You Are Not Your Sin – Part 2…the Chains that Bind


Imagine that you have been shackled with chains on your ankles. The chains are heavy, make a lot of noise, and make it impossible for you to run. You cannot successfully climb over anything or dance. The chains are heavy enough that you quickly become exhausted and are limited in the things you can do and for how long you can do them. Imagine that not only are you shackled, but so is everyone around you. Some only have light handcuffs, while others are almost immobile with the chains they bear. Some have these terrible devices on their heads that make it impossible for them to turn their heads. This, of course, makes for very great problems in the culture you live in. For one, bicycles are not very popular. Sports are extremely limited. Clothes are primarily zippered things. There are laws about the chains and devices. Recently, it has even become illegal to discuss the chains, so that no one is embarrassed. There are even discussions and academic papers about the chains. There are fads in which the chains are painted various colors, or even have bells attached to them. There are clubs.

This is an analogy for sin. We did not invent the chains. They get there in various ways. Some are even born with them. Others have more chains added by parents and neighbors, etc. Over the years, we do add some chains ourselves. Our behavior adapts to the chains – over that we have very little choice. But, please note, we are not our chains. The chains may affect us, but we do not become the chains. They may affect us so deeply that we completely organize our lives around the limitations they impose. But the limitations and the chains are still not us.

Many people like to discuss the origin of the chains. Who were the first to have them? Was it their fault? Is it our fault? In truth, it’s largely a moot point. We have the chains and many of them are clearly not our fault. It’s true that my chains slow me down and I trip over them a lot. Perhaps if I were more careful…

I wrote earlier that “you are not your sin.” Neither are you your chains. Are you responsible? Sure, in some way. Are you free? There is still mobility, but nothing like complete freedom. Try riding a bike or swimming with leg irons. Responsibility means staying off the bike and out of the water. But that’s not really the same thing as freedom, is it?

The New Testament not infrequently uses the term “bondage” to describe our sinful condition. The chains are a picture of what bondage looks like. Many people speak of sin as though it were something else, as though we were a group of people who willingly chose to act as though they had chains but are, in fact, actually free. So, all of the chain-driven behavior is really only a choice. It’s your fault…entirely.

Jesus sets us free from our bondage. That is the clear teaching and meaning of His Pascha. He descends into the origin of our bondage, the bondage capital of the universe (Hades), and binds the “strongman.” And He sets at liberty those who were in bondage:

He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended “– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:8-10)


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


For the creation was subjected to frustration, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom 8:20-21)

I am not trying to develop some complete scenario of judgment, heaven and hell. However, sin as bondage and Christ as the destroyer of bonds is an essential NT image and at the very heart of the Church’s understanding of His Pascha. For those working within the metaphors and images of the legal/forensic world, Pascha is about a payment or an appeasement (propitiation) offered to the Father, freeing us from the righteous penalties of sin (which is understood as breaking the bonds of sin-debt).

Hidden within the legal/forensic image, however, is a false notion of human beings and their freedom of choice and action. The “bondage” in that imagery is a self-imposed burden that we deserve because we have broken the Law and owe a debt. We deserve it because we could have done differently. Our “chains” of entirely of our own making. It is argued, as well, that this concept of freedom and responsibility are absolutely essential to what it means to be a person.

What I think has taken place in the thoughts of many, is a transfer of the legal/forensic version of what it means to be human into the more Orthodox narrative of Pascha. It creates a very confused account that does not really make sense.

What does it mean to be a person? Most moderns assume that “personhood” is the correct way to describe the state of any individual. Each individual is a person, created in the image of God. Inherent to personhood, in this understanding, is freedom. If there is no freedom, then there is no true personhood. But, again, the modern consciousness has a false understanding of persons and presumes many things that are simply not true.

Human beings are not the utterly free agents imagined by modernity. The Tradition does not describe us as existing in a fullness of personhood. The language and understanding of what it means to be a person is rooted in the discussion and doctrine of the persons of the Holy Trinity, and the person of Christ as the God/Man. It is not rooted in what we experience and know to be the present case for human beings.

Indeed, the patristic consensus is that human beings are created according to the “image” of God, but that we fail to fulfill the “likeness.” Expressed in a variety of ways, it is understood in the Orthodox Church, that human beings, created to be fully personal in the image and likeness of Christ, are not yet fully personal and in the image and likeness. Personhood is the end for which we are created, not the place from which we all begin. And personhood is not properly defined as merely a mode of existence that entails freedom. The image according to which we were created is the Crucified Christ (the Lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world”). The Crucified Christ is the image revealed to us of the Person of Christ as self-emptying love. True Personhood does not merely exist as freedom, it is freedom as self-emptying love. It is always freedom-for-the-Other.

We live a shackled existence. Some are far more bound than others. This is not to say that we have no freedom, or that we are not responsible for what we do with the freedom we have. But our “range of motion” is greatly restricted. We are hampered such that we frequently fall and take missteps. What is shackled in our existence?

St. John of Damascus notes: For either man is an irrational being, or, if he is rational, he is master of his acts and endowed with free-will. (Exact Exposition, XXVII).

The Fathers are quite clear, however, that our nous is darkened. We do not see clearly and our reason is impaired. We do not see God or perceive Him as we ought, nor do we see the good clearly as we ought. Our reason is shackled.

In the same manner, our will is shackled. We do not hold an insane person to be responsible if they commit suicide. The daily suicide of us all is frequently just as much a matter of something beyond our responsibility. Again, we are certainly responsible, but we are also insane. There are very good reasons that we ask for forgiveness for things we have done, “both voluntary and involuntary.” That is simply the state of our present condition.

And it is this shackled existence of bondage that Christ destroys in His Pascha. It is His deliverance that forms the bulk of our hymnography within the Paschal Triduum. Of course, it is reasonable to ask why it is we still behave as we do if Christ has set us free from bondage.

The answer is simple: that victory has not yet been made manifest in its fullness. We are not yet as we shall be. We are not yet as fully free as we shall be, nor are we yet the persons that we shall be. And though the victory has begun within our lives, we “do not yet see all things under Jesus’ feet.” But for those who see Christ’s victory, the celebration has already begun, for they see the assurance of the promise that has been made to us:

“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”


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.


49 responses to “You Are Not Your Sin – Part 2…the Chains that Bind”

  1. JHE Avatar

    Father, you are speaking to my heart. Blessings.

  2. George Bryant Avatar
    George Bryant

    Hi Father Stephen,
    Thank you for the blog. All of it. We met at the seminary in Boston, Holy Cross, a couple months ago at the conference and I still remember your zest for life in Christ and your enlivening presence. You are one of the people peopling my heart, inspiring me to pursue certain paths despite big fears. Indeed, Glory to god for all things!

    George Bryant

  3. Eric Simpson Avatar
    Eric Simpson

    To throw another perspective into the mix, consider cultures where people are punished because of shame. For instance, daughters who have been raped in certain eastern cultures may be punished for bringing shame on the family. In sociological terms, these are regarded as shame-based cultures (and the west is largely a guilt-based culture), and it is largely the type of culture in which the Bible was written. This is why there is reference to Jesus bearing the shame of the cross. His shame had nothing to do with his responsibility or the way he felt. Given that perhaps semantic(?) difference, it seems to me that shame can be a tricky word. One must at least have a glimpse of one’s own behaviors and how they impact other people before one truly repents. I don’t think social systems of shame and honor do that. But godly sorrow, as the Scriptures say, understanding how one’s behaviors have been destructive to oneself and to other people, leads to repentance, and godly sorrow comes from a subjective experience of guilt, which is identifying with one’s behaviors, rather than with who one essentially is as a human person. That subjective experience can be extremely disorienting. Humility, which is seeing oneself and one’s behaviors as they really are, is required, but you can have humility without shame. Just my take. Thank you for your thoughtful elaboration on the subject.

  4. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Amen; He became sin for us ~ 2 Cor. 5:21.

    This is timely, as today is “Good Friday” for us in the Western churches.

    Great reminder, Father!

    Further, we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin (Rom. 6:11, Col. 3:1f), because we ARE dead to sin and alive in Christ (Rom. 6:1-8; Col. 3:3)!

  5. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    Fr. Stephen,
    I disagree with you. I am sin. My self-identity is, almost exclusively ego. And ego is pride, self-centeredness, and all the rest. It is sin. If I believe that I am not sin, then all I have done is create another category of ego, another self-identity that I think is not sin. I have not found holiness.
    Holiness is found in seeing that I am darkness. That I have no light of my own to overcome my darkness. That God is the Light that overcomes the darkness that I am and transforms me into Light by filling me with Himself.
    Holiness is found in seeing that I am waywardness. That I do not know the way out of waywardness. That God is the Way that out of the waywardness that I am and makes me the Way by filling me with Himself.
    Holiness is found in seeing that I am a lie. That I have no truth to overcome the lie that I am. That God is the Truth that overcomes the lie that I am and makes me the Truth by filling me with Himself.
    Holiness is found in seeing that I am death. That I have no life in me to overcome death. That God is Life that overcomes the death that I am and makes me Life by filling me with Himself.
    Holiness is found in seeing that I am sin. That I have no holiness to overcome the sin that I am. That God is Holiness that overcome the sin that I am by filling me with Himself.
    The transformation is not a renovation of the old house, but a demolition of the old house and a new house replacing it.
    Holiness is stillness and simplicity.

    God is still here
    Where have you been?
    God is still here
    Be still and be with Him

    George Engelhard

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Repentance is worth thinking about. Driven by the legal/forensic model that permeates modernity, we tend to think of repentance as about renewed efforts (choices) to do things differently. This, again, is all about the freedom/responsibility overemphasis. It also explains why I get so much blowback from people when I write about being saved in our weakness. The whole morality thing (which is largely legal/forensic/freedom/responsibility) has no place for shame, and only sees weakness and failure as lack of repentance. “Try harder! Damn it!”

    So what about being saved in our weakness? What is repentance about if we are saved in our weakness? Repentance is, in fact, being willing to bear our shame. What work did the wise thief on the Cross do? It was truly repentance. And he gained paradise “in a single moment”! He bore his shame. Why is that such a big thing?

    It is strangely simple. Bearing shame is rooted in love. It is an inherently self-emptying action.

    Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats (such a favorite around here lately). Those who did good to the king had no idea they had done good. Why? Because they did it “to the least of these.” What does it take to serve the “least of these?” It involves entering their shame, even sharing their shame. Anyone can help a king. Indeed, helping kings can feed the ego. The self-emptying involved in serving the least of these is something quite different. It is very close to the heart of true repentance.

    And those who did not help? They can honestly plead, “When did we not help?” The implication is that, “Well, if we had actually seen you naked, sick, in prison, etc., of course we would have helped you.” But they could not see that the king had emptied himself and born the shame of the least. They cannot see it because they refuse to behave in the same manner.

    It has always interested me that the poor are invariably more generous than the rich. I could write a book just with the stories I’ve seen of people who share half (or more!) of what they have with someone else, just because it needed doing. It happens all the time. It’s often impractical and leaves the generous person never getting ahead. But if you really need help, ask someone poor. They will help, and even bear your shame with you, and will not add to your shame with the noblesse oblige of the privileged.

    And this is love. Love is inherently full of repentance.

    It is worth noting that the middle class (and the wealthy) have historically always been the most “moral.” “Bourgeoise morality” is a by-word. They are certain that if the poor would behave correctly and be wiser, they wouldn’t be poor. Their morality is frequently a cloak used for avoiding shame. They are filled with the moral calculus of responsibility and consequences. And they are frequently empty of action.

    There’s a reason prostitutes and drunkards are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees (and always have). That reality is worth pondering. The moral man may be the hardest to save.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very poetic. Bad Theology. Say it to the wrong person and drive them into madness.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It makes perfect sense to me….now I just have to stop fighting it so much and trying to be so isolated.

    Our shame is not ours alone, we bear one another’s burdens. That is only possible if we are merciful, IMO.

  9. Matt Avatar


    What do you mean by “I” in that? If we’re talking about the core existential person, then if I’m saved in that manner, wouldn’t it just mean I’m replaced with someone else (I tag out, he tags in) and I’m not even there to enjoy the salvation?

  10. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father. This post helps “narrow down” the field you have been speaking about. To my mind, you are speaking directly to our “present condition,” this world. And I do believe Christ as Liberator and Redeemer is the One who liberates from our chains, albeit with our cooperation and not least in my case, over a really long long time! (Ongoing!)

    There is something I was thinking about that might be not relevant, but nevertheless I bring it up. Having been a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer (and other forms of Christian “contemplative” prayer) for a long time, I find there are depths within me I hadn’t a conscious idea of. Often entering into prayer puts me into a different interior place than my usual “waking” state. There, I find, it seems like that are decisions made in the depths of myself that somehow I don’t necessarily have a conscious idea about. It’s like, well, love, that you don’t consciously decide about but then it’s just there and you have to accept it (or not). I don’t know how to explain it. But it seems there are depths of choice that are quite mysterious, esp when it comes to faith, I think. If you care to comment I would be interested to hear your perspective on this. Thank you again.

  11. Janine Avatar

    Just curious: are you familiar with the writings of Rene Girard? He developed theories of mimesis (mimetic rivalry), and it only recently occurred to me that “imitation” is really very akin to the Orthodox perspective on the “fallen state” – our sinfulness as what we learn in the world (logismoi)

  12. Mark Avatar

    I am reminded of Lazarus, who, when he had been raised came out of the tomb yet bound in the reminders of his former (dead) existence. Jesus’ word to those who stood nearby was, “Unbind him and let him go”.

    By God’s grace, Fr. Stephen, I think you are doing so.

  13. Karen Avatar

    I wonder if some of the problem with our tendency to underestimate the generosity and possibilities of Grace and overemphasize the role of the “freedom” (and responsibility) of the human will is the tendency to understand our cooperation with God as the human ascetic effort that is somehow added to Grace that allows God to honor our faith, or some such notion. (Though we might never state it this way in so many words, if we were to analyze the sort of things we do say and do, this is what it would boil down to.) Perhaps this is another way of describing the Pelagianism you mention.

    What this “synergy” really is, it seems to me, is simply accepting to be saved! It is Mary’s, “Let it be to me, according to thy word”. Synergy is allowing Him entrance into “the manger of my corrupt soul and body” where truly there is as yet “no fitting place for [Him] to lay [His] head.” It is accepting to get out of God’s way–it is the embrace of, rather than a recoiling from and defending against, our own spiritual bankruptcy, weakness, emptiness and shame apart from Him. This relinquishing of self-effort without the relinquishing an identification with our “Telos”, the purpose of our existence of our transformation into the likeness of Christ (IOW, “keeping our mind in hell and despairing not”) is the antithesis to the dynamic of sin to which we are subject apart from the intervention of Christ’s Grace.

    A second important point to realize is that this intervention must be experienced to be believed and acted upon. (“We love because He first loved us.”) All of the disciplines of the Church are there to facilitate this surrender of the soul to God and personal encounter with His love, which encounter is what transforms us, but so many of us seem to understand these disciplines (rather than Grace) as the very means of our salvation, and “eternal life” as an extrinsic reward tacked on to this human achievement (however comparatively minor) to which we are entitled by succeeding in these efforts. Of course, this is rarely if ever what an orthodox believer would consciously confess, but rather a deep-seated false belief occurring below our conscious awareness to which our abject and repeated failure to love as Christ does should perhaps alert us).

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The heart of true asceticism is humility. Repentance is grounded in humility and love. I have been long convinced that many have a mistaken idea of the synergy that the Orthodox faith teaches. It does not mean that we add anything. There is nothing that we could possibly add that would make us into gods. But we are “mud whom God has commanded to become God” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). “The way of shame is the way of the Lord,” says the Elder Sophrony. “He who would save his life must lose it,” Christ says. But when people start talking about asceticism, I get the idea that they see it as some sort of athletic feat. “Orthodoxy: Christianity Only Tougher!” says an embarrassingly absurd bumper sticker.

    True courage is not found in brave acts of fasting. It is found in acts of self-emptying humility. It is found in the willingness to admit weakness. “I will boast in my weakness!” Says St. Paul. The bumper sticker should say: “Orthodoxy: Christianity Only Weaker” or something like that.

    Union with Christ is found first by following Him into Hades (it’s why we’re baptized into His death). Then He raises us.

    Forgive me, everyone. But this stuff is so basic, so fundamental. It is utterly what the NT says. Jesus says it. Paul says it. John says it. Etc. I’m not being novel. I’m just not being modern and I’m suggesting that we need to examine how modernity has infected our thought and is poisoning our faith.

    This is simply the good news. God is not our enemy. You are not your sin. Jesus came to get you out of hell. You are saved in your weakness.

    What joy awaits.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Only slightly familiar. I do not like perennialism. It tends to want to extract some “higher truth” out of the Tradition without actually submitting to the Tradition. It is, in essence, just modern philosophy. I believe that to live Orthodoxy, you have to be Orthodox. It’s actually the first thing.

    But, that said, I’m sure there’s lots of stuff in his work that would seem familiar to the Orthodox.

  16. Ed Avatar

    >Indeed, the patristic consensus is that human beings are created according to the “image” of God, but that we fail to fulfill the “likeness.”

    Forgive me father, and I suspect you made the choice to exclude this consciously in order to not muddy the waters, but this small passage does not fully express the fullness of our, and creation’s likeness to God, which you have discussed before: . All of existence shares in the likeness of God. Everything was created reflects God’s goodness and beauty. This is the other aspect of likeness that is present in the fathers. And it implies that our whole being shares in the likeness of God. This, of course, supports your point in the previous post, how can something that is like Infinite Goodness be in itself evil?

    And it is from/through/by this goodness that God made man from dust, by grace to His image.

    And as you point out, likeness may be used in another sense, “as signifying the expression and perfection of the image” as a translation of St. Thomas Aquinas puts it. To what extent does a man reflect the fullness of what it means to be made to the image of God? Only One has been a Man to the fullness of the Image to Which we were made, and about Him it was said “Ecce Homo.”

    But of course, we should not forget that His cross, and the iron the bound Him to it, are sweet, and share in the likeness of God.

    Glory to God for all things. Holy God, Holy Mighty, have mercy on us!

  17. Janine Avatar

    Probably I don’t know all the ways that you define “shame,” but it seems to me that the experience of shame or scandal (such as Christ on the Cross) may be an essential way of “breaking out of the chains” so to speak of that the social fabric gives us. The Holy Fool, I have read, seems to appear at times in history when society is particularly static. I think the ancient prophets often fit this model in important ways, as did John the Baptist. Christ comes into the world and breaks us out of our boxes, forcing us to come to terms with a definition of who we are that is not just about what everything around us tells us, or who our friends are, or what social circle we belong to, what we “have,” etc. Humility does this, doesn’t it?

  18. Corey Avatar

    George, if you were pure sin, you wouldn’t even exist. Sin has no substance. Even Satan, by definition, can’t be all bad, since he too exists.

  19. Tullius Avatar


    I have not been following the comments for the last three posts, so forgive me if I’m asking you to pass again over ground you’ve already covered. But please help me to reconcile something you said in your older posts about the unmoral life with these reflections about sin and ontology (both of which I very much appreciate).

    If I recall correctly you used the example of an alcoholic in order to make the point that “moral progress” is in someway illusory—a misconception of Modernist origins. You did not, I think, suggest, as some thought you did, that true renewal and healing were therefore impossible. Still, there seemed to be sense in which the alcoholic or the addict must identify himself with the sin. The label itself seems to imply as much.

    Can you explain how the addiction/alcoholism analogy fits into this sin/shame discussion of ontology/identity?

  20. Athanasia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    In February I went to the Dominican Republic with 7 others to do a week’s worth of work at a mission church there. It was a challenging week and not only because every single one of us got sick with fever, chills, headaches and bronchitis. I’m still coughing. What challenged me, and still does, was the generosity of the poorest of the poor to us who went to serve them.

    On the last evening of the trip the church held a celebration of thanks for us. They served us a banquet of cheese, ham, crackers and orange juice. The children sang songs. A gentleman learned a hymn in English so we could understand him as he sang. They live in tin shacks with fences of barbed wire.

    I left all my clothes there so someone would have shoes, socks, underwear, etc. Others on the team did as well. I gave out of my wealth. I came home to a closet full of clothes a solid roof over my head, and good medical care.

    They gave out of their poverty, and their love and appreciation.

    Who is the richer? This is some of what I struggled with for weeks after returning. Shame indeed. As well as, “did anything done/said make any kind of difference?” It is not for me to know. It is only for me “to do” for my fellow human being. One’s eyes, and heart, are never the same.

    God bless you Fr. Stephen, for sounding the clarion call.

  21. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Janine, for a very interesting Orthodox interaction with Girardian thought, see an essay in Donald Sheehan’s “The Grace of Incorruption.” Here, Sheehan demonstrates how St Isaac the Syrian understood human desire profoundly in the seventh century in ways Girard unveils for us again (in the West) only recently. The whole book is highly worthwhile.

    Fr Stephen I think you are confusing Rene Girard with someone else (Rene Guenon?).
    An excellent introduction to Girrardian thought (which has nothing to do with perenialism) is this 5 part interview series:
    Or an introductory book like the Girard Reader:

    So many of his insights readied me for Orthodox anthropology and atonement theology,- and I still think he says best in today’s modern context many things Orthodoxy understands more deeply in her own Tradition, but has yet to articulate clearly within our current age. Interacting with Girardian thought is a wonderful way to find a lexicon for addressing certain modern tragedies from an Orthodox (classical Christian) standpoint.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    Thank you for the correction viz. Girard. I was indeed confusing hem with Guenon. Great suggestion on Donald Sheehan book, as well.

  23. Dn James Avatar
    Dn James

    My journey in the Orthodox Faith was (and doggedly is still) deeply hindered by the deeply held modern view of ‘myself’ as autonomous that I lugged with me at my conversion. The ‘I think therefore I am.’ narrative. Thank you for continuing to shoot arrows at this bad apple in our current culture’s assumptions so that we can see it for what it is in the many ways it corrupts our understanding of the Gospel.

  24. Sharon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen – I’ve read a few other posts of yours where you express appreciation of AA. I appreciate it also. However, this last essay explains where I part ways with AA, 12 step recovery groups and why. Alcoholics, addicts etc are told they are their sin/disease. Addicts are never told they are Joy, made for joy. They are told once an addict always an addict. As much as I appreciate 12 steps etc, this really bugs me, and in my opinion leads to relapse more than any other cause. If our identity isn’t affirmed as being made for the joy of Union with God through Christ, then what we are left with is attempts at moral perfection couched in humility. AA is a start, and good, but I’ve found that, ironically, it leads to a lot of stinkin’ thinkin’.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me. You are mistaken. That is not what people are told in 12 step recovery. I volunteer in one, and I know very well what I’m talking about. But, yes. Addictions, because of the nature of neural pathways, do not disappear. Active addiction disappears. However, someone with the true disease of alcoholism (for example), should they return to alcohol, even 10 years later, will quickly discover that their drinking will return to where it would have been had they never stopped.

    That’s confirmed by the experience of so many, many who have found this to be tragically true.

    To tell someone that they can be “cured,” i.e. learn to drink normally, is dangerous and wrong. I know lots of mature people with many years of sobriety. They’re among the healthiest spiritual people I know. Some are Christians. But they’re sane and healthy, largely through actually living the 12 steps. Your characterization is simply inaccurate, I think.

  26. Sharon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I don’t mean to dishonor or disparage 12 step groups etc., they are effective for about 20% of people. The people I know who work the program do very well, nor was I implying that an alcoholic – once free from alcohol could or should have alcohol ever again. Yes, it is a disease with deep roots in our nervous systems.

    At the same time, how do people introduce themselves in meetings? “Hi, I’m Bob, and I am an alcoholic”. We can argue semantics but what the person is saying is, in effect. “Hi, I am my disease” or essentially “Hi, I am my sin”.

    Have you ever heard a person at AA say “Hi, I’m Bob, I have the disease of alcoholism”? I haven’t. I’ve heard every other variation though including “Hi, I’m Bob, I am a food addict, sex addict, drug addict” etc.

    The point is that while I think the 12 steps are wonderful they do nothing to address the fundamental issue we all have: we don’t know who we really are. I would dearly love to hear an alcoholic say ” Hi, I’m Bob, I’m an icon of God, and I suffer from alcoholism”.

    The fundamental issue as you point out in this blog post, is that we don’t know we are not our sin. This is a question of identity. This is why people cycle in and out of rehab at an astonishing rate despite exposure to the 12 Steps. This is why many people, despite working a program to the best of their ability, working real hard, fail and fail again.

    Not until we have an identity based on a secure attachment to God can we recover in any real sense, because our actions are never based on the information we have at hand, but rather on who we know we are. We are not our disease. I would suggest that only Jesus could actually become our sin, our disease. Even in this we were spared, we just became enslaved to sin.

    I’ve had some little first hand experience with this, please forgive my impassioned response. I appreciate your wisdom and experience also.

  27. Sophia Avatar

    As an alcoholic, I cannot attest to any veracity to “once an addict, always an addict” leading to relapse because I have never relapsed. Yet. Lord have mercy. I would be much more willing to say that AA fails insofar as the addicted never really proceeds in the steps. Most of the relapses I’ve seen involved those who merely assimilated AA culture, learned the language, as it were. Or those who chose their higher power and named it Kevin, or the cat on the poster that says “hang in there.”

    I also think this is too difficult for us and not as simple as Father would like *because* of that moralistic, forensic and modern approach. I personally am very excited to find another way.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Again, our experiences differ. I think folks cycle in and out, not because of the program, but because human beings fail – a lot. If a “doctrinal” tweak would change that…I would be more than amazed.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My support of 12 step programs is, of course, not the same as the Orthodox faith. Fr. Meletios Webber’s book Steps of Transformation is an interesting Orthodox meditation on the steps.

    The moralistic, modern approach is to be expected everywhere in our culture…because it *is* our culture. Webber does something quite Orthodox with them that you might find very enriching.

  30. Sophia Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I believe I’ve read that one, but as I’m older and different another read would be helpful I’m sure, especially in light of these recent blogposts.

  31. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Sharon, I’ll add another voice of gratitude for Anonymous groups. Two people very dear to me have been saved- really saved- by AA, NA, and OA. One of these people has been clean for over 30 years! Recently a loved one who was struggling talked with this person about deep experiences of unhappiness. She said to me after that it was like talking to an “AA Elder”- there was so much wisdom and spiritual practice- all of it couched in AA ‘culture’ and language.
    It is an amazing program for those who can humbly practice it, one day at a time.

    I am not my sin, true, but who I am most of the time is “not my *self* who is not my sin”. I think this is what the AA language reveals.

  32. Bob Avatar

    AA is a very moralistic program, The following steps needs superhuman strength to do Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all…Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others…..Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. It leads unhealthy scrupulosity.

  33. Victoria Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen
    I was wondering if you have any further insight to the statements regarding the folks in AA who introduce themselves as alcoholics and whether that is saying they are their sin. Is that much different than us saying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”.

    My dad has been sober through the 12 Steps of AA for about 30 years. It hasn’t been until the past decade that he opened up to me about his experience. This past year we read the Fr Meletius book about the 12 Steps together. My understanding is that naming the disease is essential for the addict because most have lived a life of denial.

    I don’t know about the 20% statistic for recovery but my dad recently told me that when he first came into AA he went to four meetings a day (five on the weekends) and that the first year was very transformative for him. What has been on my mind the last few days is him saying that, looking back, he realized it was not so much that he was working the steps himself (even though at the time he thought he was) but that he was allowing members to work the steps on him. God works through people is what he always says. In your experience of counseling at AA is this something you also notice?

    The first three steps of AA are realizing that life is unmanageable and being powerless over alchohol,, coming to believe that a Power greater than one self can restore them to sanity and making a decision to turn their will and lives over to the care of God.

    It is poignient for me, because my dad went into AA on the Annunciation and his “yes” echoes, for me, the yes of the Panagia.

    AA is a hospital for the addict. After almost thirty years my dad still introduces himself at meetings as an alcoholic and he feels no shame or guilt for it. The Church is a hospital for the soul. Every week we say before Communion that we are the chief among sinners. The healing of AA for my dad is that he actually believes he is an alchoholic. I do not know if I believe I am the worst of sinners, but I probably am! There has been much written about AA from Orthodox and Catholic clergy, I think because we recognize it’s authenticity.

    Now, my dad is a more seasoned member working the steps on others…. AA has given him the gift of sobriety and humility. He recently also told me when I congratulated him on more years of sobriety than he had lived, that the length of sobriety is not important, but the quality of sobriety is.

    AA is not a Church, nor do they claim to be, but there is transformative healing and authenticity in the Steps. The recovery of the alchoholic can heal entire families.

    Maybe only 20% recover… But for those that do it is real and involves saying “My name is —– and I am an alchoholic.”

    Recovery from addiction is truly a miracle.

    Please forgive me if anything I have written came across as offensive.

  34. Barbara Avatar

    I have also been wondering about the words, ‘…have mercy on me a sinner’ and how it is possible to say these words over and over again without identifying yourself with your sin.

    I am not questioning the necessity of these words, and I guess you could say there is a ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ kind of contrast, but I think a lot of good support is needed to make it through the guilt and the toxic shame that arises on the journey down. Sometimes the darkness is unbearable, and there is a cycle of awareness of your sin that is so strong and is truly a gift, but an abyss of despair that opens with it and is easy to fall into, and then you feel even more despair because you are in despair and this is also your sin….

  35. Stephanie Avatar

    Father, I ask for your blessing.

    Thank you for this post and all of your insightful teachings. I truly appreciate your work.

    In light of these last two posts, I was wondering how one should approach confession. I’ve been Orthodox my entire life, and I’ve always felt my “best” confessions (please forgive that description, I don’t know how else to phrase it) come from a place of shame. In other words, I feel most sorry for my sins when I am ashamed of them. Is this misguided? Perhaps the fact that I continue to repeat the same type of sins over and over proves that this attitude is ineffective. Can you offer insight on this, or point me towards a post about it?

  36. Chris Avatar

    This metaphor of the chains and shackles is very helpful to me. Thank you!

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I disagree. Someone could say, by the same token, that the Scriptures are highly moralistic. It simply depends on how things are being applied. It is not inherent.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there is no difference between a recovering alcoholic introducing themselves as an alcoholic and a Christian introducing themselves as a sinner. I am not my sin. Neither is an alcoholic his disease. But the nature of the disease requires the kind of vigilance that does not forget that the disease is always lurking.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The words “I am a sinner” like the words “I am the worst of all sinners,” if forced upon us, and not offered voluntarily, become toxic. They are the words of saints, who, following the way of the Cross, have learned to bear a little shame and can say these things without toxic repercussions, but in full unity with the self-emptying sacrifice of Christ.

    Helping people do this is the ongoing pastoral/spiritual work of the Church. It’s why I’m writing about it. There is no way to heal shame by running away. “Only shame can heal shame,” is the advice of St. John of the Ladder. Even in psychological therapy, the shame has to be acknowledged and confronted and dealt with. Denying it only makes it worse.

    The Elder Sophrony said, “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you cannot bear it, then have a cup of tea.” So, during Lent, I make a very bit pot!

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar


    In light of these articles on shame, etc., I can suggest nothing better than Fr. Serafim Aldea’s two podcasts on the topic of confession. Just the best thing I’ve heard in a long time:

  41. Janine Avatar

    Mark Basil,

    Thank you so much for your comments on Girard, and for your recommendation and link! I look forward to reading! I find some endless clues in Girard particularly for Orthodoxy… would be an interesting discussion. Am reading “Battling Toward the End” and recently saw this from a monastery in Syria, perhaps you would be interested as it bears (to my mind) some parallels – or perhaps I would say evidence of having read this book–

    PS I too find 12 Steps very helpful, they are kind of a step-by-step repentance that can be applied to any problem IMO

  42. Janine Avatar

    Excuse me, the book is “Battling To the End.” I think it’s Girard’s penultimate.

  43. drewster2000 Avatar

    I wanted to add a bit about the whole “I am not my sin/disease” discussion. I think there is a mystery here that may not translate into words here. While it is entirely true that we are not our sin or our disease, I think the “I am (sin, disease, weakness, etc)” is a way of embracing it, of humbling ourselves, of laying ourselves before God (and others) and allowing Him to tell us, “You are not your sin.”

    For some reason the minute we put ourselves back in the judge’s seat and blurt out, “I’m a sinner – but I’M NOT MY SIN!”, then we find it very difficult to humble ourselves – even unto death – so that Christ can cleanse us, heal us, make us whole.

    Even Jesus took on our sin, became sin for us. We know that His actual person did not become bad or stained by that action, but just how that worked and what was or wasn’t sin is a mystery. And frankly it’s not our job to know. We are supposed to humble ourselves, allow ourselves to be emptied so that He can fill us. In the end we must trust Him without fully understanding. As a pastor put it once, “First you believe, and then you receive…understanding and all good things.”

    hope this helps, drewster

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. This is good. It notes that only if we voluntarily embrace that identity (shame), can it be acceptable, and can we be healed.

  45. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    I meant to post this:

    Just as St Paul could embrace and model for us the both/ and tension of being

    the chief of sinners, having no good thing in him (that is to say, in his flesh),

    and yet, washed, justified, sanctified, redeemed, et. al.,

    God’s enemy (hating God) and yet befriended,

    the wretched man that he was, yet with no condemnation in Christ Jesus,

    By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. {2 Corinthians 6:8-10}

    and his famous holy conundrum, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. {Galatians 2:20}

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Posting blocks of Scripture is not the same as commenting. It doesn’t seem to be part of a conversation. Please refrain. If there’s a point within a verse, then note it and say why it’s of interest. thanks.

  47. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, father. My point is that is a both/and thing, where we are not experientially (in the flesh) “all there,” but positionally (in Christ), we have all his rich blessings as if we were God’s own Son.

    So, St Paul could and would “boast” only in Christ and his cross, giving no credit to his wretched flesh (as in Romans 7), claiming he (Paul) was simultaneously sinner #1 and seated in the heavenlies in Christ!

  48. Chris Avatar

    One of today’s epistle readings contains the following:

    “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light” (Eph. 5:11-13).

    I’m not sure if this particular passage has been quoted hitherto, but I see this as relating directly to confession and bearing shame.

  49. Pattie Berkau Boswell Avatar
    Pattie Berkau Boswell

    I have been contemplating the insights of Father Stephen and the many comments of the other readers concerning “You are not Sin.” It takes me awhile to absorb the depth of concept including the many comments. I feel hopeful with this thought and I can feel it better concerning other. It flows well with the 12 step concept principles before personalities. I guess I have lived my life as George has mentioned ” I am my sin.” The concept of personhood and/or identity was foreign to me growing up. It wasn’t until I went into treatment for alcohol and drug addiction that I became aware of any sense of “identity.” We were given an assignment to outline our bodies then attach an emotion to different parts of the body. At first I was going to color it black then hand it in, but decided against that idea. Instead I used bands of color representing emotions wrapped around the body. Once finished it looked like a colorful mummy. However, it was a break through for me to identify feelings. First it was pointed out to me that I left off feet, hands, mouth, ears, and nose. This had symbolic meaning to the counselors. I couldn’t run, move anything no hands, unable to speak or ear, and finally no breathing. I did identify my eyes and heart. Confusion and fear dominated my eyes and head. My heart felt anger. My torso and legs were alternating bands of shame and guilt. The counselors asked if they could keep the drawing and of course I said yes. I wish now I had it. Anyway this drawing identified me at the time. I must say in recovery I practiced positive affirmations on daily basis and began to grasp a more positive concept of God after I became aware of my skewed concept of Him as my earthly father, mother and family tired of dealing with my “____”. The skewed concept caused me to be very fearful of God. My church experience taught of a loving and forgiving God. I guess I held my family in higher esteem than church.
    Even after all the self awareness I have continued to act in ways that have caused me shame and guilt. And I will at times let it haunt me to this day. It doesn’t take much to send me spiraling down that road. Many times I cannot comprehend forgiveness from God. I can for any other person but not myself this maybe indicative of pride and self-pity. I have to lean on a verse from Akathist to Almighty God for Help in Trouble. “O Lord, my Lord, my joy, grant that I may rejoice in Thy mercy.” I also use the Akathist to the Holy Mother “the Joy of all who Sorrow.”
    I can say to George, I don’t want to be my sin even though I have allowed myself to believe I am my sin. It is a terrible way to live. A heavy chain to bear. Many times I have envisioned myself , my soul and spirit locked up behind bars unable to be free to fully express myself whether as God sees me or as I see myself. I have come to terms that my thoughts, feelings, and intellect can not be trusted. I must seek the mercy of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit while on this earth. I can only hope for the freedom I seek in older years or in death.

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