Existential Despair and Moral Futility

A few years back, a comment was posted on social media that described my writing as consisting of “existential despair” and “moral futility.” It was not meant with kindness. However, after I reflected for a while, I realized that it was not only accurate but quite insightful. It also made me say, “I have become Dostoevsky!” This tenor in my work does not come from careful planning or systematic thought – it largely grows out of my experience and reflection on the Orthodox life.

Existential Despair

Our life is fragile and exists only as a precious gift. We have no existence in-and-of-ourselves and are thus utterly and completely contingent beings. This rather obvious conclusion has been frequently reinforced over the course of my life and ministry. I have buried hundreds of people. Death is a fact of life. However, our culture maintains a pretense and delusion of self-existence, even imagining that we somehow invent ourselves. It is a good marketing strategy as we sell mounds of trash for people to use in their efforts of self-definition.

I do not despair of life and existence itself, except in the sense that it is anything other than pure gift. As such, to stand at the edge of the abyss of non-existence seems to me to be among the sanest efforts ever undertaken. We cannot possibly understand who and what we are until we also consider the fact of our death.

God is the “Lord and Giver of Life,” and not just the “Lord and Giver of Life after Death.” Those who struggle to believe that there might be such a thing as life after death have failed to ponder just how absurdly improbable life before death truly is. Our existence shouts the reality of a Giver of Life – all life. Our non-existence proclaims the emptiness of any claims to the contrary. I hope in God. In Him, there is no despair. But only in Him.

Moral Futility

I caught a lot of flack some years back for an article entitled, “The Unmoral Christian.” It suggested that we make very little progress of the moral sort in our lives. The track of salvation is not, by and large, one of moral improvement. I understood at the time why there was so much push-back: it was assumed by many that I did not think moral improvement to be possible or even desirable. That is not the case.

The moral life, if rightly understood, cannot be measured by outward actions. The Pharisees in the New Testament were morally pure, in an outward sense, but, inwardly, were “full of dead men’s bones.” When morality is measured by dead bones, it is still nothing more than death. However, the path that marks the authentic Christian life should be nothing less than “new life,” a “new creation.” This is a work of grace that is the result of Christ “working within us to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

This is not something that takes place within a life of passivity. However, neither is it a sort of divine exo-skeleton making our efforts more powerful. The “synergy” taught by the Church is one in which we work rightly within our proper sphere, doing what is humanly possible. Human effort cannot make what is dead to live: only God can do such a thing. Repentance is the primary effort of our life.

The Elder Sophrony once described this by saying, “The way up is the way down.” The spiritual life is a paradox. The excellence of the Pharisees was met with condemnation from Christ: they could not see their own emptiness. The emptiness of the weak and “sinful” was met with mercy and healing. Their acknowledged weakness made the working of the power of God effective in their lives.

What passes for a “moral life” in our culture, is little more than the successful internalization of middle-class behavior. “I’m doing ok,” we think. It is quite common for those who are “doing ok,” to feel generally secure and superior to those who fail to do so. In earlier modern centuries, this modest morality was sufficient to earn someone the title of “Christian.” It meant nothing more than being a gentleman.

I Can Do All Things Through Christ – And Apart From Him I Can Do Nothing

It is necessary, I think, to see the emptiness of our efforts (moral futility). Just as we cannot make ourselves to live, neither do we make ourselves better persons. An improved corpse is still a corpse. Our repentance is born out of the revelation of our emptiness and the futility of life apart from God. St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”

It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.

Of course, existential despair and moral futility are not my self-description. They are terms chosen by a detractor. I believe that mud not only can become a god, but that it has – many times. This is the work of God who hears our cries and works within us, doing what He alone can do, just as He alone gives us the life we live and breathe at every moment. It is not despair because every moment of our present gifted existence shouts and proclaims the goodness of God, the author of being. It is not futility because with God, all things are possible.

But apart from Him, we can do nothing. That “nothing” is indeed despair and futility.







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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161 responses to “Existential Despair and Moral Futility”

  1. Karl Avatar

    Wonderful post, Father! Nearly Calvinistic – I mean that in a nice way. I am always suspicious when I see Christians of whatever denomination preen themselves on their spiritual ‘progress’ – the abyss could open under any of us at any second…

  2. Christopher Avatar

    “This is the work of God who hears our cries and works within us, doing what He alone can do, just as He alone gives us the life we live and breathe at every moment. ”

    Someone is going to zero in on those “alone(s)” Father 😉

    As someone who struggled with your use of ‘unmoral’ I have come to appreciate your grammar and direction on this. That said, as with everything there are circumstances and individuals for whom it not appropriate, or rather other terms/emphasis is more suited. Still, the accusations of a crude antinomianism were always silly. The difficulty is exactly in the what/when/how of “synergy” and Grace in my opinion…

  3. Name withheld. Avatar
    Name withheld.

    Thank you. I needed this reminder today. My father confessor often reminds me to read your blog. I’m a priest’s wife, struggling. I grew up very “moral” but with a big heart to be available to those on fringe, the highways and byways. Right now, it’s my family that is going that direction: siblings losing faith, children and friends “taking a break” from God and Church. I’m torn between the moral goodness and the clinging to God as hope and the despair I feel for being judged for my love of these people. I’m torn about my “failure” to raise moral children or to help my siblings back since they were raised in evangelical faith to love God and be moral. I’m torn because at the same time, I’m befriending people on the fringe, trying to pray for them, to be the only face of Christ that seems to bring the message that they need the Church and God. I’m taking it to confession. I’m torn at my personal failings in this walk and that right now my husband is facing deep criticism for being “immoral” or weak on morals for associating with “those” people. It all feels like an existential crisis. I pray and weep. I fear losing the goodness of God.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Florovsky wrote, quite accurately, of the “asymmetry” of Chalcedonian Christology. By the same token, our salvation is asymmetrical as well. I think I got it just about right.

    Of course, it would be impossible to not say that God “alone” gives us life. Who else or what else does? And, who else can hear our cry and do the work of God in us? “Alone” is just fine in that sentence.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Name withheld,
    I would offer you encouragement. We live in exceedingly hard times that are going to get much worse for at least the rest of our lives, and likely well beyond. But we have been born for just this time. I think very few of us realize the measure of grace that is being given to us and sustaining us in faith just now. By the same token, I think very few of us realize the great treasure and power of our prayers for others and the world just now.

    The day will come when everything will be revealed, and what seems so feeble to us now will be shown for the wonder that it truly is. Hope in God – His goodness is without measure.

  6. Kristin Avatar

    I felt happiness at the title of your post and sat down to read it right away. I recognize existential despair and moral futility and can get stuck in them. Thank you for expressing the rest of the picture so clearly, that without God that is truly all there is. I am so tired of a Disney-fied Christianity. I could never make it work even though I tried.

    We were baptized as a family on Lazarus Saturday (all except my college aged daughter who is wanting to come into the church but is struggling with a couple things). I have to say, we were so happy! Then, about a month later, it felt like life fell apart. The despair and futility rose up again. But more importantly, those many things—years of entrenched habits, wrong thinking, sin—have come front and center. God in His mercy is routing out all that keeps us from being fully with Him. Oh my, it is such a difficult struggle! He requires everything. Intellectual assent is not sufficient. We must live this faith.

    Your posts and podcasts about shame are proving quite helpful for me. Thank you.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What you’re describing sounds very normal – and quite on track. God give you grace each day. If we live each day rightly, we would have no thought about progress in that we would have forgotten what is behind and understood that what is before us is just this moment. Blessings!

  8. Will Avatar

    (Don’t miss the jewel to follow!)
    St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “Man is mud that has been commanded to become a god.” It is the impossibility of that task that allows the heart to cry, “Have mercy on me!”

    It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.

    Welcome news to the ears of this penitent and re-penitent and re-re-re-penitent sinner.
    Indeed, others notice the “Improvement in Us” before we do. I count it all joy that anyone ever sees Christ in me.

  9. Dante Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    This is probably longer than you expect and more than you meant to address, but oh well… I believe context gives people the ability to do a better job with advice.

    Within the context of God alone giving life, and also of despair and being at the edge of the abyss, I have a question more about the particulars of how to go through life. For me, much of my life has been steeped in suffering – parents getting divorced, being lied to by close ones, death of people close to me during normally happy events, etc. It caused a great deal of mental health crises as well as physical ones. At the time, I wasn’t on the edge of the abyss, I was drowning in it. Glory to God that He did in fact bring life and progress where there was before only death, and the pain ended up being the driving force that allowed me to encounter the Orthodox Church, though I am the only one to do so out of the many people in my life who were around me at the time. My choice to do so was met with strong disapproval, as have been many of my choices, and so I learned to disobey that push-back and do things alone to succeed and get what I felt I needed. My success with the Church is that I found a great deal of healing and new friends who are as close to me, or closer, than my actual family, but religion/spirituality isn’t the only area I’ve had to practice such behavior.

    Naturally I’m having trouble moving forward from that. Being a young adult, my life experience which I draw knowledge and experience from is of my entire world being ripped to pieces by misfortune, and the only way to succeed is to throw caution to the wind, ignore what anyone tells me, and do whatever I feel I need to. After all, it was in hopelessness that I kept meeting Christ. So now that I want to move forward, I don’t know where to start. I naturally want to keep encountering Christ, but I have no desire to pursue despair in order to repeat former “success” in meeting Him. I also want to pursue a productive and healthy life, but I only know how to destroy a good life, and how to abandon a bad one, not how to produce a good one from scratch. Life isn’t so simple that “don’t do what you know to fail” is good enough to cause success, and perhaps it’s my immaturity that says “I’m not interested in continuing to fail until I find success, I want to start going from ‘glory to glory’ “.

    What I do know is that I very naturally and instinctually enjoy my time with Orthodox Christians, on the same level of being that formerly was depressed and despairing. The Connect Conference was probably the most fun I’ve had in at least 15 years, and I’m not even 25 yet. But I don’t know how to pursue life intentionally in that manner, nor do I know how to pursue God in that manner. It was instinct when I was depressed to offer up all that I had, because I didn’t want any of it. But how does one intentionally/thoughtfully create that synergy when it isn’t so obvious to instinct what to do? Or how does a person expose the depths of his soul to God without being at rock bottom?

    Sorry to blanket you with a clearly multifaceted problem, but hopefully you have some words of wisdom about where to start, or how the process works.

  10. Will Avatar

    To my dear sister, name withheld.
    Don’t you know our Lord was accused of being a glutton and winedrinker!
    To think, that he would associate with a Tax Collector! A Samaritan! The woman at the well!?!

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for the reminder of the power of our faith and prayers in this age. I do believe that we stand at a precipice, and as much as I weep for the sin and evil of the world (and my own especially)…. I rejoice in the great measure of faith and grace given us. I do hope God is planning a fantastic revival and that it is soon!

  11. Karen Avatar

    Name withheld,

    I reckon you are doing exactly the right thing in looking out for those despairing and on the margins right now. If religious people give you flack about it, remember this is exactly the sort of thing our Lord was criticized for by the Pharisees, etc. They accused Him of fraternizing with “tax gatherers and sinners”, but He said it is the sick who need a physician. God give you strength! Walking in His footsteps is not easy, but always worth it.

  12. Kristin Avatar

    Fr Stephen-

    My priest says the same things to me, and always with a kind smile. Thank you again!

  13. Ted Braun Avatar
    Ted Braun

    Fr. Stephen I wonder if you have read any Jacques Ellul. This reminds me of his book The Politics of God and The Politics of Man, and specifically the postscript Meditation On Inutility. I found this meditation powerful and wondered what your thoughts were? (https://www.religion-online.org/book-chapter/postscript-meditation-on-inutility/ )

  14. Andrew Avatar

    “It is for this same reason that the lives of saints are never marked by a saint’s awareness of his improvement. Like St. Paul, the authentic witness of the saints is their self-perception as the greatest of sinners.”

    I wrestle with this routine attempting to analyze my progress and growth as a Christian. I go back and forth between thinking I need to completely forget trying to gauge my progress and only trust in God, to the other handing thinking I need to be “examine myself to see if I be in the faith” so to speak. Is there no place for this type of self analysis? I want to know I’m drawing closer to God. I would imagine that if my prayers are purely a mental activity with no faith or love, they would result in nothing. But if they are sincere, then there would be some sort of evidence, right? Should we not be looking for this ‘evidence’ to make sure we’re on ‘The Way’? Perhaps we wouldn’t know how to judge it rightly even if we did?

  15. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Father – I would not say that you are Dostoevsky, although his influence upon you is unmistakable, as is the influence of Solzhenitsyn. But you are real good at making Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn comprehensible to me.
    I studied a lot of existentialism in my youth and, at the time, though of it as an anti-religious philosophy. As I returned to the faith, I thought that I was leaving existentialism behind. Now, by reading you, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, I am beginning to understand that, intellectually, it has been my existentialism that got me here.
    The world is absurd, in that there is not reason for it. Man, as a free agent, gives meaning to existence by his actions Deciding to do whatever we want to do, because life is meaningless anyway, leads to an inauthentic existence. It takes courage to act in such a way as to give life meaning, but it is the only way by which one may have an authentic existence.
    Contrary to Sartre and Camus, but in accordance with Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, I have chosen to give my life meaning by trying to act in accordance with the will of God. That does not mean that I no longer believe that the world is absurd. It is. There is no reason for it in itself. The only reason for the world – and man- is the love of God, which is, itself, absurd. There is no reason for God to love either us or the world, but he does. Thanks be to God!
    And I still believe we are free agents. We can choose to live as if the world has no meaning. But that would be an inauthentic life. An authentic life is a meaningful life. But now I understand that meaning for my life is the same as the meaning for the world, i.e., the love of God, which is absurd. There is no reason for God to love me, but He does. And I know that only because of my hard won willingness to give myself up, to let something be grater than me, to let God love me. Trying to live my life as a response to the love of God is what gives my life meaning, what makes my life authentic. That means giving up what I want for what God wants.
    Isn’t it ironic that the action that finally gave my life meaning was not a decision to “fight the good fight,” but a decision to surrender.

  16. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Andrew – You describe the reasons why it takes courage to live an authentic life.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a subtle difference between drawing closer to God and knowing that we are drawing closer to God – and strangely, the knowing we are drawing closer can actually distract us from God Himself. It’s not a terribly important question. First, God is closer to us than our own soul and body – or so it is said. Our “drawing closer” is, in fact, only a growth in our awareness. My experience has been that my awareness is a very changing thing. Sometimes, out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, I am intensely aware of God. Other times, even in the altar during a liturgy, I’m am not aware at all. Over the years, I quit paying much attention to the coming and going – and instead focused on being thankful regardless of my awareness. He is with us – that is His promise. My awareness of that fact is just an artifact of my creaturely existence.

    Say your prayers. Be kind. Be generous. Go to Church. Make Confession. Take communion. Everything else pretty much takes care of itself. Or at least, nothing else is of much use if those things are missing.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not read Ellul – but this passage makes me think I would like to read more.

  19. MamaV Avatar

    The part about morality really struck home for me. I have always been a hypocrite (Lord have mercy!), but in the past few years I have “cleaned up” many things in my life that did need to be cleaned up. I think improving the way I view my marriage, spend my time, etc has been beneficial for me, but it does not give life. I can seem really compassionate, put together, and selfless, but the reality of my heart is a bit different. I had a rare (for a women with 5 kids 🙂 opportunity for retreat recently, and in the silence, the thought that came to me was “if God can grant me compunction for my sins, THAT would be a miracle.”
    That is what I plead for now. I know I sin, a lot, and it’s hard to care. May Jesus and his mother soften my evil heart ❤️

  20. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG

    Fr Stephen,

    Not to exhume a worn out topic, but I STILL find the “unmoral Christian” idea more provocative or baffling than you doubtless intend it. Of course, the cozy middle class idea of morality (being nice and positive and with some connection to institutional secular charities) is truly alien to true Patristic Christianity, almost painfully fake in my present experience, but that’s neither here nor there. The real deal is Christian Morality, as discerned from all the holy fathers, especially Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite. Jesus taught we are known by our fruits; if those fruits are morally monstrous, whence the sanctification? Not that we are actually pursuing an idol of our own moral impeccability (a deadly enemy to Christ’s humility) but as we are joined more to God’s Spirit we are more creatures of His Love. Self emptied Love works righteousness, that is its “beingness”. Sounds just like progressively improving morality to me, and to the fathers.

  21. Ted Braun Avatar
    Ted Braun

    Fr. Stephen I would suggest Jacques Ellul’s book The Subversion of Christianity and specifically chapter 4. “Moralism”. Thanks for your good blog.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When I wrote the original article, I only intended for the title to be an eye-catcher, something that would draw people to the meat of the article. Actually, there was nothing in the article that I had not said in previous articles. And yet, for all that, this piece, perhaps because of its title, received push-back. Un-moral is distinctly different than “immoral,” and was meant as a play on words – a way of realizing that we need to re-think much of what we think we know about the moral life.

    Always difficult for us in our modern world is to hear the difference between our own thoughts and those of the generations that predate the modern period. When moderns say “progress” the notion is so filled with baggage that it cannot help but differ from earlier uses of the expression. Who among the fathers would say that morality was wrong (though, beware of the fact that “morality” is a translation). What they mean by “moral” and what I have describe as true morality are indeed the same. But our popular usage, as noted in the article is a feeble and false imitation.

    Is there a “moral” progress? No doubt the expression could have an accurate and salutary meaning. On the lips of a modern American, I would doubt its value. If my occasional assaults on the English language can be forgiven, they are invariably carried out in order to clarify and understand the mind of the fathers in its true sense. I think such actions, in teaching, writing and preaching are of long-standing usage in the Church. Christ Himself said many things that seemed scandalous until they were understood.

    But, if you insist on using the phrase “progressively improving morality,” who am I to argue with it? But how, pray, does that differ from the dry ethical teaching of the Enlightenment (such as the writings of Kant, et al)? To preach to this age, we cannot suddenly leap back to St. Nikodemos as if our audience had not been profoundly influenced by Kant and his ilk. Why not consider the fruit of my writing?

  23. Dino Avatar

    one interesting thing is that ‘ontological moral deterioration or improvement’ becomes evident in how we see: everything becomes jaundiced to the yellow eye, and everyone seems holy (and everything becomes understood as part of good providence), to the saint.

  24. Andrew in BG Avatar
    Andrew in BG

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for making it clearer. Hardly anything today is taken to mean what it did in antiquity, a humbling realization.

    “Progressively improving morality” is an artificial and technocratic phase, not one I’d use. But, well, I’ll leave it there. By all accounts the truth is that the holy do not see themselves as holy, but sinners.

  25. Byron Avatar

    I cannot help but think, Father, that the distinctions you make here are also the same that are required to understand what true humility in Christ is. To discuss such a topic with almost anyone in this day and age is to invite confusion.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Name withheld, be of good cheer as Christ Himself was on the fringe. A body has to have hands and arms to reach out and even to protect the core. Often the hands and arms get bruised and scratched and do not get much appreciation from the rest of the body. I have even upbraided my own hands for doing stupid stuff and being unseemly.
    You are not alone.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    On my journey to the Church I spent some time amongst so-called “New Agers”. A commonality in that neo-Gnostic, heathen conglomeration of nonesense is the belief in “spiritual attainment”. It is always accompanied by a suffocating false humility. Unfortunately it is then frequently followed by a descent into actual darkness and flirting with the demonic and/or self-worship. Some I knew committed suicide. Some, like me were brought through the morass by the grace of Jesus Christ alone.

  28. Todd Moore Avatar
    Todd Moore

    Dear Father Stephen,
    I still don’t understand how your perspective on “moral futility” does not run counter to apostolic teaching on moral purity vs immorality:
    ‘faultless children of God in the midst of a perverted generation’ Php 2:15.
    ‘be an example for the believers in your speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity’ 1Tm 4:12.
    ‘put aside all moral filthiness and remaining wickedness’ Jas 1:21.
    ‘do your best to be pure and blameless’ 2Pe 3:14.
    Are these directives false and unrealistic?

    ‘He will render to each one according to his works:
    to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
    but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
    There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,
    but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
    For God shows no partiality.’ Romans 2:6-11
    ‘In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ Romans 8:4
    ‘So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.
    For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ Romans 8:12-13
    How will moral futility still lead to eternal life?

    ‘I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ Mt 21:31
    These may be humble sinners, but they are not humble sinners who continue in sin. One very basic assumption (you will agree) – only repentant sinners are entering the kingdom. So these people know they are immoral but are turning from their sin to God.
    I assume you do not disagree with the Scriptural examples above, so can you please have patience and explain a little further how/why the apostolic teaching is true and you are too?

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When I write about moral futility, I am not suggesting an immoral life – though they accused Paul of the same thing.

    Rather, I don’t write in the abstract. As a priest and pastor of nearly 40 years, I’m familiar with the actual lives of people and the “cure of souls.” To tell people to just “be good” and “do better,” is poor preaching and unhelpful teaching, despite the fact that you can find verses that could be twisted to support such a thing. How do we do better? How are we conformed to the Cross? How are tax collectors turned into saints?

    That is the work of grace in our lives. That despite our seeming failures (strange, but you seem to have skipped Romans 7), in those failures (think of St. Paul’s “I will boast in my weakness”) Christ works healing and purification. Where sin did abound, grace did more abound. Not that we try to sin, but – with real people – it just keeps happening.

    What I have described under the words “moral futility” is the path towards true humility – the willingness to “bear a little shame.” That is the path similar to the thief on the Cross. He acknowledged his failure and found paradise in a single moment. I have already said that this is a paradoxical work – and I think that paradox is in the Apostolic teaching – such as the verses I’ve used here.

    I hope that is useful. Forgive me for asking, but are you Orthodox? It would help me in understand your questions and possible things I should do in answering them.

    Moral purity is good. But, how do you get there? By trying harder? Forty years tells me that this is not a fruitful path. The way up is the way down – we need to “empty ourselves” – including of our assumptions about our moral competency. As we humble ourselves before Christ – prayer, fasting, confession, yes – and struggling to keep the commandments – then God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure.

  30. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Fr., for continuing to faithfully expound the way of weakness. I have found it indeed to be the way of salvation.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An additional Scriptural thought. Christ says:”For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20) The Scribes and the Pharisees would have done well by an outward, moralistic standard implied by the selective quotes in your comment. Instead, as in the very things you quote, we are to “put to death the deeds of the body.” That is not at all the same thing as moralistic striving towards improvement.

    The mechanism and manner of inner life required in “putting to death the deeds of the body” are something quite different. It is one of the reasons I asked about whether you were Orthodox or not. Good Orthodox teaching and study should make you more familiar with the nature of the inner life and why mere effort does not yield improvement. I’ve lived among moralistic Christians for over 60 years. What I see is not a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, but a righteousness that is almost the same as the Pharisees.

    What I am pointing to, in the language that you seem to find troublesome, is the true nature of the inner life and the struggle towards the Kingdom of God – as made known in Christ and the Apostolic teaching – and is consonant with the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox faith.

  32. david p Avatar

    I totally agree with your writing. I have taken the book of psalms as a personal guide. The cry of the heart and God, our Heavenly Father as our Refuge and, by reading every evening these precious psalms. I now realize how the proverbs as a guide in life, ecclesiastes as to the vanity of this life, the song of songs as a call to a close, a much closer relationship with the Groom within the Trinity and not outside looking in.
    I have seen how my life has been for the last 78 years been guided by the unseen hand of my Lord. Now I am ready to see Him face to face. ( PS..I have been reading your articles but I have not responded for many years) Blessings and glory to God in all things. david

  33. Dean Avatar

    One doesn’t have to look hard to find moralistic Christians…even a few among Orthodox.
    Most of these are converts, with a moralistic hangover from past days (I’m a convert myself).
    I also see many practical atheistic Christians, those who would say that they are Christians, give a mental assent to Christianity, yet it makes no difference in their lives…except perhaps to live a good, decent middle class life. I have close relatives like this. It is as if they were inoculated against seeing truth, having gotten a little teaching here and there, just enough to ease their conscience some and not press on to find the Pearl of great price.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. One problem, ironically, with the moralistic path, (or the “merely moral” path), is that it is insufficient. As noted, it mostly means little more than conformity to a middle-class American lifestyle – “nice people.” What I’m describing in this, and other such articles, is the futility experienced by mud as it tries to become a god. That futility is not wasteful, but is itself a key element in the path of humility that alone allows God to raise us up. It is ironic and paradoxical. But, such is the faith. You have to lose your life to save it.

    Many of the atheists that I know are highly moral people.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    david p,
    Good to hear from you again! The psalms are my “prayerbook,” and have become the “meat” of the prayer life. God give us grace!

  36. E.C. Scrubb Avatar
    E.C. Scrubb

    Karl brought up Calvin, not me, but since he did…
    Did the Fathers ever pick up any of the threads of Calvin’s concerns about our pride in ”choosing” God? God’s election for some to salvation, and some to damnation is where Calvin seemed constrained to go by the total depravity of man, and that we are not capable of choosing God unless God’s grace acts first. He seemed quite concerned that someone might be proud about a way of thinking that says, ”I chose God, and that one didn’t”
    The Fathers didn’t seem to go there (about the choosing. I know they didn’t go for total depravity).
    Are we in danger about being ”proud” that we chose Christ?

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I haven’t seen anything of that sort. The “choosing” bit is, I think, something of a later development. It’s a strong theme (under various guises) in modern thought. We are a highly voluntaristic culture, and imagine the world as being largely the result of our choices…which is nonsense. I generally think that those who pride themselves on their choice, will, in God’s tender mercies, be humbled in time. The older I get, the more grateful that I am that my choices did less damage than they should have. “You did not choose me…”

  38. Kevin Z Avatar
    Kevin Z

    This is great. I agree, this road intertwines often with the denial, or perhaps insulation from death. I live in a very rough city. A huge percentage of our population underwent a great exodus, fleeing this place for more gentrified places where ‘undesireables’ couldn’t afford to follow them to. The breezy, stuff-filled vacuous reality of living in monoculture with other ‘morally superior’ types. I still live and work here as a full time firefighter. I see the worst this city has to offer and yet I can still find beauty everywhere.

    It’s an exercise..driving to work in the morning and being a part of the vacant lots, houses, the violence ready to erupt but staring in wonder at the sunrise, or the yard where people put up decorations, or the children playing. That’s beautiful. These things can’t be mutually exclusive.

    Once that is accepted, that our environments are direct mirrors of all the anguish and beauty in our own hearts at all times, then you can begin to help in a more genuine way. Your personhood grows towards a truth of being day in and day out.

    I’m not trying to romanticize depravity or poverty. I’m simply saying that good sailors aren’t made on calm seas. And maybe, this violet, broken down city scape is the majority of the world population’s interface with reality. Suburbs with $500,000 houses for families of 3 sure ain’t. That’s an ersatz reality we all somehow accepted as the thing to chase. The ‘good life’ is nothing other than ‘certain death’.

  39. Dino Avatar

    It’s worth remembering that we are called to “cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:26)
    So any ‘works’ of righteousness for those who have turned away from sin are but a ‘symptom’ of an inner transformation; this necessitates struggling towards a radically ontological rebirth (starting from one’s innermost being) rather than a moralistic one (of one’s outward behaviour).
    It is worth noting that it’s also often manifest variedly outwards, depending on context.

  40. E.C. Scrubb Avatar
    E.C. Scrubb

    Thanks for your reply, Father. And for all the fascinating and encouraging articles you have written.
    On my (on going) journey to Orthodoxy over the past five years, coming upon your blog has been sort of a cross road. I’ve been consumed with reading Orthodox material for some time. A lot of it has been from the Orthodox Information website (I know that’s on your “Do not recommend” list).
    Your teaching has helped me move deeper into the faith and , I believe, into Christ. It also has helped me to cope with the mental illness which has overtaken my son.
    I love reading your stuff, and have found it very encouraging, as well as sustaining.
    Also, I like your graphic for this article: you look very Dostoevsky-esq

  41. E. C. Avatar
    E. C.


  42. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “you look very Dostoevsky-esq”
    Oh that’s good E.C.!
    I love the picture too!
    God bless you Father Stephen!
    E.C., God’s peace to you and your son.

  43. Sue Avatar

    This article is a little confusing to me in the way it discusses morality.
    “The moral life, if rightly understood, cannot be measured by outward actions. The Pharisees in the New Testament were morally pure, in an outward sense, but, inwardly, were “full of dead men’s bones.”

    Doesn’t this contradict St. James?
    The Pharisees were not moral. They appeared moral only because they interpreted the Law in order to set themselves above others. They corrupted it and used it for prestige, judgment , and political gain rather than for Love. They did not clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort widows, visit prisoners, or tend the sick. They viewed themselves as masters–superior to all–and not as servants. They were not outwardly or inwardly moral in a Christian sense.

    But, surely, as St. James tells us in his epistle, works (moral action) are the perfection of faith–not merely the evidence of faith either but an intrinsic attribute of it. Faith is both inner AND outer or it is nothing (like water is hydrogen and 2 oxygen molecules or it isn’t water). Our Lord and His holy apostles instruct us to turn away from immorality and to persevere in doing good works as a pleasing sacrifice to the LORD. St James makes a strong case in chapter two that works (Christian morality) complete faith And St Paul says we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, “that we should walk in them”. Of course, we can do nothing at all without God’s grace; we are His workmanship.

    My questions are:
    Does the Orthodox Church teach something different about the necessity of good works (morals) in Christian faith?
    Does the Orthodox Church believe that inward works are more important than outward works,?

  44. Yvette Cathers Avatar
    Yvette Cathers


  45. Mary Benton Avatar
    Mary Benton

    I am reminded of a wonderful chapter in C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” entitled “Nice People or New Men”. If any have not read it or do not recall it, I must say that it is always worth a re-read.

    Lewis engages the reader in a wonderful discussion about differences in temperament and upbringing that impact how “nice” a person’s behavior may be. And notes that it is a fatal mistake to speak “as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded”.

    Too much to summarize here but this post and all of the wonderful discussion here led me back to again soak up Lewis’ keen wit and wisdom in addressing similar questions. Thank you.

  46. Ted Braun Avatar
    Ted Braun

    Fr. Stephen isn’t it time to pick up where you left off in your book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.

    This week I read Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life Of The World. I personally am new to Orthodoxy and so I have no expertise in this book but I seem to think that with all of Schmemann’s discussion of the heritage of the liturgy it is not to reside in the confines of Orthodoxy. It is, as the title says, for the life of the world.

    I entered the doors of the Orthodox church this summer thanks to the seeds of Iain McGilchrist and his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World . Written in 2009 I read it when it was first printed. I have re-read it and parts of it ever since. We are so naive that we walk through life not even knowing how our brain works. We quote theologians, philosophers and do endless “studies” is the soft sciences of theology, sociology and psychology without asking ourselves about the tool, the instrument, that we are using. How does the brain work? And if we are Christian and Orthodox Christian why two hemispheres to a brain – how is this created in the image of God?

    When I stepped into an Orthodox Church for the first time this summer the kind Fr., after a long talk, suggested I read your book. It is a keeper and re-reader. But, (it is important to never start a sentence with the word but I did, so here goes.) the entrance into this one story world is hindered, as we all know, by the thoughts and ramblings of our western brain.

    Somewhere around the beginning of this year, while still wondering if I truly was an atheist, I heard Iain McGilchrist being interviewed and he was asked how to become more whole in how to use our brain. I think he said something like make room. Just make room for the Master to become the Master and for the emissary to refind its true place. Now he, by his admission, is not religious so he was referring to the Master of the Brain and the dethroning of the emissary of the brain.

    Where can someone find such a place? I was tired of reading theology and philosophy, trying zen and endless biblical studies. Long ago I had my Masters in NT studies. I read Jung, studied Zen, read all of Thomas Merton and had just re-read Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    This year I read Nassim Taleb’s book The Skin In The Game. In a discussion about atheism he said, and I know this is a paraphrase, that atheists don’t understand that you go to church not to find out who God is but that you the worshipper are not god.

    What Taleb is saying is what his friend Iain McGilchrist points out in his book regarding the corpus callosum. That small part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres is there mainly, but not exclusively, to say STOP or NO to the other half.

    McGilchrist has written a Dostoevskian tome not only looking at the function of the brain but how we in the western world are using only half our brain. Here is where I think the world needs your input and effort Fr. Stephen.

    Is Schmemann correct than the liturgy is for the world? Isn’t the liturgy of the Orthodox Church the place where the overactive left hemisphere of the brain and all of its moralism, philosophies, thoughts, and certainty are shut down in the presence of the greater unknowable overpowering “awesome judgment seat of God”. Having entered with an overactive emissary of the brain we, Sunday after Sunday, collectively as a people go through an obedient act that the emissary of our brain tells us is useless and we should be thinking about more important things. We do it, again and again, going back to find that wholeness that was lost when our western mind let the emissary of the brain become the Master. In Biblical terms, what happened when we ate the apple.

    “Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilisation they helped to create.”
    ― Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

    I would venture to say, and I speak boldly and naively, but it is not only civilization that will be forfeited if we don’t take seriously how God created our brains it will be the relevance of the Orthodox Church in this western world. If not you, Fr. Stephen, who will take seriously Everywhere Present – Everywhere Present and The Return Of The Master and The Dethroning of The Emissary so that we can live in a one-story universe. Am I wrong or is this not the plea of Alexander Schmemann in his book For The Life Of The World? Isn’t Schmemann calling the Orthodox Church to take seriously the liturgy that heals and makes us human so that we can be what God created us to be?

    Is the liturgy of the Orthodox the place that makes room, as Iain McGilchrist said we must do, to dethrone, not kill or belittle, but just dethrone the emissary and let the master be The Master.

    If the liturgical tradition protected by the Orthodox Church is not the place where we experience the whole brain I don’t think we can find out how to live in a one-dimensional world.

  47. Karen Avatar

    Ted Braun,

    You may be interested to know in the Orthodox Liturgy virtually everything is sung, which as you may know engages both halves of the brain.

    It seems to me the focus of Orthodox Liturgy is not healing our divided brain, so much as healing our divided hearts, where attachments to and dependence on what is transient must be traded for our worship of and dependence on Christ Himself as our crucified and resurrected Savior and Lord. I believe if we pursue Him with our whole being, the rest will follow. Attending the Liturgy and developing a relationship with a local Orthodox Priest are a good place to start.

  48. Ted Braun Avatar
    Ted Braun


    McGilchrist starts the book out with stating emphatically that everything we have been taught about the left and right brain is wrong. I just state that because one of the myths of the divide has to do with arts vs. language etc. etc.

    Unfortunately, his book is a tome of densely packed and paced words that is one of the hardest books I have read because it first has to take away the many misconceptions of what is going on.

    I agree it is more than head knowledge or the brain. But why we live in a divided world must also address why we think in divided thoughts and before we can say it is just a matter of the nous or heart we must take seriously what has happened in the western world and our way of thinking.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Like St. James, Orthodoxy certainly holds that our inner faith must be united with our outer actions (works). But, in the article, I think I’m emphasizing that these two properly belong together – are should ultimately be lived as a single thing. But works clearly spring from within – as Christ said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luk 6:45)

    We need to learn to tend to the heart or all of our outer efforts will do very little good.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not familiar with McGilchrist – but I know my way around the One-Storey Universe (at least a little bit). The brain stuff is interesting – at least inasmuch as it speaks a sort of modern way of thinking about thinking. Of course, centuries of peasants have lived a very One-Storey life in Christ without ever giving their brains a single thought.

    The Orthodox Liturgy and sacramental life do not merely introduce us into a way of seeing the world – but they are themselves the fullness of that world made present. So, there is not a “take home” or “take-away” for the world from the liturgy. The Liturgy is the world’s true home. The slow work of the Kingdom of God is to be the Church, lived in its fullness (which is not at all the same thing as “talked” in its fullness, or “read” in its fullness). Western man, Eastern man, any man, woman, child can begin to enter into this fullness by stepping through the door and uniting themselves with Christ, and patiently begin to live the life as it is given to them.

    Whether this will change the modern world is not something given to us to know. A concern of the Modern world is to fix the world, to save the world, to do this or that to the world. It’s a distraction. What it does not do is actually live in the world. But Modernity is not in charge of history – God is. We accept that and go about the slow, patient task of life in this world in union with Christ and His Kingdom. It is a seed, a treasure, a light – and it is God who makes the seed to grow and the treasure available to those who seek and the light to shine.

    It’s why we are told things like, “Taste and See.” and “Come to the Light” etc. I’m very glad my little book is of use – it’s been far more useful to far more people than I would have imagined. Schmemann struggled for years to write and complete his work on the book, The Eucharist. It’s an ok book and interesting – but nothing he said or did have had the impact of his small work, For the Life of the World. It is a classic and I don’t think he lived long enough to know that. None of us really do.

    I can only write what I know and as it is given to me. I’ve been working ever-so-long on my present book – with starts and fits – changes of titles and topics – revisions, etc. It’s become a terrible labor. At some point, by God’s grace, it will likely be as easy to write as the first book, and be useful to people. These things come as gifts to us – like every day and every moment. They are to be lived. As for me, I cannot seem to stop writing. Sometimes, it’s worth sharing with others. May God preserve us!

  51. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Big difference between the brain and the heart/soul. I would say as well that the issue with our brains is a “global”rather than a western problem.
    ” before we can say it is just a matter of the nous or heart we must take seriously what has happened in the western world and our way of thinking.”
    I believe most of us well are well aware of the problem with our thinking. And as I see it, we have been given The answer.
    Based on my understanding of Orthodoxy:
    There was a time (a mere moment perhaps?) when the brain, the material/ physical, and the soul, the immaterial/ the intellect, were integrated (hence, the analogy of man as microcosm). God created us whole, and holy, unto Him. Sin, a turning away from God/Goodness led to the disintegration of soul/intellect from body/brain…we became “all body”, in a sense, and our entire ‘being’ subject to corruption, death. This brain you speak about must be integrated back to the soul, the “heart”, and reunite to The Master.
    God spoke to His prophets and said He would put His word (Word), His Spirit, in the heart of mankind in the latter days. And so He sent His Son to reclaim us, and through us, the entire universe…indeed, for the life of the world.
    What Christ did was inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth…and this is what I understand to be the Liturgy – with all her rites, rituals, sacraments, cycles “time after time” – indeed, it is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God with us. It is the “new man” in Christ…much more than a revitalized left hemisphere of the brain! It is a stony heart softened by the grace of God…His actual Self in His energies. It is God Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ that changes us, by the Spirit, through the Church, through the sacraments, through the mysteries…and through our repentance.
    That’s how I understand what St. Paul means by “the renewal of the mind”. It is the nous, the eye of the soul, the heart that is changed by the will of God. Along with acknowledgement of our dysfunctional brains, to me, we should take most seriously God’s work within us.

  52. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Sorry Father…I didn’t see your response to Ted before I posted. It’s not like I can add anything to your words.
    Forgive me, but I do not understand, and I’m sure it is well meant, when people suggest to our Priests what they should do! Lord have Mercy…you have gone above and beyond Father! Anyway….thank you. All we can say is thank you and God bless. You are greatly appreciated. I know I have learned from you and your work here…many times I learn the hard way, but as you say, I am even learning to thank God for the hard knocks!!!

  53. Ted Avatar

    I sincerely apologize. Never meant to tell anyone what to do. My question was not meant as a directive, please forgive me.

  54. Sue Avatar

    This article made me think of this prayer from Saint Gregory of Narek († 1003)..

    I, breathing dust, have grown haughty.
    I, talking clay, have become presumptuous.
    I, filthy dirt, have grown proud.
    I, disgusting ashes, have risen up,
    raising my hands with my broken cup, strutting
    like a swaggering peacock, but then
    curling back into myself, as if rejected,
    my speaking slime glowing with anger
    I grew arrogant, as if I were immortal,
    I, who face the same death as the four-legged creatures.
    I embraced the love of pleasure
    and instead of facing you, turned my back.
    In flights of fancy I darted into lurid thought.
    Indulging my body I wore out my soul.
    In strengthening the sinister side
    I weakened the force of my right side.
    I saw your concern for me, too deep for words,
    and paid no heed…

    And again, O compassionate Lord who loves mankind,
    almighty God, as you consider these words of pleading,
    treat them as a confession from a contrite soul
    fallen at your feet in repentance.
    And as you judge note, and weigh
    the tearful soul, the heaving sighs,
    the quivering lips, the dry tongue,
    the clenched face, the good will in the depth of the heart,
    you who are the salvation of humanity,
    the seer of the undone, the creator of all,
    the healer of invisible wounds,
    the defender of the hopeful and the guardian of all,
    to you glory forever and ever.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I didn’t take it amiss in the least – but rather read it in a quite complementary fashion! Thank you for the encouragement!

  56. Dino Avatar

    Along the lines of what has been said earlier, regarding any conceivable ‘gauging’ of where we stand, and whether we are spiritually advancing as God would have us do, a timeless ‘check up’ is our (frustrating, annoying, irritating), neighbour.
    He/she is sent for us from God so that we can appreciate if we have made any “progress” in true love and forbearance. In other words, if I still get upset, scandalized, or lose my peace and joy when antagonized, I cannot affirm that God has made the sort of progress in me that testifies of His presence in me to the world.

  57. Sue Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, thank you for your answers to my questions; I am relieved!

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I may be wrong but the Liturgy as it progresses through the Church year addresses different aspects of our humanity. Different Scripture readings, different colored vestments, different musical Tones.

    I love the minor tones, they bring out different aspects of who I am than the other tones. Protestantism seems like a C Major religion to me.

    However, it is the actions in the Liturgy of offering and receiving that are immense while at the same time recognizing that all that we offer is a gift of God. The offering is not, as in many religions to a good far away an of uncertain character but one who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.

    That same God through the same Holy Spirit continues to transform into Life what we offer up meager though it is.

    The Church is the locus of the activity, but the fruit then flows out to all and everyone through the Church. For the Life of the World is a quite literal statement. It is not metaphor.

    The icon of the Inexhaustible Cup shows this I think.

    His Mercy is whole and full and, if we allow it, transforms us into wholeness.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course there is this too:. Nowhere else is as joy filled even when both halves of my brain would rather be elsewhere and often try to go there.

  60. Dino Avatar

    “Protestantism seems like a C major religion” is extremely humourous to me – as a musician.

  61. Karen Avatar


    McGilquist’s book sounds interesting. I was a psychology major in college and Sense and Perception (where we studied the brain) was my favorite class. I have no doubt brain science has come a long way since then. Not sure if the book you mention approaches it from that angle or is looking more at mindsets or worldview. Fr. Stephen’s blog also does a good job of parsing the latter and expounding the one-Storey mindset. I think you will enjoy reading here if that interests you.

  62. MamaV Avatar

    Ted Braun, I can’t tell you how delighted I am that another person is reading, enjoying, and finding consonant with Orthodoxy “The Master and His Emissary”. My husband and I read it a year before we were baptized. It was definitely instrumental in bringing us to the Orthodox Church.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dino, I am glad you get the reference.

  64. Athanasia Avatar

    The title followed by “Glory to God for All Things” makes one sit up and take notice. What a good article. Now to do more than read it.

    Of late I have become more aware of death. Perhaps because of so many anniversaries of those who have reposed during the last few months. More so because I am aware I am closer to the end than I am to the beginning. I am ever more conscious of the need for ever-growing repentance, yet there is no despair.

    Perhaps even more so because yesterday my 4-1/2 year old granddaughter asked, “What happens when we die?” Oh my! Wisdom let us attend! I asked, “What do you mean?” “What happens to our bodies? Does it go away?” A very brief conversation ensued about dirt, being made from it by God and going back to it when we die. That seemed to suffice for the moment. Next time I’m going to say, “Ask your mother!”

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dirt…and then the Ressurection.

  66. Dino Avatar

    Death (for a Christian) is true birth (into life eternal). I find the pithiness of that expression to be quite splendid.

    Don’t we sing: “Christ God has brought us from death unto life, and from earth unto heaven”?
    Don’t we chant: “Blessed is the way wherein you walk today” during Orthodox funerals?
    Doesn’t the apostle exclaim: “a desire to depart, and to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23)?

  67. Anna Perry Avatar
    Anna Perry

    I just wanted to say to you, Father, that I am so very thankful for all of your thoughts and writings. They keep me close to the Faith when I start to believe again that Christianity is merely a simple-minded, unsatisfying optimism with no depth or realism. You are truly a thinker after my own heart, which validates my own Christianity to me again when I start to feel like I must not belong. I appreciate knowing, through your writings and podcasts, that I’m not alone in how I perceive things. Where we differ is that I perceive these things and then get disillusioned and despair. You perceive them, but then take them captive to Christ and put them back in their rightful context. So for me, reading or listening to your thoughts is like editing my own. I feel validated in my perception, comforted in the fact that I’m not the only one who thinks in this way or notices these things, but then sanctified – when you take those observations and infuse them with worship and praise and humility. Thank you for setting your lamp where I can see it, and be guided by it. Glory to God.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for your very kind words. They are a great encouragement!

  69. Dino Avatar

    Many of us feel the same way too and thank you for wording it so precisely.

  70. Kristin Avatar

    C Major religion!!! Hahahaha!! Exactly.

    When a Protestant I enjoyed being a member of a worship band. It was fun! However I always lamented the loss of the rich Protestant hymnody. And the worship band music can get tedious and boring really fast. And self indulgent.

    The first Orthodox service I attended was a Vespers. Although most everything seemed quite strange, the music drew me in. And it’s nit super complicated just serene, expressive of truth, and for me, wonder. Now I’m in the choir and on occasion even lead when our director is away (tomorrow). And I’ve started teaching the children.

    God has smiled on me in another way…we have monks who attend our liturgy from a nearby monastery. Most of them come from the Coptic tradition and have no ear for western harmony. They asked if I could help them! We have so much fun! The more we work together the more I dig deeper into music myself. And what joy to see them begin to understand and marvel at how our music works. It brings us all into worship.

    Ours is not a C Major religion, but all the keys and nuances are ours, literally and musically.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “C-Major” … the sound of the color beige.

  72. Steve Avatar

    Who knew! Father is blessed with synesthesia! 😉

  73. Christopher Avatar

    Once again I am going to swim upstream 😉 In my 20 + years in Orthodox parish life (7 different parishes actually – we moved around alot at first because of my wifes medical training), I have noted all the different minor keys of the Church, her people and piety. Sometimes, often actually, I yearn for a little more “C-major”. I sense many traumatized *but* very secularized people in Orthodoxy, most of whom who have a bit (or a lot) piety but who at the same time are very “middle class”, secular, and otherwise indistinguishable from the worldly “moral” people around them. I am hardly any different. Where are all these “moralistic” converts, these pharisees and scribes I keep hearing about?

    As a father with two young daughters, I have come to realize how little *support* normal Orthodox parish life is. In discussions with the older members it is readily apparent how few of their children are Christian at all, to say nothing of actually attending an Orthodox parish regularly. The only parishes I have been part of that are actually somewhat successful in passing on the faith (2) were the most ethnic oriented ones. Have we become too therapeutic, too often majoring in the minors, whistling our own tune and being somewhat comfortable and even satisfied doing so?

    I do what I think is prudent – I send my daughters to RC school, regulate TV, peer group, screen time, etc. as these are the most secularizing influences. Meanwhile many if not most of the other children in my parish go to public schools, watch a lot of TV, and have many many non-Christian (let alone Orthodox) ‘friends’. One does not need to be a “prophet” to know about how many of them will be Orthodox at age 30.

    All of this is complex of course and I am not even beginning to capture what I think is “missing”. If I knew what it was, I would not be looking for it. Still,I am wondering out loud if it is not a bit of major key, a steady beat, and a conscious and realistic assessment of just who and what we are and our relationship to everything else around us…

  74. Dean Avatar

    Thank you for your reflections. They are very real concerns for those who follow Christ and have children and grandchildren. Do the Orthodox, in the retention of children in the faith, do better or worse than Catholics or Evangelicals, as a whole? I don’t know.
    The secular influences, as you say, are terribly hard to counter in our media inundated culture. I would think that a family in a parish setting would be hard pressed to have half their children remain true to the faith. Our 2 daughters, both evangelical Christians, have children. One daughter has 2 sons in their early 20’s. One is a Christian, the other not. With our other daughter’s 2 children it is still to early to know.
    A key, I am sure, is the faithfulness of the parents. You cannot fool your own children. They know what Christ and His Church mean to mom and dad. Parents don’t have to be perfect, but loving, forgiving, and consistent.
    The monastery we attend has a good number of young families with lots of children. Most are more isolated from secularizing influences…TV, internet, etc. and home-schooled. It will be interesting to see in what direction these children go as young adults.
    It is still possible to raise godly children…but what work, prayer and vigilance are required. Lord have mercy on our young!

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The culture in which we live is the most antithetical to trational Christianity of any ever. I have come to believe that the best we can do is be here when any of them come back home.

  76. Kevin Z Avatar
    Kevin Z

    The ethnic divides, while maintaining their people, also limit themselves to new people coming in. I began attending a Serbian Orthodox. In my area, the choices were that, Ukrainian and Russian. Well. I’m majority Croatian/Serbian with no knowledge of the cultures I come from. I went seeking this connection and context to experience the liturgy. The mass bounces between Old Slavonic, Serbian and English. I love it. The sounds and meaning transcend language.

    This was something I’ve been obsessively seeking. What about the ‘average’ person? One not particularly interested in ethinicity? Or a shrinking demographic of any one ethinicity doesn’t bode well for these kind of churches. I can see that in one generation the language divide of those that know the language and those that don’t. What happens when that generation starts to pass on? It’s unlikely a whole stream of immigrants will show up to replace them.

    But part of this journey is surpassing the cardinal sin of Fear. Of course it seems scary to see something so unique dissolve. Or course it seems like Modernity has this strangle hold on the world. Maybe. But so what? I think those things are dissolving too. ‘Science’ is breaking its own models with consciousness studies in mainstream. People everywhere are seeing the empty lie that government corporate media yields. Do they always then turn to the church? No. Too many people have been failed by Christianity growing up, myself included. Something watered down to a pasty gruel. Not palatable.

    It took…extreme measures, on my part, to land where I am. Orthodox is almost scary to a modern western person. I’m a fire fighter full time and used to fight MMA professionally, and I was kinda scared to go. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the liturgy, I had no idea what I was gonna do or say. But my soul hurt and I needed big medicine. I was seeking where I was led. Trusted and followed. I guess… I dunno, how many people know the modern package is poison and will turn off their phones long enough to listen, or walk in the woods, or stare at the sky? Not many. But, God has a way of finding people that are taking the time to ask Him.

    In the meantime, we cannot control those things. Harbor no fear. Be kind. It will shake out. One way or another.

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We’re not better than other Christians – we’re just Orthodox. We’re terrible at some things – depending on parish, priest, jurisdiction, etc. Last time I checked, I described Orthodoxy as the original incompetence. Live the life. Strangely, we’ll survive. God is with us.

  78. Sue Avatar


    I really appreciate what you wrote. I have five children aged 25, 23, 20, 18, and 12. As a Christian parent I worry less about secular influences than I do about poorly formed Christian ones. Over ten years ago, when my oldest were young teens, I came across an article called: Ah, Youth: When the Church Was Young, by Mike Aquilina. It helped me begin to see what was missing: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/ah-youth-when-the-church-was-young.html

    God bless

  79. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Sue – I think that article nails it. Furthermore, talking a good game is not enough. Orthodoxy is profoundly countercultural. Are we living profoundly countercultural lives? If we are not, then why should we expect that our children will? If we want our kids to be Orhodox Christians then we ourselves will actually have to be Orthodox Christians.

  80. Dean Avatar

    In your response of Oct 26th, in the article of the13th, you say Father, that you are unrelenting in your preaching of the goodness of God. And that God wants our healing far more than we, that He gains nothing by our illness or suffering of any kind. These words brought buoyancy to my wings today. Thank you dear Father Stephen.

  81. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Kevin Z: Thank you for your comments. You reminded me to seek beauty in this broken world and to not be fearful.

    Dean: The goodness of God—yes! I recently spent 22 hours on the road, traveling alone, and listened to Father’s podcast the entire way and for the first time. In one podcast, he talks about being being young and somewhat of a know-it-all in theological discussions with his father-in-law. His father-in-law was patient and would say, “I don’t know about that, but I know God is good.” That has been my constant refrain, or anchor, ever since, as a new Orthodox who has been thoroughly entrenched in the Modern project and something of a know-it-all myself.

  82. Agata Avatar

    Ann K,
    Father Stephen’s expression “I don’t know about that” has been my favorite phrase for some time now, since learning it here.
    I think at one point he said it’s also a good way to tell somebody “don’t be such a know-it-all, you don’t know what you are talking about…” 🙂

  83. Dino Avatar

    There’s superb depth to the expression of “I don’t know about that, but I know God is good!” I always thought this depth was easily missed, and then we jump into the conclusion of the expression’s (seeming) ‘gullibility’.
It is a sure sign of a spiritually advanced man however, one who has deeply understood that nothing ever occurs that is not God’s Will or God’s Concession. Yes, when another, or yourself, is in the midst of misfortune, in order not to say “why oh why am I [or why is he/she] going through this?” (as we often do), you must have asked God to bestow on you the vision of the ‘The great Beyond’.
    Without it I cannot see things here as they really are: all as part and parcel of God’s plan. He works eternally, in patience and with vision, and I usually protest, precisely because I momentarily lapse from this eschatological vision that invigorates and kindles the spirit of ardent Christians that do not.

  84. Sue Avatar

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the article I shared. It really made an impact on me when I was actively contemplating how to nurture my children in the Faith. It helped me come to the conclusion that following Christ demands everything, so why should I present a sugar-coated version of it to my kids?

    May I ask what you mean by Orthodox Christians “living profoundly countercultural lives”? I only ask, because to my mind, Christianity is not a culture, but rather transcends (and transforms) human cultures. In other words, it is possible to be an Eskimo, Greek, Columbian, etc. and be a Christian. However, wearing certain clothes/hairstyles, eating certain foods, shunning Hollywood (but not PBS, and definitely not the internet), and associating exclusively with other church members won’t make you a Christian (but it might make you a Pharisee). Christians put on Christ, not a particular culture. Is this what you mean by countercultural?

    “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” (from Letter to Diognetus, 2nd Century AD)

  85. Karen Avatar

    I remember reading a quote from one of the contemporary Elders that had a very similar sense to Fr. Stephen’s f-i-l’s statement. He said if someone is unwilling to hear what we have to say and keeps insisting on their own point, we are not to continue to argue with them, but rather just to say, “You know what you are talking about.”

    I confess that kind of statement comes out of me in that circumstance about as easily as the words, “I was wr…wr…wrong!” from the mouth of the character of “The Fonz” from the old “Happy Days” sitcom!

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen, Agata,
    My recollection of both my Father-in-law, and the contemporary Elder’s quote is that they were the same: “I don’t know about that.” I would avoid saying, “You know what you are talking about,” for the simple reason that it is pointed towards someone else and its ambiguity taken as offense. The virtue of “I don’t know about that,” is that we confess our own ignorance and let it go.

  87. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Sue – Thank you for responding. And thank you so much for that quote!

    To answer your question, there are basically two things I try to do to be an “Orthodox Christian living a profoundly countercultural life.” (I originally wrote this in the abstract, but decided it would be more honest to just describe what I do. Please forgive me for drawing attention to myself.)

    I try to take Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims seriously and follow them as faithfully as I can. I study them at least once a week. I make an effort to follow a simple rule of prayer and do all the other things he says.

    I try to do the same with Matthew 25:34 -46. We help feed, house and clothe the poor with charitable contributions, but we have actually taken some folks in, fed them, housed them and clothed them. I visit the sick. I mean actually go to a healthcare facility and visit sick people. The same with prisoners. I actually go to a jail and visit prisoners.

    (I just violated maxim 10.)

    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that taking someone in, feeding them, housing them and clothing them, visiting the sick, and visiting prisoners are all countercultural things to do. They are also relatively easy to do. Striving daily to follow Fr. Hopko’s maxims is much more difficult for me, especially the stuff about being polite to everyone, being totally honest, and not complaining.

    Please do not commend me for anything I do. I am miserable servant who only does what he has been commanded to do, and I do a poor and inadequate job. That is why I also say the Jesus prayer as often as I can. God knows I am sinner and need all the mercy He can give to me.

    I only post this to try and answer your question.

  88. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Letter to Diogenes is an oft-quoted passage. It particularly gets applied in our modern cultures – and I think can be misleading. There is a very strong strain within modern theology – associated most strongly with Reinhold Niebuhr. Many people would espouse his point of view without ever knowing its source. He did an engagement of theology and civic life that is dubbed “political realism.” It was not at all utopian, but often could be quite practical – perhaps even compromising the gospel for utilitarian reasons. His brother, H. Richard Niebuhr is famous for his work on Christ and Culture – and had a strong notion of “Christ transforming culture” as the proper stand of the Church.

    My own objections to their work and thought is that it lacks the disjunction between the Church and the world seen in the Letter to Diogenes. That letter clearly sees Christians as being put to death for their beliefs. They are not about re-making Roman society – but living faithful to the gospel. The “display their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” At that time, they did not participate in many of the civic activities that would have seemed normal to Romans.

    We do not belong to this world. And though we might live peaceably within a culture – not dressing strange (except our priests) – except that we ought to dress modestly and avoid many of the fashions of the moment. Our life may very well be “salt” to the world, if we live faithfully. But simply living faithfully is the only thought we should have. American Christians are deeply afflicted with modern thought – meaning that we want to fix everything. I can imagine a conference entitled, “How to change the world by living faithfully.” It would be typical and sad.

    We are “counter-cultural” clearly because we live in a culture of death. There are many other aspects of the philosophy of modernity that should be put away. Were we more faithful to the gospel – our lives would be far more distinct than they are at present.

  89. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for that reminder. I actually use that at work a lot, when the conversations turn political or (less often) religious. I usually add (to the sentence “I don’t know about that”) a phrase “I can barely keep my own life and affairs on an honest and straight path, my opinion makes no difference and I don’t have the energy to develop one”. To which I always get a pushback “it’s people like you who let the system deteriorate”…
    But “I don’t know about that” is also a good reply to such accusation 🙂

    I try to stand up for my Orthodox Faith rather strong at work. With the strong Protestants, it is usually met with a kind smile (although I think they quietly consider me as ‘on the wrong path/bowing to idols [icons, Saints], etc, etc’). With non-believers it is usually met with a condescending smirk. It’s the atheist who challenges me most with questions such as “What if you believe in the ‘wrong God’?”

    Any advice how to answer that best?

  90. Sue Avatar

    David and Fr. Freeman,

    I was worried after reading David’s initial response to the article I linked , that perhaps the Orthodox (like several Protestant denominations) aspire to some idea of “Christian culture” (ala Rod Dreher’s _The Benedict Option_). I am very glad that this is not the case.

    Everything you wrote, Fr. Freeman, is what I believe as a Christian; indeed, our only thought should be to abide faithfully in Christ. It is as you say: “we are ‘counter-cultural’ clearly because we live in a culture of death.” In truth, there is only Christ/Life/the Kingdom or Satan/death/the world; there is no other ground upon which to stand; there is only and ever Rock or sand. It is our hearts that are transformed by Christ so that we become His hands and feet in the world.

    But I wonder, are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked really counter-cultural in America? The most dangerous aspect of modernity is that it does value these things. The contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists aren’t as sharp as in the past when acts of mercy were almost exclusive to the Christian Church.

    Thank you so much for all that you have shared. You have both cleared some things up for me.

  91. Agata Avatar

    I also have a question regarding your comment:
    You said
    “Yes, when another, or yourself, is in the midst of misfortune, in order not to say “why oh why am I [or why is he/she] going through this?” (as we often do), you must have asked God to bestow on you the vision of the ‘The great Beyond’.”
    What would this “change of thought” look like? Would it be worded to ask God for trust, consolation, reassurance? Or would it be worded as thanksgiving and request for help to endure? Or is there an even better way?

  92. Dino Avatar

    I think that it is very simple: The greater our faith for the heavenly, the smaller our worry for the earthly…

    I believe that the contrast between genuine Christianity and all else (alluded to by Sue) is to be found not in the apparent utilitarianism of any ‘activism’ towards this earth, but the seeming counter-utilitarianism of crucificial ‘hesychasm’: a focus upon the eternal Present where we are encountering the Lord. It is our foundational ascesis.
    Life is found in this poised stillness and death is the fruit of dispersion from it.

    Also, a certain ‘change of thoughts’ does come, but first and foremost from their elimination due to the fact that when you work on this ascesis, the exact moment ANY come to you, you do not debate with them to fend them off but ‘smash them on the Rock’ (Christ – His name, the prayer of His invocation, in the “here and now”). It is not up to you to ward them off. Thoughts are only expelled by the name of Jesus.
    Of course creating this ‘void’ means that the law of nature that will not allow any vacuum to remain a void applies: The Holy Spirit will come and fill the place and transform it little by little.

  93. Dino Avatar

    Also, what it ‘looks like’ is indeed a stunning spectacle to behold, but, alas, many people can become almost frightened by the grandeur of even the mere ‘word-portrayals’ of such, and of the understandable scarcity (and need for extreme dedication to even just stand the chance of witnessing such, after many disenchanting other witnessings…)
    Before such accounts of such holiness, others are inspired and others become susceptible to mistrustfulness upon hearing it – sometimes due to it been customarily found in foreign-to-us-settings: in those people “wandering in deserts, and mountains, and caves, and holes of the earth” (Hebrews 11:38)

    We have a tendency to worry (and then become saddened) as Christians about the world, ourselves, sufferings, the times etc etc. (We lose the living vision of the ‘other side’… ) In fact, the greatest accusation ever hurled at us was that we are ‘unhappy’ -by Nietzsche. This couldn’t be more wrong: the true Christian is the courageous martyr who’s smile and joy cannot be destroyed even when he and his whole family are in the fiery furnace.
    The humble fearlessness and indomitable joy of such rare holly persons, 100% focused upon the Lord, is not out of the reach of any Christian though!
    The Lord incarnate Himself gave us the ultimate equilibrium as a yardstick: living alone and amongst many, immersed in the Father and offered to all men, endearing and vigilant, encompassing all sinners & failures and yet optimistic in the knowledge of the victorious final outcome of history.
    I’m pretty sure actually, that even people who for many years associate with respected monastics, ascetics and Church leaders, would still be able to count the persons in which they’d “seen what this looks like” in real strength, on half of one hand… But what matters is not that, especially since there’s always a possibility that one could see and ‘not see’ it (for various reasons that make us ‘miss it’); what matters is to be inspired by the One: to become THAT oneself out of the holy and humble desire to fulfil His good will upon that one chuck of creation that we are solely responsible for (ourselves).

  94. Dino Avatar

    The ‘wording’ (if we could offer one, despite this being rather beside the point) would then unassumingly be: ‘Thy will be done’.
    To the degree that we earnestly start to discontinue that soul-destroying stress of ‘demanding’, and surrender to the acceptance of God’s will in all and for all ‘on Earth as it is in Heaven’, to that same degree we ourselves truly become restored into a reflection of Heaven on Earth.

  95. Agata Avatar

    Thank you so much! Wonderful words for me to process and try to practice. I really appreciate you taking the time. I hope others are blessed by reading them too.

  96. Karen Avatar

    Father, I agree that the sense of saying “I don’t know about that” and the Elder’s, though perhaps worded differently, were the same response in meaning and implication for the hearers. Each in context was an expression of patient humility and conciliation in the face of opposition. I think of what I recall as the Elder’s phraseology as a way of validating that others may have good reasons for saying what they are saying, even if they have come to some wrong conclusions in the midst of that. I can see in some contexts and depending on how it is said, “I don’t know about that” could come across as dismissive and an invalidation and a challenge that provokes more argument. Clearly this is not the way in which your father-in-law uttered it. Probably there are other phrases each of us might find unique to our personalities and contexts that could communicate much the same thing in situations where we are in conflict with another. I love that account of your father-in-law. I still relate far too easily to “the Fonz”!

  97. Karen Avatar


    What comes to mind in answer to your atheist interlocutor’s question about being sure you are believing in the right God is,

    “You mean to tell me, you think there’s more than one? (I thought you said you were an atheist!)” 🙂 The only answer istm we can give is that there is only one God.

  98. Agata Avatar

    I will try that… but he just says it’s my problem, he is not bothered by this issue. We agree that we are happy in our own beliefs, but is that enough witness on my part?

  99. Dino Avatar

    Even if you proved to him with words that it’s him who has the wrong god as a non believer, I think it wouldn’t make the difference that your joy, assureness, positivity and integrity as a believer can.
    Once someone you deal with regularly knows the strength of your faith then your being becomes the faith’s advertisement (or accusation) more than your words of evangelism .

  100. Byron Avatar


    Karen is correct. You need only answer, “there is only one God”; leave the rest to him. There is no need to elaborate. If you wish to go further to the point, you can add, “…and He has revealed Himself in Jesus”. Probably the best thing to do is to leave that ball in his court. You are not required to close the discussion, so to speak.

    But I wonder, are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked really counter-cultural in America? The most dangerous aspect of modernity is that it does value these things. The contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists aren’t as sharp as in the past when acts of mercy were almost exclusive to the Christian Church.

    Sue, Modernity devalues personal, face-to-face encounter and in its place prioritizes materialistic, or economic, support. For Modernity, everything is about education and economics. Only the most limited, shallow contact is actually condoned. It is utterly inhuman.

    As Christians, we should do as Christ does: enter into the suffering and the lives of those around us. Sadly, we are products of our time and rarely do so. There is no easy answer to the issue and you are correct: the contrast between Christians and modern pagans and atheists is not as sharp as in the past. Modernity thrives on the homogenous and the nebulous. The sharp distinction(s) offered by the fullness of Christ are anathema to it.

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