Drag My Soul to Paradise

A Prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ

My most merciful and all-merciful God, O Lord Jesus Christ! In Thy great love, Thou didst come down and become flesh in order to save all. Again, I pray Thee, save me by Grace! If Thou shouldst save me because of my deeds, it would not be a gift, but merely a duty. Truly, Thou aboundest in graciousness and art inexpressibly merciful! Thou hast said, O my Christ: “He who believes in me shall live and never see death.” If faith in Thee saves the desperate, behold: I believe! Save me, for Thou art my God and my Maker. May my faith replace my deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds to justify me. May my faith be sufficient for all. May it answer for me; may it justify me; may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory; and may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that He has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ my Savior: save me whether I want it or not! Come quickly, hurry, for I perish! Thou art my God from my mother’s womb. Grant, O Lord, that I may now love Thee as once I loved sin, and that I may labor for Thee without laziness as once I labored for Satan the deceiver. Even more, I will labor for Thee, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

From the Morning Prayers

This is among my favorite prayers and one of the most hopeful. The greater our self-knowledge and understanding, the greater our realization of just how impossible it is to live the spiritual life. There are many who seem to champion the will, certain that with the right motivation (usually threats of punishment) we will do the right thing. After years of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this notion of the well-behaved will is born from a personality defect and is simply neurotic.

I see this expressed in any number of ways. It comes out in social media with sentiments that people simply need to work harder, or that they should not be coddled or cajoled. Some extol the virtues of dire consequences for failure. It is directed towards children (“what they need is a real good whacking!”), towards the poor, towards the depressed (“make better use of your bootstraps!), towards the wicked (“without the threat of hell they will not do good!”), and towards ourselves (self-loathing and shame). While it is true that punishment and suffering can bring about a behavioral response, I have rarely seen it bring about an inner change. Punishing me will never make me a better man. Suffering that is willingly embaced is another matter – worthy of a separate article.

What is neurotic, however, is the insistent belief that punitive measures are both necessary and salutary.

I had a coach in high school when I was on the track team. He knew nothing about running. Our entire workout consisted of running while he yelled profanities at us. I did not become a better runner. I quit before the season ended.

Sadly, my coach is a caricature of a ministerial model for some. The laity are harangued and belittled. Canons and such become weapons of imagined discipline. Those who survive rarely become better Christians. If the model is internalized, they can become angry and depressed apostles of this dark method. Our closeness to paradise cannot be measured by outward performance. Paradise resides in the heart.

I hear the heart’s cry in the prayer quoted above. The depth of its honesty provokes the hearts of those who read it. It recognizes the truth of our will and echoes St. Paul’s observations:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand….Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:18-21; 24)

There is, I think, an abiding temptation towards Pelagianism (the belief that we can will our own salvation). In Orthodoxy, the teaching of “synergy” often runs in that direction. We indeed “cooperate” with God in our salvation (“cooperate” is the Latinized equivalent of “synergy”). But our cooperation is best illustrated in the prayer above. It is the cry for help from the lips of the helpless. This is not nothing – it is synergistic. But it is not the imagined synergy that some profess. We are saved by our weakness, not by our excellence.

This prayer, I believe, is an example of true spiritual growth and moral maturity. The Elder Sophrony said, “The way up is the way down.” It is the presence of true humility.

The prayer says, “Save me whether I want it or not!” In my own Southern way, I have translated this in a different idiom: “Drag my sorry soul into Paradise.”

Be merciful and kind. You will not save anyone by being harsh and demanding. When the temptation arises to fix the world (and your closest neighbor), recognize it as sin. Repent. Call out to God to drag you to a better place – whether you want it or not.

Photo by Issy Bailey on Unsplash

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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76 responses to “Drag My Soul to Paradise”

  1. Magdalena Berry Avatar
    Magdalena Berry

    Thanks, Father!
    This can’t be said enough.

  2. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    Re: “Punishing me will never make me a better man.”

    Heb 12:6-8  For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 
    If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?  But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. 

    Isn’t there a place for stern correction, at least from God?
    However, I’ve heard those verses quoted with a chilling relish by those disposed to other applications of violence.
    Is it God’s fault if there’s a brick wall of the word “no” and we self-intoxicated fools drive into it at 100 mph hollering “yes”?

  3. Vera Avatar
    Vera

    Father were you reading my conversation with my friend last night? We were talking about this very same thing and we were both trying to quote saint Paul. Thank you! Makes me feel a little better about my lack of strong will.

  4. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Fr. Stephen,
    You wrote about punishment and suffering not bringing about real inner change. I agree with punishment. But the same cannot be said for suffering. Solzhenitsyn looked back at the Gulag after suffering in it for years, and leaving the prison said, “Bless you prison, bless you,” or words to that effect. He had come to belief in God through it. I know your hospice experience showed hearts changed through suffering. And yes, suffering can also harden some hearts against God and life. The sun hardens clay but melts wax.
    Our son’s-in- law father never went to church, ridiculed religion. He suffered much the last 2 months of his life. Yet on 2 visits he allowed me to pray for him. And he asked his grandchildren to pray for him when they visited. His heart softened as he approached death. On the next to last visit with him his eyes were open, but not focusing. I asked him to squeeze my hand if he knew who I was. His thumb moved. Then I said, “Michael, listen to this. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, save me and have mercy on me.’” I repeated it twice. Then I asked, “Mike, if you can pray this, squeeze my hand.” And his whole hand moved
    against mine. A few days later he was in a coma from which he never woke. God is good at dragging souls into heaven.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sue,
    I often think we’re trapped by the metaphor of a father chastising his children (as the writer of Hebrews uses the image). Sometimes I think it’s an unfortunate image – given how often such chastisement has been abused through the centuries. I speak from experience, “Punishing me will never make me a better man.”

    I think there is a deeper mystery at work in the “chastisement” of the Lord – nothing quite as prosaic as punishment. Generally, I think that God (from time to time in His wisdom) allows us to encounter some measure of the consequences of our actions. It is also generally the case that we almost never encounter the full measure of such consequences. But – if there were no consequences to our actions – we’d rarely learn anything. But full consequences and most of us wouldn’t live out the week.

    But, when we speak of God, we must remember of Whom we speak. He is a good God who loves mankind – utterly, completely, infinitely, without reservation. That is not true of our earthly fathers – they are fallible men.

    I remain convinced (by experience) that it is ultimately only love that draws us to God – though it might be only at the last stage of our salvation. God does not want slaves, nor hirelings. He desires sons and daughters. Punishment does not produce love.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dean,
    Yes, you are right about suffering (when we allow it). Christ unites Himself to our suffering – which makes it possible for us to find Him there. It is not about the nature of suffering (in and of itself, it is horrible). But it is about the nature of Christ. The self-emptying love of Christ was and is made manifest in His death on the Cross.

    Suffering before death can be very important in a life (in some cases). One of my grandfathers endured some days of suffering at the end. But with every waking moment, he was praying, “Lord, have mercy.” I think those prayers were deeply redemptive. I’ve edited the article somewhat in light of your comment.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you say above: “Punishment does not produce love.” For myself out has only been in repentance that I have begun to know that love: first in the repentance of my late wife as she lay dying 18 years ago. More recently as, by Grace, I have tasted a smidgeon as I have begun to pray and read certain Scripture. His presence. God is good and loves us for sure but the realization of that love only begins as we realize our own sin and ask His mercy.

  8. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    Dear Father,
    That prayer is indeed a gem… and your thoughtful post is provoking a lot of thought among others! Somewhat in contrast to your experience, I think I can say from my own experience that my father’s disciplining of me and my siblings helped us significantly in curbing our wills at a young age, but it was a growing craving of the peace and joy of God as a teenager that propelled me into actually seeking to forsake my sins and be closer to Him.
    Isn’t St. Basil the one you were referencing (slaves, hirelings, sons/daughters)… when he said that Scripture has 3 stages of meaning that we grow through? First a man sees the warnings of Scripture and learns to refrain from evil, as a slave fears a beating… and then he grows to see the promises of blessings in the Scriptures, and seeks to do good to earn those rewards like a steward/hireling. And finally, he sees the verses of love in the Scripture and gains the tender longing of a child for his Father.
    In this context, punishment (and its consequence – fear) is a necessary part of salvation for many of us, but it is only a first step of our spiritual awakening. Perhaps it would be work to say not that punishment never made any man better, but that punishment, by itself, fixes nothing – and it is only a stage.
    I could be wrong.
    Your blessing,
    Luke

  9. Bill Avatar
    Bill

    Consequences was definitely a major contributor to my journey to seeking a relationship with God.
    Punishment can be more of a wake up call but in the long run may not work to help one’s salvation but only get them to comply in my opinion.

  10. CJD Avatar
    CJD

    God Bless and Keep You! Thank you once again for your warm words of encouragement.

  11. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    I couldn’t agree with your article more. In other places you have said that violence never accomplishes good things, no matter how pure the intentions. I think this is of the same flavor.

    But I had to smile at the title. You are from the Deep South. I know that with the right crowd, it would change slightly. (grin)

  12. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    The notion of “dragging” is solid New Testament theology, much more so than nearly every English translation allows. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus literally says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will drag everyone to me” (12:32). “I drag” is the primary meaning of ἑλκύω. And “everyone” (πάντας ) means, well, everyone.

    To my knowledge, only David Bentely Hart gives this translation. His account of human freedom in the book TASBS matches well Jesus’ words, I think. God drags us to himself, not as an external manipulative force but by creating us with an inherent (super)natural desire for divine union that remains restless till we rest in him.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    I was not aware of that translation of ἑλκύω. Thanks for the heads up. I confess that I was simply working from my own Southern vocabulary – pretty much in the manner that Drewster just alluded to.

  14. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    The southernism is familiar to me also, having grown up in New Bern, NC — a little too familiar. As you know, it can refer to losing a fight, or being taken to jail. I’ve experienced both. Having my backside dragged to jail, however, is not my true nature; whereas being dragged to God is. That’s DBH’s point, anyway. IMHO, I think it chimes rather well with the words of Christ.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    It does. My take on it is sort of two-fold. On the one hand, I know myself well enough to understand that I will need a fair amount of dragging. I love God well enough to want Him to drag me.

    On a certain morning in 1991, the day after I defended my thesis at Duke, I was staying the apartment of a friend (ironically, it was Diana Butler-Bass who is now a prominent liberal theologian, but was then a fairly mild evangelical). I woke up and knelt by my bed and prayed, “O God, make me Orthodox.” I meant two things in that prayer: (1) I want to be Orthodox, and (2) You’re going to have to make me. What followed was a very tumultuous 7 years during which I was introduced to the OCA and to Archbishop Dmitri of the South…and much else. In February of 1998, my family and I were received into the Church during a period of great turmoil in the Southeast corner of Orthodoxy. I am utterly convinced that, had I not been “dragged,” I would not have made it – I’m far too great a coward. My initial prayer came from the very depths of my heart (in line with DBH’s inner impulse) but was quite honest in it’s confession of weakness. My recent article on “Asking the Right Question” speaks to that deepest part of the soul.

  16. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    There seems to be a lot of comments about chastisement or punishment! But, if God’s expression of love to us is seen as chastisement is that not our own misunderstanding of the cross in our lives? It is from the cross He calls out for our forgiveness; perhaps there is merit to being there? I think the chastisements of God, and the authority of the Church, are rooted in a foundation–and are an expression–of love. I love Luke’s recap of St. Basil’s teaching (where is it from?).

    I don’t pray this prayer often. The language of “faith” and “belief” reminds me of a mental/psychological acknowledgement. But I’ve always been drawn to the “save me whether I want it or not”, which seems to be a cry of the heart (and I like “Drag my soul into paradise”). I need to get over myself and stop standing in judgement of the prayers we have received. Just my thoughts.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron, et al
    Your comment reminded me that Christ said, “When I am lifted up on the Cross, I will draw (drag) all men unto me.” He is, after all, dragging us towards Himself on the Cross. “Whoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.” Christ Himself went to the Cross “for the joy set before Him” (the Scriptures say), but He sweated blood and asked for the Cup to be taken away just the evening before.

    There is only love in the chastisement of God (to use that metaphor). In my own life, it was never love that I encountered in punishment. That’s simply my experience – I cannot suggest that it is/was universal.

  18. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    There is part of an Orthodox prayer that asks God to chastise us with His mercy.

  19. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Here is my two cents. Punishment is simply an act of power. It’s purpose is the submission of the one punished in order to gain control. Punishment treats the one punished like a slave. Punishment is altogether beneath God. Suffering, however, is altogether necessary. Suffering catalyzes theosis. We are saved through suffering. Why that’s true I don’t know, but I have enough apprehension to know that it’s true. Suffering is not punishment. Suffering is never used by God as punishment.

  20. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Perhaps we should distinguish between retributive and restorative punishment. My own view is only the latter is worthy of God. It is a consistent pattern seen in scripture: because God is Love, the Cross and Tomb entail the promise of Resurrection.

  21. Sue Avatar
    Sue

    Human parents, are yes, a difficult model to use. Last week I suddenly realized, when Christ is portrayed as a lion or a lamb, I can (to my surprise each time) burst into tears of joy and and totally want to hug Him. As a human figure, kissing and hugging a train of his garment is all. It’s not just awe and respect, sadly. It’s an aversion to flesh and blood human contact because experiences have been consistently contaminated by sin, my own foremost. Dogs and cats have been a wonderful gift. Also the Transfiguration of Christ, beyond and not beyond imagining.

  22. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    I saw a comic once that was an alternate version of the “Foot Prints in the Sand” poem. In the first caption Jesus says to the man, “My child, I never left you. Those places with the one set of footprints? It was then that I carried you”, then in the second, He says, “That long grove over there is when I dragged you for a while”. So true. There’s a line in St. Sophrony’s ‘Prayer at daybreak” that echos this idea:

    “Wherefore I beseech Thee, hear my prayer and by Thy Holy Spirit teach me the way wherein I should walk; and when my perverted will would lead me down other paths, spare me not O Lord, but force me back to Thee.”

  23. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Punishment is for control whether you call it retributive or restorative it’s still control. And if God is going to control things then he has a lot of ground to make up for. Discipline as in discipling doesn’t require punishment in fact it undermine efforts at discipling.

    When the prodigal went to his Father and said, ‘Give me my share’ do you think the father was surprised or do think this is that one guy that drags his feet on everything? And the Father never said ‘When you run out of money don’t come back here looking for help!’ When the prodigal returned to the Father the Father never expresses a need for restorative punishment. He says ‘Your brother who was dead has come back to life.’ That’s how God sees the human situation. It doesn’t need punishment. It needs to be brought back to Life from death.

    The things we suffer do to ignorance, stupidity, and foul lunacy is punishment enough.

  24. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It was the older brother that thought punishment was necessary, right? This really adds a corrective lens to How God sees the human condition it is foreign, distant, and one that dwells in the shadow of death. His view is concerned with resurrection, bringing the dead to life, finding that which was lost

  25. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    The Orthodox experience seems to be one of prevenient grace, a grace that always comes before and encompasses all people, whatever their response. Suffering seems to be the gateway which (often) opens up this ever-present reality. As was written in the post, “Paradise resides in the heart.” But in our hardness, we often need circumstance to explode our illusions and make the Truth transparent. In this sense, grace does not merely precede our realization of it, but suffering itself is a grace. A necessary grace, being dragged to Paradise. “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then to enter His glory?”

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    It is the supposed punishing God that kept me out of Christianity for most of my life. And I still do not believe in the reality of such a God now that I’m an Orthodox Christian.

    Similar to you, Father, I felt in myself a weakness of will and faith (at least in my case) and as St Sophrony teaches, faith is tied to love. And so I have focused on asking in prayers to have a heart of love toward others.

    Recently I had a bad accident that sent me to the hospital and I suffered severe pain indicative of a lost limb. Pain doesn’t usually make me cry or cry out. But when my body was manipulated in the hospital some tears began to flow. My beloved who has never seen my response to pain in this way was beside himself in despair. He kept asking “what can I do?” He’s not Christian. It is my habit to wear my prayer rope. I asked him to take it off and hold it. He did this and the flow of tears began to ebb. I prayed the Jesus prayer in my heart. And the pain itself became the prayer. I can’t express any better what was happening in those moments. Christ entered the pain. The pain was not diminished but I began to enter the pain with Christ with me.

    I don’t regret what happened in the accident although I do regret my stupidity that caused it. Stupidity is generally not very helpful.

    Was I punished for my sins? Was God trying to make me a better person? Perhaps some of you might think so. While I’m a sinner and fail and have weaknesses, I also have courage under extreme conditions relative to others, or so I’ve been told. I know such courage comes from the Lord. Nevertheless due to circumstances in my youth, I also have a hard heart, one that doesn’t love easily.

    If this accident is what I needed to soften my heart, even just a little, so be it.

    Glory to God for all things.

  27. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Another thought after my last comment. I thought it best to add that when I prayed the Jesus Prayer, under the circumstances I described above, I was not asking Christ to take my pain away. I was asking Christ to abide in my heart and soul so that the adversary would not overtake my mind and heart in my weakness. I did not ask to take the cup or the cross away.

    Nevertheless I was asking the hospital staff to help me with the pain. Eventually they gave me medication to endure the pain a little better. Still excruciating but manageable without tears.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    So sorry for the accident! I had a terrible nerve pain in my neck at the end of last year that went on, largely unabated, for about six weeks. I remember at the time trying to find a way to deal with it in order to sleep. Similar to your description, I eventually made the pain into a prayer – and it became a point of communion. I would have a hard time saying more about it – but it allowed sleep to come.

    Recently, in a series of lectures related to the topic of shame, it became clear to me to emphasize that Christ has placed Himself on our side of shame. He bore our shame. I think the same can be said of our pain. He is not distant from our pain, but makes our pain His own.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Yes, Father! It seemed so indeed. Christ wasn’t watching like an observer. He is in the same boat with us, holding onto us, enduring the pain with us.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, Pain seems to be a motivator. A year ago I was waking up in pain every night at about 3 AM. Even being retired it destroyed my sleep patterns. One night I said to myself that I can curse or pray. I started praying the Jesus Prayer. It did not help the pain (at first). Both my sin and His Mercy began to be revealed.
    Now I sometimes wake at 3 AM to pray even without to pain. His mercy is so salutary.
    It has changed me, a change I was not seeking and cannot even describe. A fundamental change that has my wife thanking God. Joy revealed. Even in adversity.

  31. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    I think I understand what you mean by “control,” and I agree. I tend to think more in terms of consequences. When we live for sensual pleasure and do all we can to avoid pain — like the prodigal son did for a season — pain and suffering are the inevitable consequences. This is the way the world is set up. Is God punishing us in such pain and suffering? Well, only in the sense that this is his creation. If you sin, you die; this is the divinely established logic of creation. The prodigal “died” in the pig trough. But then, he came to his senses. He allowed the pain to do its work — he willingly “took up his cross” — and in this way returned to the Father. He died under the purifying “punishment” of consequences and rose again through repentance. Jesus said, “everyone will be salted with fire.” I see this as a statement about God, who is often associated with fire in scripture, and who will purify everyone, for all have missed the marked and suffer in this world. I hope that helps to explain what I mean by “punishment.” By the way, I am not attached to the word, but I use it because my patron saint, Maximus the Confessor, often did. Whatever word we use, it is intended for our healing and not for our harm.

  32. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    It was the older brother that thought punishment was necessary, right? This really adds a corrective lens to How God sees the human condition it is foreign, distant, and one that dwells in the shadow of death.

    Simon I believe your interpretation is true according to the Orthodox tradition. And that is why I was able to convert to the Orthodox Church and become a Christian in my 60’s.

    Michael, I suppose that for people who have considered themselves Christians for most of their lives, that suffering can become a motivational experience to attain greater faith.

    It may look like I’m mincing words but I hope I say something here that will be helpful for anyone who has been in a similar boat as I am.

    After so many years as I have had, not only as a non-Christian but seeing Christianity as so much dead wood— nothing living in it whatsoever, there are many moments that I have that I doubt myself to be ‘the real thing’. Such doubt can be deeply destructive to retaining faith of believing Christ is really in me. What is it that people say able the fruit of faith? That others around such a person become believers. Can I say such a thing about myself? Absolutely not. Therefore what does that say about the reality of my faith? Surely I must be kidding myself. Christ in me isn’t real. And furthermore, when the disciples asked for Christ to increase their faith, what did He do? He taught them how to pray. But I say to myself that only works when you’re already a disciple of Christ. Am I such a disciple of Christ? My answer is no.

    What Christ offered to me in my suffering was an answer to my prayers, those that I knew and those that I didn’t know my heart asked for. Christ revealed to me my faith (God given to me in His mercy)—a gift that I didn’t know I had.

    What increases my faith, as far as I know, isn’t in my suffering ( but I’m a sinner that suffers from my sins), it is when He shows me His Providence. I suppose this is what I need. Even in the lame activities of this sinner, He has shown me that He can work through me and my stupidity and struggles despite my sins.

  33. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    The Lord, before his incarnation, let mankind experience all the bitterness of sin, all their powerlessness to eradicate it, and when all longed for a Deliverer, then he appeared, the most wise all-powerful Physician, and helper. When men hungered and thirsted after righteousness, as it grew weaker, then the ever-lasting righteousness appeared.

    I’ve always liked this quote from John Kronstadt. Some don’t turn to God as long as their own self-sufficiency prevails. I don’t think God punishes us, but perhaps he lets our illusions be stripped from us at various times so that we see ourselves more as we are. We just can’t save ourselves spiritually.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I take your point even though I just got to the point where I have been Christian for half my life, I was trying to follow Jesus before that (since 1968).
    However, prior to the Church, I was heavily influenced by Native American faith.(Am. South West primarily), Asian and mystic stuff. You are correct in that my environment had less shame than yours.
    Forgive me for not seeing the whole picture.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Michael,
    There is no reason to ask for forgiveness. All I’m expressing is that the Lord provides what each heart might need to hold onto their faith in Him. And I believe it might differ depending on our respective lives’ history.

    However, an angry, punishing God doesn’t seem to be Orthodox teaching, regardless of the quotes offered.

    I’m leaving “God’s punishment” on the side of the road. Of course, we may feel the burning of our dross, but as far as I know, this only happens in communion with Christ, not as a person subject to God’s punishment for their sins or for being sinful–hard to express. What happens in the eschaton is a different situation and one we all don’t know well, despite various opinions to the contrary.

    When I feel ‘drag’ it’s usually like that of a flying plane, I’m flying on the high side of life and feeling contentment that allows a sort of spiritual complacency. The feeling of drag is the Lord (or my guardian angel) reminding me to keep my attention on Him. He is the only source of all things good.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee,
    He is the source of all good things. On that we can agree. Blessed night.

  37. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Please bear with me, I’m writing to try to work something out.
    I seem to have had a lot of those negative experiences that were motivators.
    My earliest sort of glimmer of what God seemed to want from me happened when I was a freshman in college. (This is going to sound very silly.) I had a goldfish, one among many in a long line that had died like they so often seem to do. This one was living for a while but it seemed to be having a problem. I prayed and prayed that God would not let that goldfish die.
    That evening, I had to go to campus. As I was walking across the campus back toward my car, I saw a woman sitting on a bench alone, and she was crying. I had seen her before; I knew she was a graduate student of my professor. I decided to sit beside her and ask what was wrong. She was having struggles with her boyfriend who was putting a lot of pressure on her. I sat and talked and she felt better. She was quite grateful. I admit, I likely thought it might help me with my professor if he knew I had befriended one of his students, although I never told him about it. But she was grateful, and I thought I “should” comfort her.
    I went home and nearly breathlessly went to check on my goldfish. There he was floating on top of the goldfish bowl on his side, the telltale sign he’d died. What I thought then was that the message to me was that I really need to do “good” things just to do good things, and not because I think I’m going to get some reward. That wasn’t the way this was going to work. I couldn’t phrase it this way then, but really it seemed to me that allegiance to God was important for its own sake, not for reward. That sounds a bit harsh, but only if you don’t feel a love from God.

    I am the greatest example of one who crashes in where angels fear to tread, and I have felt the consequences. When Jesus quotes about the stone that became the head of the corner, He says, “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44). According to the Orthodox Study Bible, St Chrysostom has an interesting take on this. If you go throughout your whole life heedless of the stone, you’re likely to deal with it falling on you. But if, while still in this world, you stumble or fall on the stone, well then in your brokenness you have a chance to turn to God to be healed. I have crashed into more cement and brick walls than I care to count, and I have to admit, I turn to God because there is no where else to go. Like the Prodigal, I tried everything else, I have to go to God. And God’s love is just like the father in the Prodigal Son. So, I guess that’s my testimony on this subject!

  38. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    BTW, a language note: just want to add that “drag your sorry ass” is a phrase I’m very familiar with. Having grown up in the Central Valley of California (San Joaquin Valley) a significant part of our population is transplanted Southerners whose families originated in SE US, migrated to Oklahoma/Texas, then came to the Central Valley in the Dust Bowl. We have a lot of Southernisms in our mix of populations, even a kind of drawl. It shows up in music too. When I was singing I realized it was natural for me to lay back on the beat (think Baltimore-raised Billie Holiday who could finish a song a measure behind the band). It’s from regional speech patterns

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, you sound like my late wife. Just know that as she lay dying an angel came to pray for and with her.

  40. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Dee,
    Thank you for sharing your heart. Your comments always seem candid, without ambiguities. Your life experiences are vastly different than mine, but Christ in His mercy has brought us into the fold of His Church.
    Janine, thank you too for your story. Yes, we serve God out of love for Him and not for extrinsic reasons or rewards.
    I shared above what I did about our son-in-law Chris’ father Michael, because it’s so fresh on my heart. He passed just 6 days ago. Lord have mercy y!

  41. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you so much Michael, I appreciate that very much

  42. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dean thank you very much. And I agree about Dee’s comments too!

  43. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Janine,
    I live in the San Joaquin (St. Joachim)
    Valley too. You hit it on the head with us. My folks are from the Ozarks, my wife’s from Arkansas.
    Happy 110° today, 112° tomorrow! 🥵

  44. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Haha Dean, I’ll be coming out (we’re on the E Coast for my husband’s work) just in time for the great weather! 😉

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    Given that jazz, blues, rock’n roll, etc., were all invented in the American South, they have spread elements (and language) of Southern culture across the world. To listen to Mick Jagger try to sound like someone from the Mississippi Delta is humorous to me. Strangely, it has not fostered respect for Southern culture.

  46. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Yes, Father, very true in all points! I used to think the same thing when I would listen to Mick Jagger and even the Beatles as a girl

  47. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen, I appreciate what you’re saying about not debating over words. But I would suggest that liking sin with death as a punishment as a divinely established logic is…shaky for me. As far as I can see Augustine came up with the most cogent rationalization: We aren’t God ergo we aren’t immortal ergo we are susceptible to corruption. I like this because it’s really simple and it seems to rhyme with the world of my experience. In this sense the corruption of creation is something that was always there, at least in the sense that creation in not being God is mutable and that mutability is subject to a host of factors. The impression I get from an ‘established divine logic’ is that God created a moral system that operates with all the lawful regularity of gravity with death wired into the consequences. I am willing to be wrong, but I ‘feel’ like pumping the brakes on that. What do you think?

  48. Jamie Avatar
    Jamie

    Janine and Dean,
    Hi, neighbors! I live in the very center of the San Joaquin Valley and am occasionally asked if I’m from the South because (they say) I have an accent. The awful truth is that when I was a kid, I thought that Ellie Mae Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies was the cutest thing and I tried to speak like her. Some of it stuck.

    It’s good to know that some of the readers here are from this area. I would bet that we know some of the same people. I’ve found that it’s an incredibly small Orthodox world.

  49. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Jamie,
    Well, I’m sure many of Father’s readers are from the Valley. Ellie Mae….
    I was embarrassed teaching one of my high school classes. I pronounced “naked” as “neck-ed.” The students laughed at my pronunciation. I got shed of that southern pronunciation lickety-split! 😀
    On a more sober note. I think that amongst Orthodox it’s a small world because we’re still such a small fraction of the population. I know how my ears perk up whenever I think someone I meet may be Orthodox.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dean (and the South),
    I’m such a Southerner, that, even when I run into someone from Russia, I assume they’re Orthodox, but like a true Southern boy, I say, “I’ve gotta a cousin that lives in Russia!” (even though he’s a distant cousin but it’s as if I thought they would know him).

  51. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Haha, hi Jamie!
    Dean, back when I was in school, students likely would have laughed at that because they’d already heard it all their lives at home somewhere.
    Father I ask people things like that too. Just can’t help it. When I was in high school, a young woman came into our class. The teacher said she had just moved from Los Angeles. She sat down next to me. I knew *one* person in Los Angeles. I ask, “Do you know X X?” Her eyes widened like saucers and she told me, “She’s my best friend!” It was true. We’re still friends.

  52. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Re Ellie Mae — Jamie you reminded me about Green Acres, which is now playing in my head. I’m sure that was set in our Valley (same producers as Beverly Hillbillies)

  53. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    Many thanks for the response. I love the thought of St. Augustine (though it grew less vibrant in his later years). Your point about mutability is well said. In that view, it’s both a blessing and a curse: ascent and descent are both possible. And I agree that creation’s always been mutable. Has the corruption of creation always been present? This is sometimes framed as whether death existed before the fall. I have recently tended to say, yes, to this question, as the alternative makes little sense with my experience. St. Maximus says something similar, and at the same time tries to do justice to the fact that God is not the author of sin. If you would forgive a long, dense quote, he says,

    “God, who fashioned human nature, did not create sensible pain or pleasure together with it, but instead devised for this nature a certain capacity for intelligent pleasure, whereby human beings would be able to enjoy God ineffably. The first human being, however, at the same moment he was brought into being, surrendered this capacity—I mean the intellect’s natural desire for God—to physical sensation, and in his initial impulse toward sensory objects, mediated through his senses, he came to know pleasure activated contrary to nature. God, however, in his providential concern for our salvation, attached pain to this pleasure, as a kind of power of chastisement, whereby the law of death was wisely planted in the nature of our bodies in order to limit the madness of the intellect in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensory objects.”

    I don’t think this statement implies a young- or old-earth view. I personally think the scientific findings reveal that the world is very old. Maybe the key phrase in the quote is, “at the same moment he was brought into being [he] surrendered this capacity.” That is, there was no “time” when creation lived without corruption. The fall was instantaneous. Yet, God didn’t make it corrupt. In other words, it’s our fault not God’s. Of course, perhaps there is a kind of corruption that doesn’t stem from a fault, but rather from a sheer, blameless mutability of creation as such. But since this post is more about human corruption, maybe Maximus can help us.

    In his view, because God wills our salvation, he “attached pain” to all unnatural pleasure, and he planted the law of death in us to limit our madness. Maximus calls this “chastisement” here, and “punishment” in many other places. This is the ingrained “divine logic” I spoke of earlier, sometimes called the pleasure/pain dialectic: when I seek unnatural pleasure, pain is always the result. I then seek to alleviate such pain with more pleasure, and the cycle of consequences continues. We’re trapped by our own passions. The way that Christ breaks this cycle is how Maximus articulates the gospel. But, in short, it is safe to say that God is not angry with us. God is Love itself, and for that very reason he has woven natural chastisements/punishments into the created order both to limit our moral corruption and so that we might find freedom in the way of Christ—the one who breaks the mad cycle of pleasure, pain and death.

    Sorry for the lengthy response. I hope it helps.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen, Simon, et al
    The beginning and the end are often difficult to contemplate. There is a clear notion in a number of the Fathers that paradise was/is somehow separate from this world (I saw this recently in St. Symeon the New Theologian and I think it’s in Maximos as well). The language of such a distinction is present in St. Basil’s anaphora:

    But when man disobeyed Thee, the true God Who had created them, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.

    In this train of thought, “this world” was “made subject to futility” from its very beginning in view of the fall which was to come. It is useless to speculate about “what if Adam had not fallen?” We do not, however, have a Biblical account of “this world” in which it was not fallen. The “young earth” folks often have a mistaken narrative of our beginnings. A number of the Fathers have a much greater richness.

  55. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Owen,

    I like your thinking! Also, be patient with me as I think through your thoughts on pleasure/pain. Pleasure and pain are highly pragmatic responses shared by members of the ‘animal kingdom’ to things that can be rewarding or disastrous in the environment. I see pleasure/ pain as a learning mechanism. As such these need to be rudimentary and autonomic because we really don’t want to think too hard about things that are dangerous in the environment. I know we can discuss disordered pleasure and pain as ‘passions,’ but at the end of the day pleasure/pain are helpful mechanisms for getting by in the world.

    As far as angry gods go, I won’t worship one. An angry god could stomp his little angry feet at my insolent apostasy and rebellion, but I stubbornly refuse to worship an impish god. If all God had to do to was just be the most powerful being ever, then it isn’t God we are worshipping–it’s power. We should acknowledge the refusal to worship power. If we are going to say that God deserves worship and that’s it, that’s the final word, full stop, then it’s a pointless exercise in futility to think about what kind of god he is because it wouldn’t matter. We never really ask the question “What deserves our worship?” If we just say ‘god’, then we better cross your fingers. As far as I can see, we do not explore the question about what kind of god would be worthy of human devotion. Maybe we are afraid to start with that question, but it is nonetheless a valid question. If our worship is compelled by power, then human dignity doesn’t exist. What/who we decide to worship has implications for how we will ultimately understand human life, its value and dignity.

  56. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    I’m just beginning to read John Behr’s new translation of Gregory of Nyssa, On the Human Image of God. My guess is it will contain much of that very same richness.
    Many thanks.

  57. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    My thoughts about divine anger are similar. Of course, Christian scripture has a lot to say about God’s wrath. Personally, I believe such statements reflect the experience of a suffering people, sensitive to their own moral failings yet conscious of guiding, helping, loving Presence along the way. They sensed mercy amid their pain, and it led them to repentance. This faithful Presence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was understood variously, within a tradition that evolved over millennia, but always based on their divine experience. Sometimes they read this experience to mean God was furious, sometimes changing his mind and repenting. God’s revelation remains a mystery, but an active Mystery. No one knows what God is; we know God by his activities. These activities inspired and gave hope to the prophets. But these activities can be misinterpreted, even by holy men and women. Hence the long-standing Christian doctrine of everlasting torment. No one knows ultimately, but that there is a better way to understand God is seen in glimmers throughout the tradition. A god who creates any creature knowing it will suffer forever is not worthy of worship. I fear God (a near synonym for worship) because I know God loves me enough to punish/chastise/drag me through just the right amount of pain and suffering in this world — in this chrysalis — to transform me into a butterfly, a god. This is my own humble reading of the fathers on theosis and divine anger. Again, these are my own personal thoughts.

  58. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    These activities inspired and gave hope to the prophets. But these activities can be misinterpreted, even by holy men and women. Hence the long-standing Christian doctrine of everlasting torment. No one knows ultimately, but that there is a better way to understand God is seen in glimmers throughout the tradition.

    I completely agree, and was thinking something along these lines as well. My sense of Orthodox grammar is that the Scriptures are best read with an apocalyptic syntax. I want to say that the Orthodox phronema both reveals and is revealed by apocalyptic syntax. I imagine that there may be other syntaxes, too, that emerge with growth. However, I would that other syntaxes would be subsumed rather than drift into obsolescence. At the end of the day, we can only see what we are able to see, and it would be a big mistake to say that we see something that we don’t. sometimes we need a lens to help bring things into focus, but that shouldn’t be confused with saying that is all there is to see.

    Probably best just to accept the world on the terms in which it presents itself to us (what choice do we have anyway?) and get on with it: Go to liturgy, take communion, say your prayers, make confessions that make you look stupid, and buy your priest an ice cream.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    Can you give me a citation for the Maximos quote? I want to dig a bit in it.

  60. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well, I have been directly aquatinted with Jesus since 1968–iindirectly before that. All I have ever known from Him is kindness and mercy–even when I have been in rebellion… I simply am unable to relate to the angry destructive God.. Creative beyond anything I can imagine. He even makes me laugh at times to break up negative thinking. Reminding me in the process that I am not alone. Joy is closer than hands and feet when I remember and allow it. Even in the midst of the power of this world’s obvious intention to destroy everything and everyone. The wrath of God seems as an oxymoron. Repentance seems to make it moot.

    What am I missing?

    Forgive my arrogance and lack of knowledge and sinfulness.

  61. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken,

    That’s actually very thought provoking…

  62. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr. Stephen,
    Yes, the quote is from Maximus’ Responses to Thalassios, ques. 61.2. It’s the translation by Fr. Maximos Constas. Some scholars say it’s the most important question/answer in the work, containing his essential thinking on a number of topics. I wrote my ThM thesis on his view of the cross, and this text was important to my argument.

  63. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael,
    I’m not sure if your question was to me, but I’ll offer a response. In my view, God is not angry. People have interpreted their situation in terms of divine anger, however, mainly because of their own sin and the sense of separation it promotes. Hence the many statements of scripture that attest to God’s anger. The truth, however, is that God is not wrathful and there is no separation. Again, in my view, the feeling of being forgiven and the sense of reconciliation with God — that is, no longer feeling as if we are enemies of God (Romans 5:10) and separated by a great gulf — is a revelation of reality, a revealing of our true rootedness in the divine life which can never be severed. The biblical writers were not lying nor mistaken when they spoke about God’s wrath. They were relaying an experience of living in a world that misses the mark, an experience to which we can all relate. Separation from the divine is an illusion, but one that is common to human life, being healed and enlightened by dying and rising with Christ (i.e., repentance). God is with us, but this must be realized, like Paul did when the scales fell off: “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.” Christ, who is ever present with us, can only truly shine when the false self dies. This is how I understand, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself: God’s perception did not change — from wrathful to loving — ours did. Now we see Immanuel.
    I hope this helps.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Owen,
    Thanks for the Maximos citation. Fr. Constas work is a great gift in our time.

    To clarify for any readers: Maximos is not teaching that God placed sin (or death) in our nature – as in – we are not created to be mortal and die. Our mortality is a result of sin (not as punishment, but as consequence). In the passage you cite, it should be underlined that St. Maximos says, “God in His providential concern for our salvation, attached pain to this pleasure [the pleasure that comes from seeking sensual things rather than spiritual – something Maximos describes as being “activated contrary to nature”] as a kind of chastisement [a consequence], whereby the law of death was wisely planted in the nature of our bodies in order to limit the madness of the intellect in its desire to incline unnaturally toward sensory subject.”

    In this – it is the consequence (death) of seeking sensual things that brings this seed of mortality into our bodies – with a view to our salvation. This is quite similar to Genesis 6 in which God providentially declares our life span to be no more than 120 years in order to limit the consequences of sin (so that we not be lost forever). Indeed, I wonder if St. Maximos had Genesis 6 in mind when he wrote this passage.

    Maximos follows this quoted passage with this:

    “Because of the pleasure contrary to reason that had intruded into human nature, pain according to reason entered in opposition to it through the many sufferings in which and from which death comes upon us.”

    So death, a consequence of pain and suffering, “intruded into human nature.” This was clarifying for me and might be of help to others.

    Maximos is pretty much as deep as it gets in patristic thought. Always requires pondering.

  65. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    You’re welcome, Father.

  66. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen and Father, thank you. The existential reality of pleasure, pain and pills ends in our physical death. But I thank God for the pain because once one gets through it, Jesus is there, The mortal body remains in pain but our merciful Lord is there, waiting
    We have two options 1. Curse God and die locked in the pain, perhaps forever. 2. Repent and know His sweet mercy eternal.
    The pain remains but is somehow transformed. and joy reigns even in the midst.
    So,..
    (And I am a rank beginner still filled with darkness I harbor for some reason.)

  67. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for your clarification of St Maximos. Context in St Maximos is deeply important when reading him. I haven’t studied his works deeply since returning to teaching. There is a story in Orthodox circles about a lay person telling a monk they were reading St Maximos. His response was “then how will you be saved?” Orthodox theology is lived first in prayer and in communion in the Orthodox Church, and studied later. Such Orthodox understanding in Orthodox theology isn’t attained any other way.

    Father Constas says he would not have been able to conduct his writings on St Maximos without the fullness of place in an Orthodox monastery.

  68. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Here is Wisdom of Solomon on the subject of death: 1:12-16, 23-24

    In Orthodox theology Christ was slain before the world.

  69. Maria Avatar
    Maria

    Thank you Father. This is beautiful

    “Be merciful and kind. You will not save anyone by being harsh and demanding. ”

    Now on the ability to “willingly embrace” suffering. I need to read your essay on that.

  70. Austin Avatar
    Austin

    Father Stephen I have a question. From which “Morning Prayers” is the prayer to Jesus at the beginning from? I checked my black Antiochian pocket prayer book and my Ancient Faith prayer book and that prayer is not listed in the morning prayers section of either. I would like to buy a version with that prayer. Forgive my ignorance and thanks for your guidance!

  71. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Austin,
    It’s also in the St Tikhon’s Monastery Prayerbook as well. “The ninth prayer to Our Lord Jesus Christ”

  72. Austin Avatar
    Austin

    Thanks Fr Stephen and Dee!!!

  73. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Austin, I just realized that St Tikhon’s bookstore has two prayer books. The one that has this prayer to Jesus has an imitation leather cover and is called “Orthodox Christian Prayers”.

  74. Austin Avatar
    Austin

    Thanks Dee!

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