If There Really Were a God

INDIA_-_Croce_dissacrata_(F)Belief is a strange thing. It rests like an idea in our mind. We can examine it, walk around it, argue it, and change it or reject it. But as an idea, belief really isn’t such a big thing. It is probably quite correct to say that most of the things we “believe” make no difference whatsoever. This is especially true of what most people mean when they say, “I believe in God.”

Belief in God, the Christian God, not only carries consequences, but only matters as it carries consequences. Classically, it can be described as “keeping the commandments.” There is a particular aspect of such belief (and the commandments) that I think is largely ignored, even though it goes to the very heart of believing in the Christian God. It is, in effect, what I call the “secular option.”

A simple way of considering any matter in the light of this belief is by asking the question, “How would what I’m thinking be different if there really were a God and everything He said is true?” That might sound too obvious. However, for years I have watched otherwise faithful Christians act as if there were no God, particularly when it comes to things that matter to them or that feel somehow endangered. This has sometimes been called, “practical atheism.”

I believe it is a particularly attractive temptation for Americans because we are such a practical people. Our culture, formed and shaped by modernity, is deeply “utilitarian.” We can justify doing almost anything “because it works.” When problems arise, we try to fix them. This same drive, in the life of the Church, can often lead to practical atheism.

Obviously, “fixing things” is not inherently sinful. But fixing things as a matter of utility is. The Christian life is properly led in obedience to Christ’s commandments. We do things because doing them is an obedience to Christ Himself. The drive to practicality often carries within it a certain amount of “necessary evil.” We do a bit of harm in order to arrive at a greater good. This is atheism, regardless of the greatness of the good. We find ourselves trying to do the “heavy lifting” for God, because, we do not trust that He’ll do it Himself. This is the inherent temptation of “making a better world.” We have no such commandment from God. Every atheist regime that has existed has done so in the name of a better world.

I have served as a parish priest for around 35 years. The microcosm that is a parish is filled with temptations. There are problems that beg to be fixed (most of them are associated with one or more personalities). As a young priest, I fancied myself to be a “problem solver.” A good parish, I thought, was a happy parish. Conflict and crisis were things to be managed. I even took a number of courses in seminary that were focused on “management.” And this, I believe, was the secular option, the breeding ground of despair and unbelief.

Why despair and unbelief? Despair is the absence of hope. Management is the antithesis of hope. It is rooted in persuasion and control. Problems are obstacles to success. The management of what is, essentially, an all-volunteer membership is a never-ending battle. At some point, exhaustion wins out. Unbelief is always at hand for the manager. Cynicism easily takes hold, as the reality of parish life repeatedly fails to meet all hopeful expectations. In the face of failure, the manager begins to wonder where God is in the midst of everything, or even whether there is a God in the midst of everything.

However, consider St. Paul’s assessment of the Church:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things– and the things that are not– to bring to nothing the things that are… (1Co 1:26-28)

Parish managers inevitably tend to minimize the sick in order to take advantage of those who are most well. However, the fathers say that the Church is a hospital, which means that it is full of sick people. The very constitution of the Church stands in the way of success.

This is the point. Winning and success are nothing of great value. Only faithfulness to God matters. What, in fact, counts for “success” in the Kingdom of God may very well be judged as abject failure by the world. It has repeatedly been the case throughout the history of the Church that the work of a saint is only made manifest after their death. The work of the Kingdom is hidden, unseen by those who dare to judge.

This requires belief in God. More than that, it requires belief in the Crucified God. As frightening as it may sound, every failure, every collapse has the potential of the Cross. If, as the Elder Sophrony says, “The way down is the way up,” then the weak and the sick are much further on the road to salvation than all the others. It has always struck me as odd that we hear in Christ’s words “take up your Cross and follow me,” an admonition to a bold effort of strength, echoed in the words of the old Anglican Prayer Book description of the baptized life: “…manfully to fight under His banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end.” This phrase always caused me to picture the Church as an army of Cross-wielding soldiers, smashing everything that got in their way. That, of course, is true. But the army and the smashing are extremely paradoxical. Smashing frequently looks like losing, and the army a rag-tag group of wounded stragglers.

I especially see despair and unbelief come to the fore when people turn their attention to the Church in its larger aspects. We can grasp, perhaps, that God works victory through our own weakness, but we cannot abide that weakness when we see it in leaders or in the structures they inhabit. For some reason, the higher we look in the ranks of the Church, the less tolerant we become of the weakness and foolishness that are the chosen lot of all Christians. Bishops and Synods trundle along, Holy and Great Councils falter, all accompanied by the calumny and condemnation of others. The Book of Acts glosses over the first Council in Jerusalem, and portrays the steady hand of St. James who stands up and says, “It is my judgment…” and peace ensues. Of course, the letters of St. Paul provide ample evidence that peace did not ensue, and we can assume that the meeting in Jerusalem was bumpier than reported.

The Holy Glorious and All-Laudable Apostles themselves were not able to effectively manage the smooth operation of the Church. However, we can assume that they knew better. St. Paul certainly did. He described the Apostles as the “scum of the earth” (περικαθάρματα τοῦ κόσμου).

We are saved only through the Cross. There is no salvation in strength, only in weakness. We will either come to know God in the communion of His sufferings (Phil 3:10) or we will never know Him. We either believe in the Crucified God or we believe in no God at all.

The commandments of Christ point us in that direction:

Do not render evil for evil. Do not resist evil. Bless those who curse you.

To this, I would add, “Do not judge the failings of others, for God has chosen such to lead you into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

At the Cross, evil appeared to triumph. Christ’s refusal to defend Himself must have completely bewildered His disciples. But only in that seeming defeat is the final truth of who God is revealed. You cannot know the crucified Christ if you refuse to be crucified with Him. If you are afraid to lose, then you will never win – at least not the only victory that matters.

I remember that during a terrible storm, Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat. “My Lord! Don’t you care if we perish?”

Jesus has been asleep in the back of the boat for a very long time. But the winds and the seas obey Him. If you believe in Him, you can occasionally get a good night’s sleep as well.

Believe in God. Turn the world over to him and get some peace. Everything else is idolatry.

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.



58 responses to “If There Really Were a God”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, the very antithesis of modernity a philosophy perceived, foretold and shaped by Nietzsche and his followers (all but the saints).

    Yet does that not mean there is great hope in the fact that our political candidates are all so incompetent, despicable and corrupt that we cannot possibly put any hope in them or whatever policies they say they want for our good?

    Even the political class is beginning to realize that there are no genuine leaders to be found within their class regardless of the favored ideology. It is a circus of evil clowns. Perhaps why we actually have a spate of evil clowns, real and imagined popping up in disparate locations?

    It’s all connected.

    All things must pass away especially my comfort and self-righteousness.

    Lord, have mercy on me for I am the circus.

  2. Sunny Avatar

    Is it denying the faith to try and resolve health issues?

  3. Paula Avatar

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Patrick Avatar

    I’ve said it you many times, but I say it again….thank you Fr Stephen, and thanks be to God for these words/reflections. I am presently trodding down a path because of a decision that is not a good one, but a necessary one. This path is only going to get bumpier, and will leave those closest to me severely wounded for a while. I have given much thought and prayer to this choice which I know breaks God’s heart….but I unequivocally believe it is for the salvation of all…including myself. Thank you again Fr Stephen for these words today.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are genuine leaders to be found…but they do not all hold office…nor are they being honest about where they are leading…

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Of course not. But if they cannot be resolved…we still do not despair.

  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father, thank you
    I was taught the “fixing” way in Seminary. We Christians are to right the wrongs of the world. I knew there was a problem with this theology but you have brought it into focus. Christ told us to make Disciples. We are to be Disciples. Disciples emulate their Master. Christ suffered and died seemingly without doing too much except making a few hundred Disciples. It almost seems too simple, but it is what we are supposed to do.

  8. Albert Avatar

    I have been learning about the older Eastern Christain nationalist idea of “symphonia” with regard to church/state structures: the Byzantines, for example, then the various Slavic groups, and eventually Russia until the 20th century. Did respectable church father-leaders write about this concept, or was it, along with the notion of a Holy Roman Empire and a Church of England, a misunderstanding of an innately contradictory ideal?

    I am thinking now about whether, and if so on what basis, I could cast a vote for either presidential nominee. I don’t expect advice, but I am wondering what principles might guide your “everyday believer”(myself and probably 99% of us who are trying to follow Christ) during times of national upheaval and threat from within and without.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, yes there are genuine leaders but the state of politics is such that the honest ones either won’t or cannot run for elective office. The ideological tests applied and the amount of money required discourages all but the most venal, or so it seems.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not sure. But from an Orthodox perspective, symphonia is not at all to be identified with nationalism. No Church among the Orthodox has ever been as Erastian as the Church of England once was.

  11. Chris Avatar

    Where did Paul call the apostles “scum of the earth?” I know Paul could be very direct and critical in his writings, but I cannot recall this comment.

  12. Dean Avatar

    Chris, It’s 1 Cor.4:13. It’s translated various ways, some do say “scum,” others “refuse” or even “garbage.” However it may be, it’s not a positive adjective, for sure.

  13. ajt Avatar

    Sometimes I think the programs developed within the church are the fruit of a management/”change the world” mindset. How should local church leadership approach programming such as home groups, church school, homeless ministry, etc?

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As wisely as they can.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I pray you are getting good advice. If you want to send me a private note my email is email hidden; JavaScript is required

  16. RC Avatar

    Father, could you expand a bit more on what it means to “believe.” Is there a substitute word or phrase that you find helpful? As a recovering Evangelical, this word carries baggage for me, and my default is to hear “believe” and think “mentally agree.” But I feel like it has to be more than that. When the Scriptures tell us to “believe in the Son of God” it’s not just to agree that He is God’s Son, is it?


  17. Chris Avatar

    Dean….thank you for the scripture reference.

    Fr. Stephen – They way I read it, Paul is including himself in this description, and he his not doing it in a manner that is critical of the apostles, but as a description of how the world sees them, and a how they have, in a manner, humbled themselves and suffered for the preaching of the gospel. Is this correct interpretation of the reference?

  18. Eleftheria Avatar

    The humbling comes, not from how the world sees them, but, truly, how they see themselves.
    They do not humble themselves, but are humbled by having taken part, sort of, in the suffering of Christ.

  19. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    “We are saved only through the cross. ” I’ve never understood what that means. Can you elaborate, Father?

  20. Dino Avatar

    I’m looking forward to Father’s answer Diana, too. Descent is easy, ascent is difficult. Little wonder that no man lives free of difficulties. Deprived of some kind of a cross, there’d be no prospect of salvation. “Take away temptations and nobody would be saved”.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    RC, the etymology of our word believe is to love. A further root is to know/understand. Taken it in the light of our Lord’s two commandments it makes more sense. Communion is impossible as only mental acceptance. To believe in God requires our whole being.

    The word is fine, it is our understanding of the word that needs to be reclaimed.

  22. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    RC, in the Russian language, “to believe” or “to have faith” can also mean “to be faithful.” At least the entomology of the Russian words вера, верить and верный shows that.

    True faith must be active, not passive or mental. It is not just a moment but a process.

    Thus, those who believe (have faith) in the Son of God, they are those who are faithful to Him. They are those who follow the Son of God, reading His word, keeping His commandments and carrying their own cross.

    “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 (ESV).

  23. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    PS Sorry, “etymology”, not “entomology”. 🙂

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll get to your question in a bit. I’m speaking at a conference early this week with a very full schedule. I’ll get at it asap.

  25. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Another wonderful and penetrating message, Father…truly you must have suffered much to gain the wisdom made manifest in your writing. Glory to God for the power of the Cross!

    Your post resonates with me on a couple of levels. One, I have inflicted great damage on myself and others whom I was once close to as a result of the practical atheist thinking you describe. I would caution anyone considering that the end justifies the means to pray, pray, and pray for God’s good and perfect will to be done. Our enemies are perfectly moral utilitarians, and have hearts blacker than night itself.

    Two, I have had mental breakdowns over this seemingly ‘moral’ need to fix and prevent suffering, calamity, etc. in the lives of others. Indeed it is so prevalent in our culture (especially the “safety culture” industry and workplaces are increasingly vociferous about) that it seems like common sense. No wonder we doubt God and even His existence when we don’t see Him neurotically running around stopping bad things from happening! So thank you, Father – your words help further confirm what my nous, darkened as it still is, has been telling me. I have been a practical atheist for far too long.

  26. Panagiota Avatar

    Can we say that dying to ourselves is finding Christ within? That knowing in every way, what I do should be done in humility and prayer. That I should see every activity in my life like this, from making lunch for my family, to praying in a memorial service at the end of liturgy. It must be understood to be God in me, not in a robotic way, but in a humble way, otherwise I am the clanging bell St Paul talks about. Does this make sense? Do I understand? I keep thinking about the first step in the anonymous group, when one submits to a power greater, sometimes it became for me an idea to subscribe to. It seems as though it is something within us, something that is deep within, rather than outside ourselves.
    I hope I am not thinking about this in the wrong way.

  27. Alan Avatar

    Nicholas Stephen Griswold, you wrote:
    “I was taught the “fixing” way in Seminary. We Christians are to right the wrongs of the world. I knew there was a problem with this theology but you have brought it into focus. Christ told us to make Disciples. We are to be Disciples. Disciples emulate their Master. Christ suffered and died seemingly without doing too much except making a few hundred Disciples. It almost seems too simple, but it is what we are supposed to do.”

    Thank you, thank you, for these outstanding comments! They reminded me of a comment that Dino once made here that I’ll never forget. He said, “The Orthodox are hesychasts, not activists.”

  28. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Dino spoke truly. But now comes the hard part. I have discovered in 10 years of ministry that it is easy to bring a person to “belief” but very tough to get them to truly become disciples. This was very true in my days as a Protestant Pastor and is still a challenge now that I am Orthodox. It is a bit easier because we say so much about theosis and submission in our liturgies and catechism but getting people to put their beliefs into practice is sometimes challenging. It is, however, our real mission.

  29. Dino Avatar

    That’s a saying I first heard from Elder Aimilianos as a response to people’s ‘desire to do’ more in order to affect the world around them: “we are not activists – we are hesychasts” .. ( and he clearly implied that the hesychastic route is more effective –even towards this desire)

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I suspect that being a hesychast is quite a bit different than I think it is.

    Quiet is almost impossible to even understand even more difficult to endure in this modern world. I fear that if all the outward noise were suddenly shut off, I would go crazy by my attempt to maintain it inwardly.

    I for one am always reacting.

  31. Ed Avatar

    The image that comes to mind is yeast that, having heard of bread, sets out to make it. Yeast has a job in making bread, but it’s in the little, obvious tasks set before it. No power in the yeast, nor any power that can be mustered by the yeast, will ever reach the final result.

  32. Dino Avatar

    that’s a most germane image indeed.


    it’s exactly as you describe it. And we desperately need the ‘desert experience’ to discover what you describe in practice, in order to see our self and to, subsequently, hear God.
    But living in the world, the vigilant pursuit of quiet stillness, of those special [mere] moments, can rarely attain anything beyond a constant ‘chase’…
    It would be presumptuous to expect the exact same experience of a desert anchorite to become available to one in the city, despite all the encouraging talk to the contrary we sometimes hear.

  33. Yannis Avatar

    I think that if one wants to know the difference between being faithful and being mentally-in-agreement, one might do worse that to consider the example of a faithful dog.

  34. Agata Avatar

    Dino and Michael,

    I just recently read in one of the books of Fr. Zacharias that even Elder Sophrony in his later years said that true hesychasm (as he himself experienced on the Holy Mountain earlier in life) is no longer possible in this world…

    And that now the most important thing for us is to keep the Liturgy and the Jesus Prayer, that alone could have the transformational effect on the whole world and bring about the spiritual Renaissance… We are the only remaining Christian tradition that has the true Liturgy.

  35. Dino Avatar

    Elder Sophrony’s saying surprised me at first, but I see it’s truth more and more as time passes. However, I would still respectfully disagree with a blanket application of it: there are some (very few, but they do exist) true hesychasts right now , having totally renounced everything and living on little more than antidoron in various deserts of this planet. Perhaps their minds cannot attain the same purity of the old greats, but their feat is more outstanding nowadays [as that classic saying of Abba Ischyrion from the sayings of the desert Fathers goes regarding the monks of the last days] . Right now in 2016…

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agata, silence is impossible. Simply all of the messages swirling all around us back and forth. Even if we actually shut down our electronics they are still all around and even through our bodies. Don’t think we are not affected by them.

    I read recently of a young woman who was “allergic” to Wi-Fi. She could not get away from it. She was so tormented by it she committed suicide.

    Deeply sad, but a good indicator of what is happening to us. Those messages for the most part are temptations to indulge the passions. The demons don’t even have to be involved.

    Even in the middle of the most isolated place on earth there is likely going to be some such signals no matter how attenuated.

    Add to that the ideology that sees any distinction as being bad. Even Orthodox Christians are suspicious of statements as yours that only we have a genuine Liturgy.

    That simple observation is looked on as being “judgemental” and offensive.

  37. BillB Avatar

    In respect to the discussion of “management” here, I can fully agree about the negativeness of it. What I see is that Christians need to lead and lead by example of obedience to Christ. It is through this leadership that the turmoil around them will be “managed”. One in a position of leadership does not attempt to persuade and control but show through example. Their example will be the persuasion for others and their obedience will allow the Christ to control.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You have said it well.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Saved through the Cross.” The Cross, Christ’s death and entrance into death/hades/hell itself in order to unite us to Himself in His resurrection, is both an event in time, but also a cosmic event for all the ages and a pattern of how salvation works in the world. His death on the Cross is His union with our death and the consequences of our sin. This does not take away our own dying, but makes our dying different, in that it can be united with His death and becomes victory.

    It is the pattern of true living as well. Love is self-emptying, laying down our lives for the other. As frightening as that can be, Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection shows us that such love is, in fact, the way of life and life-giving.

    “Only through the Cross” says that there is no other path other than union with Christ’s in His death and resurrection.

  40. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Thank you Father, for deepening my understanding, and for your blog.

  41. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    “Winning and success are nothing of great value.” I agree. Does anyone else struggle with living this out in corporate/business life where winning and success is seemingly the only value?

  42. Agata Avatar

    Michael, Dino and Everybody,

    I am so sorry if my statement about the Orthodox Liturgy came across as judgmental and offensive. Please forgive me.

    It was not at all my intent, it was supposed to point out that in the Liturgy we still have this incredible access to God. It may not be as direct as hesychastic life of the true desert Saints, but it has a great salvific capacity. For us for sure, and through us, for the whole world.
    In the Orthodox Liturgy, in the Holy Gifts, we bring our temporary and limited life before God (“Thy own of Thy own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all”) and God takes our offering and puts His [Infinite and Eternal] Life and Grace in the Gifts and gives them back to us (“The Holy things are for the Holy” He says). So the beautiful point I was trying to share is that this Liturgy (to which we have such access and maybe not enough understanding and appreciation of) has that possibility to transform us and the whole world through us…. Fr. Zacharias says that for Elder Sophrony, every Liturgy was “an event”, something he cherished and revered.

    I know there are even today wonderful anchorites in the deserts who live in silence and pray to God for us. A friend who recently visited the Holy Mountain said that the monks there, even though they don’t listen to the news or read newspapers, are very attuned to the “pain and suffering of all of us in the world”…

    I would love to just once in my life sit at the feet of such a Saint. But they all hide on Mt. Athos… Dino and Michael (and all men) could try to go find them, I can’t… 🙂

  43. Dean Avatar

    Agata, Are all saints men? I highly doubt it. 🙂

  44. Agata Avatar

    You are right! I am sorry, all women Saints please forgive me!

    With every post, I get myself into more trouble…
    That’s what I get for reading and posting on this blog at work… 🙂

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agata, forgive me, your statement is not judgemental. Your statement is true. I was just pointing out that the PC police would find it so.

    That such a simple statement of fact could be considered judgemental and offensive is lamentable but it is the case.

    As to sitting at the feet of saints, I for one would likely find it rather uncomfortable given my sinfulness.

    I don’t believe they are all on Mt. Athos nor all men.

    God has a way of sending what is needed.

  46. Byron Avatar

    Michael, Agata,

    Don’t worry about what you say here (or, indeed, elsewhere). The PC police (to use Michael’s phrasing) will always find something to be angry about no matter how well or lovingly stated. It is the nature of a dark and hardened heart.

    Speak love, pray and give thanks always.

  47. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Byron.
    “Speak love, pray and give thanks always.”

    I think it’s the only way to live in this broken world.

    BTW, if you have not come across this talk, you might enjoy it. Father Stephen often talks about beauty. Fr. Andrew’s presentation is really wonderful.


    (I met Fr. Stephen for the first time when he spoke at this retreat in San Francisco last year, and then started reading this blog. What followed was the most blessed year of my life [and it continues..]. Thank you Father!)

  48. Chris Avatar

    “Belief in God, the Christian God, not only carries consequences, but only matters as it carries consequences. ”

    I wonder if anyone can comment on folks who move in the opposite direction: Those who are completely secular in their beliefs (perhaps identifying as atheists, agnostics, or some other non-theists), but who are striving to live a moral life, perhaps out of concern for others, the nation, or humanity as a whole. It seems to me that God would honor such strivings, and that such may produce fertile ground for the message of the Gospel.

    The reason I bring this up is this way of thinking is common where I live and in my work: Completely antithetical to the bible belt.

  49. Agata Avatar

    I was married to such a person. When they finally encounter some irresistible temptations, they have no point of reference and the morality goes out the window, along with everything else. When they are young, they have more time to be honorable and have standards, when they get older and feel like “time is running out”, all those rules are negotiable and bendable for their benefit. The world of politics is full of even more blatant examples. But this is just my opinion, others may have experienced such personalities differently.

  50. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Chris, Fr Stephen has a post on this topic:


    Salvation is union with God. Man’s morality is nothing when compared to God’s holiness. If moral life could save us, restoring the image of God in us and making us partakers of the Divine Nature, then we would not need the Lord to come down on earth. 10 commandments would be enough.

  51. Drewster2000 Avatar


    One thing that comes to mind is the scene of Aslan speaking with the young Calormen soldier in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. I won’t try to recreate it here, but basically Aslan (the Christ figure) tells him that no good thing can truly be done in the name of evil (or any other god) because all goodness has one source. Likewise with evil done in God’s name.

    In fact when you refer to atheists as those “who move in the opposite direction”, you mistake their true position. This is understandable since they themselves are obviously unaware of where their heart lies too.

    I have a 16 year old son who believes he’s an atheist simply because he doesn’t like the idea of a being who rules his life (and he doesn’t like going to church). Yet in every other way he is a devoutly moral person – sometimes more so than I am if truth be told.

    I require his attendance at church and catechism classes, but I don’t argue with him about religion. Why should I mess with that is working just so he will admit I was right?

    When he’s 18 I will no longer require his church attendance and he may in fact move out away from the family influence. I’m aware that his morals will eventually and fully fail him. It is not me who will force him to return to his senses. I will pray for him and do what is reasonable, but otherwise my job will be to allow him to eat with the pigs (to whatever level this must be the case) until he finally raises his head and looks around. It is then that he will remember where in his life he has experienced love, something which rises above all morals and logic. And it is then that I must be waiting on the edge of my property, prepared to run out and greet him and kill the fatted calf.

    I don’t say this coldly and calmly, but I have learned from experience – and God’s example – what lines can and can’t be crossed. And I right now learn daily how good relationships can be forged when I don’t insist on his exterior being whitewashed according to my beliefs and morals.

    They are not moving in the opposite direction as you suppose. They are most likely unmoored and in need of a good friend more than anything. Be Christ to them however you can. In return Christ will reveal Himself to you through them.

    I hope this helps, drewster

  52. Agata Avatar

    Chris, thanks again for asking that question.

    It has forced me to think a bit more about the subject. Alex has provided us the theological answer, and I hope Father and other commentators will add to it. But my thoughts a little more along the practical aspect of it, as I myself am trying to understand this…

    I think that without God as a reference for our life, people’s conscience can get dulled over time, become “less refined”. I sometimes wonder if as kids grow and mature, there is a certain point in their life when their conscience is at its peak? (I sort of remember that point kind of point in my own life, somewhere in middle school). And then they experiment with what they can get away with. Some may become so refined, they end up being monastics….(I have a friend like that in Poland who is now an Abbess of a monastery, we grew up as neighbors and I did not know her that well back then, but I still wonder to this day “what did she hear in church that I obviously missed”…? ).

    I also just read in Fr. Zacharias’ book, that without God’s Grace working in us, our conscience becomes less sensitive, refined. This is why holy people are troubled by the smallest sin they see in themselves, while we are able to excuse [in our mind and hearts] the worst thoughts and deeds. So in the long run, the person who lives without God’s grace working in their life stops seeing their sin altogether and in their mind, they are still moral, honorable and respectable, worthy of great admiration. Their compass points to themselves, as Father Stephen said so beautifully in the past. And that has huge practical consequences for them and for the people around them….

  53. Chris Avatar

    Thank you, Agata and Alex. But wouldn’t we agree that the mere attempt at living a moral life is better than a life of debauchery? I think it was C.S. Lewis who said those who know evil have attempted the good, while those who have made no such attempt know neither good or evil (or something along those lines).

  54. Chris Avatar

    Thank you, everyone. Your comments have given me some things to chew on. Drewster, as the parent of a two-year-old son (and another on the way), I especially appreciate your parental insights.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Move in the opposite direction…”

    I think that movement in a direction is worth thinking about in this. A number of the Fathers, St. Maximos in particular, use the imagery of movement as an analysis of our very existence. We are given being, are meant to move towards well-being, with the goal of eternal being.

    I think most people are not at all aware of the direction of their life. They move, and they may even have a compass, but are not entirely aware of the compass or where it points. Almost everyone I know is “moral.” We have an inner compass that actually desires the good (and this is eternal being). Most people in our culture are “good” in some modest sense without even knowing why, other than that it’s better than being bad.

    There is, as part of the myth of modernity, the notion of “making a better world,” though, again, what that would actually mean is rather vague. The morality of the modern world is most utility – being useful – “what works.” And evil is generally synonymous with suffering. So, we go along and try not to make people suffer too much. And are, at the same time, extremely vulnerable to moral arguments that suggest killing as a means of limiting suffering.

    I have written: “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”

    Modern morality sometimes agrees with the true compass of God’s work in creation, but is just as likely not to, particularly in the face of suffering. What modern morality cannot give an account for is why anyone should embrace voluntary suffering, or even an account of suffering having any purpose at all. In point of fact, it has no ethic of suffering.

    The Christian life, lived in such a manner, will seem well-behaved, but it will not be well-lived. True life is grounded in love, and love is grounded in voluntary self-emptying. It bears the suffering of the world, in union with the suffering of Christ.

    Everything is fertile ground for the gospel. God uses everything in every life for the purpose of salvation. But it is not a matter of “honoring” anything. That is extrinsic to our existence. What matters is the acquisition of true existence – existence in union with the Being of God. And no amount of “honoring” can grant such a thing. It happens in and through communion with the life of God. And that involves many things that are absent from the life of aimless morality.

    More than honoring such people, God longs for them. He yearns for them. He longs for them to make any movement towards their well-being and grace is everywhere present, filling all things and working everywhere in everyone to assist in that movement. It will, at the right time, introduce them to the fullness of the life of grace – but should never doubt that grace is already and always at work.

  56. Taina Avatar

    To RC:

    You wrote, “Father, could you expand a bit more on what it means to “believe.” Is there a substitute word or phrase that you find helpful? As a recovering Evangelical, this word carries baggage for me, and my default is to hear “believe” and think “mentally agree.” But I feel like it has to be more than that. When the Scriptures tell us to “believe in the Son of God” it’s not just to agree that He is God’s Son, is it?”

    I too am a convert from the Protestant umbrella of Christianity. And in the grand scheme of things, I am all together a very young, or as we like to say, a baby Christian. And even more so a baby Orthodox Christian.

    I do not have any root words, or etymology to share with you. And I am by no means an expert in any area of the subject. But I do feel that I have a very rich understanding of what it means to believe in Christ.

    For me, to believe in Christ is to know Christ.

    To believe in Christ, is to know Christ.

    To know that He was, and is, and always will be. To beyond a shadow of a doubt, know that He is and that what He has said and promised is true; even more true than anything you can see, smell, touch, or feel in this world.

    To believe in Christ is to know that you know nothing. You have no understanding of His mysteries. You have no possible way of comprehending them, because there are no earthly references by which to comprehend them. But what you do know is that Christ is more real than your body, than your chair, or your desk, or your car, or anything else that ever was or will be in this realm.

    To believe in Christ is to know that without Him you would not breathe, you would not sing, you would not eat, you would be nothing.

    To believe in Christ is not to agree that He is. It is to know that He is, even when you do not know how, or even if you do not fully understand why.

    So maybe a substitute word that might be helpful in understanding what belief in Christ is, could be knowing.

    You simply know.

    Beyond what any scientist or humanist could try and reason away, beyond any inability to see Him, beyond anything ever within our fleshy and earthly frame of reference, believing in the Son of God is knowing that He is exactly that. At least, that is how I feel about it. 🙂 Anyone, please correct me if I am wrong. Thank you.

  57. Eleftheria Avatar

    To Taina,
    Your comment made me smile. It also brought to mind something I have read in so much of Orthodox spiritual writing, especially that of St. Paisios. We LIVE Christ. It has often been translated as: we experience Christ, which I find somewhat erroneous. I like your way better. We LIVE Christ because we KNOW Him…and what’s more, because He KNOWS us.
    Thank you!

  58. Alan Avatar

    Drewster, thank you for your comments about your son. As my children are in their early to mid teens, I often wonder about their spiritual lives and what path(s) they will follow. The process (for lack of a better word) you describe seems to me to be the right one. It’s not about me hammering the faith into my kids (as if I could even do that) as so many modern Christians believe. I’m to pray to God for my children. So simple, so profound. Thank you!

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