The Despised God


In On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus declares: ‘The Son is the image of the Father, and the Spirit the image of the Son’. Such statements are easily read and passed over as among the more obvious Trinitarian statements. I add to this statement another from St. Irenaeus: “That which is invisible of the Son is the Father, and that which is visible of the Father is the Son.” Of course, St. Irenaeus’ statement represents a very early expression, since he was writing over 120 years before Nicaea. Both statements, however, are essential to understanding the heart of the Christian gospel.

That Christ is the precise image of the Father is put forth in the book of Hebrews (1:3). This is refined in Nicaea’s language of “homoousios” (“same substance”). But while that language speaks of “being” or “substance,” we easily lose sight of what is being put forward. Christ not only reveals the answer to the question, “Who is God?” but also the question, “What is God like?” It is this latter understanding that plays such an important role in St. Paul’s treatment of Christ Crucified.

St. Paul identifies Christ as the “Wisdom of God,” and the “Power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). And in doing so, specifically links this with “Christ Crucified.” The crucifixion of Christ for Paul is more than an event that accomplishes salvation – it is an event that reveals Him in His fullness. The Christ of the Cross is the humble and self-emptying Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). He is the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness.” And it is this very image that St. Paul points to as the character of his own imitation of Christ.

It is also an image that is properly used for our understanding of God. St. Paul again offers this:

…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1Co 1:27-29)

It is quite possible (and not uncommon) to read such a passage as God being primarily concerned for His glory. But that very thought belies its own failed assumptions. The “glory” of God is not the glory of wondrous success, shining fame and an incomparable reputation. Instead, we are told that we behold the glory of God “in the face of Jesus Christ.”

For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2Co 4:6-7)

There are not infrequent attempts to create an antinomy of the theology of the Cross and a theology of glory. It is a false distinction when we understand that Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.

It is not just seen in the Cross. There is an unrelenting theme throughout Scripture in which God accomplishes His work through that which is least and broken. Whether it is choosing the second son rather than the first, Joseph as slave and prisoner to be first in Egypt, Moses who stutters when he speaks, young David rather than his brothers, Israel itself as an insignificant nation, Abraham and Sarah who are too old to have children, and so on, the pattern is clear. Mary the Mother of God says it well in her hymn of praise:

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. (Luk 1:51-53)

It is easy to recognize this as the way in which God deals with His creation, but it is yet something else to recognize that this is so because it is who God is. We are told that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. We do well to understand, however, that this is so because God Himself is humble.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Mat 11:29)

We are invited not only to be meek and lowly, but to learn such meekness from the heart of God.

For many, such meekness in Christ is treated as something of a disguise, or a temporary work for the purpose of salvation. They all too quickly turn away from this understanding to assert that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead!” But there is nothing to indicate that the definition of glory is somehow being altered for the sake of the Second Coming. As for the imagery of the Revelation of St. John, it should be read through the Cross rather than used as a corrective for the Cross.

The unfailing and living witness of the Orthodox faith is that the friends of God are foolish, weak, base and despised. That is the narrow way. Interestingly, it is a way that is the most open for all to walk. We need not be wise, strong, and well-thought-of. It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.

Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.


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.


27 responses to “The Despised God”

  1. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Father,

    What a wonderful post for today’s feast day of St. Xenia of Petersburg, Fool for Christ!

  2. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father for another thought provoking post.

  3. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    WOW, did I need to read this today. Glory to God in our weakness!

    The Day will come as a thief in the night…hmm that may make a bit more sense in light of what you have written, Father. Though of course it remains a deep mystery as to the when and how of our Lord’s Parousia.

    I echo the thanks of others. 🙂

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “It turns the world upside-down and our lives along with it.”

    Exactly what the satanic inspired Nihilism centric modern culture despises with a white-hot hatred. If we are not seduced away from God and the Cross we will have to endure that same Cross.

    There we will not be alone..

  5. Cyneath Ian Avatar
    Cyneath Ian

    It seems you may be saying that the Glory of God is His participation in His Creation through us. Correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Justin Avatar

    Wow, I never thought of the Wide-and-Narrow ways being within our own hearts rather than externalized.
    That makes SO much more sense now.
    For example, thinking of the Monks of Athos telling us to squeeze ourselves into the Jesus Prayer (in the initial stages) reminds me of the narrow and difficult way that leads to salvation; the overwhelming tendency to wander from the Prayer (for anything and everything) being the broad way leading to damnation.

  7. Nes Avatar

    But then, we are to seek and go through a “narrow gate” where “few will enter”

    I think this is a hard game to play. The very second one begins to focus on becoming humble is the very second one begins to glory in that very humility and, ironically, become proud. Think of it: you find yourself an outsider here in this world, someone who belongs to God’s kingdom and not Satan’s, and when your friends begin to berate you, when you find yourself estranged because of your oddity as a person of faith, you simply remind yourself that you are “a man of faith” and that they are not. You may even pray in arrogance, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    But all of this is pride. It is that sense that what we are doing is right, or justified. Meekness now becomes your glory, so you ironically use all of your strength to become “meek”, and in so doing simply use your strength in a different way. But it’s still your strength, and so you fancy it still your glory.

    It seems only way for us to not glory in ourselves is for God to do things to and for us that we have no control over. But then this seems to be Calvinist thought, and perhaps leads down a darker road.

    Ultimately the question is, how can one use one’s energy to become “servant of all” without the sense that really, he is a king? Doesn’t Christ himself say so? “Anyone who wants to be first must become servant of all.” But my Lord! How can I be a servant knowing that I am doing this for my desire to be first? Is that not the spirit of pride in me, seeking glory through these strange means?

  8. SW Avatar

    Thank you for this timely post, Fr Stephen. You write, “There are not infrequent attempts to create an antinomy of the theology of the Cross and a theology of glory. It is a false distinction when we understand that the Christ Crucified is the revelation of the glory of God.” Can you recommend other articles, books, or podcasts that expound upon what you have written in this blogpost? Thank you.

  9. Agata Avatar

    I would recommend listening to Fr. John Behr, his talk “Which God do you believe in?” (you will find it on YouTube).

  10. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I can totally relate to your comment – as could C.S. Lewis when he included a bit about this dilemma in The Screwtape Letters.

    I try to learn to laugh at myself first, as I observe the absurdities of my ego. Then I pray for humility. I know that any humility of my making is likely to my ego in disguise – as are my acts of charity, etc. – even my commenting here. My ego will do anything to be “first”.

    Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) that big ego of mine won’t fit through “the narrow gate”. So I have to learn over and over again that I cannot follow “my way” but must follow “the Way” who is Christ. I cannot trust myself at all.

    So I say the same prayers over and over for the gift of humility, for His help. I cannot help what thoughts pop into my mind but I can banish them as soon as I notice them (those insidious little ones that try to bring my focus away from Him and back to me).

    So the end result is a synergy – my relentlessly imploring Christ to help me and the action of His help within me. Because I am such a sinner and my ego is so massive, this process is an ongoing one. But if I keep asking, He keeps refining me – even if takes until the end of time (which it very well might in my case).

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that we should seek to be humble for the very reasons you note. If we simple are willing to bear a little shame, that’ll do the trick.

  12. SW Avatar

    Thank you, Agata!

  13. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    The question that arises for me out of Nes’ and Mary Benton’s comments is the old “how humble/sanctified do we need to become in order to ‘be saved’ or enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. No doubt the rumbling on of this question in my heart and the terrors of conscience I suffer have a lot to do with my inherited forensic/legalistic understanding of salvation, one which seems to take quite a while to root out of one’s heart.

    In the place I am currently, I believe ultimately it is the wrong question to ask, but like Luther (whose tradition I come out of) I still find it very agonizing to feel a lack of assurance regarding my ultimate fate. To attempt an answer of my own question, I suspect that one must forgo this need for certainty and let go of even the concern for one’s own [eternal] well-being in order to truly die with Christ. “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” But this seems excruciatingly hard given my weakness.

    Pray for me, a sinner. And any correction or advice is most appreciated. 🙂

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James Isaac,
    I understand the agonizing over the matter of salvation. It seems to me, however, that the agonizing is about agonizing, not to be flip about it. Salvation, because it is not forensic, is an ontological reality. It answers the question, “Are we there yet?” To which we might say, “Not yet, but I can see it just over there…” or some such thing. I can see that I’m moving towards that end, etc. But the agonizing, when falsely relieved, easily becomes complacency, and can also render salvation into just a mental cipher rather than a reality.

    We rightly agonize (“wrestle”). It’s not wrong. When the agonizing becomes anxiety and panic – then we need to tend to the neurosis in our life and get some healing.

  15. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    James Isaac, I believe it was Martin Luther who said, “Do you doubt that you are a Christian? Pray, and know that you are.” We can only live in Christ, and be saved, in this moment. And then the next…

  16. Nes Avatar

    Fr, then for what reason do we seek to be humble? Again, Our Lord’s imperative to be humble comes on the heel of “Do you want to be great?”

    It seems then the desire for greatness may actually be a prerequisite for humility, for without such an aspiration we wouldn’t seek to humble ourselves.

  17. Nes Avatar

    @Mary – I read the Screwtape Letters some time ago, and yes, I vaguely remember that Lewis’ solution was essentially a laughing at oneself, at the absurdity of the whole thing. That solution has always stuck with me, but I can’t help but think now that it’s not so much a solution so much as a deferral/sweeping under the rug. I’m not sure, though, I’d love to go back and read exactly what Lewis wrote on this.

  18. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Fr Stephen is better to offer insights as he has been a priest and hears confessions.

    But in my own experience I can’t say that I’m all that humble nor take any experience of humility with very much acceptance. As I think about it, I don’t think I really pray for humbleness either. Rather, I just don’t want to be oblivious to my sins to the degree that I can handle that. And then confess and repent for them as best as I can. In my understanding about myself at this time, my frequent sin is pride. With acknowledging that, I have begun to realize I get into a lot of trouble in my life because of my pride. If you ask how do I stop pride, I’m not sure I do, but it helps to curb the reactions in my behavior or words if I just ask myself, am I reacting out of pride or for some other reason.

    In order to deal with my pride and anger that is associated with pride, my spiritual father suggests a daily practice of reading the bible along with my daily prayers. I thought at first that the practice of bible reading wouldn’t really help that much, but after following through over time, it seems to help. Perhaps it is just the sheer act of obedience that does it. I don’t know. I like what Michael B keeps saying, “God is good”.

    I hope in these comments you find the resolve you’re looking for. May the Lord’s peace be with you.

  19. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you Father. The agonizing often leads to anxiety leads to despondency with me…I tend to have neurotic obsessive compulsive spectrum things regarding issues of responsibility for others’ well-being (physical safety, their needing to become Orthodox, and so forth). Which somehow seems linked to the whole issue of salvation.

    How does one get healing from this? I suppose it’s a slow process – I’ve been fighting this for 10 years now, with some improvement. I want to obey and serve God out of love, not shame or guilt-driven anxious compulsion.

  20. Cyneath Ian Avatar
    Cyneath Ian

    Having just perused a couple of Fr. Stephen’s blogposts from Dec. ’14 considering the inefficacy of morality, it seems that “How humble do I have to be?” falls neatly into that forensic paradigm.

    As far as I know, any part of me, whether physical, intellectual, or even spiritual that I esteem (whether positively or negatively) breaks Communion: the Light cannot get in to consume neither it nor the struggle which ensues.

    As St. Porphyrios says: “Open a tiny aperture for light to enter and the darkness disappears.” One may ask how to open that aperture even a little bit: he says it is by Love, the pure worship of God: the easy way!

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we seek to be humble because God is humble, and we seek to be like Him.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James Isaac,
    We make slow progress, and some things don’t get better in this life. I have ADHD, for example, and it has been a source of problems from time to time. I’ve been able to tend to the problems, but the ADHD is simply what it is. It is something to bear, and above all, to give thanks for. We’re saved in our weakness – not our strength. My ADHD, for example, often causes me to do things that I personally find embarrassing (or shaming) though others might not notice at all. But rather than react to the shame (which is when I am tempted to do very stupid things), I simply bear my weakness and imperfection. It’s really ok. If I didn’t have an “earthen vessel” to my life that feels so “large,” I could easily be unsufferable – to myself and others. God knows what He’s doing.

    In all things give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1Thess. 5:18

  23. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Thank you Fr Stephen for your words regarding wanting to be humble because God is humble and in imitation of Christ. These are words I will take to heart. My apologizes for my words above if they were not very helpful.

    I just wanted to thank you also for joining the humbleness of Christ crucified with with God’s glory. I’m not sure I have ever seen it presented as succinctly as you have. This pairing is an enigma to those of us who have been influenced in various ways to forge their way to “success”. If I were asked what image would I have of Christ, if I could choose some icon, it would have been in His Resurrection, or that of pulling Adam and Eve out of Hades. But I know again that I show the darkness in my own heart, because I would not have readily selected the picture you have shown above.

    Because of this picture and what you wrote in your last sentence, I’m reminded of the book Laurus that you mentioned was good reading. And the story has a holy fool in it. Since Christmas, I’ve been reading the novel and it has been very edifying though I haven’t finished it yet. As someone who is very new to the faith, it is very provocative regarding the stereotype of what we (I) think a holy person is.

    In the second story of the book where I have just finished reading, the three holy fools are all living in squalor. What particularly stuck in my mind is how the three holy fools interact with each other. Periodically one of the holy fools wallops another for encroaching on ‘his territory’. Then as one holy fool chases after the other to wallop him, they both end up walking across (and on top of) a river. This takes place while town folk in the story watch on, and yet the onlookers only comment was to the effect that they noticed the holy fools could only walk on the water, not run. It’s as though none of it was extraordinary for either for holy fools nor for the people watching them.

    The core of the story is of a life lived in humbleness. I have been struck by the openness and gratitude the main character has to all that comes to him.

  24. DMA Avatar

    This talk about humility reminds me of another post Fr. Stephen has written that impacted me very strongly. In it he spoke of humility from the perspective of unworthiness. I quote:

    “Before approaching the Holy Cup at Divine Liturgy, Orthodox Christians say in unison:

    I believe, O Lord, and I confess, that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first…

    It is not unlike the beautiful communion prayer of the Anglican reformer, Thomas Cranmer: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table…”

    It is the true image of the great banquet – a gathering of the unrighteous with the Righteous One, the unworthy with Only Worthy. This is the other side of the “Narrow Door.” Here the difficult path is not marked by asceticism, [sic] but by a humility, indeed a humility wrought by a broken life. I have encountered such humility many times, and have frequently found my own “religious” accomplishments soundly rebuked. I do not need anyone to remind me that 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that “drunkards” will not inherit the Kingdom. But, O strange wonder, many of them will be found in the Kingdom while others are thrust out! Dostoevsky’s Marmeladov explains why.

    Marmeladov’s Vision…
    …”And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek…And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us, ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth without shame and shall stand before Him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘O Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say,’This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him…and we shall weep…and we shall understand all things!”

    End quote.

    So you see, true humility is wrought in the spirit of unworthiness, yet acceptance that Divine love still loves, even someone as unworthy as me. Cultivate that spirit within you, and the narrow way will be your life.

    “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”- C.S. Lewis

  25. Victoria Avatar

    Are there Fools-for-Christ outside of the Orthodox? I mean are they recognized as Fools-for-Christ?

  26. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Nes says: “Fr, then for what reason do we seek to be humble?”

    Beyond the fact that God calls us to humility, it is in this state where we are willing to listen, learn, love, grow, etc. When we know it all and are “good” at something, we become fixed, brittle and eventually dead.

    It has to do with how we were made. We were made to be always moving, changing, breathing, growing and becoming – not in the way the world thinks of progress and evolution, but in God’s way. And He uses the foolish things of the world to teach us.

    He uses our weakness to make us strong, our ignorance to make us wise, our ugliness to make us beautiful. But if we ever stop and say, now that I’m strong/wise/beautiful I don’t need humility any longer, at that point we begin to harden and die.

    It’s a bit like walking up the DOWN escalator; if we decide we’re high enough, then we stop walking and quickly start sinking back down. If we admit we are so low and can’t do it on our own while continuing to walk forward anyway, God carries us upward.

  27. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    “But the agonizing, when falsely relieved, easily becomes complacency, and can also render salvation into just a mental cipher rather than a reality.”

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, I think that explains why Lutheranism ultimately didn’t cut it for me. Bypassing the shame (or at least not having the tools and wisdom to deal with it) is, I am coming to realize, at the root of many of my problems. The legal solution simply doesn’t solve the real problem, does it?

    Your work continues to light my path. Glory to God indeed!

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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