Providence and the Guarded Heart

Imagine that you have been sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. The Church is weak, often riddled with spies, while the state proclaims that it is building a better world through its brutal efforts. Many of the laws specifically target the Church and activities within its normal life. Already in your lifetime, you have known thousands who have been executed for nothing more than faith in God.

And to this you say:

The world is governed by God’s providence alone, and in this is salvation for one who believes; in this is the strength to endure earthly sorrows.

Those words were spoken by Fr. John Krestiankin. He was imprisoned in 1950, having been sentenced to seven years in the Soviet Gulag. Born in 1910, he reposed in 2006. He was known as one of the greatest spiritual elders of his generation. His words are those of the Orthodox tradition, and go to the heart of our life in the modern project.

The nature of the world around us, caught up in its narrative of human freedom and endless progress, utterly defies the notion of Divine providence. The modern world is “what we make of it,” not what God provides. This same thought becomes an attitude of the heart. It creates anxiety and loneliness. We are anxious because we believe the world is something that must be controlled, and we learn, by bitter experience, that it cannot be controlled. We are lonely because we see ourselves surrounded by competing agents of free-will, who must be convinced to share in our own schemes if we are to have any control at all.

Fr. John says in another place, “I will tell you from experience that the sooner we accept what God has given us, the easier it will be to bear God’s good yoke, His easy yoke. It becomes heavy from our inner resistance.”

We have a deep, fearful resistance to the notion of Divine providence. The fear is that nothing good will come unless we make it come, and that dependence on Divine providence is the same as doing nothing. It is a tragic circle in which we believe that only our exercise of power can order the world, coupled with the fear that it will not be enough. Any yielding in our drive for control is seen as an invitation to disaster.

The end of the Soviet Union is an interesting case in point. Though various Western political leaders clamored to claim their own efforts as the decisive piece in the collapse of Communism, it was nothing of the sort. Indeed, its collapse came as a surprise to Western intelligence agencies. It came to an end, largely without bloodshed and suddenly. The most important figure was, doubtless, Mikhail Gorbachev, who simply allowed matters to unfold without intervention. The system was not pushed over a cliff – it was allowed to fall.

Anyone who denies the providence of God in that collapse denies reality. The system that collapsed was imprisoning the likes of Fr. John Krestiankin less than fifty years before. Arguably, Fr. John’s role in that collapse was as decisive as that of anyone, even though he never did more than tell the truth and trust in God.

Strangely, those within the Soviet Union who worked the hardest for progress would have to be counted among those who did the most to prolong its existence. It was a nation that, more than any other at any time, professed a belief in progress and the human ability to achieve it. It was the most progressive state in the history of the world.

Christians are not called to be the agents of progress. Progress requires that the future be known. It is a movement towards a defined purpose and end. The violence required by that purpose is the very core of the modern nation-state’s existence. Its citizens are equally required to support its violence and celebrate its victories.

I will expand for a moment what I mean by the “violence” of modernity. There are many actions, now endemic to our nation and economy, that require various forms of violence. The mobility of populations, for example, does violence to the extended family, having rendered one of the most fundamental structures of human existence seemingly obsolete. Its absence is devastating in the destruction of the social order. We have quietly made an agreement to prefer economic progress to the stability of family. The global economy requires that we agree to make capital movable regardless of its impact on local communities. Whole cities and regions can be turned into ghost towns in less than a generation, without a war or a plague. It is a form of violence that we excuse with the bromides of economic theory.

We do violence to our bodies, for example, demanding that the birth of children be postponed or eliminated in the name of career, pleasure, or any number of freely-chosen forms of convenience. The violence we do to our bodies (hormones, etc.) are only exceeded by the violence done to the unborn. A huge portion of the various progressive movements of our times require unnatural arrangements of nature to suit progressive purposes. A complete list of violent measures (including the almost never-ending wars of the modern state) would require much more time and space than is possible in this article. Modernity does violence to nature because it is not natural itself.

The believer who professes faith in the providence of God inherently renounces modernity and its false promises. The very thought of trusting providence, however, sends shivers down the collective back of those who have come to believe that only the modern project can solve the problems of the world. “If we do nothing…” is the beginning of almost every protest to the providence of God.

Christians do not “do nothing.” We keep God’s commandments and go about our work and our lives. Sometimes, by God’s grace and His providence, wonderful things and helpful things come about in those common places of our lives. Many fail to understand that the larger part of modern problems are actually the collateral damage of the modern project itself. Poverty and crime have a very high correlation with the breakdown of the traditional family. Economic success sometimes begets generations of misery. Strangely, we tell the story of modernity only by its purported success, somehow excusing the destruction left in its wake.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn resisted the Soviet regime with the simple dictum: “Live not by lies.” He said, “Lies can only persist by violence.” When we refuse to trust in the providence of God, we immediately agree to a lie. That lie is the declaration that God is not in charge of history. It creates the violence of our lives and becomes the source of all violence in the world.

One contemporary theologian has said, “Violence is idolatry.”

Love God. Keep His commandments. Trust in His goodness. God has not abandoned us to live like beasts.

Morning Prayer of the Elders of Optina

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.



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.



72 responses to “Providence and the Guarded Heart”

  1. Emmie Avatar

    This is so very welcome. I cannot tell you. This is definitely the lesson I need to learn more than any other and I am getting it from everywhere! Thank you and Father bless.

  2. Matvey Avatar

    Wonderful, Father!

    “Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.”

    I’d like to spraypaint this onto TV and computer screens across North America.

    I spend a lot of time on Skype listening to my relatives in the States (where I am from) expressing their frantic worry about how out of control the world has become (in their eyes) over the past few months, so I am personally familiar with the shivers sent down people’s spines by “The very thought of trusting providence.”

    My dear mother is a wonderful exception. She is not yet (God willing) Orthodox, but I would say she can “speak Orthodox” quite fluently now. When she gets wound up by some piece of news she’s heard, she’ll often stop herself and say, “I am guessing that this too is a passion, no?”

    As for Fr. John Krestiankin, believers here in Russia speak quite often of rumors that he will soon be glorified as a saint, which would be very fitting. If it would please God, it would be wonderful to see Russia celebrate Fr. John Krestiankin’s memory this year as we remember the bloodshed of the revolution 100 years ago, and attempt to heal the still open wounds it caused.

    Another note about Fr. John – seeing the number of books about him, I almost began thinking it was ridiculous and mercantile how anyone who knew or met him seems to have written a book about their encounter. Orthodox bookshops have shelves of books just about him. But then I read a small book written by a monk-priest who corresponded with Fr. John over the course of many years, and my scepticism was laid to rest: even in letters, Fr. John had a serious inspiring and edifying effect on the people he communicated with. So now I’ll most likely read a new book written by the woman who helped him answer his letters (the KGB broke all of his fingers while he was in prison and he could no longer write), and I’m sure it will also be worth it!

  3. EliotRausch Avatar

    Absolutely amazing Father. So much here. I feel so strongly about creating a film that captures this…so ‘I’ can change the world! Ha. Lord Have Mercy

  4. Chris Avatar

    Thank you for this, father; it is timely for me because I have been experiencing much anxiety in my job.

  5. Psalti Avatar

    I agree with this and am grateful for these words. I have had to learn the hard way, through suffering, that God is sovereign and that his will is sometimes inscrutable.

    Nevertheless, we must have faith.

    How difficult it is at times! And even though I know better, often my first instinct is to act rather than pray.

  6. Dave Avatar

    “Christians are not called to be the agents of progress. Progress requires that the future be known. It is a movement towards a defined purpose and end. The violence required by that purpose is the very core of the modern nation-state’s existence. Its citizens are equally required to support its violence and celebrate its victories.”

    “Great is the power of prayer. For to worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. God is transcendent, but our worship makes Him immanent.” Abraham Heschel.

    It seems the way of progress is the project of the individual. Progress occurs when and where we conform to the way of Christ and bring that peace, patience, meekness, humility, and obedience into our live. The Kingdom of God is near, it is in our midst because worship makes Him immanent.

  7. Carol Avatar

    Thank you Father.

    It’s occurred to me over the last few years that one of the worst parts of our culture (here in the US) is that we believe we have control over everything.  Then when things don’t go as we expect we fall apart. Keeping God’s commandments and going about our work and our lives, as you encourage, is the perfect antidote to that cultural norm.

  8. Paul Avatar

    I had the good opportunity to talk with former Soviet officers shortly after the “sudden” fall of the USSR. Each told me that collectively the entire ruling class and those below them finally realized that the entire system was a fraud. It was held together by terror, repression, lies, and greed. When a young German youth flew all the way from West Germany to Moscow in a Piper Cup virtually undetected, the lie was exposed for all to see. That event when coupled with the recognition that the nation was financially broke, was losing a war in Afghanistan, and the rebellion of Poland to break free were the. Were the straws that broke the camels back.
    As one officer put it: “Nobody really believed in the revolution anymore. There was nothing there, afterall. It was just a bunch of empty lies and death. No hope, no purpose, no reason. Nothing. We just stopped believing and walked away looking for something else.”

  9. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    One thing we must see in this drive to control the world, our destinies and to make progress is that it is the fundamental drive behind paganism. Whether one’s pagan system has zero, one or many gods it all is driven by the desire to control. I find it ironic that our Western Culture is founded under the disguise of Christianity but is thoroughly pagan in its orientation.

  10. Tavi Avatar

    I sometimes think that choice is quite problematic in our lives. Even Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, “Live not by lies,” seems to become problematic if it is a choice. Let’s put it this way: should one protest against one’s government? (I especially have in mind the protests that took different forms in the Soviet Union and the former communist countries.) Any answer to this is a choice. Suppose I do protest. Is it possible to say that I do without answering to the question about whether one should protest? It seems that it is so: my protesting would in this case be the expression of “my” living in truth. Or perhaps the expression of my impossibility to become what I am not. I cannot then “choose” to live not by lies just as I cannot choose to be someone else than I am. And still, I can “choose” to live by lies, and then I, the one who chooses, is not longer who I am (or I live outside of providence).

  11. Byron Avatar

    But then I read a small book written by a monk-priest who corresponded with Fr. John over the course of many years, and my scepticism was laid to rest: even in letters, Fr. John had a serious inspiring and edifying effect on the people he communicated with.

    Matvey, do you have the title of this little book? Is it translated into English?

  12. sbdn andrew Avatar
    sbdn andrew

    And I wonder at the not so great endeavor to sameness which has become the cloaked mantra of the modern synthesis. The nihilism of idolized progress is in the deception engineered through collectively tolerant diversity. “Freedom for everyone, but for no one in particular.” A fragmented sameness that dilutes evolvingly into a supposed blissful nothing bracketed as esoteric godliness.

    I am deceived into thinking that differentiation by transhuman design will lead to an empowered, “transgendered” identity. But perhaps that Babel disruption of our grand “New Order” will collapse the way of disinterest and disfunction as sameness named globalism dissolves into ambiguity and indistinction. Did not God, of three Persons, liken His creative designs to His Sameness–a both now and forever “changelessticity”–and not to our own melting pot? Distinct in-to God’s likeness is the Sameness that frustrates our imagined androgynous dialectic. Embrace change they say. But it flits by the way of nanoseconds and the latest play thing.

    The illusion of resolving conflict is sameness. The great deception which I overeat is the psychosis of wanting to be like the rest of the world. If only my church fit my mold. If only my wife or brother were like me…or I like them. If only the rest of the world would be democratic like us…or socialists. My sameness I hang far out on a cross-limbed tree as the violence behind every lustful war for more…at the cost of being created different and not so much…equity, no…equality?

    “The ascesis of originated distinction is not the transhumanized deceasis of differentiated sameness.” (as quoted from a now flat planet…not too far from our own wobble)

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think choice can be problematic. Solzhenitsyn elaborated on what he meant – and was quite specific. Worth looking at.

    Also, I’ve not looked closely, but Solzhenitsyn was involved in a prisoners uprising during a certain point when he was in the Gulag. They were not uncommon, apparently.

  14. RC Avatar

    Father, is providence to be understood in a “grand scheme” sort of way, or about the details of our individual lives? I recall Fr. Thomas Hopko touching on this for a few episodes of his podcast, though it has been a while since I’ve listened to them. But I do remember him challenging the notion that God is arranging things like, “Oh, I’ll have Bill die next Thursday” and so on.

  15. Tavi Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I just read the article.

    I don’t know… To me, Solzhenitsyn’s article sounds a bit problematic (and I love Solzhenitsyn). I don’t think that one can say to others, “Live not by lies.” I think one can only say this to oneself. Even in that case, one would not say, “I choose to live not by lies.” If one were to do so, I think one would see oneself as the principle of choice, which would place one in modernity. This does not mean, of course, that one should or not protest. It only means that the answer is the expression of what .

    You know, I’ve read of people, great people, who begged for a piece of bread in communist prisons. Were they living by lies? Perhaps. Can I say anything about it? Of course not, how am I to judge someone who could not eat or drink for days, who was tortured for faith… Of course, Solzhenitsyn was there. But still… I don’t know if “live not by lies” can be said to any other human being, regardless of what one may have been through. Actually, it can be “said”: by one’s life. A life can be a testimony for “live not by lies.”

    You may know of Fr. George Calciu’s Interviews, Talks, and Homilies. I see this in his writings: any principle one gives to oneself can become a form of idolatry. I don’t mean, of course, that “live not by lies” is a bad thing. But if truth is a person, Christ, “live not be lies” may mean “be an athlete”: strive to be with Christ. And one may strive even when one cannot say “no” to the temptation of going to a meeting with ideological nonsense out of fear that one’s family may suffer if one does not do it. Perhaps just like a tax collector.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that “I’ll have Bill die next Thursday” is the way to think of this. I’m not even sure that it’s right to introduce the notion of causality into the equation at all (God causing this that and the other thing…). What we can affirm is that God is working in all things for good. It does not contradict freedom, but His will and His purpose abide in all things. I affirm it in general – and trust it in every detail. In truth, without every detail being involved, we start down the road of madness. We all live in madness already. We think in terms of cause and effect, especially our own cause and effect, and we think everything is out of control and we become frantic and anxious – fearing that bad things are happening.

    The end of all things is Christ Pascha, His death and resurrection. All things find their end in that very moment. It is the Alpha and the Omega. Because this is true, we can be confident that all things indeed work together for good. What could be worse than the unjust death of God? And yet, what could be better than the Resurrection of our Innocent Savior?

    Every “bad” thing in our life and day participates in His death. And everything in His death will be resurrected.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The witness of Fr. George, and of Fr. Roman Braga, those who were at Pitesti is the voice of heaven from within the very depths of hell – the most authentic human voice of our time. I think of Fr. Roman’s stories of how, almost daily, they would be forced to renounce Christ, only to be restored and forgiven every day by their fellow prisoners. At that depth of hell – there are no “principles” (“live not by lies”) – there is only love – unremitting love of God.

    My use of Solzhenitsyn in this context is to suggest that we not live by the lie of progress and of modernity – but by the truth of God’s unrelenting love and good will – His providence. Only the Cross can defeat our adversary – and it is only our adversary that we need to concern ourselves with. Human beings are not the enemy.

    When you’re living in a tell (like Kafka) told by a madman, principles never quite work because you’re surrounded with madness. There are no modern arguments to defeat modernity. The Cross is the only argument God has ever really offered. Sometimes, even in something that feels like an act of betrayal (going to the meeting), God will still offer us some splinter of the Cross – and by that He saves us.

  18. Tavi Avatar

    Father Stephen, I can only say this: Amen!

  19. Matvey Avatar

    @Byron, unfortunately I don’t believe it’s available in English. In Russian it’s called Всероссийский духовник “The Confessor of All Russia” (translated somewhat literally) and it was written by Igumen Melkhisedek Artyukhin (spellings can vary). It’s a tiny little book, fits in your pocket, but brought me great joy.

    The only book I know of about Father John in English is this one called “May God Give You Wisdom”:

  20. Tom Miller MD Avatar
    Tom Miller MD

    I have been a physician for 38 years and can readily observe the themes in Fr. Stephen’s blog being played out in people’s lives as they face serious illness. The need for control, faith in progress, the defiance of limits, all take on tremendous urgency when people when people come close to death. It is then, when the lie of modernity is exposed: we are going to die, and we can’t change it. Modernity asserts itself with the “death with dignity” movement–at least we can control when and how we die.

    Western medicine is the temple of modernity. Ultimate faith is placed in Progress: we have achieved so much, we will overcome aging and death. It honors “autonomy” above any other ethical principle. Choices are offered by oncologists, intensivists, cardiologists, and other specialists that are not real choices for that particular person. The truth of a person’s condition is clouded with tests and results, but a real assessment and revelation of prognosis is not offered. Patients are kept in a “gulag” of Intensive Care Units without without the truth being told about what kind of life the patient is expected to live, if he survives.

    In my experience few modern people know how to accept the providence of God. Those who do see His grace, even when they come to the end of their lives.

  21. Raphael Avatar

    From my perspective, your message in this article is the most essential key to anti-modernizing one’s Phronema.

    I have been having a similar conversation with a couple of friends recently and this is a providential and timely (I suspect that’s redundant) addition to my own thoughts.

  22. Vera Lee Avatar
    Vera Lee

    Fr. Stephen,

    I am taking this post (along with, to a lesser extent, all the others on this theme) as your answer to my question of several weeks ago. Thank you very much indeed. These are questions that have haunted most of my life, as you might imagine of someone taught from infancy to be passionate about politics. Thank you again and bless you.

  23. Byron Avatar

    Thank you, Matvey.

  24. Darla Avatar

    “I will tell you from experience that the sooner we accept what God has given us, the easier it will be to bear God’s good yoke, His easy yoke. It becomes heavy from our inner resistance.”

    How do I get to acceptance? Resistance is so where I am, often tired, weary. Does “accept what God has given us” mean *everything*? and what does that look like? Or if we’re not to accept *everything,* how do you know what to accept, what to change?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The way to begin is to give thanks. Ideally, we give thanks always for everything. But this is a gift of grace. Start by offering thanks for as much as you can. God will give you grace for more.

  26. Theo Avatar

    Hi all,

    Is the point here, be anxious for nothing?

    I am currently going through an ordeal that I think is relevant. I am a qualified social worker. I worked in the field for 15 years until June last year. I was in a management position when I departed, supervising a team of 14 social workers.

    In the lead up to my departure and the years preceeding I was often called on to do tasks that ran contrary to my conscience.
    For example: I’d be referred to mediate conflict between a young person exploring bisexuality and their worried parents, or, I would be required to write a submission for funding to run a support group for same sex attracted young people, or I’d be responsible for ensuring staff comply with transgender and feminist theories in their practice.

    The level of anxiety I began feeling about these sorts of responsibilities given I was required to instruct people in ways that were contrary to my beliefs became overbearing and I began to pray, “God if there is a way out of here show me the way.”

    Right or wrong, working there impacted my capacity to be a Christian. I know, I lacked faith. But I was unable to cope with it and when my brother in law offered me a job in his tea business I joined him, leaving behind my professional career.

    It’s been 8 months now, but I keep wrestling with the decision. A friend has been saying that I could have simply done what I had to do, like rendering to Ceaser that which is Ceaser’s and inside prayed to God for those I was helping. I don’t feel like I could go back to the field and do this.

    Another thing that has happened since leaving is I’ve been able to pray, and have felt God’s presence. With I think God’s help I started a men’s group in my garage and a whole bunch of guys including non orthodox attend and it appears as though they have all to some extent started to look within. I don’t think I would have ever done such a thing living a life wearing two hats as I did in my days as a social worker.

    The gay pride movement here in Australia has just been funded 30million to get more services rainbow ticked and so when I look at any possible ways back into the field I don’t see a way.

    I feel like some of what father Stephen wrote speaks to my situation. I am writing a letter to the Orthodox Church here to consider orthodox social work as a way of complementing the mission of the church but I feel like it might be a shot in the dark.

    Does rendering to ceaser mean go against conscience and follow Met? Do I take myself too seriously? Should I have just stayed and burnt incense for the modern project. These thoughts are not helped by the fact that our tea sales started declining last week. I’ve been waking with some anxious feelings and am trying to bat them away with prayer.

    I hope I’m not derailing the discussion.


  27. Theo Avatar

    I meant follow Me not “Met”

  28. Paula Avatar

    Here is a website of an Orthodox counseling group based out of Chicago. Maybe they can help answer your questions regarding Orthodox social work, where and how to start.
    God be with you, Theo.

  29. Theo Avatar

    Thanks Paula, I think they are sort of doing what I would love to do. I will check it out.

    Dear all, I’ve reflected on what I wrote about prayer. I think my lack of prayer was about my own lukewarmness and not the place I was working in.

  30. Byron Avatar

    I feel like some of what father Stephen wrote speaks to my situation. I am writing a letter to the Orthodox Church here to consider orthodox social work as a way of complementing the mission of the church but I feel like it might be a shot in the dark.

    Two Australian Orthodox Priests visited our parish several months back. I can try to get their contact information if you like. They may be able to provide direction or opportunity for you.

    As to your prayers and dilemma: you are living life in a place that is, at best, unfriendly to the Truth (and much of the world is becoming more and more unfriendly to the Truth). Living in the Truth will always be a challenge in that situation. I think you made the correct decision to move away from an environment that was toxic to your faith (however much you believe the environment was not causing your issue). Nurture is important for each of us and working in a place where you are called upon to deny the Truth, in the sense of proclaiming or endorsing a falsehood, can only do damage to you, although God will work even there. But we are not all rocks, who can handle the trials of the Saints. Pray hard and trust God. Blessings and prayers for you, Theo. I hope even this small support is helpful.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you made a wise decision and God will uphold you. One of the greatest lies of our modern project is that we can justify almost anything if it’s a job.

  32. Nes Avatar


    1) A podcast you might be interested in: Much agreement, but a few crucial counterpoints worth considering regarding the nature of power and what it is (esp. near the end):

    2) If you haven’t already, I recommended reading “He Leadeth Me” — A very similar story to Fr. John krestiankin.

    3) You said, “We are lonely because we see ourselves surrounded by competing agents of free-will, who must be convinced to share in our own schemes if we are to have any control at all.”

    I am lonely because I want to be seen and loved and respected, I want to be wanted, but I am never loved like I want to be loved. I’m never good enough to draw the attention of the people I want to pay attention to me. And, the more I work towards trying to be seen and respected, the more blunders I make, and the less I am loved. Hard to simply “be at peace” when you’ve never felt honored. Why do we desire honor? Or perhaps that is pride in me.

  33. Theo Avatar

    Byron and Father Stephen,

    Such kindness from both of you. Thank you so much.

    Byron, would love the details.

    I’m feeling a little anxious because there’s a lot of change and uncertainty at the moment. My ego has taken a hit which is good but it hurts. I’m hopeful God will provide.

  34. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Father, I am sorry, is there a typo in this?
    “Strangely, those within the Soviet Union who worked the hardest for progress would have to be counted among those who did the most to prolong its existence.”

  35. Eli Avatar

    I’m never quite sure if it’s you or I that’s missing something when you post about these issues. I’m willing to admit the possibility that I’m the one who just doesn’t get it. As always, most of what you have said I wholeheartedly agree with—violence is idolatry, lies can only be sustained through violence, progress is a myth, we aren’t in control, we’ve subordinated family and many other things of great importance to economic interests—couldn’t have said it better myself.
    The part that I take issue with is where you say “Christians are not called to be agents of progress”. Now, like I said, I agree that “progress” is a myth. What bothers me here is the way this sentence may read to some. I’m assuming (correct me if I’m wrong) that you’re kind of echoing Stanley Hauerwas’ claim that “the first social task of the Church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.” If that’s the case, all well and good. However, I take issue with any account of Christianity that leaves struggles for justice as optional or unnecessary. Not saying that that’s what you’ve done here or elsewhere. But I could see where one might come away with that impression.
    I don’t believe one need buy into the myth of progress to seek justice for the oppressed, marginalized, exploited, etc. Of course, we should start by examining our own lives to discern the ways in which our own habits and practices may contribute to the oppression, and so forth, of others. By all mean, start local. And of course, not every struggle need take the form of legislation or protests in the town square.
    I simply can’t abide, however, the idea of Christians (or anyone else for that matter) hiding behind the guise of “divine providence” as a justification of inaction or noninvolvement in the face of injustice. I’m sure that not what you mean to suggest, at least I hope it’s not. Would you not say that while Christians are not called to be victorious over injustices, we are called to at least witness to and struggle against injustices in all the (nonviolent) way we are able? That we are at all times and places to be in solidarity with the dispossessed? Am I missing something?

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Theo, don’t know much and most of the time I don’t act on what I know but I do know God provides. I have an icon of Jesus reaching out to save Peter as Peter is sinking because of the storm around.

    Jesus is always the eye of the storm. He will provide if you stay focused on Him.

    Very tough to remember in practice, but you are not alone.

  37. Paula Avatar

    The last paragraph of your post could have very well been written by me. You are most brave to admit this on an Orthodox website. This is eons away from the “I am nothing” “I don’t deserve” kind of stuff one hears in spades. My own “pious” self comes off like nails scraping over glass…like you said, I try to fit in and it just doesn’t work. I would have never had the nerve to admit what you just did. So instead, I follow on your coat-tail.
    I just finished reading “Unseen Warfare” by St. Theophan the Recluse”. This is what he says at the beginning of Chapter 17 (page 260):
    “Thus, my brother, if you love peace of heart, strive to enter it by the door of humility….strive and force yourself to welcome all afflictions and tribulations with a loving embrace…flee all fame and honors, preferring to be unknown and scorned by everyone, and to receive no care or consolation from anyone but God…..if you happen to be put to shame by someone bear it with joy….Seek no honor and have no desire other than to suffer for the love you bear to God…Urge and force your self to rejoice when you are insulted, blamed or scorned….and soon you will become rich in spirit…NEVER SEEK TO BE LOVED OR HONORED IN THIS LIFE, so that you may be more free to suffer with the crucified Christ…..”
    Now these are hard words, no? BTW, St. Theophan’s writings are a great help to me, and more, a great challenge. I have had days of despair thinking this will never be for me, but he says to keep on going. Anyway Ness…you, my friend, are not alone.

  38. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Paula, Nes
    It is not that most of us have achieved the state that Saint Theophan speaks of. What we have is our deep awareness that we are NOT like that. We claim it with our lips as a way of striving towards what Saint Theophan describes. Perhaps we can act that way from time to time and even occasionally rise to feel that way, but when the rubber meets the road we are all the worst of sinners.
    At least you are well aware of where you are. If you ever get to the point that you feel you have achieved something, fasting will bring out our your true nature. Just imagine someone else consuming your fast friendly lunch and then ask yourself if you are ready to be joyful for the sake of the person who pinched your lunch.
    The point is, we all fall short, we say what we say to strive towards that which we seek and we all are acutely aware of how far we are from perfection. That awareness is what led the man to exclaim: “I believe Lord, help me with my unbelief.”

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Are there commandments of God that direct us towards doing justice? Of course, there are. Thus, there’s no question about doing good things. However, the narrative of progress, viz. justice or anything else, is a modern narrative built on the concept of the human construction of a better world. We do justice. We work. We serve. But only God directs the world. There are many great evils that have been done in the name of justice because they were grounded in the modern narrative rather than the commandments of Christ. It is important to discern the difference.

  40. lina Avatar

    This is a comment from the blog of Walid Shoebat, a man whose father was Palestinian and mother American. She brought him to the USA to get way from the goings on there. He converted and married a Roman Catholic. As he is still fluent in Arabic he reports on some of the goings on in that neighborhood.

    Earlier in the week he explained how he explained to his family his conversion. He was born in Bethlehem. He tells them that he follows the local guy. They still don’t get it

    I had read the following comment before reading the article on Providence. He made the following suggestion. Sounds like Providence to me.

    Walid Shoebat Mod Trevor • a day ago
    “what shall the righteous do?”

    Absolutely Nothing.

    And that answer should not shock you.

    He must only do something when he passes an injured man on his way to Jericho, but when he does, he must outdo the Pharisee.

    Does the analogy make sense?

    In other words, the Almighty will have you encounter the event, when He wants you to get to work. But when He does. DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO SOMETHING, because if you don’t, you will be considered a “lazy servant”.
    7 • Reply•Share ›

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Great evils done in the name of progress: the martyrdom of the Russian Church; WWI, the Holocaust; WWII; every illegal and unConstitutional war the US has fought since including the Orwellian named “Arab Spring”. The Jihad. Jim Crow. Planned Parenthood. Gobal warming. The list is virtually endless. Most of it in my lifetime.

    Any thing named with an …ism or styled a “movement” has only mankind’s enslavement and/or death in mind.

    If you here people calling you to “save the world”, run for the nearest bunker. We have a Savior. Don’t need no stinkin’ salvation supposedly wrought by human hands.

    Feed your neighbor, cry with those who hurt and bind up their wounds. That is progress.

  42. Paula Avatar

    I had to read your first sentence a few times before the light bulb went on. Helpful clarification, thank you. Yes, no doubt most of us are deeply aware how much we fall short. I suppose Nes, instead of saying “I’m am nothing” etc, he came right out and said he wants love and recognition…it’s like, he put a name on the falling short part. That, I think was brave. It’s a different lingo…the bare bones…. At least, that’s how it struck me….because I can relate to what he said!
    Oh, I just thought of this….something I learned here….he bared a little shame…..

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not a typo. What I meant was that the whole Soviet project was done in the name of “progress.”

  44. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    In my understanding, owning the specifics of our personal short comings is the first step in a good confession. We cannot repent from things we do not acknowledge. Bearing our shame is the first step in healing.

  45. Elijah Avatar

    Hello Father,

    I’d like to double down on RC’s comments/question. That is to say, can you comment more directly on how this is applied in the day to day rather than the Grand Scheme? Perhaps opposite the concept of personal responsibility, and where it rightly fits?

    I struggle with this regularly. I too was thinking of how Fr. Tom–of blessed memory–emphatically encouraged us to not write off our own responsibility to contribute and do the work in this life (which was, to me, a welcome ballance to what felt like a lot of empty “relax, God is in charge” platitudes) … but of course I want to embrace God’s Will within it as well. So I find myself caught between the two paradoxical points. I

    n my own sinfulness, either I wrongly try to take control (in the name of responsibility) and end up writing God out of the equation, or I am tempted not to act at all in the name of fear, indecision, or fatalism, thus writing myself out of the equation.

    I would appreciate any insight on how to break the logjam.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. I’m working on a follow-up article that will perhaps be of use. But, in short. It is deeply opposite of passivity. To endure, for example, as Fr. John Krestiankin did, has nothing to do with passivity. It is a great and mighty spiritual warfare.

    First, I am surprised that when I persistently say that we should keep the commandments, people seem to gloss over that as if I had said, “Mind your manners.” The commandments will consistently thrust you into the midst of all of the suffering around you.

    However, even when we do our work in these circumstances, we should be under no illusion that we will necessarily be successful. That hope (which is born of modernity) will quickly lead to despair and unbelief. We do the work of keeping the commandments – “as unto the Lord.” We do not serve “history,” or “humanity,” or “progress” or any of the other idols of our present age. We serve God.

    But, on the most practical day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis, to trust in the Providence of God is best fulfilled by giving thanks always and for all things. And If that sounds like a light thing, then you’ve never tried to do it.

    By the way, I think that modern people are almost all deceived and in delusion about social justice, etc. In fact, they do almost nothing – even those who seem to make the most noise. They mistake having opinions, calling a congressman, or sending a little money with “doing justice.” And their opinions eat them alive and make them hate their fellow man. But, in fact, they actually do almost nothing and don’t really want to do anything. I say this because, as a priest, I’ve been deeply involved, from time-to-time, in various such projects – and I have very low expectations.

    Start with giving thanks always and for all things, and keep the commandments – really. God will immerse up to your neck in what He wills. I think Fr. Tom would have agreed with me on this.

    The terrible habit of the heart in modernity is the delusion that we can see the “big picture.” We cannot and we never do. Christ Himself says, “Take no thought for tomorrow…etc.” So, I have no fear of being wrong in that. But He said, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” Which is to say, if you’ll keep the commandments and do what is at hand, trust God with the big picture and the outcome of history, you’ll actually do some good. Everything else, I suspect, easily leads to idolatry and madness.

    Sometimes the questioning of this seems to assume that God doesn’t actually care and that if I don’t do something, nothing will happen. If you keep His commandments, you’ll not do nothing. Is He capable of directing our lives or not?

  47. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Thank you Father for your clarification.

    In college I came across a poem or reference about life in communist China (perhaps in Maxine Hong Kingston’s book The Warrior Woman as part of an Immigration History course).

    It described a starving person finding a dove that had fallen dead from a tree. The person wants to take the dove for his family to eat but encounters someone from the communist party who scolds him and accuses him of stealing from the party by not giving the dove to the party first.

    I only recently learned about fractals (from Theoni Pappas’ Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat). I have wanted to ask my priest about it but have not yet had a chance. I will describe my question here for observations or correction if anyone has thoughts to share

    From my basic understanding, fractals are self similar patterns where a smaller subset resembles the larger whole. Finding a branch that looks like a tree is an example.

    It seems like Christianity well lived is like that, the beauty of Heaven is present through loving self-sacrifice in the home, people come together on a larger scale in single parish but the same beauty is present, then the parishes come toghether in a diocese, and then into a patriarchate and then across patriarchates.

    The problem with modernity is like in the poem about China: it skips a level. It assumes a willingness to have individuals support a system with greater loyalty then what they have to their family. It assumes that needs can be met by a power structure.

    In a saint story on a torturer said to a future martyr “If the gods are not worshipped then the emperors are not adored.” This helps explain their mindset and perhaps modernity’s. We put certain orderly visions as false gods then adore those who promise them.

    My friend who now lives in Paris but who grew up with me shared that moms often put their children into day care full time just because it is low cost and easily available through the government.

    I think the themes of violence to the family are really relevant.

    I am sorry to say I have even failed to think of my own children as the least among us simply because I have money. I only later realized it is not an economic statement.

  48. Justin Avatar

    Yep. It’s amazing how prevalent “keep the commandments = do nothing” is. Remember the rich young ruler? He claimed to have kept all the commandments, yet still approached Christ supposing that he had done nothing. In Reality, doing nothing is a failure to keep the commandments.
    The Cross will always appear passive to the world and its way of thinking. Those on the way of the Cross will also appear passive – a disciple is not above his elder.
    But observe the Byzantine Icon of Christ hanging on the Cross. He is firmly standing. The Cross is hanging on Him. And the whole world is hanging on the Cross.

  49. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I only read your comment tonight and want to offer my support. May God bless you and give you direction as to how you may best serve Him. It took courage to leave your job.

    I am a psychologist – now in private practice but for 20 years with a large healthcare organization setting. I think the difference for me is that I am not *pressured* to do anything that violates my conscience. (At least not where I work now.) If there is a bit of pressure, I can push back a bit and it works out.

    I find I can work readily with women who are considering or have had abortions, with transgender, bisexual or gay people, etc. I am there to understand, not to judge, and trust that God can work through me with these individuals as with any other people. I also have worked with people who have assaulted people, molested children, killed people, been chronic alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, etc.

    It’s not up to me to decide who is culpable before God and how much. Some people are born different, some have suffered unspeakable damage, some may be given over to evil – but all are God’s beloved children, broken.

    I am not sharing to suggest that you shouldn’t have left your job – it sounds as though you needed to. But perhaps there is another role for you where you can offer God’s love to people in need – without the pressure to use approaches that run counter to your faith.

    I wish you well as you listen and discern. I will pray.

  50. Theo Avatar

    Thanks Mary.

    I hope so. I agree it’s not for me to judge others and I worked with empathy.

    God bless

  51. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I’m sure God will make use of you since you put yourself in His hands. The hard part is waiting and wondering how and when He will do this!

    It may be something unexpected – or something quite ordinary. You may have to work hard for it – or it may fall into your lap. But He will not let your faithfulness and empathy go to waste.


  52. Dino Avatar

    I appreciate the condensed wisdom in here Father! :

    Start with giving thanks always and for all things, and keep the commandments – really. God will immerse up to your neck in what He wills…… …..if you’ll keep the commandments and do what is at hand, trust God with the big picture and the outcome of history, you’ll actually do some good…… ….. Is He capable of directing our lives or not?

    If we could stay in such a eucharistic mode, we could even be granted Grace akin to that of the martyrs when needed.

  53. Byron Avatar


    I will check at my parish and see if their contact information is available.

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, absolutely.

  55. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    Thank you for this prayer.

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, as I am sure you know the whole “modern” world view is anti-sacramental. It flows from the nihilism inherent in the whole idea of progress (which I have studied for over 40 years historically).

    When I really stop and consider the depths of depravity, violence and blasphemy the modern project vomits out without thought and how easily I take it in, I am deeply disgusted with myself.

    God forgive!

  57. Dino Avatar

    How very true… ‘Progress’ without (the eschatological, personal, point of reference of) Christ is sooner or later exposed as being nothing but utter nihilism.
    May we remain resolutely decided upon seeking union with Christ. It’s a finished matter then. Each and every problem finds its solution in that union. Everything this world might bombard us with will subsequently have nothing but surface influence –if it does even that– upon us.

  58. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen –

    I am fully in agreement with this wonderful article and many of the helpful comments others have offered.

    However, I’d like to pose a question and share a thought.

    “Christians are not called to be the agents of progress. Progress requires that the future be known.”

    What if we were to substitute the word “change” for “progress”? Would we still regard this as true?

    In the context of this discussion, “progress” has taken on a negative connotation. I do not dispute this because your exposition of this topic across many articles effectively exposes the myths we tell ourselves – how we justify all kinds of destructive actions in the name of a supposedly positive “progress”. (Progress, as a word in general usage, is typically regarded as positive. If, for example, I have to clean my house and I have completed all of the vacuuming, I will rightly feel pleased to have made “progress”. I am closer to reaching my goal which is a sound one.)

    However, to be an agent of change…an agent is one who acts on behalf of another. For the Christian who places all of their faith in God (not their own ideas), such agency is part of the surrendering of ourselves to be His instrument. Not the change of political or social systems, but the change of hearts, the healing of the sick, etc.

    This “change” is not to build a better world – whether the world gets better or not is God’s concern, not ours. But the notion of “works” being part of our salvation is essential and living the Gospel does introduce change.

    Which leads to another observation, perhaps obvious, perhaps not. I think that many of us automatically think of the Ten Commandments when instructed to “keep the commandments.” But there are, of course, all of the positive commandments given us by Christ.

    We are commanded to pray, to love our enemies, to feed the hungry, cloth the naked and many more things. And they are commandments, not just optional bits of advice from which we may pick and choose.

    Fr. Stephen, I am particularly thankful for your recommendation of “The Voice of Confession” booklet. Among its many treasures is the recommendation to confess, not only our failures with the “Thou shalt nots…” but also to confess “I have not fed the poor, I have not visited the sick” and so on.

    Keeping the commandments is far from “doing nothing”, once we understand all that they entail.

  59. Nancy Ann Avatar
    Nancy Ann

    This may seem like a silly question but what does it mean to keep the commandments? What does that look like. I am a mother and wife, I homeschool my children and it seems just everyday I do the best I can, but my yoke doesn’t feel very light.

  60. Isaac Avatar

    ” God has not abandoned us to live like beasts.”

    The tragedy, though, is that he has left many to be treated like beasts.

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

    I don’t think your question is silly but speaks to our lives where we are. I believe Fr Stephen has answered your question in the latest post, a Cruciform Providence. The yoke lightens with self-emptying, following Christ. What that means in our life would be specific to our circumstances. For me in my life, it might be to have a truly listening heart, rather than attending to the chatter in my head. Sometimes that chatter brings me to despair and that is not the way of the cross.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Do you complain to Him with tears and remind Him continually of this tragedy? It is, I think, well that we should argue with God in such a manner, but harmful simply to judge Him.

  63. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Nancy Ann,

    I haven’t read ‘A Cruciform Providence’ yet but will foolishly respond to your question anyway. I’m the father of homeschooled children if that counts for anything regarding your situation.

    The yoke is not light because we’ve taken on the role of manager – along with our other roles. For instance, not only do we try to teach our children things like math and manners and tying a knot, but we also take seriously the job of worrying about if it’s enough, if they’ll do well when they get out into the world, where they will fail, if there is anything left of ourselves after the kids have finally flown the coop.

    These things are fully outside our control – yes, they really are – and yet we think we’re responsible to control them. We’re not. We certainly make efforts in the right direction, i.e. teach them math and such, take time out to think about our own future, practice healthy physical & spiritual habits for everyone concerned, etc. – but ultimately we could get hit by a car tomorrow or our kids could take the wrong path anyway or our whole world could change.

    That’s beyond us. We do the best we can and the rest is God’s providence. The famous “don’t worry” passage of Matthew 6 refers to precisely this. The world bald-face lies to us all the time, saying we are free (and responsible) to create our existence from scratch and make it turn out right. That’s still a lie and we still don’t have the power (thank goodness) to do that. A couple good quotes:

    Gandalf to Frodo: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    Fr. Thomas Hopko: “Life is learning to deal with what you’ve been dealt.”

    The yoke is light once you are brave enough to let go of the God role you’ve picked up. That goes for all of us.

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton, seems like a reasonable question. But, change what, how and for whom? Can we know the unintended consequences?

    I tend to look at the Gospel account of the Transfiguration in Luke as a guide. “As He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered…”

    The change we are called to effect is one that is largely hidden. I am called to a life of repentance, almsgiving, worship and prayer to allow the Holy Spirit to make me new.

    As St. Seraphim of Sarov said, if that change happens, thousands around us will be saved. We still might not be able to “Save the Whales” or feed all the babies in the world.

    To dress and keep the earth is a momentous task that can only be fulfilled by God’s grace and it can only occur if I love God with all my being and my neighbor as myself.

    The change I need is in my own heart.

  65. Byron Avatar

    Theo, I asked my Priest if he had contact information for the two Australian Priests who visited our parish last year and, sadly, he said he did not. My apologies.

  66. Isaac Avatar

    Perhaps, but it is difficult not to judge God in a world where people are raped, tortured, and murdered in ways unimaginable for most of us.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand. I’ve had a family member raped and murdered in an unimaginable manner. The point is not to judge God, but to argue with Him (if that’s where you are). Engage Him. For one thing, judging God, or anyone, does very deep harm to the heart. It does not become more compassionate – it becomes deadened. You can argue with God (like Abraham) and find the heart changed.

    There is a mystery, a very deep mystery, at work in the so-called problem of evil. At the heart of the mystery is knowledge of God. The God at the heart of that mystery is the Crucified Christ. We don’t want Him that way. Instead, we judge Him, tell Him to come down from the Cross, and get us down from ours as well.

    I will say that the Crucified Christ is the only possible way of goodness in the world. “Overcome evil by doing good,” Christ said. And the Cross is what it looks like. What is required of us is union with the Crucified Christ. As we enter into communion with Him (on the Cross, in Hades, etc.) we come to see and know Him in the mystery. This alone makes it possible to love others.

  68. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    God did not do those things, we do, in our Free Will. If God denies us free will to eliminate sin, then He would not make us in His image and likeness. Then Theosis would not be possible. I have faith and trust in the Lord that He will set things right for us all and especially those who were so wronged. Think of the Martyrs, listen to their individual tortures and death. What happened to them all when their time of trial was over?

  69. Dino Avatar

    I find that the historical reality of our, often unbearable, suffering is overcome by the realisation of the ontological truth of our being in Christ and its eschatological end. A non-discursive metalogical demolition of all our arguments regarding God’s apparent forsakeness of ourselves in our suffering occurs when He makes Himself known to us as a Crucified God. We might have known this ‘quality of His’ beforehand, through hearsay, but to witness Him firsthand as utterly and eternally Crucified for the sake of transforming our suffering and death out of love somehow makes all mouths silent…

  70. ELM Avatar


    Your situation is very similar to mine, except at opposite ends of the spectrum. I graduated college very (!) shortly after becoming Orthodox and in light of that change, all my previous career plans withered like dust. I tried looking for career paths to use my knowledge of political science, foreign languages, and the Middle East without decimating my conscience. I was essentially a political science major with a personal focus on the Middle East. Studying the Middle East in a large sense is what saved me (literally, in a sense, since that is what led me to the Orthodox Church). It’s been a difficult search.

    So now I’m pursuing a teaching license for high school English/ESL in Southern CA. Eventually I’ll get disciplined or fired by the public schools, if I have to courage to continue living by my convictions. Then I’ll have to pick up the pieces again.

    At this point I’m pretty ok with the thought of having jobs that don’t align with my “passions” (in the secular use of the word!) and rarified skills. They enrich my life anyways and I can use them outside of the workplace in the service of God.

    One priest told me that we’re “never using our gifts as much as we could be,” which is a word I feel like I haven’t really grasped at all yet. But it seems freeing to acknowledge that. When I was previously considering doing something unrelated to languages and linguistics, my dad accused me of “not using my God-given gifts,” emphasis on “God-given.” But our abilities and skills are not the only, or even the most important aspects of ourselves that are a gift from God. Monastics turn away from all their worldly skills and work to work on their souls. And, as Fr. Stephen has noted, “we are not saved through our gifts and our talents.”

    Despite all that I just said, I really hope that you are able to do a good work by establishing Orthodox social work in Australia! Our prayers are with you.

  71. Dino Avatar

    you state it well by saying that ‘the change I need is in my own heart’…
    This has great depths that are seldom understood, yet ought to be.
    Of particular note is that, although we generally receive God’s grace sacramentally and communally – during Liturgy and in union with our ‘neighbours’ –, the tangible personal appropriation of grace only occurs mystically – essentially through ‘private prayer’: prayer understood as the undisturbed, unwavering concentration of man’s inner, God-wards orientation. This even eventually reveals to the one who prays that all else is, ultimately, hell. Such prayer proves itself to be both the mother and the daughter of one thing: one’s faith that God will unquestionably and absolutely raise up his paralysed soul. (Marc 2:12)

  72. Agata Avatar


    Your beautiful comment in response to Michael made me think of a quote by a very recent Georgian Saint, St. Gabriel the Fool-for-Christ of Samtavro (found The Orthodox World, #308):

    “On the Divine Liturgy:
    If you could see what Grace decends during the Liturgy in church, you would gather the dust and wash your face with it.”

    What blessing it is for us to have access to such Grace every Sunday….!!
    Glory and Thanks to God!

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