The Mystery of Providence


The entire mystery of the economy of our salvation consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God – St. Cyril of Alexandria


Among the most troublesome thoughts to my modern mind are those surrounding God’s providence. A popular morning prayer from the Elders of Optina reads:

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….

It is easy to read this and wonder if we have any freedom at all. Or, it is equally easy to wonder if this means that we should do nothing at all. In truth, it means neither of these things. What it does mean is essential both to the faith and to our sanity.

Providence is the belief that God is at work in all things for our salvation and the salvation of the world. It is not a belief in determinism. If anything, it is the belief that the end of all things is already purposed in Christ, and that He is ever and always drawing all things to Himself (Eph. 1:10). But the providence of God is not a belief in God “forcing” history and its outcomes. God’s “power” is the power of the Cross.

Our general understanding of the world suggests that the outcome of things is controlled by those who use coercive power most effectively. Our faith contradicts this: the Cross is not a coercive power. It is a self-sacrificing power that empties itself in the face of all things. It triumphs over evil, but in a manner that defies worldly power.

“Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will save it.” (Lk. 17:33 NKJ)

Our temptation is to presume that the work of the Cross in history is finished, that having completed that work, God has now left us to get on with fixing a broken world. But the Cross is not only the means of our salvation, once-and-for-all, it is the means and manner of our salvation at every moment, for all time. As noble as we might imagine coercive power to be, “if only used wisely and rightly in a good cause,” it is not the means of our preservation and salvation. Even the extreme examples of noble causes, such as the defeat of Hitler, was the result of providence, not of allied victory. Anyone who fails to see the constant and miraculous hand of God bringing about the downfall of that evil regime is ignorant of the details of that war. We are equally ignorant of His constant providence at work in all things.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – attributed to Edmund Burke.

This sentiment requires that we renounce the providence of God. Evil will not triumph because it has been defeated by the Cross of Christ, and will always and ever be defeated by the Cross of Christ. Whether we do good or not, evil will not triumph.

This is no way implies that we do nothing. We are commanded repeatedly by Christ to do good. And His commandments reveal the character of that action:

Love your enemies.
Forgive everyone for everything.
Share what you have.
Do good to those who do evil.
Put God’s Kingdom above everything.
Speak simply and speak the truth.
Trust in God for your daily needs.
Do not be anxious.
Be kind.

However, in doing good, we cannot know the outcome of our good actions. The outcome belongs to God, whose providence works good in all things.

We have the wonderful story and teachings of the Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. He was a Serbian monk during the many of the years of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, though he lived into the 1990’s. He was imprisoned under the Nazis and persecuted under the Communists. He very candidly spoke about his struggles with anxiety and worry, to such an extent that he suffered two breakdowns.

As he related many years later to one of his spiritual children, at the time of this inner battle he suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of the warfare against the temptations of fear, anxiety, and worry. His whole body trembled and he was, overall, in a very bad state. He took this as a warning from God and resolved to change his way of life and drop all earthly cares and worries. “I realized that we all worry about ourselves too much and that only he who leaves everything to the will of God can feel truly joyous, light, and peaceful.” Thus, having learned to leave all of his cares and those of his neighbors in the hands of the Lord, he patiently bore the cross of serving as abbot at the Patriarchate of Pech for the next six years. (From Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives)

Of course, we can read his story and think, “Great. He was a monastic. Monks can ignore the world.” This is a naïve assessment of the monastic life. We imagine ourselves to be responsible for the whole world (that is part of modernity’s propaganda). We are addicted to information which is itself often unreliable, highly selective and aimed towards purposes other than information. Our primary response to our information-laden lives is to cultivate “sentiments.” We “care” about the things we feel are significant. We develop theories of management and solutions as though our primary job were managing the crises of the world. Very few do anything more than express their thoughts (social media is an ideal place for our sentiments). At most, we vote, and perhaps send token amounts of money along (though rarely). Our primary response to our information-laden lives is the development of anxiety and its related symptoms.

We can accept the fact that our lives will be hounded by anxiety and frustration, or, like the Elder Thaddeus, we can leave everything to the will of God – who alone holds the outcome of all things. We need to admit that, for all of our worry and anger, we have not changed nor influenced the course of history. The universe is unfolding according to the good will of God, and there is nothing we can do about it: it’s not our job.

Our “job” is aptly described in the commandments of Christ. The “smallness” of His commandments seems to be important. The modern world’s fascination with the management of history is a distraction. It tempts us to pay attention, and treat as important those things over which we have no control, and to ignore the many things in our lives for which we are directly responsible. Who hasn’t been miserable and angry over some distant political event and shared our misery with everyone around us? The aggregate of this modern lifestyle is a miserable, depressed, angry society that increasingly assuages its insanity with medications, pornography and mindless entertainment.

The average American spends over 10 hours a day consuming media.1 The same people will complain that turning the world over to the providence of God will dangerously neglect important issues. This is madness and delusion.

Embracing the providence is God is nothing more than the direct application of the Cross in our lives. St. Paul says, “You are dead…” (Col. 3:3) St. Cyril notes, “The entire mystery of the economy of our salvation consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God.” That same self-emptying is the nature of the Cross in our lives. St. Paul adds the observation, “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” We never find that hidden life until we find it within God’s providence.

Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved. – St. Seraphim of Sarov

Footnotes for this article


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.



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51 responses to “The Mystery of Providence”

  1. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    Thank you, Father. I read the prayer of the Elders of Optina every morning. God is King. All is well.

  2. Dean Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    With our harassed life (the bas relief)
    it is easy to step on the innocent…note the 2 pigeons on the ledge which the man is about to crush in his rush. I can only live small if I walk slowly through life.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In His mercy, God provides everything needful. It is the hardest lesson for me to learn and retain.

  4. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I am reminded yet again by your post Father that the only real moment is now. Yesterday is memory (most likely distorted) and tomorrow is the sum of all our fears and anxieties. But now is real. I have discovered in my life that if I stop and notice NOW it generally is not bad and often is quite good. Tomorrow is not real and there is no point in worrying about it because tomorrow will come and become NOW and like the NOW of today, probably won’t be too bad and most likely it will be a good NOW.
    I am getting long in the tooth and my once athletic body is rapidly coming off the rails. In the last three years I have had three major surgeries (rotor cuff repair, spinal surgery and repair of a totally ripped quadriceps tendon). I have had and been treated for cancer, have various other issues to include high blood sugar. I could obsess on these and be like the fellow in the joke that says: “Why me O Lord, why always me? Or, I can be thankful for being alive, being allowed to serve and realize, I am not hurting and I am relaxing after Liturgy (almost time for the Post Liturgical Nap). I think I will be Alfred E. Newman today and say: “What, me worry?”
    I am deeply grateful to the Lord for showing me the way out of the worry trap and live in the His Peace, which is NOW.

  5. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Several gems in this I’m going to print out and place prominantly around my house!

  6. Jeremiah Avatar

    This is a timely post, Fr. Stephen. I have struggled with anxiety lately seeing the rising social trends of America. For anyone who is familiar with the social unrest and political happenings of Russia in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, I think it is hard to not be at least a little concerned.

    I have been reading through Elder Thaddeus’ book per the direction of an abbot that I know, so your quote from him was timely as well. If I keep my imagination and thoughts from wandering, and simply trust in the Lord, I am much more at peace. I have also separately reached the conclusion that you mentioned: “The universe is unfolding according to the good will of God, and there is nothing we can do about it: it’s not our job.” There is freedom in that when we can let go.

  7. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Father Bless!

    When I finally came to understand that “saving (i.e. fixing) the world” was not my job, it was one of the most freeing moments of my life. I’ve also had to learn the hard way that saving (i.e. fixing) other people is also not my job. And yet more difficult still has been for me to accept that it I cannot even save (i.e. fix) myself. Every effort I have ever made on any of these fronts has not only failed, but often been made worse by my willful interference. It’s such a relief to know that my only real job as an Orthodox Christian is to try my best (poor as that is) to love God with all my being and to love my neighbor as myself, and then to simply leave everything else in His very capable hands.

    Thank you once again for reminding us of these truths.

  8. William Gall Avatar

    Hey! I resemble these remarks. My defense of sharing injustices on Facebook has been Proverbs 31:8-9 “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But the point that you have made that I need to hear is,
    “The modern world’s fascination with the management of history is a distraction. It tempts us to pay attention, and treat as important those things over which we have no control, and to ignore the many things in our lives for which we are directly responsible.”
    Thank you for this apt word in season, Father.
    But Proverbs 31:8-9 still remains a viable call. But in light of the providence of God, perhaps focusing on the injustices affecting the people directly around us would bear more fruit than Facebook posts about Palestinians, immigrants, and the like.
    And there are charities that address crying needs overseas. They are worth looking into (thoroughly, to ascertain if they are effectively doing what they say they are doing in a way that is consonant with the Orthodox Christian Way, with Orthodox Christian leadership) and supporting.

  9. Paula Avatar

    Thank you Father for reminding us once again of the simple message of The Cross. It is the way of life that we need constant remembrance of.
    Your point that “in doing good, we cannot know the outcome of our good actions” is another good reminder. Although I may know this, I still sometimes am tempted to look for evidence of “results”. This easily leads to assuming way too much about the life of another, or to put it another way, leads to judging. Easy to do when we take upon ourselves the responsibility to repair the world’s woes.
    So yes, take up our cross, do good, love, forgive, share, live in simplicity and leave the seeming contradiction of “not doing enough” in the hand of God. I do not think that this implies to do nothing, but rather to use what God has given each of us to give back. And much of this is done “in secret” as we say, rather than done openly and applauded. (deep down, if I really admit it, I want to be applauded. I get that story about the monk in the graveyard reviling, then applauding the dead…it didn’t affect the dead, as should not effect us, too, as “dead”) What others do not see, God surely does.
    Now that said, I pray to God that this is not just an “expression of my thoughts”…another apt point you bring out, Father…but that He grant me to live by His commands that I agree with so very much.

  10. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I had a conversation about the idea of “the present moment” a year or two ago in a discussion group with other young adults. I pushed back against it quite a lot then, and I don’t think my thoughts on it have changed very much, though hopefully they’ll add to this discussion and I can gain some new perspective. It is not that I don’t think there is a present moment, that it doesn’t have a sacramental character, or that we can’t experience God in it—quite the opposite. But I find that it elevates one period of time over the others—and not because of its relationship to Christ (e.g., the day of His Incarnation, or Birth, or another event about *Him*) but rather because of how *we* perceive it! That seems backwards to me. I don’t always live that way myself, but I know that is how things should be—in relation to Christ.

    As for many of the patristic and hymnographic references to the present (e.g., “Today is the day of …”), I don’t think they’re elevating the present so much as showing how Christ is present at *all* times and pushing back against the tendency to keep Christ in the past or in the future. By the past, I mean keeping Christ far away in history, safely out of our current world where things are “different now”, and relegating the commandments/canons/etc. to the status of artifacts of how “people back then” did things. And by the future I mean keeping Christ out of our lives, where we always have tomorrow to [maybe, possibly, if we feel like it] repent, “next Lent” to fast, and can put The Final Judgment so far into the mists of the future that it, as well as our own deaths, becomes essentially meaningless and mythological. Both of those extremes are *very* wrong, yes. And yet, Christ was Incarnate, was Born, Died, and was Resurrected *in the past*. It resonates both in the present and into the future—into all extremes of time and space—yet He became fully man, fully subject to time and space, and that time was, well, quite some time ago. Similarly, He *will* come again and we confess as much in The Creed: “And He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”. So there is nothing wrong with the present, but I am not sure that the present moment is more real than either the past or the future in much more than a tautological way. I rather like Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s summation of the matter: “…the strength of the Church is not in the past, present, or future, but in Christ.”.

    And I know it is in Christ that we have peace. Whether it be due to drug use, or a mental illness, or some other state of mind, we have plenty of examples of people who cannot remember the past or plan even half a second into the future. Yet they are not necessarily free of cares or full of joy. The key is Eucharist: thanksgiving. When we give thanks for what we have, then we can have peace. And I also know that we can give thanks for the past and, very interestingly, for the future.

    As to the effectiveness of charities and picking which injustice to speak about, how to speak about it, and when, it is easy to get caught up in that kind of thinking but we have to keep in mind the goal: Christ. To use the example of giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty, there is nothing wrong with making sure it is a nice cup, and that the water is clean, and that is at a nice temperature for them, and so on—if that is where we’re at, then we need to fulfill those needs, too. But we can’t forget the water: hot or cold, cup or bottle, well or city, they need the water. And we can’t forget that they have other needs, too: if we spend too long working on “the water project”, they may starve or freeze. But more than all those needs, we can’t forget the person. Because it isn’t about the water, in and of itself (though the water sacramentally manifests Christ), but rather that the water becomes a source and means of communion. And that is what we’re after—first with Christ, and then, through Him, with all mankind. We don’t need more “hard work” nor do we need more “effectiveness”, per se. What we need is more Love.

  11. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Fabulous! Word for word, you have spoken the truth again Fr Stephen.

    More importantly, after 5 months and 16 days, a new podcast has appeared on my phone and what a treat that was! Not that anyone’s counting…

    Also I suspect that the silence is a lesson for God’s providence. You cannot force the voice over or anything else; one day it comes and one had better accept it with thankfulness and appreciation rather than ask: “when is the next one coming?”

    [Seriously though, when is the next one coming? 🙂 ]

  12. Seth Avatar

    Thank you for this thoughtful blog. I personally find your comments on modernity’s temptation toward coercive power and the falseness of social-media activism both wonderful and challenging.

    But I’m left wondering: are there times when the Church should “take a stand” on a particular social or political issue? If so, what should that stand look like? Do social media, public protests, boycotts, etc. ever have a place within the Church?

    In other words, what is the Church’s prophetic role in society look like vis-a-vis specific social/political issues?

    And how do we avoid the tacit acceptance of injustice and evil while also not grasping for coercive power? I think for instance of the silence of so many European pastors during WWII, or the lack of engagement/concern so many Churches had with the Civil Rights movement, or the Catholic church’s non-stance on the mafia (although I believe this has recently changed).

    Too many questions, I know – but I can’t help it, you’re forcing me to reexamine a lot of stuff!

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thomas B
    I recorded four a few days ago and sent them along to Ancient Faith Radio. They’ll appear, one each week. I’m hoping I can maintain the one-a-week schedule (I have done it before in the past). I have no reason for my hiatus in the podcasts – that I know of. There’s doubtless been something that put me into being so non-productive. I suspect the engagement with readers on the blog helps that writing move forward. The podcast does not have that feature. That’s one thought that occurs to me. I have no excuse for my writing other than providence.

  14. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Thank you Father Stephen.
    I have witnessed first hand what this dynamic engagement means to the writer when my Spiritual Father recorded his broadcasts consecutively after the Liturgy on a Sunday. Recording a broadcast can be quite one-sided. In my thoughts, the voice adds an important second dimension to the words. The third would be the physical presence, and having seen your videos on YouTube I have to say that the same sentence comes to life much more emphatically when you deliver it in your style.

    There must be more dimensions in the Divine Liturgy, for instance when the sermon is given, but I won’t venture into matters I know nothing about (for a change).

    Think of it this way, if you please: when you are recording your podcast, thousands of your readers are actively listening to your tone of voice, the content and imagine you standing in front of a microphone. Some of them have written comments about what you are reading out on the blog and you are now giving us a second chance at understanding the meaning of each topic. The dialogue is not instant, but neither are the questions at the end of your love homilies. The difficulty for you I suppose must be the time delay between our expression of gratitude, confusion or disagreement (perish the thought) and you receiving it. You have to be patient as well!

    If that’s not motivational enough, let me tell you about a man who boards the London Undeground District line eastbound each morning, a service that has a million ways of running late, and who is delighted to see a new podcast available on his phone while drawing deep breaths and holding on for dear life. A happier man has not been witnessed on a packed LU carriage when after such a long hiatus, the notification breaks the monotony of reading bad news. God works in mysterious ways and a little patience teaches your below average commuter to give thanks for all things, even “passenger actions”, which is British English for all sorts of unsavoury behaviour…

    Glory to God for all things, always.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I had an email once from an Irishman who listened to my podcasts on his way to work. He suggested I picture him motoring along over the green hills. Between the two of you, I’ll have to change my accent!

  16. Sophia Avatar

    Bless, Father.

    I needed to read this. Recent issues and illnesses have launched my germophobia/hypochondria into overdrive and I feel a breakdown coming on. But I also want to be a good steward. I seem incapable of knowing what needs attention and what does not. I have neither discernment nor wisdom. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus hit my nail on its head with the bit about the thirsty needing water, but possibly also a nice, clean cup, a glass one that doesn’t leak endocrine disruptors and toxins, but what if they drop it and it breaks and someone gets hurt…

    Pray for me.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sophia, you have my prayers.

    Fr Stephen, your quote of St Cyril of Alexandra reminded me that when I despair of the impact of modernity, that what I’m looking at is in reality an icon of Christ crucified. And I appreciate the juxtaposition of the two pictures, the one of the monk in prayer with a picture of what I might describe as the impact of modernity on a family. The power of Christ in such prayer reaches and aids. And when I ask myself what shall I do? I am reminded of Christ’s commandments. And in all circumstances, to keep my ‘my peace’ in obedience. In my prayer corner is an icon of Christ, the Theotokos to the right of Christ, and to the left an icon of Holy Silence. And I am reminded also about St Siouan: “In the vast sea which is the life of the Church the true tradition of the Spirit flows like a thin pure stream, and he who would be in this stream must renounce argument.”

    Joseph Barabbas Theophorus and Paula thank you both so much for your words, for you both helped me to keep my peace.

  18. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Father Stephen,

    All we need now is a Scotsman tuning in from the Highlands and we will have the makings of a great joke. Or a United Kingdom. Keep recording for God’s providence and the sake of commuters, cooks and lone souls across the world.

    @Sophia: I empathise with your suffering. The microbes are your friends. As long as you don’t go to hospital where the really good ones are congregating and you don’t touch elevator buttons, magazines left by others and anything that says “news” on it, you will be fine 🙂

  19. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Wow. So much to digest and think about today. Father your post is so relevant to all of us. Everyone, your comments I am so grateful for. You each present new things to think about and consider.
    Sophia you have our prayers- and a thought- instead of even thinking of a breakdown, begin researching all the natural remedies and alternatives to medications that have been used thru history and discover the healing power God has placed in our foods and things around us. I have been doing that myself for over 20 yrs now. It is amazing to learn simple ways to prevent or help us get over so much. God gave us the things we need, we just have to use them. Providence again. Also, do something for others every day. If we are helping and giving of ourselves to others we are less focused on ourselves and our own worries. When I was in the grip of sadness and depression I turned it outward to serving others. Eventually I discovered natural enzymes that solved the depression problem and left the medications behind.
    This post calls me to do good to those around me every day that let greed, avarice, and their personal wants override and harm me and others. I would rather not. Being civil is often all I can manage. Doing or saying nothing is a coping tool, but the stress and injustice is so hard to deal with. The concept of doing good to these people I fear will encourage them to do even more harm. I need to pray about this, and I humbly ask those of you who would to pray for me and for the situation and people I work with daily . It is a family business and so it is even harder that these people are also family. Two family members are destroying and tearing apart the family and the business – for the possession of more money and material things . We pray for them daily and maybe, right now, that is the most good we can do for them. Trusting God to fix this situation and yet still fearing the outcome. Learning to truly give it all to God and empty ourselves of all the fears and worries would make our lives so much easier and less stressful! I need to strive for that, and to learn to let go.
    The reminder today was very timely Father. Thank you

  20. Byron Avatar

    Being civil is often all I can manage. Doing or saying nothing is a coping tool, but the stress and injustice is so hard to deal with.

    I understand this so well, Mary! I have practiced silence only to find that I truly think more will be “accomplished” by a timely, biting comment or a vicious retort to cut someone down to size (I am very good at these things). I am slowly coming around to thinking that my silence let’s God work; I must trust Him with their lives and mine. It may be that He will not “fix” the situation at all but let it play out to the (bitter?) end for our salvation.
    Just my thoughts.

  21. Paula Avatar

    Such great comments. Some thoughts…
    Sophia…lots of love and good advice here. If I may add… trust God, the power of His love…cling to Him. He does the impossible, many times when we are right at the edge of the abyss which you infer. I in no way mean to minimize your pain. I understand how it can be crippling. Father Stephen has reminded us that all that comes our way is meant for our salvation. Be encouraged in this, sister. God bless you.
    Dee…I’m so glad you mentioned the two different pictures in Father’s post. I almost emailed him to tell him about the “mistake”! Glad I didn’t! Also, thank you for mentioning the Icon of Silence…I never heard of it. I found a wonderful article…it’s long, but beautifully describes it. The link:
    Merry….I sure do understand how easy it is to be overcome by despair in our everyday lives. It even makes us question *if* we should even do good, fearing, as you say, that it may inflame rather than help their misplaced intentions. I thought about this after reading your comment…then remembered Jesus’ treatment of Judas. He knew, and His disciples didn’t know, that it was he who would betray Him, yet He did not stop doing him good, even up to the very end. We are not giving a long explanation except that “the scripture might be fulfilled”. Father Stephen reminds us in this post to do good, forgive, share, etc…and leave the outcome to God. I can’t think of a better example to do good to those who do evil, than that of Judas. But I sympathize with you Merry, especially when these issues involve people who are in the “inner circle” of our life. As you know, taking up our cross is not easy, as it was not meant to be. We need a lot of Grace. You have my prayers.

  22. Suzie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and another word we need to hear. Thank you.
    “It tempts us to pay attention, and treat as important those things over which we have no control, and to ignore the many things in our lives for which we are directly responsible.” This sentence says it all. While I skim the news, I work hard not to let it sink into me to despair. News outlets rarely share good news, only the bad, as that is what society laps up. And while there are many evil and unfair things taking place in the world, there is also good as God works and we work in unity with His will. While it can be good providing money to overseas charities, for instance the Antiochian Church’s support for Syria, or Compassion International sponsoring a child, starting at home in our own neighborhood, community, and town to take care of those around us in the manner Christ wants is key. If each community takes care of its own, the transformation that God can give through His grace ripples out into the world. We can exercise our privilege to vote, we can speak up against certain issues, which Orthodox sometimes do. But humankind cannot change the world and make it over into something perfect. Things will be reconciled only through God in His time. We are called to work while we can, humbly, personally, with love and truth.

  23. John Avatar

    Father, I get (or think I get) the larger context of this post: the need for us moderns to let go of the delusion that our efforts, however noble or well intentioned, are “changing the world” or bringing about the “kingdom of Heaven”. We would do better to keep the commandments and leave the outcome of God.

    I wonder about the (seeming) discrepancy between two statements in your post: on the one hand, you write that God does not “force history”, but on the the other hand, you note the “constant and miraculous hand of God” bringing about the downfall of the Nazis. I do not mean to quibble or cherry-pick phrases; it’s just that I haven’t myself found a working understanding of the Providence of God by which to live and, perhaps more importantly, to pray. Either God is an interventionist who “miraculously” intervenes in the “natural” course of history (perhaps as a result of the prayers of the faithful?) as you seem to suggest was the case in WWII – which does seem to be a bit like forcing history, or at least intervening in it. Or, all is an “unfolding” of the Providence of God, in which our actions and prayers play some mysterious part – and we need not worry about how or why, we just need to pray and act.

    I suppose I’m asking, does God ever “intervene”? Does he “look down from heaven”, “hear” the prayers of His people, and answer them by action? Or is that the wrong lens through which to look at it?

    (One obvious argument for belief in an interventionist God: we are taught to pray, “through the prayers of the Theotokos ______” (either “save us”, or “have mercy on me”, etc). Wouldn’t this mean that the prayers of the saints have interventionist, perhaps even “forceful” power?)

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think God certainly “intervenes” in history. He upholds all things, always. And our prayers are important. The precise mystery of prayer is something we’re not given to know. I suspect it might depend on the angle you are looking at – at any given moment.

    Should we have gone to war against Hitler? I’m not certain that this is ever a real question – in terms of “should or shouldn’t.” For me, I think it’s more like “did we go to war against Hitler?” Yes, we did. But the outcome of that action was in the hands of God – repeatedly, we were saved from disaster and despite disaster.

    People ask, “But what if we had done nothing?” Hitler would certainly have done even more terrible things. Would it have lasted? The Soviet Union didn’t. Imagine that we decided to go to war with Stalin after WWII. It was long and bloody, and yet more millions died. We pushed them back into their borders. A period of civil war ensued in the Balkans as Communist Partisans continued to fight the Allies. Things did not settle down until around 1952. And so, today, someone would be asking, “What if we had not gone to war against Stalin?”

    We should not imagine that we know what any outcome would have been. We cannot know because it never happened. So, I don’t ask those questions. What if I had never been born? Another moot question.

    We we are given are the commandments of Christ. We live those and we embrace a life of repentance. But, no matter how much we might try or imagine, we are never, ever actually managing history. We are always either keeping the commandments or not. That is the narrative of this world.

  25. Byron Avatar

    While it can be good providing money to overseas charities, for instance the Antiochian Church’s support for Syria, or Compassion International sponsoring a child, starting at home in our own neighborhood, community, and town to take care of those around us in the manner Christ wants is key. If each community takes care of its own, the transformation that God can give through His grace ripples out into the world.

    Suzie, yes, I agree. Giving to charitable organizations and such works is not a negative but it will not change our heart towards our brother next to us. We cannot grow close to God through distant, impersonal giving (even though it helps those in need). We must primarily practice love face-to-face.

    all is an “unfolding” of the Providence of God, in which our actions and prayers play some mysterious part – and we need not worry about how or why, we just need to pray and act.

    John, I think this. The “intervention of God into history” (the phrase itself, I think, is problematic and an example of two-story thinking) is the changing of our hearts for salvation. Consider that National Socialism was not actually defeated in WW2; it survives today in many different places and forms. It is the changing of our hearts, through God’s grace, that brings salvation. In the light of Salvation, there is no place for National Socialism (or any other heresy). It is not so much “defeated” as it simply no longer exists. This is the work of prayer, which is communion with God.

  26. Sophia Avatar

    Thank you all. =)

  27. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I believe I have said this here before. How prayer works, as you write, is a mystery. And we certainly cannot force God’s hand to act in history. Anyway, I once asked our priest, now of blessed memory, how he prayed for his loved ones. He replied he prayed the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on….” I then asked, “And if they’re sick.”? He answered with the same prayer. I know that for my loved ones, I’m much too specific when I pray for them, as if I could tell God what they really need! Father Michael’s response to me was wise.
    While still an evangelical, this in the 80’s, there was a Christian missions group whose aim, by the year 2,000, was to have the gospel preached to every people group (ethne). Anyway, they thought that by doing this they could hasten Christ’s Second Coming. They based this on Matt. 24:14. “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come.” Their motive was noble but I think very misplaced.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a difference between praying on behalf of someone (for) and praying at them. The former longs for God’s will to be done. The latter that my will be done.

  29. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Regarding WW2 Father you said, “People ask, “But what if we had done nothing?” Hitler would certainly have done even more terrible things. Would it have lasted?”
    I heard a preacher point out two important things: first there would likely not have been a Hitler in power were it not for the humiliation of the German people following WW1 at the hands of the allies. What if we had publicly repented of this, abasing ourselves before the German populous and taking the blood on our own consciences? [I am uneasy even with saying “we” about such national and military actions. The only “we” I know is membership in the Kingdom, not my nation. God will use the sword of the authorities, but this worldly power does not belong to us baptized into Christ. Evil men will always find a violent end but not at the hands of a peacemaker.]
    Second, God’s people were delivered from Pharoah’s hand not by any military power, but in their total weakness. Doubtless if they had the power the Hebrews would have used their own deadly force to end the oppression much sooner- why did God wait so long and allow so much suffering?- but then what might the Hebrews have missed out on spiritually that God wished to teach them in his own own time?
    Think of how the Vikings wiped out Celtic Orthodoxy- a seeming tragedy. But the blood of the martyrs cries out and what fruit might it bear? Their memory is in God, and now we have Mull Monastery and are awakening to the amazing witness of Celtic Orthodoxy’s nonviolent martyrs. It has taken a thousand years… But notice- where are the vikings being re-established?

    Regarding taking up violence, it is totally understandable according to this world, yet it is essentially anti-sacrament:
    “violence is anti-sacrament because instead of allowing a difficult situation and the accompanying physical constraints of time and space to transform us or instead of engaging in a creative act of transformation and restoration (much like beating swords into ploughshares), violence destroys that which was potentially transformative and salvific out of frustration, fear, and little foresight.”
    From here:

  30. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    “Giving to charitable organizations and such works is not a negative but it will not change our heart towards our brother next to us. We cannot grow close to God through distant, impersonal giving (even though it helps those in need). We must primarily practice love face-to-face. ”

    This is an infuriatingly common mistake among Orthodox. (Not to pick on anyone here at all).
    Instead if you want to follow Christ sell ALL that you have and give it to the poor. He doesn’t say, “make sure you really know the person, and have a face to face relationship, because your money does no good.” Give it all, and we will find salvation. No ‘heart’ motive can exist without flowing directly to our actions.
    And I promise- there is a *face* to every person who receives some reprieve from our anonymous gift from a distance. In fact we do already have a relationship with them. We already know they exist, and they suffer. This is enough to make them our neighbour, our responsibility. Give with a prayer and give in repentance- God will touch every “invisible” heart affected by every dollar.
    More: If you own an i-device (like myself), then you hold their blood and their slavery in your hands. That’s an intimate relationship that we worldly kings (i.e. average North Americans) have with all sorts of people in the ‘developing world’. Read the label on your jacket or your kid’s toy box: Many have suffered for that to be so cheap. These persons are already my brothers. Our modern world has multiplied and amplified our sin already making these anonymous others our neighbours- we are doing them great evils every day with our way of life “anonymously”, so yes we can also give money to bind their wounds, anonymously. Of course this must come from our suffering heart and most certainly can be done as repentance, for we in the first world have a terrible judgement waiting for us.

  31. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Mark Basil,
    Thank you for these words. My sins weigh heavy on me as I see the earth and social events unfolding. As you say ‘our modern world multiplied amplifies our sins’; these events and circumstances are not just ‘out there’ or in the past or in the future but also close at hand and at our very feet. My ineptitude to squash my sins makes me call to God. And ‘give your stuff’, (my stuff) as I paraphrase Fr Stephen.

  32. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Also Paula, thank you so much for that link on the Holy Silence. I first heard of it from Met. Kalistos Ware. My inspiration to have it for my prayer corner was in hopes that I would be silent as Christ in His passion when He calls me to do so, and the discernment and discipline to do so. I did wonder about the wings though. I’m very grateful for this edifying article.

  33. Aust_orthodox Avatar

    I have often wondered, in my own prayers to God, why should I pray for the healing towards a family member or friend when perhaps through their physical illness that they are suffering, salvation may come to that person ?
    It may be Gods will that the illness be upon them? It does seem fitting to me to pray the Jesus prayer for those I pray for , surely the Lords mercy is all we ever truly need .
    However recently I was thinking about the prayers of the church , morning prayers/evening prayers , prayers
    for the sick etc… We are given many specific examples in prayer. The Lords Prayer is also specific.
    I wonder if when praying for physical healing for a loved one or that a “bad” situation may be resolved for them etc….using specifics relating to the issue, we are praying not simply to petition God to act in a manner which would seem just to us, but as an act of love much in the same way a glass of water to a thirsty stranger is an act of love which aids their physical state and perhaps does nothing for their spiritual wellbeing. (that we are aware of anyway ).
    Perhaps the prayer for healing for a family member or friend is as much about us and our healing ,the opportunity for us to grow love within ourselves , by giving our time, at that moment ,as an offering of love and faith through the needs of the other,to God as a prayer .
    Otherwise why not just ask for the Lords mercy upon that person or that His will be done in their lives as it is heaven and leave it at that, trusting that God works everything for the salvation of that person regardless or even further that God works for their benefit even if we never prayer for them.
    Is prayer more about the moment of communion with God , not only for our own needs but by involving the needs of others thereby making the moment one of giving and not just receiving. This may be why we are told to pray for our enemies. We have nothing to gain in an earthly sense from our “enemies” but we can offer selfless love to God in our petitions for their wellbeing thereby allowing light to dispel the darkness.

  34. Byron Avatar

    Mark Basil, forgive me. I only spoke of the changing of my heart, not those who are far away. I have no doubt that they are assisted by what they receive, especially prayers.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil, et al
    Just a note. We hold not just the “blood and slavery” in our hands from the injustice of global economics – we hold the sins of the whole world in our hands. The Elder Zossima in the Brothers Karamazov says, “Each man is guilty of the sins of all men.” I would phrase it better – not use the word “guilty.” But sin is inextricably communal – utterly connected – and there is no action of social justice that can take away our sin. The only way out is to go deeper. Christ “became sin” that we might “become the righteousness of God.” Only in the depth of the Cross – which takes us into the very pit of hell (where all sin and death dwells) do we find the fullness of Christ. Uniting ourselves with Him there, we pray for the whole world. That is the path. The only solution – ultimately – is a new heaven and a new earth – which come through the Crucified Christ.

  36. Paula Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    I also thank you for your words and for the link. Having only read the article and the homepage I can at least have a better understanding of where you are coming from. I intend to return and read some more.
    As I sit and think back to my formative years in the 60’s and 70’s, we did latch onto a truth, i.e. peace, love, non-violence. It was an ideal that we believed so strongly that we even thought it would change the world. Of coarse, none of that happened, and many of us continued in one form or another in the very world we revolted against. I mean, a lot can be said here, but the reason why it didn’t last is because we followed an ideal instead of a Man…the God-Man. Interestingly, of those involved in the Jesus Movement, many have become our Priests. They followed “a Man”. This is how I see people such as yourself, Mark, who know the way of peace can only be through Christ…and not only that, but you are actively involved which is a big step beyond those of us who are now many years past our youth and look back in wonder. People like myself who are just beginning to realize just how deep the wage of sin is and how culpable each of us are. And how the answer is not to sulk in self-pity, but to look to our God who loves all and calls us to repentance. Now that is a mouthful, but I tell you, I reflect a lot on this as I go about in everyday life….and that is one reason why I stated in an earlier post that we need the zeal of our youth to snap us out of complacency. I think one reason why people my age are at least outwardly less zealous is that we have more and varied past experience to draw upon and know what is going to “work” and what isn’t. No right or wrong here, just a thought on why we think and act differently sometimes.
    Deep down I have always known that violence in any form is a movement away from Life, but did not know how to reconcile its presence. We couldn’t even escape it with “peaceful” revolution, protest, marches…plus, even in that there is a form of coercion. But the “foolishness” of Christ, suffering for the sake of others, and death to all worldly things is where peace is found.
    “…the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” to me means the violence of suffering and death in Christ.
    Thanks again Mark Basil….and many years!!!

  37. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Phil. 3:10,11 have always caused me anxiety as I struggle to make St. Paul’s prayer my own…”That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means I may attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” I think Paul here is directing himself to the cross, willing to go into hell itself, for his own salvation and that of the whole world…as we see in his other writings. I am so far from praying in this manner. As I said, it frightens me, but only because of my spiritual timidity.
    Aust., my brother down under. Yes, I mostly pray both ways for those I love. I will pray specifics for the person and then so many Jesus prayers for them. It definitely is a way of loving them as we unite ourselves, and them, in prayer to Christ. It comforts me immensely to know that my wife prays for me in this manner.
    An aside. I know that at least one nun prays a 300 knot prayer rope daily for each member of those who belong to the Greek monastery community here in Dunlap.

  38. Paula Avatar

    Father…I just now saw your comment. To end with the point that the ultimate solution, a new heaven and earth, through Christ crucified is surely the bottom line. It is a good thing to remember this as we walk in the tension of two worlds. We can be confident that Christ is drawing all to Himself and that it will be done. Thank you for keeping us “in line” 🙂

  39. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    The following link might help you see some light on this topic. John Wesley preached this sermon and it became one of his Standard Sermons that was recorded and preserved. I studied this sermon in Seminary and the lessons I learned were that personal engagement is as important as monetary support. Wesley is in favor of giving what financial support that one can but then, going to visit and support that person trough human communion.

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you so much for your words: ‘we hold the sins of the whole world in our hands’. In this culture and sometimes in the comment section in these articles, it seems these words are very easy to gloss over. And I wish to emphasize them, here and in my own prayers for forgiveness. I do not want to be too specific to call out a particular comment or set of comments from the past, but in my reading of the comments across the articles in this blog, such words that suggest or actually say, ‘it’s not my responsibility’, or other words that would trivialize sins and the effects of these sins in the world (and would in effect, trivialize my own sins), it seems to me such speech or words are a form of denial or worse, self-righteousness. It was this type of thinking among Christians that repulsed me from all Christianity, for a time. Instead, you emphasize the communality of sins. This idea of taking up the cross in the way you have described seems to repulse some Christians, as though they are saying to themselves ‘Christ did that, therefore I don’t have to’. And then there are others who might see hell looming ahead, like the glacier before the Titanic and want to say something to the effect ‘let’s steer away from that’ (these have been my own attempts in the past all the while hearing from others in that context ‘don’t worry the Titanic can handle it’ or that glacier isn’t as big as it looks). My understanding from your comment above is that there is no avoiding our sins and the sins of this world. No social action that will take away our sins, but we are called to take up the cross and live out Christ’s commandments. Dwelling in this life and not shirking responsibility for our communal sins, as all sins are, is hell and a cross we bear, if we follow Christ. These words and this path is hard. And it is difficult I must say for myself to abide in hell and not despair. But if I understand you, the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, this is what I must do. I am grateful not to be alone, on this Arc, the Church. The sea is rocking hard and I am still working in prayer to ask of God for my sea legs of faith.

    Sorry for the overuse of metaphors.

  41. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Nicholas Stephen Griswold – Thank you for the link to Wesley’s sermon on visiting the sick.

  42. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    We have prayers that say something similar to this: ‘ forgive me of my sins both voluntary and involuntary and of knowledge and of ignorance ’. I believe these words can be read in more than one way (Fr Stephen please correct this and previous post as needed regarding my understanding of your words).

    The words ‘involuntary sins and ignorance’ suggest to me not only actions that I personally did that harmed someone, directly, or indirectly, but also as a person living communally in the world, in communion with others. We confess our own sins in confession, but we pray for forgiveness for our sins and sins of the world and we take on the sins of the world in our love of God and love of our fellow man and of our love for God’s creation.

  43. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Aust_Orthodox – Regarding prayer for the sick, I can recommend a very good book titled The Theology of Illness by Jean-Claude Larchet. His conclusion, based on the teachings of the holy Fathers, is that we have a duty to ask for healing. Additionally, I would suggest you read through the prayers for the Sacrament of Holy Unction which are rather specific in requesting healing for both body and soul. Love in Christ – Esmée

  44. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Thanks all for your responses to my comments.

    Nicholas I enjoyed Wesley’s sermon; it improves greatly on much contemporary Protestant thinking about this topic, though I dont agree with how he puts it all (I’m not a fan of how he has us move to ‘care for the soul’ after earning it through care for the body, for one).
    I prefer Fr Michael Gillis’s reflections here:

    Paula, I really appreciate the way you have been addressing me- it is exactly how I would want a Christian to address my oldest son- who is 16! He is one of my five children (one asleep in the Lord). I have grey in my beard. 🙂
    My tone sounds young because I’ve never learned moderation. I admire the voices of so many others here who clearly are wise and careful, sober and steadfast. Alas I’ve never lived with such balance!
    In the parish photo on our website (St John in the Wilderness, I’m the one with the second-whitest beard. The all-white beard belongs to our priest of course. He and his wife moved to their remote, boat access home off-grid when they were 50yrs old! There they began the labour given them, to erect a traditional Byzantine stone chapel in the Wilderness that can weather history. He was ordained to the priesthood 10 years after this act of faith (when he was 61 I believe). They still hike and boat when they need to cross the lake- in rain, snow, etc. All to say that there is I think a certain “youthfulness” that we can retain for the sake of Christ. I wonder how old Abram was when he was called out of his homeland? And I think of Noah’s age when he was called to the madness of building God’s Ark.

    Father Stephen, your words say it all. Thank you.

    -Mark Basil

  45. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I am glad you found it helpful. As when anything that comes from outside Orthodox thought, no matter how close, there will be things that we don’t agree with, but the general tone seems to answer question about impersonal giving versus personal given of time, talent and treasure. Obviously, with the means of most of us that means our efforts will be small, but as we have learned from Fr Stephen that is a very good thing. I have another Wesley sermon which is my all time favorite and it got him kicked out of Oxford. It is hus Sermon Number Two “Almost a Christian.” Again, there are things in detail we will disagree with, but the overall timber of the message is worth reading. I crease up with laughter at the picture I have in my head on the faces of the Oxford Dons that he preached this sermon to. They knew he was talking about them and they threw him out as a result.

  46. Paula Avatar

    Oh Mark Basil…I’m smiling from ear to ear! I’m loving that picture and am going to save it! I would be right at home up there, except for one big thing…the cold! In my area (southern Arizona) there are many what we call “survivalists” living way in the desert who are totally self sufficient. I know one guy who makes his own gasoline out of recycled corn oil! Totally off the grid. Your Priest and his wife…same thing. God bless you all!
    And thank you for being so graceful with my very way off presumption of your age!!! I should have questioned myself about that (I was so sure!) because I too do not see myself as a “sober grown-up” either. I attribute that as a result of never having raised children. I didn’t have to grow up! You have five precious children…how nice. Your child who is with the Lord will be one of the first to greet you when you get “home”!
    By the way, I enjoy very much Fr. Gillis’ articles too! I love the way he writes…very down to earth.
    Blessings to you Mark!

  47. M E Emberson Avatar
    M E Emberson
    John Milton on his Blindness.
    …When I consider how my light is spent
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one Talent which is death to hide
    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
    To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest He returning chide,
    “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
    I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
    That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
    Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
    Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
    Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
    They also serve who only stand and wait.

    I find that my chief use nowadays is being here as someone who grew up during WWII in the United Kingdom and being able to refute theories, current in the U.S chiefly, that Hitler would have just have ignored us if we hadn’t declared war.
    I leave it to survivors of the Occupied countries to refute the claims on their own behalf.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have no doubt Hitler would have invaded and done worse than we imagine. Evil like that is never content.

  49. Chris Avatar

    If Christ defeated evil (and therefore Satan) on the cross, how does evil still reign, or at least have some influence? Something is still amiss for me.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Consider these verses: “You have put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:8-9 NKJ)

    Christ defeats evil on the Cross – it is the “final destruction” of demons. But the fullness of that victory has not yet been made manifest – we don’t yet see it completed.

    In this “between time” we ourselves are being united with Christ in His death and resurrection, and we join with Him in His struggle and victory. Christ does all of this “for us,” but not “instead of us.” We, too, participate. Moses didn’t cross the Red Sea “on behalf” of Israel. He walked through it with them. Had he not been there, the sea would not have parted. But Israel still walks.

  51. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Perhaps it might also help to consider that God is outside of time, Kairos, while we experience a passage of time, Kronos. In God He is at the Eschaton as well as in the present. We are left then with a tension between already and not yet because we are only in the present and it creeps by (to quote the bard) in its petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time.

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