Self-Emptying and Self-Fulfillment

There are many ways to imagine or describe human existence. Perhaps the darkest of all can be seen in the writings of the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. He essentially described human beings as living in a constant state of competition. Our “natural state” is one of self-interest. He famously wrote of the state of nature:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

His answer to this was the concept of government as a “social contract.” We agree to give away a certain amount of our power and self-interest in order to make a better life possible. Of course, the contract is always under pressure as our natures war with one another.

A “Hobbesian” view of the world is one that sees the need for the strong hand of government. In his defense, his life spanned one of the most tumultuous periods of English history, including the English Civil War. During that period, the King was beheaded, the state Church largely dismantled, and pitched battles ravaged the land while self-appointed preachers (and pamphleteers) kept the population in turmoil and strife. Interestingly, it was a period that provided the seedbed for many of the religious movements in later America.

There is a practicality in Hobbes’ view of the world. At our worst, human beings are quite brutish, indeed. There is an inherent need for order in our lives and in the world around us. In patristic thought, this necessary order was described under the heading of the “garments of skin.” Adam and Eve are naked and vulnerable after their sin. God provided assistance and covered them. St. Basil describes a number of ways this assistance was manifested:

You expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ Himself. For You, O good One, did not desert forever Your creature whom You had made. Nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but through the tender compassion of Your mercy, You visited him in various ways: You sent prophets. You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation were well-pleasing to You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants, the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come. You gave us the law as a help. You appointed angels as guardians.

St. Paul went so far as to say that the Law was “written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15). Thus, there is an instinct for order beyond the mere brutality described by Hobbes. That same law, however, is frequently obscured by so much that surrounds us. Were it utterly lacking, we would long ago have devoured one another. But it is insufficient for the construction of paradise itself.

The discovery of paradise within the heart is a profound struggle. The Macarian homilies famously say:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace—there are all things.

The heart is a battleground.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. I believe the most straightforward explanation of that revelation is found in the image of the crucified Christ. For the Adam we see in Genesis, is an Adam who is put to sleep on the Sixth Day, an Adam from whose side Eve is formed. Christ Crucified is the Second Adam who “sleeps” on the Sixth Day (crucified on Friday), whose side is pierced, yielding blood and water, the formation of His bride, the Church. It is the image of the crucified Christ that we are directed to imitate in Philippians 2:5-11. Christ crucified is the revelation of the self-emptying God, the “Giver of Life.”

The most profound, life-giving examples of human existence are seen in our acts of self-emptying. The birth and nurture of a child is, at its best, an act of love in which the self-emptying of its parents is on full display. To my knowledge, no other mammal enters the world with such helpless vulnerability as a human being. Most mammals can walk within hours of their birth. Our helplessness requires self-emptying love for an extended period of time. Doubtless, various theoreticians can suggest any number of practical reasons that we begin life in such a state. But, no matter how it is described, our infancy and childhood reveal that the “law” that is written in the heart extends far beyond a social contract. Love itself is written there.

It is commonplace in the modern world to “search for the self,” to look for the means of self-fulfillment. Often those searches are “sponsored” by various commercial interests (if you need to spend money in order to achieve your identity you might need to ask more questions). Christ said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) This is an interesting translation. The word rendered as “life,” is the word, “psyche,” which is elsewhere translated as “soul.” This is not “life” as in “life-force.” Rather, it is “life,” as in, “the life that is uniquely you.” This is more than martyrdom.

The martyr loses his “life” but once. There is, however, a martyrdom of the self, a continuing act of self-emptying in which we “find” ourselves even as we lay the self aside. Above all, this is the nature of love. It is revealed to us supremely in Christ’s self-offering on the Cross. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation, making known the image according to which we are created. Humanity becomes itself only in its self-emptying.

The bulk of the world (particularly in modernity) lives in the image of Hobbes. We have made a contract with our culture. It gives us the tools for constructing the various false identities that it rewards as “fulfilling.” It agrees to cooperate with our self-delusion, hiding the various hypocrisies and lies that would undermine that identity. However, chipping away at this devil’s bargain, there is the abiding reality of self-emptying love. A parent discovers in a child a fulfillment that comes in the life of the other. A spouse learns that who they themselves are is a secret hidden within the heart of their beloved. And, here and there, some discover that the only “self” that matters is the one that is hid with Christ in God, Who has hidden Himself within us that He might come and find us, treasures buried in a field, pearls of great price, lost coins awaiting the widow’s hand.

And we all await the wonder.


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.





14 responses to “Self-Emptying and Self-Fulfillment”

  1. Byron Avatar

    The birth and nurture of a child is, at its best, an act of love in which the self-emptying of its parents is on full display.

    My mind immediately leaped to the birth of children as one of the deepest acts of our humanity. Giving our life for the other is not restricted to parenting but it is certainly exemplified in it.

  2. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    This is a beautiful reflection. Thank you for this I needed it.

  3. KS Avatar

    Many thanks, Fr Stephen, for these arresting interpretations of Christian imagery (e.g. blood and water becoming Church) and paradox (e.g. “whoever loses his life [“the life that is uniquely you.”] for My sake will find it.” We read alone but reading your take on what we read makes reading an act of communion.

  4. Patricia Avatar

    Father Freeman… this question is not about your most current post, but rather a question about one of your previous posts on the audio blog site. Are transcripts available of those posts?
    Specifically: “ what to do with what you know” from October 9th… if my memory serves me. Thank you.

  5. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Patricia,

    I think this is an approximate transcript of the podcast you asked about:

  6. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Thank you … very helpful reflection!

    It reminds me of an interview Father Thomas Hopko did with ‘In Communion’ regarding forgiveness. He raises some powerful ideas of the delusion of self as an individual. He sees the Trinity as our model of communion and attainment of our true self. He sees the Great Commandment as expressing the reality of ‘love your neighbor as being your own self’. Here is an extract of the parts of this interview I believe most relevant to your reflection:

    “The Orthodox approach is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God is a Trinity of persons in absolute identity of being and of life in perfect communion. Therefore, communion is the given. Anything that breaks that communion destroys the very roots of our existence. That’s why forgiveness is essential if there is going to be human life in the image of God. We are all sinners, living with other sinners, and so seventy times seven times a day we must re-establish communion—and want to do so. The desire is the main thing, and the feeling that it is of value.

    The obsession with relationship—the individual in search of relationships—in the modern world shows an ontological crack in our being. There is no such thing as an individual. He was created, probably, in a Western European university. We don’t recognize our essential communion. I don’t look at you and say, “You are my life.”

    Modern interpretations of the commandment in the Torah reflect this individualistic attitude. The first commandment is that you love God with all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and the second is that you love your neighbor as yourself. The only way you can prove you love God is by loving your neighbor, and the only way you can love your neighbor in this world is by endless forgiveness. So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says.

    I recall a televised discussion program in which we were asked what was most important in Christianity. Part of what I said was that the only way we can find ourselves is to deny ourselves. That’s Christ’s teaching. If you cling to yourself, you lose yourself. The unwillingness to forgive is the ultimate act of not wanting to let yourself go. You want to defend yourself, assert yourself, protect yourself. There is a consistent line through the Gospel—if you want to be the first you must will to be the last. The other fellow, who taught the psychology of religion at a Protestant seminary, said, “What you are saying is the source of the neuroses of Western society. What we need is healthy self-love and healthy self-esteem.” Then he quoted that line, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He insisted that you must love yourself first and have a sense of dignity. If one has that, forgiveness is either out of the question or an act of condescension toward the poor sinner. It is no longer an identification with the other as a sinner, too. I said that of course if we are made in the image of God it’s quite self-affirming, and self-hatred is an evil. But my main point is that there is no self there to be defended except the one that comes into existence by the act of love and self-emptying. It’s only by loving the other that my self actually emerges. Forgiveness is at the heart of that.

    As we were leaving a venerable old rabbi with a shining face called us over. “That line, you know, comes from the Torah, from Leviticus,” he said, “and it cannot possibly be translated ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ It says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.’” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.

    After this I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say—“Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another—His Son. The same thing happens on the human level. So the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerges only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. “

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have come to a slightly different approach to Love your neighbor….
    All sins of humanity exist in my heart, in seed form at least. Therefore when I see sinfulness in others, I must repent. Following Mt 4:17 which the practice the Jesus Prayer embodies. In that practice there is no room at all for the judgement of others.

    Love of my neighbor follows naturally. The more I submit myself/soul to Jesus’s mercy, the easier it is to share His mercy with others. Fr. Thomas’ vision is realized.

    I fail frequently. I ask your forgiveness of me, the sinner.

  8. Bruce Avatar

    Thank you Michael … I think your reflection is also supported well by the quote Father Stephen used (and often refers to) from St. Marcarius and this powerful Solzhenitsyn he has also referenced in prior posts:

    “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained”

    ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There are sometimes transcripts available. That particular podcast first appeared as a blog post. Check this out:

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for this. I am deeply indebted to Fr. Thomas for many lines of my thought. If anyone hears echoes of him in my work, they are hearing me correctly. He was a giant.

  11. Byron Avatar


    This reminds me of your words. Good company, I think!

    If I am a sincere Orthodox person, I must understand that there are no random people in my life, and every person whom God sends to me is the person I need, even if he is annoying or angry, but my reaction to him shows that I am not much different from him. As the Holy Fathers say, the most important thing is that I have to watch what is going on inside me. And then it becomes clear that the main enemy sits within me – it is my passions, my irritability, my anger, the spirit of malice that I often overlook. And the man whom God sends awakens these hidden qualities in me – that is, he shows me my sins. But this is a great blessing, because to see your sins means to see the beginning of your salvation, the beginning of your correction, the beginning of one’s purification. Therefore, the Holy Fathers commanded us to pray for our enemies, which helps us to see our own inner impurity.

    ~Archimandrite George Shestun

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, thank you. It does sound right. Everyone will have their own way of articulating it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is always more. His mercy endures forever and fills all thing. Even our wayward hearts.

  13. Patricia Avatar

    Thank You Father Freeman and Mark S . . . for referring me to the blogpost so that I could print the transcript from there. Very helpful indeed! I also ended up finding other blogposts that I wanted transcripts of!

  14. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    Great comments. Salvation is knowing Christ (John 17:3), and in knowing Christ, we know ourselves in the union/communion, but cannot know ourselves outside of it, and cannot know the Trinue God outside of communion. This is the starting point for our epistemology. If I cannot know myself apart from union with the Holy Trinity, or others, then I must presuppose the Holy Trinity to know anything or to trust any of my sensory experience.

    The seeds of sin are the potentialities for doubt and fear due to fear of death and the exacerbation of this fear by the demonic and those in service to the demonic.

    John 17:26 26 “And I made known to them your name, and will make it known, in order that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I may be in them.”

    As for union or communion, it forms the entire basis for everything. The logic for everything, from sacred space to ritual defilement, defilement from sin, cleansing with blood, Incarnation, deification, family, marriage, demonization, exorcism, motivation by the Spirit or the flesh : all is union or disunion. We stay united to death if we proceed with death and demons as our motivational force, or we unite to life in Baptism, dying, being buried, and rising, and becoming new creations in union with Christ’s death, burial, Resurrection. Even the logic for strange OT practices is about unions, what unions should or shouldn’t be allowed, down to fabrics as a picture of what not to do. Contracts, obligations, sex, everything : union or what should not be union. Heresy is a disunion with the consensus of truth (not merely a voted consenseus, but the consensus of truth).

    This logic (and I need a better word than logic I’m told) is necessary to understand Christianity and Orthodoxy in particular. Union is there in Protestant theology and RC, but it’s very different and usually overshadowed by OS, PSA, etc. Union becomes union with Christ’s work of keeping the Law and suffering the infinite wrath of God in our place instead of union with Christ Himself, now, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Adoption and election become almost identical. But I am brought into union with Christ Himself, and the benefits of His work for me, but His work for me was not only that I be saved from eternal hell (which is what it is reduced to often, and the torture chamber hell is due to OS and Guilt anyway), but that I be saved -for- eternal union with Him, His Father, the Holy Spirit, all the Saints, all the Angelic Powers, all the redeemed from every ethnic groups, all of the created world we are meant to steward; sharing in His Love making His Love our love and having/possessing/acquiring His Love while sharing and receiving it communally.

    I get a little flack for my insistence on analogy, but I cannot know what a word is or means except by analogy. Language is meaningless without analogy. If I cannot communicate except by analogy, I must need someone else to even have communication. Analogy, like, once I ate this fruit that was red, and the next time I see a red fruit I remember that other red fruit, and can either trust it to be safe to eat or desire it as food source – this is nothing but survival. An ape, who knows how to get a cookie by hitting a button is not communicating with language. Language is by nature human and communal. If that is true, then I can’t think with words apart from other people. But it also implies that language and analogy transcends me. Language exists apart from mere survival based analogical memory. I’m not trying to write a syllogism but the thing is, with people who have imaginatively divorced themselves from the necessity of the other, of God, from knowledge of self or anything for that matter, bringing them back around to the fact that the self cannot be known in isolation as even language cannot be meaningful – or would fail to exist at all – if there were no “other”, no God, I think this should be persuasive to many. I cannot then create reality because reality is the other, is God/The Holy Trinity. And I believe this follows well, and is consistent with, Creation from Nothing.

    I’ve said it many times and I’ll keep saying it, Creation from Nothing needs reemphasized in our time, and it needs to be done regularly, creatively, Biblically, dogmatically. Because God is Trinue, Creation itself is communal, but also, because the Creation had a beggining, I am not co-equal with creation. I am not equivalent with all that is. Pantheism today is a huge problem. In this, I can be both individual, and part of something bigger, but the “bigger” or other thing that I discover, is just me all along. On top of Creation from Nothing, it only really works in Orthodoxy to do what it’s meant to do, create a real distinction between God and the created. In other versions of Christianity, because of OS&G making predestination into determinism, Creation from Nothing is negated even if there is a begginging to the universe – because – it was really eternal all along and every event determined. Orthodoxy is in a special place apologetically for the good of all Christians to argue forcefully against Panthesim. Atheism is pantheism, much of Christian thinking outside Orthodoxy veers pantheistic, Islam is basically pantheistic on the same lines. For union to be real, the will must be functional or the possibility for the will to function must be there. Union is gone from other religions in that, you are already the “will” of God no matter if you act the written will of God or not. To come into union means, the other exists and is not you. Our culture is Pagan Pantheism.

    Thanks for reading if I didn’t wear you out!
    Matthew Lyon

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