Doing Good in a Bad World

fix itA bad man cannot make a good world.

“Something must be done!” If there were a possible slogan for the modern world, this would be it. It’s power lies in its truth. Some things are tragic and unjust, broken and dysfunctional. Any analysis that suggested that nothing should be done will fall on deaf ears – and should. However, this is where the great temptation of modernity begins. Something must be done. But what?

Modernity is filled with solutions and America is the land of solutions. Every American is a mechanic at heart. Our fiercest and most enduring arguments are about how to fix things: more of this, less of that or less of this and more of that.

The first great temptation of modernity is the illusion of power, effective power. The power to do one thing is not the power to do everything. For every exercise of power towards a particular end, a host of unexpected and unplanned new problems arise. Many times, we fix things only to discover that the solution is worse than the disease. We’re our own worst enemies.

The lure of control is almost irresistible. Every anxiety begs for the means to control the object of its fear. And though we can do many things, we can never do everything. Most often, our failures and catastrophes operate beyond our intentions and just outside our reach.

Christ’s own example stands as a contradiction to our controlling urges. For though, as God, He clearly could have done all things, He does very little. His entire ministry takes place within a radius of 100 miles. At its completion, He had amassed only a few hundred disciples. He was largely silent on the topic of Roman power, and said little to nothing about social structures. Though He healed a few, most of the sick remained sick. We hear the cry of the New York Daily News, “God Isn’t Fixing This!”

Of course, the underlying assumption of the Daily News (and most of the world) is that someone should. If God’s not going to do it, then we will! Others conclude that God could do it but that for some reason He wants us to do it instead. And others still will say God doesn’t do it because there is no God.

All of these responses are predicated on the belief that something can be done and that therefore something must be done (I am not thinking specifically about the problem of terrorism – the “this” that God isn’t fixing could be almost anything). None of the responses considers the possibility that God is, in fact, doing something, but something quite unexpected and unlooked for.

The Christian faith teaches that man himself is the problem. It does not teach that human beings are evil, but that we are broken, flawed and misdirected in our lives. The human project has gone astray. Christ Himself is the first answer: He is the New Man.

St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” He cannot be accused of doing nothing. He poured his life out in prayer and fasting and acquired the Spirit of Peace. As such, he became the salvation of thousands of souls.

Christ once said to His disciples, “The poor you have with you always.” He could be taken (incorrectly) to mean, “There is nothing you can do about the poor.” But it is the case that more has been done for the poor in His name than for any other reason. But the poor remain. They remain because they live in the midst of the problem: broken, flawed and misdirected humanity. Were poverty to disappear in an instant, it would return quite swiftly. Its causes are not primarily economic: they are existential.

Christian living in the modern world is an art. Its heart rightly cares for the world and even broods over its problems. But that art is no greater than Christ. We cannot achieve as bad men what Christ Himself did not seek as the Good Man. For, in the end, perfection through control can only work through control. Absolute perfection means absolute control. This becomes the very heart of the demonic. It is, of course, true, that we seek only a relative improvement and not absolute perfection. This is something that we can, from time to time, actually do. But the greater its vision, the greater the need for control. The art of doing good requires humility.

This is equally true of treating evil. We cannot rid the world of evil, no matter its form. We will not destroy terrorism. We can seek to limit its scope and its effects. The drive to eradicate it completely would inevitably create either more terror, or consequences still unforeseen (just as the present terrorism has itself been an unforeseen consequence).

This is especially true in our personal lives. Many people in the contemporary world substitute opinions and sentiments about problems elsewhere for actual action anywhere. This is an imaginary existence in which we give ourselves over to nothingness. It is primarily driven by political rhetoric of the right and the left and is of very little consequence.

But true action is deeply important. Faith without works is dead.

True action is begotten with integrity. Modernity wants to make the world a better place. Christian action recognizes that I, myself, am the first of all problems. If nothing changes about me, then nothing true has happened. It is this that St. Seraphim describes as “acquiring the Spirit of Peace.” Christ describes it in this manner:

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother,`Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Mat 7:3-5)

Many treat this saying as an admonition to avoid judging others. But it is also a description of true action. I can aid my brother with the speck in his eye, but only if I have dealt with the larger problem of my own plank. Sin begets sin. Only righteousness heals. The world needs healing, not fixing.

“Making the world a better place” is deeply arrogant speech from the unrighteous. A righteous elder once said, “I need go no further than my own heart to find the source of all violence in the world.”

It is there, in my own heart, that something must be done.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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25 responses to “Doing Good in a Bad World”

  1. Jolie Avatar

    Thank you

  2. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful, Father! Many thanks for this, actually very simple and direct, insight. It is hard to simply work on myself and then be able to humbly pour myself out for others.

    Of late, I’ve been trying to understand how to be thankful, as opposed to just giving thanks from time to time. The change in heart and focus is daunting and I’m honestly not sure how to go about it, so I pray. It seems all I can do right now. I think this writing is also daunting, even in its simplicity. Pray for me!

  3. Emmie Avatar

    How many times I have tried to fix something or help someone from a “gotta do something” mentality and ended up making the problem much worse. I can think of many examples of this over the decades of my life. Thank you for this message. I pray that God will guide even our impulses to help! Father, bless.

  4. Ronald Drummond Avatar
    Ronald Drummond

    “Many people in the contemporary world substitute opinions and sentiments about problems elsewhere for actual action anywhere.”

    Grand slam.

    Sloganeering on social media about abstract “issues” is much easier and gratifying than loving the neighbor right in front of me. Lord, have mercy.

  5. Panayiota Avatar

    I can not count the times I have heard parents comment how their children were missing liturgy because they were participating in a “social fix it” situation with either their school, or some other organization. They make the statement with pride for themselves, as well as for their children. I always get a bit sad when hearing this.
    Thank you for this series of articles.

  6. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen,

    These were necessary words for me to read today. Healing. . .not fixing. . .and let it begin in me.

  7. Susan Avatar

    Oh dear. My thoughts while reading this centered on how many people I could fix if only THEY would read this.

    I’ll forward anyway. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Susan that is the heart of the dilemma isn’t it?

    How quickly the tempter comes to misdirect even our most righteous thoughts.

    Hamlet posed the right question even though his answers were wrong. To be or not to be….

    Or as David Bentley Hart opined: Christ or nothing.

    Being requires action. Right being requires right action.

    Right action required rejoicing. Perhaps the reason the early maryters went into the arena singing songs of joy.

    Joy transforms because it is a gift of God.

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

    …and thank you Father. Seven years ago when I found your blog by God’s grace I did not even begin to understand that.

  9. Byron Avatar

    Seven years ago when I found your blog by God’s grace I did not even begin to understand that.

    It is interesting to go back and read previous posts that were often difficult to wrap my brain around and find them much easier to absorb. Perhaps my brain ain’t as dead as I sometimes think!

  10. Anita Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen. This went straight to the heart of the matter.

  11. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Amen Father.

  12. Dick Sherman Avatar
    Dick Sherman

    Lord have Mercy! Thank you, Father, for the light your words bring into this dark world. How to seek the quietness and peace which Christ is and brings, to me, then to my world. Lord have mercy. And thank you again.

  13. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Father Bless,
    I am embarrassed and confused. I did not write this comment nor would I ever insult you or your readers with such a thing. I ask everyone’s forgiveness for this crude and immature statement issued under my name. I have no idea how this was done but I did not do it and I am sorry for any scandal this may have caused. Please forgive me brothers and sisters for this.

    Nicholas, The Chiefest among Sinners

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I apologize. This happened once before. I’ll check it out and see what’s up. You’re a victim. No need to apologize. We’re all victims on this one!

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I tracked it down. The comment comes from a stalker who has previously sought to post very lewd and pornographic (quite sick) things on the blog. I know who it is. I have a collection. If it continues I am prepared to have them prosecuted for stalking. They’ve already broken the law and are liable to a serious fine or prison. I’m not kidding.

    But this is nothing for you to worry yourself about. I’ll take care of it from this end. I apologize for not noticing it was a fake. I’ve set something in place to prevent this again. Sorry.

  16. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Father Bless,
    You did what was right and proper to protect the readers and your blog. I am not concerned about me. If I was ever so errant, Mother Helena would beat me with her three sided ruler.

  17. Albert Avatar

    Like Susan, I am inspired here. I get the urge not only to forward this to loved ones who have no church “to speak of,” but also to call them on the phone and read it aloud to them. Another version of the fix-it syndrome. So I’m keeping quiet instead, rereading, and hoping to learn to pray. And asking for blessings, Father. Grateful for your writings,

  18. Lou. Avatar


    Your post discusses “perfection” almost as a political process. Could you talk about the individual sin of perfectionism, and the violence it does to the soul?

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think individual perfectionism is encouraged by the modern mindset (progress, etc.). Ironically, Christians are not saved by their perfection but by their imperfection. We are saved through our weakness. There are some disorders, such as OCD, that can create a form of perfectionism. But the normal perfectionism experienced by others is, in fact, driven by shame and the fear of shame. But “the way of shame is the way of the Lord,” in the words of the Elder Sophrony.

    The way down is the way up – or – as I’ve phrased it: theosis is kenosis (“divinization is self-emptying”).

  20. dan Avatar

    I completely agree with your stance in this column. Its why, to the extent that I engage in politics (and I try not to), I just want to see a government which doesn’t seek to solve anything, and leaves the sorting of these things out up to communities, individuals, churches. Maybe thats me seeking a solution in and of itself, but I don’t think so. I have no illusion that it will solve anything. However, I do think it would benefit by making more human and more alive the individual helping and the individual being helped.

  21. Clarke Avatar

    Surely someone has already commented with this anecdote somewhere, but it seems apropos here. It is said that there was a contest (in the 1930’s) in Britain, where famous authors were asked “what is wrong with the world.” G.K. Chesterton, I am told, replied with two words: “I am.”

  22. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Like Emmie, I have learned time and time again that my efforts to “fix” another, no matter how well intentioned, always always end in disaster. So I am trying to pay much more attention to simply loving God and loving my neighbor without any agenda on my part. May God grant healing to us all.

  23. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes, I’ve learned and have had to learn the lesson again. (How many times does it take for me to get the idea right about trying to fix others?) But beyond what you have said, I’ve had to examine and learn an additional lesson about myself when I attempt to fix others, namely, usually it is usually some sort of self-serving hubris on my part, not actually love. After all don’t I have enough brokenness to keep my attention on my ‘own broken stuff’? Although I try to justify my behavior to myself by saying the motivation is that I care or that I love, more often than not, it’s as though I really, really believe that I would know best… This is a temptation, and easy to fall into when ‘society’ (whoever that might be) might grant deference or acknowledge the so called knowledge base that I can draw on. But honestly, as far as I know, most people don’t really care about that so called knowledge base (science, chemistry, physics or other –like my life experience). Perhaps that is because I use that knowledge base as a veil over my own heart. And to speak from it whether it is that knowledge base or my personal idea what makes somebody else better, such a disposition of controlling or fixing (rather than sincere love) toward another usually isn’t all that welcomed.

    I apologize for thinking out loud about my self examination. I appreciate your words because they have evoked this self reflection. Perhaps by writing this out, these words will sink into my heart.

  24. Byron Avatar

    Dee, this is a human temptation we all suffer. You have described it accurately; we seek to change others within an ego-centered display of power, not love. We can always justify it, via our own sense of “right” or another (such as a “knowledge base”). It hard to try to speak from the heart; much harder to live according to it in the face of wrong (as we perceive it). May God bless us with compassion.

  25. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Yes, Dee, I agree. It is almost always about feeling that I know what is best for the other person, when – in reality – I probably don’t even know what’s best for myself.

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