Through a Glass Darkly

Perhaps the most intriguing passage in all of St. Paul’s writings is his description of an inner struggle in Romans 7.

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)

This is just a snippet from a passage that often seems tortuous to read. It describes the incredible frustration of doing something that you actually didn’t want to do. But if you didn’t want to do it, why did you do it? It clearly says that there is more going on within us than simple willing.

This is a passage that, for me, undermines the claims of an unfettered freedom of the will, or the exaltation of the will to the key position within our lives. There is something, St. Paul reasons, that seems to stand between who I am and my ability to actually access that reality. St. Paul concludes, “It is sin that dwells within me.”

Now, you might think you know what that means – but the meaning is far from obvious. The worst conclusion to draw is the notion of a “sin nature” (a horrible theological error). A “nature” (by definition) is “what a thing is.” If we have a “sin nature” then we not only sin – we are sin. This is blasphemous. Sin is extraneous to what it is to be human – it is a parasite. St. Paul doesn’t say, “It is sin, which I am.” He says, “It is sin that dwells within me.” If you need an image, think of the alien thing (like in the movie) dwelling inside you. It’s a bother (to say the least), and it can be devastating, but it’s not you. You are not sin.

What can it possibly mean to say that “sin dwells within me?”

First, I will note that St. Paul speaks of it as “something.” It’s not a legal issue (“Father, is this a sin?” – meaning, “Did I break a rule?”). No, this is a “thing” of some sort, spoken of in a substantive manner. It is not my nature, or some collective way of speaking about my bad stuff.

I think there is a good candidate for thinking about this sin – one that is familiar to many. That candidate is what is termed “toxic shame” in some modern discussions. It is distinguished from “healthy shame” and has some interesting characteristics. The Book of Sirach has this:

For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sir. 4:21)

The “shame that brings sin” is synonymous with toxic shame. It has a very vicious character. Toxic shame operates like a “second self” without being the self at all. It is something like a false personality and filter or window through which we see the world and relate to it. We come away from an experience of toxic shame with this kind of thought (for example): “Why did I say that?” In some cases, though an incident or conversation might seem embarrassing, or poorly thought-out, the motivation or context behind it may seem entirely opaque. These actions (in my experience) do not have the character of “willing.” It is as though we were watching someone else speak in our place (while at the same time assuming that it is the self that is speaking, which only deepens the shame – “How did that happen?”).

The “second self” of toxic shame can, in shame-bound personalities, become almost a default position, the “window” through which the world is viewed. It may be a window of anxiety, of worthlessness, of awkwardness, or perfectionism (and a much longer list, as well). It can be such a familiar “second self” that we have come to imagine it as an actual expression of who we are. It is, however, not “who we are.” It is much closer to being “sin that dwells in me.” At the very least, it is an ersatz personality that acts as though it is us. We come away from its actions feeling unclean, disgusted, embarrassed, frustrated, or simply confused.

The second-self of toxic shame leaves the true self with a feeling of isolation and alienation. Indeed, the true self can live in a hidden state, feeling alienated from the world at all times, unable to break free from the false, second-self. Our inability to be in communion with the world leaves us feeling out-of-communion with the self. It is easy in such situations to begin to doubt that there even is a true self, to imagine that the shame-created false self is all there is. Adam and Eve were naked and ashamed and felt as strangers in their own bodies. The fig leaves made no difference. Sin is not a legal problem. It is a matter of the loss of communion. Nothing is more lonely.

When I think of this existential predicament, my mind turns to Christ’s descent into Hades. We are “trapped” within the confines of toxic shame, and discover that we cannot simply or easily will our way out. We need a savior. On an emotional level, there is a need to identify and break open the secrecy and hiddenness of the shame itself (and this can be a slow process). It requires safety and love (lots of it). On some level, depending on the nature of the toxic wounds, we may find ourselves as exceedingly vulnerable “children.” Much of the personae that are developed in adolescence and adulthood are constructs of the toxic self. The truth of who we are may well have been hidden for years.

Who wants to be like a little child in the presence of another adult? Who wants to be that vulnerable or naked? What adult can be trusted with such a thing?

The answer, of course, is – very few. Nevertheless, God makes possible what often seems impossible. Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not quench.” (Matt. 12:20) The meekness and gentleness of Christ is truly “the safe place.” He enters into the loneliness of the various “hells” we inhabit in order to bring us out, and to crush the toxic lies of the shame that seeks to silence us.

I have heard His voice whispering softly that it is so.

The ascetic and pastoral ministry of the Church is rightly focused on this existential liberation of us all. We do well to lay it to heart that our encounters with other people are often “behind glass,” that is, we are ourselves behaving through the distortions caused by shame in our lives, as are others. The rarest thing on earth, I think, is the actual encounter of the true self (whether our own, or someone else).

I have had the profound experience through the years of hearing confessions, including those of young children (starting around age 7 or 8). Often, at those early ages, the fragmentation caused by shame is negligible. I’ve often come away from those confession shaken to my core – the intensity of seeing and hearing purity of heart in a child can reveal the very darkness within my own. At the same time, I’ve had the deep sadness of slowly seeing that purity fade over time and the fragmentation begin. We are not born depraved. Anyone who thinks that is profoundly mistaken.

I believe that if we would attend to the moments of clarity (however brief), points when the dark veil of shame is pulled back but a bit, and in that attending, would cling to Christ, we would find greater strength for the whole of the battle.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made. May God reveal it to you and, and, by His grace, to the world as well.


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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67 responses to “Through a Glass Darkly”

  1. Helen Avatar

    Fr Stephen, May it be so. Such an amazing hope. Thank you for your writing.

  2. Allie Avatar

    I come away shaken by this, Father. I have not understood what you mean by “toxic shame” so far, but this has been revealing… Thank you. For articulating our condition, and for offering hope.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Toxic shame is not necessarily universal, or, it’s minor enough in some lives to not seem as pronounced. It is common enough, though, to warrant lots of discussion and understanding.

    In healthy shame, we experience something short (like being embarrassed) and temporary. In toxic shame, something has made the shame so intense that we carry it with us as an abiding frame of reference, becoming like a lens through which we view the world (and worse than this). It can be crippling for some. Behaviors like perfectionism, anxiety, and many other things generally have a basis in toxic shame.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    2 Chronicles 7:14 I think speaks to the reality of a real self that is not the will among other realities.
    In my 74 years I have gone through many false identities. By His Grace I find that genuine, healthy repentance has helped me quite a bit in revealing to my self who I am in Christ.
    A few people seem to lock in on who they are early but most do not. In any case the work continues up to the moment of death and we are never alone in the work. Our interrelationships with each other Jesus, the Holy Mother, the world all come into play.
    God forgive me and may His Grace and mercy be with each of us especially our host and teacher snd his family.

  5. Pebble Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, your writing on shame is helping me very much through some very tricky times at the moment, thank you. This post especially helps me so much to make sense of my recent personal experiences that saying thank you feels odd. It seems as though I can’t stop seeing so vividly all the ways people around me are helping me in this crisis of mine and I feel a kind of gratitude that’s so strong it wants to burst out all the time! I’m not sure if that’s my toxic shame self coming through or if it’s just a way of being in the world I’ve never experienced before because it feels so new. It sometimes feels so beautiful and true that my false-self tells me I don’t deserve it so it’s not real.

  6. James Avatar

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    Can you offer any advice for lay people on dealing with toxic shame in others (and our own) in our daily lives? As you said in your article, very few people can be trusted with such nakedness and vulnerability, but we nonetheless are bound to encounter the toxic shame of others, and to have our own shame spreading out from ourselves. I am thinking of someone in my life who is an extreme perfectionist and very distrustful and will not accept help from others as a rule. This person has opened up to me more than they have to others, and I feel helpless about how to help them. I also fear becoming deluded in thinking I’m going to help fix this person somehow, when I have my own toxic shame to deal with.

  7. Dawn Avatar

    James, I recommend the work of Dr. Jim Wilder, a neurotheologian. His most recent book is Escaping Enemy Mode.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think all of this is a slow, patient work. I’ve not read Jim Wilder, but there are a number of books that look at shame, and most of what I’ve seen are helpful to a certain extent.

    For myself, even as a priest/confessor, my foremost concern is to love and to be “safe” (as in, not being a source of more shaming). Healing is a work of grace far more than a work of self-help or assisted help. What I mean by that is that God is at work to heal us and to set us free. Be prayerful and patient. Ask God for help but don’t force anything.

    I generally find that I can’t help anyone do anything that I haven’t done myself already. As such, I can only share what’s taken place in my experience.

  9. Ashley Avatar

    I enjoyed this article. Can you explain what you mean by “sin is not a legal problem”? The Bible seems to talk about sin in legal terms.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree – the Bible “seems” to speak in legal terms. But the operative word in this is “seems.” The “seeming” is inside us – not in the Scriptures. We live in a culture in which the notions of a legal metaphor color everything. It is, however, not an ancient view. I’m including a link to an old article of mine on the topic that looks at this in some detail.

    Learning to read the Scriptures for what they actually say is a difficult discipline. We’re mostly unaware of all the assumptions we bring to the effort. And, to make matters worse, generations of preachers in the West have used the legal metaphor for their teaching. But, in point of fact, it’s pretty much not in the Scriptures at all. The article I’ve linked might be of use.

  11. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen, you wrote:
    When I think of this existential predicament, my mind turns to Christ’s descent into Hades. We are “trapped” within the confines of toxic shame, and discover that we cannot simply or easily will our way out. We need a savior.

    At this I pulled out my icon of the Anastasis and “re-looked” at it. Adam and Eve–especially Eve (in the one I have)–look ashamed, and almost reluctant, to Jesus’ yanking of their arms out of the tombs. You have prompted me to see another layer beyond the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection. Jesus, indeed, is pulling us out of our shame, actively, physically; not by a hand-wave or verbal declaration. Like reaching out and touching the Leper, he grabs us by the hand and says, “Come with me.” It’s urgent.

    I don’t know why, but this startles me… in a good way.

    Thank you, again.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Justin, a lovely comment. Thank you for that insight.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you often speak of salvation as a slow, patient work as do the Scriptures and the Fathers I have read. What of those “leaps” that sometimes come that lift us up, seemingly suddenly? Do those “leaps” come when the threads of the slow and patient labor come together or are they just moments of intense Grace and mercy?

  14. Pebble Avatar

    Justin, thank you for your comment! I have often been helped by a from this blog on just doing the next best thing that is ‘at hand’. The other day, in the middle of a bustling city street, I saw a young child reaching for their mother’s hand as they made their way through the busy crowd. It struck me then because it seemed so effortless the way their hands found each other and expressed so much love and care just in that simple action, the child trusted the mum so easily and reached out for comfort and the mum was so naturally guiding him by holding his hand. I should say actually that it struck me now after reading your comment. Thanks! And so, perhaps doing the next best thing at hand is not only a way to think about what to do, but also, when actually doing that thing we are being guided towards what comes next.

  15. James Avatar

    Dawn and Fr Stephen,

    Thank you for your responses. I haven’t heard of that author before. I remember a past article of Fr Stephen’s where you described some internal dialogue of comforting the shamed self that is like a small frightened child. It seems like we can also experience this shamed and frightened child in other people. I notice in myself a desire to comfort some of them sometimes, because I know what it’s like to have someone to listen to what I’m most ashamed of, and not further shame me for it. But I also realize I very often do not have the patience or bandwidth to be kind and loving, especially when another person’s shame fueled behavior triggers my own shame, usually with anger close behind. Lord, have mercy on us.

  16. Janine Avatar

    I have had a very clear experience a few times, and one especially recently, of a vicious hatred coming from me to myself, if you will. It notably happened after I spoke up about something, on behalf of myself and others. I know that Father has spoken about such things himself, so I can relate to that.

    There are times when i will sit down and try to write from the perspective of an aspect of myself that puzzles me, and I tried it with this awful hatred. It was a very strange experience because there seemed to be no “there” there. It had no point except to punish, to harm, a desire to whip and hurt. I wondered if this was some sort of demonic thing, and it dissipated itself.

    But then I had this experience of myself — deep in my heart — as enduring, adamantine, like a turtle with its protective shell and long life which will outlast everything.

    For me, “endurance” is a key word from the Gospels, because this is what Jesus encouraged in us. That we endure. Hard things will come, trials will come, a struggle is part of our lives, but we endure. We continue in living our faith and his teachings. And so, I make sense of this that the turtle was a symbol of Christ’s teaching for us, for our souls. I

    can only conjecture that the vicious self-hatred comes from some experience in life, possibly a parent, and could even be demonic in its origin (what else hates so irrationally?), but maybe that doesn’t matter. It certainly seems indicative of what could best be called “toxic shame.” I know it was engrained in me for a very long time and possibly only separated and identified through Christ’s work of healing over decades of prayer and hope and struggle.

    Well, I’m being vulnerable and posting this. One can make of it what one will, but I think it’s a story of spiritual struggle. I wonder if there is something here you might suggest, Father and others who share that struggle.

  17. Byron Avatar

    It sometimes feels so beautiful and true that my false-self tells me I don’t deserve it so it’s not real.

    The phrase, I don’t deserve it leaped out at me here! Stating that I deserve something is a commanding proclamation, I think. It removes all vulnerability, putting the proclaimer in a position of power. But it’s an empty proclamation as well. Perhaps we need to become more vulnerable instead…. Just thinking out loud.

    Father, thank you for the clarity of this post! It is wonderful to chew on (it provides a true “safe place” that allows us to go deeper into it).

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you for sharing that. There’s a whole lot of odd experiences associated with this – and they are so rarely discussed. I hope it’s useful to have a bit of vocabulary for it and a way of thinking about it. It has been very helpful for me.

  19. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father! So glad it is helpful. God bless you.

  20. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you for being so open about your experience. I experience some really frightening stuff at times too. I’m never sure if it’s me or demonic, or a bit of both.

  21. Janine Avatar

    Thanks Andrew, God bless you on your journey of faith also

  22. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Janine.

  23. Bonnie Avatar

    Janine, and others, C.S. Lewis took part in many debates of a scholarly kind about the Christian faith. He also lectured on the subject. He remarked that he was often assaulted by a deep feeling of shame and oppression that came out of nowhere, right afterward, to the point where he almost felt he had misled people in a terrible way.
    I wish I could remember where this was written!

  24. Janine Avatar

    Wow, Bonnie thank you. It would seem that an assault on telling the truth (esp in a spiritual sense) might be something very common

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is an interesting account of Lewis’ experience. Many speakers (myself included) report having a “shame storm” following some public events. On the one hand, it is as simple as having been vulnerable in front of a crowd of people (and related bits of experience).

    In Lewis’ case, I suspect there is something deeper. He was in a debate once at Oxford about the Christian faith, and lost terribly and visibly. After that event, he never debated again (though he had done it frequently before), and he quit writing books like Miracles, or The Problem of Pain. These were essentially works of apologetics. My suspicion was that Lewis had something of a two-fold experience. There was Lewis as intellectual (philosopher, logician, etc.), and there was Lewis of the heart. It was his heart that brought him into the faith (cf. Surprised by Joy). It was the heart that eventually led to his surprising marriage, etc. I think he was retreating more and more from the philospher persona – and towards the truth of his being. Very interesting to think about!

  26. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Bonnie and Father Stephen,

    I cannot find a quotation from Lewis using the specific word “shame” that conveys what Bonnie remembers, but this concludes a talk he gave on Christian apologetics that I’m quoting from “The Grand Miracle”:

    Nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the reality–from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself. That also is why we need one another’s continual help….

    [End quote] Probably not the specific example you are looking for, Bonnie, but rather Lewis expressing the same feeling on another occasion in different words.

  27. Bonnie Avatar

    Mark, thank you for this. I think maybe the particular incident I remember reading about might be in “Letters of C.S . Lewis”, where more of “the Lewis of the heart” is displayed in some of his letters. The book is published by Geoffrey Bles Ltd,, and edited by his brother Col. Warren Lewis.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark, et al
    The debate I reference is the Lewis-Anscombe debate (1948). There’s a lot of discussion online about it (with various takes). It did cause him to eventually revise a chapter in his book Miracles to take account of the points that Anscombe had made. I offer this in case anyone is interested in digging deeper on that event.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you so much for your reflections. It’s difficult to convey here, but your words helped me tremendously.
    Sometimes it seems my work life is a “product of massive negotiations”. It is a work-life that can only bump and limp in an “uncomfortable peace, this week’s exercise in partisan warfare”. (I’ve borrowed some words of Father Stephen’s from a previous article). In that context, I barely hang on to my coinherence with Christ, prayers notwithstanding, a battle external and internal with voices on the outside and that voice on the inside that says I’m doing everything wrong and I’m unworthy.

    It helps so much to remember His love in the throes of such disparagement.

    But then I had this experience of myself — deep in my heart — as enduring, adamantine, like a turtle with its protective shell and long life which will outlast everything.

    Thank you Janine!

  30. Simon Avatar

    I have come out on the short end of a number of discussions. It leaves a mark, and we aren’t going to check mate someone into the faith anyway. The truth of the Orthodox faith is not to be debated: It is to be shared. Ergo, I have sworn off debating . First, people are horrible listeners. Second, we aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses. Third, the faith has been around for 2000 years it will be just fine!

  31. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I am a little familiar with what you reference from trying to slog through “Miracles” not too long ago. I have not read all of Lewis by any means, but, of what I have read, I found that book the most difficult.

    ” I think he was retreating more and more from the philospher persona – and towards the truth of his being. ”

    I also recall reading somewhere (perhaps even here) about someone trying to introduce a bunch of Orthodox theology students to Lewis and being told by them that they found Lewis too dry, i.e. too much of the logician and too little of the intuitive. That’s likely always a limitation when we try to write to persuade because we are giving directions to a traveler in hopes of guiding him to some place. Communicating the “truth of one’s being” (through this medium) I suspect works only when that person has already visited the same destination. How would we ever describe in words what it means to be in love to someone who has never felt it?

    I have not tried to discover the specifics of how Anscombe might have refuted Lewis because of believing that, if there were an irrefutable, logical argument for Christianity, some great thinker would have discovered it well before the 20th century. It’s unsurprising, then, that Anscombe could find weaknesses in Lewis’s case. Personally, what I could understand of “Miracles” I would classify as “reasonable evidence”–a well supported thesis–but not a case “beyond reasonable doubt.”

    You often say, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in him either.” Besides endeavoring to evidence Christ in our own lives, that position seems a sound “apologetic.” That is, rather than through syllogisms, if we look at our own belief, most of us arrive at God because we desire Him.

    To go back to the analogy, those who desire the same destination will be receptive to our offering them a map. Perhaps some started on the journey and lost their way. It does no good to offer the map to someone who has no interest in where it leads and believes all sorts of bad things about its destination. They must first understand the desirability of where the map takes them before even entertaining a debate about its accuracy.

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The truth of the faith is not to be debated. It is to be shared

    Indeed, Simon! And I have also learned that I’m too much of a sinner to be a worthy example of Christ, to be an “influencer”. It is my prayer that Christ grows His love in my heart, and that if I can show that in any form with God’s help, God willing, I’ve followed His commandments toward others. I have followed Him. And if following Him means going into Hades (whatever, wherever that is), I pray that the Holy Spirit gives me the courage to follow Him (even drag me) there too.

    Thank you for your comments!

  33. Dean Avatar

    Yes, the Lion of Judah needs no defense. Fr. Thomas Hopko…don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
    Share yes. Thump no!

  34. Janine Avatar

    Dear Dee,
    Thank you so much for your comment. I am so happy that what I wrote was helpful to you.

    I’m married to an academic, so I’m somewhat familiar (I think) with your profession and the kind of struggles I am imagining you are talking about. I’ll bet we could trade some stories! (Funny, the CS Lewis discussion ties in here too somehow, from what I’ve just read about it.)

    I think it’s very important that we strengthen one another, and I have put you on my daily prayer list.
    Love from Janine

  35. Simon Avatar

    I have thought a lot about this verse: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” Fr. Stephen has been keen on referencing that verse on the blog. My understanding is that what we know only in part is the fullness of our hypostasis. But, then, we will know the fullness of our hypostatic existence even as Christ knows it now. It is odd to think that the ultimate reality of our existence is known to Christ even though we may think of it as something that is future and far off. We think of ascetic labors as prescriptive. It is the necessary struggle in order to know in part something of our hypostatic reality. I wonder if hypostatic ecstasy is theoria.

    Why is self-knowledge important? I believe the key to that is in 1 Corinthians 2 “For what man knows the [thoughts and ideas] of [another] man except the [spirit, or mind] of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. ” What we can known about God follows from what we are–our hypostatic reality. As the false-self is scrubbed away by ascetic labors, prayer, communion, then our hypostatic reality is revealed and that reality is in direct communion with God. So, movement away from psychological existence to hypostatic existence is moving toward communion and that communion is where God is revealed.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Janine,
    I’m grateful for your prayers!

  37. Janine Avatar

    Thank you again, Dee.

    Father, on the subject of the mind and the heart, we of course have words that teach us about “the mind in the heart.” I think that often we fail to understand the “nous” (if I am using that word correctly) can encompass both our intellect and our heart. That takes a lot of trust (faith).

    Also, from what little I’ve read about it it, it seems that Lewis’ debate opponent (as well as the recording secretary on the occasion) was an equally devout Christian, except that she was Catholic and the Secretary Methodist. They were all academic colleagues and relatively familiar and friendly with one another. Anscombe for her part was a protege of Wittgenstein and her criticism of Lewis seems to be mostly about a lack of rigor, or “glibness” (Wittgenstein seemed to hold a similar opinion of him.) It was possibly his ‘popularising’ instinct for serious subjects that rankled.

    The reason I bring this up is to say that context in debate and dialogue makes a difference. Lewis was not debating with atheists, but people who were also serious about their Christian faith. And we can’t discount the serious the serious academic philosophical environment.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He is a fascinating character – and we actually know much more about him, including his inner life, than we do about most. Which is of note. I appreciate his struggles at least as much (if not more) than his successes.

  39. Janine Avatar

    Amen, Father.

  40. Janine Avatar

    PS I suppose I have to add I’m grateful for his “popularizing” spirit! And maybe for his glibness too!

  41. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Janine, et al,
    from what I could gather, Elizabeth Anscombe argued against (basically proved) CS Lewis’ claim that naturalism was self-refuting, in chapter 3 of his book Miracles. Subsequently Lewis rewrote the chapter.

  42. Eugene Detweiler Avatar
    Eugene Detweiler

    Forgive me. I feel a bit of an intruder since I am not Orthodox, but my journey has led, apparently, to a very Orthodox way of thinking , if not practice.

    The “will” is bound to serve. That is it’s limitation. Even as a reality for the triune God.

    The false philosophy of an innate personal depravity seems implicitly tied to the Satisfaction View (legality) of atonement. The two seem to go hand in hand. For me a questioning of the Satisfaction View of atonement followed a questioning of the well accepted understanding of the nature of the human sinful condition. Now the shame factor enters as an avenue for a deeper understanding. All of this comes together to illuminate who we are as socially conscious creatures constrained by the immutable nature of life, and is a pathway to clarity on who we are in Christ, and why He is our salvation.

    (Paradoxically, we have a sinful nature, but it is not our own, and we do not have to serve it, since Christ has set us free).

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not able to go into all of it at the moment, but Orthodox thought would push back a bit on your thinking. We do not have a “sinful nature,” nor is the will bound to its nature (certainly not entirely).

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, even though we do not have a “sin nature” and our will is always free to repent is it not the case that certain besetting sins or simply habit can make it seem as if such a state is “of one’s nature”?

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar


    Generally speaking, the answer is no. But I’ll take a few moments to explain.

    A “nature” is “what” we are. A human being has a human nature, a tree has a tree nature. It answers the “what” of our existence. Our “person” answers the “who” of our nature. It’s also said that there is a “natural will” (St. Maximus), in that there is what our nature “naturally” wants to do – it is our telos (end) and goal. And our nature always want what it “wants” – otherwise it would be a different nature.

    The human problem of sin is that we do not always act in accordance with our nature. We do what is “unnatural.” Why we do what is not truly natural is part of the whole problem of sin.

    When we find ourselves “bound” in a “besetting sin,” a bad habit, it’s not a state of nature, but an experience of bondage. When I was a smoker, my body craved nicotine because it was addicted, but I knew it was dangerous, unhealthy, and I “wanted” to quit. But the addiction overwhelms the will. We are “bound.” Someone addicted to porn (as another example), can find themselves clicking in, all the while telling themselves not to, and hating and despising it. It’s not an act of the will – but an act of an anti-will.

    Making this kind of distinction is important in thinking and in repenting. We can come to loathe ourselves, imagining ourselves to be “willing” our bondage, for example, and only make matters worse by deepening our shame and becoming ever more alien to ourselves (imagining the shame-self to be the true self). Instead, we should understand that our nature is utterly on our side, that we are not sinners by nature, but that the desire of our heart is to do good. So, we cry our (when in bondage) like a slave, begging for help and freedom. We ask to be rescued. Being willing to be rescued is the work of the will (even if the will cannot, by itself, free itself sometimes). Jesus doesn’t stand outside the gates of hell, teasing us, saying, “But do you really, really WANT to be saved?” If need be, He drags us. We have to fight against His saving efforts to will our own destruction. This is that very strange expression found in one of the Orthodox prayers that says, “Save me whether I want it or not!”

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In any bondage physical or spiritual part of the struggle is thinking , “I am this way” is it not? Yes I can say I am sorry, etc even repent more formally but that still does not change who I am. I can see sometimes in myself the temptation to create a false self that acedes to a sin as “natural” and therefore inevitable. BTW, I am not arguing with your statement at all, I am trying to understand certain rationalizations I sometimes seem to use to not rejoice in God my Savior because of my particular cross. Or worse demand those close to me agree to and suffer sin as part of the package. Participating in my lie to myself that it is just my nature to be angry, etc. Giving up the struggle and infecting others.
    Only a strict obedience to the reality that “I am made in the image and likeness of God and behavior X is NOT of God can get one through it?

  47. Simon Avatar

    I think that our obedience is beside the point.

    Here is some imagery I would suggest, but it is probably a gross oversimplification. Our hypostatic reality is hidden and is waiting to be revealed. I think of the garden of eden as the ‘true self’ and outside the garden as the ‘false self.’ Inside the garden dwells our hypostatic reality, which is now hidden. Presently, we are confined to psychological existence outside the garden. How can life outside the garden really be improved? How can we make it better? We come to think of this predicament as how we are because this is all we have ever known. The self outside the garden, “separated” from its hypostatic reality, is extremely vulnerable to becoming disordered and fragmented. Put bluntly, there is no way to make the false self better. There is no way to improve the false self. The false self does not make progress. What responds to God is the hypostatic reality that is hidden in the garden of the heart. As the heart continues to respond to God this yields a fruitage that we unfortunately come to think of as obedience and progress. As the false self fades the hypostatic reality shines through and the mind is healed.

  48. Eugene Detweiler Avatar
    Eugene Detweiler

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your response. I appreciate the “push back” of Orthodox thought, as in your reply to Michael, and your attention to specifics, and your love for the truth.

  49. Dino Avatar

    It can be tricky comprehending the usage of the right words in the context of “human nature”, especially given the poetic expressions we often come across. There are ample examples in the language of the Church where the terms ‘nature’ and ‘essence’, as well as ‘image’ and ‘likeness’, denote a number of almost contradictory notions.
    E.g.: The daily prayer of the Compline has us saying “our Sovereign Lady, who made the Word of God one with mankind by gloriously giving birth to your Son and joining our fallen nature to His divine nature, where what is understood by the term blatant expression ‘fallen nature’ is clearly not the ‘logos/essence’ of what Father Stephen just described. At the same time, it is neither simply just the ‘bad habit –second nature’ of addiction either. So, although theologically/anthropologically slightly suspect, such an expression describing ‘falleness’ against ‘redemption’ not just of a person but of us all, does come up at least daily for us.

  50. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I agree that language can be tricky–given that we do not all speak the same language to begin with and many of us learn our own language in a way different than what the dictionary describes–but “fallen nature” does not describe a change in the “nature” itself. Quite the contrary: To use the common comparison, it is conceptually equivalent to a diseased body. The body in its natural state is healthy, but because of some alteration it has become diseased. Similarly, “fallen nature” implies the action of sin on the natural state of things.

    Cf. Adam and Eve *before* the Fall.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, Mark, et al
    Dino makes a good point – inasmuch as the phrase “fallen nature” does occur in some of our liturgical settings (I would be very curious to know the history of those expressions, btw). My carefulness in the matter has to do with the very common thoughts in some Western circles about a “sin nature.” The notion being that our nature is fallen into some sort of sinful state such that we cannot help but sin. We are a “mass damnata” (a “lump of damnation”) in the phrasing of one of the Reformers.

    In an Orthodox culture, you can say “fallen nature” and mean nothing more than that our nature has been made subject to mortality (which is all that the phrase means for us). But if it is said in a Western popular context, so much more is heard than was intended. I suspect, however, since Western culture permeates the world to the extent that it does, that many, even within the Orthodox world, hear that phrase in the liturgy, and interpret it in very Western terms. Just as I’ve heard penal substitutionary atonement among some of the Orthodox. We are not always aware of how much we’ve been influenced by non-Orthodox thought.

    Our “fall” is a “fall” into death. It is mortality that marks our condition – not some sort of state of evil. It is our mortality (the “fear of death”) that, the Scriptures say, have kept us in lifelong bondage to the evil one. It is why Pascha concentrates, almost exclusively, on the topic of the destruction of death and freedom from its bondage. Pascha would sound ever so different were our theology of a “fallen nature” a theology of a morally corrupt soul.

    Just morning thoughts!

    BTW, Happy feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!” for those on New Calendar (such as myself).

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Aha! “Trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing Life”

    I know of no religious expression in any other tradition that even comes close to that. It makes me ashamed for the questions I asked(good shame). Beyond the sentiment and the energy with which it is sung is the actual reality. We sing it with exuberance, joy and hope but I often forget it could easily be a simple statement of fact. The Cross, the grave and the glorious third day Resurrection!

    All that I need to partake of it is to repent. Yet my pride, my body and my addictions, as described earlier, distract and hinder me. Without partaking of such freely offered Mercy, we continue to be enthralled by the world, our flesh and the Devil.

    The Mystery of Confession. Also like nothing else offered anywhere else. Being covered by the priest’s stole in a protected space, a cave,*with him guarding you as well as Christ, says (paraphrase) “know that you confess not to me, a sinner, but to Christ Himself.”

    The Cave of the Resurrection*. Glory to God for All Things indeed.

  53. Janine Avatar

    Sorry to introduce a sort of new subject, Father et al, but I was thinking about bearing a little shame. I seem to have borne more than a little at times. (Well, I suppose this is related to the question of “nature”.)

    But our conversations made me think. Those times when I have borne shame have offered me a chance to re-think, who am I? I can either identify with and internalize the shame, or I can think about what I’ve done to produce an unpleasant result — was it right or wrong? what’s the reason for the shame? etc did I make someone angry or did I do something truly I should not do?

    But more than that, it affords the opportunity to rely more deeply on God for identity and guidance in life. What’s my direction now? What do I take from this going forward? It is a way to separate the sin from the sinner, so to speak, in terms of identity — what I did (and can change) from who I am (God still loves me and will teach me).

    Clearly the ultimate example of bearing a lot of shame (for me anyway) is Christ crucified. It teaches us to separate outward appearance (shame) from inner identity before God. Obviously we’re not all sinless, but nonetheless it is an analogy. Christ wasn’t “sinless” in the eyes of people who resented or hated him.

    I don’t know, just thinking this through a little… hope my efforts are helpful. What do you think? Have I got it jumbled? or confused?

  54. Byron Avatar


    Your two statements on “nature” are very wonderful! Thank you for them.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sounds about right. It is something of a work-in-progress. St. Sophrony taught the priest confessors of his monastery to “especially with the young, teach them to bear a little shame.” By that, he meant to help them learn in the practice of confession to bear a “little” shame – not to make excuses or to self-justify. Our offering of ourselves (including those things we find shameful) are an inherent part of the medicine of confession.

    On the other hand, the things we experience as “toxic shame” (as modern therapists describe it) are far greater more damaging of the personality. Many times, toxic shame is a result of something that’s not even remotely your fault – such as abuse or violence. It requires a very therapeutic environment where it can be revealed, explored, healed, in the context of great safety and love. It can be very difficult, depending on how deep the wound might be. Prolonged abuse or violence leaves a very difficult situation.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Glad to help! Thanks!

  57. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father, once again.

  58. Laurie Avatar

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. I’m curious about the fall into death. It seems that if we did not die, then our planet would become overcrowded very quickly to say nothing of all kinds of practical issues. But it almost seems like some people think if we didn’t sin, we wouldn’t die. But isn’t death a biological reality? Just curious how you understand this….

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The only planet we know in our experience is one in which death is woven into everything. So, it makes it pretty much impossible for us to speculate about a world that is free of death. Thus the over-populated planet (because of not enough death) is a non-starter. We simply cannot imagine that kind of existence.

    We can say, however, that the Scriptures describe such an existence (at least in the form of a small glimpse), when it speaks of the Kingdom of God and the age to come. Those are not hints on how to go about managing our planet.

    They are, instead, a way of clearing the windshield so that we can see what needs to be seen. We need to understand that death is an enemy – it is alien to creation as God has intended it. That doesn’t mean that we then just take that fact and run with it. Rather, we take the commandments of Christ as specific directions of what to do in the face and fact of death.

    We love our enemies just as we love ourselves. We give generously. We are kind. We forgive. Etc. These are actions whose basis is the Kingdom of God rather than our calculated fears surrounding the managing of death.

    We hate our enemies because we fear death. We horde our money because we fear death. We are mean because we fear death. We refuse to forgive because we fear death, etc.

    To this, we say that Christ is risen, and we begin to love, to give, to be kind, to forgive. Each of those actions, in following Christ’s commandments, say, “Christ is risen.” Ultimately, the martyrs offer up even their own lives in the proclamation that “they loved not their lives unto death.” They loved Christ above all and lived it.

    As to the ultimate metaphysical problem about planets without death – we leave it to God.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, am I wrong that modernity as a whole: politics, philosphy, entertainment, buying stuff, etc is all based on two wrong assumptions: 1. Death is unconquerable, and 2. If we distract ourselves with the illusion of power and control we can ignore it?
    Over my 35 years as an Orthodox man, Jesus has gradually chipped away at my fear of death. In 2005 when my late wife reposed He showed me what the phrase “Trampling down death by death” means. In the midst of my grief and mourning.

    She reposed in the middle of Lent. When our celebration of Pascha came, by His Grace and Mercy, I began to appreciate what it means for the first time.
    As we began to declare “Christ is Risen!” my grief, my loss, my fear of death were transformed into Joy. “… and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life” meant something far deeper than ever before. His Life is real–death is not.

    Since I am a stubborn man, it only took me another 16 years to realize that my repentance(not anyone else’s) is the key to sustaining His Joy in my heart as my body and the culture of the world crumble and death seems to rule. It is still remarkably easy to be seduced by the chimera of death and the fear it induces–God forgive me.

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! “Fear not little children, I have over come the world” “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    As a dear friend and Orthodox priest who overcomes incredible obstacles daily by God’s grace reminded me strongly two days ago: The time is now!

    May His Joy and transforming Mercy reign in our hearts in all things.

  61. Janine Avatar

    “clearing the windshield” — what a great expression, will have to ponder it some more!

    Thanks all for raising good questions, and enlightening comments

  62. Michael Avatar

    As someone who’s battled addiction for 30+ years, toxic shame is crushing to say the least. It’s like you’re another person entirely, warps one’s true identity. Thank Fr. Freeman for this wonderful post. Christ is the hound of heaven, He will not let me go!

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, may God preserve you and lift you up!

  64. Lisa Garrett Avatar

    Icon by the hand of Fr. Matthew Garrett of
    Child also from Fr. Matthew Garret, his first born son, now aged 10. This pic has lasted many years now 🙂

  65. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Thank you Fathe: excellent as always.
    And the very last lines uplifting: “You are fearfully and wonderfully made. May God reveal it to you and, and, by His grace, to the world as well.”

  66. jacksson Avatar

    I agree with you Janine about Father on clearing the windshield: “clearing the windshield so that we can see what needs to be seen”. I stopped at that comjment and did some reflection in my life. When I was about 55 years younger, I would drive from Palo Alto to Red Bluff, CA (work to home, I hadn’t moved yet) on Friday evenings, I would go past (in the summer) the immense rice fields to the east of Sacramento and for a number of miles my windshield would be covered with smashed bugs (bug mush)and I would have to turn on the wipers to be able to continue the drive; then 20 years ago I was driving to my new home in the Sierra mountains east of Fresno and the voice of a truck driver came on my CB and he said, “hitting a swarm of bees can sure make a mess out of your windshield.” I remembered and reflected on these two events and thought about how life is sometimes windshield events, life can creates a big mess on our windshield and we need help seeing what can be seen and sometimes the mush remains and we have to go on by faitn. Father commented that “death is woven into everything (and bug mush in my case).” The scriptures, the sacraments, the life in the church, Christ Himself helps us see through cleared windshields and our life goes on and we run into more bugs.

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  1. This is a wonderful conversation! Father, thank you for your reply; it is beautiful. I’ll add that I IM’d you…

  2. Thank you Mark, so true! I am wondering if we can learn a lesson from the false predictions of the…

  3. I suppose to explain myself a bit better I would like to say that it seems to me that our…

  4. My latest commute listen is St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Janine. These folks were indeed the most learned people of their day.…

  5. Indeed, Father, I should introduce that topic into my teaching—lest it be forgotten!

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