The Useless God

The statement, “God is useless,” is, undoubtedly, sure to strike someone as an insult, not a statement of a faithful believing Christian (much less, a priest). That reaction tells me much about how we feel about the word, “useless,” rather than how we feel about God. In current American parlance, “useless,” is mostly a term of abuse. Who wants to be seen as useless?

Consider this excerpt from a letter of the author and playwriter, Oscar Wilde:

A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental. It is a misuse. All this is I fear very obscure. But the subject is a long one.

That the absence of utility is a term of abuse is a profound comment on our time. Stressed, anxious, and sick from the fatigue of life, we find ourselves required to give justification for our leisure. I am “charging my batteries,” we say, giving work the ultimate priority. We only rest in order to work harder.

There are many useless things that mark our lives: beauty, rest, joy. Indeed, it would seem that many of the things that we value most are, for the greater part, quite useless. What is it, to be useful?

The useful thing (or person) gains its value from something other than itself. It is a tool. I value the tool because it allows me to do something else. In many cases, when the usefulness of the tool is expired, it is simply thrown away. In a throw-away society we slowly drown in a sea of obsolescence, surrounded by things for which we no longer have any use.

From a National Geographic article:

Imagine 15 grocery bags filled with plastic trash piled up on every single yard of shoreline in the world. That’s how much land-based plastic trash ended up in the world’s oceans in just one year. The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day…. The U.S. is the king of trash, producing a world-leading 250 million tons a year—roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.

Our sea of trash is a testament to the ethic of utility.

“You only want to use me.” This statement, on the lips of a lover or a friend, is a fearful indictment. We want to be loved for ourselves, not for what we can do, much less as an end to something else. We want to be loved as useless beings.

It is worth noting that among God’s first commandments is one of uselessness:

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The one day out of the seven that is described as “holy” is the day on which we are commanded to be useless. It is, in Christian terms, part of God’s work within us to make us like Himself – forming and shaping us into the image of Christ.

Utility – usefulness – is a strong value within the world of modernity – that philosophical, cultural agglomeration that came about a little over 200 years ago. Inventing better ploughs and threshing machines, figuring out ways to make everything faster, cheaper, and “better,” indeed, making things that no one had ever dreamed of, is an outstanding way to grow an economy. If you couple it with global trade, the standard of living increases, and some people get quite rich.

An aside: the genius of modernity was not its love for technology, or even for what technology can do. Modernity has become super-proficient in technology simply because it learned how to make it profitable. We do not make better phones because we need better phones: we make them so we can sell them. A large amount of medical research goes into finding ways to extend patents rather than curing diseases. Modernity is not the age of technology: it is the age of profit.

If you do this sort of thing for a good number of decades, and couple it with newly-coined ideas of human individuality and freedom, you can, before long, begin to think that you’re building better humans along with better ploughs, threshing machines and iPhones. Of course, many of the humans endure difficult times as they experience a nagging sense of uselessness that will not seem to go away.

The uselessness bound up with the Sabbath Day had a much deeper meaning as well as a more far-reaching application. The Sabbath Day itself was but a token of an entire way of life. Strangely, uselessness was deeply bound up with the question of justice, and, in a manner of speaking, becomes the foundation for understanding the Kingdom of God itself.

The Sabbath Day of ancient Israel was only a small part of a larger understanding of time and the stewardship of creation. One day in the week was set aside and no work was to be done. One year out of each seven was also to be set aside, and no work in the fields was to be done for the entire year – the land was to lie fallow – unplowed. After seven seven-year cycles, a fiftieth year was to be set aside.

Each seventh year, not only did the land lie fallow, but all debts (except those of foreigners) were to be cancelled. In the fiftieth year, these same things apply, but the land reverted to its original ownership. This fiftieth year began on the Day of Atonement and was known as the “Jubilee Year.”

In the preaching of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, this image of the management of debts and the land is given a cosmic interpretation in addition to its place in the annual cycle of Israel. The Jubilee Year becomes the “Acceptable Year of the Lord,” a coming day when the whole of creation will be set free – a coming Jubilee for everyone and everything.

When Jesus stands to read the Scriptures in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah. It is the passage which speaks of this coming cosmic act of remittance and freedom:

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16–21)

This passage from Isaiah is chosen by Christ to describe what He is about to do. He will preach saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” This Scripture describes what that looks like. The poor hear good news, captives are set free; the blind receive their sight; the oppressed are given liberty – there is a cosmic loosing that happens day by day in His ministry. Indeed, it is not for nothing that He seems to prefer the Sabbath Day above all others for doing this work. He is revealing the true meaning and purpose of the Sabbath.

And this will bring me back to uselessness.

Today, we would look at land lying fallow for a year as a primitive substitute for “crop rotation,” a useful way of promoting responsible agriculture. This is not its actual purpose. It is a deliberate interruption of the cycle of productivity, and the maximizing of profit. It says, “No. There’s something more important.”

The Law within ancient Israel was not an entirely unknown Mideastern practice. Other kingdoms in the area practiced an occasional forgiveness of debt, primarily to secure the position of a ruler. Israel seems to be the first instance in which the forgiveness of debt and the practice of Sabbatarian rest – for people, land, and animals, came to be written into the very fabric of life and given divine sanction. And, even in the non-Sabbath years, there was a prohibition against harvesting an entire field. A portion had to be left standing so that the poor could “glean” the fields for their needs. Maximum efficiency was forbidden. This way of life was not an effort to solidify earthly power, but to undermine it with a radical understanding of the purpose of human existence.

There was nothing new in Christ’s attitude towards the poor and the oppressed. What was new was His willingness to practice it without pulling a punch and His extension of its principles towards everything and everyone.

He drew the imagery of debt and its abolition (with extreme examples) into His teaching on the Kingdom of God itself. What we learn is that this Law of uselessness – the refusal to maximize our own power and efficiency – goes to the very heart of what it means to exist in the image and likeness of God.

That we are loved in our uselessness points to the fact that we are loved for ourselves. We have value and worth in and of ourselves regardless of what we might do. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the declaration of what God Himself values.

“…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?(Matt 6:28–30)

The lilies are useless, doing no work, neither toiling nor spinning. And yet, they are clothed. Our work ethic has become a cultural ethic. We take vacations so that we can return as better workers. Few things are done for their own sake. Why would God set aside so much time for uselessness? Apparently, when life becomes driven by utility, we neglect and ignore the things that have the most value and are all too easily deemed useless.

The Prophet Amos made this observation:

“Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes and sell the chaff of the wheat?” Amos 8:4-6

Very little has changed, it seems. We fail to honor the useless God, and in doing so, have forgotten how and why we live.

_______________

Revised from an earlier version. The photo is of the author in a state of jubilant uselessness.

 

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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283 responses to “The Useless God”

  1. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    When my son was small, one of his favorite toys was his Thomas the Tank Engine train set. I liked it as well because it was made out of wood, durable, and of good quality, so that I thought he might be able to pass it onto his own child some day.

    He also watched the PBS TV show that went with it, and occasionally I would watch it with him. A recurring theme of the TV show was that Thomas did well when he was “a really useful engine.” In a sense I could see the positive application of that in a train engine (as a piece of machinery) will probably wind up in the junk heap once its usefulness has been exhausted. Yet Thomas and his friends were also anthropomorphized; they were more than machines, which gave that implication a darker tone.

    In one infamous episode, an engine named Henry becomes stubborn, refusing to work, and Sir Topham Hatt (the boss AKA the Fat Controller) has him walled up, similarly to Montresor’s vengeance upon Fortunato.

    Sir Topham Hatt’s appearance (stuffed to bursting into stodgy clothes) and his own weak uselessness (other than hectoring the engines) evidence the likely subversion of the show. Kids watching it might have taken it at face value, but as an adult I did not see its surface message as the true takeaway.

    The Fat Controller was a soulless task master.

  2. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Such good and very useful words for me to read today and all days, thank you Fr. Stephen. Glory to God for ALL Things — including “the useless God”.

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    Utility is a very dark taskmaster. It robs us of our inherent worth and makes us think that we are only to be valued for what we do/make. Detectives would say, “Cui bono?” “Who benefits from this crime?” Clearly, someone who is raking in the profits. Work is not a bad thing – indeed, it can be valued in and of itself.

    I remember being nervous in my early married years. At my wife’s urging, we bought a used Volvo. My nervousness came from taking the car home for my Dad to see (he was an auto mechanic). We were a Chevrolet family and I wasn’t sure what he would think of this foreign thing I had bought. I remember (and cherish) that day as he looked it over, and examined the engine and various things. It was his sheer pleasure in how well-built the car was that delighted me. He simply admired the work that had been done because it was well-done.

    This attitude to our work (even if you’re punching code into a computer) is important. To be useful is, ultimately, to be a slave. Good work is good because it’s good. It is beautiful. To work in such a manner is a joy.

    On Thomas the Tank Engine: modernity is nefarious and relentless. Makes me want to go re-watch Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin)

  4. Ken Avatar
    Ken

    I recall reading about an ancient roman who said something to the effect of, “My slaves rest only when they sleep,” thinking that this applies fairly closely to our lives if you consider that time-off is conceived of as only a necessary preparation for more work. Many thanks for opening up an alternative horizon!

  5. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Yep, Adam “tended and kept” the garden before the Fall; he endured “painful toil” afterward.

    Regarding your father, my father-in-law wouldn’t think of buying a foreign car when I first knew him. He’s okay nowadays, though, with both his grandchildren driving Korean models. (I still favor Honda; although I’m not a mechanic like your father, the way they are built and drive “speaks” to me.)

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, what is prayer, repentance and service to others out of love for God? Even “doing nothing” is an activity is it not.

    I understand the critique of utility but I am missing something.

  7. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Fr Stephen,

    I have found a little nap a the base of a tall pine tree to be one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Yet fleeting.

    I work in an industry where productivity is the only yardstick by which we are measured. It is so pervasive that even the members of my family, especially my wife, struggle to see themselves outside of their utility to me and each other. It is a mighty struggle to demonstrate to them, and her, their “uselessness” to me, although I don’t use that word. 🙂

    My attempts to insert more “uselessness” at work, in appropriate places, may get me fired, but the industry desperately needs it. I suppose I have to believe it about myself, too.

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    The closest thing to a spiritual conversation I have ever had with my non-believing brother-in-law went something like this (as best as I can remember it):

    Joachim: Man … we have more leisure time in the west than they do in Japan, yet the Japanese live longer, yet also work more. I think this has something to do with high motivation. Highly motivated people (and I interpreted this as “working all the time” kind of people) simply live longer.

    Matthew: Maybe they are also using their high motivation and constant movement in order to avoid the deepest questions of life (Joachim is a perpetual motion machine!).

    Joachim: Na. Nobody thinks really about those things. People are simply interested in living their lives now in productive ways. Who has the answer to those kinds of questions anyway?

    Matthew: (whispered) Jesus.

    The conversation ended there.

  9. Myrna Martin Avatar
    Myrna Martin

    Thank you, Father Stephen!
    I love to be helpful and valuable every day; I see the value of relaxing and conversing with someone who is not in a hurry.
    Taking the day to be in His presence at Divine Liturgy on Sundays, I recharge my batteries🥰. ( at least, that is how I see it)- I treasure the time in prayer for those who cannot attend and must work on Sundays!

    ☦️Father Gordon Walker kept reminding me of this particular time while I lived in his household, and silently in my heart and soul, I heard him saying: Today is our day of Ressurection!
    Memory Eternal🥰🎶

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Faulkner’s classic book The Sound and the Fury makes much the same point, I think, especially in the second part with Quentin so obsessed with utility that he ends up committing suicide.

    The Sound and the Fury is the best novel I have ever read. I read it in 1968 and it is still active in me. The theme, in part, is the soul killing nature of utility.

    It takes its title from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The futility of seeking power or glory.

  11. Richard Vandermolen Avatar
    Richard Vandermolen

    Amen

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I’ve been struggling with workload. I could have been working during the holiday but essentially didn’t. That means the pressure goes up to accomplish in less time what I haven’t done yet. I would rather not work so hard. Fewer employees are hired presumably to keep the institution where I work afloat financially. Student numbers are going down in the sciences and it seems this isn’t a local phenomenon.

    I’ve been told I’m lucky because “I have purpose”. However the only aspect that helps me to keep going is when joy erupts. Whether in the lab or classroom, such joy is true and lasting when laced with the love of God. This season is the first time so many in my work life wished me a Merry Christmas. Typically this doesn’t happen very often in an environment struggling to be and support diversity, and political correctness. I suppose this might mean whatever is seen as my Christianity is acknowledged. If I have purpose it is to remember Christ. Not for utility but for the upwelling love it brings to my heat. May God grant that I remember His love and that He teach me and help me do His will.

  13. Anna Avatar
    Anna

    Utility is the predecessor to euthanasia.

  14. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    This is so good for me to hear, and yet, one of the first things that popped into my head was 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”

  15. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.

    I guess I would like a less useless God. I frequently get the feeling that when I am praying God is out to lunch…or maybe he’s in the privy. I think at this point that it is uncontroversial to say that Zeus is a useless god. As well as Jupiter, Ra, Baal, Enlil, etc. However, that wasn’t always the case. Now we know better. In fact all the gods are useless. Every last one of them…except mine. Mine’s not. However, it would be nice to have my fire from on high moment so I could quit raving like a madman cutting myself with doubts only to find there is no voice, no one answers and no one pays attention.

    I always felt like Pharaoh was more faithful to his gods. Even though all the evidence to the contrary was there he still held fast his belief in his gods all the way to his very death. That is the power of psychological certainty. The ability to hold fast to an idea when all evidence to the contrary is available. Was Pharaoh the ultimate fool?

  16. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you Father Stephen! This is such a refreshing message. Truly like rain to a parched soul. I’ve adopted so much of the utility mindset. Downtime is best spent by preparing for increased utility elsewhere. Everything must have a beneficial purpose. I’ve also found usefulness to be linked to safety in my heart. The more useful I am, the more worldly security I can obtain, therefore, I must continue to grow in usefulness. None of this bodes well for someone prone to anxiety.

    The usefulness idol has crept its way into Christian circles I frequent. The message is that we honor God by increasing our capacities (usefulness). Like taking the talent and multiplying it the most. If we make more money, we can give more money, etc. God is most pleased when we’re at our best. However, your words today help see through that facade. Being useless can actually help you be valuable by realizing your inherent worth simply for existing. How wise of God to give us a day each week to cease trying to be useful. I can’t thank you enough for your ministry!

    As an aside – could you comment to or perhaps direct me to a previous article where you address the parable of the talents? This parable is ingrained in me, and I struggle to see it outside the usefulness paradigm.

  17. Steve Robinson Avatar
    Steve Robinson

    I don’t think we understand how much the codification and formalization of Utilitarianism has permeated and become the zeitgeist of Western civilization.

  18. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Due to your article, Father, I looked up work or study breaks.
    The 52/17 rule came up. It recommends 52 minutes of work or concentration, followed by 17 minutes of rest/relaxation. I’ve no idea how they came up with these numbers. In college I would study for 50 minutes and break for 10. I’d do this three times in the morning using Saturdays for writing papers. It got me through. This reminds me of praying, then having a cup of tea. 🙂
    Here in the San Joaquin Valley there are farmers and Christian organizations which together do “gleaning” work. Multiplied thousands of pounds of fruit are dried and sent to the poor overseas.

  19. Karen Watson Avatar
    Karen Watson

    Leah,

    That verse is about people who could work, but were refusing to do anything at all, and goes on to say they were also interfering in other people’s efforts. Apparently it wasn’t pure laziness: they were in such momentary expectation of Christ’s return that they had decided work was no longer needed and everyone should just sit and wait for Him. Paul was correcting that particular mistake, in that particular Church.
    Refusing to work at all, when you can and there is work needing done, is a long way beyond simply acknowledging the body and spirit’s needs for rest, or the work involved (albeit unrewarded) in simply living with disabilities. Or, indeed, taking legitimate industrial action. People who use this verse as a club to extract more hours of labour from others, and deny help to the needy, are making excuses for themselves – whether covetousness, or a genuine fear of themselves being found “useless” and disposed of.
    Profit is good, but like every good it turns bad when erected into the sole and only Good, to be pursued at all or any cost.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When seeking to understand I like to understand the key word, its origin, various meanings now and over time. One word that popped up related to useful is practical. Practical has a Greek root meaning to do or to act.

    A common thread is the application of the human will to achieve desired results in the seen world of the senses

    I’m a sense it relates, I think, to Simon’s point on irrationality.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Forgive me for that typo heat should have been heart. —- typing on my phone without glasses again—

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    You might find this article to be interesting.

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think your thoughts are reflective of your present situation – which doesn’t work as an argument against them. I’ve ridden high, from time to time, when God seemed quite useful and fell off the horse when that ceased to be the case. The “useless God” is as useless as love (and for the same reason).

  24. thomas Avatar
    thomas

    This article really speaks to me. One of my greatest desires is to just be able to “be” with Jesus, and not try to be so busy at all times.

    I grew up with entrepreneurial ambitions, and worked hard and smart in my 20s and 30s. I was heavily influenced by the tech culture in the 90s and early 200s and the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who seems to be the philosopher of entrepreneurs. By my early 40s I started to lose my way. I had achieved all my financial goals, money no longer motivated me. I had set my businesses up so they needed little input from me (see 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss). I suddenly had a lot of time for myself, and I felt utterly useless and empty.

    Many entrepreneurs will take a little “sabbatical,” then jump right back into the game, making more and more money. I could have done this, but I wanted something else. I wanted my time to mean something more then just profit, but as a existential atheist, I couldn’t hold on to anything. I tried to make up my own meaning, by being useful to others. But ultimately I just fell back into my selfish ways. I ruined my marriage, covered up my feelings of uselessness with alcohol. I had no direction. Thankfully I remained a decent father.

    I still struggle with this idea of usefulness, in context of God’s church. I enjoy trail running and snowboarding in the mountains where I live, but these activities don’t directly serve the church. I have this nagging feeling that I am supposed to always be working towards something, instead of just being. I think this will be a life-long struggle, as it is apart of my entire culture and upbringing.

  25. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Those thoughts are not indicative of my situation. They are highlighted by it.

  26. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Father Stephen, appreciate the article very much.

    One nitpicking point I have to make is that I take issue with Oscar Wilde when he says,

    “ A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. ”

    Every year since I have had the gumption to speak up, I plead with my family members to stop mowing up the field flowers and the so called weeds in the fence rows. Same for the native grasses. Let them grow long enough to make seed. But no one listens.

    Where in heaven do they think that the honeybees we attempt to raise will get their pollen? Not to mention all the other insects and birds who keep our ecological system intact.

    Every year the honeybees die and though this may not be the only issue, it is some of the problem.

    Well, that is my point for Wilde. Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

    So the apparent useless can be useful (wince) in a subversive way.

  27. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thanks Father Stephen, thanks Mark!

    Well said Karen, I appreciate your take on that verse as well!

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    Yes. That makes sense.

  29. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Shawn,
    I just want to thank you for your comment. You have said words right out of my heart and mind. I too appreciate this article and grateful so much for Father’s writing on this subject. The proverbial work ethic pervades this culture. Even worse, if I dare say for a woman in her late sixties to “show herself worthy” for a job normally given to someone younger and “vital”. I work harder in hopes that I demonstrate I’m not ready to retire or be retired or replaced. The hurt to one’s soul to consider oneself useful to an institution as one’s only value is a heavy and distressing weight.

    Older women (especially those of low means) do not have much usefulness in this society, or so it seems. Ageism and associated beliefs and behaviour are invisible.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The goodness of Christ (unlike some of His people) is that He accepts everyone who comes to Him as we are, and recognizes the healing each of us needs…..

  31. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    I too appreciate those here voicing that one’s worth is associated with one’s vocational usefulness . I admit to having had some envy of the usefully vocated (prob not a real word).

    I used to always get the question, “ What do you do?”

    My answer, “ Nothing.”

    It is probably unchristian of me, but I rather enjoyed the utter dismay and uncomfortable silence.

    I was a stay at home mother and got tired of explaining so I would give people this before further explaining that I was merely a stay at home mother.

    No one asks anymore. I guess that’s because I have crossed into the land of being too old for anyone to care anyway.

  32. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    People are extremely contingent beings. So, it it’s no surprise that in any given society there will be some who find themselves at the margins of contribution. This is by no means a uniquely western phenomenon. Cultural norms for contributing to the group are universal. Even within the church those who don’t tithe or contribute are not permitted to vote at business meetings. And the Scriptures do say that “Anyone who does not work neither shall he eat” and ” If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Of note, both in the OT and NT arrangements for the consideration of those without means were made. On the one hand, uselessness in terms of intrinsic value must be affirmed in order that we don’t turn each other into a means to an end. On the other hand, without the expectation of reciprocity group cohesion suffers. I am free to be useless with respect to my intrinsic value, but I am not free with respect to my responsibilities. To the extent possible I must serve my responsibilities usefully. A question that I have had for years now follows from the passage of scripture that I quoted earlier, “What was God’s response toward Elijah’s prayer?” It was a difference that made a difference: Fire from on high. The lack of response on the part of the Baal is interpreted to imply that he is no god.

    What if the Baals hadn’t been immediately slaughtered? What if they were sitting around talking to themselves about what just happened? Do you think that they would have allowed the inevitable cognitive dissonance they would have experienced to challenge their beliefs? Or do you think they would have engaged in dissonance mitigating rationalization? Would they have said something like “Baal is putting us to the test to see who is truly faithful” or “We should not have put our lord to the test” or “If Baal would have shown his power what need would we have of faith”? Same gymnastics, different gym.

  33. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I would not use the Scriptures for reasoning in this way. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying that I won’t do it. The story gets de-coupled from Christ and just becomes fodder for the argument.

    As for the thoughts on uselessness…just take them for what they’re worth. I’m not trying to absolutize anything.

    It’s getting late at night for me.

  34. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Here and no further. For beyond is vastness of what I know not. Crashing thunder. Raging wind. Turbulent sea. And voice in the darkness: “Come follow me.”

  35. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew 8:23-27

  36. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Thomas.

    What you shared really resonates with me because in part it mirrors what happened to me in the 90´s. I was very interested in being an entrepreneur. I studied business and marketing in college and also had what I thought were some great business ideas, but at the same time I was beginning to notice a real societal problem that I truly did not want to be part of … mostly making money and obtaining lots of material things, etc. There was a real push-pull going on inside me and as you say the cultural and for me even the religious pressure was very strong to conform to “the way things ought to be”. On top of that I was suffering from mental illness which only exacerbated things. For about the first 8 years after college I tried to live the “American Dream” as a committed evangelical Christian. I failed miserably. In a culture that only values usefulness, I was being severely judged; even swallowed up by the monster.

    Fast forward to my time in Germany. I was hospitalized two times for problems associated with my condition. I do work, but for a lot less money than most people earn. I am going to be starting a job stocking shelves in a few weeks. I am often embarrassed to talk about “what I do”, when even in Germany it´s the first thing people ask you when you meet them. People in the west are defined by their worklife … period. Evangelicalism places great emphasis on productivity. It is hard-wired into their paradigm, but I see things differently now and thankfully so does my wife. Together we are trying to live a life that we think is more consistent with Christ, Holy Scripture, and the Church regardless of what other people might say or think. Truth be told, this is not easy in a culture that simply wants more and more of you and of itself.

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey and for inspiring me to share a bit of mine Thomas. Peace to you.

  37. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Why are some of you proof-texting all of a sudden? That is something I expect from me … not you folks! 🙂

  38. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Regarding the prophets of Baal, this is the beginning of Elijah’s prayer:

    “”O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.”

    The chapter also begins: “After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: ‘Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.’”

    According to the scriptures, then, God directed Elijah in all that Elijah did. I do not read it at all that Elijah’s prayer caused God to send fire, but rather God demonstrated His power through Elijah by a means that God foreordained Elijah to use.

    Similarly, Pharaoh’s stubbornness does not arise from holding fast to his gods. We are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh, in fact, weakens many times (Exodus 10:16-17): “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now forgive my sin once more and pray to the Lord your God to take this deadly plague away from me.”

    To be sure, both stories still lead to difficult questions. I don’t take from either, however, that God’s existence ought be decided by whether an individual gets a desired physical miracle in response to a prayer.

    If God does not respond to an individual’s prayer, it is human nature to have doubts or to practice cognitive disassociation and find reasons for the inaction that would otherwise cause doubt. Yes, of what use is belief in a God who either does not exist or does not listen to us?

    A third alternative, however, is to move away from the idea that such responses are the nature of God. From the Bible, it seems to me that God provides signs when He has chosen to act. In my personal experience (and what seems to be the experience of many believers), the nature of prayer, in contrast, is such that we are asking God to change *us.”

    Does that prayer always work and thus prove God’s existence for everyone? I don’t know, but that is what I believe to be a sufficient test.

  39. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Mark,

    I appreciate your comments regarding I Kings 18 – while I certainly understand Simon’s points. For myself, I like to avoid the OT – just run away from it for the most part. Except for some parts of it that appeal for historical reasons.

    There are some questions that apparently just will not have answers. Sometimes our God may look no more powerful than Baal god/s.

    I have a friend who has suffered for years with a medical condition that ultimately causes starvation (not an eating disorder). Prayers for healing are unanswered. However, the same person has a child who was healed, one way or other, of cancer. My friend sees this as a miracle.

    Anyway, life is complicated. And that is little solace.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon, Mark, et al
    Regarding the use of Scripture (as in the Elijah material): I simply never start in such places to pose questions of “God.” When I speak of “God,” I mean the One made known to us in the Crucified and Risen Christ. I don’t know any other God, and have no interest in another God. Everything in the Scriptures, I read through that lens. As to what I believe – I believe that Christ was crucified, dead, and buried, and the 3rd day He rose again. Myt prayers, “answered” or “unanswered,” are simply not a basis for what I believe about God, much less what I would point to if someone was asking questions about God. It’s just a shakey foundation – well illustrated by Simon’s questions. It establishes a premise that will never yield a satisfactory answer.

    I simply stand with the Crucified Christ. He is my answered prayer.

  41. Harold Avatar
    Harold

    I suspect Protestant reformers tried to subject Jesus Christ to modern notion of efficiency and usefulness. Limited atonement avoids their embarrassment of Christ dying for all, yet some ending in condemnation. That would be inefficient.

  42. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I am really disappointed. I am not making doctrinal points. I am not proof-texting. I am not even taking the account as historically true–because I don’t think it is historically true. I am trying to use what I assume to be a common frame of reference to probe questions about human experience. Can you see that is what I am doing? If you cannot see that what I am doing is using stories that we all hold in common to ask questions about the human experience, then of course the point gets lost. That story is pretty straight forward, don’t you think? The sarcasm that is articulated through Elijah’s character really nuances the simplicity of the overarching theme. At the end of the day, it is a very typical human story of what happens when we are confronted with evidence contrary to our beliefs.

    If answered or unanswered prayer does not inform your basis for belief in God, then why pray? I take that mean something and it informs my understanding of God. How can we say that whether or not God answers prayer is irrelevant to our belief in or understanding of who God is?

    I guess I am back at square one.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I appreciate Father’s spare description of Jesus Christ. Any time folks stray from that, in the present and historically, trouble follows. Jesus has been extraordinary generous with me yet the only way I have ever received an ‘answer’ to my prayers is in repentance asking for His Mercy. Joy and Thanksgiving follow even if the situation does not seem to change.

    The reality of His Mercy comes from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    But at the very beginning of His earthly ministry both John the Baptist and Our Lord Himself called us to “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

  44. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Eliza and Father Stephen,

    (I’m addressing you together so as to avoid serial posting, although you each deserve separate responses.)

    Regarding the Old Testament, because Christ references it, I cannot run away from it entirely. Since becoming Orthodox, however, I do try to rely more on priestly guidance in how to read it, rather than interpreting it through the lens of how I received it as a Protestant (and my own predilections).

    I almost always agree with Father Stephen and so much of the time he articulates beliefs in such a way that I am better able to understand what it is, in fact, I believe. He also demonstrates a far superior ability to my own in how to be a good shepherd to others (as one would hope for in a priest of so many years’ experience doing so :).

    The one point of contention between us, I perceive at times, is how accepting we have to be of God when God does not seem to be the way we would desire. I had more written on this but expressing it satisfactorily required too many words. So rather than have a disproportionate word count dedicated to a small division, I’ll stop in favor of emphasizing the far greater agreement.

  45. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    No doubt experience is an element of belief – but it’s also a problematic element. The question is ancient (and human). The book of Job (and lots of other stories) can be surrounded with that question. “Why isn’t God answering my prayer?”

    But, I literally do not know enough to answer that question for either myself or someone else. I can see that it raises problems for some. But, I’m saying that it’s not a question that ask – it’s not the basis of how I believe. If you will, I would say that Christ Crucified, etc., is the answer to my prayer. I pray in order to have communion/life in Him. As for the many things that happen – I pray, I offer them up – but the “answer” to those prayers is in His providence.

    If that’s frustrating, then it’s still all I’ve got. I have lots of people/situations for which I pray – and do that is praying to bring those concerns into communion with Christ as well. But, having done that, I “let it go” into His hands. It would seem impossible to me to reason about God based on my experience of how my prayers appear to be answered/unanswered.

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    “Accepting of God when He doesn’t seem to be the way we would desire…” Generally, it comes down to that. On the other hand, I’ve argued with Him from time to time. I’ve yelled at Him. I once threw a shoe at Him (actually it just flew across the room) as I was grieving and yelling at Him over the death of my 5th child. But, when all was said and done, I accepted Him – gave Him my child – and blessed Him for His providence.

    If there is something more than that, then my wisdom fails me.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I have no argument with how you are using the Kings passage. And I think the question/s is a fair one. I’m just saying (in reply) what I know and don’t know and what I do with the question itself.

    Why pray? (you ask) I pray in order to consciously enter into communion with Christ. That’s where my questions are resolved (which is not the same thing as being “answered”).

  48. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Simon and Mark,

    Simon, I am not meaning to discount what you say as just some OT story. I see that you are using that story and sarcasm to illustrate a point. And what you are saying is to the point of God not answering prayer than it is about the Elijah story. I was just making an irrelevant and silly point about my own avoidance of the OT. Your questions would still be there, OT or not. Sorry about my irrelevant comment. You ask profoundly pointed and hard questions that few of us can stand in the face of. All I know is that I accept that I know nothing and probably won’t in this life ever have answers to my hardest questions. That probably just makes me some spiritual wimp.

    Mark, thanks for your comments. I am sorry to hear that you have had so much hurt in life.

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    FWIW,
    I spent several years in the charismatic movement in my late teens and early 20’s. There was lots of emphasis on prayer (answered prayer). There was also lots of instability and emotional dysregulation. I probably lost my taste for the question of answered/unanswered prayer back then and it’s just not been a factor in my life since.

    I’ve had ups and downs, cause of celebration and cause for sorrow and despair. But the constant through the years has been prayer. Primarily practicing giving thanks always and for all things, and the use of the Jesus Prayer (as well as liturgical prayer and the sacraments). I don’t think I’ve ever taught a class on the topic of intercessory prayer, nor do I think that I’ve written on it as a topic.

    My experience of “answered prayer” has probably been the most striking with regard to prayers to various saints for help with something specific. Many of those have had dramatic responses, for which I am grateful, but, again, it’s not been a significant question of whether I believe in God or not.

    My relationship with Christ is a lot like my marriage. I do not and have not ever entertained the idea of divorce. My wife is simply part of my life, as I am of hers. Whatever we do – we do it together. The same is true with God – I have come to know Him as He makes Himself known in Jesus. I have accepted that long ago and is settled (even more settled than my marriage).

    I can understand when the God question is not settled – and becomes something to be explored repeatedly. But it has not been my experience. I appreciate that it is a legitimate experience and a legitimate question. I can only share what has “worked” for me. That has been to take the question away from the “God” thing – and simply stand before the Crucified/Risen Christ. Of that, I ask, “Is this God?” I answered yes to that long ago, and that is my starting point for everything. Nothing else seems to work or to be stable.

    Again, I can appreciate someone who is asking the question in a different way – but I have not found any other way that seems to be stable. So – the question of answered/unanswered prayer does not factor in the question of God for me. Perhaps I am describing my “square one.”

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was a history major in college and have studied history all my adult life. There are certain precautions one must take when reading and interpreting history–and the OT is, in part history. The biggest error is what is called ‘presentism’, i.e, interpreting the history as if it was occuring today. To avoid such an error is quite difficult. One must do two things and each poses it’s own set of difficulties First one must research the time period and cultures extensively. Once that is accomplished (sometimes taking years) the process of “empathetic projection” can be attempted in which the historian consciously puts aside their own cultural assumptions and bias and tries to walk in the shoes of the people and the time to learn from them.

    Only the very best historians even try to do such. Most write from a cultural and ideological bias.

    So in reading history one must take into account what those bosses are to begin to see as much truth as possible. Hard and difficult work. Even the most diligent will make errors.
    IMO the bias created by a commitment to a particular theology makes reading the OT well almost impossible for a lay person. Not that we cannot profit from parts of it .

    Give Glory to God for His Mercy.

  51. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    I think I misread something from Fr Stephen as Mark. Sorry, if I confused you, Mark. I am sorry that Fr. Stephen suffered the hurt of a lost child, I guess I meant to say. But I seem to remember that you, Mark, have had your own hurts as well.

    Time for me to be quiet.

  52. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have deep reservations for statements that can be applied across the board. For example, “Accepting of God when He doesn’t seem to be the way we would desire.” That statement would mitigate against cognitive dissonance…for anyone who believes in one god or another. It’s a common crutch. I am not criticizing Mark or anyone else. However, I am concerned that we have to resort to the same kinds of sentiments as those who believe in the flying spaghetti monster. Just say ‘I believe’ and leave it at that. Eschew all forms of rationalization. Rationalization can make believers of anyone in anything, all that is needed is the will to believe.

  53. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Eliza,

    All I know is that I accept that I know nothing and probably won’t in this life ever have answers to my hardest questions.

    That in my next-to-worthless opinion is where I think everyone should be. It is a place of honesty and courage. It is truly a stark nakedness. Father Stephen’s position is also a great position to have. Start from there and work out.

    Everything for me is seen through the light of my fatherhood. What can I honestly say to my son? And in that regard there are no short cuts for me.

    And, if I am being honest, if my kid were to ever die from some tragic illness, I would almost certainly feel like the failed prophets of Baal. I would almost certainly hear Elijah’s words echoing in my ears, “there is no voice, no one answers and no one pays attention” the awareness of which makes me wonder to what extent I was ever in the faith.

  54. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Dear Simon, I greatly appreciate your questions, because I struggle with the same but am never bold enough to ask them. I hope (and pray!) that we will both one day be satisfied and be at peace with these gnawing doubts.

    Mark and Fr. Stephen, thank you for your answers to Simon, they are very helpful.

    Fr. Stephen, I am deeply sorry for your loss. Whether or not is should be so, knowing this gives more weight to your teachings about prayer and faith for me. Thank you.

  55. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I was about to say something similar, though without the personal experience that you’ve had in the Charismatic movement. It seemed to me also that the content and outlook of such a prayer approach had a Protestant “tone,” for want of better words. But having not been in it but subjected to it, I wasn’t sure.

    I was asked (more than a few times) whether I knew God by Protestants. Inevitably it seemed that the one asking thought they knew all about God, and they were pretty sure I did not (without even knowing who I was). That surety about what they thought they knew suggested they likely did not because it seemed to be all about what they thought they knew (quoting the Bible and such), not so much the personal life of a relationship they lived.

    Once, when I was in really bad shape (I had nearly died) in a hospital after a car accident, a Catholic priest asked me whether I would like him to pray for me. To my surprise (because I had a measure of disbelief in Christ at that point in my life at 17 years), I said yes. In those moments, this humble man seemed to bring God close by his (priest’s) presence, sincerity, and humility. Christ was vague to me, but this man’s sincere faith affected me to this day.

    I’m grateful to the recording of Christ’s words on the Cross, “…why hast thou forsaken me?” (from Psalms) They suggest that even when I cannot sense His presence, He may yet be with me.

    I can think of very dark things, such as the experience of a child thrown into a firey oven or subject to ritual abuse, and ask the question where is God? But if I’m living a comfortable life it makes such questioning rhetorical, a problem for philosophical discourse. The child in the oven will not care what answers I get or don’t get from God or arrive at in philosophical discussions. Their thoughts are consumed in fire.

    Please forgive me. I mean no disrespect. Father I ask for your correction.

  56. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    I totally agree with the article’s point about the essential nature of uselessness in our lives. In fact I absorbed the point fully when you first published the article years ago. It makes complete sense to me.

    But…

    As Thomas witnesses to above, practicing anything besides utility is almost a complete foreign language to most of us, almost impossible. It has been drilled into us from birth that doing is our thing, not being. It as if even if an activity isn’t useful, we find it impossible not to engage in it because we absolutely can’t just sit there and do nothing. Not even an option.

    So my question to you is a practical one. Can you illustrate or give examples of how we can integrate uselessness into our lives?

    I do understand that we can just start actually doing things like lay under a tree for an hour, play with the kids and grandkids more often, and so on, but what does it look like as a lifestyle instead of just the occasional incident?

    Using Thomas as an example, he did the work, made the money, and is now trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. How would he incorporate this uselessness practice? What would a better, more balanced life look like in this situation?

    Any tips for a progress and utility driven people would be appreciated.

  57. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Eliza,

    Yes, I recently mentioned in a comment about the many family members I’ve lost to cancer, so I assumed that was what you were alluding to 🙂 Some of that would be relevant perhaps to the current discussion–particularly my wife, but I don’t “own” her loss (many feel it) enough to share overmuch in a public forum.

    In all sincerity, however, I have been blessed far more than I’ve deserved and received from God infinitely more than I’ve given to Him or His creation.

    Father Stephen,

    Your analogy of a marriage works, I think, as a good way of expressing where (it seems to me) we might diverge. Almost everyone would say (hypothetical) deal breakers exist regarding their spouse.

    Hypothetically, then, is there a deal-breaker quality that God might possess–for you (or me)? That is a purely rhetorical question, not meant for you or anyone else here to try to answer, because (as I read in your comments) we all can faithfully believe in only the God/Christ revealed to us. We each see through a glass unique in its darkness, and hypothetical speculation does not lead to satisfactory answers.

    For the sake of clarification and not to divert the discussion in new directions, I’ll mention penal substitution and universal salvation as examples of concepts that we do not know the validity of, but some believers either balk at (penal substitution) or want very much to be true (universal salvation). Ivan’s return of his ticket because of the tortured child in The Brothers Karamazov is another illustration of what I mean by deal breaker.

  58. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee,

    I have often thought to myself that the only position one should take as a Christian is the “Why have you forsaken me?” That is the story of Job. That is the story of the Psalms. It is the story of Israel in exile. That is the Christ vocalizes on the cross. I see abandonment in the human condition. Abandoned to our own devices. I wish I had the faith of Christ, but I am not a God-man. I am little more than nothing.

  59. Lucy Avatar
    Lucy

    You have a lot of comments. I enjoyed reading this!

  60. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Hypothetically, then, is there a deal-breaker quality that God might possess–for you (or me)? That is a purely rhetorical question, not meant for you or anyone else here to try to answer, because (as I read in your comments) we all can faithfully believe in only the God/Christ revealed to us.

    Mark, none-the-less this reminded me of Hosea. Not that there is a deal-breaker for us involved, but that God will not leave us. So much of this discussion is centered around *our* limitations and concerns (of various sorts). I think it is good to consider God’s faithfulness throughout our times of desert and even delusion. Not so much as an answer as a comfort, I guess. Just my thoughts.

  61. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Drewster,
    It is fascinating to me that, living in a culture that speaks so much about freedom, we find ourselves so deeply entralled to what is actually a slave mentality.

    At the heart of living “uselessly” is to give thanks always and for all things (not for their utility, but for their being). This is nothing other than love. We do not want to be loved because we are useful – we want to be loved for ourselves. Begin slowly, and begin small, and practice love. Do good to others because they exist. Give thanks for all things (slowly). Ask for grace. All of this is a gift.

    To underline the truth of the article, Christ says, “At the end of the day, say, “I am a useless servant.” (The phrase, Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί (douloi achreioi), is most commonly rendered, “Unprofitable servants.” It is just as accurate to render it, “Useless slaves.”

    It is of note that when a young monk enters a monastery, he is quite often given the task of keeping watch/praying in the “bone house” (the place where the bones of monks are buried). There, he learns or practices, considering himself to be already dead. Nothing is more useless, it would seem, than a stack of bones.

    We do not yet know that we are loved, and, therefore, do not yet know how to love. God is patient with us.

  62. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    Indeed, as far as I know, no one has the faith that Christ has. But to the extent that I can, I hope in Him (to help me with my disbelief). And to the extent I lack, I hope He might fill.

    Thank you for your beautiful comment.

  63. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    I do not believe God has deal-breakers with regard to us. Returning to the image of marriage – an example could be found in the prophet Hosea. Gomer, his wife, was repeatedly unfaithful to him, as Israel was to God. And for this unfaithful wife, Christ became man and was crucified, that He might present her to Himself as a spotless bride.

    As to examples or concepts that we do not know the validity of – for me, I look to the Traditional teaching of the Church across the centuries and the directions it points to. That I do not personally “have the answers” – as in – I am not personally the repository of all human revelation from God – is to be expected. I am appointed to teach – to teach what has been given to the Church. And, while I am teaching, I work to “assimilate” what has been taught. That is a slow, patient work.

    As to Ivan Karamazov – his brother, Alyosha’s response to his private, unbelieving anguish, was to give him a kiss. Dostoevsky’s answer (which he himself always wondered if it would be fully understood) was the character of the Elder Zossima.

    Dostoevsky once said: “If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.”

    It is an absurd statement – but I understand it. It is similar to St. Thomas’ confession, “Lord, where else could we go?”

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am confused. There is a sense in our discussion that God is a postulate of some kind (and there are many) and my belief is me choosing from among the postulates. That is a lie.

    Fifty eight years ago my mother declared to me that God is real and I need to find Him! By His Grace and Mercy, I did. It took me a long time to really encounter the living God in the person of Jesus Christ (56 years) but I did.

    There were hints and many false starts along the way and an occasional encounter that was more than a hint but involved other people in a way that I could not claim it as mine.

    Only a real person can love. Only a real person can die. Only a real person can be raised from the dead a testimony to His Mercy.

    I know He is real as described in the New Testament. My knowing is not a product of my belief but a product of Him condescending to me and ones I love and showing me He is real, allowing me to over come my faithlessness much as He did Thomas even though I am a feckless sinner wholly unworthy in every possible way.

    God is not a product of my belief, rather, my belief (such that it is) is a product of His Mercy. A Mercy that endures forever.

    I have gone through many long years where I too was caught it the trap of my own will seduced by heresy and my own arrogance and the violent prison of my passions–each still temptations.

    Yet He has forgiven dynamically each of my transgressions as I submit them to Him in prayer, confession and worship.

    My conversion is not rational from the stand point of this world nor my sinful flesh but it is real, summed up in both the prophecy of John the Baptist and our Savior’s own words recorded in Matthew 4:17.

    I am the least of the commentators here in every measurable way. I am old, unhealthy and impecunious. I know only His Mercy. May it be granted to each here, pressed down and flowing over so that we may each rejoice and give thanks for all things.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

  65. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    “That in my next-to-worthless opinion is where I think everyone should be. It is a place of honesty and courage. It is truly a stark nakedness. Father Stephen’s position is also a great position to have. Start from there and work out.”

    Thank you, Simon.
    Validation, to my chagrin, is something that I do appreciate despite my efforts at not caring. So, for me, yours is not a worthless opinion. 😉

    Still, you would assuredly get pushback in many Christian circles saying that knowing nothing is a virtue.

    It is one of a number of reasons that I have no church. Not a lot of close friends – though really I do not always go about vocalizing my know-nothingness. Hm, maybe I do and don’t know it. 🤔 (My closest friend is also a self-confessed know-nothing.)

    Guess I just cannot hide the ignorance whether I claim it or not.

    As I wrote in the comments of Fr. Stephen’s post before this one, I have been the road of chasing answers and logic and seen the deranged outcome in myself. Not that I no longer seek. I do. Not that I am not deranged.. I just seek now with the knowing that I may likely never know anything. I finally have accepted that and it is enough.

    Fr. Stephen does have a special way of writing with an assuredness and a humility that I don’t often see.

    Once again, Simon, you have said what I do not want to vocalize, or even think, because I don’t want to somehow foreshadow anything bad.

    “Everything for me is seen through the light of my fatherhood. What can I honestly say to my son? And in that regard there are no short cuts for me.
    And, if I am being honest, if my kid were to ever die from some tragic illness, I would almost certainly feel like the failed prophets of Baal.”

    Thanks to you, Simon, Mark, Fr. Stephen and everyone for such an interesting conversation.

    Oh, btw, can someone tell me how some of you are getting comments to be italicized or bolded, etc? I have looked for plugins, type my comments up in text or Pages or Word to no avail.

  66. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    I will add when I say knowing nothing, I mean nothing other than we have a Creator and we need a Saviour.

    Michael, FWIW, you clearly have very much to add here and you certainly do not look to be the least of commenters here at all. I wish I had your certainty and experience.

    These comments would be all the poorer without you, Michael.

  67. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.

    Whatever happened to following the truth wherever it might lead even if it leads us to a place where we don’t want to be?

    But, I also see this statement as an existential choice. The truth is a tricky subject and in many ways is the wrong question. Existential choices are desirable, to be expected AND necessary. Any existential choice that a person makes without appeals, rationalizations, or justifications is a choice I can respect. I would have similar regard for someone who worships Ahura Mazda or Tianzun.

    But, if the god they worship isn’t a difference that makes a difference. If the only difference I can see is in the effort the follower puts into it, then it raises questions for me. Because it becomes a matter of ‘just pick one’ because you make the difference regardless of how much credit you give your god.

  68. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    In my case, I chose what would have seemed to some people rational and others irrational. Others who knew the ‘before’ me looked for changes in the ‘after’ me. Seeing no changes of the sort they were looking for, they decided I’d done nothing at all.

    Would you have agreed with them?

  69. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    I think Dostoevsky’s statement is woefully inadequate – philosophically and if taken by itself. If pressed, it would be of no more value than saying, “I choose because I choose” – and is just an existential thing. What I hear in it, however, is Dostoevsky’s struggle for belief. He says elsewhere:

    “I believe in Christ and confess Him not like some child; my hosanna has passed through an enormous furnace of doubt.”

    Dostoevsky came to faith in Christ while in prison in Siberia. And there was a huge bonfire of doubts and all kinds of philosophical energy (mostly of unbelief) around him in the mid-1800’s in Tsarist Russia. One of my takeaways from reading him has been that he has seen answers, and perceived Christ. But the answers have not come as syllogisms or well-hewn arguments. His answers were seen in human lives – in human love – in human suffering – and in human faith. None of those things apart from Christ, but because of Christ and in Christ. Christ is the “Beauty” of “God will save the world through beauty.”

    That resonates with my experience. I can present reasonable arguments for why I believe that Christ is who He said He is – that He is God-become-Man, and that He was crucified for us and was raised from the dead. But, if those were only statements, or beliefs about a historical event, then it would just be me looking at something and saying, “I believe that happened.”

    But this is not what I am saying. I can say, “I believe that happened,” but what has come to matter to me is that the Jesus whom I believe those things about – is also perceived by me as in me, as in you, as the Logos of all creation, as the love that binds all together, as the love that is repeatedly crucified, dead, and risen.

    This is what I hear in Dostoevsky’s statement – not that he rejects truth – but that if all syllogisms fail him – he cannot deny that he loves Christ. He has perceived Him, and having perceived Him, he cannot deny Him. His statement is an absurd statement – but lovers sometimes say absurd things. You and I both say absurd things from time to time – because – from time to time – we find that we love.

    I cannot say “I have chosen Christ” except as a response. He chose me – and I perceive that it is so.

    I go back to marriage as an example. I don’t think any of us really know what we’re doing when we get married. We do not yet really know either ourselves or our spouse. We can reflect on it later and see possible motivations (some of them pretty poor, no doubt). But as the years progress (in a healthy marriage) all of that sort of melts away. We lose ourselves in the beloved and find ourselves in the beloved. At some point we cease to love “because” of something else – but simply to love the person.

    I think this is a lifetime sort of thing, or, at least, something that takes a fair amount of time.

    It is also possible to “follow the truth wherever it might lead even if it leads us to a place where we don’t want to be?” But there are so many possible false leads, false turns, confusions, self-delusions. “Truth” is always somehow in a context when what we are seeking is a transcendent truth. If someone says to me, “I followed the truth and it led me to become an atheist.” I would not take that to be someone telling about the “truth.” They would be telling me about themselves. I could respect that but I find it woefully inadequate as a “transcendent truth.”

    But, I do not think we perceive the truth, even transcendent truth, in order to have it in such a way that we can convince others of it. I think it would soon become a weapon (and we’ve both seen weaponized versions of the “truth”).

    To perceive Christ as the “truth” is also to say, “I believe this is the truth of my existence.” It is the answer to the soul’s deepest question. I have no argument with someone who professes Buddhism, or Zoroastrianism, or whatever. I’m not interested in arguments of that sort. I can only say what I have seen to be true – to confess that I perceive Christ to be who He said He is and – in some meager way – to allow that to unfold in my life.

    The problem, I think, with a solipsistic version (“this is my God because I picked Him”) is that it collapses back in on itself. It is only self-love or self-absorption. I have “met” the Elder Zossima (or examples of him) from time to time in my life (sometimes in very subtle and unexpected places) to find a confirmation of sorts. I find in the Orthodox faith an articulation of all of this. As others have said, off and on, I discovered in Orthodoxy an answer and example that I hoped was true – and was surprised to discover that it actually was true and not a figment and dream.

    Those are just some of my thoughts as I read your reaction to Dostoevsky’s quote (knowing that we both love his work).

  70. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Dee,

    That is the question explored by Soren Kierkegaard. Yes, I would have agreed with them because there would be no good reason to do otherwise. However, even if there were dramatic changes the right question would be ‘could those changes be explained by your efforts alone and, if so, why appeal to divine intervention?’ We can play the game of justifying our beliefs until we see the black before us as white. And that will genuinely be what we see. That is a horrible but true fact of human cognition.

  71. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Fr. Stephen,

    To perceive Christ as the “truth” is also to say, “I believe this is the truth of my existence.”

    I think this is actually a pretty good place for me to stop. That probably is the insight I need to reflect on. I need to really reflect on this.

    Eliza, please keep laughing. No one who takes me too seriously has any business listening to me.

  72. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Last thought then I plan on retiring from this discussion to reflect on Fr’s comment. Dostoevsky has tremendous weight for me. I am reading and re-reading a very marked up version of TBK to keep my bearings or at least to keep things that I have found insightful in front of me.

    Here is where my thoughts are. I have come to think of myself as a next-to-nothing. How does Christ the God-made-man become the truth of that life? I’m not looking for answers. I am looking to understand that question.

    Each person is a way of seeing, a lens, a focus of experience. We are the eye.

  73. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Simon,
    I studied Kierkegaard in my youth. For reasons best not to go into here, I was never a fan of his.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eliza, to change the font I have to use a markup language. You can find out about it on Wikipedia. There may be a better way

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The quality of Mercy is not strained….”

    The first line of the most beautiful poem in the English language from ‘The Merchant of Venice Ave 4, Scene 1.

    So much more life giving than any of the other writers mentioned in this thread especially if one takes into their own heart to embody it’s spirit as actors must to be true to their craft.

  76. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Thanks, Michael. I will take a look at the Wikipedia.

    You have inspired me to take up reading The Merchant of Venice as it is one of Shakespeare’s plays I have yet to read, at least I cannot remember having read it. In any case, on my list now.

    What are your thoughts on Dostoevsky? It has been some years since I read Brothers Karamazov and I must admit it was a bit of a hard read for me primarily because some of the characters were so dislikable – which is part of the point I guess. It was not boring though. Somehow it reminded me of The Sound and the Fury – sordidly disordered people doing disordered things. I am long overdue to read it again and think it might be interesting to do it as part of a group book read – maybe, but then again I usually go off and do my own thing when it comes to group events.

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I never read much Dostoevsky and what I did read I have forgotten. The Sound and the Fury is redeemed by the 3rd part with Dilsey’s point of view. She is not ruled by time yet everything just falls into place. Nor does she seem to exert her personal will. She has the quality of mercy in fact. Rare in human society. Perhaps it is the quality of mercy that allows uselessness without the exertion of our puny human will.

  78. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BTW, plays are best read aloud, especially verse plays. You can feel the words “trippingly on the tongue” as well as find the proper emotional response that gives the words life. As an old director of mine always said: “Play the intent!”

  79. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    About praying …

    We pray both liturgically and “evangelically”. Prayers have been answered. Prayers have not been answered. My belief in God doesn´t change as a result of all this.

    I need to make the Jesus Prayer more a natural part of my life. It is difficult though.

  80. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I don´t remember where I saw the comment, Fr. Stephen, but you wrote something about the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). In that context, you said that the God you believe in is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen … but some more questions:

    1. How do we avoid the Marcion heresy (which is, I believe, the teaching that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament)?

    2. How do Orthodox thinkers deal with the violence in the Old Testament?

    I read the Old Testament as simply the story of the nation of Israel. I have learned that the historical veracity of ancient Israel is difficult to ascertain, but that the life of the monarchy is pretty much historically accurate by modern standards. All that said, while I don´t think even Jesus would have the kinds of questions we moderns have about the Old Testament, Jesus did show us the way to handle the Old Testament in Luke 24:

    “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”

    I am no longer concerned about the things I once was regarding the Old Testament. I also don´t expect my Jewish friends to interpret their scriptures the way I as a Christian do. I want to know where Jesus Christ is present in the Old Testment. Period.

  81. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew,

    RE: making the Jesus Prayer more s part of your life.

    I had the same conundrum until a year ago in July (July, 2022).
    I was waking up every night at 3 AM in intense pain. One night I decided to pray instead of lying there cursing.
    The pain decreased significantly and the Prayer has become a part of me. Or have I become part of the Prayer.

    It was then I began to know both Joy and Mercy even in the midst of bad things.

    I pray that you be given the Grace to enter into the Prayer.

    Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner and on Matthew my brother..

  82. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Michael. I appreciate it. People here are becoming sort of an online Orthodox family for me. 🙂

  83. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    These are very broad questions – and do not admit of simple answers. I’ll do my best to be brief.

    1. Marcion was a literalist. He rejected the Old Testament because, taken literally at every turn, it yield a picture of “God” that contradicted what we see in Christ. His decision then, was to reject it. The problem of the contradiction had been seen from the very beginning – and by Christ Himself. He rebukes the disciples who want to call down fire on the Samaritans (“You do not know what Spirit you are of”). Also, Christ corrects Moses Himself. “Moses said…but I say…” or “You have heard it said…but I say…” And Christ says of the OT, “These are they that testify of me.” Christ claims that He Himself is the meaning of the OT. But remember, “before Abraham was, I am.” Christ precedes Scripture.

    The Church Fathers dealt with the “contradiction” in a variety of ways. A common treatment was the use of allegory, or typology, to dig beneath the letter of the text and look for the Christological pattern within or beneath the text. There were other ways to do this as well. There were some who were a bit more literal in the handling of the text and you can see treatments vary.

    I think the best way to answer the question of how to read the OT, is to look at the Liturgical texts of the Church and see how they read them. These are massive. But, just a few: Reading the Menaion, or the Triodion, or great texts such as the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, all of these use Scripture as their primary source – but then see how they use that Scripture.

    I’ll also add, that I’ve seen and heard various modern priests whose treatment of Scripture shows clear influence from Protestantism. But that’s not really a surprise. What doesn’t change, however, is what the Liturgical texts say and do.

    2. Some Orthodox Fathers allegorize the violence, others try to explain it by using various historical theories (this is my least favorite way – I think it has problems and is fairly Protestant).

    St. Paul says our “warfare is against principalities and powers…not against flesh and blood.” So, it invites a “spiritual” reading of such passages.

    Frankly, I don’t worry about the history questions. It’s not that they have no value – but I mostly find them to be mired in 19th century Protestant anxiety about historical questions. The texts of the OT are Scriptures – they have authority in the life of the Church and may be used as such. It takes time (years) to acquire a feel for how the Fathers use them. There’s no substitute for just being immersed in the worship-life of the Church and hearing how the Scriptures are used.

    Also note – you’ll hear arguments between various persons about this topic. Don’t despair.

  84. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, just a caution: one of the effects of the Jesus Prayer for me was a greater awareness of my sins. So, I went to confession more often.

  85. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    I love this. And looking at my life, some of the best things have happened because I devoted time to “useless” pursuits. They didn’t turn out to be useless, of course, but I didn’t instrumentalize what I was doing. Sometimes that creates just enough space in one’s life for something beautiful to emerge.

  86. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, forgive me if you’ve dealt with this earlier in the thread; I’ve read most but not all of it. Is it fair to call prayer “effective,” that is, useful, in terms of working with one’s spiritual father to find the form of prayer that “works best” for a particular person? For example, there does seem to be a benefit of silent repetition of the Jesus prayer which I personally don’t gain from the other written prayers. Thus there seems to be a greater utility to this form. Maybe this is part of the question: prayer is both communion with God and that (a form) which leads us into communion with God. The latter seems to have a measure of utility – perhaps the most profound utility – while the former is an end in itself. Is this fair to say? I would love to hear your thoughts on the “utility” of prayer.

  87. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen,
    In many translations, we pray for “all things useful for our salvation.” I am not trying to make a war on the word “useful,” but to offer an understanding of the distortion our culture has made of it – and to understand the right place of “uselessness,” which, I think is covered in the body of the article.

    There’s always a difficulty when we reason on the basis of “usefulness.” Who decides what is “of use?” It quickly becomes problematic.

    When it comes to prayer – working with a spiritual father, even experimenting a bit – to find what “works” – that is – are there practices that seem to allow you to pray with greater ease? That’s legitimate. But, sometimes, doing prayers that come only with great labor also is “of use.”

    Is prayer useful? The question would be: “useful for what?” The purpose of prayer is communion with God. It is both its purpose and its content – prayer itself is communion with God. So, the answer is “prayer is useful for praying.” It’s a tautology.

    Ideally, everything becomes prayer…but that only comes with time.

    “Usefulness” (in its various forms) is simply a dangerous concept, primarily because our culture has perverted it, and used it to turn us into slaves. Sometimes, there are words that are so burdened with false-meaning that it is good to avoid them.

    I noted when I wrote the article, and gave it the title, “The Useless God,” that I was saying something shocking. So, after a fashion, it was “clickbait.” But it was only shocking because we are so enthralled by the lie of “usefulness.” So, I would be slow to redeem the word “useful.”

    I would add to this (for everyone reading), that the Scripture enjoins us: “Whatsoever you do in thought, word, and deed, do it as unto the Lord.” (Col. 3:17) That’s actually different than “do it so it will be useful.” There’s nothing wrong with work – but “good work” is “done unto the Lord.” It’s a subtle shift, but it makes a profound difference in the heart.

  88. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Owen, I will add regarding prayer that it is useless in at least senses: Since in all prayer I give up my personal will to see stuff done (part of the communion with God) I am not seeking to do anything, and 2. God’s mercy transforms beyond what I could possibly imagine.

    I had an inkling in my brief discussion with Eliza about The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner. If you have not read the book you cannot understand but it is well worth getting the book and reading at least the third section. The black servant of the family in the book, Dilsey, transforms all of the work into communion without thinking of the product, the time, or the order.

    And as Shakespeare says: “The quality of mercy is not strained…”

    The Jesus Prayer is repeated, but it is not vain repetition as each time one says it a deeper communion is possible. That is the hope.

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Father Stephen for the comprehensive response.

  90. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Michael, you have also inspired me to reread The Sound and the Fury with your perspective in mind. Thanks! I plan to start these reads very soon. I also got out my Brothers Karamazov this morning but may see if I can find an annotated version. I last read both of those about 10 years ago. I will read the Merchant of Venice while listening to an audiobook. Shakespeare works better for me that way.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Well. m’lady you have inspired me to venture once again in mostly unknown, but glorious read penned by the 18th century American historian and chronicler of the spirit of the times, Henry Adams. His beautiful cultural history experiment comparing the Romanesque Cathedral of Mt St. Michael and the high Gothic master piece of Chartres. Astounding piece of writing if a bit unusual in style and purpose…

  92. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Michael, don’t know how I managed that honor but happy reading. Haven’t heard of that book but will look into it.

    For a more closer to home look at architecture, if you ever get to Oxford, MS, it is a lovely little town and home to Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, as you prob know-open as a museum.
    I have yet to make it when the house is open myself.

  93. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I am still thinking about Christ as the truth of my existence.

    When I look at the scope of my life it appears to be a function with positive second derivative and a first derivative rapidly approaching 0, I think to myself, “Why is a God-man necessary to reveal the truth of my being? I am a next-to-nothing rapidly becoming more of a nothing.” There’s not much here that requires revealing.

  94. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father,
    Your response on the “usefulness” of prayer reminds me of this: prayer just is communion with God, period. When we are “praying” and not communing with God, we are not (yet) praying. We are still outside the cave of the heart. I appreciate the nuance.

    St Francis of Assisi said, “We should seek not so much to pray but to become prayer.” I’ve heard similar things from the Desert Fathers. Sometimes I think this is my desire. But, my goodness, it sure does require letting go of some other things. Things I think are pretty “useful.”

    A blessed feast to all.

  95. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Michael,
    I have not read Faulkner. Thanks for the heads up. I have just begun Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. The protagonist in that book: talk about “useless.” What a glorious human being!

  96. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The three sections of The Sound and the Fury are a day in the life of the narrator, each connected with Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi family. Section 1 is Benji a severely mentally handicapped man(thus the title an allusion to Macbeth) who has no sense of time or utility or function; Section 2 is told by the current #1 son of the family, Quentin, who is an OCD and narcissistic obsessed with time and utility; Section 3 by Dilsey the black servant for whom everything flows in harmony and order while she just goes about her day seemingly without effort. An absolute master work. I read it once a long time ago and it has stayed in my memory.

    A quick aside on the Henry Adams book: he was great grandson of John Adams, grandson to John Quincy and son of Francis Adams, US Ambassador to England during Civil War. Reading the book because of his description of Mary at Chartres, the first strings of devotion to her began in my heart. Not something he would be happy with BT

    His style these days would be considered effusive and unnecessary because he dealt with so much more than facts.

  97. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    St. Paul says that our life is “hid with Christ in God.” I think that without Christ, my life would long ago have reached its “zero.” But I have this intuition, a vision and whisper of the Self, that tells me to seek Christ and that, in Him, I will find the truth of who I am that transcends the ability of numbers to express it. It is the hypostatic existence revealed in Christ.

    Admittedly, in the worst of times, such a revelation can seem far removed. But, as it is that I actually know you, I can say that you are no zero. I have had glimpses of Who you are and What you are. For which I am grateful every day. Glory to His name.

  98. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michale, Eliza, Owen, et al
    I appreciate the literature suggestions. I would encourage you not to go too far afield from the article and its conversation. FWIW. I will be traveling this weekend, so I will only be able to dip “in and out” of things.

    Good feast of the Theophany to all! Oh, and Merry Christmas to those on the Old Calendar.

  99. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Simon, forgive me, I know you only from your posts here and it is clear to me that you are far from nothing. If you were nothing, you would not be struggling as you appear to be over the questions you ask.
    May the Mercy of our Lord be with you.

    The people I have known in my life who are near zero are those that have no struggle in them nor pain either. Psalm 46 has always spoken to me about those that struggle including my late wife and myself not that long ago. Christ be with you as my prayers are. May His Mercy be with you.

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