophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am sorry to hear you are being roasted. As someone still fairly new to Orthodoxy, I find the sites of Orthodox polemics to be some of the most demoralizing places to visit–filled with opinion and indignation–which don’t often shine forth any of the beauty of the faith. For as long as I have been visiting your blog, I have found it to be a very different space: filled with beauty, and courageous honest existential application of the great wisdom of our faith. Thank you for that.

    I’m not surprised if this piece set off a firestorm. As one mentor said to me years ago, ‘being called to life is hard’. It’s much easier to believe that if we get the ‘rules’ right, we will retain some kind of control and–as you said–self-sufficiency in our morality. We can anticipate a reward of our own understanding, (or maybe the desired reward is retaining our own understanding to which God leaves us) rather than be transformed in relationship. It’s surprising to me how little love seems to come into such discussions, rather than ‘purity’. As though genuine morality is in a separate ontological category from life and love.

  70. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Sophia, allow me to stand by your insightful words.

    Father, your ministry is blessed and it does not surprise me that some are scandalized. May God bless each detractor and show them the love of Christ who is all in all.

    Glory to God for all things !

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One of the things that has become clearer to me in the course of this discussion is that morality as conventionally conceived is often bargaining with the darkness in my own heart. Essentially saying: You, darkness, can have this territory and I’ll do these things over here that seem OK. It is shallow and self-destructive.

    The same thing applies to looking at the spiritual problems that that lead to abortion, etc on simply a moral level. We are all deeply complicit in the spiritual disorders that allow such things not only to go on but to be approved. A simply moral stance against such things enables me to feel good about myself while the spiritual darkness that manifests as abortion is still deep in my heart. The ultimate reality is that I still think I am God. I have fallen prey to the same seduction that Adam and Even did.

    Lord have mercy.

  72. A.J. Avatar

    Well said Michael.

    Lord have mercy.

  73. Sophia Avatar

    Oh yes, well said!

  74. davidp Avatar

    Just a quick comment. I enjoyed your lecture at:


  75. fjh Avatar

    Father, I think ‘exception’ in para 4 needs an -al?

    Thank you for challenging and inspiring us.

    May God continue to inspire you.

  76. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    So then the question becomes what can I do about the darkness in my own soul. Repentance does not seem to be a strong enough word or act and why I keep “repenting” of the same things. There is no way that even with the deepest most honest confession I have ever made that I will be prepared for the grace of the Eucharist.

    Yet, God in His ineffable mercy, still instills hope in my heart because He is deeper than the darkness. The darkness is only a cloak that covers Him. I can’t help but wonder if I give the darkness far more substance that it actually has by my love of its seduction.

    Perhaps Father you can spend some time on the “what to do about it” phase of things realizing that no matter what we are dependent on the Grace and Mercy of our Lord. How do we participate more fully in that Grace?

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Worse than that. The paragraph was badly written. I’ve tried a fix. Wonder how that happens?

  78. tess Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Your observations about morality and abortion are spot on. Having walked in life with three other women who had abortions, I came to know their own hells of suffering well. Imagine my surprise that when one finally found peace, the first reaction of my soul was to withhold forgiveness– “How can she forgive herself?” Oh, I was so ashamed of my hard heart!

    Thank God persistence in illuminating those dark places.

  79. Jason Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I think you are saying that we must go beyond concern solely for external behavior to address the spiritual illness which underlies this external behavior; and that the purpose of our life is to be purified, illumined, and deified and not simply to exhibit good moral behavior. However, I think the article uses a lot of language that is confusing and seemingly problematic. For instance, while you say that “un-moral” does not mean “immoral”, the dictionary defines “un” as a prefix meaning “not”. We are to go beyond morality, but to say “un-moral” is to suggest that theosis is at odds with morality, or that theosis is incompatible with morality. It is true that our goal must be to purify our hearts and live in communion with Christ and not simply exhibit good external behavior, but it seems to borderline on gnosticism to separate the external and the internal as if we can focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Shouldn’t we focus on purifying our hearts AND conducting ourselves externally according to the teachings of the Church and the commandments of Christ (and not simply on social norms dictated by a secular society)? Don’t we need to labor both internally AND externally? Perhaps it is just the word choices you have used, but it seems as though you are suggesting a false dichotomy between morality and theosis when in fact you are probably intending to emphasize that Orthodoxy goes beyond morality to theosis.

  80. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Definition of Irony: You are giving your life to the mission of calling everyone back to the true, classic, original faith of Christ – and you are being perceived as dangerously novel and pioneering. Methinks that anyone who called us back to God would be looked at exactly the same way.

    This accusation does signify a judgment, but on whom? I’m reminded of Jesus saying, “They persecuted me; do you think you won’t suffer the same?”

  81. Rayla Avatar

    Christ did not come to turn bad people into good people. He came to turn dead people into live people.

  82. Panayiota Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    I’m not sure if the tears that fall from my eyes are tears of joy’ sadness or repentance. I have been in a 12 step program for a number of years and although I thought I was following the program with some success, I realized from this series of articles that I was secrectly depending on my own efforts. I can see that I have also been unconsciously thinking that way about my life as an Orthodox Christian. What a sense of relief to know that I won’t get any better. All I can do, is walk more closely.
    Metropolitan Bloom makes the analogy, that God should be in our heart and mind as intensely and as constant as a toothache. The analogy seemed somewhat crude, but I see now that it can be painful to replace ourselves, and who we think we are.
    The sweet side of all of this is to know the blessing of living in His presence. “Christ is in our Midst!”

  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God bless! You give me tears as well! The first step of the 12 is admitting that we are powerless. The 12 steps, a miraculous program and a gift from God is about as non-moralistic as anything I know and yet it actually changes lives – profoundly. I work weekly as a volunteer in a treatment center. I see miracles all the time! And they succeed only when they realize that they’ve failed. Moralism got them nowhere. It is an eloquent article.

    I have seen more lives changed through AA than through all of the Churches I’ve served over 34 years. Those people understand that if they don’t work the program (which is quite non-moralistic) they will die. And God in His mercy, showers them with grace and proves His love. For He is a good God and loves mankind!

    May God keep you one day at a time!

  84. A.J. Avatar

    I would like to express my love to all on both sides of this “debate.” It should now end. My prayers will be for all who find Fr. Stephen’s message difficult, as well as for those who have found comfort and discernment in it.

    At this point I would ask anyone reading this blog and feeling tempted to comment or respond to Karl, or to lambaste anyone further to refrain.

    “Do not attempt to explain something difficult by disputation, but through the means which spiritual law indicates: through patience and prayer and unwavering hope.”

    St Mark the Ascetic.

    In love – AJ

  85. Eric Avatar

    I agree so much with your comment on AA Father Stephen. The first time I sat in on such a group, as a client advocate at a drug rehab centre, I went home and told my wife ‘I have seen the Kingdom’

  86. Dino Avatar

    You would be hard pressed to unearth something more fundamental in the entire body of the Fathers concerning ‘behaviour’ than the notion of “hopeless hopelessness” which is the key to Orthodox understanding of this topic. From David to Macarius, through Maximus and up to Nicodemus and Silouan the Athonites the locus of their paraenetic teaching is founded on the single-minded hope [on God alone] reaching its utmost, as a corollary of the utter despair (and renouncement) of ourselves (ie: awareness of our weakness) -and all else- reaching its apex.
    All morality that is not founded on this bedrock is –to a lesser or greater degree- pharisaical and destined to miscarry. But this “behaviour” (this frame of mind and heart) is about the ‘inside’ (Mathew 23:26) being sorted out in order for the ‘outside’ to follow of its own accord. It seems not, therefore, focused on the externals, due to the intensity of focus on the ‘internal’.

    I am very glad that Father Stephen makes this point the way he does, and I believe he is sufficiently, (painstakingly even) cautious in his use of words. The words of some other writers who have intentionally not shied away from the necessary shocking language (authoritative writings from Isaac the Syrian to Elder Aimilianos) on these matters is often even more “risky”.

    Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

  87. Karl Avatar

    Disclaimer: Dylan Pahman wrote the response I liked, not Fr. Andrew Damick. I apologize for being mean-spirited in my comment.

  88. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this post, as well as the earlier ones this month on the same theme.

    I discuss your articles on my blog and offer a brief defense of your work against the critique advanced by Dylan Pahman:

    Merry Christmas.

  89. Fr. James Rosselli Avatar

    Can morality save? No. Only Jesus can save. Can Godly morality be self-produced?
    No. A form of morality can be self-produced, but only the Holy Spirit can produce a Godly morality. Is Christian aspiration ultimately toward a moral life? No, Christian aspiration is ultimately toward God the Father.

    Nevertheless, God does care about how we behave, He does tell us how we should behave, and one of the measures of how disponable we are to the activity of the Holy Spirit within us, is how “natural” the moral life is becoming to us.

    Most people see living a moral life as a burden–as a “have to” that God sets before us, like not being able to have our ice cream until we finish our vegetables. And like the
    toddlers we are, we kick the table and make noise in protest. When we get older, we
    produce elegant moral expositions explaining why we should have our ice cream any time at all, but in the end they all tend to translate into the same old, “’cause I wanna!!!”

    In reality, God gives us the Moral Law for our own good. A moral life is a simpler, less-
    stressed, healthier and actually more spiritually and intellectually profound life, because it seeks its wisdom from God and not from self. It is a less-burdened life, and
    the Lord desires that we lay our burdens at the foot of His Cross–that we abandon the bag of rocks we lug around and make room for His yoke, which is light and easy to bear,.

    But, the moral life is not the vine. It is the fruit. If the fruit is to be Godly, we must allow God to plant Himself in the soil of our hearts. It is His Activity, combined with our willingness, that produces the fruit.

    I think perhaps What Fr. Stephen is getting at is that it is possible to worry the bud so
    much that we forget the attend to the vine–and this to the detriment of both.

    Morality, like any good thing, is not an end in itself. It is the fruit of Theosis, which itself
    is a product of our willing abandonment of ourselves to the Will of the Father, through our relationship with the Son, in the Power of the Holy Spirit.

  90. Eric Avatar

    As one of my old mentors was fond of reminding us, ‘Christ came to save the ungodly’, not ‘the immoral’

  91. Kelly Avatar

    Thank you so much for this article Father! As we approach the Nativity, it’s time for me to go to Confession. I was having trouble with how to form my Confession until I read this article.

  92. fjh Avatar

    “The disciple in the story knew all about his own ascesis. He “had his reward.” The Abba had God and was all flame.”

    Fr Stephen, Fr Z’s drawing attention here to the greatest of the commandments is the safeguard which would prevent the knowledge of the first elder of his own ascesis becoming an obstacle to the transformation apparent in the second.

    Archim. Zacharias
    And may I ask one question? Forgive me. Which is the greatest commandment of the New Testament? Please tell me: which is the greatest commandment of the New Testament? [Inaudible responses] Yes?
    A1: To love one another as I have loved you.
    Archim. Zacharias: No, no, no, no.
    A2: Love God with all your heart, with all your mind…
    Archim. Zacharias: No, it’s not that. You seek when I tell you… No one finds. I will tell you, and you will see that it’s not that. Anybody else? [Inaudible] No. [Inaudible; laughter]
    A3: Be not afraid.
    Archim. Zacharias: No. [Laughter] Yes?
    A4: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    Archim. Zacharias: I will tell you. I will tell you, not to drag too long [the] meeting. If you open your New Testament and read in St. Luke’s gospel, chapter 17, verse 10, you read there: When you have done all the things I have commanded you—all: to love God with all your heart, to love as I have loved you—when you have done all the things that I have commanded you, say to yourselves, “We are useless servants, and we have done that which we ought to have done.” The greatest commandment is to have this consciousness continually. Then we relate with the God of mercy, with the Father of mercies and God of every consolation. Then we receive him, we receive his chastening, and he will offer himself as to his sons. Forgive me.

  93. Dino Avatar

    “We are useless servants, and we have done that which we ought to have done.” The greatest commandment is to have this consciousness continually…
    Thank you for reminding us of this most significant talk! God’s virtues are indeed freely and magnanimously bestowed, but they are bestowed on those who consider themselves unworthy for anything other than remaining attached to Him as far as this is possible from their side; considering this as ‘doing what they ought to be doing as useless servants’. God immediately bestows His virtues “to those who ask”, but it is for God Himself they ask for, not the virtues. And they ask because they have been called to this by Him and, in this consciousness, marvel at their master’s magnanimous calling for them.

  94. Nicole Avatar

    Thanks for this, Father. I really need to read this today. Merry Christmas to you!

  95. Aaron Avatar

    Interesting all this…

    Especially those who accuse your words and thoughts as being far from Patristic.

    Saint John Chrysostom Homily II on Phillipians verse 11.

    “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are Jesus Christ unto the praise and glory of God; i.e. holding, together with true doctrine, an upright life. For it must not be merely upright, but filled with the fruits of righteousness. For there is indeed a righteousness NOT according to Christ, as, for example a simple moral life.

  96. AR Avatar

    Isn’t confession a reversal of that moment in the garden when Adam and Eve hid from the voice of the Lord God because they were ashamed?

    I think confession is showing yourself to Christ. But one must be careful that the priest is trustworthy.

  97. Dan Avatar

    Life is Real only then when “I Am”

  98. Antonius Avatar

    Dear Father Freeman,

    Thank you for your blog. It’s quite clear what you mean.
    But I do have a question about what you mean with ’empty’. You do not really explain.
    What does that mean? What need to be emptied? If I would be completely empty I would, literally and figurally, not exist. That would be a very nihilistic approach, God creates the human being and wants the human being to erode him/herself away.
    This is probably not what you mean with ’empty’. So what need to be emptied?

  99. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Thank you, Father.

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