A Full Life

What constitutes a full life? In a consumer culture, I would suppose a full life to be one of maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity. We like being happy. Would a full life include suffering? The answer to such questions, for Christians, are found in Christ Himself. Christ alone fulfills what it means to be truly human. So, what does that mean?

Christ does not flee from suffering. We are shown a number of occasions where He works well past the point of exhaustion in serving others. He does not turn away from the enjoyment of his friends. He was called a “drunkard and a wine-bibber” by his detractors. He fasted but understood that, for a time, His disciples could not fast. His life includes the story of His suffering and shameful death, which He bore for our sakes. It also includes the revelation of His unending love for His disciples made known in His resurrection. For Christians, the fullness of human existence can be no different.

There are no lives that meet the standards of modernity. Those lives that are marked by maximum consumption, enjoyment, and productivity are never free from suffering (though wealth can forestall many things). A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.

The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.

In the Genesis account, the man and woman exist in the Garden. It is an abiding image of an unfallen world prior to sin. There is neither punishment nor death in that place. But at the very heart of the Garden is a Tree that says, “No!” This Tree alone makes possible the self-denial that is synonymous with love. Everything else within the Garden brings enjoyment and satisfaction. As such, the Garden could be the breeding ground of pure self-interest – a colony of hell. Only the Tree whose fruit cannot be eaten makes the Garden into Paradise.

That Tree also represents every other person and thing in our lives. We are not placed into the world to consume one another. There are elements within every person and within every object that are forbidden to us. There are boundaries that must be regarded and respected. Without such boundaries, we would become all-consuming demons, devouring one another and everything around us. We would be transformed into narcissists of infinite proportions.

This is not to say that suffering itself is inherently good. There are terrible and tragic things within our world –  wounding, death-dealing enemies of the soul. But terrible and tragic things are many times willingly borne in what can only be described as a sanctifying manner.

Our theological grammar does not permit us to introduce the notion of the passions into the Godhead. But the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit carries this very self-emptying-existing-towards-the-other. The Father delights in the Son; the Son only does those things that He sees the Father doing; the Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself; and so on. Everything about the Son is referred to the Father, and everything we would know of the Father is referred to the Son. Though such things are not normally associated with suffering, they have within them the same character as the suffering that is borne voluntarily.

It is possible to think of the Crucifixion as something required by human sin, and thus not somehow inevitable in and of itself. It could be said that had we not fallen, Christ would not have been Crucified. I think this is misleading. Nothing in God is changed in the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed.

Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, and gave sight to the blind. Such actions are incorrectly described as the “relief of suffering.” In many other cases Jesus specifically asks people to suffer: give away your possessions; forgive your enemies; take up your Cross; turn the other cheek; give without expecting in return. Again, there is no authentic Christian voice that does not demand suffering on the part of its adherents.

More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment. It is this reality that modernity, in its truncated account of existence, fails to understand or to describe. The most popular ethic within the modern world entails the relief of suffering. In the name of that ethic, people are put to death. It cannot ask us to suffer without guilt. But if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human.

To be truly human is to be conformed to the image of Christ. And not just to the image of Christ, but Christ crucified. Anything less would make a mockery of our existence and a diminishment of the fullness to which we are called.

 

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.



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252 responses to “A Full Life”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Amen. Suffering is the key to getting beyond self interest and to look to the other. A bit ago when Dylan Roof was sentenced to death for his actions in the the church in Charleston, many were gloating over it. I simply asked what good was accomplished by that sentence. No one was brought back and no one redeemed. I was amazed at the number of Orthodox who vehemently chided me for my comment. I stand by it. One cannot support modernity’s way of dealing with sin and truly understand the faith. To the worst of sinners (me included) the Lord offers redemption. Should not we?

  2. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Father,
    A post which deserves several more readings. I like this quote by Léon Bloy: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence. “

  3. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    “The equation of suffering with evil distorts the meaning of love. True love, in the image of Christ, involves suffering. It is self-emptying, voluntarily denying the demands of self in the interests of the other. This form of suffering is placed in the midst of Paradise itself.”

    Beautifully stated, Father.

  4. Santosh Samuel Avatar
    Santosh Samuel

    Beautiful Father. Apart from the wonderful articulation, the piece has the ability to speak right into the depths of our heart. It reminded me of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh whose writings have this very quality (e.g., http://www.pravoslavie.ru/100581.html — the last paragraph being a masterpiece). May you be granted many more years of ‘reaching out’ Father.
    And like Diana said, i intend to read it several times. More so, because, even at the age of 46, i still not have accepted my crosses or learnt to carry them with joy.

  5. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    More important than this, is the fact that this voluntary self-denial, a willingly embraced suffering for the sake of others, is not a diminishment of our humanity, but a necessity of its fulfillment.

    This is something that I still struggle with, especially with fasting.

    Father, would you say, similar to your statement from your other post, that “living with suffering” is also a willingness to believe that God knows what He is doing, like living with a tradition? That is to say, we endure suffering because we trust that God knows what He is doing?

  6. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    Galatians 6:14 New King James Version (NKJV)

    14 But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

    Hello Father, can we view or understand your article in the same context as the above scripture? (I feel we can).

  7. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Those who have suffered injury can attest that more suffering is often necessary for healing (for example, physical therapy).

    As my deification is taking place, I am brought face to face with Christ. The constant untangling and reassembling of my being is painful. All that is my finite being is continually brought into the presence of our infinite God. I am undone and I am remade.

    “O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!”
    Psalm 8:34 NASB

    Father, bless you for following our Father in such a way that you are compelled to love us through your words.

  8. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    And yet, Father, as you point out, injury is not necessary prerequisite for suffering.

  9. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    *a

  10. Karen Watson Avatar
    Karen Watson

    Yet Our Lord prayed in the Garden to be spared suffering, and both moved out of its way (in his home town) and refrained from putting himself prematurely in danger (in Jerusalem). Nor did he ever refuse to heal somebody telling them they should continue suffering for their own good.
    There is a time for suffering, and a time to avoid or relieve suffering (to paraphrase the Preacher): may the Spirit rightly direct us, and enable us to listen and discern where He is taking us in any given situation.
    Blessings on you all, and praise to He who is risen indeed!

  11. Tikhon Avatar
    Tikhon

    The late Archbishop Robert Morse of the Anglican Province of Christ the King often told his seminarians, “To love is to suffer.” Memory eternal.

  12. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    “Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others have fought to win the prize and swam through bloody seas?”
    Isaac Watts, Am I a Soldier of the Cross?

  13. María Gutiérrez Avatar
    María Gutiérrez

    There have been many entries about suffering on this blog. None as relevant for me as this one. I feel I finally understood….”A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune”
    Thank you, father, dearest

  14. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    Maria Gutierres,
    This is so true

  15. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    María Gutiérrez , sorry for mis-spelling your name

  16. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Diana,

    Thank you for the wonderful quote from Leon. It reminds me of another one I can remember only vaguely. It goes something like this: “We need pain in order to know that we are still alive.”

  17. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    Quote: “A profound absence within modernity is the ability to account for suffering as anything other than failure and misfortune. Many contemporary Christians, enamored of a false interpretation of the fall, agree with this absence. This creates a modern Christianity willing to join in the project of eliminating suffering, regardless of the moral cost. However, there can be no authentic Christian voice that does not also ask for suffering on the part of its adherents.”
    End quote
    Indeed. There are many churches that preach a name-it-and-claim-it false gospel, preaching that whatever you desire, if you call upon God in the right way, He shall be obligated to give it to you. In fact, in some churches they actually teach that if you get together 7 people, and each one reads out the 7 correct verses in the correct order, and then each one prays and applies their will to their prayers, God is bound by their will to act according to their desires.
    This is the same teaching found in witchcraft and paganism. I have actually been to a “Christian” church teaching these things. These churches teach the exact opposite of what has been stated in this blog, that suffering is not Christian and Christians should not suffer and should actually have what consumerism calls “the good life.” They preach or teach nothing about taking up the cross or suffering for Christ.

    Paul and Silas were beaten because of their faith and they sang praises to God and they rejoiced because they were “counted worthy to suffer for Christ” (paraphrased) and many early members of the church were tortured for their faith.
    Yet today, too many Christians do not feel the same way. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard Christians ask, “Why should I suffer” or “Why am I suffering” or “Why should someone have to suffer” and they often ask because they feel that suffering is wrong and that no one should suffer anything.

    I think and perhaps I am wrong, that the whole issue of being willing to suffer and being able to bear suffering and being able to rejoice for it, goes back to submission. If we, Christians, live in full submission to Him as teacher, master, God, king, Lord, Father, and Creator, then we begin to live as we should, because God is a Good and Holy God, and when we live in full submission to Him, He begins to do within us a great, wonderful, good and holy work, to heal us, to restore us to what we were created to be.

    Too many Christians see themselves as being “kings and queens” and yet, like the emperor, they do not realize their own foolishness; they parade around like they are dressed in regal and royal clothing, while naked, not realizing that suffering refines us and clothes us, preparing us for the royal wedding feast of Christ Himself.

  18. Lisa Kraemer Avatar
    Lisa Kraemer

    It seems I get most prayer requests that are for relief from suffering or for the prevention of suffering. I feel like responding, ” I pray you growing grace and holiness to deal with the sufferings/challenges of this life” because that really is what I pray for them. Instead I only say that I will pray for them inferring that I would pray for an end to their suffering although I have my doubts. It reminds me of part of a prayer that kind of makes me laugh inside. It goes “….. and if I should suffer still longer, help me endure all with love and patience.” It seems to me as long as we are still alive, we will suffer still longer.

  19. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    In the Brothers Karamazov Ivan tells the story of a hungry boy that was caught stealing from a wealthy man’s orchard. So the boy and his family is dragged to a field where the boy is told to run. Then the wealthy landowner turns his dogs loose and they tear the boy to pieces in front of the family. In this story, how are we to understand the experience of the child torn to pieces? As adults whose lives are mostly in the rearview mirror we reflect on the meaning of our lives and what sense if any we can make of it. But what about that boy? How can we explain suffering in a way that will make sense to that child? At the end of the day we can’t. We can’t make sense of suffering. Not to ourselves and certainly not to our children.

    We bear crosses. Thats what we’re asked to do. Pick it up and drag it. But it doesnt make any sense to me.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Ivan’s case is, undoubtedly, one of the supreme statements of the problem of suffering. It is also something that I am not saying. We cannot say, “suffering is good.” Nor have I said that. I’m making a very important distinction.

    What we can say is that the act of voluntary self-offering for the other is good, even if it means enduring an evil thing (suffering). The suffering is evil – but the voluntary self-offering for the other is good.

    In Ivan’s case of the boy and the dogs, there is nothing voluntary other than the man’s evil desire to harm. There is nothing redeeming in that suffering.

    I could posit, however, that Christ inserts Himself (though we do not observe it), into the suffering of the boy, and endures it along with him, making that suffering His own. That act of self-offering for the other is a good thing. It would also, I would posit as well, make it possible for the boy’s suffering to be something different – even if that something different was after death.

    In our acceptance of Christ, our uniting ourselves to Him in Holy Baptism, we join ourselves to His suffering “on behalf of all and for all.” It does not eliminate the evil some seek to work through the instrument of suffering, but it, nevertheless, shares in the redemption of all.

    The distinction I’m making is between suffering itself, and the willingness to voluntarily bear it for the sake of others. And this seems to me to be important.

  21. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Simon,
    Indeed, Ivan Karamazov was fully convinced that the inanity of children suffering somehow invalidated the possibility of God’s goodness. Yet how does the book end? Ivan is scheming to relieve Dimitri of his suffering, and Alyosha is attending the funeral of a child. Ivan still has no peace – his revelation of the truth of the murder at the trial was not believed (which is, I think, one of Dostoevsky’s most masterful attacks on rationalism). But Alyosha has joy. Our sense is not the limit of God’s wisdom. Job’s miserable comforters are talking past the point most of the time. We need not be able to rationalize suffering in order to internalize it and let God work through it for our good. The theosis of Christ’s humanity was after the cross.

    Not that I am good at this in practice, but Father’s article is an excellent reminder of it. For a separate reason, I was re-reading his old article on the last prayer of the elders of Optina earlier today – quite apropos as well.

    In Christ,
    Mark

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I agree fully with you viz. Ivan’s example of the suffering boy.

    However, I’m making a distinction that is important – and, in the focus on suffering, easy to overlook. The distinction is between the suffering itself, and the voluntary bearing of suffering (however evil the suffering might be) on behalf of another. That self-offering is good. It is not only good, but is necessary to the fulness of our humanity. There was no evil in the “no” within the Garden. Not to eat the fruit of a single tree is not evil. But the refusal to bear the offering of the self to that simple act of denial was, in the story, the refusal to be what we are created to be.

    This distinction, between the suffering itself, and the voluntary self-offering on behalf of the other, is important.

    I will posit another thing.

    I suggest that in the case of the boy, unseen to us, Christ enters into the boy’s suffering and makes it His own. Not that the boy does not suffering, but that his suffering is now also Christ’s suffering. It makes no change that we can speak of on this side of things, but might make all the change in the world beyond what we can see. In our Baptism, we take up Christ’s Cross, and in doing so, unite ourselves with His suffering on behalf of all and for all, and it becomes our own as well. This is an act of self-offering that is the redemption of sin – its overcoming. Christ tramples down death by death. We do the same, the “death” of our own voluntary union with Him.

    It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.

    That is what I would have said to Ivan. I don’t know if it would have made any difference…other than the fact that in Dostoevsky, it is precisely that kind of self-offering that saves.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    Your comment posted as I was writing mine. I wondered what you would think of it.

  24. Mark M. Avatar
    Mark M.

    Thank you, Father, for the honor of even being thought of.

    If it’s not inappropriate to the topic, I would like to share a poem I wrote a few years back when we completed our first adoption. It came to me in the St. Sofia church in Sofia, Bulgaria, dedicated by Justinian to the holy Wisdom, but also particularly honoring St Sofia and her three daughters – a martyrdom that has much to say on this topic. For background, our daughter has CP and suffered profound institutional neglect. Yet she is nearer to God than I am.

    Hagiography

    We stood together,
    or better, I stood by her stroller,
    an incongruous American
    beneath fourteen centuries of Bulgar brick,
    slow-roasted by the candles
    and gently eroded by the ever-rising prayers.

    We listened together,
    and I know she heard well,
    for most anything wakes her,
    to the peal and the rumble and the clear high tenor
    singing to God and pleading mercy from the Lamb
    same chant, same mercy, new every morning.

    We looked together,
    (but here I truly exaggerate,
    for her hat slipped over her eyes – it was cold out),
    at the gold and silver icons of the saints,
    with round eyes and folded hands,
    meeting death for their Lord in quiet submission and plain lines.

    We left together,
    past the historical plaques and gift shop,
    where I bought a disc, “Penance, Lent, Resurrection”,
    and we stepped out into the cold city air,
    a lanky American beside her round Roma eyes and folded caramel hands,
    to face life for our Lord in quiet submission and plain lines.

    In Christ,
    Mark

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think my usual dogmatic nature perhaps led to a misunderstanding. I hope I didn’t leave anyone with the impression that I felt that Fr was saying that “suffering is good.” I know that no one on the blog would ever think that. I did a poor job of presenting something that I often think about as I drive down the road: What is important for us to understand? What is vital? There’s no end to the things that can be known and understood, and we don’t have enough time in our lives to digest it all. So, what are the critical elements? Children (now specifically my son) become my heuristic. What does this child need to know? What does this child have to understand? In the dog tearing moment what could we ever say about that? I don’t think we can say much at all. I think a lot about Zossima’s silent prostration to Mitya at the beginning of the book.

  26. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Mark,

    Obi Wan Kenobi said “He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”

    You said that Ivan Karamazov was fully convinced that the inanity of children suffering somehow invalidated the possibility of God’s goodness. And I also believe that is true…from a certain point of view.

  27. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.”

    That’s a good thought…

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    You’re right. It is so hard to speak of these things.

  29. Dennis Avatar
    Dennis

    It is possible to conflate “suffering” with “sacrifice.” Suffering results from unwillingly experiencing what is required, as opposed to sacrifice, which is doing so willingly. If one takes up his or her cross willingly, whether that entails giving up possessions, forgiving enemies, or any other aspect of the Christian life, it may be a sacrifice but need no longer be suffering.

  30. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    It is certainly not the sole reason for suffering, (there’s others) but it’s worth remembering this one too:
    that, unfortunately, if God were to yield to us before we sought Him with unbearably desperate hope,
    if He became our possession without any suffering on our behalf (suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only),
    if His paradisial presence could be ours while we are still full of our contented self,
    if we encountered Him before crying from the depths of our beings,
    if His permanence became undeviating in us prior to us profoundly realising the futility of everything other than Him (through suffering),
    then, alas, we would cast Him off just as easily as we’d secured Him – we would not know His true value…

  31. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Dino.
    What you just wrote was a jewel. It’s worth re-reading until it is mine, in mind and heart.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino…my brother…I dont see it…

    There are implications in what your saying that maybe you haven’t thought all the way through…or maybe you have.

    But I think that the implications may be objectionable.

  33. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dino,

    Your comment put me in mind of the reality that in physical exercise (my son does CrossFit), we build muscle and strength by working against resistance.
    It seems to me suffering voluntarily borne for the sake of the Kingdom is a bit like that. It builds the inner strength of our willing and yearning toward Christ in resisting the urge to seek our own comfort and satisfaction at the expense of what serves the love of Christ. I have often heard Orthodox asceticism compared to physical training, and with the latter there can be a point where “no pain, no gain” applies.

  34. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Dino,
    Your remark reminds me of the alcoholic, in the cups, who prays for her deliverance from her addiction, and in a moment is relieved from her suffering through a spiritual awakening.

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the case of the boy torn apart by dogs it is probably not difficult to accept Christ inserting Himself in the boy’s suffering and his family. But harder perhaps to accept that He also does the same for the rich man.

  36. Dennis Avatar
    Dennis

    Dino’s view is poetic, but also speculative. If all those “ifs” came true it doesn’t follow that the “then” posited would as well.

  37. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael,
    Thats a good point.

  38. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dennis,

    My thought exactly.
    It isn’t clear to me why our desperation is a necessary precondition. The same desperation could just as easily drive people away from God. Either scenario results in people moving away from God and towards oneself.

  39. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    What is important for us to understand? What is vital?

    It isn’t clear to me why our desperation is a necessary precondition. The same desperation could just as easily drive people away from God. Either scenario results in people moving away from God and towards oneself.

    I think the word “desperation” is somewhat misleading, although not incorrect. Father often speaks of needing to recognize that we are saved “in our weakness” and it is in this weakness that we recognize our need for God. I think Dino’s focus is that if we are not calling out to God in recognition of our weakness (our “desperation”) then we will simply think that we can get along without Him and will almost certainly discard Him when He becomes uncomfortable.

    I just today finished reading a book on Le Chambon, a small village in France that was a haven for Jews during WW2. They not only admitted, to the Vichy French and the Germans, that they were a haven for Jewish refugees but also practiced non-violence throughout the war; no German or Vichy French police/gestapo/officer was ever harmed by anyone in the village. They practiced a working non-violence, doing everything they could to help those in need and also not doing any harm to anyone while they did it.

    This is the weakness of the Cross and, in this instance, it was surprisingly effective (in worldly terms). Because they were already resigned to such a possibility as the “dogs being loosed” (they lived with it daily under the Nazi occupation) and recognized the extent of their weakness before the powerful forces aligned against them, you might call them “desperate” but you would not know that seeing the manner in which they worked. They knew their weakness and simply lived within it in humility.

    So I think this is the vital thing we need: to not only be weak, but to live humbly within that weakness. The desperation of death, no matter how violent, cannot silence such a life. Just my thoughts.

  40. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Byron,

    To be fair, Dino’s words were “unbearably desperate hope” and “suffering making us frenziedly seek Him only”.

    The thing that it is being completely overlooked is that we are are taking it for granted that only some–not all, but some–creatures like us respond to suffering in the way that Dino is describing. Others become quite apathetic to the whole idea of God and still others become completely opposed to the idea of God, especially the idea that God is love. Which makes me wonder, ‘What would happen if God created a whole population of people in paradise (rather than just two people)?’ How many would eat the apples and how many wouldn’t? Probably the ratios would pan out to be about the same as they are now: Some will be apple-snatchers, others will not. Dino’s idea that suffering is a necessary precondition for our realization that there is no good apart from God,,,it seems more than a little suspect. What does this say about God? In other words, was this the only way he could have worked out our salvation? In His wisdom, omniscience, and omnipotence, God couldn’t think of any other way of uniting himself to creation? This was the only way? This may seem trivial, but consider the alternatives. I would have no problem accepting the premise that God being omnipotent and omniscient could have created human beings in a way that they would have freely chosen God’s love over all else. I think he could have done that easy-peasy. But, he didn’t. Instead he chose to create human beings that would not freely chose to love God over all else and, therefore, suffering is a necessary precondition for these people to freely choose God over all else. The problem here is that God could have avoided evil by what kind of person to create, but he didn’t. By the choices he made in how to create human beings he loaded the dice. OR…he had no choice. Perhaps it is the case that created beings would of necessity need to pass through suffering in order to be prepared for theosis. In other words, the created order by sheer virtue of the fact that is is not uncreated collapses under the weight of its own entropy and nothingness. Suffering then is unavoidable, but God uses it as a means of unfathomable grace. He makes the worst of it the very means of becoming ‘gods’. [That last part I picked up from somebody else.]

  41. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    Dino
    Yes, I totally see that in all the “Jesus fads” that come and go. So many people want to reduce Jesus to a cute saying or a cute bracelet or a cool t-shirt or perhaps even a tattoo or a piece of jewelry and nothing more, certainly not something that would include suffering.

    There is a book by a man who was raised Greek Orthodox, who converted to Protestantism, and then returned to Orthodoxy. He wrote a book called Imaginary Jesus, illustrating how many people remake Christ in their own image, even going so far as to have a surfer Jesus, weed smoking Jesus, Starbucks Jesus, or a cigarette smoking Jesus. They certainly do not have a Jesus that would allow them or ask them to suffer.

    I offer 2 quotes one from a sermon and one from an earlier article by Fr. Stephen:
    First quote:
    Many people today want Jesus without Paul, that is, without a relationship to the apostles and the Church. It fits our spirit of independence – I don’t need the saints, nor a bishop, a church, or a liturgy – just the Bible, which I can interpret for myself. (It means whatever I want it to mean.) Or some drop the Bible, too, thinking to find the “real Jesus” in some speculation from archaeology or some obscure ancient writings.
    The truth is, the world took little notice of Jesus during and immediately after His earthly life. Almost no non-Christian writings of His time mention Him. So virtually everything we know about Him was preserved by those who believed in Him, that is, the Church. So if someone wants to believe in Jesus, necessarily he must trust to some degree the apostles who preached Him, those to whom He said, the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (St. John 14:26). He must trust as well Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, who wrote the Gospels, and those Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, who edited these books, and who came to a consensus that these alone were the definitive and trustworthy accounts, and who discerned the truth among conflicting opinions about who the scriptures say Jesus is. Otherwise he may believe in an imaginary Jesus he chooses to fit his own preconceptions. We hear this often: “My Lord doesn’t care if I do this; my Lord wants me to have this.” Is my Lord the same “Jesus whom Paul preacheth”? Or will the demons say: Who are you?
    The temptation is to conform Our Lord to a preconceived opinion, doctrine, system, or ideology. He is not a doctrine; He is a person, the divine-human Person of the Word of God become flesh. He did not leave us a system or a book, but people – people humanly very inadequate. He says to Simon: thou art Peter (rock), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). He does not say He will build His Church on a doctrine, but on a man, whom He calls a rock. A strange rock — this is a man who a few moments later reveals his misunderstanding of the Lord’s whole mission – Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But [Jesus] turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
    End Quote
    There is much more but I won’t post it here.

    And here is the quote by Fr. Stephen:
    I have written recently about the culture of sentiment. I want to turn our attention in this article to how our sentimental psychology distorts our concept of God and what it means to be in relationship with Him. When many Christians speak about “having a relationship with Jesus,” they have in mind something psychological. It means that they think about Jesus and talk to Jesus and trust that He thinks about them and will do what He has promised. But such relationships are simply a caricature of what God intends for us and distorts the nature of the Christian life.

    I think it is clearly illustrated by the “Prosperity (false) Gospel” that suffering, especially that suffering which is willingly endured, has become anathema and offensive to the modern mindset.

    I offer this illustration, which I think fits:
    The refinement of silver is much like our own salvation.
    Silver ore is taken from the ground, heated to high temperatures, and as the slag rises, it is skimmed off and discarded. When the silver reflects light, it is pure; some illustrations say when the person refining the silver sees their own reflection, then it is pure.
    We are the ore, heated by the “fire” of our suffering, as we suffer, the slag of our sin, our fallen nature, our weakness, and all that separates us from God rises to the top and is removed. When we reflect the image of God, when others can see God’s image or God’s light within us, then we are fully refined.
    It is God that makes us Holy as He is Holy, using the suffering, bearing it with us, so that we might be healed and reconciled, into a right relationship with our Creator God, that we might become what we were created to be.

    At least, that is my understanding.

  42. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Simon, while I expect Father to address your questions in far greater depth, I can only say that God is united to His Creation; He sustains it (us included) in His love. I think His redemption of us took the form of our need as we presented it; it was not simply a questionable plan of one sort or another. I also cannot see how one can be created to “freely choose to love God over all else” without the possibility of moving away from God, which is my understanding of evil. A true and abiding love has depths that it takes a lifetime to learn. There is always the possibility of turning away during that life. Love is hard, after all. May God bless our questioning and discussion!

  43. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Byron,
    Two people walk into a room one freely selects action-item-X and the second freely declines action-item-X. Both of these hypothetical persons are free to do or do otherwise. Right? Now we might imagine that God could ‘see’ which selection each one one of these persons might make prior to the act of selecting, right? So, let’s assume God created an original human pair. Surely those two weren’t the only two humans God could have created. Can we not imagine a different pair instead of Adam and Eve? Maybe God could have created Keith and Karen. Now, hypothetically, God could ‘see’ that Adam and Eve would end up apple thieving of their own free will (action-item-X). So, the moment he chooses to create those two persons…he created a situation that would lead inevitably to Auschwitz. However, in his infinite creativity and imagination perhaps he could have created Keith and Karen. A human pair he could ‘see’ would not choose to eat from his apple tree (declining action-item-X) even though they would have the ability to freely do otherwise. In this case, the moment God chooses to create these two persons…he would have created a situation that would have led to theosis apart from any experience of Auschwitz.

    The implication here is that God is free to do or do otherwise. Therefore, God was not forced to create Adam and Eve, two very particular human beings. Surely God was free to create two other human beings (Keith and Karen) that would be very different from Adam and Eve, but morally, spiritually, and intellectually equal. I am essentially arguing that out of all the potential individuals God could have created, out of all the individuals that would have chosen or chosen otherwise, when he chose to create the original human pair he created our destiny. We can wag our fingers at them for not having chosen wisely, but I have to ask: Why didn’t god choose to make a pair that he could ‘see’ would freely choose to do otherwise?

  44. Dennis Avatar
    Dennis

    My experience of life is that it is filled, overfilled, with suffering. I do not speak of the horrors on the evening news but of those that foment from within one’s own self and heart. From here can come unbidden unrelenting suffering, with high peaks and deep valleys of intensity, of which the sensations may mercifully deaden from time to time – but only temporarily. This kind of internal suffering cannot be eliminated or mitigated by any social program or worldly benefit, honors or riches.

    Perhaps “Christ does not flee from suffering” because being human, it isn’t possible. Suffering is part of the cost of being incarnate. The Creed wants us to know that the Divine understands how bad it can feel to be alive: “He suffered and was buried.” As such there is no need for any of us to court extra suffering as part of the Christian path – everyone suffers!

    It is clear that suffering was something the Son of God did, but was it the most important thing he did, deserving an excess of emphasis? One might postulate that the suffering of Christ was in submission and obedience to God, whereas one’s own is likely the result of self-induced folly (if very crass) or (if more thoughtful) the existential and helpless awareness that one is faced with a looming death and uncertain eternity afterwards.

    Whether one can take any instruction and guidance from the deified suffering of Christ (which we call, strangely, His “Passion”) depends, I think, on whether one can take any instruction and guidance from the very personal and usually acutely humbling suffering one must contend with in one’s daily walk through life. This bit of navigation into the darker currents is where one’s mettle is tested and where hard lessons are learned that can then be applied to the bigger picture. If one can’t find Jesus in those lonely moments of profound individual fear and agitation, then one will never be able to appreciate all that He has undoubtedly done for the universe beyond.

  45. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Simon,
    Do you believe in a literal Adam and Eve?
    Could ‘Adam’ be another word for humanity?
    Is it possible that mankind was created and darn near immediately fell? I’m thinking here, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
    Do you think a created being can freely choose not to sin, ever? Of coarse you don’t, because you know the only sinless person was the God-Man Jesus Christ.
    Potentially, if a created being freely chose not to sin, do you think that person would be capable by himself to reach theosis?
    God’s plan is a plan of salvation. He didn’t tell us everything, but He did tell us ‘the plan’. He created, and the crown of creation (mankind) was to be “one” with all creation, and through us all creation to participate in His nature. So what are you saying? That God should have created sinless people, that would never sin, so that we and all creation could be “one” with Him from the beginning? No need for His Son? Well, that didn’t happen did it?
    God gave us an account of creation and the fall. For the Lamb to be slain before the foundation of the world, it could not have happened any other way. Your questions are good, but to get solid answers you’re going to have to ask God. Keep on asking, Simon. I bet He’ll give you the answer. And it may just be…”and what is that to you?”

    I’m going to bed……

  46. NSP Avatar

    The mentions of The Brothers Karamazov have brought to the surface of my mind a question that has been bothering me…

    Dostoevsky masterfully shows how redemption at least begins to touch the lives of almost every character in his novel – except Smerdyakov!

    What of him? Since his birth the deck has been stacked against him. Considered a bastard, and deprived of a proper upbringing compared to his other brothers, his soul has been twisted by powerful forces much beyond any of his own “wrong choices.”

    In the entire book, he seems to be the one most in need of redemption, and does not even elicit sympathy from the average reader, even compared to Ivan, but there are no indications that redemption has begun to touch him, unless it is his blunt honesty with Ivan at the end. But is that little enough for his redemption?

    Why couldn’t Aloysha reach out to him?

    -NSP

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Questions about whether God could have done something different are, for me, not helpful. They are, at best, exercises in logic or exercises in imagination. But they reduce matters to a syllogism or something equally small. This conversation (like most that deal with suffering) echoes passages of Job. That tells us that while our wondering is nothing new, it is also not going to get us very far. But it is also a reminder that the answer seems to be far more apophatic and experiential. It is, for me, within the mystery of the Cross.

    In the article, my purpose has not been to explain suffering. It is this: modernity only wants to eliminate it and in doing so distorts what it means to be truly human. I have also sought to “tease out” the character of the one suffering from the suffering itself. I have also suggested that suffering, rightly understood (and I must emphasize “rightly”), seems to have a place within the Garden, and even within the Godhead. I wrote an earlier article on “Unfallen Suffering” that spoke a little about this.

    What we have in the “fall” is not Unfallen Suffering, or the suffering of the Garden or Godhead, but a distortion of suffering that is the heinous thing we often encounter. While that sort of suffering is terrible and an enemy, etc., it still is but a distortion, a misuse of freedom, etc. Freedom isn’t bad – it’s good. But it’s also a great cause of suffering.

    In the Cross, there is revealed to us a path back towards what is original and true and a path forward towards reconciliation and union. I do not think I have ever seen a soul become whole without somehow being reconciled as well as united.

    As for Dino’s comment – I would refer anyone back to the article on the Erotic Language of Prayer. Would a lover ever speak in such a way of the beloved? Absolutely. Can that be misunderstood? Yes. But everything reduced to prose and precision would be a terrible loss. In my Jesus Freak days, we always had a saying: “If it’s a problem, leave it on the shelf.”

  48. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Two things that were said in the article that struck me: (1) The Crucifixion reveals the truth of God. We might imagine that the mode of what is revealed in the Crucifixion is changed by human sin, but we cannot say that it changes the character of what is revealed and (2) if suffering is inherent to our existence, then only that which encompasses suffering is sufficient as an account of being human. ‘The truth of God’ and a ‘sufficient account of being human.’ I think it probably goes without saying that if we are going to talk about suffering we are certainly free to talk about it apart from the question ‘How did it get this way?’ But I would also imagine that ‘the truth of God’ and ‘a sufficient account of being human’ might include an understanding of how a God love that chooses to create freely chose to create a world that by His omniscience and omnipotence he had to have known would end up going sideways. And in my mind there are implications from this that inform my understanding of the ‘truth of God’ and my ‘account of being human.’

    I guess that’s all I need to say about that.

  49. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Simon,

    You might find philosopher Alvin Plantiga’s small book, “God, Freedom and Evil” helpful. In it he explores whether your grounding premise—God’s ability to create a free will human who would only choose God—could be true.

    https://www.amazon.com/God-Freedom-Evil-Alvin-Plantinga/dp/0802817319/ref=la_B000APU3AM_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1526557891&sr=1-2

  50. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Michael B, I think if you read more closely you’ll see that isnt what I said or implied. Which is beside the point because I get the impression that this line of discussion isnt very productive.

  51. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Simon, my apologies as I had gone to bed already when you posted again. I will only say that Adam’s sin does not “lead inevitably to Auschwitz”, it leads to the revealing of God; Jesus on the Cross. Regardless of who or how many He created in the garden, this would be true. I think the answer to all questions is found not in the “why” of creation, but the “Who” of the Cross. His revealing puts to rest any philosophical questions (for me, at least) and leaves us with God, Who is good and loves His creation. Just my thoughts.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I understand the question of could there have been a free creature who would always choose the good? Logically (and there’s a limit), it would sound like freedom that isn’t freedom.

    But I also wonder from time to time if freedom is the right “operator” in the question of theodicy (God’s goodness). It has limits, it seems.

    I am pushing the suffering (unfallen) back into the Godhead – (reveals who God is) – to suggest that a world in which no suffering (unfallen) exists would not be reflective of who God is.

    But, I’m not sure we ever state this satisfactorily.

    It is interesting to me that so little attention is given to the question in the NT or even the early fathers. And yet, it is such a large question in our modern world. Curious.

  53. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have wondered about that difference between the questions asked by the people in the “ancient” world as opposed to the questions posed by people in the modern world. For example, the Apostle Paul asks the question “Can the thing made say to the one that made it, ‘Why did you make me this way?’” My thought is, ‘Hell yeah it can. Why not?’ I hear Paul asking ‘Does the thing made have a right to demand an accoun from its maker for the way it is made?’ But, Paul seems to assert that as if he understands that everyone in his audience KNOWS that to be true. But that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

    Another point in which my understanding fails is the idea that a creature that continuously chooses good isnt free, which implies that the only way to know whether or not a person is free is when theyre thieving apples. That doesnt make sense to me.

  54. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    I remember taking a philosophy course in college and the depressing state of being around those who thought they could put God in one of those Either/Or boxes. “Can God make a square circle? Can He make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” Though I had no words for it at the time time, I realized the true answers were probably way beyond the comprehension of anyone in the room. The scriptures say our wisdom is God’s foolishness and vice versa and that our ways are not His ways. From life experience I have come to belief that He could make a square circle but that I would have no way of seeing it, let alone recognizing it.

    I equally believe He created man while having an understanding of what was to come – but that the reason He went forward with it was not because of a decision derived from human logic. He made us in His image and out of His pure love. We barely recognize true human love, so why would we be able to understand what He did for us in the act of creation…or redemption?

    I think this is where faith comes in: I know He is good, that He loves us, that He is all-powerful – AND that there is all kinds of suffering in this life. I don’t understand how those two things co-exist but I’m willing to learn through patience, obedience, and putting my trust in Him – especially when I come to the limits of my understanding, my abilities, my love. Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

  55. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I do appreciate the value of your question regarding God’s experience of unfallen suffering. In my understanding kenosis implies a kind of death. If this were true, then kenosis among the persons of God with respect to one another may entail a kind of unfallen suffering, as you alluded to earlier. That might mean that there is a something of an ongoing kenosis between God and creation which implies that God “continuously” empties himself in order to give His fullness to all things.

  56. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness (Corinthians 1:23)

    The parable of the Prodigal Son from the outset reveals to us a Father who accepts to “be-behaved-towards by His children as if He is already dead”. He can already be inherited and forgotten, as if dead, while still alive. This means for the son that he has been granted a perfect and absolute freedom of self-determination towards his Father: freedom to act as if there were no longer a Father for him; freedom to behave towards the One Who begot him as if He is nothing.
    Ironically, only this freedom can allow someone to one day become a true son (not a slave) of God: the freedom to also not be one…
    This is the freedom given by God to man in his creation. He left us free to behave as if He did not exist, as if He, the Creator, were dead. Man can kill his God, even if this means that Man manages to make what he then perceives as his ‘paradise’ into his very own hell, thinking to himself that hell (i.e.: being without God) is a paradise. God made children that will eventually self-determine towards Him like gods that do not need Him. His foreknowledge changes nothing when we consider the creation of ‘sons’ in this understanding – or else we would not be talking of genuine freedom in practice.
    In this respect the creation of man contains within it the Cross from the start. The creation of man by God, as an act of kenotic emptying and self-offering, includes the death of God on the Cross. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8) went ahead and created entities whose salvation can eternally be both affirmed or denied by themselves alone – as “gods”…

    It is a great pity that we have lost the ‘martyr’s spirit’ which is true Christianity…
    We want to belong to Christ the Crucified one who calls us to pick up a cross, but without suffering, without discomfort, without, illness, without hardship… But that greatest of joys only springs out from the Cross. The Gospel is the gospel of the Cross..!
    We find Christ the immortal One through martyrdom and there’s pain in securing Him. We lose Him, through our pleasure-seeking (rather than pleasure-shunning that brings Him closer). Even when it’s of a spiritual kind, it’s a spiritual pleasure-seeking (making us claim that we ….love Christ but not the cross…) which manifests spiritual anaemia and self-preoccupation since we lack the martyr’s fervor for martyrdom. Truth is that Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom. The death of the cross is also the pattern of true living. Love is self-emptying, laying down our lives for the other. As frightening as that can be, Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection shows us that such love is the way of life and of life-giving.
    There could never have been another path of “kenotic” love that would make a creature become like it’s kenotically loving Creator.

  57. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    …Martyr’s fervor for martyrdom. Truth is Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom…

    Okay…whatever you say, brother.

    Peace

  58. Another Anna Avatar
    Another Anna

    Simon,
    I’ve got a more analytical brain about these stories too. My priest has helped me to read these Old Testament stories as revelations of the human heart, and as possibilities for each of us at various moments in our lives. We each are Adam, Eve, David, Job, Job’s comforters etc. Each story sheds light into our human condition and each story is a facet of our story, if we are honest with ourselves. Some stories manifest themselves clearly outside ourselves; some are hidden and brought out as thoughts/struggles in privacy with a trusted advisor. For example, we may not murder another, but our secret anger towards another carries that force.
    I think that if we are honest, we each would have taken the ‘apple.’ In a literal translation, that apple would have been much easier for some of us to resist, but we all have “apples” in our lives that entice us and draw us away from God. Had all the generations from the beginning resisted the apple, I still would have been she who brought sin into the world with my temptation and weakness…

  59. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Another Anna, for what its worth I agree with that understanding completely.

  60. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father,
    Regarding the modern curiosity about how to make sense of our freedom (when it seems like there’s no freedom and we are bound to sin): I sometimes think that we moderns are like those to whom Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” I mean this in the sense that we do not ‘see our sin as ours’, (inside of me), yet see sinfulness all around us (outside of me) and are far quicker to self-justify and therefore ultimately blame God (even if we blame sin as being ‘generational’ in our ancestry etc. etc. … truth be told: God, ultimately, becomes implicitly accountable for it all through these syllogisms). In contrast, classical Christian thought would always turn inwards and see that there are a myriad hidden tiny choices at every moment that can direct us either “to the right or to the left” and all persons have a fairly good conscience to start with.

  61. Ananias Avatar
    Ananias

    We lose Him, through our pleasure-seeking (rather than pleasure-shunning that brings Him closer). Even when it’s of a spiritual kind, it’s a spiritual pleasure-seeking (making us claim that we ….love Christ but not the cross…) which manifests spiritual anaemia and self-preoccupation since we lack the martyr’s fervor for martyrdom.

    Dino – I agree completely with the spiritual pleasure seeking. Ironically, at one point in my life, I shared my testimony of my faith with an atheist. She responded by pointing out that my faith was so shallow, empty and full of emotions but there was no real substance. This was truly ironic because she was attempting to persuade me to reject Christianity completely. My immediate response was to reject her statement. Then I began to examine myself, to really take a good look at myself and my faith and found that she was right. My faith was shallow, full of emotions and empty of anything truly real. I was a whitewashed tomb.
    Then I found Orthodoxy and God called to me, and put within me a true substance of faith and of life.

    But my faith was empty because I was on a “spiritual journey of spiritual self-pleasure, self-focus and self-worship” and I deluded myself, as many do, into thinking that I was worshiping God. I was on the wide and easy path, in a golf cart, with A/C, cruising down the road straight off the cliff, fully convinced that I was headed toward Heaven.
    Orthodoxy has changed all that and now I yearn to reject my self and embrace God. I am on the narrow path, full of holes, rocks, thistles, and thorns, walking in my bare feet and Christ, the Church, my Guardian angel, all walk with me where before I was alone.

  62. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Another Anna,

    that is truly so… St Makarius the Great often touches upon a OT figure (like Job) and then says ” do not let your mind wonder to the mountains of those lands and to other times because you are Job and you are the one tested…”

    Simon,
    Christ is loved and found at once by those who love martyrdom, or as St. Paul would say, “I resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    We certainly would admit that, God does not want the believers’ life to be tough, His desire is that it’s full of joy.
    But our hearts are tough – hardened from our sinfulness.
    They are harsh because of our selfish desires and they do not break easily, they do not crack open in order to be filled with the presence of Christ’s love.
    Christ needs something hard to crack open the heart. Pain therefore comes and cracks it open. How many times would people prefer to die rather than to hurt?
    But God leaves this pain as his true benefit, saying:
    Here I am.
    While you think you encountered pain, look, it’s the Cross-and the One who is outstretched upon it–, it’s Me.

    Martyrs – the most authentic Christians in other words – in their love for Christ, desire to suffer for their loved One, just as He desired to suffer for His loved ones. Keep in mind that the traditional understanding in the Holy Fathers of “Luke 12:50” is that Christ cannot wait to undergo his ‘baptism’ (His martyrdom)…

  63. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Talking about martyrdom… I am a real wuss when it comes to pain. My wife handles it much better than I. I do know that other cultures deal with pain much better than we do, especially those in the third world/”primitive” cultures. Death used to be quite visible in the average neighborhood in the U.S. some 100 years ago. It happened frequently (life-span shorter and many children) and bodies were cared for at home.
    And pain had to be either accepted in some way or endured. When I was a child, in the 50’s, I suffered migraines. All we had was chalky aspirin. I couldn’t swallow it…suffered much. We do have measures now to deal with most physical pain. Perhaps this is one reason why we shun it so, or cannot accept its presence…take a pill! And of course the pain of existence or ennui here in the West is dealt with by avoidance also…24/7 entertainment. So perhaps one’s taking up of the cross here may even be more intentional.

  64. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Seth, please forgive my mis-reading of your writing.

  65. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    I, too, have been thinking a lot about questions lately. My neighbor committed suicide last week. Questions abound for her husband, family, and friends.

    Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest) said that when we question God, He does not answer; rather, He shows us Himself.

    At least a couple of authors have read through the New Testament counting questions and answers. They have concluded that people asked Jesus 187 questions and He answered only 3. However, Jesus asked 307 questions.

    In his book, Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth makes a nice distinction between a problem and a mystery. A problem, he says, is something before us that bars our passage and to which we seek a solution, whereas a mystery is something in which we are caught up and is not entirely present before us; it is something that engages us.

    At the end of his book, he says, “…the mystery of God was disclosed in a human life [the incarnate Jesus] that was lived in history…Here, more than anywhere else, we realize the true character of a mystery: mystery not just as the focus of our questioning and investigation, but mystery as that which questions us, which calls us into account.”

    Most who knew the woman who died are turning her years of suffering and subsequent death into a problem to be solved. “Why ____?” is the preeminent question. I find myself trying not to question God, but to let Mystery question me: “Who do you say that I am?” and “Do you believe?” are two that have been on my mind.

  66. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Ananias – thank you for sharing your path of finding authenticity in your faith. Beautiful!
    You may enjoy this article about “authenticity” (the word used by Elder Aimilianos is “genuine”)

    https://www.academia.edu/23174209/Commentary_on_Maximos_the_Confessor_Chapters_on_Love_by_Arch._Aimilianos

    Simon – thank you for engaging Father and Dino. Their responses are priceless… I sense that you are very young and this talk about suffering is not “clicking” with you. Give yourself 30 years and then revisit these posts (save Father’s and Dino’s words in a doc, print them out and put them in a bottle, to open in 2048). Your outlook on life will be much more sympathetic, and your “Okay…whatever you say, brother.” much less sarcastic… And I say that with all my love, understanding and respect towards your feelings right now.

    By then, you will many more difficult life experiences. And especially as a parent. I think what Dino said about God giving us freedom is much better understood by parents when their children are grown. Being in this situation is making me realize that even God suffers (I heard one priest say that it is God’s hell!), how else can He possibly feel about so many rejecting Him, even when He loves us so much and has given us everything He could to assure us of this Love? It’s a bit like what we feel in high school when that “first love” is un-reciprocated – or at any time in our life when our love for someone is not reciprocated – it’s one of the most heart-breaking feeling…
    It’s not hard to imagine that God suffers because we don’t love Him…

  67. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    *… you will have….

  68. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Agata,
    Although the parenting parallel has its uses, the truth is that we humans do not have the respect of another’s freedom that God has… The “heart-breaking feeling of un-reciprocated love” of parents, usually has very little to do with the unconditional, and inconceivably noble love of God for man.

  69. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Agata,

    Forgive me, but I suspect Simon’s struggle has more to do with the unusual way he has already suffered than with his youth—something few of us may be able to comprehend (never having experienced it). Those who suffer extreme forms of abuse and manipulation in the name of “God” from childhood have a deeply twisted knot to untie to begin to disentangle an image of the true God from the demonic distortion with which they have been presented all their lives. I see Simon’s questions as his (Herculean) struggle to do that.

    I also don’t see his “whatever you say, brother” as sarcastic, but simply the admission he cannot now understand, but is learning not to argue.

    Simon’s question is the one any of us who has suffered greatly and/or seen great suffering has to struggle with, as Dostoyevsky’s novel so powerfully portrays. I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love. This peace can never be complacency in the face of suffering or injustice, but only faith and love in spite of it, knowing through connection with this Presence that, despite all, Mercy triumphs.

    “…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who *for the joy that was set before Him* endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
    (Hebrews 12:2)

  70. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Blessed Feast of the Ascension to all celebrating!

  71. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Karen,
    Thank you for this reminder – I only now realize that connection.

    Simon,
    Please forgive me, I did not think my comment through from this angle (did not remember your comments earlier), just reading into your words my own fears, insecurities and failures to suffer properly (what I have been through cannot possibly compare to your difficult childhood experiences – again, you are in my prayers, please forgive me).

    Dino,
    Thank you, for all your words. They are so beautiful and inspiring [me, to suffer properly, when I am given an opportunity ]. Christ needs something hard to crack open the heart. – may we be given Grace to recognize the pain as His Presence there…

  72. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Agata,

    You may be surprised to learn that I am 46 years old. I am not a young man, but I am not an old one either. AND I am actually a very sympathetic and compassionate person. As far as suffering goes I bear the scars of my suffering in my body. I know what it means to experience chronic fear and anguish. I know what it it’s like as a child to lay awake at night—night after night—afraid to go to sleep wondering when that man was going to kill us all in our sleep. Just laying in bed listening and waiting for chaos to erupt at the other end of the house. I know what it is like to wonder whether I should kill my father in his sleep: To plan it out, creep into his bedroom, stand over that sleeping man’s body with a weapon and out of sheer fear of what he would do to me if I failed retreat back to my bedroom. I know a woman whose father had molested her for nine years. I saw this woman twice regress to a childhood age—It’s a horrifying to see.

    When I hear people talking about the idea of embracing suffering they are usually people who haven’t experienced a lot of it…OR at least I can’t imagine that they have because if they did they’re attitude about it would be less…casual, poetic, comfortable. Talk to anyone who has survived “the Camps” about injustice and suffering and see how quickly the conversation becomes uncomfortable. Life is hard, but beyond the usual inconveniences real suffering means someone else has complete control over your physical and mental experience.

    I just realized why I have been fighting to push the bookend questions away…because there’s no way I can avoid the conclusion that an omnipotent, omniscient being is responsible for how the world has turned out…

  73. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Karen,
    You wrote “I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love. This peace can never be complacency in the face of suffering or injustice, but only faith and love in spite of it, knowing through connection with this Presence that, despite all, Mercy triumphs.”

    For what it is worth I agree with this completely. All genuine understanding must of necessity emerge from our personal experience. In many ways this genuine understanding is ontological. It emerges out of who and what you are.

  74. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Karen, “I also don’t see his “whatever you say, brother” as sarcastic, but simply the admission he cannot now understand, but is learning not to argue.” YES, YES, YES. Thank you!! Ugggh. I can’t even not argue without looking like I’m arguing….

  75. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Agata, There is no reason to apologize. I appreciate your comments very much. Please, just say whatever it is you have to say and we’ll work the rest out as we move along!!

    Peace!

  76. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Karen wrote, “There is peace only in the Presence of this love.”
    So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart. I have never known the suffering of Simon…made worse I’m sure because he suffered as a child from the one who should have given him love. Thank you Simon for the times you have shared.
    I think of Ellie Weisel and his short book, Night. I haven’t read it in a long time, but I recall his suffering as a youth in the concentration camps…indescribable, the pit of hell made visible. Through it he lost his innocence, his faith in a good and loving God. I don’t know if he ever found faith again. I cannot judge anyone who has suffered as he or you Simon. It is so marvelous that you have allowed the mercy of Christ to be a healing balm for your mind and spirit. God bless you and your own dear family.

  77. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dean wrote, “So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart.” I appreciate this comment and for what it’s worth I believe that this is exactly right. I feel like there is something wrong with me and I feel it in my heart. It’s tangible…and maybe everyone on this blog feels it too.

  78. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon
    There’s a fabulous new martyr (ILLIAS Diamandithis the myrhbearer) but I cannot yet find his life in English, only Greek. What he endured as a child goes way beyond what most stories of abused children usually do. Yet his entire life – from his childhood mercy towards his astoundingly torturous abuser parents to his later life as a tortured priest in Russia – (he died in 1946) was testament to this understanding of the Cross and the love of the Cross that renders one – in a certain sense – invincible through his healthy self-denial founded upon unwavering “Godwardness”. I am still searching to see if I can find an English translation.

  79. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    I have really enjoyed reading your article Father, and you have made many profound statements, which I find to be very true in today’s global environment. Certainly food for thought on a personal level.
    It can be very easy for us to think and behave the same way the world thinks and behaves.

    There are many complex explanations and theories of what exactly it is to suffer. On the one hand it is unfortunately unavoidable since our human nature and the creation has been corrupted from the fall. Therefore, one day the inevitable will happen to all of us since we are subject to corruption or decay (fthora φθορά). However, it is not just the corruption of the body, but also of the soul.

    It is comforting for me to know that Christ offers us Himself to reverse and to restore and to eventually destroy this type of suffering that leads to the physical and spiritual death. (He shall wipe away every tear).

    I find great comfort that Christ has by His death trampled down death, so that even though physically we die, we do not die but live eternally with Him.
    Isn’t this the good news? That in Christ there is no death only life! Sometimes amidst our theologizing we forget the good news.

    Christ’s commandment to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Him brings together an acceptance of our lot in this life with whatever may come our way, as well as the type of suffering which entails giving yourself wholly to Christ. Both are viewed as sacrificial and martyric.

    Of course martyrdom for Christ means to die for Christ, but there are different ways to die. Christ tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. In other words to crucify ourselves by repenting, putting away the old you and following Christ.

    Through our baptism we have already been crucified and put on Christ. The challenge is staying on the cross, keep carrying our cross. We participate in His death and resurrection. This is a martyrdom, and whoever truly follows Christ experiences an ongoing martyrdom, since you are continuously giving your life to Christ. In this way we are a witness for Christ. Of course many saints ultimately were killed for Christ.
    A priest once did a talk on marriage. There was a roar of laughter when he said that it is a martyrdom to be married! However, this is true since he was making the point that in marriage you have given yourself to your wife/husband fully. You no longer belong to yourself. The same can be said with our relationship with God (even more so).

    It is not the case that God wants us to suffer miserably, and He is with us in our suffering. In Christ we can be joyful and free even in prison and during the worst times in our lives.

  80. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dino, I genuinely appreciate what you’re saying about the value “unwavering Godwardness.”
    But, please, don’t misunderstand me, brother. I’m never arguing with “you”. I’m only ever wranging around with the ideas you express. And many times I find that the implication that people in Christianity dodge at all costs is that God is not to blame. But, how is he not to blame? Who made the rules so that human hearts would become so hard and unyielding under certain circumstances? An omnipotent and omniscient God had to know that this world was going to result given the initial conditions he created. He could have created other initial conditions, but he didn’t. I know analytical reasoning isn’t esteemed very highly. It is often spoken about in a derogatory tone, or at least that is how it seems to me. But, I think we should just bite the bullet and say from a strictly analytical perspective it follows that God is the reason the world is as it is.

  81. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon
    Indeed we must never say that. The fall was never complete – you could say that it was not a problem and was easily repented of straigtaway- until man blamed God for things ( whether by saying it’s the woman you gave me or the serpent, both answers stop Gowardness/repentance immediately.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon, Dino, et al
    To say, “God is the reason the world is as it is,” i.e. that He is the cause of all the suffering, etc., is problematic. The assertion that He could have created other initial conditions is speculation based only in the imagination and not in what we know. It’s not analytical, it’s imaginary. There is a difference. I do not do bookends because I think it is the wrong place to start.

    We start with Christ. He reveals to us that God is good. It is that goodness that I confess in the face of any and everything. And, I think this is essential in the Christian faith. Admittedly, we run up against the wall of human suffering – but instead of going from the wall to an imaginary bookend, we go to Christ Crucified and find the goodness of God ratified in our world.

    We do not “just bite the bullet and say from a strictly analytical perspective” anything at all. For many reasons, rooted in our own clouded analysis and otherwise.

    But, we cannot speak today without reference to the extreme measures of human suffering that have been made known in our generations. For myself, during a college crisis of faith, it was the witness of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and other Christians who had endured the Camps of Stalin (and others who endured Hitler’s camps) and yet confessed the goodness of God that rescued me from a despairing atheism.

    We know of many, many other stories. I let them speak to me when I am troubled or angered or tempted with despair. I do not hear any of them speak disparagingly of those who lost their faith in the Camps. They speak only with mercy and kindness. We should do the same – everywhere – even in the Camp of daily life.

    But, I cannot ignore the voice of those who have come through those great trials and confess the goodness of God. I leave it to them.

  83. Mario Naziris Avatar
    Mario Naziris

    Simon, so sorry to hear about your suffering, it sounds truly horrific. Our family has also suffered, especially my daughter who was trapped in a gang where unmentionable things happened., even demonic manifestations. Sometimes there are just no answers, and it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’.

    We have experienced the love of Christ though and want to let you know there is light at the end of the tunnel. You are in my prayers, please pray for my daughter.

  84. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It isn’t clear to me why we can’t bite the bullet. Is God not omnipotent? Could he not have done otherwise? Is God not omniscient? Could he not have known otherwise? To grab these questions up and throw them in the laundry basket of our imagination doesn’t seem fair. What I frequently hear is that the problem is in humanity. Humanity is fallen (whatever it is we mean by that) and the whole universe with us. The more I think about what that means, the more I meditate on the implications, the more I find the conclusion that however the world has come to be in this condition, we didn’t do it. The universe was here a long time before we got here.

    Here are some things that I canl take away to think on:
    1) Repentance out of chaos into the light of existence…Repentance does not require the perquisite of sin.
    2) It is a transformation of the world from within the world that transforms despite the misuse of freedom that seeks to destroy.
    3) I don’t believe there are any answers save that of Christ crucified. And, again, this “answer” lies not in apprehending this as historical fact, not even in some satisfying human logic, but only as Personal loving presence. There is peace only in the Presence of this Love.
    4) So much cannot be straightened out in our minds. It can only be resolved deep within the heart.
    5) Unwavering “Godwardness”.

  85. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Simon,
    I am so sorry… for some reason my longer message (with all I wanted to say) is not coming through…

  86. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Simon,
    I am so sorry to touch such painful and deep wound, so very sorry…
    I offer you my most tender and loving hug and embrace..
    One that would take some of that pain from your heart, I would take it away from you if I possibly could. Maybe God will allow us to meet some day for that very moment and purpose… [You are so close in age to my brother, who died of cancer when he was 20]… Please know you are in my prayers.

    Similarly to Dino (I hope he finds the information in English for us on the Greek Saint), I want to offer you another child martyr, St. Gabriel (Zabludowski) to pray to, for yourself and for your son (as he is considered a patron Saint of children in Poland).
    (I had some links here but maybe they are blocking the post)
    I will ask the nuns of his monastery to pray for you!
    (and can send you [by mail if you share it] his icon, blessed on his relics, if you would like it, my gmail is agatamcc).

  87. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Simon,
    The omnipotent and omniscient God that humans blame, is, nevertheless, on the Cross. He is crucified by ‘archetypal’ humans, humans refusing to accept any culpability.
    What it means that we are fallen is precisely this (!): we do not accept culpability and cannot see that it is not God’s fault (for being omnipotent and omniscient) but “my” fault for using my ‘godliness’ to self-determine as blameless.
    The way to overcome the fall –“this condition the world has come to be in” – is exactly the opposite (!), (as the saints did) to sincerely come to that humility that cries out with the Psalmist David to the Crucified Saviour “Against you -you alone- I have sinned and done evil in your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence; you are blameless”

  88. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Agata,

    St. Gabriel, the child martyr, is Patron Saint of the congregation which also meets (at a second Altar Table) in my parish Temple. Truly he is a Saint for our dark times!

  89. David Foutch Avatar
    David Foutch

    Dino, I think that you have created a gross mischaracterization of what I am saying. When I confess to father I always assume responsibility for what I do without making any excuses: I know that I am guilty for the things I have done and that there is blame for me to assume. But, what you are saying is that it isn’t enough for us to confess without making excuse for our sins. We must confess that the whole world situation is our fault. I can’t say that’s true. And I would never blame God or the Devil for what I do, but I also think that it’s odd that although none of us are omnipotent nor omniscient somehow the whole ordeal is our fault. Doesn’t add up, brother.

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    The “omnipotent” and “omniscient” God is the philosopher’s God. It is not at all certain to me that these terms, as traditionally understood, are properly applied to God. “Omnipotent,” for example, has to deal with the fact that Christ Crucified is specifically described as the “Power of God.”

    Omniscience is equally problematic. We are effectively saying, “If God knew what I know, then He would have done thus and so…” But it would be better to say, “I don’t know what God knows, so that I cannot describe or invoke omniscience as a thing.”

    So, I come back to Christ Himself, in His Pascha, as the starting point (and ending point). He is also called the “Wisdom of God,” and that is said to be “foolishness” to human beings. In sum, the New Testament does not offer the Philosopher’s God as the subject of our knowing or our worship. It offers the God made known to us in Christ, and tells us that this is a very different thing. “Christ, the Wisdom, Word and Power of God.”

  91. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Dino,

    What you say about praying with the Psalmist is quite true, but it takes a real work of grace to get there—especially if where you are starting from is looking, as the character of Ivan in Brothers Karamazov does, into the maw of darkest evil and at the completely disproportionate and extreme suffering of innocents and trying to reconcile that with the “philosopher’s God” as Father put it. That’s just not possible (because for one thing, the philosopher’s God isn’t Christ). Speaking in this way into where the incomprehension comes from in a case like Simon’s (ideas of the philosopher’s God entangled with the God of Jesus Christ) feels for all its truth a bit like a word out of season.

    Your image of Christ crucified to Whom we pray that prayer is a powerful one, though. What immediately came to my mind was Fr. Stephen’s exposition of the Cross also being the Seat of Christ’s Judgment. He sees us fully and truly
    and pronounces not judgment, but forgiveness: “Father, forgive them—they don’t know what they are doing.”

    https://glory2godforallthings.com/2017/08/23/judgment-seat-christ/

  92. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    What I was really hoping someone would say to me is ‘Yes, under the conditions of this abstract omnipotent and omniscient being, it would be fair to say that God of the philosophers (God of the West) would be responsible. BUT, that isnt who we worship.’ I would have been SOOO happy.

    So let me ask, Is it fair to say the Orthodox do not worship the God of abstract omni attributes, the so-callled god of the philosophers?

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I would agree. Under the conditions of this abstract, omnipotent, omniscient, God of the Philosophers, He would be responsible for the world’s evil. And, that is not the God worshipped by the Orthodox.

    The difficult, of course, is that the former, often goes by the name of the latter, creating a case of mistaken identity.

  94. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Father Stephen,
    I like the rejoinder you have used with atheists. You ask them to describe the God they don’t believe in. You answer them, “I don’t believe in that God either!”

  95. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    David Foutch, Simon,
    perhaps I haven’t followed all the comments very well but it seems you must be one and the same person? I wouldn’t dream of characterising anyone else’s personal histories, or the cosmic history of all as something that is worthy to be blamed upon any person, but what our Tradition teaches however, is that we do not (not even by one inch) side with any God-slandering thought… and the way to guard from this is only through carefully cultivating humility in those areas. Humility in thought (practice is far harder) is certainly not God-blaming of any sort, not even philosophical (which often equals self-justification).
    We needn’t confess cosmic repentance for all (if God ever granted us such a thing of which we know nothing of as yet), that, is just an experience, of being in Christ and with His Mother and the saints who “fill up in their flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) It is sharing Christ’s love for all, that desires to be crucified (as if the crucified one is to blame), in order to save all crucifiers, irrespective of their undeniable blame.
    Humility like this takes upon itself the blame for everything in a way that is healthy. Such a thing actually exists and it is as healthy as Christ is. It is not directed by me (or anyone else who mentions it) to another person (like yourself my dear brother) as injunction, it is a truth of the experience of the saints from which anyone can take a small portion and breath the air of true freedom… We Orthodox have the saints showing us this stuff and we take so little of it to heart! We are then like people dying of hypoglycaemia inside the best sweetshop!
    Many years ago I heard a most remarkable and profoundly edifying story that I knew not what to make of, yet I was just reminded of it as result of this conversation, here it is:
    Once, a truly holy man in Mount Athos had become possessed by a demon through no fault of his own. He suffered that unendurable ordeal as if it was his due portion, never accusing another soul, or blaming God. After a lengthy period of fasting, vigil and prayer, he sensed that he was finally becoming liberated from this torment, though this was occurring in a kind of a ‘gradual way’. During that short period of gradual deliverance from his possession, he would even converse with the unclean spirit as if with a friend – besides, he had become quite accustomed to it. He even started to feel sincerely sorry for it and advised it to “ask for God’s mercy too”, and that it “could also be saved” (similarly to how he had been saved from it himself) “through unceasing prayers for God’s mercy”. The answer however came from the demon: “Me? Ask for mercy? But it is all His fault that I am as I am, I will never do that! I’d rather have hell!”

    Sorry, but I guess the debate on freedom and universalism is creeping in along with the problem of suffering and freedom here once more.
    Let us turn to Christ a little more however, at least a little more than we turn to our endless thoughts.

  96. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    What I was really hoping someone would say to me is ‘Yes, under the conditions of this abstract omnipotent and omniscient being, it would be fair to say that God of the philosophers (God of the West) would be responsible. BUT, that isn’t who we worship.’ I would have been SOOO happy.

    That is far healthier thinking!!

  97. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr,
    Thank you so much for that.
    I don’t know why…for some reason this frees me to assume the burden of sin in the universal sense. It gives me peace of mind.
    Now that I have a some peace about this I just wasnt to relax on it, savor it and let it soak in.

    Thank you all for your understanding and patience. But I don’t think it has been for nothing.

  98. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Please forgive my ignorance. What do we mean when we speak of ‘bookends’? I may well be out of my depth, but want to understand this conversation a little better.

  99. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Bookends are the questions concerning the origin of things and the end of things.

  100. Santosh Samuel Avatar
    Santosh Samuel

    The late Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUPH6aHngV0.

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