Self-Emptying Prayer

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We are told that Christ “emptied Himself” in His death on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). Further, we are told that this self-emptying is to be the “mind” that we ourselves have. It is possible to grasp that such self-emptying can be practiced in our dealings with others when we place them above ourselves – when the “other” is our greater concern. But how is this possible in prayer? How do we empty ourselves, when the largest component of our prayerful attention is unavoidably our very selves? Some might suggest that we should give our attention to God rather than to ourselves. And while this sounds salutary – just try it. Indeed, the problem deepens when we realize that giving our attention to God can easily mean nothing more than giving our attention to our idea of God. In which case, our prayer becomes well-intentioned delusion. What do we do?

In an earlier article, I described two types of prayer:

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

Acknowledging our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and weakness, is an exercise in confronting shame. It can be quite painful – something we either avoid or cover over with self-loathing. Shame is not self-loathing. Indeed, the energy behind our self-loathing is simply pride (ϕιλαυτία). Self-loathing is consumed with the self and driven by its unwillingness to be that person. Bearing our shame is the willingness to acknowledge the truth of ourselves and our lives as a simple fact, without protest or promise of reform. It is enduring the simple fact of our lives, how we live them, how we fail, how we really do not love God or others, etc. It is not an exercise in comparative failure – it does not matter whether our weakness is similar to anyone else’s. Such comparisons are merely another exercise in self-justification, an avoidance of the fact, the shame, of our lives.

It is in the awareness and presence of that simple shameful fact that we can pray in a manner of self-emptying. We should not imagine ourselves to be engaging in a noble action, a triumphant Christ-like self-emptying. Again, this is simply pride. We acknowledge the fact of our shame (in all its reality), and there we pray.

We do not need to imagine God (which is what most “thought” about God amounts to). We simply call on His name. The Jesus Prayer is used by some in this manner.

Do not imagine or promise that you will do better or try to improve (you were already doing that in one manner or another and it didn’t work). As your mind wanders (and it will), bring it back to the point of acknowledging your shame, and call on the name of God for mercy.

I have nothing against the written prayers of the Church. However, we often read them and don’t mean them. The meaning of those prayers, if you examine them, is precisely what I have described above. They proclaim our weakness and our failure and call on God for mercy. From that same point, they ask God’s mercy for others. But, since they are the Church’s prayers, they are often rather generic in form. They represent a model of prayer – but the content and meaning must be our own. The generic shame of humanity can be an all too easy shield from the reality of our own shame. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” rolls off of us like water from a duck’s back.

There is a tendency, I think, to conceive of our prayer life as an effort that somehow gains us something. Like so much in our lives, we imagine prayer to belong to the realm of cause and effect. “If I do this…then this will be the result.” There is no causation in the spiritual life, at least not in any manner we can imagine. God alone is the Cause, and He “causelessly” causes – we can never truly observe His causation: it remains out-of-sight. Self-emptying is an embracing and acknowledging of the complete futility of our efforts. We cannot cause anything in our spiritual life. We cannot add a “single cubit” to our span of life; we cannot make our hair white or dark. God is the cause of our existence and is alone the source of eternal life and blessing.

Someone might protest that this denies the notion of “synergy,” that we “cooperate” in the work of salvation. It does not. The self-emptying I have just described is what synergy looks like. Others might complain that this sounds like “passivity,” doing nothing. This can only be a complaint from someone who has yet to acknowledge and embrace the truth of their shame and failures in the presence of God. It is not passivity. Rather, it is extremely difficult. The Elder Sophrony characterized this self-emptying as “standing at the edge of the abyss.” He advised that we do so, until we could bear it no more, and then, “Have a cup of tea.”

I can recall years ago that in my very first confession as an Orthodox Christian, the priest told me to pray: “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” I did, but I misunderstood it for many years. My twist was quite subtle. When I prayed this I meant, “I can’t do anything without your help.” This is somehow not the same as “I can do nothing.” The first kept directing my attention to the “anything” I could do if God helped me. However, my attention needed to be on the “nothing.” It is our emptiness and failure that bring us face-to-face with our shame, and in that moment, face-to-face with the God who alone can truly cover our shame and comfort us.

In the history of the Jesus Prayer, it is generally acknowledged that the Prayer had a predecessor, drawn from the Psalms: “O God, help us!”  It is the cry of a drowning man. The Jesus Prayer, rightly understood, says the same thing.

Do not hide your face. This is the promise of God:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

God will do this.

Oh. And don’t forget the tea.

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.


56 responses to “Self-Emptying Prayer”

  1. Sunny Avatar

    This is something that has confounded me in prayer for a while, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. Thank you for your helpful insights on such a subtle issue. And I hope you will continue to write about shame.

  2. Byron Avatar

    I can recall years ago that in my very first confession as an Orthodox Christian, the priest told me to pray: “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” I did, but I misunderstood it for many years. My twist was quite subtle. When I prayed this I meant, “I can’t do anything without your help.” This is somehow not the same as “I can do nothing.” The first kept directing my attention to the “anything” I could do if God helped me. However, my attention needed to be on the “nothing.”

    A gem. Many thanks, Father.

  3. Psalti Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    In therapy it’s common to distinguish shame from guilt. Shame is defined as feeling awful about what we are ( I am an awful person, I am a loser, etc.)

    Guilt is defined as feeling bad about what what we have done ( I have done something wrong, I was not successful in this particular situation).

    Shame is considered an unhealthy response. Patients are encouraged to acknowledge guilt, but heal and avoid shame.

    How do these definitions relate to your understanding of shame? Are you using shame in a different sense? I am confused about which meaning of shame you are using. Would you disagree with the therapeutic idea of shame and that shame is unhealthy?

  4. Agata Avatar


    Thank you for this beautiful article… Does the “tea” have anything to do with Elder Sophrony’s saying…. ?

    Can I ask a bit unrelated question…? Today is Feb 29th, the feast day of St. John Cassian. I am pretty sure you said something about him recently, comparing him to St. Nicholas who has 4 feast days during they year, while St. John has his on Feb 29th… 🙂

    Do I remember right that it was related to his strictness and lack of spiritual “charity and generosity”?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m using very much the same definition. Shame can indeed be toxic, but it is also unavoidable. I suggest doing a search on “shame” in the blog’s search box and read some of the earlier articles. I go into this at some length. Shame is not “good.” It just is. But by God’s grace, it is also a doorway into salvation. God has taken the deepest and darkest parts of our lives and made them the means (by grace) for our salvation. Elder Sophrony said, “the way of shame is the way of the Lord.” This is a mystery – but one I am working at making better known.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I mentioned the quote earlier in the article.

  7. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I am darkness and as such I cannot overcome my own darkness. Darkness cannot overcome darkness. Only God, Who is Light can overcome the darkness that I am. My part is to admit my darkness and my inability to overcome it myself and to open up and expose my darkness to the light of God.

  8. Agata Avatar

    I’m sorry, that’s embarrassing (I think both guilt and shame are present here for me!).
    I have no idea how I missed it (but I did)… 🙂
    I have not had my cup of coffee yet this morning…

  9. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas


    Wonderful. Amen and amen.

    You have expressed the inexpressible intuition (encounter) deep within my soul during my first experience of attending Matins and Divine Liturgy when Fr. Jonah and the other monks of the Brotherhood of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco were at the monastery in Inverness Park.

    Thank you…

  10. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    P.S. I haven’t forgotten the tea… Thank God for the tea… :o)

  11. Onesimus Avatar

    Father bless,

    Wonderful series. Can you clarify how this shame and self emptying differs from the Lutheran or Refurmed notions of despairing of oneself’s own righteousness and the derision of “works” righteousness” which we are so often blindly accused of. Clearly, what you are saying touches upon such concepts.

    There is certainly room here for bridge building, if not for the dogmatic formulations of “faith alone” which have virtually redefined faith as simple belief.

    How does one differentiate between Luther’s seeming embrace of his sinfulness and what you are expressing? Is it that one inhabits such shame while the other is running as far away from from shame in order to feel and know they are “justified?”

    Perhaps you can tease this out for me.

    “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins? Pray hard for you are quite a sinner.” ~ Luther

  12. Wendylady@GoodBooks Avatar

    Yes. Yes. And yes. Thank you for this. Such an important reminder/discussion. For all ages, but especially helpful for parents in raising their children. Wish I’d had this little gem when mine were young. But just as helpful now, in looking back and re-working perspectives stemming from my own childhood! The cup of tea will help!

  13. Agata Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Could you please remove my comments from this morning? I really should not have posted in my frame of mind….


  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not being an expert on Luther, or Lutheran doctrine, I cannot comment with authority. I will offer a couple of observations, however. I think that what I have said viz. shame (and thus sin), is frequently (maybe always) ignored by those espousing an extrinsic justification doctrine. It is more or less, it seems to me, a declaration that you can forget about your sins. This is not true. We are saved through our sins, and through our weakness – but not by ignoring the. The understanding here of “embracing our shame,” is, if you will, the one “work” we can do. It is at the heart of repentance. And it is in that embrace that we find the gracious God who forgives and transforms.

    Sin not only does not separate us from God, it unites us to Him! “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2Co 5:21) But, we are generally unwilling to be “sin” for Him. We refuse to bear the shame and accept the union that is offered us in our weakness. We want righteousness, but not if we have to empty ourselves. All of this can perhaps sound subtle. But it is very, very significant.

    First, the notion of an extrinsic justification is nonsense and very dangerous. But, I do not know Luther well enough to characterize his take on the matter. I do know that the bulk of the Protestant world holds to an extrinsic justification.

  15. Blind Guide Avatar
    Blind Guide

    Is this, perhaps, the epitome of High Tea? (LOL!)

    Some years ago – before I was Orthodox – the collision of modern Psychology’s with Christianity’s therapeutic methods became apparent to me. I opted for Christianity’s.
    Thank God, mine has ultimately turned out to be the Orthodox position as well!

    In fact, I would dare to say that the abhorrence of shame, the preference to guilt – and psychology’s approach to its therapy, specifically – tend to set up the same comparative quagmire Fr. Freeman has so often written about in this blog, what could be termed the Pharisaical Problem and/or sin as ‘moral problem’.

    To me the conundrum seems very much like the Old & New Testament’s APPARENT, contradictory presentations of salvation. Guilt is basically a legal question, shame is an existential problem.

    The necessity to be born again clarifies that our salvation is rooted in existential needs.

    I have written here as though I know something which is essentially false so, I would welcome anyone’s better qualified opinions of my own thought on this subject!

  16. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac


    Thank you for bringing up this aspect of Reformation theology. I’m sure Fr. Freeman has much better insight to offer, but for my money (as a recently chrismated, formerly Lutheran pastor) the main issue is what Protestantism sets up as the ‘main issue’. Namely, that our main problem as fallen people is God’s insatiable wrath against US on account of our sin (as contrasted by a contradictory love of sorts that punishes Himself in our place) vs. God’s wrath again SIN and insatiable desire to help and heal sinners – which is of course the Orthodox, true understanding.

    Thus shame has little role to play, or at least seems short-circuited in the Reformers’ understanding and teaching: we are sinners deserving punishment, but God won’t punish us who believe (but as for others…gulp) for breaking the rules. So either we simply breathe a big sigh of relief (“whew, I’m not going to hell forever”) and get on with whatever it is we do, or we struggle mightily with the actual shame we do sense somewhere inside but find no remedy…after all, it’s very hard to be totally naked, totally honest, before the image of a god who somehow NEEDS to punish SOMEONE because of human lawlessness. Attempting to accept shame with only the Protestant “Gospel” at hand is unbearable, at least in my experience.

    I would add that guilt and shame are used virtually interchangeably in Lutheranism, probably due to the emphasis that breaking the Law is the real problem, instead of the misdirected energies of our being which Orthodoxy knows to be the core issue. (And yet even here Luther writes about the ‘curvatus in se’, the self-focused thing about us being at or near the core of what ‘sin’ is about. Though it’s generally seen in the legalistic matrix of interpretation which characterizes western theology.)

    So I agree it’s maybe not as clear-cut a difference as it might seem on the surface. Especially when the implications of a god who NEEDS to punish SOMEONE for humans falling short of His glory are not followed through to their logical conclusion, there can be great similarities of piety across the Lutheran-Orthodox divide.

  17. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    EDIT: Fr. Freeman did give better insight in the time between my starting the response and actually posting it. Such a shame I didn’t check first…bad pun intended.

  18. Chris Avatar


  19. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr Stephen,

    Great article.

    Fr Matta has some excellent insights in his book “Orthodox Prayer Life”. One is that all prayer is initiated by God and that we respond to His call.

    Of course, we may not experience it this way when we struggle with our dilemmas in prayer. But it only makes sense – we could not possibly pray without God’s initiation and help.

    If we look at the earth and the galaxies He has created, how could tiny beings like us have any idea of how to communicate with our Creator? Yet He has made it not only possible but simple for us to do so.

    He has put within us the desire to know Him and has given us His Son, giving Himself a human face and a voice to speak our language so that we can meet Him. And He has given us His Spirit to ever live in us and teach us.

    How glorious is our God. Truly, apart from Him, I can do nothing.

  20. Dino Avatar


    I don’t know if this is right, but I sometimes ponder that just as the unfathomable greatness of the universe seems but a reflection of the unknowability of God by the small human mind, so too, the striking immediacy of instantly addressing the Most High in one’s heart like a child is a reflection of His ‘communicability’. (if that counts for a word)

  21. Byron Avatar

    A silly joke that I always remember.

    God was once approached by a scientist who said, “Listen God, we’ve decided we don’t need you anymore. These days we can clone people, transplant organs and do all sorts of things that used to be considered miraculous.”

    God replied, “Don’t need me? How about we put your theory to the test. Why don’t we have a competition to see who can make a human being, say, a male human being.”

    The scientist agrees, so God declares they should do it like he did in the good old days when he created Adam.

    “Fine” says the scientist as he bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt.

    “Whoa!” says God, shaking his head in disapproval. “Not so fast. You get your own dirt.”

    It’s easy to forget how gifted our existence is.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton re: Fr. Matta’s insight that all prayer is initiated by God:

    It seems to me that we do something in response to that initiation, not always do we pray. In my case there are times when I eat instead. Thus fasting can help here.

    There are times when I want to sleep, thus vigils

    There are times when I want to go an buy stuff thus almsgiving

    In essence I look to my desires and the created world to fill the longing of my heart for God. In Pauline terms I worship the created thing more than the creator.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, the more I contemplate your writing on shame, the less I seem to understand both what shame is and how to identify it. Can you clarify?

  24. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I do not initiate prayer, God does. I do not respond to God’s initiation, God does. In prayer, silly though it seems to the ears of my false self, God meets and communes with God in prayer.

    Mine is to repent (in terms of my desire to initiate and respond) into participation in the Divine communion and converse.
    “But in the relationship of prayer, it is the divine partner and not the human who takes the initiative and whose action is fundamental. This is brought out in our third definition, taken from St Gregory of Sinai (+1346). In an elaborate passage, where he loads one epithet upon another in his effort to describe the true reality of inner prayer, he ends suddenly with unexpected simplicity: ‘Why speak at length? Prayer is God, who works all things in all men.’

    Prayer is God — it is not something that I initiate but something in which I share; it is not primarily something that I do but something that God is doing in me: in St Paul’s phrase, ‘not I, but Christ in me’(Gal. 2:20). The path of inner prayer is exactly indicated in St John the Baptist’s words about the Messiah: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’(John 3:30). It is in this sense that to pray is to be silent. ‘You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak’ — more precisely, let God speak. True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.” –Kallistos Ware, “The Power of the Name”

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is emotional/psychological shame and there is ontological shame. They aren’t disconnected but they are not necessarily the same. The psychological/emotional is the feeling and experience we have about “who we are.” It is not the same thing as guilt (what I did) though it can be related to it. We experience this, rightly or wrongly, as pretty unbearable. It is a frequent source of anger and depression. An example:

    Let’s say someone is in the grips of a sexual sin/addiction. They want to change, but keep falling. Whenever they think about it, in connection with God, they feel terrible. They feel shame. They feel that they are unclean and unworthy and hypocritical. It makes them not want to pray (because prayer reminds them of all of this). Their shame makes them feel alone and alienated from many people and many things. This is psychological and emotional.

    There is also ontological shame. We may or may not be aware of it (experience it psychologically or emotionally). This is the truth of who we are – they we are alienated from God, that we are moving away from Him and towards death and relative non-being. It is even simply the brute fact that we came into existence out of nothing and therefore have no true existence that is authentic being. This is the true root of sin, that we have turned our existence away from God, who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life.

    Christ enters all forms of shame and takes them on Himself. He does not turn His face away from the spitting and the shame (which is precisely what we try to do). Instead, He enters it voluntarily and “bears” it.

    He invites us to do the same, both to enter voluntarily into our shame (repentance) and to bear it in His presence (to be authentic in His presence). He even invites us the share in His self-offering for others and bear their shame along with Him. This is true Hesychasm and prayer for the world.

    We begin, I think, quite small and we begin on the psychological and emotional level. We “bear a little shame” especially in confession, but also in our time of prayer (if not at all times). We make no excuses nor offer anything mitigating between our shame and Christ. All of these mitigating dodges are simply ways of being inauthentic – not truly present to Him.

    The very presence of God inevitably reveals our shame, because His presence is the Truth. But there is no condemnation in Him. When we bear our shame (not running from it) – He bears it with us. This breaks our heart. It becomes truly contrite, and God does not despise us (Ps 51).

    The psychology of this exercise, rightly practiced, is quite powerful and healing. The ontological level is something far more profound. For that, I would have to turn to the writings of the Elder Sophrony. Experience of these things on the ontological level is the stuff that saints are made of.

    Is that helpful?

  26. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Thomas – “God meets and communes with God in prayer.” Yes!

    This is how Romans 8:26 can be understood. This is why the saints tell us of the importance of the Holy Spirit in prayer. To “pray without ceasing” is not possible for us – but the Spirit dwelling in us “prays” ceaselessly with the Father and Son in their eternal love.

    Our lives must always be repentance and self-emptying humility to make room for the Spirit, a gift we can never be worthy to receive. Apart from Him we can do nothing.

  27. Agata Avatar

    I would like to recommend to all of you this most beautiful little prayer book:

    The illustrations are beautiful, and the English versions of various prayers is very well selected. It’s absolutely delightful (for adults maybe even more than for children!)

  28. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas


    In my meager experience in prayer I find:

    I need to repent – “bear the shame” – of my attempts to pray, and in so doing, participate in the crucifixion of everything that prevents participation. My sin confessed saves me and provides the greater opportunity to participate in prayer. To actually pray.

    I need to relax – quiet – descend down into the prayer that is occurring (unceasing). I need to let go of the idea that it has a beginning and an end (The Divine Liturgy will begin at 9:00am). I cannot arrive before it begins and cannot outlast it. It is an eternal converse without beginning or end. The “entry point” is stillness. But what am I saying? I am in the middle of the prayer of God. The whole universe is in the midst of the prayer of God. I cannot “enter” in. I am already “in.” It is more about the need to participate in what I am in the middle of and what fills my heart.

    I need to let go of all that hinders that participation. These are not things that cling to me. They are things that I hold onto. I need let go of “my” initiative. I need let go of “my” response. The point of praying is not to attempt to engage in converse with God but to enter into God’s Triune converse. In so doing, we receive, by way of gift, what an engagement in converse between ourselves and God really is.

  29. Nicholas Avatar

    This might not help a lot, but I have been dealing with shame as Father puts it very intentionally lately. As far as I see it, is that the passions, especially for me vain imaginations based on pride of what is necessary for me to be happy and successful, cloud my ability to see myself. Furthermore, do passions like that to sensual imaginings or acting on any number of passions that I use to fulfill myself outside of God. My understanding of Shame, is trying to reach the place through prayer, and self-emptying, of shame, where in fact the pain of shame is my wounded pride that thought what I was doing was good or necessary and actually my real self. Shame is when I have to admit I have been filled with and identified my self with passions and know how much I am incapable of overcoming these passions myself. It is a matter of identification–watchfulness–and then the response of repentance and prayer. If I can’t see myself as I am in the eyes of God, then what I see myself as, blinds me to being able to experience God. The moments I feel closest to God, are when I realize that nothing is mine, I am who I am with my faults, I cannot use casuistry to defend my actions or falseness, and let God meet me there. When I am nothing of myself, all is given, and I see finally what I have become, then in my weakness, God lifts me up and for at least some moments it no longer matters what I have done, because I no longer am concerned about my ego, but only about the gift of God and his glorious, gratuitous, love.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you that helps quite a bit. Follow up questions: How does one distinguish between shame and what I think is a perversion of it: self-loathing? How does one stay out of self-loathing or get away from it?

  31. Michelle Avatar

    Is this what St Paul meant when he said “not I, but Christ in me;” that the whole of our ontological, created existence consists in being empty vessels, made solely for the purpose of “containing” God, where He meets and and communes with Himself in prayer? Then my “work” is to admit and accept this reality, hopefully with joy and not weeping and gnashing my teeth.

    Problem is, though, that when I consider the truth of myself being an empty vessel I sense a demonic gnashing of teeth within me, rejecting my nothingness, with jealousy of God “somethingness.” Especially at the thought of Him pervading my nothingness, to reign in my vessel instead of me. I want to reign. In short, demonic pride.

    When I stand at the “abyss” I sense a pride that gnashes its teeth against God. This seems to be at the center of my core. It scares me that this seems to be at my core. And when I can’t stand it anymore I go and have some tea. But Im not sure that this is the same as bearing my shame. I look at myself and see my true face, and I bear it, but what I seem to be bearing is demonic pride. What do I do?

  32. Michelle Avatar

    Wanted to expand one sentence, “It scares me that this seems to be at my core -hatred of God.”

  33. Christopher Avatar

    “Problem is, though, that when I consider the truth of myself being an empty vessel I sense a demonic gnashing of teeth within me, rejecting my nothingness, with jealousy of God “somethingness.” Especially at the thought of Him pervading my nothingness, to reign in my vessel instead of me. I want to reign. In short, demonic pride.”

    Yes, this expresses it very well (at least for myself). I would only tweak it and say when I attempt to look at the demon I don’t see “pride” as much as “fear”. Perhaps Fr. Stephen can say something about this because before the pride/anger/depression is fear I think. Is this fear another layer used to cover the shame of our ontological nothingness/contigency? It seems so antiseptic the language, “ontological” and “contingency” but is oh so real and it can not be avoided as it is the very meaning of our death, that “bitter hour”, and this fear is very very bitter.

    Also, the modern “therapeutic self” walks right up to this and affirms the pride (by calling any other response “unhealthy”) because behind the therapeutic self is a neo-epicurean celebration of this transitory existence. Thus, it settles for less (i.e. nothingness) while Christianity reaches for nothing less than God, life, eternity, and everything rightly healed…

  34. John Avatar

    This shame of which you speak can and does feel unbearable. It can pervade the body in the form of terrible and debilitating anxiety. Being alongside it, containing it, feeling it can make you feel like you’re falling apart.

    This reminds me of the saying: Loneliness is that place in time and space where the only one who holds your image in the conscious mind is God.

    This may be a very edifying and spiritual topic but shame is real and powerful. Not to be treated lightly.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Self-loathing is, essentially, a form of pride. Recognizing the shame is painful. And, frankly, it’s very hard and we’re not very good at it. It’s why Elder Sophrony said, “Bear a little shame.” Too much, and the pain of our wounded ego can do all kinds of negative things, including lapsing into self-loathing – which is extremely destructive of ourselves and others around us – like a wounded beast. So, for one, just a little. It’s good medicine, but only a little at a time.

    Over a period of time, with practice, we can begin to bear the truth of ourselves without loathing – indeed almost like an observer.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Go slow. And simply ask for grace to bear it, little by little. Don’t be in a hurry – be patient with yourself. It’s healing rather than fixing. But, yes, there can be a hatred of God near the core. But it is not at the core of you. At the core of you is love for and desire of God. It’s the other stuff that gets in the way. It’s not your core.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it’s not a spiritual toy. Caveat: only a little at a time, only with prayers for grace, only with a spiritual father who understands what’s going on, and with tea.

  38. SW Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, can you please elaborate on your response above to Michelle, “But it is not at the core of you. At the core of you is love for and desire of God.”? Thank you.

  39. Karen Avatar

    “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

    “I can do all things (endure all circumstances) through Christ who gives me strength.”

    It’s helpful to me (who all too easily slips from a healthy recognition of my radical need of God and the many failings that expose this into a paralyzing self-loathing) to focus on the flip expression of this truth of my nothingness–Christ’s presence and grace toward me. Allowing myself to recognize and experience His loving and completely gracious presence dissolves my stubborn pride and leaves deep gratitude in its place. The trick is slowing down long enough to step off the performance treadmill and instead sit quietly at His feet until He begins to speak. How very easy it is to distract me from that place!

  40. Michelle Avatar

    “simply ask for grace….its healing rather than fixing”

    Thank you, a light switched on with this. I just now realized that a lot of what scares me when confronted with this hatred for God is the fearful feeling that I cannot change it. I want to control it, but can’t. From now on I will just call on Christ’s name and leave it to Him.

    “But it is not at the core of you. At the core of you is love for and desire of God.”

    I’ll always try to remember this, and think it over a bit for now.

  41. Heather Avatar

    Hi Father,

    This is so helpful. Thank you.

    One question. When Christ is on the cross and says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” how are we to look at this? As a Protestant, I was told that God could not look upon sin, and that at that moment, Jesus was bearing the sins of the whole world. That seems completely backwards now, in light of this call to “bear a little shame.”

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I believe this typical bit of interpretation to be a very sad misuse and misunderstanding. First, the words are the beginning (and thus the title) of Psalm 22, which offers graphic detail of Christ’s crucifixion. It is also a cry from Hades, that resembles the prayer of Jonah in the belly of the whale. And, like Jonah’s cry, this one is answered in verse 24:

    For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard.

    The Father does not nor cannot abandon the Son. He does not abandon us. The Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is a clear illustration. The typical Protestant treatment is a perverse treatment of the atonement and contrary to the Tradition.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    By nature we are good. By nature we desire God and long for the good. Our sin has alienated us from our very nature, but it cannot alter our nature. God is calling us back to our nature and is restoring us to wholeness.

    Even when we sin, we are pretty much never desiring evil. We desire pleasure. We want to avoid pain. But we lack understanding and we are in delusion and choose wrongly. But pleasure is not evil. Avoiding pain is not evil. When I speak with addicts, I help them see that their very addiction is simply a perversion of a desire for the good. That same desire, empowered by the Holy Spirit, turns towards God. God has never allowed that fundamental desire to be taken from us. If it did not exist, we could not be saved. Because it exists, everyone is capable of salvation.

    Christ says, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Even those who murdered Him, thought they were doing good (in some perverted way). He has come to restore us.

  44. SW Avatar

    Thank you for your helpful response, Fr. Stephen. In Rom. 7:22 (Orthodox Study Bible), Paul says, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.”. (The whole context in that chapter seems to relate here.) Are you saying that there is an inward man in me that delights in the law of God even when I am thinking and desiring ungodly things or just ignoring God, that at those times I am just so deluded and out of touch with this inward man, that he is not real to me, yet still is present? Is this inward man the true human nature, the true person that God has made, the true me? Forgive me, I think you’re saying this, but I feel very dull-witted in all this and want to make sure I’m understanding correctly. Has every person since Adam possessed this inward man as his or her true person/being/nature?

  45. Jim Wagner Avatar
    Jim Wagner

    Thanks, Fr. Freeman for an excellent article. Thanks also for admitting your unfamiliarity with Luther. Sadly there is a great unfamiliarity with Luther in American Christianity – Protestant, Roman and Orthodox, and yes, even among Lutherans. But one grows weary of correcting misinterpretations.
    I suspect Luther would have given a hearty “Amen” to your article. If you are ever interested in a brief introduction to Luther I would heartily recommend Philip Cary, “Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant,” from Pro Ecclesia, Vol. 4, No. 4.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I like Luther in many respects. I took a seminar on Luther from David Steinmetz at Duke in the doctoral program, and did a research paper on his doctrine of the atonement as evidenced in his hymns, looking at the debate between Aulen and one of the German theologians (name escapes me now). I learned enough to know that many people get him wrong and that he’s far more complex than many think. You might find it of interest that in the whole corpus of his hymns, the imagery of Christus Victor totally overwhelms any substitution/punishment notion. It is also of note that the German in question was one of the great apologists for the Nazis. Go figure.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You got it right.

  48. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    All of this reminds me that, in view of the fact that that this gospel could be “best understood” and “most effectively lived” by “uneducated men” (Acts 4.13), the commonest of people who populated ancient Palestine, (fools !!) it must be a matter of the heart not the head. It points to the presence of a deep intuition that is not acquired but already present though inaccessible to us. Not achieved via the doctorate or the tickling of the emotions, but via the heart and the pouring out of life via “two copper coins.”

    There is one need only – an unrelenting hunger and thirst for righteousness (right relationship of synergistic union). Education and emotional comfort can be the biggest roadblocks to “understanding” and “living (working) out” of salvation in course of everyday life.

    Ironic that these two – education and emotional comfort – are among the major goals of our post-Enlightenment social matrix.

    Perhaps these are what we need to fast from – educated-ness and comfort-ness.
    God grant me the mercy of this fast. Not to fix but to heal.

  49. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Fr. Thomas,
    God is simple and still. We can only be with Him if we are simple and still.

  50. Fr. Thomas Avatar
    Fr. Thomas

    I have too many books and not enough silence. I need to spend more time engaged in what Elder Sophrony taught rather than reading about what Elder Sophrony taught…

    Duh ! !

  51. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Fr. Thomas,
    If I may be so bold… Don’t put yourself down for being where you are spiritually. I read a lot and tried to force myself to do more contemplative prayer and I couldn’t. Eventually, I’ve stopped reading so much and started praying more. I can never create stillness and simplicity. They come as gifts from God, gift of Himself because He is stillness and simplicity.

  52. Jessica Avatar

    Oh, thank you. The “passivity question” had been bugging me.

  53. Sally Iloff Avatar
    Sally Iloff

    I understand very well what F. Stephan talks about the emptiness in prayers. Years and years as actively practicing Christian I tried to empty my soul through prayer. But now often it happened through my mind’s and words. The most significant sense of God’s presence was when I felt so shamefully sinfull and was not able to put my mind in order or my words in sentences before the Lord, rather than in quiet calm humbel repenting wait on the Lord and just asked Him for forgiveness. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

  54. Nicholas S. Avatar
    Nicholas S.

    Father, I just wanted to say that this is one of my favorite things that you’ve written. It’s been sitting unread in my web browser for some time now, perhaps because I subconsciously knew how powerful it would be for me.

    “Apart from God, I can do nothing.”

    (Adding an initial since there seem to be many Nicholases around these days.)

  55. Gennadios Scholarios Avatar
    Gennadios Scholarios

    Fr. Freeman, have you read Sarah Coakley’s book ‘God, Sexuality, and the Self’? If not, you may like it. What you say here about prayer sounds very similar to what she says. She frequently comes back to Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

  56. Margaret Shirley Avatar
    Margaret Shirley

    Fr. Freeman. . . . it is five years since you originally posted this article. IT IS WONDERFUL!!! Thank you for explaining “emptying ourselves” and so many other gems in this article. Blessings !!!

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