The Despised God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right now the world is desperate for a few fools.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






75 responses to “The Despised God”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Some solid theology in accessible language here! I was thinking as I read this that “it’s quite marvellous to be reminded of the deep truth that the emanation of of God’s glorious omnipotence is the emanation of inconceivable humble love…”
    A paradox for man!

  2. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks for this Father.

    It’s one thing to grasp the foolishness of the Cross. It’s another to be a fool and say there is no God. Both incur shame. One willingly, in love. The other in defiance, in pride.

    The deeper we go into the wisdom and knowledge of God revealed in Christ, so deepens our love. And the shame of foolishness becomes easier to bear only because we know Christ bears it with us. We are becoming like Him because we are ‘in Him’. Only to realize that this, and not worldly power, is the path to true life…the peace of God in Christ Jesus.
    This is our lifelong journey. As St Paul says “l die daily”. Like sheep to the slaughter.

    Your grace, Lord God…Your grace…

  3. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    The first part of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 accompany your photo…” Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” This applies to physical labor, and I’m sure to those laden down by sin also. At least half in the world fit the first, and all of us the second. Christ is the only one who can grant rest for our soul.
    The hardest workers I’ve ever seen were in Mexico…also working with trash. Two men would trot along side a garbage truck that did not stop. With both hands they would hoist the garbage can up on one shoulder, and then with the free hand climb a metal ladder on truck’s side,
    dumping it in, climbing down and rushing for the next. And this all day!
    I have worked hard on occasion, but never anything like that.
    Thank God in Christ that His call for rest extends to all…”for His yoke is easy, His burden light.”

  4. Jacob Pederson Avatar
    Jacob Pederson

    I have No other words other than “thanks abouna” 🙂

  5. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed Fr Stephen,
    I’m deeply grateful for the fools who truly love Christ. For they embody the light of Holy Spirit, which sheds light on and shows us the path of narrow Way.

  6. Fr. Agathon Avatar
    Fr. Agathon

    Thank you for this inspiring article. I remember when I would visit a fool for Christ who lived in a tiny cement hut outside an Orthodox Convent near Athens, Greece. I will always recall the time I visited her when I was going through a struggle with severe depression. I sat next to her on a dilapidated bench. We exchanged no words. Her eyes were staring towards the ground, but her heart was with Jesus. I started saying the Jesus prayer. at the same time. I felt a transfiguration go through my heart, mind, soul, body. A living, divine experience. It is amazing what one person filled with humility who lived her life in Christ, for Christ and with Christ could do for others. Her love for others was Christ love. Forgive me.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Agathon, thank you for the wonderful story!

  8. fr. Agathon Avatar
    fr. Agathon

    Christ be with you blessed Father Stephen. Your writings come from the heart. I can feel the warmth of your words.

  9. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for presenting the saying of Saint Irenaeus in this beautiful piece! From both this and the saying from Saint John of Damascus I can see why Saint Irene the empress would dedicate herself to the restoration of icons.
    Thank you too for reminding us that in Christ on the cross God is showing us who He is.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “It turns the world upside down”. That is exactly why the prophet of Nihilism, Nietzsche despised Christ. Of course his solution, the will to power and the destruction of all the weak is the vision of the evil one and has become the spirit of our time.

    What a blessing for us. We are downstream from the time when the Church and churchmen were lionized and held sway over the events of history.

  11. Byron Avatar

    I drove by a modern, progressive church today and their board read something like, “being vulnerable is makes one strong”. I was struck with the realization that everything in the modern world is about strength. Losses are termed as victories, weaknesses and vulnerabilities are recast as strengths. We cannot stand that we are not in control, are not viewed as mighty and victorious in some manner. We hate being a fool.

    My thoughts were that being humble and being vulnerable are never about strength; they are about trust.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is, in current self-help circles, some valid discussion of vulnerability – particularly as it relates to shame. Brene Brown is a name that comes quickly to mind. It’s probably a bit in vogue, for that matter, and it’s not a bad thing. I would describe it as “bearing a little shame” and I think the depth of the tradition has much more understanding on the matter. But, they might have meant it in a healthy way. Being vulnerable is a greater strength than “strength” itself. Only, it is union with the Crucified Christ, not psychological technique that makes it possible and valid.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Byron, I used to think that if I was vulnerable, I was putting myself in possible danger. As I began a discipline of thanksgiving it began to dawn on me that vulnerability towards God also required that I be vulnerable toward men and in that I was safe.

    That is far different than using one’s will to be safe which is often counter productive.

    You are right about being wary of “strength” but God’s strength is revealed in our weakness–thus the vulnerability.

  14. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Agathon, for your comment about sitting with the “Fool for Christ”! It is a blessing to read and ponder.
    Thank you Fr. Stephen for this post and also for your remarks here in the comments concerning Brene Brown and when you say here: “Being vulnerable is a greater strength than “strength” itself. Only, it is union with the Crucified Christ, not psychological technique that makes it possible and valid.” Your comments are what I have been thinking about ever since I read and heard about Brene Brown’s approach to vulnerability, among other aspects of humanity and life in this world. Thank you for commenting!

  15. Byron Avatar

    Father and Michael, I did not mean to give the impression of being opposed to vulnerability. I only meant to say that it is, or should be, a reflection of our trust in God’s goodness. Please forgive me if I am misunderstanding your comments.

    I meant to speak to how the world casts everything in terms of strength, because that is how it understands everything: it’s center is personal power. There is no understanding of humility or vulnerability that is centered in trust of the Other.

  16. ScottTX Avatar

    Do you think a synergistic view of salvation begets measuring one’s progress? To be saved from whatever, I have a part to do. If I have a part to do, I want to know how I’m doing. To know how I’m doing, I need to make comparisons to others or to a defined spectrum of virtue and vice. It becomes a personal project where failure has consequences. How does weakness and failure mesh with synergism?

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, you are indeed correct, the world does value “strength” above all else–strength equating with money, sex and power. Meanwhile the”powerful ones” lead the rest of us into the dark pits of consumer slavery, lust fulfilment and the individual. They hate God because they cannot be God. One thing the evil one cannot mimick is mercy.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very good question. I frequently see the concept of synergy misused in contemporary discussions and thought. While it is true that the work of salvation involves a synergy, a “cooperation,” the nature of that effort is often seen by many as our own efforts “to be good” or some such thing. The heart of our cooperation consists in various ways of saying “yes” to God. I think the Incarnation of Christ is a prime example. Mary could do nothing to “make” Christ incarnate – but neither could that conception occur without her “yes.” Her action before God is, I think, the best example we can see of synergy.

    It is, ideally, an “effort” of surrender – it is an embracing of the Cross. You cannot crucify yourself – you can only let yourself be crucified. Strangely, the work of the Cross had that aspect about it as well. Jesus didn’t drive the nails. Of course, that “synergy” was an act of wickedness (in ignorance) – but, such is the mercy of God that He turned even our ignorant wickedness to our benefit.

    I have written before about the “un-moral” Christian (not “immoral”), meaning that it is not moral effort that saves us – but Christ working in us and our bowing before that work. I have encountered more than a little pride in the distortion of synergy. There are popular memes that brag of Orthodoxy being the “marines of Christianity” and such. It is the antithesis of the humility of true synergy. I also note that frequently such bragging is not accompanied with actual works. I fail at my “Orthodoxy” every day. But I am being saved in my failure.

  19. Paul Avatar

    Thank you Father for answering Scott’s question. I too have that question on my mind.

  20. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I think that Orthodox soteriology, rightly understanding the Fall as failure to become, not from perfection but from predestined potentiality, and death as intrusion, Satan as perpetrator of the fear of death in us – it lays out that man essentially lives in survival mode at all times until he is convinced that his only real path to survival is on a cross. We go from hunting and gathering to cities to wealth accumulation to pleasure accumulation and all are attempts to escape death. A preoccupation with constant comfort, ecstatic experience, prosperity – all of these are death escapes and ignore the reality of something more than this present life. But, once this is realized, once a person is aware enough to look within themselves and see – I’m living in fear when I do _______, at least they could acknowledge it and the possibility of seeking freedom in the fear of God, in the embrace of His cross, might become available. There is always the need to convince the heart that to lose your soul is not worth the trade. And I believe that only Orthodox soteriology can really do this best, because death is the result of the fall, and survival mode living – then to stop living in survival mode, the opposite is laying down your life with full assurance that God will raise us up with Christ as well.

    I went back to add this, other soteriological systems – that basically treat death as natural to existence – and whether or not this is true to the system is detectable by what they believe the eschatological view of man is – what is heaven – if it is nothing more than happiness, an ever-expanding capacity to delight in God as the source of what makes us happy – then death is natural in that system – because the highest form of survival mode living is “happiness”. Happiness is what you get when you pass from struggling to survive nutritionally, to having plenty, to not knowing what to do with yourself besides having a civilization, to pleasure seeking… In this way, people never become as gods, they become “really happy”. But God is the One revealed on a cross. So, the selflessness we are meant to attain (which of course includes some satisfaction in God) is transformed into a hyper-selfishness in God. God becomes man’s greatest drug into eternity, both as mood-enhancer, stimulant, anti-___, neuro-enhancer… But man never becomes god by grace.

    Thank you Father,
    Matthew Lyon

  21. ScottTX Avatar

    “You cannot crucify yourself – you can only let yourself be crucified.”

    This is a helpful answer. A lot of my looking into Orthodoxy online ends in seeing some grumpy-looking Gandalf whose disciplines are extolled like a spiritual six-pack. Strive to be like him!

    I see unreal advice like “No frivolous laughter.” What, not even at yourself? I need an example fit for a spiritual oaf, a Saint Schlub.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A lot of what you read out there is nonsense – because those who are writing it do not live it or have any true, first-hand, knowledge of what they are talking about. They read books and then pretend to teach.

    One of the reasons this blog is rather limited in what it says is that my personal rule is only to write about what I know. Every time I’ve forgotten that, I wind up really regretting it.

  23. Dino Avatar

    Perhaps the reason why great pedagogues of the spiritual life advise one should first ‘become a healthy human’ (it is quite a feat to become balanced enough to be characterised as such) before even thinking of ‘reaching out to holiness’ . There’s great merit to pedestrian humility.

  24. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    Fr Stephen, please remember us at St Seraphim. Many in our parish have been displaced with evacuation orders related to the latest fire in Sonoma county. Also, power is off in most of N. California. Church is NOT in evacuation area. Fr Lawrence is on the Holy Mountain, left the day before the fire broke out. I know his prayers are helping. Writing from my phone, short note to save my battery. Thank you and all in this community.

  25. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    ” “effort” of surrender – it is an embracing of the Cross…”
    Father Stephen,
    Would this be the essence of repentance?
    You have spoken in the past about a mistaken forensic view of repentance. Is what you say here:
    ” the “un-moral” Christian (not “immoral”), meaning that it is not moral effort that saves us – but Christ working in us and our bowing before that work”
    the true meaning of repentance, as a work set before us day in and day out?
    “Bowing” as an indication of turning away from self, or sacrificing self, in willful submission (saying yes) to Christ, in whatever He places before us? Isn’t that what is meant by “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee…” (can’t leave out the rest) “in behalf of all and for all”…?
    Repentance is not an easy word for me to define. I would think that if we went about repenting in a forensic manner, to do “right” for the sake of merit and to avoid punishment, a change of heart would hardly be found because we can not, without Christ, have a change of heart. “Mind”, maybe. Heart, no.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Repentance, “metanoia,” is a “change of mind,” or a “change of heart.” It is, simply, saying (and meaning), “Thy will be done.” Now, sometimes I have to add something to that simple prayer:

    “Jesus, Your will be done…and You have permission to drag me kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God regardless of how much trouble I put up.”

    There is a traditional phrase in one of the Orthodox prayers that says, “Save me whether I want it or not.” Same idea.

  27. Dean Avatar

    Or, as I think you’ve written before, Father…”God, please drag my sorry soul into heaven!”

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was trying to sound more sophisticated…

  29. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh brother….
    forget it….

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry if my response was problematic… I thought what you said was spot on and that I was affirming that.

  31. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Sorry too Father…I couldn’t tell, so was not clear. Pardon me, please. And thank you.

  32. Janine Avatar

    So Father, I am in a quandary, and I’ll try to write about so you can please help with an answer … and anybody else who feels they might be able to, also. I’m taking a class on Christianity and violence. It is mostly within the Orthodox tradition at this point (Byzantium). Basically it asks the question whether or not violence at some point becomes sacralized. We’ve read Eusebius of course but also St Basil & St Ambrose of Milan who struggled with the problem of war and violence within an “economia” perspective. Of course as Empire shrinks and enemies hostile to Christianity multiply. how is war viewed? Pretty much one could say (I grossly summarize differing viewpoints), war/violence is always “evil” even when justified by self-defense, needs “therapy” for its damage, but is an unfortunate fact of life in the world, in the pragmatic minds of the Fathers. The question is at what point in such a long history does it become sanctioned heretically as holy? I am torn, because the conditions of the past are nothing like what we Americans can relate to in modern time. My problem is, where does our call to be meek come in the midst of it all? I suspect that you are just a few years older than I, have quite a perspective on the (American) wars in our lifetimes. Is there some sort of a guideline in thinking about this? Problem is in class even the language of spiritual warfare, or even of angelic orders, is militaristic, even violent, and this gets conflated into the mix…. Sorry, maybe it’s an impossible question in this forum, or too political.

  33. juliania Avatar

    Its an enormous question, Janine, so I’ll just try to answer a small part of what you are presenting. That’s when you say “…the conditions of the past are nothing like what we Americans can relate to in modern time…”
    I don’t think that is actually correct if we put our minds and hearts into it. I want to say that spiritual warfare is what the Apocalypse of John is about, and that is mightier than any earthly warfare past or present. How I understand his telling of it is that in his own time he is given a vision of it granted to him in that terrible time when the meek and saintly who were his dearest friends were being savagely deprived of life, torn apart by lions, stoned, sawn in two as Paul has told us. John is so loving, how could it not tear him apart also that this is happening?
    We cannot imagine ourselves being so true to our beliefs that we could face such in joy as it is said many did, or see heaven opening with the face of an angel like Stephen. But those are our icons, the very best of us, who were such. And I think we can believe that this indeed still happens, in the worst of earthly wars, even today. It’s a communion with heaven, a great gift, a mystery. A vision. Where love is, even and especially there.
    I had an uncle die in a war he didn’t want to be in. I think of him a lot because I never knew him. It’s okay to be torn. It’s a huge subject. And what a difficult subject for a class!

  34. Dino Avatar

    One could theoretically answer the question (with uncompromising exactitude) only regarding those who live according to such perfect exactitude. The rest of us are walking in various degrees of blessed compromised ‘economy’. That’s reality…
    The first are probably one in a billion. So, we can see such an answer fleshed out in about just seven people on Earth, while a myriad other cases (close to eight billion I guess) could be argued for!
    The key in this ‘perfect’ approach is that the Saint is always moved by the Spirit to act or talk. St Silouan makes this point well to Fr Stratonicos. Whether one responds in Davidic meekness or (Davidic again) valiance, or both, it mustn’t be because of his own reasonings or ego or attachments. It is because of God’s will spoken in his heart by the Holy Spirit unerringly, and often going against the estimations and impulses of the ‘old man’ (whether this “will” directs him to ‘this’ way Or ‘that’ way).
    I would shy away from a more realistically majority encompassing answer on such a difficult subject…

  35. Janine Avatar

    Thank you juliania and Dino!

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, Dino is right. There is no exact answer. We live in a world of violence. The Church recognizes that.
    As Father Alexander FC Webster notes in his book “The Pacifist Option” even the decision not to fight may lead to harm to some that could have been prevented through inaction.
    Martyrdom is the voluntary acceptance of violence in order to glorify God.
    There is no dogma on the subject.
    Saint Demetrios of Thessalonika has an icon that depicts him killing a Persian soldier in battle. That is the only such icon I know of but there is that one.
    The list of saints who fought in battles is lengthy. St. George was martryed after refusing to offer incense to Caesar as a god during a ceremony Caesar put on to honor St. George for his skill and success in battle.
    For every example of one type of activity, there are examples for the opposite activity.
    Statements by saints in support of participation in what and discouraging it are also found.
    It is an ambiguity that we must live with until such time as the Lion lies down with the Lamb.

    Today’s culture of progress is inherently violent and destructive.

  37. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Michael Bauman!

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My thoughts would echo what has been said, but I’ll expand it a bit. First, there has never been anything in Orthodox tradition that specifically blesses killing. So, the “Just War Theory” in the West – which, in the case of the Crusades, could theoretically offer some sort of spiritual reward for killing, never existed. The ambiguity of war has always been present in Orthodox thought. That same ambiguity, as Michael notes, is even present when a martyr “accepts” the violence of his/her own death.

    Christ avoids death at a couple of turns – disappearing from within a crowd that sought to stone Him – for example. It was not time. He saved the crowd from a great sin. Only when it was the right time did He “reluctantly” submit to die.

    Thus, there is never a sacralization of violence in Orthodoxy. The imagery of violence in the spiritual life – has its own grammar – that is accurate and appropriate. I suspect that most general classes on this topic neglect a serious analysis of canon law – a world that is largely opaque to most. Orthodox canons bar from communion those who kill in war – for up to 3 years. That is a “medicine” for healing the soul.

    Michael is on point about the nature of modernity. This article looks carefully at that.

    God be with you in this!

  39. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much Father! I will need to digest everything that has been said, but I thank each of you for your comments. I will now read the article you so kindly pointed to, Father!

  40. Dino Avatar

    What makes an already difficult subject like this even harder to grasp in our times is the widespread utilitarianism of the, quite non-Orthodox, notion that the ‘end justifies the means’. We, on the other hand are founded upon the discernment that good needs to be done the right way, the right time (etc) as well as for the right end.
    Of course in a world of such Secularism where the comodification of everything (including our very nature) is valued, living with such a sacramental vigilance (which would help inform a person [and even invite the perfect ‘information’ of the Holy Spirit Himself] of the right course of action on this as well as every other subject) is often scandalous.

  41. Janine Avatar

    Thanks, Dino. Yes, today I was thinking about the parable of the Sower. It shows us Christ knows all the dangers to the word, and at this point the Pharisees plotted against Him, and He was already rejected in several cities where He’d done “great works.” And yet He simply trusted so deeply in the Father, and on the mission. The parable tells us the dangers to a good outcome, even teaching in parables is a step back from full “control” over the message… Thank you for reminding me about the scandalous nature of this kind of trust and letting go of outcome!

  42. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father for suggesting that excellent article to me. In class, I was prompted to think of John the Baptist’s answer to the soldiers’ seemingly anxious question, “What shall we do?” Like the Fathers, he is strikingly pragmatic, yet also gentle, and I think compassionate. Truly an image of substance for all of us.

  43. Ioana Avatar

    “I should probably add a warning to my articles. When the coin drops and you first decide that modernity is a false ideology, you will likely become depressed for a bit. We have learned to be “happy” through believing in the nostrums of modernity (progress, getting better, economic growth, etc.) and of the long-term effectiveness of political action. These things are nowhere given us in the gospel and do not belong to the truth that God has given us.

    But when we lose modernity, we tend to lose a certain amount of hope – at least a first. You will sound cynical to your friends. But, in time, this is replaced by a conversion to the Kingdom of God and the possibility of a contentment that holds up even in the face of suffering and loss. The mind begins to turn to prayer and love rather than violence as a means of living.”
    Found this in the comment section of the article you recommended. Decided to take your words and apply them to my spiritual life (only got rid of the words” political” and “economic.”) Would that work? I think it would… I think it does. I think it did.

  44. Ioana Avatar

    And good morning from Romania. 3.40 a. m. Thank you and sending you a smile.

  45. Byron Avatar

    Good morning, Ioana.

    Someday I hope to visit Romania. It’s on my theoretical bucket list, anyway….

  46. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Hi Janine;

    The question of violence has been at the forefront for me all my life long. I am always drawn to the startlingly counter-instinctive nature of Christ and his gospels- to love our enemies is truly not of this world. While there is little I can add to the excellent comments already voiced here, I will suggest checking out some of Rene Girard’s work on violence and the origins of culture. He made the brilliant observation that (a certain species of) violence arises not out of difference, but similarity- and the jealous rivalry (mimetic desire) that can arise between say two best friends in love with the same woman. He actually first discovered this through literary studies of the greatest authors- e.g. Dostoevsky and Shakespeare.
    His work was brought into dialogue with St Isaac the Syrian’s even deeper understanding of desire at the root of violence, by Orthodox thinker and poet Don Sheehan.

    Doubtless Christ came to usher in a peaceable kingdom- but this must take root in hearts genuinely transfigured by His Presence. The healing of our disordered desires is the only starting point.

  47. Ioana Avatar

    That would be wonderful, Byron. Let me know if you do manage to come.

  48. Dino Avatar

    A side point that might have some significance is that the culture from which one’s ‘personal Christianity’ has been influenced (sometimes this might be in the form of one’s counter-cultural reaction) has something to do with their views on the topic.
    The other-worldly love of enemies which we proclaim, can take various forms according to this.
    An imperialist home-land might make me zero in on the obviously un-Christian character of all altercation.
    A home-land with a long tradition of exclusively defensive wars might make some lean to a more nuanced approach. If, for instance, I am brought up with stories of heroic fighters who gave their lives in battle to protect the nuns of my neighbouring monastery from being rapped and tortured, I might see things differently to one who’s brought up with stories of his country’s service-men rapping and pillaging others.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God give you grace! You made me smile.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is a very apt observation. The modern narrative had its birth largely in America, though it has been widely adopted. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s been “widely sold.” It is a narrative of imperialism – certainly a narrative told from the point of view of those who win, those who think they are managing the future, etc.

    The Orthodox experience in Europe – even in Byzantium – was not one of conquest, but of defense. I think it shapes things differently.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have been involved in questioning modernity most of my life. I began to get seriously involved in college in the late 60’s reading Karl Popper’s book, The Myth of Progress and spent an intense year reading Nietzsche for my senior history project.
    The reason I came to the Church is the undeniable presence of Jesus Christ in all that we do. One of the many sub-reasons is because here is both a refuge from and a bulwark against the dialectic nihilist poison of progress.

    Although I recoiled at first at Fr Stephen’s thanksgiving, the rest of what he says so fit and greatly enlarged my own experience, I had to keep coming back. Gradually, I began to see the real antidote to progress is a discipline of thanksgiving for all things which will eventually lead to love of enemies.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, not to argue, but your statement that modernity had it’s birth in America is not really accurate. Although we have certainly nurtured and sold it, it was birthed in the Reformation, grew to maturity in the Enlightenment and was given its adult, villanous form in the nihilist explosion of the late 19th century with Marx, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and to a lesser extent Holmes (science of mind).
    Grossly over simplifying: that whole process denied God, His Incarnation and attempted to storm heaven to wrest control of Creation from God Himself. Failing in that we tried to lock Him away in the attic hoping He would just go away. In an ironic upsetting of the theme of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, we find ourselves getting uglier and uglier while our true image, held in the heart of Christ remains beautiful in the attic.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re accurate. My thought, however, was less to do with the origins of certain ideas and more to do with the first place to really put modernity in motion. I think there was nothing holding America back – no “past.” The Reformation can be said to have unintentionally set the forces in motion.

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, a fertile ground to be sure but the founders also observed the polity of the Algonquin tribe, ancient Greece and the Old Testament Hebrews. So, there was a traditional leaven of sorts and perhaps why there is a shadow of the Trinity in our tripartite government. I personally find some hope in that.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but I’ve removed Mary’s comment and Michael’s response, and did not post an angry rebuke from another. Essentially, it sort of wandered into a political mine field that would be a distraction.

    My observation: we live in a time in which information has been often-enough politicized (and weaponized), that it is hard for people to make their way with assurance. We do not trust each other because the trust has been repeatedly and callously broken. As such, people have to work with the information they have and the best they can gather in a trustworthy manner. That is to be respected.

    However, it needs to be remembered that the labels of “conspiracy theory, etc.” are often little more than a way to dismiss legitimate questions and concerns. God give us grace to love each other – and recognize the great difficulties presented by our present times.

  56. Christopher Avatar

    Fr. Stephen’s words on ‘trust’ has me thinking of the Lord of the Rings which I was reading to my daughter last night. For many (particularly those who have only seen the movies), the Shire represents an idyllic village life and community, perhaps even some representation of the Garden. I was struck last night by how fallen the Shire was. Bilbo does not trust those closest to him in relation and culture (i.e. the Sackville-Baggins’) because they are greedy, nasty, and crude. They are first and foremost untrustworthy – or you could say you can “trust” they will sting you at the first opportunity. Yet, with effective ‘boundaries’ and a natural interdependence they are as much a part of his life as the rest of the community of the Shire. They are invited to the inner circle of the Long-expected Party.

    Bilbo does not have the “weaponized” information problem that we have in our time and place. There is an on the surface honesty to information and relations that does not exist for us. Most everything at the surface of our culture is propaganda – it is trying to sell us something, gather us in to an agenda, etc. At the same time education has been altered toward a STEM emphasis, such that a classical “liberal” education that in theory would have prepared a person (rather Christian or not) with *discernment* is no longer a basic bulwark. Also at the same time the sexual revolution solidified a “new” anthropology, even though this inner Cartesian chaos (a kind of anti-humanity) had been working in the background of our culture and “science” since the middle ages.

    Kill your TV/smart phone/computer news feed, read only old books, gently seek out those in your family/parish/work who will not sting you and possibly even support you and support them and their inner bridgehead of the Good….this is perhaps how we love in these perilous times?


  57. Janine Avatar

    Fr Stephen and Christopher bring up a problem crucial to our time. While Bilbo no doubt had perfectly reasons for his particular suspicious, how do we think independently enough to actually not simply need evidence for our particular judgments., but especially to give our own discernment to prayer? As both (and others) note, we are constantly subject to manipulation esp. on the nominal basis of affiliation or group. It has been my consistent experience that Christ seeks to take me out of the world, to think and see independently of easy affiliation, to be wise as serpent and gentle as dove. More necessary than ever !

  58. Janine Avatar

    (Sorry for slightly incoherent post above, typing on my phone is problematic!)

    Re Christianity and violence, thank you again Dino, Fr. Stephen, Mark Northey, Michael Baumann et al for your comments!

    Mark Northy, I have read Rene Girard. I especially admire the short book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” as it compares the myths with the Old Testament and Gospel stories regarding the innocence of the scapegoat.

    Dino & Fr. Stephen, your points are well-taken regarding the experience of Byzantium and its shrinking empire vs today’s warfare we understand as modern Americans. I rather try to make this point in my class, as most are grad students who frequently want to declare that the beginning of Empire was the end of Christianity, and also that possibly only the Reformation saved it (if at all, this is a modern US university), , despite all evidence to the contrary on all sides. No doubt the Byzantines fought as many corrupt battles in power struggles (even among themselves) as anyone else, but shrinking empire and the Church, as well as what type of threats faced, are another matter. As a granddaughter of genocide survivors I know this well. What might possibly be even more dismaying among some of the grad students (which I think Dino touched upon) is that there is a confusion about violence and spiritual warfare, even to those who tell me they study the desert monks. In other words, the “violence” of symbols of warfare is often categorized as directly leading to material violence. This was not the case with the Fathers and it is not the case today with people who “know what manner of spirit they are of” so to speak. But nevertheless I keep hearing this. Looking at it that way, even our baptism is violent, and supposedly could lead us to become violent and aggressive ourselves. As Fr. Stephen put it, the Fathers really remain the touchstone, esp the canon law as put forth as economia. How often we lose sight of our need for this! They are so pragmatic. I just think, in light of current political subjects, we need them more than ever. I once read an article regarding certain ventures of militant foreign policy (I will try not to get more political than that generalization) being couched in “doing good” and I don’t think that is so far from the truth. We need more and better nuance than that, found in tradition IMO. I really wonder even how far the modern project actual is from unrealized and unspiritualized teachings about “doing good” to make the world better. I’m certain Fr. Stephen and others have far more insight and experience in this than I do. I’m trying to be not-too-political by not being specific, but I understand if m post is problematic. Fr. Stephen you may please edit or delete as you feel necessary

  59. Byron Avatar

    I really wonder even how far the modern project actual is from unrealized and unspiritualized teachings about “doing good” to make the world better.

    Janine, I think this is a foundation of modern thinking: “doing good” does not require spiritual teaching at all. It’s all about “equality” and economics.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A weakness of our time (among many), is the narrow exposure to broader experience and knowledge of so many. For example, those who teach history (particularly of Christianity and its environs) without themselves being Christians, are limited in their knowledge. I run across errors in general knowledge engendered by that sort of ignorance all the time. I spoke at an Evangelical conference last week – with a number of leading Evangelical professors and teachers present. I mentioned the 31,000 Churches rebuilt in Russia since 1991, the 1,000 monasteries, as well as a number of other astounding things – happening in our own day – and NONE of them had ever heard of this. None.

    The many historical mistakes made by Protestant scholars and others, when dealing with the history of the Eastern Church is sort of embarassing. So, I think our tendency to be more and more narrow is a deep handicap. The failure of imagination is another problem. When thinking and speaking with others with whom we differ – it is useful to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and “imagine” the world from that perspective. We do not become them – but empathy requires that kind of active listening.

    I have labored to expose the inherent ideas of modernity so that we can actually see them and examine them for what they are – always being free to do with them what we will. Above everything, we should remember that Christ Himself placed us in this time – and FOR this time. Call on Him day and night. He hears us!

  61. Janine Avatar

    ” Above everything, we should remember that Christ Himself placed us in this time – and FOR this time.”

    Thank you so much Fr Stephen (and others). I keep thinking an d wondering about this.

  62. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Dino, I really appreciated your comment (Oct. 30) on perspective shaped by one’s experience of “socially condoned violence.”
    I had not thought it through in quite that light, so you’ve given me something new in a very old question. Thank you.

  63. Dino Avatar

    In particular, I was thinking of the “sweeping” perspective that can result in an individual’s soul by two, dramatically differing reflections, shaping one’s early education/culture:
    The one is to take a westerner who has discovered the shock of (imperialistically-motivated) tortures of others by his home-land (sometimes presented in a justified language). This would inevitably make one tend to go against all violence and disinclined to ever think that this could be ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’. They would discern greater dignity and valor in not fighting than in fighting. (Like the film Hackshaw Ridge)

    The opposite example is to take a traditional Greek from the Meteora area, who discovers that the mothers of his home-land would have their children torn away from their bosoms –that the healthy males would be turned into elite Janissaries who would, in turn, come and later rape their own families (!). In this case, even priests who would use guns/violence to defend the victims, would be seen as having made the right choice. In fact, some people ‘half-complain’ that the Church does not count them (when they had been martyred by the Ottomans) as actual saints, but only as ‘national martyrs/heroes’, unable to discern the Church’s discernment. Such a cultural experience would inevitably make one tend to discern greater dignity and valor in fighting than in not fighting.

    It’s a complex influence!

  64. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Yes, that spells out just the thought you brought to mind for me.
    It is increasingly apparent to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is truly “not of this world.” We catch glimpses of it in this world and it startles us like lightning across a dark sky. But the darkness and vagueness of this life and my groping soul always returns.

  65. Dino Avatar

    Indeed, our patience with the mutability of this life in all its manifestations, (specially when one’s sensitivity is intensified a hundredfold through their acquaintance with the immutability emanating from their ‘tasting’ of intimacy-to-God) is a form of ascesis in maturity, a spiritual feat of the highest order.

  66. Will Avatar

    Father, I read your words on the meekness of Christ and rejoice.

    But, forgive me, I often read the words of Christ himself and despair. For instance, today’s Gospel reading tells the story of the father whose demon-possessed son could not be healed by the disciples. Jesus, as far as I can tell, begrudgingly heals the child, saying, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you and bear with you?”

    I have to admit that these words are a stumbling block for me. It seems to me as if Christ heals in this story out of some dutiful but begrudging sense of obligation and not out of love. Christ’s words here sound to me like someone who can’t wait to get away from, who can barely tolerate being around, humans. And if these people who believed in Christ and gave up much to follow him, Jesus doesn’t really even like all that much, what hope is there for me, who am by far more faithless and perverse?

    Forgive me.

  67. SW Avatar

    Will, I’ve thought the same thing about this verse and others and look forward to Fr Stephen’s response. Something I’ve begun to believe about those words is that, while typically such words are said begrudingly in this world, Jesus instead somehow said them lovingly. A verse I think of almost daily is the one where Jesus says to the Pharisees and scribes, after telling them they were like “white-washed tombs” and more, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and kill those sent to you, how I have longed to gather you as a mother hen gathers her chicks but you were not willing.” I think it is in all 3 synoptic gospels, but can’t quote the exact verse references now. To tell those who had done such things and were so set against Him, that He longed to gather them as a mother hen gathers her chicks is such a comfort to me. Such tender words at such a time lend themselves to hope and repentence for me.

    Also, some years ago I watched a fairly recent movie about Jesus and in a scene where He was saying these such words in the verse you mention (though possibly in another situation), the actor portrayed Him with such a kind and compassionate demeanor that it has helped in erasing the condemnation and rejection I’d long felt when reading those words or hearing them in sermons before.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is easy to hear what isn’t there – or to hear what the words would mean to us if we were the ones speaking them. Never forget, as well, that you read in translation, meaning we miss lots of nuance. Before we read anything of the gospels – we do well to simply reckon in our hearts that we are loved unconditionally – without reservation.

    Also, we do well to remember that the gospels are not a movie – nor a newspaper. Every word that is included, and how the story is shaped, is written with a purpose. So, in this instance, the question is, What do the disciples have in mind for us to understand? What is it they want us to see?

    First – whatever He said – he delivered the demon-possessed person. Is there an instance of Jesus ever saying, “Because you are faithless and perverse, I will have nothing to do with you?”

  69. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Christ speaks the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. But if such words were said by one of us, they would be said with all our passions as well. So I too take care in how I read the scriptures. I often ask my parish priest for help in such circumstances as these.

    Once I have heard the words of one Orthodox priest who apparently gave himself permission to disparage someone (I believe it might have been an atheist) openly, excusing his own behavior under the pretext that Christ did the same. If there had been love in the tone, I’m not sure what I might have thought. But his demeanor in almost all things is/was laced with such hubris, that in such context, I heard these words as hatred and pride and not of love.

    I avoid engaging with such banter and priests whose writing or speech indicates such hubris, and I wouldn’t be a participant here if Fr Stephen exhibited such hubris in writing.

    I say all this to Will in case he reads blogs/podcasts elsewhere.

  70. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There was a man I knew, imbued with the Scriptures. He knew the ancient languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. His family in Egypt was Jewish when he was growing up, his grandmother became a Copt when he was 19 and he followed. The Coptic Church sent him to England to study and their he became Orthodox.
    He was a man who was quite uncompromising in how he talked to people calling them out on the nature of their faith. In a class of his I was in a young woman in the class gave an answer. He immediately said: “That’s a priest’s answer, what is your answer?’ There were several priests in the class BTW. BUT, there was such love behind and in what he said.
    He was married to a Protestant too.
    Yet he did not suffer their preaching to go unchallenged when he attended with his wife.
    He knew the Scripture in such depth he could do so and back it up. But his love required you listen to him.
    When we read, we always read from our own lack of love. That is why we must read and hear in faith not trusting our own interpretations. Even in translation it is possible to hear and absorb the truth in the Church.

  71. Will Avatar

    “Before we read anything of the gospels – we do well to simply reckon in our hearts that we are loved unconditionally – without reservation.”

    Father, et al,

    Thank you for your kind correction.

    As a recent convert I struggle with the many Protestant readings of scripture I’ve heard over the years–not to mention my own logismoi. Because of this, I’ve been exclusively reading the Orthodox Study Bible, making a point to read the commentary on the text, which in this case reads, “While the disciples’ faith was incomplete…Christ’s rebuke is also to the crowds, whose faith was weaker still…”, which (likely because of my challenges mentioned above) I saw as reinforcing my initial reaction of despair.

    Regarding your question, Father, you’re right. It seems that Christ is always sticking with those who have little faith. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself”. Though, to be honest, your question also brings other passages to mind: Revelation’s lukewarm being spewed out of the mouth of Christ; Jesus saying to those crying, “Lord, Lord”, “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness, I never knew you”; etc.

    Forgive me if this is putting doubts in people’s minds. That is not at all my intention. This is an honest struggle for me.

  72. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Will you are not alone in this struggle. I too, struggle in similar ways when I read these things, perhaps we all do. We hear even the apostles say to Christ, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5) And again after Christ says it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. They say in Luke18:26 “And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But the Lord then says “The things that are impossible with men are possible with God”.

    And again He says, (Luke 19:10) for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

    When I see so clearly my own sin and lack of faith, I remember to thank God for this sudden “sight”. Such awareness is at least the beginning step on the path of salvation. And we hear of the saints who cry over their sins, as well. Still we must remember God’s love and trust His love. Sometimes this is hard to do.

    I suspect those in the verse you reference who cry out “Lord, Lord”, might not have been struggling with the sins in their own heart. Because Christ also gives the parable of the “Tenacious Widow”, in the end God avenges those who cry out to Him “even though He bears long with them”.

    I’m grateful you take seriously these things and question the underlying meaning. Scripture takes time to understand and always (for me) requires help for me to understand. My parish priest has recommended Theophylact’s commentary for many of my questions. And of course I endorse Fr Stephen’s help as well who has the training in the various original languages and culture of the scripture.

  73. Dino Avatar

    Perhaps the ‘harshness’ of such scriptural words ought to be seen as little more than a goading exhortation.
    Trusting that God will save us, but He wants us to utilize all the hidden powers implanted (yet inactivated) inside of us.
    He unconditionally loves us, but also desires us to relish knowing that we actually deserve appreciation.
    In the Old Testament we see that most of God’s complaints of His people are of this nature: they do not trust enough in the face of great adversity and turn elsewhere.
    It is such an easy change to go from positive to negative –as well as vice versa– in our internal disposition here! There are certain kinds of adversity that produce this reaction with ease.
    So, like the apostles we do well to ask the Lord to: “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5).
    But we want to gallantly repel the neurotic logismoi that beset our internal state at every turn. Even if this is not always easy.
    I often marvel in a kind of awestruck wonder at the extent that some great saints did this. Frail humans just like us, who internally strived to be positively predisposed towards the Lord’s good providence in the face of unimaginable challenges that can bring anyone to despondency.
    Elder Aimilianos, for instance, was a living example of such a thing.
    What is impressive is that the inter-psychic (privately personal) state of balance (internal-tidiness) and integrity cultivated this way through long internal positive “spiritual labor”, invariably has glaring repercussion on the interpersonal (outward) state of one’s life.

  74. Dino Avatar

    Incidentally, using another way to express all this, we could rightly say that, God’s greatest gift is His absence!
    His ‘invisibility’ is the thing that allows man to use the freedom that renders him divine-like.
    This freedom (to freely trust in Him and His goodness), despite its inevitable potential for misuse, is the most fearfully awesome honour bestowed upon humans.
    No matter how painful this can seem for our, still-childlike, reasonings, (especially in a world where God’s providence must allow continuous misfortunes to guide us away from worshipping the creatures and towards the worshipping of the Creator [Romans 1:25]) it is the zone within which we have the power to incline towards positive acceptance or negativity.
    Our labour here, though internal, is always tested externally: the first commandment (towards God) is proven by the second (towards neighbour).
    So, we ourselves and at every moment either disincline and “depart from the Lord asking Him to not know us” or incline and re-orient our being’s trajectory in His direction. (Matthew 7:23)

  75. Will Avatar

    Thank you for your responses, Dee and Dino.

    Dee, I like what you say about the clear sight of our failings as a gift of God. and thank you for your reading recommendation.

    Dino, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying the aim of our spiritual struggles is to trust in the providence of God, no matter the adversity we encounter. That is, we are to trust in the goodness and unconditional love of God even in the midst of all the temptations to become despondent. This is a hopeful message.

    Your last comment concerning our moments of inclination or disinclination to/from God, though, in my mind gets put into a legal framework. I imagine God taking account of all our moments of inclination, putting them on one side of a scale, and all our moments of disinclination, a putting them on the other side of the scale. Whether or not we enter the Kingdom of Heaven depends upon our moments of inclination outweighing our moments of disinclination.

    I don’t mean to suggest that this is what you intend to say–only that it’s my reaction, rightly or wrongly.

    I hope, though, that God hears the prayer I pray from the Jordanville prayer book: “For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty… Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works [or, I might add, moments of inclination] which could justify me…”

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