Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?

 

In a world in which the action of choosing is exalted above all else, it is not surprising to hear that “evil is necessary in order to have the good.” I have seen this conversation, cast in a number of ways. It is stock-in-trade for some quasi-religious systems. I have seen it in spades in Jungian and Depth Psychology circles. No doubt, some bring this set of ideas along with them into the Orthodox faith. It is, however, a profound error.

Before looking at the nature of good and evil, it is worth seeing the problem involved when choice is inserted into the conversation. What happens in that approach is that we are no longer speaking about the nature of good and evil, indeed, both are relativized in importance. Everything quickly revolves back to the nature of choosing, and makes the actions of our will the center of the good. Thus, there is no true good or evil, only good choices and evil choices. It is a narcissistic ontology – a system of thought in which we ourselves become the center of attention.

This is where, for me, some very fundamental matters of Orthodox thought are helpful. The “Good” is a term that ultimately applies to God. God is good and the source of all goodness. Indeed, goodness has a place in the “philosophical trinity.” That trinity is truth, goodness, and beauty. These are the three properties of being. God alone has true being. Everything that exists does so because God gives it being. Creation thus has relative being. The purpose (telos) of all created things is to move from relative being towards greater likeness and union with God in the truth of His being. In theological terms, we speak of this as “eternal life.”

It is in the context of these understandings that the Fathers speak of evil. Evil is not a “thing,” nor something that has any existence or being at all. To think about evil, it is necessary to understand that all of creation (ourselves included) is in motion (kenesis). Everything moves and changes (in terms of being). The proper movement for all things is towards its end in God (its telos). This is a movement towards greater truth, beauty, and goodness. Evil, on the other hand, is a movement away from proper being, a movement away from truth, beauty, and goodness. However, it is crucial to note that this is a movement, and not a thing.

Our movement towards God (which is what is described as doing good or being good) does not in any way require a movement away from God. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest that non-being is required in order for being to exist.

In systems such as Depth Psychology, “wholeness” is often used to describe the proper goal of life. Its notion of wholeness is a reconciliation of good and evil. Carl Jung, in his language of mythic archetypes, dubbed this figure, “Abraxas.” It puts me in mind of a Star Trek episode (original series). Captain Kirk suffers from an accident in the transporter system where his “good” side has been separated from his “evil” side. The two caricatures (we cannot call them characters) fight it out for control of the Enterprise with rather predictable results. The goal of the episode is to put him back together. The subtext of the program is that we cannot function without our evil selves, even if they must be tempered. This is a far cry from Orthodox theosis.

It is entirely understandable that people cast about for answers in the problem of good and evil. We wonder, “Does evil serve a purpose?” The mistakes we have made, or even the terrible tragedies and catastrophes across our history would seem somehow more acceptable if we could see them playing a role in some later, greater good. Our faith does not reconcile evil with good. Rather, it tells us that good overcomes evil and moves towards its end in a manner that, while not abolishing evil from the story of things, makes the story to be what evil sought to prevent.

The story of Joseph in Egypt is a primary example. His brothers’ evil action in selling him as a slave to the Egyptians is “undone” or “overcome” after a fashion. He says to them, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” Of course, the Cross is the greatest of such examples. The powers of this world meant it for one thing, but the Lord meant it for His own great goodness – the redemption of all things.

As we tend to center our world (and ourselves) in the question of our choices, we are constantly tempted to justify those we feel were wrong. By the same token, we bring an anxiety about the choices that are yet to come. The power of goodness is not within our choice. We do not create the good – it is given to us. The impossible reality that surrounds our choices is seen when we examine the limits of our existence. We cannot see the consequences of our actions (beyond the most immediate circumstances) nor can we control the myriad of other events that will interact with any choice we might make. We are simply insufficient of ourselves to create good through our choices.

This does not negate the place that choice has in our lives. However, like everything about a contingent being, it is relativized. God alone is the source of the good, and whatever participation our lives have in goodness is His gift to us. We cannot weigh or consider the good in a manner apart from God. There is no such thing as a “secular” good.

The course of our existence is a movement. That movement is impelled towards the good through our desire for God (sometimes manifest simply as a longing for beauty, truth, and goodness). We make choices within the course of that movement, but only God can direct and make of our choices the good He intends. What we know of our choices are limited, often complex, and filled with uncertainty. It is God, to whom we commend ourselves, one another, and all our lives, who gathers our choices into His own goodness, truth, and beauty, making of them what we could never do of our own selves.

In none of this, however, is evil necessary. It has no being. It is only misdirection. It is a parasite. The Scriptures say this:

“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have communion with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5–7)

The communion we have with one another is rooted in our communion in Christ. He is the Good, and it is our participation (communion) in Him that is our good as well. It is this communion that “cleanses” all of our choices – the relative good and the relative evil – and sets them on the path of union with God.

Learning to live as contingent creatures, someone whose existence is always only relative, is best described and encompassed as the life of thanksgiving. The Scriptures say that, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In this, we give thanks, and commend the whole of our life to Him.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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165 responses to “Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?”

  1. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    My two cents: ( Since you have already introduced scholasitcs into the conversation, I hope you won’t mind my Catholic-tinted thoughts:)

    If the question is “Does Goodness require the possibility of evil?” then I think most Christians would agree it does not. After all, by definition, God is Goodness, and there is no evil in God.

    Perhaps other helpful questions would be, “Does contingent being require the possibility of evil?” or “If creatures with free will live in time, are they constantly exposed to the possibility of evil?”

    Once God has willed that there will be beings who are (in a manner of speaking, because God is both transcendent and immanent) “Not God” and that some of these creatures will have free-will, perhaps that is the level at which the possibility of evil becomes part of the picture. (Possibility, of course does not mean inevitability, as Lewis illustrated in Perelandra.) Simone Weil describes this as God sort of “stepping back” so that creation can exist.

    God in eternity requires no possibility of evil. But once creation started, even for the angels who dwell in aeviternity (I don’t know if the Orthodox use such a concept in thinking of angels) there was the possibility of turning to evil at the first beginning, after which their wills were “fixed” according to their choice. (again, I’m not sure if such thinking is acceptable to the Orthodox). After all, if Eru Ilúvatar asks the Ainur to make Music and they all have free-will, how can Melkor be prevented from introducing discord, short of outright coercion? One of the answers St. Thomas Aquinas gives to the Problem of Evil is that God permits evil because He can draw a greater good out of it, much like the Third Theme of Ilúvatar which took the greatest notes of the pompous opposing theme and wove them into itself.

    And we mortal humans living in time face this possibility of evil in every moment as long as we are in time.

    In your essays you frequently quote from the book of Revelation, where the Lamb is said to be “slain from the foundations of the world.” Given that you have said in recent articles that death is as much foreign to God as sin is, perhaps this verse indicates that once “the world” came into being, the possibility of evil, at least in the realm of time, was part of the picture, but of course, God has victory over this evil.

    -NSP

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    NSP,
    I intentionally resist any rational explanation of evil – because it is irrational and absurd. Our freedom does indeed allow us to turn away from the Good, though we are not turning towards “evil” (as evil is “no thing”). Also I do not want to speak of bringing a “greater good” – I think that doesn’t work either. God knows and always knew what He would do in His love – the Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth. I can speak of that love. But, I think it is wrong to speak of that love being made necessary by evil. I’ll quote again from a book on St. Dionysius:

    It has been wisely remarked that any satisfactory account of evil must enable us to retain our outrage at it. Most theodicies fail this test, for in supposedly allowing us to understand evil they justify it and thus take away our outrage. For Dionysius, however, evil remains outrageous precisely because cause it is irrational, because there is no reason, no justification for it. The privation theory of evil, expressed in a radical form by Dionysius, is not a shallow disregard or denial of the evident evils in the world. It means rather that, confronted with the evils in the world, we can only say that for no reason, and therefore outrageously, the world as we find it does not perfectly love God, the Good, the sole end of all love. And since the Good is the principle of intelligibility and hence of being, to the extent that anything fails to partake of that principle it is deficient in being. The recognition of evils in the world and in ourselves is the recognition that the world and ourselves, as we find them, are less than fully existent because we do not perfectly love God, the Good.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it seems to me that a good part of our struggle with evil lies in our attempt to make it a “rational thing” and therefore both real and important. Is it not possible that the freedom that comes ontologically with real repentance is related to a growing realization that evil has no ontological reality?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Our struggle is always best undertaken as the effort to do good, rather than an effort to not do evil. Ontologically speaking, not doing evil, means not doing not doing good – which is why it’s so seldom effective.

  5. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Father for this elaboration. It seems difficult for us westerners, given what we have been exposed to in western theology, to understand evil as ‘not a thing’. Rather evil is simply (and horrifically) a propensity toward non existence.

    Please correct this thought as needed:
    God brings all that we know of the world into existence. All that is in existence (the universe) has a contingency of existence upon the movement of man toward God. If man moves away from God, all suffers. And the universe is subject to futility.

    I’m not one to contemplate the ‘whys’ of the evil one. That’s too much for my brain to comprehend. St Dionysius’ words help to explain the complete inability that I have. Thank you for that helpful quote!

    I believe this is how I might express the relation of the Kingdom of God here and now, with heaven and earth and the eschaton:

    As far as I understand it, the current inauguration of the Kingdom of God, happening here and now, includes both heaven and the universe as we know it. And if that is true, then I believe that means heaven and earth (universe) are (will be) transformed together. And if the latter is true, that doesn’t mean that heaven is subject to futility. Rather, it means more that heaven and earth will have a more complete integrated fullness together in the eschaton.

    An important lesson I had learned along the way is that heaven isn’t geographically somewhere else.

    Please forgive me if I’m only muddying the waters and correct as need.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what I was thinking is even after knowing and doing a foretaste of the good, the temptation lies in the perception that evil is just as real. The instructions in Matthew 5 to resist not evil, turn the other cheek, etc make no sense in that duality.

    I grew up watching a lot of cartoons that presented a dynamic constant battle for one’s soul. The little cartoon devil on one shoulder, the cartoon angel on the other fighting it out and the main character had to choose between to equal but opposite forces. Kind of like a spiritual version of Newton’s Third Law. Indeed it was a very mechanistic way of looking at things.

    Modernity has persisted in that view. Nietsche proclaimed the ascendence of the evil power. 20th century politics and a great deal of “religion” has preached the dualistic heresy resulting in strife, wars and revolutions.

    The “substance” of it all tends to evaporate when actual goodness is encountered but we still act as if dualism is real.. It is easy to perceive Jesus’ statement of overcoming the world as something in the future, not a present reality resting in His command in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God…”

  7. Ziton Avatar
    Ziton

    Father, I have been reflecting on this article and what has been troubling me about it. I think I want to buy into the “evil has no inherent being” line, but I am just not sure. That horrendous evil can be banal has been convincingly argued (to my mind anyway) by people like Hannah Arendt, and the Nazis are a good extended example of how sin, evil and death are indeed related.

    A particular question that has kept on arising has been about demons and their status, ontologically speaking. Even if Satan was not originally created evil, isn’t the whole point about a demon being demonic that their nature – reason for being even – is evil? It is maybe tempting to ‘psycholigize’ them into metaphors or manifestations of a diseased psyche or or whatever (which is probably true up to a point), but In the gospels, Jesus does spend a fair bit of his time driving them out, and they do seem to talk back some times, and then there was that herd of innocent pigs that jumped off a cliff once legion was driven out …

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on this not only out of personal interest. I also think that if I start to talk with fellow Christians about why evil doesn’t substantively exist, that this will be a comeback. I’d like to be prepared.

  8. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    An incredibly valuable thread of comments based on an incredibly valuable article, one which has changed me personally to a marked degree. But I wonder if continued discussion of evil is self-defeating, in the sense that evil = nothing, and therefore we end up talking about ‘nothing’.
    It seems to me that the biggest error we can make as human beings is to grant life to nothing, rather than something (or Someone): the personification of demons, the devil, sins, etc, or even their aggrandisement by intellectualising about them, seems to me to be a movement in the wrong direction. We should surely be concentrating all our efforts on granting life to Life as Christ did, conquering death by out-living it, if you see what I mean.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ziton, Grant,
    Grant’s point is spot-on. I recall my beloved Father-in-law who generally refused to ever discuss the devil. He found it unnecessary.

    Ziton, the teaching that “evil has no inherent being” is not my teaching or opinion – it is the authoritative teaching of the Fathers. It directs our minds, when they wish to contemplate the nature of things, towards the truth of being itself.

    In conversations with others – it may well be the case that such thoughts are not yet something that we have integrated into how we see the world. For myself, I have taught catechumens for years by beginning with a teaching on being: beauty, truth, goodness. I’ve explained the fall in those terms, and our salvation in those terms. It easily gathers up the faith as presented by St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians – meshes seamlessly with the language of the Great Councils and the Divine Liturgy.

    Read St. Basil’s eucharistic prayer (Lent is coming) every day for a while and contemplate, piece by piece, how he is thinking and presenting the faith. Then read the prayer for the blessing of the waters of Baptism and do the same.

    But – in our daily walk with Christ – it is never evil that we need to contemplate. This article and the one that follows were both written with a purpose in mind: to suggest that we need to pursue the good. Leave everything else behind. St. Paul says, “Overcome evil by doing good.” He does not suggest that we overcome evil by analyzing it or thinking about it. Do good. Most of what people who think according to the spirits of this age have in mind when they want to combat evil – is something that uses evil. Everybody thinks you can use the Ring of Power for good purposes. You cannot.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ziton, my own approach formed quite recently is to put things in terms of mercy. The pigs for instance are an example of mercy not the ontology of evil. His mercy easily overcomes the darkness.

    Modernity has dualism at its heart. Dualism always reduces the good, the beautiful true by attacking the integrated reality of creation.

    The proclamation in Deuteronomy: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord”
    makes the reality clear.

  11. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I agree Michael (concerning the dualism).

    For my studies I’m now reading the Bible using multiple translations. And I find the KJV helpful to describe our conversation in this case here:

    (KJV Phillipians 3:20) For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, Lord Jesus Christ…

    Other translations say ‘our citizenship’, but that word for me has such a modernist political/nationalist connotation adding to the perspective that heaven must be some other place, makes that translation not that helpful (for me), even though it might be the most literal.

    Another translation I appreciate in this case is the Wycliffe:
    But our living is in heaven [Forsooth our living is in heaven]; from whence also we abide the Saviour our Lord Jesus Christ…

    My goal is to learn the Greek well enough to be able to translate using dictionaries, God willing. Still we need the Church’s translation to truly understand.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, keep in mind that “citizenship” in St. Paul’s time was quite different than now. Among other things it denoted a certain status with the local “lord” or even the Emperor. It always had a certain political reality but in connection with The Kingdom of Heaven it denotes a King higher than Caesar to whom we owe fealty. Quite revolutionary in its own time. “My Kingdom is not of this world”.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Citizenship is “politeia” which is an interesting word. It’s root is “city” (polis). And though we get our word “politics” from it, we have debased it greatly. Think of St. Paul. He was a “citizen” of Rome (a city). He wasn’t a citizen of the Empire – but of the City. That privilege was extended to various people throughout the empire – but, it remained being a citizen of the city of Rome.

    The concept of the city (“city state”) should enlighten us. It wasn’t the vague sense of ethnic belonging. The citizens of Rome never thought of themselves as “Italians.” That’s really a 19th century idea. They were Romans. There’s something intimate in that – this city. You could walk through it in a day. And so, the writers in Scripture speak about the City of God. A “city made without hands” etc. “Kingdom” is really something very different – not really a place like a city – more like the “reign” of a King.

    I sort of like the word “home” for city – at least as far as English goes. The word “home” is rooted, I think, in something like a house – my native place. As such, in Philippians – “For our home is in heaven,” would be perfectly allowable – and would capture the sense of it. It’s a very strong thing for someone to say for whom “citizen of Rome” had meant so much.

  14. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    I would instantly agree with Father’s take here regarding “home is in heaven” being what a Greek would mostly understand after reading that passage. It really does essentially read that “our home-living is in heaven” to my mind…

  15. Ziton Avatar
    Ziton

    “my beloved Father-in-law who generally refused to ever discuss the devil. He found it unnecessary”

    I have a great deal of sympathy for your father-in-law’s position, but it seems to me that many, many Christians, including many professing Orthodox, do take Satan seriously, perhaps too seriously. I do not doubt, Father, that what you are saying is in keeping with the teachings of the Fathers. My problem is reconciling that with the gospel stories. As I said, there are LOTS of stories (particularly in Mark and Matthew) concerning the casting out of demons, and those demons are presented in the stories as being real beings. It seems to me that many sincere practising believers very much believe in the reality of incarnated evil-is-real-in being. There are many who make the sign against the evil eye and that sort of thing and are likely to have little truck with the idea that demons are not objectively real. And then there is the whole business of exorcisms and their ontological significance (or not).

    Perhaps an example may help from the Buddhists. I love their story of “the anger eating demon” and I shall explain why I find it pertinent at the end. But first here’s my riff on the story:

    “There was a demon that fed off anger. It mainly lived on earth and did very well for itself growing fat and rich on the way humans behaved and thought. But it got bored and decided that it would be a fun challenge to take on the gods. So it transported itself into the heavenly realms. Because these were the heavenly realms, when it arrived it was fairly small and inconsequential. But it also happened to arrive at a time when the lord of the gods was away on business, and sneaking into the throne room it cackled to itself and sat itself on his throne. When the courtiers and attendants discovered that there was an ugly and smelly little demon sitting on the throne of the lord of the gods they were very upset. They started upbraiding it and cursing it. “You can’t be here, you horrible creature” they said. Every time someone said something like this, or even thought an outraged and hostile thought the anger eating demon grew bigger. Before long it was huge and got uglier by the minute. It stank to high heaven. It jeered at the courtiers and used horrible and foul language, which just made the courtiers even more incensed and outraged. And it grew ever bigger. Then the lord of the gods returned and the courtiers explained what had happened. The lord of the gods was not in his position for nothing and knew how to deal with the situation. When he entered the throne room and saw the monstrous, ugly, smell repulsive and huge demon occupying his throne room instead of cursing it, used kindness. He said “welcome, friend. How nice it is to have you here. I hope you are enjoying your stay. Would you like a cup of tea.” and so on. And with every act of genuine kindness the demon shrank a little bit more, until eventually it disappeared into a puff of rather foul smelling smoke. But as the kindness continued even that disappeared and the lord of the gods reoccupied his throne and all praised his wisdom.”

    I recount that story because it seems to me that it embodies many of the things you are talking about – including the ultimate unreality of the demon who disappears in a puff of smoke. (I also think it is relevant to many other things too – I can’t help but think that one the reasons our polity is in such a bad shape is that we have let an anger eating demon onto the thrones of many places in the west. Not to mention the throne of the hearts of many individuals – but that’s another matter. I also can’t help but think that the story illustrates beautifully Michael Bauman’s contention that mercy is the right approach to many evil things.)

    While I love the story, and think it sounds broadly in line with the way the Fathers were explaining matters, I still wonder how that kind of conception of the demonic fits with the gospel stories. The demons Jesus seems to be dealing with seem to be different in character (?) He does seem to “drive them out” and then demands in many cases that they remain silent. He sometimes even seems to almost cut deals with them (?)

    So, again, I am wondering how these conceptions are reconciled at an ontological level? And as I said, I really genuinely do have a problem in talking about the nature of evil with many other Christians, both Orthodox and not, who just would baulk at the idea that demons are not real given those said gospel stories. I am listening to a (very good) audiobook at the moment of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ and one of the many things I am finding interesting is the way in which some of the monastic characters seem to see demons as real beings (admittedly the main monastic character who sees such beings does seem a bit mad 🙂 ) .

    I am sorry if I am being a pain on this. I actually am in accord with the kind of account made in the article. But I do wonder. And I can’t help but think it’s an important topic and so I ask for your indulgence.

  16. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Father and Dino!

    I too like the words “Our home-living is in heaven…,” it brings to mind such a tangible and heart-felt orientation. I’ll nominate you both as translators for the next Bible translation!
    : )

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Father and Dino!
    I too like the words “Our home-living is in heaven…,” it brings to mind such a tangible and heart-felt orientation. I’ll nominate you both as translators for the next Bible translation!

    : )

  18. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Ziton
    Although it is correct to note that the orthodox ascetic tradition is primarily all about fighting the demons through the struggle to ignore them and to re-orientate our noetic attention exclusively towards God’s goodness and mercy, it is also true that those who enter the realms of advanced spiritual warfare, would simultaneously – at times- advise transcending our heart’s natural anger, towards pride, and towards those spirits of pride too. There is of course a right way and a wrong way to do this, but it is certainly a ‘thing’ you cannot fail to notice in ascetic tradition.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ziton,
    In no way do I mean to suggest that there are not demons (fallen angels) nor in any way to question the veracity of the account in the Scriptures. My father-in-law certainly did not mean to imply that. Rather, it is simply the case that the best strategy for fighting such things is to do good. What I have written is about the Fathers’ teaching regarding the nature of being, and that evil itself is a movement, a will, but not being itself.

  20. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    >the idea that demons are not objectively real

    I don’t think Father has said this, actually. What he has said is that evil, to which these demons cling, is not real. Forgive me, but it sounds to me as if you are equating the existence of demons (or someone who turns away from God) with the existence of evil. I think that Father has defined a strong sense of separation between the good creation and the (possible) turning away. I apologize if I am misunderstanding your question.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, there is extensive teaching in the Church about doing battle with the demons as thr essential reason for the ascetic life. I have just begun reading a long article on that. .
    While a great many of the stories and teaching involve saints and monastics, we lay people are also encouraged to engage in the Unseen Warfare. Plus there is the Russian concept of podvig or struggle.

    You are teaching the same thing but with a different emphasis but I must confess there is a certain part of me that is more attracted to podvig than to giving thanksgiving even though I know what a struggle it is to give thanks.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ziton,
    I’ll try to spell this out very clearly:

    Being itself is inherent good. All that God created (and gave it begin) is inherently good. All that He created was also created with a purpose to move from the mere goodness of just existing to the perfection and fullness of goodness in union with Him.

    A portion of the angels rebelled against this and instead of pursuing the perfection of goodness for which they were created, that moved away from God towards their own selfish intentions. The movement is what we mean when we say “evil.” Evil is a rebellion and a refusal. But, it is not a substance. It is, if you will, anti-substance. It hates “being” and existence. Thus, the Scripture tells us that Satan is a “murderer from the beginning” – meaning, since his rebellion. He is also called the “Father of lies” (a lie is a contradiction to being and true existence).

    Inasmuch as anything acts in rebellion against God – just so much does it move towards non-being (non-being is only a direction). There cannot be any such thing as true “non-being” because, by definition, non-being does not exist. It is only a direction.

    I hope that is of help.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Of course your observation is correct. However, I have pretty much yet to see anyone make any headway in the spiritual life other than by the giving of thanks continually and for all things. You cannot “make something be” by making something not be. Every battle with a demon that draws our attention to the demon is already lost. Even in an Exorcism, a priest is taught not to pay attention to the demon, but to God, the Cross, and the Name of Jesus.

    Frankly, there are too many books and articles out there that people have little business reading. But, pretty much everybody is his own elder and does what seems right in his own eyes. Isn’t it odd that the greatest struggle is to give thanks always and for all things? Anybody can curse a demon – even demons do as much.

    I think much of the popularity of so-called “spiritual warfare” is rooted in modern Pentecostalism and not in true Orthodoxy. Most of such struggles are imaginary and little more than the sound of our own neuroses. Giving thanks always and for all things guides us without deception and crucifies our self-will at every turn.

  24. Dan Avatar
    Dan

    Father,
    I am trying to understand the practical application of “giving thanks always and for all things”, would you mind correcting me here so that I better understand? If I understand correctly what you say regarding the practice of giving thanks, to put into practice the admonition to give thanks always and for all things would require growth in humility, which I see as an increasing ability to see the image of Christ in all people and His handiwork in all creation. Therefore, growth in this (humility) would allow one the ability to enter into each moment with thanksgiving, because no matter what one would be faced with (no matter how mundane, or difficult, or humiliating, and no matter the degree of suffering involved) one would truly perceive each moment as an opportunity to serve and to do good towards the image of Christ (no matter how obvious or tainted that image may be in a person). And if one could rightly perceive everything, from moment to moment, as an opportunity to do good towards Christ, then how could one do anything other than give thanks always and for all things? One would weep with those who mourn, because one would be weeping with Christ. One would rejoice with one who was rejoicing, because one would be rejoicing with Christ.

    Thank you in advance for any reply.

  25. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Michael – Have you ever read Wounded by Love by Saint Porphyrios? If not, I highly recommend it. His whole approach it to not fight evil, but simply to turn to Christ. It can be very hard to give thanks everywhere and in all things, and that too can be a “podvig” if our circumstances are difficult. Elder Zacharias of Essex said that when he was in the hospital recovering from some surgery or illness his only prayer was “Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee” for several weeks and it was the greatest experience of his life. There is more than one way to “get there” so-to-speak and many of our modern, contemporary elders are encouraging and directing us to take the “positive” or “easier” path.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dan,
    I think it is the primary means and action of humility. Fr. Zacharias of Essex describes what he calls the “shame of generosity” – in which we give thanks for all things because all things are from God (in the mystery of the Cross). The offering of thanks is the single most appropriate hymn that the creation gives to its Creator. All things. Here’s a quote that was shared to the clergy of my diocese last week. Fr. Maximos Constans did a retreat for us based on some of the writings of the Elder Aemilianos of Simonopetra.

    “And what is this pain that I feel? It is my participation in the pain of God. It is my experience of God’s thirst for me, for God ‘thirsts to be thirsted for.’ It is the pain of God’s running, His loss of breath, as He hastens to rescue me before I collapse and fall into the pit.” -Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, Father but the way you explain it is “too simple”. There must be more to figure out, to work over in our hearts and minds and struggle with. So says my fallen brain.

    Blizzard weather here in central Kansas. Wind Chill -20 and lower. All prayers for safety will be appreciated.

  28. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Michael,
    You have my prayers. Also stay home if possible! : )

  29. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    I just crossed paths with this lovely poem and it seems to offer something valuable to this discussion on giving thanks everywhere and in all things…

    PRAYER

    It doesn’t have to be
    the blue iris, it could be
    weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones; just
    pay attention, then patch

    a few words together and don’t try
    to make them elaborate, this isn’t
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak.

    Mary Oliver
    from her book “Thirst” (2006)

  30. Ziton Avatar
    Ziton

    Father, thank you for your further replies and indulgence. I really do appreciate it. As I said, this is a topic that has been troubling me a bit, and it is good to get some clarity – and your answer (especially the 10:15 one) is tight and precise. Thank you again.

    Reflecting further, I think, though that I will be adding the word “demon” onto my rather long list of religious words that are not very precise and are used in different and sometimes unhelpful ways.

    This word has seems to have at least two main operational uses :

    1. To refer to beings (fallen angels) who have rebelled and have done so by choosing “evil” even though such evil ultimately is not real.

    2. To refer to tendencies within us towards sin and destruction, a bit like the anger eating demon I referenced in the earlier post. E.g. when we talk about “the demon of pride” perhaps that is a form of shorthand for the passion of pride and the way it at least feels like a malignant force or “energy” within the heart? To the extent that there is spiritual warfare versus demons perhaps it is largely against such handy personifications of such real-seeming phantoms (“movements towards non-being” to use your useful phrase) a lot of the time.

    Re type 1 “real beings” though, this raises further questions for me (I am not seeking further comment though as you have laready been more than generous). If there are fallen angels who have chosen a dark path (unreality) and are working towards our destruction (the same path of unreality) isn’t it reasonable to regard them – relatively (to us) anyway – as being evil in practice? Particularly if that takes the form of things like possession (you did mention exorcism)? Maybe oddly, it also has me wondering whether with such fallen angelic beings we should be praying for them, that they might repent? They are after all part of Creation and it is surely sad in the extreme that such magnificent beings should have fallen so far.

    Allow me to finish with a quote from The Brothers Karamazov of which, as I said, I am now in the midst. This is one of the reflections of Elder Zossima on his death bed and it seemed apropos and entirely resonant with Father’s article, and maybe of in keeping with Esmee’s poem too, and of course with “Give Glory to God For All Things”! :

    “My friends, pray to God for gladness. Be glad as children, as the birds of heaven. And let not the sin of men confound you in your doings. Fear not that it will wear away your work and hinder its being accomplished. Do not say, “Sin is mighty, wickedness is mighty, evil environment is mighty, and we are lonely and helpless, and evil environment is wearing us away and hindering our good work from being done.” Fly from that dejection, children!
    … Of the pride of Satan what I think is this: it is hard for us on earth to comprehend it, and therefore it is so easy to fall into error and to share it, even imagining that we are doing something grand and fine. Indeed, many of the strongest feelings and movements of our nature we cannot comprehend on earth. Let not that be a stumbling-block, and think not that it may serve as a justification to you for anything. For the Eternal Judge asks of you what you can comprehend and not what you cannot. You will know that yourself hereafter, for you will behold all things truly then and will not dispute them. On earth, indeed, we are as it were astray, and if it were not for the precious image of Christ before us, we should be undone and altogether lost, as was the human race before the flood. Much on earth is hidden from us, but to make up for that we have been given a precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why the philosophers say that we cannot apprehend the reality of things on earth.

    God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew up and everything came up that could come up, but what grows lives and is alive only through the feeling of its contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, the heavenly growth will die away in you. Then you will be indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.

    … Fear not the great nor the mighty, but be wise and ever serene. Know the measure, know the times, study that. When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love. Love all men, love everything. Seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. Don’t be ashamed of that ecstasy, prize it, for it is a gift of God and a great one; it is not given to many but only to the elect.”

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ziton,
    The fallen angels (demons) are quite real – and their activities are quite real. We do well to regard them as “evil” as I would regard many human beings who ally themselves with such a drive towards non-being. I have looked into its face before.

    When I sit down on a chair, I know that it is made of atoms, and, as such, the “chair” consists mostly of space (atoms are close to being nothing, in a way). But, though I know that on the level of physics – it’s not what I think when I’m sitting down.

    For me, the sun sets as well (the earth does not turn). There are many, many things like this. Of course, I live in the city that built the first atom bomb (and still has a nuclear weapons lab). So, I know that there are lots of people who think “atoms” when they look at the world – or at least part of it – and I respect them for their knowledge.

    It is important, on some level, to know what we know about the inner workings of the universe (as far as we presently know them). But, you still have to boil your water to make a cup of tea. I don’t excite the atoms in water. I boil it.

    Same is true when thinking about good and evil. It is vitally important, I think, to understand the essential goodness of all things on the one hand, and to treat the demons as pure evil on the other – even if that’s not entirely true.

    I do not pray for demons. Such things are above my pay grade. I do not go messing about in the business of angels. I’ll leave that to Sts. Michael and Gabriel.

  32. Robert Fortuin Avatar
    Robert Fortuin

    What may be helpful to keep in mind (it is to me anyways) is that traditional Christian affirmation of evil’s lack of being, it’s want of substance or essence, is first and foremost a metaphysical statement. It is an affirmation of evil’s status as utter privation of goodness and the good; it is always then an aberration, a departure from the natural – and as such always thus absolutely unnecessary and wholly accidental. There is nothing natural that requires evil for it’s being or well being.

    We must be clear to make the distinction that this is not to say that evil doesn’t occur, or that it doesn’t exist or isn’t real, in the sense of normal parlance. For instance, an agent acting with evil intent makes evil to occur and to exist in that sense. Yes it is real, and it occurs, and we provide the occasion for it. For some reason it is given permission to occur, but this does not alter evil’s metaphysical status as lacking being, as absolutely unnecessary to all that is good, true, and beautiful. The Cross shattered evil’s pretense to permanence – its end and its Conqueror has been revealed. And so we can say that with Christ’s advent the old order of metaphysics was upended.

  33. NSP Avatar

    @Dee of St. Hermans,

    I’m impressed you’re trying to learn Greek. It has also been one of my desires for several years now, sadly yet unfulfilled. I have heard a lot of good things about this book from the Polis Institute in Jerusalem. Perhaps it will help you.

    However, w.r.t this point you make,

    It seems difficult for us westerners, given what we have been exposed to in western theology, to understand evil as ‘not a thing’. Rather evil is simply (and horrifically) a propensity toward non existence.

    Has it been your experience in Western theology that evil has been treated as a thing in itself? It has been quite the opposite in my experience. Many writers I have read have repeatedly quoted St. Augustine (and I don’t think you can get more “Western” than him. 🙂 ) as teaching that evil was a privatio boni.

    Also, in my personal experience of catechism classes, I have encountered repeatedly the standard definition attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas is that evil is the absence of a good that should be present in a thing. (i.e., to take simple examples often taught to children, it would not be an evil for an elephant to not have wings or for a tree to not have a nose, but it would be an evil for an elephant to be missing its trunk, or for a tree to be missing its roots).

    @Michael Baumann,

    The references to Hamlet were a remarkable co-incidence. I had just finished watching Hamlet on the BBC Shakespeare series when I started reading this thread. (Till half the play was over, I didn’t recognise Patrick Stewart as Claudius behind his beard!)
    Did Hamlet really choose not to be? I’d think he was simply overwhelmed with the repeated unexpected blows life kept dealing him. Perhaps he was already struggling with personal issues? Has he somehow lost his edge and let himself go? (“Fat and scant of breath?”)
    What I found really terrifying in Hamlet was that God simply seemed to be absent, even in a hidden way. The soul of a dead man are permitted to appear to his son and urge him to murder. There seems to be no person of wisdom and holiness whom Hamlet can turn to for guidance. He’s simply out of his weight-class in this story and has practically no-one in his corner whom he can trust completely. No wonder he falls apart.

    @Fr. Freeman,

    The passage you have quoted is beautiful! Sadly I have experienced that it is common indeed for people well-read spiritual writings to be glibly satsified with rational explanations and slick definitions.

    But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think any of the Western saints were going for a “rational explanation of evil.” Given St. Thomas Aquinas mystical experience towards the end of his life, after which he said everything he wrote was “as straw” and wrote no more, I’m sure he was aware of the inadequacy of rational explanations, but I suppose he thought that for beginners in the spiritual way, they were of some use, perhaps like crutches?

    Also, I don’t think they meant to say that the permitted evil was the only and necessary way to bring about the greater good. I take it in the same sense as the highlighted lines in the below passages:

    From Elder Aimilianos:

    An old monk from our monastery, Elder Arsenios, went to see an ophthalmologist, and the doctor told him, “You have a cataract, but, when you are about to go blind, we will operate on you and you will be well.” The monk answered, “Doctor, let’s do it as fast as possible to get rid of it.” “No,” the doctor said, “because you could lose your sight. Go, only when you can no longer see!”

    When Father Arsenios could no longer see, he went to the doctor—another doctor—to have his surgery. That one told him: “I am very sorry, but you should have come six months ago. There is nothing to be done now. You will be blind, because you don’t have a cataract, as your doctor said, but another illness.” And he, instead of being angry, instead of arguing with the doctor at fault, said, “Blessed be! God knows. God knows that this is useful to me and He ‘blinded’ the doctor and he made that diagnosis. ” To his death, Father Arsenios neither said one word against the first doctor, nor had one thought against him.

    From one of your older articles :

    This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

    (This is one of the first articles I read on your blog way back when you were blogging on WordPress, and I have re-read it a few times since then.)

    Frankly, I don’t think the argument about evil being permitted by God so that He may draw a greater good from it clears up much anyway. God being all powerful, why not arrange things so that the greater good may come about without having to permit the evil to happen? Yes, I know the standard answer to that is that God respects our free-will. But still….

    Also, Father, you say:

    Again, as I noted earlier, repentance isn’t just about “not doing” something. In fact, that kind of effort almost always fails. There’s the need to positively do something that we might truly live. Thus, when I’m counseling with someone who is wrestling with some sinful passion, we look for good things to do in its place. If we just sweep the place clean and put nothing in the house, the demon goes and brings seven more with him worse than the first…in the words of Jesus.

    In my understanding this uprooting of sins and planting of good things to do is what I would term “progress” or even “moral improvement” but you have repeatedly said that one should not expect such things in one’s spiritual life. Perhaps my repeated questions on this topic are beginning to tire you, but I would indeed be grateful if you could clarify how this is distinct from “progress.”

    If I might offer a suggestion, I think it would be very much useful for newcomers reading your writings on this site if you created a page of definitions of certain terms (dealing with repeated themes in your essays) they way you intend them to be understood – and how you don’t intend them to be understood as well. (Some examples would be “Success,” “Moral Improvement,” “Progress,” “Secular,” “Morality,” “Death,” etc.)

    -NSP

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    NSP,
    Thank you for your thoughts and suggestions. I few reactions:

    I have not made the point that God allows evil in order to bring about a greater good. That is not the point of the story regarding my child. I would, instead, rephrase it in a manner that might be of use for understanding: “This is what the Cross looks like in his life.” God does not “cause” the Cross in my son’s life. But the suffering which occurs in his life – God makes into His Cross. He co-suffers with Him, and, together, his life comes to reveal itself as the life of Christ.

    When speaking of good and evil – the Cross needs to be part of the conversation. I think I’ve been pretty consistent on this – certainly as time has gone by.

    On progress and moral improvement: I continue to find that language to be less than useful. The notions of progress and improvement are so heavily-laden with modern notions that I prefer to consistently push against such language. When we say “progress” we mean moving to a “better” position. But, since we do not actually see everything and know everything, much less what the final position is, then it is simply misleading to ourselves to speak as though we did. I do not find the language of progress in the words of Christ. There is the language mostly confined to “today.” He teaches us to say, “At most, I am an unprofitable servant.” He does not teach us to say, “I’m more profitable today than I was yesterday.”

    Our drive that wants to cling to such language is, I think, largely driven by shame and other spiritual diseases.

    As to definitions: I think I prefer conversations – to keep writing and discussing these things in a conversation that, for some, is quite new. They need to ask the questions and not just get sent to a vocabulary page.

    BTW, I’m not tired. I have nothing better to do. 🙂

  35. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thanks for your reply.

    If I were to be perfectly honest, I would say that there is nothing I would more desperately want right now in my life than to be able to say “I’m more profitable today than I was yesterday.” 🙂

    And indeed it is due to my shame and personal diseases i.e., feelings of inadequacy.

    If I were living in a world where everyone around me lived by the motto of “We are but unprofitable servants,” I think I could bear my brokenness much more easily. However, I have found that we live in a world where the least display of weakness and vulnerability and acknowledgement of one’s own brokenness results in making oneself a target for all sorts of cruelty and controlling/manipulative behaviour. I suppose if I were brutally honest with myself, I’d have to admit that part of me wants to be “successful” so that I can throw my “success” in the faces of those who have been mean and condescending towards me. Pretty lame, I know. But I’d like to think there’s probably also a small part of me which values mastery of skill and art for its own sake. But I’m not sure which part dominates and drives me. I suppose it must be the baser motive, since the loftier motive can easily be over-ridden by temptations to fleeting gratifications.

    I guess what I am asking is, I need to aim at some target to get myself through the day, (and the week and the month and the year) and if it is not to be “progress,” then what is the target to be? Intimacy with God? Well, yes, but it seems too… abstract. Like you said, I do not know the final position, and I have no idea what genuine intimacy with God or acquiring the mind of Christ looks like, so I’m still stuck.

    What makes it more frustrating is that from the outside, it looks like there are quite a few people who are indeed, to all appearances, profitable servants. People who contribute successfully to society, and whose accomplishments in the Church and/or in the secular realm in the various arts and sciences future generations build upon. It does seem to me in my more bitter moments that God plays favourites. ( After all, from a Catholic perspective, St. Thomas Aquinas does say [ ST, Part I, Q20, A3 ] that God loves some people more than others, which many Catholic spiritual writers (e.g.: 1, 2) have taken as an explanation of why some people achieve greater virtue and holiness than others, and I suppose the unspoken implication is that the rest of us just have to suck it up and bear our mediocrity. Have any important Orthodox authors weighed in on this subject? )

    One often reads about “synergy” and “co-operation with grace,” and I just would like a clear picture of what this co-operation entails from my side. Is it simply to “do the good at hand” as you often say? Is it wrong to make definite plans and time-tables to grow in certain virtues that I perceive myself to lack?

    -NSP

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    NSP,
    This last comment – changes the nature of the conversation. It is one thing to write about the problems of progress and such as I have, it is another thing to figure out how to make it through your day. If you find that setting certain goals and measures are critical for your daily life in Christ, then, by all means, use them! This is part of God’s generous economia towards us. Some can live blessedly as “unprofitable servants,” while others need some markers. The prodigal son came home as an unprofitable servant (which he learned how to be the hard way). His older brother needed the ring and the robe even more – though he always had them.

    When you pray, be clear to God about what you need, even if that need is something other than ascetical perfection. He is such a good and merciful God that He works with what we need. Just bear in mind, that these things are rooted in your own needs and His mercy, and that He is not setting up goals that you must meet. When all else fails, sit in His presence and say, “O God, comfort me!”

  37. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear NSP,
    Father can correct me, but I don’t think the Orthodox interpret the work of the Holy Spirit in peoples lives, as an indication that God has favorites.

    The Orthodox way also encourages a more physical prayer life as a kind of prescription for “dryness in prayer life ”. I might be wrong but I sense this in your self description. I don’t know how you might feel about adopting an Orthodox prayer rule and include prostration to the icon of Christ, but in the long run it has been soul saving for me in dark hours.

    As silly as this might seem, I recently received in the mail the newest edition of St Tikhon’s seminary press Orthodox prayer book. And it has brought joy to me even just to hold it.

    May God bless you with joy! He indeed loves you and you are more dear to Him than you can possibly fathom!

  38. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Actually that’s St Tijhon’s *Monastery* Press prayer book.

  39. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Sorry typing on my phone without my glasses!!

  40. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    NSP & Father,

    This might sound weird, but I have found great comfort in finally realizing that I am just an unprofitable servant and that I’m not expected to be anything else. Father Zacharias Zacharou helped me to recognize this in one of his talks where he asked the audience what the greatest commandment was and essentially no one got it “right.” He identified Luke 17:10 as being the greatest of all the commandments. Essentially, if I understand him correctly, he is saying that the greatest commandment is to be humble enough to see just how hopeless we are on our own and that nothing we manage to do or achieve is going to save us except for our sincere repentance at our inability to follow Him as much as we would like.

    I have found a lot of relief in acknowledging that I can only do or be what God supports me in doing or being and I have stopped expecting anything different from myself. Would I like to be a better person? Absolutely! But after confessing the same sins week after week, month after month, year after year, I know that I cannot change myself. Only God can change me. I just do my best to keep showing up and giving Him the opportunity to help me.

    Some people might see this as a position of profound hopelessness, but it has allowed me to surrender myself more completely to His will for me. Perhaps a simple personal example will illustrate what I mean: i am physically very sick and this creates enormous challenges for me in following a consistent prayer rule. I feel very apathetic much of the time. I used to feel like a complete failure in my spiritual life because I wasn’t doing what I thought I should be doing in order for God to love me. As if anything I did was needed for this to happen! God knows my situation. He arranged it specifically for me out of His great love for me. He knows how I feel. If He wants me to be sick and the casualty of that is that I cannot pray as well as I would like, then He obviously know that as well. I think He has put me in this “hopeless” position as a way of helping me to recognize just how utterly unprofitable I am as His servant. And the result is that I have been forced to place all my “hope” in Him. Does this makes sense?

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    I sort of like it spelled “Tijhon” – seems kind of Spanish!

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Esmee,
    thank you for this! I think if I was “good” at doing the very traditional approach to the prayers, I would be an unsufferable Pharisee, and be tempted to tell everyone that they should just try harder.

    Father Zacharias is, for me, a great elder, and has an amazingly solid word of humility – and embodies it!

  43. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Father Stephen,

    I just read your comments on your own struggles with a consistent formal prayer rule under the other post (Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?) and found them extremely comforting. I think they are worth sharing here as well. You said,

    “Praying with ADHD is a struggle. The regular, disciplined things (like prayers from a book) are pretty much impossible. Physical prayer and the Jesus Prayer (with a rope) tend to be the best. I also move in and out of prayer all day long – like conversation. Whenever I wake in the night (which is 3-4 times each night because of aging issues), I take up the Jesus Prayer until I fall back asleep. Through the years – the easiest prayer has always been what is done in the Liturgy. Moving, praying, etc., work well. I’m a terrible(!) member of a congregation. I tend to stay in the Narthex these days, go in and out a half-dozen times. Sometime sit outside on a bench with my prayer rope. I also pray as I write. Writing is like contemplation and I find it brings great peace.”

    God knew your ADHD brain and He still called you to the Priesthood – which is wonderful “proof” that he doesn’t expect perfection from any of us. And He probably knew that by sharing your own struggles so freely and publicly, it would help many of His other unprofitable servants not to lose hope. Thank you!

  44. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Esmee,
    Thank you for your forthrightness in expressing your pain, and your struggles in your prayer life. I have found great help in Fr. Hopko’s second maxim…”pray as you can, and not as you think you must.” This has helped me to give up some of my “perfectionism” in prayer, as if anything in my life is perfect! I know that after doing everything, that I remain an unprofitable servant… yet Christ still bestows upon me His unmerited mercy! He continues accepting me in my own pain and shame.

  45. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    NSP,
    Thanks for the resource tip for learning Greek! I’ve gone ahead and purchased the item. In addition to reading the Bible in Greek, someday I hope to visit Greece, God willing. But, I don’t know how much ancient Greek will help me with conversations as a pilgrim/tourist. : )

    Meanwhile, I’m in a Greek Orthodox parish and it is a joy for me to hear portions of the services in Greek. I’ve been Orthodox 6 years now going on 7 (time has flown!), but this Lent and coming Pascha will be my first in a Greek Orthodox parish. It is my prayer that our Paschal services will have few restrictions, God willing.

  46. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Dee and Agata,
    I have been in both Greek and OCA congregations. We found loving and caring folks in both!
    Each congregation has its own personality. Now, I have visited churches that seemed unfriendly, closed. My wife and I are in an area in which the Greek, OCA, and Serbian churches are all accepting. We are very fortunate because some folks only have one church nearby, or none even remotely near. If I only had one church to attend and it were unfriendly, I would still attend. I need God in the sacraments, most especially Christ’s precious body and blood in the chalice. And I would pray that I change or that God somehow makes the situation more tolerable.

  47. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    if I were brutally honest with myself, I’d have to admit that part of me wants to be “successful” so that I can throw my “success” in the faces of those who have been mean and condescending towards me. Pretty lame, I know. But I’d like to think there’s probably also a small part of me which values mastery of skill and art for its own sake.

    NSP, you’ve just described a large portion of my Protestant life! I was very keen on learning how to argue/debate. Now I’m trying to learn how to love.

    But, I don’t know how much ancient Greek will help me with conversations as a pilgrim/tourist. : )

    Dee, it won’t. I remember one of my seminary teachers relating how he went to Greece and spoke Ancient Greek. The natives finally asked, in English, what language he was speaking! It was quite humorous to hear him tell it.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I wish you well on your Greek. This year marks 35 years since I was received into the Church. In some ways I think I am just beginning to be Orthodox.

  49. NSP Avatar

    @Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you very much for your kind and gracious reply. I’ve never thought of it this way – that God works with what we need. I always assumed if what I needed came from anything but the purest motives, God would sabotage it or withdraw his grace and allow it to collapse under its own weight. (“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me” from The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson) I need to digest what you have said.

    @Esmee La Fleur,
    Yes, what you say does make sense, but….. I keep thinking, why can’t God just give us the grace so that our spiritual life is somewhat like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire? (“When I run, I feel His pleasure.”) Everything on earth seems to do what it was made to do. Eagles fly, hares run, water flows, winds blow, stars and planets go along their courses, and thus they glorify God by doing beautiful things. We seem to be the only creatures who are asked to glorify God more by acknowledging our helplessness than by accomplishment. It is hard.

    @Dee of St. Hermans,

    If we are not to think of God as having favourites, how do we understand Psalm 127 (I think it is 126 in the Septuagint)?
    “In vain is your earlier rising,
    your going later to rest,
    you who toil for the bread you eat,
    when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.”
    (That’s the Grail translation, which sticks in my memory from hearing it regularly in the Office. I think the last line is translated differently in other translations, such as ‘while he grants sleep to those whom he loves’ and the Latin Vulgate does seem to say exactly that – ‘Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum’ – but the essence seems to be more or less the same.)

    I do have a prayer rule for myself (which I adopted on the advice of my then spiritual director) which includes some time for the Jesus Prayer. I have had an icon corner at every place I lived in since 2010. (It’s just laminated colour printouts of icons downloaded off the internet. I haven’t been able to get any genuine hand-written icons locally, and the shipping costs of ordering them online are too prohibitive for me.) I also have a copy of the Sinai Pantocrator right below the Sacred Heart picture at home. I do make some prostrations when I trim the lamp I keep burning before the icons. Perhaps I shall do this more attentively from now on.

    Is the prayer book you are referring to an updated version of this one available on the Archive? ( Orthodox Daily Prayers ) I’ve had that printed out and spiral bound ant it sits on my desk. Not as classy as a leather-bound edition, but serviceable. 🙂 I also have this one ( Orthodox Daily Prayer Book – Antiochian Archdiocese [PDF] ) printed out. I use them sometimes.

    There are three Orthodox prayers I say often: The Prayer of the Last Elders of Optina, The Prayer for Enemies by St. Nikolai of Orchid, and a prayer given in the book His Life is Mine by St. Sophrony. I find them very useful personally.

    @Byron,
    Strangely, I’ve largely given up debating for some years now, though it was not an intentional decision. My approach in my conversations with friends on spiritual subjects these days seem to boil down to learning to speak compassionately to others so that I don’t add to their already existing pain, and perhaps help them to bear what pain they have.

    -NSP

  50. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear NSP,
    I love the reading of scripture of Psalms to understand the life in Christ. But there is a kind of synthesis needed with a trusted elder to plumb the depths.

    So I ask in return how would you interpret the verse you found in Psalms with this verse in Matthew 12:48? The verse where Christ asks ‘who is my mother and brother?’. The Orthodox Church has many prayers and hymns that venerate the Theotokos, and yet when she calls to Him, He stays firm in the midst of the sinners who seek Him.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    NSP,
    God does not have favorites or love some “more” than others. He does love us differently – because there is no other way for love to be true and real. I have four grown children. When they were young, the question would arise from this one or that one who was loved most. I would respond, “I love Mary with a Mary-love, and Kathryn with a Kathryn-love, James with a James-love, and Clare with a Clare-love. Each was unique and could only be loved in a unique way. Some days, it was easier for one than another – but I am a sinner.

    Generally, when I see the language of “favorite” in the Psalms, I know we are either speaking of Christ (male) or His Mother (female). By extension (as we participate in them, such language can also be applied to us.

    But, if someone is given more grace than another, it is not because of more love or less love. It is simply what is appropriate to that situation and unique person. We are loved equally. But the outcomes of that love (equality) is always a wrong question to ask. No two things in the universe have such equality.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My problem comes in how I think of ‘equality’, and even ‘fairness’. Unfortunately those words have ideological definitions. We are encouraged to think of God as ‘mean’ and unloving if we do not have everything we want; identical outcomes for any one, no suffering, etc.
    I find it a struggle some days, until I really start looking at my own sinfulness and how much mercy God gives me everyday just to live

  53. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    NSP
    your comment made me realise what a confusing issue it must be to choose the right version of the psalter and stick with it… Especially as the reading of the psalms (the entire psalter) in the ancient wisdom of the Orthodox tradition is one of the most central ascetic practices.

    It is rightly considered the “birthing womb” par excellence of the Jesus prayer – more than the Jesus prayer itself in many ways…
    [We are not speaking of some study of the psalms, or some use the psalms in other prayers, or some valid other way to use them. We are talking here of a regular (e.g one stance a day -to finish the psalter in twenty days), very ‘ceremonial’, quite mystical (and yet brisk), reading (with standing for each ‘Glory/Alleluias), typically with an audible, whispering voice… It is the sort of thing that – like the Jesus prayer practice at exclusive times– is clearly “missed” by the heart in its daily absence, and ‘felt’ in its presence.]
    As far as the use of “favourites”, that was beautifully explained by Father, I also have heard that Christ (and everyone of us) can love all the same, but acknowledge differently and appreciate differently and value differently the peculiarities of, say John the Divine (“the disciple whom Jesus loved”) and for whom He would sacrifice Himself as equally as for Judas etc.

  54. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear NSP,

    The scripture is given to us not only for edification, but as a means to abide in Christ and for Christ to abide in us.

    Sometimes, however, when we are afflicted we might unintentionally read into the scripture unhealthy interpretation.

    And sometimes it helps us to hear from someone else the assertion that God does indeed love us.

    There have been times in my life when I sincerely believed I was cursed by God. And I believe that I survived such a period in my life only by the grace of God.

  55. Dn. Philip Avatar
    Dn. Philip

    Fr. Stephen- Have written anything on the question, if God is omnipresent, does that mean he is responsible for Good and Evil? I know this is an age old question, but I am being asked to respond to it and would be interested in anything you have written on this, before I respond. Thanks!

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Father Deacon,
    I have not written to that specific question – though this present article and the one following certainly cover some part of that question. Essentially, evil is a movement away from God and the goodness which is His good will for everything in all creation. In that sense, God is not responsible for evil. We can describe evil as an aspect of the abuse of freedom (not the use of freedom, but its abuse). However, and I think this is important for Christian reasoning: God has made Himself responsible for evil in the sense that He has gathered all evil unto Himself in the Cross of Christ, and taken it with Him into hell, trampling down death by death (thus destroying evil). We tend to ask these questions with a static picture in mind – when the reality is quite dynamic. Also, we tend to forget the Cross, which leaves us speaking like philosophers rather than Christians.

    St. Maximos taught that whoever understands the mystery of the Cross understands all things.

  57. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father,
    Please forgive me for this addition, but it was helpful for me when this was taught to me and perhaps to others.

    Speaking of the dynamic relationship with Christ that you are referring to and Christ’s parable about the ‘good’ ground upon which His seeds are sown, vs the less good ground:

    Christ is always throwing His seeds to our ground, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He doesn’t just throw them out and then it’s a done deal. He keeps throwing His seeds to the ground. And with Him and by His Cross the bad ground can be made ‘good’.

    And even the smallest seed, the least, has enormous potential for growth in the eyes of God. What He sees is beyond what is seen by mankind.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, don’t you think that “Good and Evil” tend to be abstracted to the point of meaninglessness? It makes it easier to avoid the actual submission of my sin to the mercy of Jesus Christ. At least I tend to do that….and yet I have seen Him do some miraculous things in crushing evil so that the native goodness is revealed. Almost as if the “evil” had no real substance but a shadow that I give substance to by so many things.
    “A movement toward nothing” is quite accurate.

  59. Dn. Philip Avatar
    Dn. Philip

    Thanks Fr. Stephen! This was helpful and confirmed my general thinking. I do think though that one needs to establish with the person who asks this question what is their definition of God. This makes all the difference in the world as you actually point out in your reply. For Christians, as Fr. John Behr has stated, it is very specific. “God is the Crucified and Risen One, proclaimed by the Apostles according to the Scriptures, who shows us what it is to be God by the way He dies as a human being.” If that is the starting point then everything you have said makes perfect since. But if you don’t agree with this common starting point, then the conversation is almost pointless. I have to agree with Fr. Tom Hopko, who remarked that it is better to be an atheist than to believe that God would create this world we live in and not redeem it, otherwise He is a monster.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Deacon Philip,
    The generic term “God” is virtually meaningless when it stand alone. I agree that we must be quite specific in our language.

  61. Alexi Avatar
    Alexi

    Fr. Stephen,

    There have been so many comments I am not sure I was able to confirm/deny whether someone mentioned this already or not, but it seems too obvious to pass off… This whole conversation parallels the common confusion in the sciences about things like (unsurprisingly) light, temperature, pressure, electricity, etc. which are *absolute* rather than relative.

    For example: there isn’t light and darkness; there are only photons (light) of varying concentration. “Darkness” is a meta-emergence that is possibly only “known” through the lens of consciousness. Certainly, a photovoltaic sensor cannot “see” darkness, but we can interpret its low positive signal as “relatively dark” in our perspective.

    Likewise, there is no such thing as “cold”, “vacuum” or even “negatives”, for the same reasons – though I won’t go much deeper than that because it can go off the rails.

    The point here is that the message you are delivering is synonymous with a this understanding of the physical, created universe, which only exists in the absolute positive (to the best of our current knowledge, at least). Things which are created can only be. Even dark matter IS – granted we don’t actually know WHAT it is, but it isn’t cold, vacuum or a negative.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alexi,
    It is of note that my thoughts on this were merely echoing those found in the Fathers of the Church (who knew nothing of modern physics). They were, as you note, correct. Thank you.

  63. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    Exactly, Alexi, and thank you! Dichotomies and binary thinking – light/dark. hot/cold etc – lead into Enemy thought – the ‘eternal battle between Good and Evil’ – and away from God, who pervades all and created all, ‘for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’. Which is probably why eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a less-than-optimum idea. 🙂

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Grant,
    A caution. We cannot and do not say that God created evil. Evil is “not anything.” It is a misdirection, a parasite, an absence, etc. But, reading your comment, I was unsure if you understood this. That God makes the sun to shine on the evil and the good is not a statement about the evil and the good, but a statement about the goodness of God. It would be wrong to draw conclusions about the evil and the good on that basis.

    The Orthodox tradition does not inveigh against “dichotomies and binary thinking.”

    If, for example, we say that “evil is a parasite,” we are not saying that “the parasite is good” or that it’s wrong to distinguish between the good thing and the parasite that is drawing it towards non-being. “Evil is a parasite,” allows us to say that all human beings are good, etc. But evil remains an enemy. The language of “enemy” and “adversary” is thoroughly Biblical and New Testamental. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” is a case in point.

  65. Grant Hudson Avatar
    Grant Hudson

    Yes, I completely understand and had not fallen for that one! 😉 I remember writing a comment on this thread years ago about this exact point. ‘Evil’ isn’t so much a created ‘thing’ as a failure to be created or an incompleteness. It’s a nothing, literally a no-thing. And spending time talking about it makes the Devil happy, I’m sure. 🙂 Always good to hear from you.

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