The Problem of Goodness

monkprayerThough many struggle with the so-called “Problem of Evil,” the greater moral problem is that of goodness. How do we account for goodness in the world – particularly self-sacrificing heroic goodness?

It is not uncommon for a person in a dangerous situation to place their own life at risk in order to save the life of another. It is by no means universal (some act first to save themselves or are paralyzed by fear) but it is not at all uncommon. People also frequently act in a manner that ignores their own self-interest and values the well-being and interest of others. And these situations are often done in a manner that simply baffles all moral consideration.

Morality is the practice of following the rules. For Christians, those rules are the commandments of God. But even atheists will have some sense of what they consider to be right and wrong and will struggle to act accordingly. Families and cultures strive to inculcate morality in the young – helping them discern between right and wrong and helping them learn to choose the right. I have written (with some noted protests from others) that I think there is very little moral progress in human lives – that our internalized sense of right and wrong and our relationship with acting morally – is largely formed very early in life and undergoes very little change. A corollary of this assertion is that salvation (theosis), being united with God and conformed to the image of Christ, is not something that comes at the end of or as a result of moral progression.

I do not mean to imply that moral teaching is useless or even that it should be neglected. The formation of the young is a precious responsibility that should never be neglected. I do not think, however, that our moral suasion will be of much benefit to adults. I think they will be just about as good or bad as their character will allow and will likely feel guilt or shame as a result of moral failings, but character is by far the most reliable means of predicting and understanding behavior.

Character is something of a habit – or a set of habits. In the normal course of a human life it is shaped by many, many things both in the realm of nature and nurture. Many of the most important elements in a human life are set at a very early age. Character is also shaped by any number of unintended things – abuse, neglect, violence, shame, etc. Everyone you meet is broken in some manner and will likely discover patterns of brokenness that baffle their moral intentions. More moral instruction will not correct something whose deficiency was not caused by a lack of instruction.

Some of the best thought on the topic of character sets its formation within the realm of practices. Stanley Hauerwas has written that character is formed in much the same way a young apprentice learns to lay brick. We learn such skills by working with someone else who has those skills (a master brickmason). Probably the single greatest moral failing of the modern culture is the absence of apprenticeship. We foolishly take young people at the age of apprenticeship (today called “adolescence”) and place them in a social setting surrounded by others needing apprenticeship. Adolescents are not able to teach one another the skills that form and shape character. As a result, most adults are simply emotionally and morally immature, poorly shaped survivors of a broken culture that has forgotten how to make them into adults. Upon entering public school, children are launched into a “free-market” moral world in which character will be shaped by children. Why is “bullying” considered an epidemic today? Because our children are growing up on an island in the Lord of the Flies. Bullying is simply moderately successful behavior in the free market of adolescence. As a culture, we are insane.

All of that describes and even predicts our behavior to a great extent. We are about as good as our character will allow, only a little less so. So where does the character of goodness, of heroic goodness come from?

You can search in vain for the practices that produce heroic goodness. Despite the fantasy of Jedi Knights and the like, there are no schools for heroes. At best, we have video games by which we train the next generation of drone soldiers. But heroic goodness exists.

Earlier I mentioned the extreme cases that occur in the midst of physical danger. One stranger carries another down 12 flights of stairs during the collapse of the World Trade Center (there are many such cases). But there are also other far more mundane examples. A simple act of kindness, in the right circumstances, easily rises to the level of heroic goodness – particularly when it comes at personal cost. And these occur all the time. And those that I have in mind are not the product of virtue dictated by character. I have seen self-sacrificing goodness in the life of drug addicts, prostitutes and felons. Were such goodness able to be produced by any method known to man – then the book should be written and read by all.

Instead, we have serendipitous goodness – unlooked for, unpredictable, inexplicable. I would even go so far as to suggest that such goodness alone accounts for the survival of our species. For were our moral character alone required to carry the burden of civilization, we would have perished long ago.

There is a word for such goodness – it is grace. The Orthodox speak of grace not as God’s favor, but as God’s own Life. It is His Divine Energies. And the goodness that I am describing has all of the hallmarks of such Divinity. It cannot be described as the product of human study or effort. It is something at which we can only marvel. It rightly moves us to tears and draws joy from the depths of our hearts. For it is the gratuitous gift of God erupting in our midst. And its presence in the world is a sign of the Kingdom.

Such goodness should give us pause to wonder. What role does it play in the life of salvation? If we are truly saved by grace, how are we to understand the role of such goodness in the moral struggle?

It is the position of this unaccountable goodness and its relationship to moral character that points to the “unmoral” nature of salvation that I have described in earlier articles. This goodness lies hidden, unknown, unpredictable, unable to be inculcated, taught or produced by human effort. It is not the product of a moral scheme nor even of character formation. Having said that, I do not think it is merely accidental nor without a cause. It is grace.

In the gospels we have recorded the account of the “good thief.” We can presume, based on the gospel itself, that he was a thief, legitimately tried, convicted and executed. He is not a keeper of the commandments. But in the moment of his extremity, he rises to defend an innocent man. At the same time, he acknowledges his own crime and accepts the justice of his own punishment. It is a clarifying moment, though in no way predictable. Turning to the man being crucified to his left, he says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and with that finds paradise. It is grace.

There is the story of another man convicted of a crime, treason in his case. On December 22, 1849, as part of a group of 20, he was led to a place of execution. Several were stripped and tied to poles where they faced a firing squad. At the last moment, word came from the Tsar that their sentences were to be changed. This man, Fyodor Dostoevsky, experienced a rebirth, though the commuted sentence included 8 years of prison and punishment.

Later that day he wrote his brother:  “I did not whimper, complain and lose courage. Life, life is everywhere, life is inside us… There will be people beside me, and to be a man among people is to remain a man forever… that is life, that is the task of life…” It was a moment of grace that created one of the most unique voices of the 19th century.

We are being saved by grace. The entrance of Christ into the world did not come in answer to a human project nor as a result of human struggle and effort. It was gratuitous. When it came it was not in any way according to expectation. The grace of God as incarnate flesh was simply not the long-expected Messiah. He was the Christ no one expected.

The grace of salvation is much the same – perhaps exactly the same. What it requires of us is thanksgiving. The eucharistic life that is given us in Christ is one of gratuitous grace and grateful response. For the Divine Life that is the end of salvation is not a crowning achievement of our disciplined efforts. It is the transformed heart of the grateful child. It is only such gratitude that forgives enemies (no moral calculus ever makes this possible). It is only such gratitude that sells everything and gives it to the poor (moral justice would reject it).

And while morality continues its mediocre course of success and failure – goodness, unbidden and unexpected, continues to manifest itself, teasing us towards the feast of thanksgiving at the Messiah’s last banquet. At that table there will be only grateful hearts at the gratuitous meal. The moral will have excused themselves in order to marry wives and buy cows.

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.



44 responses to “The Problem of Goodness”

  1. xenia Avatar

    St Gregory of Nyssa speaks about virtues. are virtues different tham morality?

  2. Dino Avatar

    I hadn’t consciously made that connection and see it now: the unexpectedness of grace is indeed like the unexpectedness of the Messiah…
    How infinite are God’s mercies, the universe and life are held in His hands so that no corner is ever hidden from them, yet we still manage to be ungrateful servants (Matthew 18 23-35) -merely by forgetting the mercies that have been poured out on us.
    We forget that we are the one who “was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents” and should have been “sold, along with wife, and children, and all that we had, and payment to be made” and how “the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” and then we ask of our “fellowservants, which owe an hundred pence: and we lay hands on them, and take them by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest!”

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed it is so. I think that if we thought more of a “morality of gratitude,” we would be having far better conversations than are occasioned by the usual right/wrong stuff. There are on a daily basis so many moments and eruptions of grace/goodness, that we could easily sustain utter thanksgiving as a result. The Elder Sophrony said that if we would practice thanksgiving always, everywhere, for all things, we would fulfill the saying, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” I think that many find their minds to be in hell and are working so terribly hard to improve the place. It only increases the pain.

  4. Jenny Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am struggling to understand what you’re saying. I’ve read some of the writings of Thomas Aquinas on virtue ethics, and some of what you’re saying is similar, but with different words. What you call “character” sounds much like what Thomas calls “virtue” — a virtue is a habit that inclines us toward the good. But Thomas distinguishes between natural virtues (which are part of human nature) and theological virtues (faith, hope, and love, which are infused from without by God as an act of grace). Of course, for Thomas the natural virtues are *ultimately* derived from God. He sees all of nature as emanating from God. Natural virtues can be stronger in some individuals than others, and can also be strengthened through practice. But there is nothing that you can do to increase the amount of theological virtue that God gives you (although you can in some sense refuse to accept it).

    I can’t tell if you are saying the same thing, but with different words, or if you are saying something totally different. My instinct is that you don’t want to separate grace and nature as much as does Thomas.


  5. Paul Avatar

    Character formation does occur at a young age. I believe the Jewish tradition of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is really onto something. After 13, it is almost too late to change a person’s character.
    As a father of 3 young children, I wonder what I can do to help them develop sound character. I know the church plays a role in this too. I know that I should love them, treat them fairly, try to lead by example but is there anything else that can be done? Any tips as a parent yourself?

  6. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    Dear Brother in Christ, AMEN ! Are these the times of the great falling away ? Pray for the Communion of all believers in Christ.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Aquinas is indeed important in thinking about virtues/character. There’s much more recent thought, however. I studied under Hauerwas who does a lot of virtue/character stuff, too. We read Aquinas, Aristotle, but many others as well.

    I think that Aquinas almost says too much – it becomes more structured than it actually is – leading very much to the notion of “process” and “progress.”

    I am indeed using some of the language (character, virtue) but greatly simplifying, and throwing grace/goodness in – in a way that always leaves it “out of the scheme.” You cannot program it, tame it, process it, etc. There can be no “technique” of grace. I would say that there can, in time, be greater openness to the giving of thanks – and would suggest that it is just there that we most profoundly see the transformative work of grace.

    I think love flows from the same place. It is common, I understand, to make love the queen of the virtues – and it would seem that it ought to be so. But I’m suggesting that we only think this because it sounds like it should be so. Instead, I think thanksgiving should hold that place. I say this much more out of reflection on the ascetical teachers of Orthodoxy and the experience they describe – as well as my own reflection on experience.

    As Fr. A. Schmemann said, “Anyone capable of giving thanks is capable of salvation.”

    I also think that “increasing the theological virtue that God gives you” would be a question that is simply a distraction. Give thanks to God always, for all things. The rest will follow and you won’t have to think about whether it’s working or not.

  8. DimBulb Avatar

    Were such goodness able to be produced by any method known to man – then the book should be written and read by all.

    And if such goodness were produced consistently by any one religious group in a statistically measurable way over and above all others, then we should all convert immediately, permanently, and without complaint to that religion.

    There is great mystery here.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Love them. Be kind to them. Pray with them. etc. Be the kind of person you want them to become. Model thanksgiving for them. Our children will generally turn out to be pretty much like us. That’s both good news and bad news.

  10. Dino Avatar

    Father, and Paul,

    Elder Sophrony said that if we would practice thanksgiving always, everywhere, for all things, we would fulfill the saying, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” I think that many find their minds to be in hell and are working so terribly hard to improve the place. It only increases the pain.

    I think that we are all severely starved of ‘Hesychia’ and that is the reason we fail to “despair not”. And there is nothing more practical than that admonition to ‘Be still and know God’. Stillness/’hesychia’ in everyday language is finding the time to sit under His gaze with the Jesus prayer, to see ‘God is here with me’, to see that this or that tribulation is nothing compared to having the eternal God ‘here with me now in my heart’, to therefore acquire an overwhelming gratitude for everything we are aware and unaware of. Without it we can never retain the awareness that we are constantly pardoned “ten thousand talents” in order to be grateful, meek, joyfull, watchful, courageous, humble, zealous, lovign, magnanimous and all the other virtous which follow gratitude –the bringer of grace.
    A simple thing like that (watchful, gratitude and compunctionate stillness) is something transformative we can work on – and make a new start on working on it every time we catch ourselves laxing.
    Even just five minutes of it (due to its practicality) in the middle of the night after having to visit the bathroom can eventually spread into the other 23:55 hours of the day and take the place of the core of our lives that, if stopped, has a most obvious counterproductive -though unexplainable- effect…

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I began to lean toward Christianity by considering the problem of evil. After 40+ years, you, Fr. Stephen, have led me to consider that being a Christian requires that I embrace goodness even when it seems to be cloaked in pain, suffering, and malevolence.

    Once my mind has begun to open to that thought, such an embrace seems to be the content of the Gospel…indeed the very core of the Incarnation.

  12. Steve Avatar

    Father, this may be one of your finest articles. I believe it is a central insight vis. your previous posts about morality – specifically your distinction between morality and character. Beyond that I think your perspective on adolescence is one which needs to be seriously considered in our educational system. Thank you.

  13. xenia Avatar

    the virtues are what helps us to attain and practice the commandments. we are images of the Godhead. Christ became incarnate in order to return us to His original conception of uss that is to be a type of Himself eho naturally possses the entirety of the virtues. the virtues are attributes of God which we in our fallen state attempt to recover throughthesweat of our brow. st Gregory of Nyssa characterizes the virtues as precious jewels. The commandments according to the new testament scriptures are a guard it act in a moral sense in that it mirrors how we should behave as children of God, after the fall, because we began to worship false idols to be irreverent to God and to kill steal and the rest because our virtues became passions the jewels that God adorned us with were corrupted and their energies therfore became corrupted therefore negatively influencing the behaviour of men. this is hard to correct on our own. we are blind and paralysed. the commanments were an aid to sight and the Jewish ritual was an narrative of the promise of the coming of the Messiah and the foreshadwing of the healing sacrifice the new testament peoples-the Christians- the body and blood of Christ that will help us through faith to reform our character…i believe God through Faith wants to reform our character and this goes beyound a simple adherence to a simplistically view moral code. Everything we call natural was created by the Divine Godhead the Trinity. our character amongst other things was corrupted by sin and God came to save His people from their sins. And St.Paul speaks of sel restraint as a benefit that Christians are able to receive as they struggle to re-acquire the Virtues being sanctified by the medicinal powers of the Divine Energies of the Eucharistic Sacrament. as a person under going therapy i find it important to have a Christian moral code i can follow and that as the saints exhort that I strive to obtain the virtues which are an divine imitation of the attributes of the Godhead who has created me iin His Image. also i believe that with God all is possible including reformation of character and i will learn how to be abased and i will learn how to abound for i will learn how to be content everywhere in whatever state i am in i will learn how to be full and how to be hungry and i will know how to abound and how to suffer need. i will be able to do all things through Christ who strenghthens me. so in therapy i shouldnt take my progrss too seriously but remember my humbleness before God Nd man and strive ever more ardently to work out my salvation in fear and trembling.

  14. xenia Avatar

    after all God is Love and the Divine Energies of God are healing for the soul and the body

  15. xenia Avatar

    imparting the healing grace of Love to all aspects of our lives.

  16. David Chislett Avatar
    David Chislett

    What an amazing and beautiful article. Thank you, Father Stephen.

  17. xenia Avatar

    and for this i am learning to be grateful

  18. xenia Avatar

    so i thnk of St.Cohon who struggled with the passsions and prayed to St. John the Baptist and his struggle gave him crowns in heaven but wearying of the struggle perhaps despairing of his spiritual life he prayed one day with such ferver and indignent Faith that God healed him of His affliction. I think that through this life we learn that what we are also struggling to acquire is Faith.. those people who left the church because they saw no moral progress were unawarw of the progress they had made…maybe the Physician iss ts through prolong allowance of an affliction bringing us to a newer level of hum7lity. who best to judge than God Himself. St Paul similarly struggled and was told that the Faith is sufficient. and this same St.Paul exhorted us that as we live by Faith God forbid we think it is okay to become lawlwss. For God Incarnate is the fulfillment of the Law. well it makes me think much but what matters is that i obey His commandments and statutes in spirit by grace and in bodily deed through the struggle of conforming my will to His.

  19. xenia Avatar

    so they left the Church because they made a judgment concerning its efficacy in their lives. i think that is why it is important also to read the lives of the saints and study scripture. Because then you see that the healing of man is a mystery and we must also acquire patience …. anyway thanks so much for letting me think out loud.

  20. Victor Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this,

    I have just been reading Staniloae on the Trinity and am struck by the resemblance between how he describes the love the Son has for the Father and how you identify our need to be thankful. The Son’s love is not the gratitude of the creature for being created but is rather an eternal response to an eternal gifting by the Father in the Begetting of the Son. If there is gratefulness in the Uncreated eternal dynamic of the Holy Trinity and if morality as such is pretty much alien to that Blessed Communion then gratitude is much more normative than morality for us who are called to share in the Divine Life.

  21. xenia Avatar

    because in truth it aint over til its Over. until our dying breath we struggle to be worthy of Grace.. i think that is whyy Faith is so important.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Steve, unfortunately the philosophy behind universal public education is not salutary. Horace Mann brought a system to the U.S. from Prussia a system that was and is designed to reduce the role of faith and the role of the family and replace it with a state oriented morality. Peer to peer socialization is a conscious and necessary part of this process.

    Mr. Mann was quite explicit in his writings about what he wanted to accomplish. Modern propagators of this ideology are rarely so explicit.

    Now there are many fine teachers who manage to get around these biases but as the federal government’s control over education has increased, so has the statist bias. It is a primary motivating factor behind the decision of many parents to homeschool their children, or as AR pointed out “unschool” them.

    Do not expect the educational system to change anytime soon.

    The inadequacy and outright antipathy of the public education system to Christianity was also one of the primary motivating factors for my parish to begin a school ourselves based on a classical curriculum that was developed by an Orthodox priest.

    We started the process close to 20 years ago. It is one of the key pieces to fulfilling the vision of our bishop to have a complete functioning Orthodox community that includes (among other things), a monastery, a school, community outreach working with local charities and churches as well as organizations of our own such as the Treehouse and Eighth Day Institute (not to mention the bookstore). All of it is founded upon a healthy, growing, faithful Orthodox parish that I am humbled to be a part of. I do very little in all of this but I am delighted to boast in the accomplishments of my brothers and sisters which are by the grace of God.

  23. xenia Avatar

    and what about married saintss whose prayers reavh to God even before those of monastics. what is God trying to teach us here, or of the prayers of the robber in Russia who prayed as he practiced his livelihood only to be rebuked by his uncle a saint who came to him from heaven to reorient him to a more pure practice of the Faith or of st.Moses the Black or in one of Dostoiyevski sstories where he says it is a sin to commit a sin knowing God will forgive,.better to struggle against it or i understand St John Chrysostom gratefulness to be that of the opportunity to struggle to master these teachings have no place in our daily lives as adults? what then is the point of gratitude without struggle? lets just all be thankful wait for the unpredictale outpouring of faith and forget about our character. then sir why dont i just go jump off a ledge and call it a day. to give up on life and its inherent struggle to be good. wwhich is a characteristic trait of mine that is to give up. i dont because i have Faith in God in His commandments and in his understandings of His Own Self which the Orthodox Church Fathers have by grace tranlated to us. i think God callss for reformation of character in adults a d the right formation of character in our children. you cant tell adults that their character reformation is hopeless. the lives of so many saints counter this. what is repentance we are taught but a change in our character incrmentally but steadily like the alcoholic monk who each day reduced his intake by one shot and was at death glorified by God. it is a struggle a bloody struggle and nonetheless i am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this manner for it is still by the sweat but nonetheless nothing is done without the grace of God.

  24. Byron Avatar

    More wonderment! Thank you, Father!

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I mean in no way to suggest that we not struggle. But the character of grace will come in that struggle in a way that somehow seems not to be caused by my struggle. I have been sent into battle, and it is my task to battle with all my might. But when the reinforcements arrive, or the air cover or whatever, that makes the battle able to be won – it will not have been me.

    We struggle, but we are grateful to God for all things.

  26. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E


    Someone coming to Christ from a background of extreme evil, either the perpetrator or the perpetratee (?), might look at you as if you’d sprouted horns on the top of your head if they heard you saying their moral struggle was, in the end, beside the point.

    Would you classify our attempts to act with love as part of that moral struggle?

    I myself only think of the ten commandments when I’m tempted to break one of them, like tell a so- called white lie or cheat on my taxes. Otherwise, they’re not on my radar.

    Yet in my striving to love with Christ’s love, if I ever think I’ve succeeded in some miniscule way, my gratitude is more than immense. Because I can never not know that it’s grace, that it’s Him and not me, who performs that little miracle.

    And in the end I know that my stumbling attempts to love are all that I’ll know in this life, and that the transformation of my heart with all its darkness is not something I can bring about in this life or the next. I hope, in the theological sense, that He can.

    So, it looks like I actually agree with you, after I’m allowed my knee-jerk reaction to some of your comments (“We are about as good as our character will allow, or a little less so.”) on morality. Fancy that.

  27. Joel Watson Avatar
    Joel Watson

    You know Father, I rejoice each time I read something you have written. I do so-admire you and thank God for you and your sharing. But sitting here reading all the old posts I have missed and read your recent book which I devoured, I am wondering what in the world happened to you that makes you constantly refer to the Anglican (Episcopal here?) Church but with such distaste. Surely something good came from being a part of it, if nothing else it was a part of your journey to The Orthodox Church. I am sorry for what ever happened. Most of my theological thinking and prayer come from The Orthodox Church, but I rejoice in being a part of the Anglican Communion (as has been my family since the split with Rome). I am trying to think of SOMETHING that you believe that I do not, and I cannot. That longing I was taught at Seminary and in seminary pointed toward Orthodox writers and saints. But reading your writings I feel that I am nothing in your sight NOT being of Orthodox, and even less being “Anglican.” I do hope that I have never spoken of Orthodoxy the way you do of Anglicanism. And indeed, there was a Church in and of what is now England long before Peter got to Rome and a thousand years before the break between your Church and Rome. I just don’t get it. I am so sorry. But “all shall be well and all shall be well and all matter of thing shall be well.” God keep you.

  28. neal Avatar

    There will be always a new heaven and earth. If that is not what is expected, then that is just obtaining a pearl for considered loss.

    The price of freedom. Not any consensus on will. Has to be like this, there is the War. Some realms are full of it, some just stay vigilant.

  29. Allen Avatar

    Love the title and your writing today. Coming from a protestant background, my crises was never “The problem of evil” but the “The Problem of Goodness”. I was taught mankind was inherently evil. I was taught those that those outside the local protestant church had been turned over to evil. I imagined a world of drunkenness, sexual immorality, lies and deceit. Instead, I saw people exactly like me, with similar hopes, thoughts, fears, and struggles. I met atheists and many outside the Christian world who were ethical by modern standards. They helped me through many problems I was having in my life. I wouldn’t have made it without them. For my faith, though, I realized Christianity couldn’t be about ethics or morality. Most outside the Christian faith have ethics and morality. Christianity had to be about something else.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not said that our moral striving is beside the point. In fact, I think our moral striving is pretty much set in stone. You are a moral person and your moral character is pretty much what it is. You’re not likely to become morally better or worse. You need something else.

    Think of morality and character as being a sort of channel carved in a stone. Water flows in it. I’m saying that the channel-pattern of your morality was carved pretty much when you were young and won’t change a lot more. And even if I tell you that, you’ll still behave pretty much like you did and like you do.

    Now, there are things that can interfere with this. Drug addictions and other outside circumstances can change some things. A drug addict might turn to theft to feed their habit. But that’s not at all the same thing as stealing because you don’t care, or because you like it, or whatever. Such a person, once sober, will be very likely not to steal. None of us knows quite what our character would be until we are put under some extreme stress.

    I am also saying that the moral striving that most of us middle-class types engage in, we would do even if we didn’t believe in God. We would probably find another way to justify our moral decisions. We would not suddenly begin robbing banks or even shop-lifting. When you tell a white lie (and feel bad about it), there’s probably a reason for the lie. Laziness, fear of embarrassment, fear, a whole bunch of things. It’s not as bad as drug addiction, but certain stresses reveal the weaknesses in our character.

    I do think some of that can change. Moral effort is not useless. But it is not the means by which we are transformed into the image of Christ. That is something quite different. It is that something other that I’m describing in this article. It is grace – and not just a subtle power to help me behave a little better (that’s pretty much what most people think of when they think of God’s grace).

    I’m saying that this is simply too tepid. It’s like we want to tiptoe into the Kingdom of God. Christ says it’s the “violent” who enter the Kingdom and they “take it by force.”

    The “violence” to which he refers is the violence of radical grace – the very life of God at work in us. The disciples (and many monastics) willingly put themselves into extreme positions (ascetical efforts) in order to reveal such grace.

    Many people in history find that circumstances have conspired to put them in such extreme conditions. Such are the cases of the martyrs. We see extreme grace revealed because there is no tiptoing into martyrdom.

    I am purposely rocking the boat in this series saying, “Wake up! Your moral efforts are feeble little tiptoing and the Kingdom is calling!”

    Actually, one of the things I’m enjoying is seeing how defensive we are about our morality – and it is indeed so tepid. Orthodox Christians should be scarier. Too many of us sound like Protestant Sunday School teachers of the early 1950’s.

  31. Dean Avatar

    Thank you so much father Stephen for this article. I concur with a commenter above as it being the diamond in this series of articles. God’s grace…all is grace! Even as I write tears well up in my eyes. How could I not be grateful to God for all he’s been and done in my life. In the past I’ve taken a sheet of paper and began noting the many many things for which I am thankful. The pad quickly fills up. No, it’s not my puny efforts that accomplish anything. It’s not my moral striving that produces the heart of joy that I am experiencing in this moment. No, it is God’s grace…the life of God Himself who reaches down and fills even this heart blighted by sin.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Guilty as charged. I received much of value in Anglicanism. A love of beauty. A love for liturgy. A Eucharistic foundation. The beginnings of sacramental life. A love of tradition.

    If there was a pain it was in seeing all of that betrayed by the institution (and worse). If you are not in ECUSA, then you might not be as aware of that as I am.

    For many years I took an Anglican line on the history of the Church in England – its continuity with its past, etc. I came to believe that to be untrue. The English Reformation, I believe, was an extreme violent wrenching of the Church away from its tradition, complete with wholesale slaughter on the part of the crown. Henry VIII is among the most evil men ever to have ruled that land. He had simple monks drawn and quartered. Think of what that means. The present wealth of the English crown is founded on the properties stolen from the Church and never restored.

    The Church of England was an Orthodox foundation. The Normans altered that to a great extent and the Reformation did so yet more. Apostolic succession is not a mere exercise in history. That England still owns the buildings that were once the Orthodox Church doesn’t make its inhabitants Orthodox Christians. They are buildings (and even a people) that were expropriated by the Crown for its own ersatz state religion.

    Of course there is a wealth of wonderful things in Anglicanism. The so-called Western Rite in Orthodoxy has a lot of Anglican elements in it – that seem compatible with Orthodoxy. If time bears that out, well and good.

    I particularly found the ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church, to be in error within Anglicanism. But the “memory” of something better and something more was still there. Many Anglo-Catholics sought to rediscover that tradition in the 19th century, but eventually abandoned it.

    I knew Arbp. of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. He was a great man with a good heart and a good head. He wrote that it was the vocation of the Anglican Church to be reunited with the Orthodox. I agree. When he wrote those words he was able to imagine the entire institution doing so. But that time has passed. We’re having to make it here in one’s and two’s and small groups. I am very, very much an English (American) Christian who loves his heritage. For the same reason I want to see the fullness of the faith restored in the land of my ancestors, and established in this land that we so recently stole.

    But Cranmer is not and never was the fullness of the Orthodox faith. He had (and has) serious deficiencies.

    Finally, I think there is only One Church (as it says in the Creed). I think that the One Church is the Orthodox Church, though that is a deep scandal. It’s not because Orthodoxy is so much better and more pure, etc. It simply is the One Church. The ecclesiological mess outside its doors (and often within its doors as well) is a mess that was not of our making. We inherited it to a large extent. But it’s important to me that I call things by their right name.

    I could have remained an Anglican and had a much easier time of the past 17 years. I could have continued to read and like Orthodox thought. It had been my hobby for all of my adult life. I could have faithfully “fought” the good fight and worked and complained as I watched my denomination become yet more apostate.

    But I decided that the problem wasn’t Anglicanism. The problem was me. Those who were leading the denomination into apostasy were just doing the same things that had been done for a long time before that. But I myself was a different matter. I could do something different. I could dig ditches if necessary. I had no excuse in the long run not to give up and surrender my life to the fullness of the Orthodox faith.

    I entered Orthodoxy as a penitent. Journalist friends wanted to “do my story” when I converted and I asked them not to – because I did not think of myself as some sort of conservative leader who was leading people into the promised land of Orthodoxy. I saw myself (and still do) simply as a man living in delusion who needed to repent. And so I started that process. And though I’m grateful for what I received before I became Orthodox, I would not want anyone to think that Anglicanism is a safe place or that it is a place where you can do your own orthodoxy. It is not.

    I did not write for my first 8 years of Orthodoxy, though I had been a writer before. I needed time both to assimilate Orthodoxy in the real sense of the word, and to let my past go. I do not write much on the Anglican topic – only touching on it from time to time – but if what you know of Anglicanism is in ACNA or one of the other break-away groups – then you know an Anglicanism that is far different than the one I knew. The one I knew has emptied the Churches of England and become one of the most moribund institutions in Christian history.

    I’ve plenty of friends, particularly in the new breakaway groups. Many of them of my age are now bishops. I wish them well, though most are far more Protestant than I would have ever dreamed of being and often quite Calvinist. Any Anglo-Catholic who isn’t constantly wondering whether he should convert to Rome or Orthodoxy is unlike any Anglo-Catholic I ever knew. There probably are some, but they are certainly strangers to me.

    Orthodoxy, true Orthodoxy, understands that the Church is a communion – it is that which shares in the One Cup. And everything that shares in your Cup is you. England’s Cup currently includes apostates and heretics of the most egregious sort. It is not a communion I would want to partake in. But there is a quiet Orthodoxy that is returned to England. And it is holy and true. In some cases it is even re-entering its old buildings. Relics of English saints, long spurned by Anglicans and too often by modern Romans, have even been making their way back to Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox have sought them out as well.

    When I was in England in ’07, I went to Oxford and visited Lewis’ Church. The groundskeeper met us and we asked to see Lewis’ grave. “It’s only the Americans who come,” he said. Much as Lewis received no respect at Oxford, finishing his last years at Cambridge instead – to Oxford’s everlasting shame, I think.

    Some random thoughts…thanks for yours as well.

  33. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    Praise God! You inspire me over and over again. God has surely gifted you with grace and discernment to go along with a writer’s. heart.

  34. Margaret Avatar

    I do appreciate this blog post very much, Fr. Stephen. However, if you had simply typed these words “Upon entering public school, children are launched into a “free-market” moral world in which character will be shaped by children. Why is “bullying” considered an epidemic today? Because our children are growing up on an island in the Lord of the Flies. Bullying is simply moderately successful behavior in the free market of adolescence. As a culture, we are insane.” It would be enough to help my heart. I am a teacher of special needs children and I have my own children one in college and one in public high school (a very good and highly rated public high school) and you could not have said this better or more accurately. Thank you

  35. xenia Avatar

    Father, is personality and character two different things? i think so. to me personality is how one cognitively and behaviourly navigate time and space in a social context and character is a measure of ones ability to do so in a healthy manner? by health i mean in a manner pleasing to our Creator? By struggle we have free will. People either participate in Gods grace or they dont. Character may not always be an indication of grace. And yet, i find its true the saying no pain no gain. one can be moral in a vacuum theortically in fact its easier. one could be a rock of gilbrator on their own island but the minute two are on the island that is when the struggle really begins in some cases. it is there perhaps where grace penetrtes most profoundly. i was glad when i came into Orthodoxy to hear that God considered hHis creation good. i have a history with the protestant view that someone posted about that im still unraveling in my attempts tto be a being pleasing to God…i know a person can adhere to moral standards and be very well off the mark like a pharisee or c. e. o. of a multinational corporation. but didnt st mary of egypt didnt her character change? didnt st zosimos personality become more purified in that he was healed of pride? and his own personal inclination to apply himself to spiritual pursuits is the highest personality trait or inclination the human being can aspire to. the person who loves to create music or work with his hands or be a doctor or farmer- inclinations of vocation via personality does so in a way that reveals character which i dont think is chisel in stone. Character or virtues aka power or energies can indicate how healthy the state one is in in order to exercise them in the context of ones pesonality . i talk about personality in the context of vocation its so much subtle and profound yet essentially social hence the moral context in relation to God who saids love Me with all your heart soul mind strength and love your neighbours as you love yourself. Personality includes innate and habitual inclinations of being through time and space which include cognitive emotional and spiritual patterns within a social context. and character is how heathily we navigate that. to reform character takes effort on a daily hourly bases and i too have been filled with tearful gratitude when a flaw in my character has been at least for that moment superceded by grace. but we practice until certain new ways become habitual putting off the olde man and gradually step by step putting on Christ. throught struggle employing free will and by the Grace of God by which nothing can be done.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Mary of Egypt is a very good case to meditate on. First, there was grace. A goodness completely out of the blue. She couldn’t cross the threshold of the Church. That she saw herself as she truly was and repented was clearly not a result of moral striving. And she went to the desert. And was alone.

    It’s sort of hard to describe her struggle from there on out as “moral.” She stayed in the desert and she prayed and she stayed and she prayed. There were no moral decisions other than to stay and pray. She didn’t have to come to any new moral conclusions. But it was said that when she was tormented with longing for drink and the like that she would just lay down, for days, and pray. But she would have amazing visitations of grace in all of that as well.

    St. Mary, I think, cannot be described as someone who worked through moral progress. It’s just the wrong way to describe what happened in the desert. She was indeed transformed – but in the most unaccountable way. She goes in a single day from drunk and prostitute to desert dweller. In a single day. That’s something quite different.

  37. xenia Avatar

    Dear Father. there was an inclination in her heart some ray of the prsence of Christ in her heart which suddenly moved her to venerate the cross. she struggled to cross the threshhold but her longing for God. then a suggestion by her angel (she was already baptised) which she accepts and her eye falls upon an icon of the Mother of God. in those moments like in the conversion of St.Paul mmany gulfs were transversed in her soul. an cognitive ascent to live a different life such that a change of nature was effected by struggle moral struggle to reject the diabolical thoughts through prayer and through prayer not give in to the habitual indulgences that she had versed her flesh in and she did this struggle as you described prostrated in many days of prayer withering her flesh and purifying her soul and the perversion of her character was healed….her nature changed such that she walked on water. but grace was with her all the way and she willingly participated in it….it was a struggle….and even though with just one person wasnt there a moral standard she beholden to each time she rejected the suggestions of the past and embraced the virtous way of being in thought word and deed. the virtues are powers energies strengthened by grace humility meekness forberance diligence chastity generosity and magnanimity and other virtues. Faith Hope Love and the rest. For some the conversion happens quickly like St Paul And other times for her over thirty years. both took step was taken by either of them without grace nothing can be done without grace and yet the moal code can one say it is a person Christ Himself? what then is Justice the saints say Christ. what then is Love. again Christ. the image of Christ is mankind and for most of us we must struggle and even getting to the point of struggle is a struggle. i am blindsided sometimes by my character flaws and then paraylysed with fear such that i forget to prostrate myself in prayer. the devil tries to convince us and we must get to the point that we recognize his tricks being a somewhat timid personality sometimes im so afraid it is only grace that saves me. and yet God grants me the struggle perhaps as amedicine like teaching a child how to ride a bicycle using the laws of nature? a healed personality and character walks harmoniously with grace ?

  38. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    “He who thinks he has achieved perfection in virtue will never go on to seek the original source of blessing, for he has limited the scope of his aspiration to himself and so of his own accord has deprived himself of the condition of salvation, namely God. The person aware of his natural poverty where goodness is concerned never relaxes his impetus towards Him who can fully supply what he lacks.”

    –St. Maximus the Confessor

    I just discovered this text yesterday. What more could I add?

  39. Joel Watson Avatar
    Joel Watson

    Thank you for your reply. I agree, “England’s Cup currently includes apostates and heretics of the most egregious sort.” The Cup of the Episcopal Church as well; and Rome’s. Some add warm water; some add cold; some foul. I have no interest in The Cup. Whichever Angel, of Whatever Church, held his cup beneath the fountain of Christ’s crucified Body receives the same Blood, manufactured by the wounds “apostates and heretics of the most egregious sort” of folks like me continue to impose. But “for the Joy that was set before Him, he endured the shame,” and “by his wounds, we (all) healed.” I have been an Episcopalian for almost 71 years now; a monastic for 15, and a Priest almost fifty. I side with Simone Weil, the un-baptized Jew. If this Church which claims to be “right,” or that Church which claims, “No! “We only are ‘right,’” or that fundamentalist group that claims only it is “the only One”, then I will side with those are most certainly wrong, and wait for such a time when Love, as would die for my love… One who would become one with us as we are, and not The Right-eous. I have received only contempt from any Orthodox Clergy Person in my 71 years, even a best friend whom I gave a copy of Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World,” and after his conversion, and ordination never spoke to me again. The World “see[s] how these Christians love one another.” Even The Demons (rightly) believe, and (justly) tremble, others like our Father Abraham are obedient, and their faithful-walking is accounted to them as Right-eousness.

    You and Ye, have so much to offer the sinful world on behalf of The Risen Christ; perhaps folks like me on the crucified and dying Body.

    I treasure all that you (and Ye) share are willing to share, even the scraps from under the table. It is from The Lord’s Table. Thank you for this food! Bless you. Come visit us. This (The Cheyenne River Reservation) is not another culture, it is another world, with a language no one else on earth speaks– no word for sin, or time, or Love, or “spiritual”— no word for “God.” Perhaps we could all start afresh in opening the Treasured Tradition. Just stream of thought thinking. God bless you more and more.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I think your earlier comment on thanksgiving holding the place of the queen of the virtues [or maybe that thanksgiving is the form of Love that is most applicable to a creature] is worth more attention!

  41. Dino Avatar

    It’s invaluable…

  42. AR Avatar

    An excellent article.

    About apprenticeships, I believe this with all my heart. My son is 8 and I think he would have benefited from beginning an apprenticeship a year ago! He should be working alongside grown men and half-grown men. We do what we can. In the morning when his dad is getting ready for work (he works second shift) my son has duties that will help my husband get out the door ready and fully fed. He takes pride in these things and he does them voluntarily, with our guidance, of course. He seems to get far more out of doing these things than he does out of any kind of school work we get him to do.

    Still, the closest thing he has to an apprenticeship is watching young men on youtube videos demonstrate their gaming skills. Predictably, his current ambition is to become a youtuber. I wish to God I could find a way to direct this energy, the strongest energy in his soul right now, into a more noble direction. Our current goal is to move somewhere we can have a garden so he can work alongside both his dad and me to provide the family with fresh food. That would be a good start.

    ‘Teen 2.0’ and ‘The Continuum Concept’ had some good ideas and histories related to some of the more earthly concepts in this essay.

  43. Dino Avatar

    I guess that an example of ‘progress’ as in gradual transformation, (although by no means what is understood as ‘moral progress’ in the common parlance), is what comes about in monasticism through the practice of complete obedience. But -as with all other transformations in Christ- it is again, just an ontological change of ‘centre’ from the “I” to the “Thou”, the self-centred one becomes Christ-centred through a certain path of healing self-denial.

  44. Christopher Avatar

    ” What it requires of us is thanksgiving. The eucharistic life that is given us in Christ is one of gratuitous grace and grateful response. For the Divine Life that is the end of salvation is not a crowning achievement of our disciplined efforts.”

    A couple of events have occurred in my life in the last couple of weeks that really drives home the above point for me. The most recent one was the suicide of an a person who was an acquaintance of mine who had a larger role in a community I am a part of.

    Not to discount depression as an organic brain disease, but one of the themes I am sensing in this life is an unrealistic expectation of control, deep shame of certain sins that due to their nature were very public, and what was probably a certain lack of thanksgiving for what was in the end a life of no small amount of blessing (though this is something deep and I say it with an utmost tentativeness and withholding of judgement).

    I also suffer all from all the above (wanting to control that which I can’t, shame and public embarrassment for certain sins) but I am aware and truly thankful (in my better moments – that is my more “watchful” moments) for a life I simply do not deserve if looked at as an accounting of my own efforts. Grace is the only explanation, and it is almost too beautiful to bear. Perhaps this is why I spend so much of my time looking away?!?

    If you get a chance, say a small prayer for the repose of Pancho.

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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

  3. Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist. Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms…

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  5. Father Stephen, Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!

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