The Work That Saves

Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said, “No,” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperated in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. It was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We cannot hear the meaning of grace in English, but in the Greek, it also carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm this false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction.

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gifting life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

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.



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95 responses to “The Work That Saves”

  1. Athanasios Avatar

    Thank you for this reflection, Father. It seems that this is a topic that needs the Orthodox liturgical life to grasp properly. Before I was Orthodox, I read many of the Fathers (and even the Scriptures), and all my reading led me toward a more “moral” understanding of synergy. Your blog has helped correct that notion, but more than that, finally immersing myself in the Orthodox liturgical life and prayers did much to correct that notion in a natural way, without even thinking about it very much. The Orthodox hymns and prayers gave me the words I needed and proved to be a constant corrective. I can no longer imagine reading the Fathers or Scriptures without living in this context. And I do give thanks God for that!

  2. RC Avatar

    Father, I feel a bit sheepish even asking this, but could you expand on what thanksgiving “looks like”? I hear the term and immediately think of “being appreciative.” But it feels like it ought to have a deeper meaning, perhaps.

  3. Randy Avatar

    Love it – many of us who were formed in the Faith v. works craziness of western Christendom have struggled much with the language of many of the prayers in Orthodoxy. If we thought Calvin’s total depravity was greatly incompatible with the words of Christ in, for example, the sermon on the Mount, how much more have we not known how to “hear” and pray a number of the prayers which seem extremely self-loathing precisely because they DO seem connected to our many sins, not the gaze into the beauty of God’s unfathomable love for each and every person, as you point out. I for one, would enjoy more blogs elaborating these crucial themes. Thanks again Father for your bringing the Good News of the ancients to us who have suffered the wounds of the western battles.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A very healthy place to start the contemplation of what thanksgiving looks like is the Annunciation (Luke 2). The Mother of God is probably the greatest example of thanksgiving that we know. It is her primary response to the word of the angel. “Be it unto me according to Thy word,” is, of course, a word of obedience – but not obedience to a command. It is a deeply and profoundly grateful acceptance of what is being asked.

    We can all imagine an almost transcendental thanksgiving – how we might feel if we were told that the worst thing we could imagine in our lives (say the dying of someone close to us) were to be reversed and all things made well. Or some such scenario. We find it easy to be grateful when we receive the things we greatly want. But imagine feeling that same gratitude for everything that happens around you at all times. That kind of grace is simply transformative in the extreme. It is the stuff of which ecstasy is made.

    But we are not there yet. But we begin by giving thanks – an offering of our lips and as much of our heart as possible – for all things. At all times. It is a practice that will help us pierce through the shroud of doubt and the curtain of confusion in our lives. The person who is capable of giving thanks for all things is capable of knowing the truth.

    “Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,” is St. Paul’s description of it.

    Another example is the action of generosity and forgiveness. I frequently hear people describe all the good things they would do if they won the lottery. Of course, it’s easy to be generous if you imagine yourself to suddenly have 300 million dollars. Give half of it away and you’re still richer than you’ve ever imagined. And so, in their thanks, people easily imagine an extreme generosity. But imagine that same generosity with everything you have. That is a form of thanksgiving.

    If you find it hard to give thanks – then in your prayers ask God to help you. It will delight Him and He will help.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re welcome! Glory to God!

  6. Byron Avatar

    Even tonight, I felt I was being drawn away from God and needed to pray but I did not have words for the prayer in me. I took up the Ancient Faith Prayer Book and began reading prayers, but with the full knowledge of my need and awareness of God’s Grace and it brought me back to Him and His love. Thank you, Father. This a very timely entry! Praise God!

  7. Aaron I Avatar


    I was having some of the same thoughts.

    “Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work.” This is beautiful.

    While it seems so simple, such a simple truth can mean the difference in how one lives their faith and relates to God and to ALL their relationships.

    Luther in On the Bondage of the Will and Calvin would go so far as to say that man was so depraved that even a “response” was impossible. I was taught that God quite literally dragged “the elect” kicking and screaming into salvation to display his mercy and resigned the rest to hell to display his justice.

    To be free from such monstrous ideas about God is cause for THANKSGIVING!

    When I think of my move to Orthodoxy and my eagerness as a convert to “do things right” – only to be met with the most humble, practical and frankly loving and pastoral work in my life. The entire message sent was “slow down…it’s a marathon not a sprint. We are here with you. There is no cookie cutter approach for anyone…we’re all different persons.” Its hard for me to picture the dogmatic side of Orthodoxy, though I know its out there. If anything I have been encouraged to walk slowly, humbly and practically as I begin spiritual disciplines and have been warned against simply jumping in feet first. “There are dangers in that…pride on the one end…failure and despondency on the other.” I have never felt so nurtured in faith in my life. My experience with Orthodoxy has been nothing but organic and non-rushed and quite different from the sense of desperation that seemed to cling to me and others in Evangelicalism to “do God’s will” and “build His Kingdom.” etc.

    None of those things were ever done in me…and no cared if they were. It was all about scoring points for the Kingdom somehow, someway. For a “tradition” based on the denial of works – we sure worked hard.

  8. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen,

    These words come at a right time for me in my life.

  9. Ananias Avatar

    I love your posts. As a convert from Protestantism, I find that they are helpful for bringing me out of my protestant mindset into a more Orthodox mindset. Thank you for writing them.

  10. David Brault Avatar
    David Brault

    I am one “whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known.” I have despaired that I am “not doing this right” because I don’t see any “progress.” I look at the lives of the saints and I think maybe, just maybe, God *does* play favourites.

    Thank you so much, Father, for this corrective. However, I must make a further confession. As I consider my catechumenate and post-chrismation life, I recall that my own dear priest has made this point to me on more than one occasion, both in conversation and in Holy Confession. Oh, how I wish I had paid attention!

    Glory to God for all things, especially His Grace!



  12. Art Pederson Avatar
    Art Pederson

    Thank you, indeed, Father Stephen. As one beginning to explore Orthodoxy, from a lifelong Evangelical Perspective, I found this explanation of Grace and Thanksgiving very enlightening and helpful. I am finding the blogs and podcasts of Ancient Faith Radio very helpful, but as you pointed out that it is possible to be misinformed even by some Orthodox Clergy. In my infancy approach to Orthodoxy, would you be willing to briefly respond to me privately via my email, on the question of the true reflection of Orthodoxy on Ancient Faith Radio Resources? What I mean, is whether all material available is trustworthy in its Orthodox Theology, or whether there are some sources I would be better to avoid. I am trying to avoid any flaming on your blog. Thank you.
    Art Pederson
    Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

  13. Dejan Avatar

    It is said that Macarius was once given a bunch of grapes, and “seeking not his own but that which is another’s” (1 Cor.10.24), he gave them out of charity to another brother who he thought was somewhat infirm. This brother gave thanks to God for this brotherly kindness, and thinking no less of his neighbour than of himself gave them to someone else, and this person again to another, and thus the bunch of grapes was handed on throughout all the cells which were scattered at great distances from each other through the desert, with no one any the wiser about who had first sent them. In the end they came back to the sender, and Macarius gave great thanks that he had been a witness of such restraint and charity among the brothers, and increased in severity the practices of his own spiritual life.

    Quote from History of the Egyptian Monks

    St. Macarius of Alexandria did not lend grapes to another but gave them away joyfully. When at the end same grapes came back to him after long journey through the desert, I imagine that the feeling of oneness with other brothers overwhelmed his heart with higher joy. He offered gratitude to God for suddenly becoming aware the sublime spirit of oneness, and at the end he too refused (again) to eat those grapes like others. Beyond the lesser goal there is always the higher goal – in this case it seems to be feeling of oneness as more fulfilling and new horizons opening than both eating the grapes or withdrawing to eat grapes for the sake of another.

  14. Vuk Uskoković Avatar
    Vuk Uskoković

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Would you say perhaps that a similar thought lies at the heart of Hopkins’s poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, especially the lines:

    [T]he just man justices;
    Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is
    —Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

    His poetry in general might be described as seeking after the hidden grace within all things and giving thanks for it, and very often when I read your texts his verses suddenly surge up in my mind.


    Vuk Uskoković,
    Bar, Montenegro.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll do what I can.

  16. ajt Avatar

    One thing I thought would be brought out in this article was the view of Grace in orthodoxy as the Uncreated energy of God not simply unmerited favor of God. When seen in this light it seems that the conversation takes on a whole new shape. Gods Grace is He who works in us, the mystery of our salvation. Father, how does this revelation of Grace affect the conversation in the west?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Paisios said that be a theologian, one first had to become a poet. Hopkins fits the bill for me.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. For years I’ve thought the same thing, but I think it fails when considered alone. Grace is indeed the very life of God Himself (the uncreated energy), but many people (and writers) fail to think about the quality and nature of that Life and almost reduce it to some sort of Divine Force. The language of “energy” is quite alluring in this respect. “Energy” can be just as easily translated “actions” and yields a very different train of thought.

    Frankly, I see lots of people who have remained in the grace vs. works conversation and just brought the language of energy into it, with the result that they tip the scale in favor of works, only making them “divinely powered works.” This leads to the failure and despondency that I’ve mentioned, as well as a hyper moralism in some. It’s a mistaken treatment of the Divine Energies (grace).

    I avoided that in this article very much on purpose. Grace is indeed “He who works in us,” and the hallmark of that work is gracious thanksgiving in all things.

  19. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen…could you differentiate between St. Paul’s ” IN everything give thanks” and ” give thanks FOR all things” of elder Sophrony? It seems to me that “for” all things seems much broader and more difficult.

  20. Tommy Avatar


    If I may ask, would it be correct to understand the work referred to in Saint James’s letter (2:14-26) as — or as beginning with — “gracious thanksgiving in all things” or is he writing about something unrelated to your post?

    Your writing is always helpful. Thank you.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not differentiate. In Ephesian 5:20, St. Paul says to “give thanks for all things” (hyper panton). Yes, it is more difficult. And giving thanks “for” all things, is ultimately the only thing that will take us into the mystery of the Cross. It is difficult – only a god can do it. Only grace takes us there. Something less, that we could probably do by ourselves with some effort – is merely human.

    It will not happen suddenly, though there can easily be “flashes” of such total thanksgiving. In those flashes we can come close to seeing the face of God. It must not be a cause of despair because its hard. Instead, it is a vision of what God is going to do in us. If we can give thanks for all things – then nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.

    It is drives the devil away. He hates even the echo of thanksgiving. It mocks his every purpose.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Lest anyone think there are any private thoughts in this matter – I’ll speak openly. I’m proud to be associated with Ancient Faith ministries. I think there are some outstanding writers and speakers there. It is a fairly representative slice of American Orthodoxy – with perhaps less representation from the Greek Orthodox – but not for any clear reason either way. The blogs are what they are. Some written by laymen, some by priests. And they do what they do. It’s like reading books. It depends on the author.

    In the 1970’s when I first approached Orthodoxy and began reading, less than a single shelf held Orthodox writings, and the bulk of them in English were from St. Vladimir’s press. Times have truly changed! With that, an even greater need for discernment. But no one should get most of their Orthodoxy from books, blogs or podcasts, etc. Orthodoxy is rightly and primarily gained from the liturgical life and parish/monastic life. Books and the like should only be used to “fill in the corners.”

    For myself, I read only one or two other blogs – and actually only one other very regularly (Eclectic Orthodoxy by my friend, Fr. Aidan Kimel). I don’t have time for them. I read books – mostly the Fathers or serious scholarly work on the Fathers. And then I digest them. But the digestion occurs mostly in the liturgical life and private prayer.

    I add to that one’s own parish priest. A priest is a sacrament. And he is a sacrament regardless of his training or erudition, etc. We should try to lead simple lives spiritually. We are not so complex as to need a holy Elder. In general, barring abuse, we should trust (and give thanks!) for what we have.

    Do not desire to become an expert in Orthodoxy! Desire to become a beginner!

    I utterly recommend Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims (google them – they’re everywhere). They probably contain everything we actually need to know.

    Once while in a long conversation with Fr. Thomas, I said, “You know. The more I write, the less I seem to know.” He said, “Good! Keep writing! Someday you’ll know nothing. Then you’ll be holy!” He wasn’t joking.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think St. James is using “works” (erga), with the meaning “deeds.” It has a lot of ambiguity in the Greek. But I would parse his meaning and clearly see gracious thanksgiving within it. It is the nature of gracious thanksgiving that it acts in joyful response. Look at the Mother of God. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is a response of joyful thanksgiving that includes the complete offering of herself to God. She held nothing back. St. James is railing against a merely intellectual interpretation of “faith.”

    But there is no “working” in the sense of creating a debt in James. It is the free gift of thankful response.

  24. Greg Avatar

    Father can you comment on the parable of the sheeps and goats? Specifically it seems to suggest our Salvation is dependent on our response to the poor, marginalized and imprisoned. rhetorically – who is “best” following the Gospel commandments – one who does these things perhaps mechanically or even under obligation, or one who does not but maintains a spirit of thanksgiving?

    I ask as Orthodoxy seems to lack the depth of charitable works found in Roman Catholicism. That seems a deep problem -this was particularly driven home to me this week in India. I wonder if this is connected somehow to this topic.

  25. ajt Avatar

    Thank you for this clarification Father. It was helpful for me in my journey to Orthodoxy to know that the grace of God is God himself working in me. That an unknowable, uncontainable God would deign to unite himself to me and enter into the cave of my wretched heart…of course this only really makes sense in the context of the liturgical life of the church as others have mentioned in previous posts.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I admire the wonderful work the Catholic Church does among the poor. Orthodoxy is no stranger to this – but it is often not so obvious. In so many parts of the world the Orthodox are the poor and marginalized. The immigrant experience of the Orthodox in the Americas has often created a very different image.

    It is impossible to maintain a spirit of thanksgiving and not be generous. It would be contradictory and a false spirit. I do not think comparisons about these things are very useful.

  27. ajt Avatar

    In response to Greg’s comment/question, I wonder if there is a difference between doing charitable works for the poor and becoming the poor. Christ didn’t become man to do good things for us, but He united himself to us in all ways. I would only ask…what is the purpose of charity? Or rather, to what end are the poor aided…to what are the poor being saved? Are we eradicating poverty or are we becoming poor that we (poor and rich alike) might be rich towards God in grace? There’s more that I could say and ask, but I’m struggling with the words and need to get my children their lunch.

  28. Karen Avatar

    Father, would you say “self-loathing” as Fr. Sophrony is using it, corresponds more to “self-forgetfulness” and loathing of one’s own “self-effort/self-achievement” or something like that? I struggle with this because I am all too prone to loathe the inherent neediness and dependence of my essential humanity (especially in its brokenness), and it seems to me this is actually a sin and the root of many sins. It seems to me what is needed is the unselfconscious self-forgetfulness of the very young child who instinctively comes running for help, attention and love from those she trusts.

  29. Karen Avatar

    “We love because He first loved us” ( 1 John 4:19) is also a good touchstone for me to reorder my thinking in this regard. Even here, I have to remind myself, though, it is not proper to translate this verse as, “My conceptual knowledge that God loves me obligates me to love others.” It would be more proper to paraphrase, “My experience of the gracious love of God poured out on me provokes me to respond with an outflow of grateful joy and love toward God and others.”

    My example is an illustration of how an inordinate shame and perfectionism can tempt one to distort what God is trying to show us from the Scriptures or the writings of others.

  30. […] The Work That Saves […]

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re touching on something quite important. Become poor is much closer to the point of Eucharistic living. I have another article in the works that will touch on this.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is rightly a self-forgetfulness as well. We get bent out of shape because we’re so loathsome, demonstrating our pride (because we can’t stand to be so loathsome). It is as noted. Don’t be excellent and swell. Be simple. Be poor. Acknowledge your weakness. Let everyone else be excellent.

  33. Cam Avatar


    Thank you for all of your great blog posts. As I was reading through your “unmoral Christian” posts as well as this most recent, it occurred to me that a more practical example might help me and perhaps others understand some of the more complex points you are addressing.

    Let’s say you had a hypothetical parishioner who was a serial adulterer and had come to confess this specific type of sin. How would what you have been discussing in these blog posts apply to him? What spiritual council would you give him?

  34. Greg Avatar

    Well, the indigenous Orthodox in Kerala are neither particularly poor nor particularly oppressed, but strike me as an outsider as even more insular than the Orthodox Churches with which we have regular contact.

    In any case, the point about differences in confessions was secondary – I was more curious about the parable of the sheep and goats and: it seems to insist on something more directly in our works than thanksgiving. I’m trying – somewhat unsuccessfully – to understand how this all fits together – or indeed if it really does.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I find the example of Mother Teresa to be instructive. She was utterly grateful in all that she did. It radiated in her work. She was a Eucharistic person. I think a true eucharistic existence is fruitful in good works. And that they are very hard and difficult outside of a eucharistic existence.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Let’s think of the hypothetical adulterer. I would certainly tell him to stop. But we would also spend some time outside of confession to look at what’s really going on in his life. Serial adultery, your example, is pretty much never a constant “moral” failure. There’s some wound, brokenness, etc., going on that needs to be addressed. So we back up and start looking. So the first activity is trying to know himself/herself. That is also a process of coming to know God.

    A problem with a strictly “moral” approach is its frequent failure to find out what’s really going on. A priest works for the Great Physician foremost. He must be a healer of soles rather than their judge. Diagnosis is the first thing.

    Try something easier as an example.

  37. K.C. Avatar


    You ask; …who is “best” following the Gospel commandments – one who does these things perhaps mechanically or even under obligation, or one who does not but maintains a spirit of thanksgiving? God knows. We don’t. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither.

    The book Toxic Charity describes some of the major pitfalls of charity work done by the West for so long that actually is “… a kind of curse,” says Dambisa Mayo,…Aid…intended to promote health becomes “the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

    Perhaps the answer to some of your questions lies in other words and parables of our Savior that shed light on such questions…such as;

    The story of the Widow’s offering in Luke 21 – and,

    that of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.

    and most notably Christ warning; “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them, Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets (perhaps we can add the internet as a contemporary equivalent) that they may have glory from men.”

    The Roman Catholic Church does great things with its vast wealth and power. There is goodness and faithfulness in that. “I tell you, they have their reward.”

    The Orthodox Church must be humble and be aware of it’s own calling in this regard – while continuing to do what we can in a way that is not necessarily public, but nonetheless active. Whatever is done must be done humbly and quietly. If it represents a pittance in comparison to the work of others – so be it. God will judge. Not me. Not you. Not Fr. Stephen. Not the Pope.

    Clearly, in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats – the Goats are surprised to hear that they were negligent, while the sheep were seemingly unaware that they had ever done anything worthy of the Lord’s attention at all. There may be something instructive in that for all of us.

    God examines the deepest thoughts of hearts and minds (Jeremiah 11:20). He knows how much hypocrisy is in our hearts and how much truth there is. “Fire tests
    the purity of silver and gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” (Proverbs 17:3) In Revelation 2:23 Jesus tells the church, “I am the one who searches out the thoughts and intentions of every person. And I will give to each of you whatever you deserve.”

    As a final thought – since you framed you question as comparing the faithfulness of one “who does these things perhaps mechanically or even under obligation… the Words of the Apostle Paul are in apropos…

    “And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor,
    and if I give my body in order to boast
    but do not have love, I gain nothing.
    Love is patient, love is kind.
    Love does not envy,
    is not boastful, is not conceited…

  38. Cam Avatar


    Thank you for your reply. Even though the example I offered was a bit difficult, your response still offered some clarification.

    As for an easier example, how about spending excessive amounts of time playing video games, or a selfish failing to consider the needs and desires of others.

  39. Athanasios Avatar

    I couldn’t help but think of this conversation on synergy when hearing from the Eucharistic liturgy today: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.”

  40. lilium45 Avatar

    Your blessing father!
    Can we say in the same context that “love and do whatever you want”
    When we have love and do everything out of love for God, everything is blessed and fruitful!

  41. Nicole Avatar

    Thank you, Father for this post. Being a cradle Orthodox in the Deep South, I often hear this debate and it is hard to explain my beliefs when asked. Thank you for giving me the right words for an explanation.
    Christ Is Risen!

  42. Alan Avatar

    KC, thank you for your wonderful comments from 4/18 @ 10:48. Outstanding comments that were most helpful to me. Thank you!

  43. Bruce Avatar

    I find great hope today in this simple sentence spoken in Father Alexander Schmemann’s last homily on Thanksgiving Day, 1983:

    “Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy”

    When we begin to sacrifice what gets in the way of thanksgiving to God, we open new pathways to Him. The Psalms and Hebrews offer us poignant reminders of this possibility (as does the Anaphora in the Divine Liturgy) with the simple yet powerful instruction ‘a sacrifice of praise’.

    As we experientially ‘let go’ of what separates us praising God, we find Him in new places…new problems….new circumstances….where before we were convinced He wasn’t or perhaps, could not be. I like to think my life should be about the endless quest to find God in new places (while remaining present with Him in the old ones).

    And then perhaps these words from Martin Laird in his beautiful book ‘Into The Silent Land” become more real to us:

    ” Baptism and Eucharist are the great sacraments of God’s self giving. They create, cultivate, and sustain the foundational unity between God and humanity that is manifested in Christ. These are the sacraments of our deepest identity, hidden in the self-emptying of God in Christ. Union with God is not something we acquire by a technique but the grounding truth of our lives engenders the very search for God. Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience throughout most of our lives a sense of absence or distance from God is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word. This illusion of separation is generated by the mind and is sustained by the riveting of our attention to the interior soap opera, the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads. For most of us this is what normal is, and we are good at coming up with ways of coping with this perceived separation (our consumer-driven entertainment culture takes care of much of it). But some of us are not so good at coping, and so we drink ourselves into oblivion or cut or burn ourselves so that the pain will be in a different place no longer on the inside.”

  44. maria Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Well, I am one of those who is very discouraged. Terribly discouraged.
    Some of this has helped but in essence I wonder why Jesus said “All who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved”? and yet many of us new Orthodox are suffering angst. I can no longer find the Good Shepherd. He is lost in all these despairing prayers and comments of various monks.

    When I first discovered the Orthodox way, I was thrilled to find the way to follow Jesus Christ, and it has absolutely transformed my life. After finding this great place and the way to live the Christian life, it is like the rug was pulled out from under me. I read about these monks who think they won’t be saved because they slept an extra 1/2 hour, instead of their usual 3 hours.
    I also know elderly people who are Orthodox and are anxious and depressed, not knowing what will happen to them when they pass from this life.
    The only thing that keeps me from going back to my old “happy” protestant church, is that I compare myself before Orthodoxy and after and I know how much I’ve changed. Sometimes I’m joyful about that, but there is all this nagging unhappiness.
    I dont’ understand at all what “keep your mind in hell and sin not” means – surely this is tailor made for St. Silouan. Each of us is unique right?
    Also – the prayer to the Theotokos that says we pray to her because we don’t dare approach her son ourselves?! But all through the Gospels, people call out directly to Jesus when he is passing through.
    Finally – Jesus seems so far away in all this to me.
    I feel like it is all up to us.

  45. maria Avatar

    An addition to my recent comment –

    I feel like everything is on us to DO something.
    I’m reminded of a high school teacher who (because of a few slackers) told all of us that we were going to flunk out of college, that “college is exponentially harder than high school – you’ll never make it! And so, although I’d been waiting all my life for college, was thrilled to go – when I got there I accepted classes that were far too difficult for me, because (I thought) well, she said it would be hard.
    I took great burdens on myself for no reason.

    And what are we to think when we read lives of various monks who died despairing that “I have not begun to repent”, and similar comments?

    And then John of Kronstadt talked his new bride into a celibate marriage, as if something was wrong with the marriage relationship.

    It’s all very confusing and people like to chuckle about the paradoxes and ambiguities of the Orthodox way, but sometimes it’s very discouraging.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Much of what you describe is the “language of piety” (“we don’t dare approach” etc.). Americans are too literal, too anxious about almost everything. Orthodoxy should be lived and enjoyed and our joy and confidence should be in the goodness of God.

    The simple formulae of Evangelical Protestantism, “Believe this, accept this, and you’ll be saved,” is often rejected, because it obviously ignores an awful lot of Scripture, etc.

    It’s also true that many people read lots of things that are not good for them. In our extreme intellectual democracy, people want to read whatever they want, and might even resent being told that there are things they should not read or are not ready to read.

    In the “lives” of monastics and saints – there is a lot of “cultural content. I always joke and say that an American reading the life of a Greek saint should divide by 3. Greek culture is very sweet, even saccharine by American standards. Nothing is ever just “good” is “fantastically good” or something. It’s like baklava. It’s far too sweet for my dull American taste. If you want to be critical, you can say that Greek saints lives tend to exaggerate.

    Russian lives of the saints are far more modest and restrained, except when it comes to suffering and self-denial (in my opinion). An American-written life of a saint would probably emphasize history and verifiable facts.

    What is required in all of this is “discretion.” It’s a matter of good spiritual judgment. What is healthy for a soul? Everyone should avoid these various platforms for argument on the internet. There is often no priest involved, or priests who lack discretion (hence they like to engage in argument – true discretion would generally never like argumentation). Read a little. Pray a little. Attend services. Be generous and kind to everyone. Allow yourself to be happy if possible.

    It is certainly the case that just because you read something in the life of a saint – it’s not necessarily meant for you. If your own personality tends towards worry, or anxiety, or being overwhelmed, it should be taken into consideration when you’re reading, thinking or praying.

    You likely need a gentle spiritual father – someone who is aware of your discouragement and will be gentle and kind and help you to find your way to a grateful life. May God give you grace.

  47. Dino Avatar

    I think that what is significant here is that we must safeguard our joy. We should include this in our relentless spiritual vigilance.
    Just as a Saint of the caliber of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia would instinctively monitor the increase or decrease of Grace in him, and discern whether a thought, a feeling, an action or reaction was right or not by how it affected the Grace he knew so well –experientially- (increasing or decreasing it), so too, we must monitor what happens to our joy, our gratitude and trust in God whenever we read or hear something. Decrease in joy = distancing from the Truth. Especially with the Internet, which knows no bounds.

  48. Dino Avatar

    Elder Aimilianos would focus on joy first and foremost and only ever allow his disciples to venture further (into contrition, obedience, ascesis etc) once that was 100% guaranteed. It is pedagogically extremely sound – creating sons and daughters of the Most High, not slaves and mercenaries…
    Even if you were the most sinful person to walk the earth, desiring only to lament for your depravity, he would not allow it until your joy was first taken care of!
    It reminds me of the saying that one is saveable when one is grateful…

  49. maria Avatar

    Father Stephen – Thank you for your reply and guidance!
    AJ and DIno – Thanks. Dino your comments about elder Aimilianos were a big help!
    I’m feeling much better about this now.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, is it even possible to really repent if one does not know joy?

    What would be the point?

    I mean if all I did was apologize to my wife for how awful I am and not recognize the joy we bring each other, it would not remain a joyful marriage for long.

    I recently read an excerpt from a sermon by Fr. Alexander Men concerning the life of St. Philip, Met. of Moscow during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan had St. Philip killed). Fr. Men emphasized the critical importance of reading the lives of the saints in such a way that their lives strengthen us in our daily obligations. Not so much what they did, but how they did it and why. Doing all for God, now matter how mundane. From that come joy and steadfastness. Being faithful in the little things. At least that was my take away.

    St. Raphael of Brooklyn is another case in point. The official life that is out there is written by an American and while it is somewhat historical in the manner that Fr. Stephen alludes to, it is more about the care St. Raphael took with the lives and souls of others. The manner in which he lived his life overshadows the facts. There are also instances of healing through his intercessions that are not as subject to “factual verification.” Nevertheless a doctor friend of mine attributes the fact that his wife is still alive to St. Raphael’s intercession and the skill of the doctors who treated her. Under normal circumstances, she would not have made it to the doctors.

  51. ajt Avatar

    I remember Dino mentioning his encounter with the living saints in the churches of Greece. This experience, I imagine, communicates differently than the intellectual reading about a saint. Joy/Repentance is difficult to communicate through the written word. I could see how reading about the saints, along with a strong desire to emulate them could lead to despair…especially when their is limited to no contact with actual saints in the flesh.

    I like how you bring out the extreme importance of joy. It’s simply hard to understand what this looks like, along with repentance, when those in the U.S. have very limited contact with those truly transformed by Christ.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    ajt, I am sure you are correct. Nevertheless there is a residual of that in my parish regarding St. Raphael. Until quite recently we had people in our parish who had met him. Our last living link to St. Raphael reposed recently. St. Raphael sent our first priest to us and the associate priest of our parish helped prepare the Vitae that was used in St. Raphael’s sanctification. He seems to be part of our parish.

    The closest I’ve come to what Dino describes is meeting Archmandrite Zacharias from the monastery of St. John the Baptist in England. He was in Wichita several years ago and led a weekend for laity centered on monasticism that was really special. All I can really say is that the communication environment is wholly different and there is a palpable peace just being in his presence. He sees things differently and more completely more simply.

    Yet, we have to write about them and, because they are saints, we can experience an interaction with them even when they are not physically present.

  53. ajt Avatar

    Michael Bauman,
    I do love that the church is a small world. Even in my short time within Orthodoxy I know people who have been to Mt. Athos and encountered the saints living among us. I simply wanted to agree with Father Stephen that for certain people reading about the saints could be disheartening because the joy of repentance and peace that passes all understanding doesn’t always communicate well in a book.

  54. Dino Avatar

    indeed “Not so much what they did, but how they did it and why”…

    I think that not all saints necessarily exhibit the characteristic of Joy and insist on it to the degree of Elder Aimilianos. Some, who do approach the hems of sanctity, have the gift of tears, understanding and sweetness, others are immersed in an otherworldly prayerfulness, but the Elder insisted on joy as a pedagogic sine qua non, so thoroughly because he was one of the biggest (the biggest imho) pedagogues of our time. There’s countless styles of holiness, but to be a Guide of souls in our times with such authenticity is a particular charisma.
    I personally took a very long time to appreciate this emphasis on vigilant joy having been strongly influenced by the compunctionate style of the St Silouan’s successors to start off, which -for some reason- made me suspicious of this constant counsel of joy.
    Fr Aimilianos’ succesors all speak in unison of these two remarkable characteristics of ‘priestly vigilance’ and ‘noble joy’ that he exhibited to such a degree that it hardly ever went unnoticed – even when he simply said nothing…
    Of course this is an unshakeable joy because it is also a solemn joy.

  55. A-onyma Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    If I give up on any and every form of vainglory, will virtue follow by itself?

  56. Dino Avatar

    The Elder would go as far as allowing people to even sometimes sin rather than forcefully resist when he discerned there was no joyous freedom in this ‘forcing’ of themselves yet. Of course he would do this in order to eventually cure them and free them from their slavery both to sin and to self.

    From the measure of our joy, whether it’s great or small, complete or incomplete, we will be able to know what relationship we have with God.
    The amount of our joy is the measure of our relationship to God.
    And this makes our lives so easy! It also renders indisputability even to our unspoken Christian witness. But when I start to heed my expectations, my grievances, my misconceptions, my fatigue, my sadness, then this reveals that I have forgotten Him and remembered my ego.

  57. Peter Bylen Avatar
    Peter Bylen

    Rather than get all tangled up in western arguments, it’s best to remember that the crucifixion took place on Passover not the Day of Atonement. Through his resurrection, Jesus conquered death, which enables mankind to experience the love and presence of God.

  58. Matt Avatar

    A-onyma: have you ever read Simone Weil’s essay on evil? It is a very good meditation on what evil is, what good is, what people erroneously think they are and how Good simply cannot be defined as opposition to evil – much less merely the negation or overcoming of evil! – so much as something entirely different:

    Good as the opposite of evil is, in a sense, equivalent to it, as is the way with all opposites.

    It is not good which evil violates, for good is inviolate:
    only a degraded good can be violated.

    That which is the direct opposite of an evil never belongs to the order of higher good. It is often scarcely any higher than evil! Examples: theft and the bourgeois respect for property; adultery and the “respectable woman”; the savings bank and waste; lying and “sincerity”.

    Good is essentially other than evil. Evil is multifarious and fragmentary, good is one; evil is apparent, good is mysterious; evil consists in action, good in non-action, in activity which does not act, etc.— Good considered on the level of evil and measured against it as one opposite against another is good of the penal code order. Above there is a good which, in a sense, bears more resemblance to evil than to this low form of good. This fact opens the way to a great deal of demagogy and many tedious paradoxes.

    Good which is defined in the way that one defines evil should be rejected. Evil does reject it. But the way it rejects it is evil.

    (as far as I know she is not Orthodox but it is hard to tell that from this essay)

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One of the mistakes of moralism is its thinking that all we need to do is stop being bad. St. Gregory of Nyssa described us in this way: Man is mud that God commanded to become God.

    The virtue we acquire is ultimately a gift from God and is nothing less than His own Divine Life in us. Our lives are better spent simply seeking God above all else rather than worrying about “not doing” something. God is not the absence of vice, but the presence of true Life.

  60. mary benton Avatar

    I have not commented here in quite some time but I wanted to greet all of you once more in the name of the risen Christ. I remember you in prayer because you have all been such an important part of my spiritual growth.

    There are as many ways of becoming holy as there are human beings and no one is better than the other. One person becomes holy in an ascetic life on Mt. Athos, while another becomes holy getting up in the night for the 4th time with her sick children.

    We can learn from each others’ paths to holiness but it is more important that we learn to be genuinely and humbly ourselves before God. Once we do this, there is no room for despair in that Christ gives us whatever we need for our salvation. When Thomas needed to touch the wounds to know it was Him, the risen Lord showed him His wounds.

    He wants us to know Him. He wants us all to be saved. If we want it too, He will help us in our weakness.

    We can become lost in self-scrutiny and doubt (do I want it enough?). We can become lost in debates and comparisons (faith vs. works? Orthodox vs. Catholic? etc.). Lost in all of this, soon our adversary has us looking everywhere but at the risen Lord.

    Let us turn our hearts toward Him. And keep turning back to Him again and again, for surely we will slip off track. But He know this and loves us anyway. He gives us all that we need.

    To Him be glory.

  61. J Clivas Avatar

    The Lord does have “favourites” — e.g., Peter, James, and John from among the Apostles.

  62. A-onyma Avatar


    No, I haven’t read that essay. I always thought that evil is a privation of the good, though.

    Fr. Stephen,

    I had St. John of Sinai’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent in mind when asking that question about vainglory, not Western moralism. In his book are passages such as,

    The sun shines on all alike, and vainglory beams on all activities. For instance, I am vainglorious when I fast, and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed I am again vainglorious over my prudence. When well-dressed I am quite overcome by vainglory, and when I put on poor clothes I am vainglorious again. When I talk I am defeated, and when I am silent I am again defeated by it. However I throw this prickly-pear, a spike stands upright.


    It is a great work to shake from the soul the praise of men, but to reject the praise of demons is greater.

    (Step 22 – On the many forms of vainglory)

    Does your answer remain the same?

  63. michaelpatrick Avatar

    A-onyma, what will flood in when you are emptied of all vainglory? St. John of the Ladder says more of the same.

    Virtues, rightly understood, are gifts to be received with thanksgiving. This is relational, not formulaic.

  64. Karen Avatar


    My observation is St. John’s work in The Ladder is amazing at describing the dynamics of vice and virtue. It’s a good tool for discernment, but discernment, by itself, won’t get you anywhere. The demons have great (not perfect) spiritual discernment. Apart from God’s grace, we can do nothing. The trick is to confess the vices God shows us and then to keep turning our focus on seeking Him and His grace, not playing a sort of furious game of “whack a mole” with our vices as they keep popping up. If you’ve ever played that game, you will know that it leaves you absolutely no time and attention for anything except whacking the next mole that pops up!

    St. Porphyrios of Athens in his book, Wounded by Love, talks about doing everything (prayer, prostrations, work, almsgiving, etc.) with love for Christ and out of love for Christ (as opposed to by force trying to avoid the vices, practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, etc.). He is quite frank about the uselessness and impotence of merely trying to force ourselves through self-effort and determination to be good (stay awake during church services, etc.). He says:

    Whatever you do under compulsion, and whatever causes your soul to kick instinctively and protest, causes you harm.

    St. Porphyrios counsel is to instead cultivate within ourselves love for Christ–especially by reading and meditating upon the Scriptures and attending to the poetic canons, hymns and prayers of the Church–and to do everything else out of that responsive love.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Virtue is not the absence of something. Besides, we cannot simply “give up on every form of vainglory” as a lone matter. It’s a hypothetical with no basis in reality.

  66. Alex Avatar

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been attending a Greek Orthodox parish for about a year, and your blog has been a great help in my journey. I’m not Orthodox yet, but hopefully soon.

    You mention above that the obedience in Mary’s response to the angel is “not obedience to a command.” That gave me pause because I’ve always had trouble seeing obedience as anything *but* acting according to a command. But then it hit me: what she’s saying is basically “Thank you for asking!”, isn’t it? Put that way, the idea of Thanksgiving in everyday life makes a lot of sense. It reminded me of the feeling I have when a friend needs a ride, or my parents invite me over for dinner.

    Does that sound right?

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes it does sound right. True obedience is joyful and glad to be asked.

  68. Dino Avatar

    indeed, your hit the nail on the head there.

  69. Dino Avatar


    I think that those sayings of

    various monks who died ‘despairing’ [I’d replace this word for “wondering”] that “I have not begun to repent”

    is in the knowledge that Judas the traitor (having devoted himself to the Lord, having being made a shareholder of grace, having performed miracles with the other Apostles), sadly, capsized at the very end, while the thief (with deeds of impiety, malevolance and immorality), humbly begged for mercy in the end and joyfully docked at the port of eternal blessedness.
    Wherefore let us ward off all hopelessness and despair (a self-preoccupied notion), no matter how sinful we are, and focus on God’s infinite mercy (a God-centred notion).

  70. maria Avatar

    Thank you again for being kind enough to reply and help.

  71. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, would you say Christ is the Great Shoemaker, the saver of “soles”? (grin)

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve never used the word “vainglory” in my writings. It’s too easily misunderstood. And though turning away from vainglory might well involve “bearing a little shame,” that is not obvious in itself. So I prefer to use the terms that I do for specific reasons.

    Doubtless, questions and understanding come a lot easier if it’s not being reinterpreted into something else.

    But, yes, we bear a little shame. We allow ourselves to confront the truth of our being and our lives. It is a beginning of repentance. It allows God’s work in us to be effective, and it is. That life is most rightly lived out in the sacramental life of the Church.

  73. Karen Avatar


    “Moral” as Fr. Stephen uses it simply refers to conformity of outward behavior to certain standards. It has nothing to do with the heart, whereas true life in Christ is inner transformation (as well as reflected in behavior).

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Salvation is union with God – all our heart, our soul our mind, our body. The way I have been using the term “moral” or “morality” is simply describing attempts to adhere to outward standards, rules, etc. Even atheists are “moral” in that sense. It is certainly the case that our union with God produces a change in our lives – and that change might indeed be reflected in changed behavior – which some would describe as “moral.”

    But mere morality misses the point. The point is union with God through Christ. And sometimes it takes very interesting and unforeseen turns.

  75. Michael Avatar

    Father bless.

    “Salvation is union with God – all our heart, our soul our mind, our body.”

    O’ Lord, Grant this O’ Lord!

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You need to refrain from commenting. I do not want to block your comments, but they clearly cause you much distress after you’ve posted. Removing them disrupts the conversation and the natural flow of things. You need to have these conversations in a safer, less public setting where you can be supported through whatever distress the conversation causes. My prayers are with you.

  77. Fr. Elias Warren Avatar
    Fr. Elias Warren

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for bringing clarity about self-denigration and the Christian faith. Many people struggle with this issue, especially during Great Lent. As a priest and psychotherapist, I have encountered quite a few who are wounded and frightened by terminology such as “self-loathing” or “self-hatred”. Through such easily misunderstood terms, any person with experience of chemical addiction, eating disorders; physical, sexual, emotional, and even religious abuse as well as obsessive-compulsive behaviors and perfectionism; cannot accept further insults from anyone, including the Church. The basic problem for such heartbroken people is that there is already little self-respect along with much self-hatred and second, there is the fear that God likewise hates or loathes them. They can never do enough or be enough as the result of learned, “terminal” defectiveness. Gratitude and joy are only distant dreams for them. Thank you for making it mercifully obvious that the Church does not intend such in her prayers and theology. Father John Behr has a pertinent sentence in The Mystery of Christ: “If one does not recognize that the struggle is ultimately with one’s own perceptions, then one is left with waging war with one’s own nature” (161). God so lovingly and mercifully offers hope, refuge, and protection. Receiving and assimilating the glorious reality that God loves us and is truly merciful often requires very gradual acceptance for some. Finally, thank you, Father Stephen, for being a spiritual benefactor to many through your writings, which are suffused with beautiful, truth-filled insight and glorious praise to God, the Holy Trinity.

  78. A-onyma Avatar


    “Whatever you do under compulsion…”

    Yes, I know…

  79. A-onyma Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Fr. Elias (if you’re still following this),

    I would like to share with you a hypothesis of mine (so take it for what it’s worth).

    I believe that obsessive-compulsive disorder (esp. the subtypes known as “perfectionism” and “hyper-responsibility”) leads to, is a direct cause of bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

    Again, from The Ladder, Step 22:

    . . .And to my question: ‘How is vainglory the mother of pride?’ he replied: ‘Praises exalt and puff one up; and when the soul is exalted, then pride seizes it, lifts it up to heaven and casts it down to the abyss.’

    Thus, if vainglorious pursuits are avoided (Physician, heal thyself!), medication can also be avoided…?

    — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

    About 15% to 20% of adults with bipolar disorder also meet criteria for OCD. That means one out of every five to six adults with bipolar disorder (BD) also has OC symptoms. We know that BD involves mood variability including periods of depressed mood, mid-range mood and elevated mood. During mid-range mood, those with BD may find that most of their bipolar symptoms are absent. But if they’re bipolar, in mid-range and part of the 15% to 20% with OCD, then their obsessions or compulsions won’t likely be absent. In other words, when bipolar symptoms are in remission and/or being well controlled through appropriate treatment, symptoms of OCD will likely still persist. The good news is that during mid-range mood OC symptoms are at least not being exacerbated by mood instability. Mid-range is good!

    But what about those with BD whose OC symptoms are only present when their mood is outside of mid-range? Do they have OCD? Technically, no. They have obsessive and/or compulsive symptoms that are caused by, or are secondary to, their bipolar disorder. And this typically means their symptoms are not part of a broader OCD diagnosis.” (Russ Federman, PhD – Is There Such a Thing as Bipolar OCD Disorder?)

    Research has established a strong link between bipolar disorder and OCD. It has been estimated that between 10 to 35% of people with bipolar disorder also have OCD, with most reporting that their OCD symptoms started first. Indeed, OCD is thought to be the most frequently occurring anxiety disorder among people with bipolar disorder.” (Owen Kelly, PhD – OCD and Bipolar Disorder)

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A-onyma. This is not healthy. You need to just let it go. I understand, but let it go.

  81. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Elias & Fr. Stephen,

    Based on your pastoral experience (and if you are willing to say), how large is this group of folks who due to their background/addictions/etc. find the language/terminology (and emphasis) of the nepsis fathers (such as the striving against “self esteem”) a stumbling block? Conversely, how large is the group who are able to rightly integrate it, or at lest not misunderstand it from the beginning?

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Because people in recovery have to do a lot of re-thinking of many things – learning the way of life of the Program, etc., I find that they do just fine (as Orthodox Christians). The neptic fathers are themselves deeply along the road of recovery. But everyone needs guidance in the language of the Church. It was lost to much of our culture long ago.

  83. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and each in our own ways are in recovery. May the Holy Spirit open our ears to that which we need and guide our thoughts.

  84. A-onyma Avatar

    It’s because of the “crowd’ I’m starting to have in my head whenever I do such things…

  85. A-onyma Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Fr. Elias (if you’re still following this),

    I would like to share with you a hypothesis of mine (so take it for what it’s worth).

    I believe that obsessive-compulsive disorder (esp. the subtypes known as “perfectionism” and “hyper-responsibility”) leads to, is a direct cause of bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder.

    About 15% to 20% of adults with bipolar disorder also meet criteria for OCD. That means one out of every five to six adults with bipolar disorder (BD) also has OC symptoms. We know that BD involves mood variability including periods of depressed mood, mid-range mood and elevated mood. During mid-range mood, those with BD may find that most of their bipolar symptoms are absent. But if they’re bipolar, in mid-range and part of the 15% to 20% with OCD, then their obsessions or compulsions won’t likely be absent. In other words, when bipolar symptoms are in remission and/or being well controlled through appropriate treatment, symptoms of OCD will likely still persist. The good news is that during mid-range mood OC symptoms are at least not being exacerbated by mood instability. Mid-range is good!

    But what about those with BD whose OC symptoms are only present when their mood is outside of mid-range? Do they have OCD? Technically, no. They have obsessive and/or compulsive symptoms that are caused by, or are secondary to, their bipolar disorder. And this typically means their symptoms are not part of a broader OCD diagnosis.” (Russ Federman, PhD – Is There Such a Thing as Bipolar OC Disorder?)

    Research has established a strong link between bipolar disorder and OCD. It has been estimated that between 10 to 35% of people with bipolar disorder also have OCD, with most reporting that their OCD symptoms started first. Indeed, OCD is thought to be the most frequently occurring anxiety disorder among people with bipolar disorder.” (Owen Kelly, PhD – OCD and Bipolar Disorder)


    Again, from The Ladder, Step 22:

    . . .And to my question: ‘How is vainglory the mother of pride?’ he replied: ‘Praises exalt and puff one up; and when the soul is exalted, then pride seizes it, lifts it up to heaven and casts it down to the abyss.’

    Thus, if vainglorious pursuits are avoided (Physician, heal thyself!), medication can also be avoided…?

    This question isn’t just rhetorical. Is medication un/avoidable?

  86. jrj1701 Avatar

    A-onyma from my personal experience medication is a necessity for those that suffer from most bipolar disorders, I suffer from a bipolar disorder and it is almost impossible for me to fully understand Scripture or the Fathers when I am medication free. During my times when I have decided to not take my meds I am in such a state of anxiety that reading Scripture is like being beat up by bully, I cannot perceive the love of God in the writings that I am reading. Yet while under the care of a doctor and taking my meds as I should I am more stable and can see the love of God and His inspiration in the writings of those that are graced with the gift of teaching us sinners. Mental illness is the same as any other medical condition, when properly treated the quality of life is improved for the one that suffers.

  87. Dino Avatar

    indeed that is so, and it needs to be accepted. However, at the same time we know of exceptions to such rules, as with all diseases, that manifest themselves around the lives of Saints. And this leads to a variety that somehwat prohibits standardisation. I have in mind three recent cases in point, one from Saint Paisios, one from Saint Porphyrios and an exceptionally surprising one from Elder Joseph the Hesychast.
    In all of these, the Saints prayed for persons who could not possibly function without their medication and, typically, after a climactic upsurge, the sufferers were healed for life – miraculously. This exception to the rule, based on such a faith-prayer combo, of course, is no different regarding any illness or disorder. And they occured to people who went looking for them in “far away lands”. And equally there are cases where the saints would discern differently.

  88. Dino Avatar

    Oh yeah, and in all three cases extremely frequent Communion and Confession were prescribed (understandably).
    I might translate them when I get some time…

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bi-polar, I think, is more or less biological in nature. None of us here are medical people, thus it’s a fruitless direction in the conversation. And, forgive me, but it is all beside the point. I cannot edit comments for you. I don’t have time. Generally, if comments are a problem, or require too much of my time, or become a distraction from the topic, they’ll get deleted. People reading through, trying to get caught up or follow a discussion get de-railed and leave off reading. I don’t want comments that discourage people from reading.

  90. A-onyma Avatar


    Forgive my curiosity, but how does that feeling “like being beaten up by a bully” manifest?

    And did you ever show any symptoms of OCD throughout your life, such as (re)checking compulsions, physical and mental/emotional (!) contamination fears (and decontamination compulsions), hoarding, ruminations, intrusive thoughts, a need for symmetry and orderliness?

    Fr. Stephen,

    I understand. Neither am I a medical professional, just someone who tries to understand a phenomenon. Apologies. With this comment I exit the conversation. Letting go…

  91. jrj1701 Avatar

    A-onyma you ask how that “feeling of being beat up by a bully” manifests. It manifests in a severe mistrust of everybody’s motives, a feeling of being worthless and constantly under attack.

  92. James Avatar

    From my own experience, I find it compelling to realize that a lack of thanksgiving is at the root of all despondency/depression and despair. I have found also from experience that these states give rise to great evils of thought, wherein one is continually tempted to neglect prayer and liturgy, to care genuinely for others, and to blaspheme God on account of this feeling. I’m extremely thankful – yes! – for your words which bring peace and joy to this poor, wretched, and sinful soul.

  93. Byron Avatar

    James, I was very surprised to find despondency listed as a passion in the writings of the Fathers. My priest noted that, if you a despondent, you are not trusting or thankful in God.

    I agree with your observations; when I become despondent, I tend to want to “wallow” in my sin. In a sense, I want to just “get through it” (sinning even more) and “get it over” as if it were just a bad moment that I had to push through. Changing to an attitude of thanksgiving is very hard. But no matter what my condition, I am always lifted up during prayer and liturgy. I find myself desperate for them at times.

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