The God Who Sees Us

Recent days and thoughts have brought me to the conclusion that what we require is not so much to see God, as to be seen by God. The most frightful words in all of Scripture are, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” To not be known, it seems to me, is tantamount to having never existed.

The Christian quest to see God would be bizarre if it were removed from this desire to be seen by God, to be known of Him. In a world driven by the acquistion of information, we can easily mutate “knowing God” into nothing more than one more piece of information. For us, we seek to know things in a manner that involves a sort of mastery. We know them that we might manage them, manipulate them, use them.

There is a different kind of knowing. There is a knowing that is sheer gift. It is something that we often find in intimacy (a very rare thing in our world). The things learned in intimacy become abusive when they are used for managing or manipulation. Such gifts can only be loved, or, perhaps, held in awe.

That God knows us (we wrongly imagine) simply comes with the territory of being God. “God knows everything,” we say, and assume that He should therefore be able to manage everything and run the universe in a way that is pleasing to Him. This, I suspect, is what we ourselves would do were we to suddenly become a god.

God, however, loves the universe. What He knows, He loves. We are not the objects of His management, objects for manipulation. Rather, God holds us in a form of awe and wonder. In the creation story of Genesis, we hear evidence of this knowledge.

“God saw everything He had created, and, behold, it was very good.”

Again, we mistake this for being a way of saying, “God liked what He had done.” The world is created in such a way that God Himself holds it in wonder and awe. He sees not only its goodness, but its very goodness. This is more than mere knowledge and utterly transcends knowledge-as-information. This is knowledge of the most intimate possible meaning.

The modern world suffers from a crisis of loneliness we are told. I believe that much of that crisis is simply the by-product of an information society. The economy (whatever that is) knows pretty much everything about us. It is carefully mined from every action we take in the electronic world. That data is mined, stored, and sold. This is not only true, it is more true every day. But all of that information is the opposite of intimacy. Whoever possesses that information does not know you – though they could easily use it to destroy you. The information is dangerous precisely because those who possess it do not love you.

God has no desire to gather information about us. I’m not certain that God knows anything in a manner that could be described as information. God knows us as He knew Simon Peter. He could predict Simon’s denials while reassuring him that he was being prayed for (and preserved). Perhaps those words of reassurance are the very thing that saved him in the end. God knows us as He knew the Woman at the Well (John 4). He Himself was thirsty, but He knew her thirst (living water).

The crisis of our loneliness is, I think, two-fold. It is the lack of intimacy on the one hand (surrounded by information gatherers). It is also a crisis of vulnerability (humility) in which we fear to be known, for ever-so-many reasons. Intimacy is something of a dance. It requires a gift, for the knowledge that comes from love can only be made available freely and as a gift. The gift requires love in order to be received. For what can be known in intimacy can only be known through love. It dissipates in the hands of anything else.

St. Paul, summarizing his amazing 13th chapter from his first Corinthian letter (the chapter of love), says this:

“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.” 1 Cor. 13:12

I found this poem today, by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like most of his work, it burst into my mind and gave light. It’s worth sharing.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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48 responses to “The God Who Sees Us”

  1. Kennon Ballou Avatar
    Kennon Ballou

    Have you ever read Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis?

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, but it’s been years.

  3. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    If God loves everything, then how would it be possible to not be known by him? I feel like this needs more extrapolation.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laurie,
    I think that we are known by God inasmuch as He loves us. However, we frequently refuse to be seen as we are (even by ourselves), and we sometimes refuse to actually be ourselves. There’s a sort of paradox at work. There’s a saying: God can save the sinner that you are but not the saint you pretend to be. The love of God is constantly drawing us towards the truth of our being – our True Self. But He does not know the “lie” that we seek to make of ourselves. In many ways, this goes to the heart of repentance: turning away from what is not true, and turning towards what is true.

    I hope that is helpful.

  5. Kennon Ballou Avatar
    Kennon Ballou

    A few years ago, I spent a few days on a farm in Tennessee, and one of the farmer’s dogs would often sit at our feet as we huddled around the campfire enjoying each other’s company. But what that dog loved to do more than anything else was to play fetch – he was clearly of some breed that Man had shaped over generations to retrieve downed birds from the hunt. No matter where we threw the sticks, into the middle of the pond, into the thickest part of the bush, that dog would instantly tear off looking for the stick and would not stop until he found it and brought it back to proudly lay it at our feet, panting with exhausted joy.

    I spent hours playing fetch with that dog, and I have rarely in my life seen anything so happy – and I was struck that he was so happy because he was perfectly fulfilling his telos – his purpose that Man had intended for him.

    Years later, I still think about that dog.

    Maybe I’m misreading slightly the poem (which I did quite like), but the challenge in my own life is that it doesn’t seem like I can simply “be that what I am” – unlike the dog, or a flower, or a river, I am constantly fighting against my own telos. I wish I could be more like that dog!

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Kennon,
    With my last dog, I was frequently amazed at how much better he was at being himself than I was at being myself. After a fashion, we can say that animals are without sin – they simply are what their telos is.

    Knowing that this is hard for us is a place to begin. A place to begin in prayer. A place to begin in reflection. A place from which to consider our next action. It’s very important to remember that our telos is not a job or career (that’s all about finding our place in the economy). It’s much more about “how do I be what/who I am regardless of what I doing or where I’m doing it?”

  7. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Hi Father,
    As I was reading your post, I had a sense of something soothing entering my soul, like holy oil, hopeful, healing. Don’t have more words, don’t think I want to find them. Thank you.

  8. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Father, this must be why Confession is so important, right? Only when we come to God to admit openly who we are (right now) and the brokenness within are we showing ourselves to the One who can heal us.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Luke,
    I think it is the most important aspect of confession. It is not trying to clear up a legal problem – it’s setting right an “ontological” problem.

  10. Elizabeth Avatar
    Elizabeth

    Very interesting post. Thank You Father. I am not sure if this is going to make sense but is it Faith itself in God (Love) which even goes beyond what we define as belief in God, in other words, is what we hope for, in the certainty of what we do not see, which leads us to see the God who sees us?

    In Christ,
    Elizabeth

  11. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    Your answer to Laurie illumines a saying which has for many years been the most terrifying in the whole Bible for me – “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Over the years that has been balanced by saying, often, “Remember me, O Lord, in your Kungdom.”

  12. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Enlightening post, and the Hopkins poem is a keeper.

    This is profound: “We mistake [God’s seeing that it was good] for being a way of saying, ‘God liked what He had done.’ The world is created in such a way that God Himself holds it in wonder and awe. He sees not only its goodness, but its very goodness.”

    I hope to reflect on that often.

    Together with the discussion in the comments, the post and poem help me see evil as a parasite, negation, or nothing–that is, the thing that cannot ever be itself because it has no existence. Like the minus sign in arithmetic, evil comes into being and has meaning only when it attaches itself to (and by doing so inverts) something positive and real.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Elizabeth,
    I’m not sure I understood your quesion. It is love, above all else, that allows us to see (truly).

  14. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    A most stimulating post, Fr. Stephen! I had a few thoughts and a question.

    If Fr. Alexander Schmemann is correct in his sacramental perspective, then loneliness and the sense of isolation are based on an illusion. We belong. Nothing can separate us from the love of God – and therefore from the knowledge of God. Our sense of separation – an experience Scripture describes, in the words of Christ, as “Depart from me I never knew you” – is a lie from the father of lies. Such words of Christ illumine us, make us seek for union until it is found, and in this way help us discover the deepest truth about ourselves. I liken such words to the divine threats issued by the prophets, stating that perhaps, if the people repent, God will once again draw near to them. The inner meaning seems to be that God never departed: the people departed, in their hearts. In turn, repentance peels back the black lie of separation and reveals the reality of divine presence. Where can we go from it? We can only “escape” God’s love within the throws of delusion. Given enough experience (colored by suffering), perhaps even the most misbelieving person, carrying the deepest sense of estrangement, will “return to himself” (Luke 15:17) and see who he actually is in God’s life. This is death and resurrection. And the one who dies acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — Chríst…

    Father, could you speak a bit more to Hopkins phrase, “Whát I dó is me: for that I came”? That one gives me shivers.

  15. Valerie Yova Avatar

    I thank God for you, Fr. Stephen, and I hope to meet you someday. This post puts Confession in a whole different light. To be able to truly see ourselves, and to stand before Christ completely naked, spiritually and emotionally can only lead to a different kind of repentance than reciting a list of transgressions. …In many cases new and creative versions of the same ol’ ways of missing the mark. It is painful to truly see ourselves, and oddly, mystically comforting to be seen. But as I think you were saying, we have to GIVE that access, allow ourselves to be seen. It cannot be forced or demanded of us. It is kind of a paradox, no? That we all desperately long to be seen, but we often fear and resist it. Because it can be terrifying. Your post came on the heels of a discussion I had yesterday with a friend about narcissism and loneliness. As is often the case with your blog, the timing was perfect. God bless you with health and peace for many years. If you are ever up for a visit to beautiful central coast CA, we would love to have you here at St. Athanasius. 🙂

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    Hopkin’s phrase, “What I do is me: for that I came.” Is so very well explicated by Hopkins himself.

    the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
    Chríst

    “All his goings graces…” When we live as we truly are (in the truth of our being – which is image and likeness of God) – all our goings are actions of grace. They are a fullness. In God’s eye, such a person images Christ. God sees Himself in us, as we are to see ourselves in Him (as in 1John).

    I think the heart of my thoughts in all of this are primarily on “modes of knowing.” We’re so inundated and permeated with informational knowledge that we’ve become blind to the more primary forms of knowing and of the most important modes of knowing. Informational knowing is almost always reductionist and leaves out so much. It is “knowledge for my sake – ’cause I might want to use this someday…” It becomes narcissistic. It is not the knowledge of a lover or a beholder. It is the knowledge of a consumer. And, of course, that is a reduction of our humanity to the level of demons. For our adversary, we are told, goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. The devil is the master consumer.

    There is a knowledge of the beholder. It is the knowledge by which we perceive beauty. It perceives the whole and the sees the parts within the whole and the whole within the parts. It sees the “very good” and loves it. God does not consume us. He beholds us. His words to us (even the “depart from me, I never knew you”) are for our healing – to strip us of our blindness and restore us to the truth of our existence in Him.

    In the Garden, Eve sees that the fruit is “good for food.” She became a consumer. I think that one of the reasons that Orthodoxy pays such attention to fasting has to do with nudging us away from a consuming life-style.

    Thinking of consuming, I am reminded of the bedtime prayer my son wrote when he was 4. It is a treasure of insight:

    Dear St. Michael, guard my room.
    Don’t let anything eat me or kill me.
    Kill it with your sword,
    Kill it with your sword,
    Amen.

    St. Andrew of Crete’s Canon asks that we not be eaten by the demons. We were made for worship, not for consumption.

  17. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Perhaps due to our propensity to consume we are invited to consume Him and for Him to be our fill.

  18. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you kindly for fleshing that out, Father.
    For me, it’s a bestowal of grace just to hear that grace is the fundament of our being. Some might hear that and think: why then Christ? Why do we need salvation? But this deep ground of goodness turns out to be the seed of our salvation. “God was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” if I’m hearing you rightly, to know the Son intimately, rather than informationally, is to access an Incarnational mode of knowing.
    Your words are much appreciated.

  19. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    This quote from St. Peter of Damaskos: “The person who has received the grace of spiritual knowledge knows that all things are ‘wholly good and beautiful’ (Gen. 1:31); but he who possesses only the first glimmerings of such knowledge should recognize in all humility that he is ignorant and, as St John Chrysostom advises, he should admit on every occasion, ‘I do not know’. For, as John Chrysostom says, ‘if someone asserts that the height of the sky is such and such, and I say that I do not know, at least I have told the truth, whereas the other person is deceived into thinking that he knows while in fact he does not know, as St Paul says’ (cf I Cor. 8:2)…We should admit our own ignorance in all things, so that by searching and with distrust in our own opinions we may aspire to learn and, at a loss in spite of great knowledge, may realize our own ignorance through recognizing the infinite wisdom of God.”

    I frequently find myself feeling frustrated because I hear such glowing descriptions about how God feels about the world and about humankind. But, if I understand what I have been reading in St. Peter of Damaskos, it would seem that such knowledge comes from advanced spiritual knowledge which he places in the sixth stage of contemplation.

    I can accept that people who seem advanced in spiritual knowledge see things or see things in a way that I can’t. But, that doesn’t really speak to what I am capable or incapable of seeing. Or what I am capable or incapable of loving.

    I find speech about love of God to be moving. But, if I am being really honest, I haven’t been given that knowledge, I haven’t been given that sight, and I haven’t been given that love. I have to say that I am truly ignorant of all these things.

    Prior to Orthodoxy I never had any questions about whether or not I have seen beauty in the world or even questions about whether it is even possible for me to know whether or not God exists. Now there’s questions about laughter, about the dangers of taking a bath, and whether or not I have actually experienced beauty. If the idea was to create radical doubt about my capacity to know anything good on my own: Mission accomplished.

    No one seems to ask the question: what kind world could a person possibly see with eyes like that? It makes the Egypt of my natural religion difficult not to return to in lieu of the desert of ignorance I find myself wandering in.

    Dino, any thoughts?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I’m not Dino, but I’ll chime in.

    “it would seem that such knowledge comes from advanced spiritual knowledge which he places in the sixth stage of contemplation.”

    I think that the “six stage” makes it sound like a ladder that is hard to climb. I think it’s more like a switch which we’ve either forgotten how to turn on and haven’t yet discovered. I think many children know these things but would never use language to describe them. But they couldn’t say some of the things they say if they did not know them.

    As I mentioned in the article, reading Hopkins (and a lengthy discussion on Nicolas of Cusa, as well), “how God feels about the world” seemed clear – in a single flash. And seemed yet more clear as I examined it. I don’t think there was a ladder involved – but a switch that turned on a light.

    As you might recall from conversations, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about knowledge that comes from love. No ladders. Just reflection. But, “What kind of world could a person see?” one in which informational commoditites are replaced by things/people who are loved. We do not, for example, see our children as things to be commodified, or consumed. How would the world look if all that we saw, we saw with the same eyes that love our children?

  21. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I do not know what that would look like because it seems to me the world is a threat any parent would need to protect their children from. In the conveniences of our modern society survival isn’t the challenge it once was. Biological life does not flourish in the natural world because of God’s loving gaze. It flourishes because it has adapted to outrun prey, or to camouflage itself, or use bioluminescence as bait. Again, to be clear, I am not saying it isn’t possible to see the world that way. I believe it is. But without the grace to do so, what do human beings see? Sentimental visions of beauty may lead to disappointment and bitterness. Here is a true story. I once buried a dog I loved dearly out in the woods at a spot where we would sit and watch the sun come up. I had this sentimental idea that my dog knew this place and that this place knew my dog. When I went back to that spot and saw that the dog had been partly dug up and eaten. I hated that spot–I felt betrayed. So, beauty as a psychological experience may be pleasant, but like every other human sentiment it can lead to suffering. I cannot imagine that this is the same thing as the beauty spoken of in the Philokalia. That beauty has to be a grace that God gives one to see. How can it be any other way??

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    It is, indeed, a matter of grace – otherwise it would be mere technique. It’s also possible to be overwhelmed by the dangers in the world and not see the beauty, etc. I do not think that beauty is exclusive of suffering, or that safety is the ultimate end-game. I think frequently about my death (because I’m just aware of my aging). I cannot think that my death will be free from suffering – it’s far more likely to be otherwise. Nevertheless, I do not expect that inevitable event to be without beauty. I have seen too many beautiful deaths (and they were not without suffering).

    I am not describing a sentimental vision. It is rather a noetic perception. Sentiment pretty much always disappoints. I wouldn’t bother to write about sentimentality. But the gift of grace – the grace of perceiving beauty (and so much else) is real and true. I also believe it is given more often than we are willing to receive (and that is a complex statement – the “willing” is not just “I choose” – it is, more than anything, a healing within us).

  23. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    Going off your conversation with Laurie, your article reminds me of a thought I’ve had…

    I can’t love you any more than I know you. Love does not automatically follow knowing, but I can only love as much as I know. Trust works in a similar way. I can only trust what I know about you.

    The other thought is that God in His wisdom created us to be like Himself. Therefore He doesn’t force the process of knowing us in the way that you speak of. Just like a man should never steal a kiss that wasn’t actually offered, so God never forces the knowing/loving process. It is a 2-way street and we have to be complicitly along for the ride. It is a relationship He desires, not a transaction or a consuming of the other.

    some stray thoughts…

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Drewster,
    “God never forces…” I completely agree. It’s a situation in which, to a degree, when we speak of “faith” we mean something much closer to “trust.” I love my wife and I trust her. If she tells me something, or even asks me to take a risk, I trust that it’s something I could do, or that it’s worth doing.

    I recall as a child, my older brother frequently played tricks – the sort of trick in which you’re asked to trust and then you’re betrayed – and when you’re hurt the response is to laugh at you. Frankly, it created a deep injury in certain situations. Only love (a reliable, consistent version) can heal such a wound. But, it’s the sort of situation in which – who would want to spend their whole life being “safe” in the sense of fearing that the world was actually shaped like my older brother (much less that God was anything like him)?

    I start with the crucified Christ. If He asks me to trust Him, that is a conversation I’m willing to have. It’s obviously not a conversation that suggests that I won’t find myself on a Cross as well. It’s a conversation, however, that promises that I won’t be alone if I do find myself there.

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I think it is important to underscore that it is a matter of grace. If God does not GIVE that grace, if God WITHHOLDS that grace–and it is clear that grace is spoken of as being withdrawn by God–then the world is not going to be noetically seen as a beautiful place. The nous must be given the grace to see. In other words, without having the noetic gift myself, then I have to take you at your word because I cannot see it. I may hope to see it. But as St. Peter of Damaskos, St. Chrysostom, and St. Klimakos have said in so many words: Do not pretend to know something that you do not know, or pretend to see something that you really do not see. I think we assume that others are going to see what we see. That isn’t true. That can only lead to frustration on the part of others who CANNOT see. It seems to me that there is always the caveat of the noetic “if” as in “if it has been to you to see also.”

  26. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Simon,

    I think part of the answer might be in, Which is seeing the place rightly? Is the spot where you and your dog watched the sun come up, where you buried your dog in hope, or where you made a tragic discovery? Because of time, it is difficult to say all were the same spot–the proverb that a man cannot step into the same river twice comes to mind. Indeed, you were a different man each time as well, although something essential in your person was always “you.” This truth is what I myself am coming to understand and practice. The spot is part of creation, irrespective of me, to be seen and appreciated for itself and not based on how it either gratifies or pains me. To see it for itself.

    This idea is an expansion of the work of seeing other people rightly first. Men have long been told not to objectify women, and from understanding what that means, we can learn not to objectify other living things And so on, until we do not objectify any of God’s creation.

    As far as the presumption of knowing, your comment made me think of Job, a wise and godly man who knew much:

    I know that my Redeemer lives,
    And He shall stand at last on the earth;
    And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
    That in my flesh I shall see God,
    Whom I shall see for myself,
    And my eyes shall behold, and not another.

    But indeed, the same Job when face-to-face with the Almighty:

    I have uttered what I did not understand,
    Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
    Listen, please, and let me speak;
    You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’
    I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
    But now my eye sees You.
    Therefore I abhor myself,
    And repent in dust and ashes.

    Whatever I think and write about God, in the end I expect to find myself in far worse shape than Job.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    Perhaps so. I think it is also the case that conversation (such as writing) can be of use in helping someone to recognize what they see when they might have been overlooking it. It is not as simple as “grace given to see equals seeing.” But, neither should we beat ourselves up for what we don’t see.

    Last Friday, in my flying to Florida, I awoke to an alert from my carrier that my flight had been cancelled. That was the beginning of a day-long mess. We were rebooked and finally (for the last leg) put on standby. On Saturday, I was scheduled to speak at an event in Florida that was important to me (for a variety of reasons). So, I both failed and succeeded that day. I failed, in that I was not at peace and happily trusting God that all would be well. I was pretty miserable all day. Not until we settled into our seats on the plane (well past 7 that evening, having begun the day at 5 a.m.) did I breathe normally. And I was honest with myself and with God about how lousy my trust was all day. I succeeded, however, in that I didn’t quit. There were times (including back at 5 a.m.) when I thought about throwing in the towel and forgetting the whole thing.

    I’ve reflected a lot on that this week. I could not get the “inner” part of me into a healthy position. I could not “see” that everything would be fine whether the travel worked out or not. I could, however, just doggedly not quit. Hanging in there is also a work of grace – a gift given. It was the grace I had for this trip. I also think it’s a grace that is too easily taken for granted. It is what I was given.

    St. Thomas said, “Well, let’s go to Jerusalem to die with Him.” He didn’t say, “I think everything will work out fine, and let’s just trust God.” But it got him to Jerusalem and eventually to see the risen Lord. Not bad. I’ll take the grace however it comes.

    Yesterday, it came as an insight into the love of God – how He sees us and how we see Him. I’ll take that too.

  28. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Father Stephen, I have no clue why, but “let’s go to Jerusalem to die with Him” really meets me where I am at. I’ll wait on the rest. For right now, going to Jerusalem in view of certain death is more than enough grace for me. I can rest in that. Thank you for the reminder.

  29. Elizabeth Avatar
    Elizabeth

    Thank you Fr. Stephen and to others who have shared their amazing thoughts. Just adding a few words on Love… to keep in mind that there are different types of love. There is the love of parents for children, love shared in marriage, etc … and then there is the love of God for humans (selfless) and the reciprocal love of humans for God – Agape, the foundation of kindness and compassion for all humans and other forms of God’s creation.

  30. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    P.Stephen, I very much appreciate (among other things) what you say, in reply to Simon :
    “I could not get the “inner” part of me into a healthy position. I could not “see” that everything would be fine whether the travel worked out or not.”
    It really is for me a whole reality so well expressed ! Thank you, dear Father, for the testimony you give us, your life experience…

  31. Athanasios Avatar
    Athanasios

    Your comment to Drewster about trust really gets at the root of my difficulty with religion in general. We should be trusting God. But what about when God does not seem to be worthy of our trust? What about when God just seems to be another authority figure that let us down, like parents, teachers, and bosses? What about when I have “wept and fasted, wept and prayed” and the only response is to see “the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker”?

    How can we really trust a God who reveals himself to 1) gamble with our health and the lives of our children to win a bet with Satan; or, 2) allows St. Paul to honor Jephthah and pass over his daughter; or, 3) supposedly sees all of the evils that are perpetrated against children every day and does nothing to prevent it? Our legal system will hold someone liable who knows of child abuse and does not report it; yet God gets off scot-free? Unless we redefine justice to make whatever God does (or does not do) just, there is no justice in this.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Isn’t odd how something you would completely overlook in a text, like Thomas’ words to the other disciples, can have so much meaning? To speak truth to my son’s eyes…there is so much I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know. I know I am a person of little faith. But, if Thomas were to say to me “Let’s go to Jerusalem to die with him” I would tell my kid “Grab your gear we’re leaving.” It’s all the faith that I have, but I KNOW I have that much. I wish I could love more than I do. I just don’t seem to be able to.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Athanasios,
    I hear your struggle. I have several thoughts (and I do not say these things merely to give some sort of defensive answer – these are legitimately what I think in terms of your questions).

    First, you described several “biblical” examples that I would not (myself) treat in a literal way as being revelatory of who God is. I start with Christ crucified and read the Scriptures through that (not alongside that – but through that and only through that). I know nothing of God except as He has made Himself known to us in the God/Man Christ Jesus – in His words and actions.

    Having said that, what I hear is you describing a God that has very little if anything to do with God as I know Him. I would have similar arguments with the God you’re describing – I simply don’t think that’s who God is – nor do I think that what you’re describing is the Orthodox approach to these questions.

    You might be surprised by my response – I would hope so. There’s obviously much more to be said on the topic. But, I guess I’m saying that I don’t believe in the God you’re describing and I wouldn’t want to believe in Him. I do not think what you’re describing to be authentic Christianity.

  34. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Father,
    I too struggle with some of the things Athanasius articulated. I’m cradle Orthodox and alot of the teaching came from within the church. But what you said both in your reply to Athanasius and to Drewster is something I know I need to do- start with the crucified Christ. I have spouted for years about my “faith” but it’s theoretical without the trust.
    Thank you for sharing from your own life and struggles. My father was often like your brother but I could not not love or trust him. It’s so systemic too within the culture and the generation of my immigrant parents.
    I am grateful for your blog and these discussions.

  35. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Athanasios,

    You are not wrong. It is difficult to believe that there is a God who cares about anything. In fact, I find the whole idea ridiculous. HOWEVER, if God of Jesus Christ is not real, then there is no hope. If God is not Good and if the word of this Good God is not the final word, then there is no hope. There is a verse in 1 Peter that says, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election [hope] sure.” That is what I focus on…making the hope that is within me sure, for myself and for my family.
    Back in the day when I was a young man of 20, I volunteered to undergo a surgery that would lead to me getting cancer and becoming sterile. I underwent the surgery in compliance with the elders of my congregation. For the better part of thirty years I was bitter with God for what I have been through. The cancer, the sterility, the need for HRT, all of it. Then we adopted my son–my beautiful son. And I realize now that if that hadn’t happened to me I would never be in a position to have adopted my son. And I know in my heart of hearts that if I had to go through everything I have been through in my life a thousand times over that I would do it if that is what it took just to be the father to my son again. Compared to my son everything I have been through is nothing–absolutely nothing. So, my hope is that in the end when we see the beauty that God will have created out of this madness that we will look at it and we will say “We would do it all over again a thousand times just to see the beauty at the end.” I believe this, or at least I know this is possible and that is my hope in Christ.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am familiar with Simon’s story – it began as a tragic misuse (abuse) of authority (not Orthodox is of note to me). But that something good came out of it (not because of it – perhaps in spite of it) is something that can be redeeming and a source of joy that overcomes the bitterness and pain.

    I would add an observation to this. When someone can say, “I would do it all over again a thousand times just to see the beauty at the end,” they are also bearing witness to something that has taken place in the heart – a healing of sorts. Beauty, I believe, can only be truly perceived by love. I think of the Mother of God (the Virgin Mary). She was told at the beginning that “a sword will pierce your own soul, also” just as she was warned that the child she had would a “cause of the rising and fall of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against.” It is a prophecy of terrible things to come. She never abandons that child. She is with Him as He is crucified and she, indeed, endures the “sword piercing her own soul.”

    We could take her “soul-piercing” as a manifestation of the human suffering that afflicts us all as we see the suffering of the innocent. Of note, in this case, is that the “innocent” who is suffering is God Himself. That story “ends” in beauty a mere three days later as death is destroyed by His death and He is resurrected. With His resurrection is also a joy for His mother – beyond all joy.

    In some manner, the story (a real, true, historical, factual event) of Christ is the story of the whole world. We do not have an “explanation” of suffering in the sense of an explanation that satisfies us. Frankly, I think no explanation would be satisfactory. Christ’s is God-become-man, and He is God as the suffering innocent. That is the “explanation” of it all. Not a paragraph, but a communion-with-God, a communion-of-God-with-us.

    We can (and do from time to time) ponder out loud here on the blog about the origin of evil (the nothingness that seeks to make nothing of us all). Evil cannot be explained, I think, because it has no logos, no telos, no purpose, no being. But the suffering of Christ has a logos (Christ Himself), a telos (our salvation), a purpose (to destroy death), and is the fullness of Being.

    What I can say as a Christian – is that I know Jesus. That statement would take a lot of unpacking (I’ve been writing about it on the blog since 2006). But, knowing Him, I love Him, and understand, in some measure, His utter and complete love for us. I trust Him. I pray to speak His name with my last breath. I pray that His mother will stand by me in that moment as she stood by Him.

    I can only ever tell someone else what I know (who I know), and invite them to come and see. I have seen many deaths. I have buried my parents. I have buried a son. My soul has been pierced any number of times. But Christ has always been there, as been within it, transforming it, making it His own. And this goes on everywhere and at all times.

    That is the lens for reading the Bible – and even for reading the world. It is also a lens for reading your own heart and discovering that your heart is a Jesus story – because He has made us His own.

    This I know.

  37. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    My apologies Athanasios for misspelling your name previously.

  38. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    No one really needs answers. I have dreamt up many answers that I thought could reconcile me to so much suffering. I hoped that perhaps there would be an “Aha!” moment and then everything would make sense. Now I think that if a voice boomed from the sky, shook the earth with thick clouds and lightning, and offered that to me that I should run from it like poison. Suffering is evil and we should never reconcile ourselves to evil. However, I can see that love can make suffering small, can show it to be the nothing that it is–ergo the “1000 times over.” I appreciate the example of Our Beloved Lady: In Love he accepts the sword.

    Why is it so clear to me right now that what we need is fullness of communion with God? That’s what we need, that’s the answer. Why is it now I can see that communion is where suffering is transfigured into life?But, tomorrow morning…I am going to wake up, I will have had nightmares all night, and this will seem like someone else’s memory.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon, I don’t know the answer to that…the brain and it’s emotional states and their relationship with our perception is complex. But I’ll be praying for you in the morning. Nonetheless, I know that you hang in there…like Thomas going to Jerusalem.

  40. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I am grateful for your eyes and ears.

  41. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I hope that this comment might be helpful.
    When I first became a professor, I felt like an imposter. When I stood in front of a large class, I took on a voice of authority, in hopes that I what I said would be taken authoritatively. By and large when students asked me a question, I had an answer. But was very relieved when I could answer and feared the day, I might not be able to answer.

    There was a hiatus of time that I did not work in a university. In that period, I became an Orthodox Christian. When I first entered the Church and began to kiss the icons, in self-admonishment, I thought I might be an imposter. Slowly that feeling went away. But what seemed to help was accepting my failures as a Christian.

    Later I returned to teaching and doing research. Something had changed in my ‘core’. I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. Or rather I have learned to accept my idiocy along with the other failures I see in myself. I believe this is something like what St Sophrony teaches us, to accept a little shame. Also, I’m grateful for the saints’ lives stories, where on their deathbed, they exclaim that they are unsure that they have even begun to repent. Because of the lack in my own heart, I’m encouraged that even the saints have their self-doubts. We have these doubts in part, I think, because when we see Christ we also see how far we fall short of our desired goal, to be the likeness of Christ, to have His love in our hearts.

    I think of the life of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, like that of a flame (as we see in the icons). The winds of our lives might well blow it out, but by miracle and the grace of the Lord (because we know not how) the flame remains lit.

    My prayer is this: O Heavenly King, O Comforter, help us not to despair. Help us to remember with humble surety in our hearts, that Christ is with us and in us. Please grant us your help and mercy in our infirmities.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Thank you for the stories! Your experience in the years of teaching – the “voice of authority” – interested and resonated with me. St. Paul noted “we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord…” (2Cor. 4:5).

  43. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    So much of what we fear is uncertainty. Reading through the comments, I find there is an (unspoken) comfort in certainty expressed–even the certainty of dying, as St. Thomas’, “Well, let’s go to Jerusalem to die with Him.” As Father noted, “Hanging in there is also a work of grace – a gift given.” Perhaps a bit of obstinacy can be graceful? I’ve always been one who can “get through” things, but of late I’ve begun to despise that habit as it puts the onus on me to “succeed” at “getting through”. It’s a declaration of “I’m good enough”. St. Thomas’ declaration seems less obstinate and more resigned. But his resignation includes complete trust in Jesus that things will turn out. We’ll die–and it will be okay. Uncertainty is a fearful thing; certainty sees beauty that sweeps away all fear. The end is certain, but provision has been made for us. Dwelling on that last part introduces a sense of wonder at it all (for me). A song verse I’ve always liked jumps into my head:

    I’m just a part of the greater plan
    It doesn’t matter which part I am

    Just my rather jumbled thoughts. I’m so grateful for everyone’s stories here. Many thanks to all for them. God hold us all close!

  44. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Byron,

    “I’m just a part of the greater plan It doesn’t matter which part I am.”

    I had that same thought almost word for word about my son while texting my priest. I think the other part of this is that we put ourselves at the center of the story. It’s unintentionally ego centric.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    For me, Jesus revealed the Church to me over years. I first encountered the Holy Spirit when I was singing parts of the Messiah in high school. Then in the year of my graduation my mother sat me down and told me “God is real and I needed to find Him”. She gave me two gifts that day: a copy of Huston Smith’s “Religions of Man” telling me God’s reality was in there some where. She also gave me a handmade small silver cross with a bit of turquoise in the middle. I recently gifted that cross to my niece and her infant son.
    My mother’s twin sister had a job as a a typist for Joseph Campbell on his set of books on Mythology and his works helped a lot.
    Then in January 1968 as I was walking across my college campus, I asked “Jesus, are you real?” I got a simple, personal answer: “Yes!”
    It was not until I walked into an Orthodox Church in 1986 that was in the neighborhood in which I had grown up that I have been able to fulfill my mother’s challenge. Jesus has revealed the Church to me–not the other way around. That began during the Great Entrance in my first Divine Liturgy.
    Unfortunately, I knew Him better than the priest who received me and my family. We had to change parishes.
    Then in 2005, my wife reposed. My new priest came and prayed for hours as she lay dying and I witnessed her Guardian Angel attending her until she reposed. It was the middle of Lent. During Pascha celebration, I saw Jesus clearly taking her soul with Him as we chanted: “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.”
    I pray that my new wife, my own soul and all of our families may enter into that same apotheosis.
    The only doubt I have is if my repentance will be sufficient. By the mercy of God, it will be.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Oh, my late wife’s best friend was with us too, She saw the angel as well and that was the last block for her and her children joining the Church. Her four daughters also came and have since married in the Church and had children. All of the theology of the Church I know flows from the reality of Jesus with us. Intellectually, it can be a twist. Experientially– —

  47. Gregory Avatar
    Gregory

    A few stray thoughts on God’s boundless love for us:
    We seek to hide from Him, even drive Him away, out of shame or an over-inflated ego and (protective) self-esteem, but in His all-embracing love, He will not cease in His search to find us. I’m thinking of that wonderful poem by Francis Thompson, ‘The Hound of Heaven’, too long to copy here but with these closing lines:
    ” Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
    Halts by me that footfall:
    Is my gloom, after all,
    Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
    ‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
    I am He Whom thou seekest!
    Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

    Wherever we hide outside the Garden clutching our handful of leaves or wearing our emperor’s ‘new’ clothes, He will find us. That magnificent Psalm, 139:
    “Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?” (v.7)

    He waits patiently and lovingly at our door, knocking gently until we open it to Him.

    The Prodigal Son did not return to an empty house.

  48. Kyriaki Avatar
    Kyriaki

    To not be known, especially by those who have known you since chilhood, is a death. To have no explanation for this sudden amnesia is the second death.

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