The Last Temptation

I have pondered, from time to time, the oddity of Christ’s “last” temptation. The first temptation was that of turning stones into bread, the second, that of throwing Himself down from the Temple. The third and last temptation, however, was to be given “all the kingdoms of this world.” I understand hunger. Fasting for 40 days easily explains that the first temptation surrounds food. I have less comprehension regarding casting oneself down from the Temple, other than comparing it to my own self-doubt. But I do not imagine myself able to psychologize or compare my inner thoughts to those of the Incarnate God. As the years unfold, however, I am seeing far more clearly the nature of the third and last temptation – I think it is far more widespread than we imagine.

“The Kingdoms of this world” is not a temptation to fantastic wealth (really great palaces, and amazing chariots like no one ever imagined!). I believe it is similar to the idylls we whisper to ourselves when Powerball starts edging up on half-a-billion (many whisper at even lower numbers). Give me a million dollars and I imagine a better retirement. Give me ten million and I begin to think of charities. Give me 500 million and I become a force for good in this world – nothing less.

The whisper asks, “What manner of good could you do if you had all the power in the world?” I do not think of Christ being tempted with anything that smacked of self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t need to be the richest guy in the world. Strangely, the temptation lies in doing good – and doing good in a powerful way.

No time in human history has enjoyed the near omniscience and omnipotence of our present age. Live cams allow us to watch scenes in distant cities at a single click. News and information are nearly instantaneous. We are exploring the mysteries of the genome and playing with sub-atomic particles. The prowess of our technology gives rise to our imaginings of power. We contemplate the end of hunger, the end of racism, a new day in which people can be anything they imagine and be protected for imagining it.

Of course, in the midst of what feels like such promise, suffering continues. Regardless of miraculous works of science, everybody dies. And, in a world where we seek to remove all suffering, some choose to die sooner rather than later so that their deaths might be suffering-free. We speak and think like people who have won the lottery, with the problematic handicap that everybody else in the world has won it at the same time. Thus, we argue about what to do with all this power.

A difficult point in our power discussion (and this brings us to the Temptation of Christ) is the problem of suffering. We understand suffering to be evil and, therefore, something that should be opposed and eradicated. To argue in any other manner sounds callous and “un-Christian.” We are trapped in our own goodness.

When we contemplate the so-called problem of evil, the conundrum always lies in the juxtaposition of power and suffering. If God is all-powerful, we ask, why does He allow suffering? (And we always phrase this in terms of the suffering of innocent children). If God has won the ultimate Powerball lottery, why doesn’t He do more with His winnings? Why does God say no to all the Kingdoms of this world?

That, it seems to me, is the nature of the temptation placed before Christ. What if you had the power to fix everything? We reason within ourselves that, surely, God always has the power to fix all things. Obviously, there is a disconnect in our reasoning, a flaw that makes it fail. For some, the failure in our thought is enough to convince that there is no God. I agree, in part. There is no God of the sort they imagine. What we know of God – all that we know of God – is that which is made known to us in the God/Man Christ Jesus. “No one knows the Father except the Son.” What we know of God through Christ is that the Cross is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). The God who created all that is and sustains everything in its existence is only revealed to us through the Crucified Jesus. There is no other God.

The last temptation put before Christ is to be someone who He is not: to be a different God. To this He replies: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:10). There will be no getting around the Cross. There will be no world in which suffering is healed without suffering. Jesus refuses the lottery ticket.

This reminds me of Ivan Karamazov, who, famously, “refused the ticket” of a world in which the goodness of God is manifest somehow in suffering, including the suffering of innocent children. It was Ivan as well who posed the story of the Grand Inquisitor. In that story, Jesus returns to earth in the midst of the Inquisition. There he heals someone (and is arrested). The Grand Inquistor knows who He is but tells Him to go away. The “Church” (as an agency of human power) has learned what people need for happiness (mostly bread and stuff) and are doing fine without Him. He is told that it is too late for Him to change the rules of the game.

That passage is Dostoevsky’s slap at the Catholic Church of the 19th century, one that was committed to the use of political power for the Church’s goals (the Vatican is, to this day, a city-state, the last remnant of the kingdoms in Italy that were once under papal rule). To the mind of Dostoevsky, this marriage of the gospel to state power (human power) is an acceptance of and acquiescence to the last temptation. It says yes to power in the name of good – and, in so doing, becomes the instrument of evil. This is evil understood as “that which denies the Cross.”

Christ did not (and does not) ignore suffering. The gospels move from one story of healing to another. But every story of healing holds within it the mystery of the Cross. Every life He touches is drawn into the suffering life of the gospel itself. He will lead them out of Jerusalem to a lonely corner of a quarry where He will show them the fullness of His power and the embrace of His suffering love. Many of those witnesses will, in time, join Him on the crosses of their own martyrdoms. Some will become human torches lighting Nero’s humorless games. They will love as none have ever loved apart from the Cross and whisper their mysterious secret to the weak and foolish who seem to be the most likely to understand.

It is our penchant for misdefining evil and distorting the true nature of power that yields the upside-down reasoning of modernity. No matter how fine the bricks or how tall the building, the Tower of Babel is never more than a symbol of human arrogance and demonic suggestion.

Which brings me to the present temptation that seems to permeate our world. Whatever it is that we understand to be evil in our world (and there is no lack of examples) must be understood primarily in terms of their detachment from the Cross of Christ.

I attended an academic meeting at the Jesuit School in Chicago during my seminary days (late ’70’s). I was seated next to a Jesuit priest. Dinner conversation somehow turned to the person of Mother Theresa who had captured the imagination of many in the world as a paragon of selfless love. The Jesuit begged to differ. He noted that he had served for a time in Calcutta, and knew Mother Theresa. His complaint (and it was bitter, indeed) was that she refused to use the immense power she had gained through her media-attention as political power. He rambled on about what such power could do to change the life of the poor in that struggling city. I lost my appetite. Somehow, my instinct said that I was seated next to the Grand Inquisitor, where the actions of a Hollywood star would rank higher than those of a monastic who had personally tended to tens of thousands of the poorest of the poor. I wondered how many times she had refused such a ticket.

For lesser sorts, such as you and I, the temptation comes in other forms. I think of it particularly in the various guises of political power. We live in a time of political extremes. Those who care the most speak mostly from our fantasies of power. It is believed that we must act, lest terrible things happen (usually to children). Somehow missing from our anxieties and the compulsions of our time is the Cross.

We will not eliminate suffering. Such a power has not been given to us. We can indeed do many things, though the truly great will be those who did them in union with the Cross rather than in union with the power of the world. The true battle is being waged in the human heart. The Cross always appears to be weakness and foolishness – and thus its followers must be willing to become weak fools.

Out across the world, there are weak fools who have given themselves to prayer, suffering deprivation for the life of the world. God has united Himself to them and, through them, sustains the universe in its very existence. The tempter, on the other hand, is handing out tickets to his fantasy powerball lottery. They are purchased daily by the wise and wonderful who have married themselves to their imaginations. With every death they swear, “Never again!” rushing out to buy yet another ticket.

The first martyrs of the incarnation were innocent children. Herod imagined he was doing good, or so he told himself as he pondered his winning lottery ticket.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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88 responses to “The Last Temptation”

  1. Dino Avatar

    What an astute and fitting insight Father!

  2. peder Avatar

    Thanks Father.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ahhhh, a balm to my soul. Three things come to mind:
    1. Submitting oneself in humility to Jesus’ mercy also partakes of the Cross;
    2. The current crises has shown how limited our ability to “make things better” despite Dupont’s slogan “Better Living through Chemistry”**
    3. Medical science long ago surrendered to the temptation: My Dad was a highly respected local public health officer from 1950 to 1973. He had an MA in bacteriology, and MD and an Masters in Public Health (MPH) from Harvard.
    Hee had seven principles of good public health and medicine. One of those was “Treat the person, not the disease.” He understood that improving the health of one human being, improved the health of all.
    Now it is all about treating the disease–people are not really important any more.
    ** Dupont retired the slogan when the hippies of the 60’s adopted it with gusto.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Questions: Is not the way of the Cross deeply sacramental? Does it not call down the Holy Spirit transforming and transfiguring what ever gifts we offer? Matthew 14: 13-21 comes to mind.

  5. Jordan Avatar

    Thanks Father. Lately I have been troubled by thoughts about why God doesn’t fix me (not so much the world). Despite the fact that there is a false image of God at play with that complaint, it is nonetheless difficult to let go of. At other times I have sensed that Jesus is waiting within my pain, and I wonder why I don’t sense him there now.

    The line “but every story of healing holds within it the mystery of the Cross. Every life He touches is drawn into the suffering life of the gospel itself” was helpful to hear. It really spoke to my soul. It suggests that my healing is a matter of my transformation, and this will actually ask something of me… even everything. Part of me is angry at that, part of me encouraged.

  6. Ralph W Williams Avatar
    Ralph W Williams

    Excellent thoughts!
    My understanding of the three temptations is that they all undercut Christ’s mission by offering short cuts:
    “Make bread” (and the whole world will come to you because you can feed them).
    “Cast yourself off the highest part of the temple” (and the whole world will come to you when they see the spectacle of angels catching you).
    “Worship me” (and I will give you the whole world).

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve come to think that if I were “fixed,” (in the manner that we want to be fixed), I would no longer want to find Him. We are, I suspect, often looking for a very different God than the true one. Christ gave us a list of places to look: sick, in prison, hungry, etc. We seem not to want to see Him there, or only from a distance. Worse yet, we treat those things as “moral commands” instead of in the manner in which He actually described them. “I was sick,” He says of Himself, etc.

  8. Diana Christina Avatar
    Diana Christina

    Excellent, especially coming one day before the inauguration!! Lord have mercy!!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My experience in these conversations is that some want to put forward rather well-developed theologies of the relationship between Church and State – mostly derived from thoughts about former Empires and such where the Church has lived. They fail, I think, to consider the nature and claims of the modern state, and fall prey to forms of thought that are, for all intents and purposes, developments of modern Protestant thought misapplied to the present life of Orthodoxy.

    Many fear being relegated to a “sectarian” position, of somehow “withdrawing” from the public project. I’m very doubtful about such a critique. My experience is that the Church, in such thinking, is always subsumed by the state and its view of the secular project, in order to support imaginary moral projects.

    The state would have us imagine a better world if only there were a better state. Again, it is the temptation that says, “Unless you join in the project, then you are supporting an evil state.”

    We even fall into a trap if we think that what the world needs is a “better human being” (and we think we can produce those). What the world needs is a crucified human being. It is this that we refuse to become. The world promises us that if we will join their project, we can avoid being crucified.

  10. Salaam Yitbarek Avatar
    Salaam Yitbarek

    Father, what do you mean when you say Herod imagined he was doing something good?

  11. kevin zalac Avatar
    kevin zalac

    Man… (whistles through teeth)… it immediately makes me think of Gandalf and Galadriel’s refusal of the One Ring —through which Tolkien offers us this same story and temptation again. That story, the Lord of the Rings, matters so much because it is our story. And our story always begins and ends in Christ. To be outside the story or to denounce it, is to create a Ringwraith of oneself- a demon.

    What is the modern politically minded American if not a stabbed by a Mordor blade? The poison is there…simply waiting for the right combination of socio-economic pressures and despair to complete the transformation. I saw this face to face when I was a member of our union’s executive board during contracts with the City.

    I couldn’t believe the open corruption and incompetence of the city officials. It really made my jaw drop. It set me to quite a righteous anger…I even fantasied about running for council years down the road when I retire and to add some integrity and truth to this quagmire of a city I love.

    But.. I stepped down and stepped away. Not for any reasons such as wisdom or insight. Not because I had this story of Christ with me. I stepped down because I couldn’t stand how angry and indignant I felt.

    Now…a few years and a baptism removed. I can look back and see these moments in ‘my’ story where this was presented to me. And by God’s Grace, hopefully see them in the future as well. To always deny the Ring/Tempter/powerball fantasy. To always leave the seat of the Grand Inquisitor vacant.

    God bless

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect that Herod somehow imagined that his kingship was good for Israel, that, without him, terrible and worse things would happen. Thus, getting rid of any potential usurpers would seem to him a “good” thing. Even perverse characters like Hitler and Stalin would have explained themselves in terms of some false “good.”

  13. Helen Avatar

    Father, I recently watched a couple of YouTube videos, recordings of past talks you’ve given. First of all, it’s nice to hear your voice and see you after only having read your book and blog. Second, you talked in these videos about some things that God has allowed for a particular person’s salvation. (your son’s ADHD, the moaning child in your mission parish). Today’s blog post rings of that same message for me. So many things that we would prefer eliminated can be for our salvation. Having been raised Orthodox, but in a very psychologically negative way, I’m so grateful for how you preach.

  14. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed, Father, Hitler believed that he was engaged in the making of a better human race. Ironically, I met and befriended for a time a Jewish person who survived the camps. At the time I was quite young, participating in a university philosophy class with this person and I said to her, an older woman, that I had no idea how people could be so gullible to believe in such a philosophy. And she rolled up her sleeve, to reveal to me for the first time her camp number tattoo, and said, “I believed in it and I still believe in it.” — I was dumbfounded and speechless.

    That period (middle to late 1970’s) was the beginning of my realization that my cultural foundation (from my Seminole mother) was quite different from modernity, but I was yet not sufficiently educated to grapple with these distinctions and what the implications meant.

    Dear Michael, that quote from Dupont was a ‘hum-dinger’. For a time I was a regional Chair for a very prominent professional organization of chemists. A similar orientation was behind a regional school science fair theme for which I was asked as Chair to endorse. I didn’t endorse it and neither did I do anything to encourage the yearly science fair since it was apparently being coopted by a group of industries. I quit the organization shortly after. I didn’t convince myself that I did anyone any good, rather, I was doing my best to look after the condition of my own soul. Perhaps that was a selfish outlook, but, St Isaac mentions something similar to that of a plane experiencing depressurization: put the oxygen mask on your own face first!

    For us in the Orthodox Church, the oxygen mask is embracing the cross, when we see it before us. I’m grateful, Father, that your article helps to reveal what embracing the cross looks like. May God help us to love and to pick up our cross and follow Him.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One of my deepest convictions is that the topic of the nature of modernity is most-often overlooked in Orthodox writings. Schmemann’s For the Life of the World is almost unique in its definition and critique of secularism as a dangerous heresy. Given that such a dominant figure said such a bold thing, how did that not become one of the most talked-about and written-about topics in Orthodoxy?

    The shame book I’m writing is also going to have stuff on modernity. I’m slugging away – I hope everyone is not too impatient (or, at least, not as impatient as I am).

  16. SAS Avatar

    “It is our penchant for misdefining evil and distorting the true nature of power that yields the upside-down reasoning of modernity”

    What, then, is the correct definition of evil, or the true nature of power? Why is using power to do good a bad thing, aside from perhaps a warped perception of what is good?

  17. Julia Avatar

    Thank you for sharing your story insights and experiences with us. These have been helpful to me as I struggle with my cross to follow Christ. May I recommend a 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman. It is an hilarious movie that shows what happens when a single man replaces God, while God goes on a short vacation. Although the movie is not Theologically correct; it clearly shows what a mess can be made when one tries to replace God and get what we want, not what God wants. I laugh just remembering it.

  18. Ziton Avatar

    Many of the commentaries on the temptations of Christ in the desert seem to frame them as “lessons” for us about testing, perhaps contrasting superhuman perfection with what we should be doing to fight temptation and so on. So it is so refreshing not only to read something deeper (and topical), but more because you dare to suggest that the temptations facing Christ might actually have been so much more than anything we could possibly face. I think that’s right. It’s not just an example for us. It’s a category level difference. I’d go as far as to say that the desert is already Christ on a kind of eternal Cross. (By the way, speaking of the Cross, I think of Christ’s last temptation as being either Gethsemane, or maybe even eli, eli, lama sabachtani but that’s another discussion.)

    My own way device for about the desert temptations is slightly different to the powerball example, which is good but maybe still a bit realistic and “us” oriented. I I think mine reinforces your conclusions, so I hope you don’t mind. I call it genie wishes. The thought experiment is to imagine you get a lamp but don’t just get three wishes, you get an infinity of them, and anything you wish for can come true. Much more God-like: an infinite power to shape ‘reality’.

    What would I do with that? In real life we come up against a reality that won’t budge. But He has the ability to shape it to be whatever he wants it to be. So even with the “change rocks into bread” there is the generic temptation (and it’s a kind of power one too – perhaps the most overtly ‘magical’ one) to have reality shaped to meet one’s own sensual desires or cravings. Running the thought experiment on that one pretty quickly reveals just how shallow and craven I really am. (Trust me on that. Vile, But also as a humility exercise quite revealing.) Perhaps on day one or two I might keep things modest. But after forty days, with that kind of magical power, would I really be able to resist the temptation to start playing around with, or indulging, my fantasies (“just a little” of course, to see what happens, and surely it can’t hurt) ? I doubt it very much. However, Christ does not bend to the temptation to reshape reality and his method – to quote “man cannot live by bread alone” is kind of perfect. Just enough to nip that one in the bud perhaps in part because it draws a line between desire and need.

    But yes, the last temptation re temporal power you talk about, Father, is the most on point for now. It is interesting that so many general intercessional prayers ‘for the world’ often seem to be a bit like vague or generic hopes. World peace, or peace in a particular country. End to violence or pestilence or whatever. I engage in these prayers – and (I think) mean it. But that is as far as it should go. Because as I run the infinite genie thought experiment, I can see that if I actually had such powers I would very quickly become very busy as I tried to micromanage all the consequences. Just how would that war end? What should the new power structure, borders etc be? Should I just wish all of the borders away? Oh and to do all that I would need to wish away a lot of the thoughts of the people actually living in the said places because otherwise the ‘peace’ would be meaningless. But then this may not be such a big deal because if things work out badly, of course you can just wish in a new government, or whatever, and see how that works out. Or probably after trying to work with wayward reality for a while I might just get fed up with the whole business and order a flood and start over again … 🙂

    So, this wishing for good business is suddenly looking tricky. So maybe on reflection you decide that no, you decide to be a little less ambitious, but still try to be ‘good’. You decide to use your wishes to magically help your friends or others you know of who are in real need that you come across, to help them sort out their problems and issues in a genuine and non-trivial way. Healing their diseases, their relationships, their mental problems, perhaps. The pattern, though, will be the same. Again, the consequences could be unpredictable and you may find yourself needing to make more wishes to solve new problems you have helped create, and so on. And if things really continue to not work, and the blighters start blaming you having made things worse, or for not giving them exactly what they wanted you to, you can just make them be happy with their lot, by wishing away their ingratitude and making them like you without the embarrassment of them even being aware of this. Pity about their freedom of will, or integrity as human beings, but hey it’s all in their interests.
    Hold on, how did we get here? This wishing thing is really complicated.
    The last temptation frankly looks like an invitation to madness. One that as your article says, so many of us seem can’t help but want to take on.
    I think this is what the term “playing god” means.
    Fortunately, I do not have such power to impose my tinny and tin pot views with their tarnished values on to reality much, except through my normal interactions with the world. Which is just as well because turning reality into what I am like on this inside – my desires, thoughts, neuroses and fantasies – really does not bear thinking about. Perhaps I could find the self control to limit myself and actually, at the beginning maybe I would or could. But knowing that such power is there, and starting to use it, would sooner or later result in a slippery slope. Power is like that.
    Part of the Christian message is that God became man so that man could become God. It is truly horrible thought to think about my ‘becoming God’, or even God-like, without having died comprehensively to my old self and having become one with Christ. Anything short of that would be scary beyond belief. It would be as if the pagan gods were born again into the world and wreaking havoc. It’s interesting that so many of the superhero movies that are so much the rage are about just that. They seem like to be the true projections of the cultural psyche of our times – all those magical power fantasies – the opposite of the desert.
    I sometimes think Christ was already on the cross in the desert. No wonder the Spirit drove him there after His Theophany, and by the end he was being entertained by angels.
    Hmmm …

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Evil is the movement towards non-being (which is a movement away from God). The true nature of power is the Cross. The difficulty in using “power” (by which I assume you mean something other than the Cross) to “do good” is the problems that come with defining the good. Generally, in the modern world, we define “good” in a utilitarian manner (what is useful for wealth, health, happiness, etc.) and assume that the management of outcomes is not really a problem. It’s not just that we misunderstand power and poorly define the good – it’s that in seeing the world in this manner and in acting in this manner, we ourselves become increasingly alienated from God.

    To do good, essentially, means to keep the commandments of Christ, first and foremost. But spelling all this out is, I suppose, another article to be written.

  20. SAS Avatar

    I guess what I’m really wondering is what the power of the Cross is, or what that means or entails.

  21. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    ” Just enough to nip that one in the bud perhaps in part because it draws a line between desire and need.”

    Nipping things in the bud took me a long time to learn. In my youth, I could rationalize just about anything with something along the lines of “I should check this out, you know, for my education”. Now I realize that bud-nipping is a key to steering clear of egregious sin, or not so egregious sin. For me now in my later years, it’s the ‘little’ sins that get their nose under the tent… eternal vigilance!

    A favorite aphorism of mine: “You can’t help it if a bird flies over your head. But you can stop it from making a nest in your hair”.

  22. Chad Avatar

    Pray for me

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would express the power of the Cross as self-emptying love in union with Christ. It’s not a self-emptying love apart from Christ. It cannot be abstracted as a thing-in-itself. It is always in union with Him. I think it’s often quite frustrating for us – because we want to ourselves be our own gods and do things independently. It is a love that lays itself down for the world (which is quite different from making other things lay down so that we can achieve some “good” that we’ve defined.

    When we live in union with the commandments of Christ – He inevitably leads us to points and places where we can lay down our lives in union with Him. To be steadfast is to stay on course and not deviate from our life in union with Him. There will be constant temptations that suggest that such a life will end in failure and that there’s a better way. The Cross looks like failure until God’s Pascha.

    It’s impossible to lay this out in a cause-and-effect form of logic, inasmuch as its “logic” is Christ’s Pascha. You never see the resurrection coming. It is God’s work.

  24. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    You have again spoken so much that I have been contemplating. I will have to read this again. Thank you.

  25. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father, I pray for your work on your writings daily!!

    And in the meantime, re-reading Fr Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World .

  26. Michelle Garrison Avatar
    Michelle Garrison

    Thank you for speaking to the very things I need right now. There is so much here, though, that I think I still need to mull over it.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a “thickly” written article. Take your time. Ask questions as you want to.

  28. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless. I like your thoughts on the third temptation. I have never heard it expressed as you have done, I think you have nailed it. It sits well with an Orthodox Phronema and it resonates with my soul. When I was in a Protestant Seminary I listened to so many calls to make the world better and I was told that I had the potential to make a difference. I was a Prison Chaplain and I was being asked to created a ministry for those leaving jail that would support and nurture them in the faith in the form of a half way house. I knew in my heart that I was not equal to that task. It would require me to force people to conform and I just could not do that. Now I know why that would have been wrong for me to do. Yes, former prisoners need help but forcing is not the answer.

  29. Norman Dionysius Redington Avatar
    Norman Dionysius Redington

    But I suppose the question arises: what if you do have power? What if you do win the jackpot, or (more likely) make a tidy sum in business? What if you are the Czar, or a member of Parliament, or, for that matter, just some reputedly wise chap to whom people turn for advice? What if you are the centurion with people under you who do things when you tell them to? Almost everyone, however ‘powerless’ they may feel or be most of the time, at some point in their life have an opportunity to ‘wield power’ over others or to ‘change the world’ in some small or less small way: is this always just a temptation? Can a camel pass through the eye of a needle?

  30. Robert Avatar

    Having read your blog for a couple years, and many of the past years I believe I can summarize all, and I intend no disrespect, that I have learned is that the line between good and evil runs through every heart. I think that one thing shattered the castle of modernism dominating my mind. Thank you, Father.

  31. Ook Avatar

    Reading your story of the Jesuit’s opinion of Mother Teresa, I was reminded that when Christopher Hitchens acted in an official position as advocatus diaboli, among his arguments against canonization was that she used the money she received to help her monastic community. He thought it was obvious that she should instead have used it to eliminate poverty instead.

  32. Karen Watson Avatar
    Karen Watson

    “I suspect that Herod somehow imagined that his kingship was good for Israel, that, without him, terrible and worse things would happen. Thus, getting rid of any potential usurpers would seem to him a “good” thing. Even perverse characters like Hitler and Stalin would have explained themselves in terms of some false “good.”

    I have said this for many years, often to derision or worse. And would add that even more obvious example, Caiaphas. Evil always has to borrow off good – nobody wakes up in the morning thinking “what evil can I do today?” and if they did, the satisfaction gained in achieving it would be another unwanted good again!

    Once you make one single “good” objective your god, and are prepared to sacrifice every other moral consideration to achieve it, the Enemy has won. Again, it’s evil borrowing off good – the subject’s will can only be subverted by the promise of the one, vital, overriding Good that makes even damnation a worthwhile risk in order to “save”. When it comes to “saving humanity”, I’m willing to put my hand to the plough under Divine orders, but basically I say the job of “saving” is already Taken.

    Like the poster further up, I started out thinking the “last temptation” would be “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross, save yourself and us!”. But when I look at it, it’s actually the same “last temptation” as the one in the desert – “Use your power! What is stopping you?”

    And those faiths – even our own at times – who impose outward submission by force are taking the bait down, hook line and sinker.

    Father, am I following, as I hope I am, your points correctly?

  33. Cleverson Avatar

    One example of creating a problem while fixing another may be organ transplants. Last year, it was discovered that, after a person take a heart transplant, some connections between heart and brain are lost and impossible to re-establish.

    Then there is a thesis from Fr. John Romanides, according to which, deification isn’t merely a spiritual and psychic process, but is also a fix to a kind of “short circuit” that involves the physical heart as well.

    thus, perhaps the Church should start advocating for the end of transplants and development of other techniques, like using stem cells for example.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Cleverson, I have long said I would not accept a transplant for some of the reasons you mention YET one of the best Orthodox people I know who has an amazing ministry that God has blessed is alive now because of a kidney transplant. I cannot help but rejoice in that because this man has shown me Christ weeping in sorrow in my own heart.

    I think the Church taking “stands” on such things is an example, perhaps, of the last temptation?

    God’s mercy endures forever. One enters into that mercy only through the Cross. Both the Cross and His mercy are closer than hands and feet. A great mystery, yet a simple one–easy to over think; missing the narrow opening to life.

    Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    These are good questions – and go a long way towards asking the question of how to live as a Christian in this world. The power that comes with positions of authority and responsibility is a fearful thing. One American thinker suggested that we should never elect anyone who seeks the office. 🙂

    It is interesting that a figure of note in colonial America was the classical Roman, Cincinnatus. He left his farming when called up by the people and was given absolute power during a time of war. When the war was over, he gave up all power and returned to his farm. Many compared George Washington to him.

    But – those are civic examples. At present, the great difficulty in serving in positions of power and such comes with modernity itself and goals such as “making the world a better place.” It is a false goal, and frequently produces evil. We have become so enamoured of what power can do that we gladly elect persons to the highest office who are proven to be people of bad moral character. We no longer believe that “justice” is something that comes from “just persons.” We assume that bad people can do good things. It is a devil’s bargain. I intend no partisanship in this observation. Both the Right and the Left are equally guilty in this regard.

    So, we take up our duties with fear and trembling. We might refuse any number of duties as compromises in the faith. If the primary obligation of a company is to maximize profits for its shareholders, even to the detriment of workers, should a Christian agree to lead such a company? Just an example.

    Christ warned the disciples about positions of power (“the Gentiles lord it over one another”). Regardless of our positions – keeping the commandments of Christ should be without compromise.

    I was once asked to be a “spiritual director” for a man who was wealthy and had a large company. I told him that first, he should treat those who worked for him with careful justice and generosity or I could be of no use to him. If he mistreated his workers, they would cry out to God and He would hear them. And nothing I could say or do would be of benefit. If, on the other hand, he was kind and generous to his workforce, they would again pray to God for him, and God would hear them – and it would be of great benefit.

    In our modern culture, we do not fear having power. We desire it and admire it. This, despite the repeated, dire warnings of Christ.

  36. Tabitha Sherman Avatar
    Tabitha Sherman

    Father, I look forward to reading your book when it comes out, and I will put at least two copies into our church library. In the meantime, I will get a copy of Fr. Schmemann’s book and read it. (We have a copy or two in the church library).

    Thank-you for making such important topics accessible to the average reader.

  37. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Wow! This post really resonated as pure gold. Thank you so much for the way you give yourself on God’s behalf.

  38. Janine Avatar

    ” The Cross always appears to be weakness and foolishness – and thus its followers must be willing to become weak fools.”

    “What the world needs is a crucified human being. It is this that we refuse to become. The world promises us that if we will join their project, we can avoid being crucified.”

    “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”

    “And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” And we are all still working on this !

  39. Janine Avatar

    “In our modern culture, we do not fear having power. We desire it and admire it. This, despite the repeated, dire warnings of Christ.”

    At the risk of being too political, I will say that I have decided there are two kinds of people: those who relish and feel they are entitled to power, and those who are afraid of what power can do.

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Regarding Christ’s temptation: I have also wondered how it was that the adversary would even ‘think’ that Christ could be so tempted. Perhaps the totality of the Incarnation was not something he understood or perhaps it was his own pride that made such a revelation not understandable.

    The Jewish tradition looked for a Christ that would be king, having little grasp of an ontological breach that needed to be healed. It wasn’t just the kingdoms of man that was off-kilter, it was all of the cosmos. Not just us but everything, the entire universe, hangs by a thread.

    Christ promised that He would not leave us as orphans for a reason.

  41. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you again for articles such as these last few. They are helping me to gain perspective concerning questions that keep nagging me. I am trying to gain a more Christ-like and orthodox way of thinking, but something that I keep wondering is how to reconcile that way of thinking/my citizenship in God’s kingdom with that of my modern American citizenship? All the current events have brought a whole lot of questions to the surface that I’ve often wondered about, but they seemed unimportant at the time. For instance, my American ancestors created a government founded on the idea that government is “by the people, for the people, and of the people,” and “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”… Is this philosophy even Christian in nature? Or humanist? If our government has become corrupt, distorted, or illegitimate will it ever be our responsibility to do anything about it, and where do we cross the line towards seeking earthly power and where would we be merely fulfilling our duty as a citizen? Should we even idealize the early patriots who fought against the monarchy of England? Or are these American ideals unbiblical? Or do we have a duty to the covenants of our forefathers in some way? I do not want to be political (and really desire to have little to do with politics), but I do want to be faithful to my responsibilities as a citizen of my country according to God’s will. And according to the founding documents and as a country “of the people,” it appears my responsibility could go beyond mere obedience and being a quiet and decent person (as much as that appeals to my non-confrontational nature.) I realize, also, that our American documents are often unwisely treated as sacred Scripture to some.
    I hope this comment isn’t too political in nature, but so far, Orthodox explanations have helped me find more holistic and unified ways of thinking within my Christian faith and I am hoping my political and patriotic self can be unified and healed in Christ as well. Anyways, thank you again for your insights thus far; they have built a great foundation for me to begin with already.

  42. Nes Avatar

    What then is uniting oneself unto God if it removes no suffering? Is our God then the God of pain? Why run after such a God when there is no shortage of pain outside of communion with Him? Why ever talk about “happiness” at all in a Christian context if this pain-inflicting Father is the one we have?

    Tonight after losing a series of games I asked God to show me just a small token of his love, like a father would show his little pathetic son who wanted his favor. I asked him first that I might win a game (I proceeded to lose after asking) and then that he would inspire someone reach out to me and tell me how He felt about me, whether he loved or cared for me or not. No one contacted me. I know these seems obscene and irrelevant, but I was finally convinced tonight through these small sufferings that God is not like the father I want. He is not gracious and tender, like a man who holds a little one in his arms. He does not buy us little treats and go out of his way to procure favor for us, his special one. He is a silent God, and the only thing he promises us is this ephemeral “salvation” — but salvation from what? Not suffering. Not from our unquenchable desire to know we are loved and favored. Not unto anything we understand or need in any earthly sense. How cruel! To make animals with needs and desires and hopes and to ignore their most basic needs, only offering some abstract salvation sometime after death.

    I know I am parroting Ivan here, but this is how I feel. I cannot hide this from myself, and I surely can’t hide it from God. So what am I to do?

    I’m a 33 year old guy who lives alone in a tiny apartment and works at a small church. I live paycheck to paycheck, and only with the help of friends and family. I’ve asked God my whole life to show me his favor, his blessing, that he loves me. All these tiny moments where I needed intimacy with him the most have passed by in cold silence. I feel utterly disconnected and powerless. This God of suffering, of doing-nothing, of never making things better or easier or more bearable, how or why would I reach out to him? He doesn’t even respond in a way I can understand!

    I wish that God would have pity on us Ivan’s. I wish he would be tender enough to change our hearts.

  43. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I offer my thoughts for what they are worth (not too much).

    To a significant extent, the theology undergirding the foundation of the US was Protestantism, and within Protestantism was modernism. As Father mentions, there is indeed a lot to unpack with these terse statements. Such theology endorsed a form of “progress” and that led to various consequences such as industrialization, slavery and the taking of lands and livelihood from indigenous peoples. My cultural background, for whatever it’s worth, doesn’t lend itself to perceive a special “goodness” worth fighting for in the history of the US culture. Nevertheless, I appreciate a level of freedom that I have had in my life, and the lives and actions of people who might have brought that about. Some people within my own family paid dearly for the freedom I have had. But at the same time, I’m not blind to the fact that that my circumstances are also constrained by invisible walls shaped by modernism. And for that reason, I strove to understand what modernism is, now and historically.

  44. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Embracing Christ’s cross is not doing nothing. And our suffering is not nothing and it is not invisible to our Lord. Salvation isn’t ‘after death’. His Kingdom is already inaugurated and He is here among us. And He is with you. And He loves you. When we despair (and there have been many of such times in my life as well) we become blind to His presence. Ironically at one point long ago I yelled “at God” and said “I don’t believe You exist”. Within a few moments after I yelled, I realized the irony.

    I want to say something that will help. But all I can do in this format is to say that I want to reveal God’s love for you that is coming out of my own heart, attempting in my own feeble way to say, He indeed loves you.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nes, I just woke up because the pain in my back is too much to sleep through. An almost nightly occurrence. Much of the rest of my life is not unlike yours except it has been this way for 40 years more. Tonight I was sharing your thoughts to some extent. The wife of my old age has suffered even greater things and still does. She too cries out for change. My son is not unlike you. The only way I have found to bear the Cross of my life is to embrace it thorns and all, blood and pain and submit to His mercy. Your words have helped me do that.
    The pain, the loneliness, inadequacy, the anguish, all of it we each share with you. None of us is alone despite what it seems.
    His mercy is there too. Through the Cross not around it.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, has a quote from T. S. Eliot that fits.
    It is important to realize that the American Experiment is not now, nor has it ever been Christian. The fantasy that it is has done great harm to both the faith and the country.
    Canada too though in a different way.
    So, follow the faith. Historically doing so has brought people into conflict with worldly power. That is no different today.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s a lot of pain in your thoughts – and (as you cite Ivan) – it is a pain that is not uncommon. My first thought is that you need connection with a priest and a community of believers (I do not know what sort of church you work at). I hear in your pain more than the God question – and think it will take someone local (like a priest, or even the right therapist) who can bear that pain with you so that some healing can occur.

    I am interested, oddly, in your experience of the “games.” You seemed to want the pleasure of winning (which is apparently not the same thing as the pleasure of playing). If losing brings no pleasure – why play the game? Your description of a miserable evening was, in many ways, a description of demands – to have things be a certain way. To win a game, etc.

    If possible, find things, even the smallest things, that you can give thanks for. Offer that thanks within your prayer. It will help your heart. In the short term, it is the most potent therapy that I know.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suspect that there is a conflict within our Christianity whenever we think of the American state because the American state has defined itself falsely and created a mythology about its existence that is, for all intents and purposes, intended to make it the religion of our lives. Though couched in “secular” terms with pious phrases about God and providence, it was rooted not in Scripture but in the philosophical theories of John Locke and the notions of the Scottish Enlightenment.

    Government does not exist to “make the world a better place” or any such grand over-arching scheme. It exists to run things necessary to our life and the general welfare. Doing justice is among those things – genuine justice. We’ve acquired these habits of pious political expressions that hide our sins from ourselves (I suspect) and lure us ever deeper into a downward spiral of modern mythology.

    We’ve gone through an election that took us from “make America great again” to “build back better.” Neither of which would or will be true. That our hearts balk at such things is the work of the Holy Spirit warning us about trusting those who tell lies for a living.

    We should not be depressed that we live in times in which there are political troubles. So long as we remain “political” people – we will be trouble by politics. Why is there pretty much no mention whatsoever of politics in the Scriptures. There are only about two or three Scriptures ever cited about Christians and government:

    1. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s
    2. Pray for the Emperor
    3. The Emperor does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13)

    That’s extremely thin gruel to make the basis of a meal. I’m not exaggerating this paucity of Scripture. And yet, here in our modern world, politics looms like some vast demanding way of life that begs our attention and tells us of our patriotic duty.

    I read through Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims from time to time. They are a good guide, even a good list for doing self-examination of the soul. There’s not a hint of patriotism or civic duty in them. There is, however, a very grounded description of the Orthodox life. We should pay attention to such things and let the madness of the world go talk to itself. It has almost nothing to say to us worth hearing.

    An interesting read, for an account of the “religion” of the American experiment, is Eugene McCarraher’s, The Enchantments of Mammon. He’s a contemporary Catholic philosopher. I read it this past year and found it frighteningly accurate in its historical descriptions.

  49. Mary Beck Avatar
    Mary Beck

    You cried out, “ This God of suffering, of doing-nothing, of never making things better or easier or more bearable, how or why would I reach out to him? He doesn’t even respond in a way I can understand!” You are in so much pain. Of course you want a God who will do you some good.
    But real love cannot be separated from suffering. Suffering reveals the reality of the human condition – our need for God, the awareness of our weakness and our limitations. Our vulnerability.
    For me, this is easiest to see in my love for my parents and children. I believe that God loves them and he loves me enough to give them to me. More importantly, when I love them, I know it is in unity with Him. That unity is the ultimate reality.
    God bless you.

  50. Janine Avatar

    Thanks for those reading recommendations, Father.

    There is another aspect to the “political” that I fear does touch upon our spirituality. It is just something I feel or sense, and I don’t think I can narrow it down to some personal anxieties. Moreover I believe a lot of people are sensing it. What I am talking about is a sense of instability under the surface. Born and raised in the US, it’s quite true that what I might sense as instability is eons away from true horrors and upheavals this world has offered to people. But my family comes from some of the worst of those, and I don’t think politics is the issue. It’s just a strange time that feels unstable for some reason, like anything can happen. I do believe there is a spiritual dimension to this, and that is what I am trying to allude to. Many people seem to be grappling with different variables of personal loss, profound change (like possibly the demands Covid has placed that are not natural to us). I hate to think I sound like I’m babbling, but the very sense of instability I believe asks us to go deeper into our faith, and to root ourselves more deeply in the places where our souls need prayer. It is the opposite of responding with yet more “political.” I think — I should say that I sense — this is a time which asks of us very careful treading, dedication to prayer life, and even more circumspection, In Christ’s terms, we really need to be “awake” to who we are.

    I suppose the issue is control. I see people around me desperate for control when really we are not in control and we can’t be in control. We can be prudent, and we can pay attention where we really need to. I hope I make some sense. I would appreciate your thoughts on this, Father. Thank you also again.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, You are correct I think. Still all things must pass away but Jesus’ mercy endures.

  52. Janine Avatar

    Thanks Michael, those are wise words.

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If I compare the present to, say, the 1950’s, or even the 70’s and 80’s, there seems to be a deeper sense that the “core” is shifting in some manner. Much of that is the “ephemera” of our times – when “fashion” and “fetish” are overblown in our media world and described as though they were foundational and of deep importance.

    What you had for breakfast this morning is of far greater meaning and importance than any political thought (or fashion thought, or culture thought) that we will have today. We take for granted the things that are of great importance and we worry about the things that are not. The media has to concentrate on the unimportant things – because without them constantly beating the drums we would not give a single thought to what they think is urgent. A week without news of any sort would likely make us feel better – whereas, we need breakfast.

    I’ve been reading a book on the Vikings (fairly careful history). I’ve spent a lot of my spare time in the past couple of years reading in Roman and Anglo-Saxon British history – so this is simply an expansion. Needless to say, what we think of as normal and take for granted, was far less “normal” in earlier times. And yet, Christians survived such times (and produced many, many saints). St. Patrick was taken by Irish pirates and enslaved as a child. It’s important in his life-story, but it’s not what is most remembered about him. Today, it’s probably the only thing we would talk about were he a contemporary character. In A.D. 68, the Emperor Nero committed suicide. The next year, there were four different emperors. Rome was filled with turmoil. The Church was prospering, even as the persecutions began.

    Terrible things are possible at any time. We have never been told anything else in the Scriptures. History illustrates this again and again. But, by applying ourselves to the “thing that is at hand,” keeping the commandments of Christ, and giving thanks for all things, we slowly find ourselves grounded on the foundation whose “builder and maker is God.”

    Scripture tells us repeatedly – do not be anxious. Be anxious for nothing, etc. The media world (all of it) needs you to be anxious about everything.

  54. Janine Avatar

    Thank you so much Father. There is a lot to think about and unpack there, and on many levels. And it seems like there are many layers at which to apply, “Do not be anxious.” I am always drawn deeper to St. Patrick, thank you.

  55. Helen Avatar

    Nes, I’m no mental health professional, so my comments to you will be only from my experience. I have come to understand, through the combination of mental health professionals and support from wise and loving people, that much of what I thought about God and about who is he supposed to be and what is he supposed to do was more of a caricature about God that I had formed within my own head, in response to a lot of pain and emotional abuse, brought upon by people who really thought they were loving me and teaching me Orthodoxy. This God was really no more than a genie in a bottle, or a very small minded angry narcissist. I am learning more about him by letting him teach me, slowly, very slowly sometimes. I prefer knowing that he is truly much bigger than my mind can fathom, with so much more to discover about him and his ways, an eternity of discovery and awe, and love tailored for my own heart. You are in my prayers.

  56. Byron Avatar

    I do not want to be political (and really desire to have little to do with politics), but I do want to be faithful to my responsibilities as a citizen of my country according to God’s will.


    I think more and more that the world’s open turning away from God has left a vacuum and people have filled that vacuum with the State, with citizenship, with country. There may be no way to be faithful to “responsibilities as a citizen” and not not be political. They seem inseparable.

    I would say to ignore them for the time being; the lies of the State are what they are. We have to live within them, but are not required to take part in them. Live life in the Church. Practice the Faith. Keep the Commandments. May God have mercy on us all. Just my thoughts.

  57. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I think this comes back around to the “becoming” versus instantaneous views of salvation. Christ became man, Christ learned obedience, Christ is made perfect, Christ becomes high priest, etc. To short cut all of this is to short cut theosis since He assumes what we are to make us what He is. I know we do not talk about Christ (not to my knowledge) going through theosis, but it’s very analogous to ours. If He did not become, we will not become in union with Him. It was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross despising the shame. Joy in endurance, the “knowing it’s worth it” with a settled joy, in becoming, is what is commended to us as well. But the assumption is that what you would get by the short cut and what you would get by patient endurance are the same, but they aren’t. Seems like a glaring oversight on Satan’s part. And of course it didn’t work. I’m still of the opinion that Satan did not truly know who Christ was until after the Resurrection (or when Hades was invaded). I think this is part of the reason why the temptations seem strange. If the powers knew who they were leading to the cross, they wouldn’t have done it after-all.

  58. Byron Avatar


    I think, rather, it was a misunderstanding of the cross. The powers saw it/see it as defeat; God transformed it into Life.

  59. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you to everyone here who shared their thoughts. This blog always seems filled with insightful thoughts that help clarify my thinking and point me in good directions. Again, I think they may require multiple readings and mulling over to fully grasp and appreciate them.
    To add to these thoughts: All of you confirmed several nagging concerns with modern American “patriotism” and corresponding philosophies and politics (and reminded me to instead focus on the simplicity of the faith). However, Dee mentioned that despite the issues found in our American heritage, there was a certain freedom she found here that she owed to those who had gone before her. It reminded me of my research I completed in Finland a couple years ago as I compared their educational system to ours. I met several educational leaders from around the world while there, and one thing to which my eyes were opened was the unique strengths and weaknesses found in various cultures. I saw how God had blessed different nations and people groups uniquely in order to benefit the rest of the world. I saw more clearly how, I as an American, and my country, had been greatly blessed by God and not just monetarily, but in spiritual and Scriptural riches, in the arts, culture, innovation, work ethic, and people/leadership skills. I saw all this while still admiring other countries for their strengths. (Finns are a highly ethical, steady, rational, dependable, and trustworthy people). Although I think it is wrong to say that America is the greatest country on earth, I do believe God has gifted Americans with a leadership role on the world stage; even “little ol’ me” here in America, felt a sense of admiration, power, and credibility overseas. I know this brings with it a sense of responsibility as the world watches us (and we have failed greatly in our materialism and other issues as of late.) But thank you for reminding me to keep my Christian faith front and center. Dee, what you said reminded me that I can be wary of the negative parts of my heritage while still being grateful for the positive aspects. Fr. Stephan, thank you for a reminder about the Maxims; it is a good time for me to reread them and refocus in some areas. Your blog is such a blessing to me, and your personal care for each response means a lot and makes reading the comments as enlightening as the blog itself. God bless!

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, you are right to a point BUT we have to he careful that even a limited participation as you suggest is done with a “God first” attitude. Jesus acknowledged the Roman authority without denying God.

  61. Byron Avatar

    Michael, yes, I only meant that we cannot change or stop the State from lying but that doesn’t mean we have to take part in the lie.

    This dovetails nicely into Father’s next article, “Do the Good You Can Do”.

  62. Mitch Avatar

    This is a difficult concept to grasp. My modern brain struggles to comprehend.
    The best contemporary illustration I can think of is The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (shudder…)

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is, in many ways, written into almost every modern project (both civil and private). We want to control the outcome of history in the name of some imagined good. It has become fundamental to the way we think such that we have forgotten that it is a very recent way of thinking. Sadly, we find it difficult to think otherwise (thus it’s a “difficult concept to grasp”).

    Sometimes I do a thought experiment. I pick myself up and put myself down in some pre-modern location and think of how I might live in that context. Not even the King or his ministers are talking about making the world a better place. What are they talking about? What is everyone else talking about?

  64. Karen Watson Avatar
    Karen Watson

    Glory, I would guess – primarily the King’s but, by extension, the people’s. Glory meant a great deal to the mediaeval and early modern mind – Henry VIII, an appallingly bad ruler, was nevertheless *very* good at doing that kind of worldly “glory”. And is still most people’s casual idea of a great English king, if not a great king altogether. The showy “strong man” role model has not gone out of fashion even now.

    You would certainly not hear them talk about trying to do anything for “the world” in general – most of which, of course, still lay undiscovered. Just their own inheritance’s greatness and extension, while the serfs living and labouring on it were simply part of their wealth, as much as the cattle, horses and sheep. The one truly international and humanitarian organisation, existing uneasily alongside the covetous, suspicious and power-hungry secular rulers of Western Europe, was the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of “Christendom” was a bit wider (presumably included Orthodoxy) and the nearest to a “bettering the world” idea was the strong imperative preached, and responded to, to “convert the heathen”, including the use of force.

    I don’t think the underlying impulses are as “modern” as all that – just dressed in modern clothes…

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a fascinating book: Mont Saint Michel and Chartes. It is European history looked at in the comparison between the Romanesque Cathedral of Mt. Saint Michel and the Gothic Cathedral of Chartres. The time between the two covers the birt of the modern age. It is written by the great American historian, Henry Adams. Intriguingly he quietly called it the second volume of his autobiography–a history of his family.
    Among other things the difference between the two architectural styles is an illustration of the expansive, conquering mentality of modernism

  66. NSP Avatar


    If I understand your thought experiment right, you are saying that in pre-modern times, people didn’t really have any hopes for long-term social improvement. However, haven’t there been people involved in politics and administration with noble intentions throughout history? (e.g., senators, council-members ruling city-states, dynastic rulers wanting to create a better nation for their future descendants, rulers who built monuments marking some sort of improvement they introduced into their kingdom, etc.) Since you mentioned the Roman Empire, wasn’t their boast of the “Pax Romana” just another term for “making the world a better place?” Also, I’m thinking, for example, of the famous passage in Pericles’ Funeral oration that goes,

    ” An Athenian citizen does not neglect the state because he takes care of his own household; and even those of us who are engaged in business have a very fair idea of politics. We alone regard a man who takes no interest in public affairs, not as a harmless, but as a useless character: and if few of us are originators, we are all sound judges of a policy.”

    Or perhaps I’m not clearly understanding the thinking process you describe. I’ll have to ponder more on this.


  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    NSP, what you are seeing in Pericles is not the same thing. Some American historians have examined what they call “The Myth of Progress”. Even some 19th century historians like Henry Adams. Carl Becker wrote a whole book on it in the 1930’s more recently Victor Davis Hanson and others.
    It is fair to say that the study of history is more often than not the study of men’s failure to progress in any meaningful way. Henry Adams in his little essay “The Law of Phase as Applied to History” addresses the hubris that technological innovation=progress.

    Being committed to good and intelligent social order and participatory citzenship is nowhere near thinking about “progress”.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s always possible to read a desire for a “better world” into anything in history. What you’ll not find is anyone talking about such an idea in any extended manner before the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath. We should not mistake the desire to do good with the desire to make the world a better place. That latter idea is historically rooted in a perversion of Protestant eschatology (initially). That’s a matter of the historical record. It has its beginnings in various pietistic/puritan movements along the edges of the Reformation. It took root largely in America and more slowly in Britain where it became married to the industrial revolution.

    A good extended read on some of this in America can be found in McCarraher’s The Enchantment of Mammon. But the same conclusions can be found any number of places.

    What has been lost, in the name of a “better world,” is the simple notion of a “good world,” living justly and such. The “better world” notion, married to consumer capitalism makes many believe that their enormous profits, when allowed to trickle down, will make the world a better place by the rising tide that “floats all boats” – which excuses them from doing justice at the present moment. That’s a very crude way of describing the thoughts and behaviors of many. It has, in America, been strongly married to various forms of Christianity.

    We should be good citizens. We should ask for good and just laws. We should, when possible, elect people who themselves are “good and just.” That boat may have sailed a long time ago – with very corrupt people, policies, and politics having long ago taken control of things. If I am correct in saying that, it does not prevent the average citizen from himself/herself living in a just and good manner – but it will not be a political movement of changing the world.

    The day I see someone in America leaving national office poorer than when they entered it – I’ll be willing to ponder whether I’m wrong.

  69. NSP Avatar


    Thanks for your reply. I think I see more clearly now. If I follow the implications of what you are saying to their logical conclusion, that would mean that what Tolkien called “the Long Defeat” was, in some way or the other, more or less the default Weltanschauung of the pre-modern world.


  70. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I would also like to see a clearer definition of what the state is, if you dare to tackle that one!

    Too often, the definition of the Church really does become analogous to the sate: different levels of authority, common identity/culture/rituals, property ownership and “taxation” of one form or another by the authorities, laws and punishment, etc. It is basically “the state but with Jesus as head” in theory, though maybe only meeting periodically throughout the week. In practice, it can quickly become just a really bad state, using Christ’s name but ultimately placing the highest value on institutional self-perpetuation, loyalty to particular human rulers, etc.

    Aside from matters of the heart—which are no small matters, of course—what separates the two, particularly when we’re talking about a Christian state which also proclaims loyalty to Christ? We have some historical models, but much of that comes down to us in terms of their conflict: the emperor had to call a council to make peace in the institutional church, a bishop had to excommunicate an emperor, etc. So what *is* the Christian state, in time of peace and doctrinal orthodoxy? And how does the church avoid becoming a state of its own without losing its necessary incarnational physicality and traditioned sacraments?

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I cannot say that I think there is a theological definition of what constitutes the “state.” In many ways, the “state” is a modern concept. It has certainly varied over the centuries in various places. It is, no matter how it describes itself, a “power.” There is some sense that this “power” is established, or, at least, permitted by God for protection and well-being of a people. The modern state suggests that is power is “derived from the people.” That is a secularized definition. For myself, I hold that the authority of the state is from God and answerable to God, even if it describes itself in some other manner. “All things are the Lord’s.”

    The state is never “Christian” in the sense that it is somehow a department of the Church. But, it can be governed by a Christian/Christians, and give acknowledgement to the authority of God – that is – that it is answerable to divine law above all else. Interestingly, the US seems to sometimes have that flavor, and sometimes not (probably as it serves its convenience). The Declaration of Independence certainly invoked God as a source of its authority.

    The Church, canonically, does not exercise authority over the bodies or property of even its members. It cannot (or should not imprison them or confiscate their property). Whenever this has happened, it has always been the state acting on its behalf. It’s a good way for the Church to become a bad actor, in my opinion. Christ said we should not “lord it over” one another.

    I hope those thoughts are of use.

  72. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    Indeed, Father, I cannot come up with a great definition of state, either, but very much agree that it is answerable to God. I have been doing many thought experiments with the state as a “department” of the Church—but Church in the widest sense, where the institutional church is also a “department” of sorts, like the king vs Levites in ancient Israel, neither of which is Israel alone. That requires us to more vocally distinguish the Church from the physical institution we see, though—uncomfortable to do given that kind of thinking’s association with Protestantism and schism and such but a distinction which is still fundamentally orthodox: in a technical sense, every human is somehow part of the Church, to at least some degree, because Christ’s Incarnation is so cosmically fulfilling and uniting. I’m still sorting out the implications of this because it is something we don’t talk about as much as other topics in American Orthodoxy, despite it literally being the Good News: Christ saving all!

    And when I was thinking about the powers of the institutional church, I was considering things like canon 12 of the 7th Council, which has led to very interesting developments in the West which don’t need to be reiterated here—that happened not because of “the Franks!” or some such thing but a word-for-word Orthodox canon.

    I recently completed a short study on the Council Of Jerusalem (Acts 15) and it is hard to see how there can be any system of regulation—or even asking and pleading—that either doesn’t have enforcement based on a power dynamic (whether physical, at the Cup, etc and however right and protecting-the-Body the justification really is) or devolve into schism/”agree to disagree”/etc territory. The physicality of the Incarnation demands a physicality to the Church. But it is remarkably hard for me to understand how that physicality can exist without also being crucified—something we see in the martyrs, the teachers and hierarchs (many of whom were persecuted and/or cut off by the institutional church!), and the rest of the saints individually but which I struggle to perceive at any sort of “organizational level”. I don’t just mean it is hard to do or frequently fails in a particular institution—that is obvious enough—but that I cannot even imagine what a “crucified organization” would look like. It is always an organization with some or all of its members being crucified. But then, back to my question that sparked it all, how can any form of ecclesial organization at all be different from a Christian/Christian-run “state”? I’m still stuck!

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What thought I have given to ecclesiology has always come down to the Cup. Communion is the sacramental expression of our unity in Christ (true unity, not sentimentality). Refusing the Cup is not a coercive act. It is simply a recognition of what is true. For example, when Moscow broke communion with Constantinople recently, it was an appropriate response to an action that “violated” the communion of love in the truth, inasmuch as it was done over the head and against the objections of a brother Patriarch, etc. I do not want to comment further on that situation.

    I think of this as non-coercive. It says, “Until we work this out, we should not share Communion in the One Cup.” It is actually quite a common thing in the history of Orthodoxy. Antioch and Jerusalem are currently out of communion, for example, and was one of the reasons Moscow gave for refusing to come to the Council in Crete.

    I have elsewhere compared the Common Cup to the sexual expression within marriage. In marriage, that action should never be separated from emotional union and love. For it to be coercive would be a great sin.

    I think of the state as something that belongs to the “garments of skin” – something God has provided for our relative well-being with an eye to the dangerous state of our foreign world. What it cannot have, I think, is a “higher” state. Whenever in history it has sought to be a higher state, it becomes idolatrous and much more dangerous. The modern state is probably the most dangerous we’ve ever known – in that it has taken on such a very large role.

  74. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I think the coercion angle may be helpful. I have seen even the “non-coercive” stuff use coercively, though, so I wonder: what distinguishes coercion? For example, say we had a fast-food-menu-like system of punishments: a name and picture of the unlawful act with the amount of punishment next to it for all to see. Comical and extreme, but totally open and clear. In theory, that wouldn’t be coercive: there is not anyone dictating how or why a person should live, nobody observing them for mistakes, etc. All that is there is a set of consequences, a more complex form of “we should not share” in civil society [in the same ways] anymore. Yet the very existence of law (or even Law, cf St Paul) presupposes that those things—someone to decide that a breach has occurred, someone to carry out enforcement (even if it is based on a denial of a gift), and the rest of the context—are inevitably related to it and that the law necessarily reveals lawlessness (however imperfectly) and is bound up with death (though law is not [necessarily] sin).

    So is there anything explicit about an act that makes it coercive or non-coercive? If so, what is the distinction? (And I would assume you would have the non-coercion be one of the signs of the Church at work vs the state.) And how does that allow “church law” or practice (including excommunication) to be above coercion but not state law? Or is it all implicit: the heart behind the act (ie, as revelation instead of vengeance), the context, and so forth? But if it is implicit then, again, what separates church and state? How could we speak of an institutional church based on explicit criteria at all, and why do we—and live that out to the smallest detail?

    I will keep thinking about the “garments of skin” angle as well; thanks.

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In my own thought, I have seen communion as having a mutual-voluntary status – just like the mutual love in a marriage. We do not commune by right, but by love. If love is broken (which is sometimes seen in confession situations) – then we forgo communion for a time. If excommunication is used coercively, then it is abused. There’s a fine line there – no doubt. But it is the mutuality that prevents the coercion.

    God does not coerce. We are not to coerce in His name.

  76. Michelle Avatar

    If I may be so bold as to add to the topic of coercion as I have pondered this idea quite a lot in my job as a schoolteacher and parent. I have seen mant teachers use manipulative and coercive methods in order to manage their classrooms, and I did not feel the peace of the Lord when operating in that manner. However, over time, by God’s grace, I discerned that management of people (I assume the same principal could apply in some form within the church or state), should rely on my response to an infraction or situation being not from a spirit of vengence or control but should stem from my authority and recognition of the truth of that situation (and mutual love of course). My reaction is not seeking a particular response but merely reacts righteously to the person I am responsible for. For instance, a child willfully disobeys my rules. I recognize the fact he is not in harmony with the order and peace of my jurisdiction, so to speak, so in order to maintain peace, he or she must be removed to time out or be given consequences as a “wake up call” or warning because my authority cannot allow that behavior in my realm of authority. I give this child warnings and a choice to return should they choose to follow the parameters for peace and order. The spirit behind it makes all the difference. I have witnessed the human nature of the child respond quite differently to the same consequences based merely on the spirit behind the one who handed them out. The love and respect for the free will of the human that Fr. Stephan alluded to above–that creates the difference I have witnessed. I do grieve that the state as we know it (and the people who operate in its authority) are far removed from those it seeks to govern and little to no relationship of mutual love and trust can flourish in such a large, impersonal beauracratic system as we have today. That, I guess, is a whole other topic…

  77. NSP Avatar

    @Michelle and others,

    Would you include corporal punishment like caning in the category of acceptable consequences?

    I ask because, having had occasion to be involved in a similar situation like yours, it was clearly evident that there was a heavy push by higher-ups to encourage teachers to administer corporal punishment, but some of us were never comfortable with it. The justifications given were that corporal punishment was a sort of “perfect punishment” because it was (a) immediate (b) repeatable within a short time frame in case any further infractions followed (if you’ve already given a student the punishment of writing out 1000 times, “I will not do X” and he/she then goes and does infraction Y soon after, you cannot realistically expect him to complete another 1000 lines, whereas if you’ve caned a student for a fault an hour ago, you can easily cane him again for another fault.).

    When someone pointed out that for certain sensitive students being punished with a switch or cane in front of all other students would be extremely humiliating, the response was that the humiliation was part of the punishment.

    Some of us held out till the end, and I was glad when my involvement ended because that meant I wouldn’t have to face this constant compulsion any longer. However, those who weren’t enthusiastic about administering corporal punishment were judged as being over-sensitive and were even told that an aversion to corporal punishment smacked of liberal connotations because corporal punishment was clearly endorsed in the Christian tradition. (e.g., the book of Proverbs, monastic traditions, etc.)


  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michelle, NSP,
    There is, if you will, a voluntary compact between a teacher, say, and a pupil, that includes permission for the teacher to act in authority. That is the mutuality involved that can be done in a non-coercive way. Time out, other strategies, are appropriate.

    NSP, I am personally opposed to corporal punishment and think it is abusive and largely counter-productive. I say that as someone who grew up under its use. It had an effect pretty much opposite of that intended. To me, it shows a lack of creativity and insight into human nature. And the Old Testament verses, such as “spare the rod, spoil the child” are only taken literally by someone who does not know better. But, I’ve been chewed out myself by such types. Unpleasant.

    In my adult years, I was deeply privileged to have had a conversation with my father about the misuse of corporal punishment and stuff like that in which mutual apologies where appropriate were offered and accepted. A work of grace.

  79. Michelle Avatar

    I work with a population of students who, by the average teacher, would be considered difficult. I cringe even hearing talk of “caning” and “writing sentences 1000s of times” because I have discovered that when the right spirit and relationships are built, the consequences rarely need be severe to be a tool of instruction (at least for young children). In fact, my greatest tool is patience and my biggest support is my time out room teacher who provides a place for them to go when they choose not to obey. I seek to build such a relationship with my students that they want to return to my room as soon as possible, and they can usually return as soon as they show a right spirit. I think the attitude you speak of (that declares its opponents to be too “liberal”) and seeks a method of punishment based on its utility does not reflect how my Savior has gently and mercifully (and yet sometimes sternly) guided me using methods suited to my individual need and the situation. I tend to see God as never chastening us more than we need in order to turn us back to Him and keep us from the path of sin, after all, “His rod and staff, they comfort me.” Sometimes, teachers judge children according to their own comfort level and their personal standards instead of seeing where each child is spiritually and developmentally as an individual. Then, when children transgress rules they may not be ready to follow or because of their human frailty and then are harshly punished, they become hurt and angry, they rebel and a power struggle ensues. A wise authority figure reserves personal judgement for the Lord and only judges within his authoritative capacity according as the needs of the situation and child warrent. I work for a public school, however, so I am not faced with a temptation towards using corporal punishment, but as a young parent, my Christian community encouraged it. I use it less now with my own younger children than my older ones, and I think they are better off that way. In my opinion, it has too often been used as a sort of short cut/quick fix instead seeking to do the tough work of building relationships, being patient in instruction, and regularly egaging in gentle discipline using spiritual discernment on behalf of the child. Am I against its use at all times? Not necessarily, but overused and oftentimes unnecessary in my opinion.

  80. Byron Avatar

    My reaction is not seeking a particular response but merely reacts righteously to the person I am responsible for.

    Michelle, this is a wonderful response.

  81. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In my experience “corporal punishment” is like a communicable disease. Some folks have a mild form while with others it can be terminal for both body and perhaps soul. It is a disease based in fear and perceived inadequacy. It tends to be passed on from generation to generation. The only cure I know is what Father points to– mutual forgiveness and acceptance of God’s mercy.
    It is incredible how much unacknowledged fear there is raging in people’s hearts even in non-crisis times.

    As the name and topics of this web site point out–fear is not God’s will for us.

    I have always been drawn to Frank Herbert’s ‘Litany Against Fear’ with one enlargement:
    “Fear is the mind(soul) killer. I must not fear. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn my inner eye to its path. Where the fear has gone there will he nothing. Only I will remain. ”

    When I act in fear I lose my humanity and the recognition of our interconnectedness with God, each other and the rest of His good creation. Gradually, if I persist, my humanity and my soul are drawn back toward the nothingness from which God formed us. Is that not Hell?

    Still God’s mercy is above and under and even through our fears and continues to bring us to remembrance and fulfillment of my humanity and communion. If I submit to His mercy. God grant us the gift of tears so

    Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

  82. Ziton Avatar

    Michael Bauman. I too like the Dune fear mantra thingy. Of Jesus’ big questions perhaps the most overlooked one is that one after the calming of the inland sea. Most everyone, including the disciples, focuses on the miracle and power of nature. But I do wonder whether it his question “Why (or, of what) are you afraid?” that is maybe the reason for the whole incident. At the beginning (in the original Mark story) he gets into the boat “as he was”. Kind of existentially self contained, and maybe contrasting with everyone else. Once things get rough, the entreaty the disciples make is the very telling “DO YOU NOT CARE that we might perish. (Caps deliberate because that’s what I suspect the even bigger fear than death is in many cases.)

    But the question after the great peace, the megas galene, happens has an arrow quality to it that resonates with what you were suggesting. Follow the path of the fear and that is where we see who we are in large part. Surely much of our conditioning from childhood was about fears, anxieties, insecurities then boundaries and so on. Not to mention that fear is the great fuel of shame of course. What we think we are is a sort of projection of all of those accumulated fears over the years.

    If indeed we do sit with Jesus question – deeply, following the pathways it leads down, and from a place of peace once the waters are calm – then there is scope for much healing I think. Also when we ponder his second question at the same time “how is it that ye have no faith?” (the “how is it” is the interesting bit. And in Mark of course it is a question, whereas in Matthew it turns into an admonition. I prefer the question …

  83. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ziton, thank you. The verses from Mark are quite apt. Where do you thing Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God” fits in? I ask because that was what came to mind as I was reading your comment.
    Is our soul like the lake?

    In any case my extended meditation on mercy over the last couple of months has certainly quieted my soul.

    For some, “fear not” means the God is in control. But looking at it that way opens the door right back to fear. It is not about control at all is it? Does not His mercy mean “control” as it is typically understood is simply not necessary?

    Certainly not the illusory control of aggressive violence.

  84. Anonymo Avatar

    Thankyou Father, for saying: “God does not coerce. We are not to coerce in His name.”
    I heard the opposite message at home and in church throughout my youth.
    The interplay of love and freedom is central to my understanding of God and the gospel now.
    Revelations 3:20 springs to mind, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

  85. Ziton Avatar

    Michael Bauman. Psalm 46 is indeed wonderful, and especially verse 10. All very resonant – and with Father’s article about the aquatic life to boot.

    Re “fear not” it can’t be about control. The image from the second “troubles on the inland sea” story perhaps may help. I sort of see the calming of the waters story as the first bracket, and then Jesus walking on the water (St Mark and St John;s versions anyway) as the closing bracket. In the first story Jesus ends by asking those two questions, especially “why are you afraid”. The second story sort of closes the bracket with an answer, and a way of responding: when the disciples are indeed terrified because it is dark and they think they have seen a ghost, he says to them “do not be afraid, it is I”. There is NOTHING of control in that. In fact what is normally translated as “it is I” (eimi ego) can also be translated as “I am”. That to me seems to be the mercy in the face of fear. Do not be afraid because I AM – ontology not command and control. As to response, the disciples (in John) respond by welcoming him into the boat at which point not only do all the fears no longer matter, but the boat (Emmaus tingle) “arrives at the place to which it was going”.

    Yes, be still and know that I am God.

    Thank you for this interchange. It has been helpful for me.

  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ziton and for me as well and a thank you to our host for creating and maintaining an environment that allows such sharing.

    God is good.

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