Knowing the Knowledge that Transforms

“If only I had known…”

These are, not infrequently, the words of an apology. They are also an explanation of why we are sometimes the way we are. Ignorance is, in the mind of the Fathers, a major cause of sin. Of course, if sin is understood in a legal/forensic framework, then ignorance would be nothing more than a form of innocence. Not knowing is excusable in most cases. But the teaching of the Church does not describe the world in legal/forensic terms. The world is not about who and what is right or wrong. It’s about what truly exists and what does not. Existence and being (ontology) are what matter, not what is legally correct. God is the “only truly Existing One,” and our salvation in Christ is a movement towards ever more true existence. This is the meaning of “eternal life.”

True knowledge changes us. “If only I had known,” can also mean, “If only I had been a different person.” Knowledge, in this biblical sense, is much deeper than the collecting and management of facts. In biblical terms, we know by participation or communion. When Christ says of his detractors that they do not know God, he dismisses their mastery of the facts (“And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.” John 16:3) Those who accused Christ and urged the Romans to crucify Him, not only knew the facts of the Jewish faith – they were experts. Had the “facts of the case” been an issue, then Christ would have engaged in argument and debate. As it is, He only engaged their taunts and questions with answers that put them off – and put off His crucifixion until the time was ripe. But the disciples, and those who sought true knowledge from Him, received very different responses – not always easily understood – but always leading them towards the true knowledge that transforms and saves.

Knowledge is deeply problematic. It takes a variety of forms (few of which have much to do with the biblical notion of knowledge). We ourselves are also the constant target of those who market various forms of “knowledge,” most of which are nothing of the sort, but feel like knowledge. The knowledge to which Christ refers can also be called “saving knowledge,” for it requires and involves the transformation of the person who has it. And that transformation is in the direction of true existence – conformity to the image of God.

The door to true knowledge is repentance. Of course, for most people, repentance itself belongs to the category of legal and forensic things. It means not doing bad things, promising not to repeat the ones I have done, and, perhaps, feeling sorry. This is both inadequate and misleading. The Greek word used for repentance is metanoia, literally a “change of mind (nous).” It can be described as a movement from one form of knowledge to another (true knowledge).

The path to such knowledge passes through humility. And the path to humility involves shame (yes, I’m writing again about shame). Shame is more than a significant emotion (painful at best). It is described by the Elder Sophrony as “the Way of the Lord.” It is at the very heart of repentance. Shame has to do with “who we are.” Guilt is about “what I have done.” It is important to understand the distinction.

Guilt generally belongs to the legal/forensic world. Our minds are filled with all kinds of subtleties about what we have done. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Perhaps it’s just the sort of thing everybody does. Maybe I just didn’t try hard enough. We break rules all the time and, in large part, have become somewhat hardened to that reality.

Shame, however, is quite different. When what I have done spills over into who I think I am, then shame has supplanted guilt. The awareness of shame can be devastating. If who I am is truly very dark, we can become suicidal and plunged into despair. Shame is painful (and so we run from it). Repentance, however, involves confronting shame. St. John of the Ladder says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

He adds:

It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘It is my wound, Father, it is my plague, caused by my own negligence, and not by anything else. No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’

“Confessing another person’s sins…” This is a subtle move of the mind and heart to avoid the pain of shame. It also avoids the possibility of metanoia. In the struggle of confession, we need to make the greater journey to the place of the heart. And, strangely, at that place, when we confront the truth of sin, we find shame. It is necessarily the case that we find shame because, when we confront the truth of ourselves, the “who I am” of our existence, in the light of Christ, it appears broken, darkened, filled paradoxically with emptiness. We may very well confront that place and feel that we are, in fact, nothing at all.

When we confront the “nothing at all,” we instinctively draw back. It is a place of fear, or of loathing. The loathing is the sound of pride. We confront the nothing but demand to be something. But at that precipice, at the edge of the abyss, when what we see is the nothingness of the self, we also stand in the presence of Christ. He has entered into the nothingness of our being (death and hades) and meets us there. And it is there that we receive the gift of our true self, formed in the image of Christ Himself. For the emptiness of self, that we experience as shame, is also the birthplace of the life in Christ. So, St. Paul prays and asks that he might “be found in [Christ], not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith…(Phil 3:9)

The “righteousness of the law” is the false self, imagined in a legal/forensic mode. What I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, what I know, what people think of me, etc., are all nothing more than legal “noises.” They do not constitute the true self. They are not the stuff of eternal life. They do not carry us into the knowledge of the true and living God.

Fr. Serafim Aldea, the founder of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull, has a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith. He recently spoke profoundly about the discipline of confession. He related how his spiritual father encouraged him to always bring something to confession that would make his confessor not think well of him. It is a mild exercise in being a “holy fool.” I have often heard people express a fear about confession, noting that their priest will think less of them if they are truly honest. But this is nothing more than our fear of shame. A priest should expect to hear such things. If he judges people for their confessed sins, he himself engages in a much worse sin. He should rejoice that he accompanies someone into the bright presence of God where shame is transformed into true being.

This practice is important not only in confession, but in our prayers as well. We do not always press the point of our shame to a place that is unbearable, but we do well to learn how to go to that place when we stand before God and pray. It is not simply that we rehearse a list of our failures. This will often only take us into the noise of our legal/forensic false existence. It is by standing honestly before who we are, and what we are not (that proper reflection on our actions can produce) that also allows us to stand face-to-face before Christ Himself. He is a good God, and loves mankind. He has no desire to crush us or drive us into nothingness through our shame. Rather, He meets us there, and comforts us with the truth of ourselves and the compassion of His company. In St. John’s vision of the New Heaven and Earth he says:

They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:4)

That name of God was made known to Moses, after he had removed his shoes (the false self). The name is: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν. “I am the Truly Existing One.” All icons of Christ have this name inscribed on them. At the world’s end, God will write this name on us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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70 responses to “Knowing the Knowledge that Transforms”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful, Father! Thank you for this.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, thank you for your words and your heart. Today they tend to confirm that only by facing our shame in particulars as fruit for confession can we begin to know the real substance of who we are and the real substance of Creation. Contrary to popular belief and the teaching of false mystics that the “higher realms” have less substance. His mercy endures forever.
    Is it not His Mercy that allows us to enter the realm of real being?

  3. Matthew Avatar

    I once again lost my temper. If not a legal infraction, then what is it? What does losing my temper have to do with who I truly am? This is just one example of many I could offer up.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, May our Lord bless you in your struggles. As one who shares that struggle, I have found I tend to get mad when I think my will has been thwarted. Humility requires just the opposite. At least that is what I read and hear from the Father’s. Patiently enduring in the hopes of God’s mercy. Anger, in my case, is based on a fear that I will not get what I want. My dear wife has been patient with me counseling me and demonstrating the patience I often lack because she trusts in Jesus. Our human will is dangerous to our salvation if it is not tempered by humility.

    As I age, I am beginning to appreciate the need to be humble. Experiencing more of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”(Hamlet Act 3 scene 1) without any significant control over them has forced me in the direction of enduring in hope of the Lord and His Mercy.

    May He be with you in your heart lifting you out of your struggles into His life. My wife and I will hold you in our prayers.

  5. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    At the risk of perhaps sounding glib but to answer in the framework of Father Stephen’s post, losing your temper is losing your temper.

    Your temper is a part of you and allows you to act as you would like to be, but when you lose it, you are momentarily not yourself. Your momentary loss of temper lets the passion of anger have mastery over you and will likely cause you shame and the need to repent your actions.

    I also agree with Michael that humility helps the strengthening of temper within us, whereas pride inflames the passion of anger. Humility is a fruit of communion.

    In the last two years, becoming Orthodox has made keeping my temper much easier. Although I have never been a violent person, I could become verbally angry very quickly over perceived slights. Now, even internally I seldom get mad, and I have lost my temper to the point of expressing it only once or twice in the past year.

    I immediately repent doing so, knowing that my words have caused hurt.

    Part of that is, as the post says, not trying to justify one’s loss of temper, or otherwise offload responsibility. Either tends to recreate the original anger. Instead, I focus on how insignificant the cause of my anger was and how little good harmful words ever accomplish (none).

    My guess is that many of the other examples you would offer Orthodoxy would say are losing a part of ourselves to one or more passions.

  6. Andrew Avatar

    As a father of 4, the context for loosing my temper is almost always in relation to my children. A lost temper is the fruit of deeper roots. In my case, self-love and pride most often. Pride: “How dare they question or disobey me! I’m in charge!” (of course obedience is good and right, but for the good it brings them not for the satisfaction of my ego) Self-love: it’s been a long day and I just want to read my book or have some piece and quiet, but their need for me as a father at that moment is requiring me to put what I want on hold to attend to them and it irritates me. The lost temper (infraction) is really almost peripheral. The problem is the underlying misalignment between me and love.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar


    You wrote: “I once again lost my temper. If not a legal infraction, then what is it? What does losing my temper have to do with who I truly am? This is just one example of many I could offer up.”

    C.S. Lewis, in his brilliant little book, The Great Divorce, does an amazing job of illustrating the relationship between sin and self in an ontological understanding – using the imagery of the ghostly selves from hell who have come to visit the edges of heaven. In one case, he observes an old woman who is grumbling. Her “grumble” could just as well have been “losing my temper.” An excerpt:

    ‘I am troubled, Sir,’ said I, ‘because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would due her all right.’

    ‘That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler.’ ‘I should have thought there was no doubt about that!’

    ‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

    ‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’

    ‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.

  8. Janine Avatar

    Dear Father,
    This is just such an excellent article, and so packed with “knowledge” on many subjects. I thank you for it very much. It’s remarkable to think about being a “different person” but that really is what it comes down to, isn’t it?

    I recently had an experience with healthy shame. It made it more clear to me the difference between toxic shame (which unfortunately I seem to have had a lot of) and healthy shame. It was very strange to me. I felt shame about something I can’t even remember anymore. And then the moment I felt that and brought it to God in prayer *ping* it disappeared from me. It was as if it just wasn’t there anymore, and I was changed by just that much. Almost like something physically let go. It might be strange but for me it was a new experience, I am used to the loathsome feeling of toxic shame. The huge difference possibly is in the justice of it, it was *just* to feel the healthy shame and it could be healed. Toxic shame is harder to let go of because of that ontology you are speaking of; it’s not a real thing in God and it’s just us clinging in what we “know” (!) so it’s hard to let go of an ingrained learned pattern.

  9. Matthew Avatar

    So Fr. Stephen … I can, possibly, become ontologically a bad temper going on forever like a machine???

  10. Janine Avatar

    If you and Fr. Stephen will forgive me for butting in, I have known someone whom a psychologist called a “rage-o-holic.” That is, one who had a deep psychological urge to condemn and punish, and whose rage was on a hair trigger. Without repentance, what do you think that means for that person? I don’t have the answer, but I do understand habitual behavior without seeking change.

  11. Oliver Hoig Avatar
    Oliver Hoig

    “Fr. Serafim Aldea, the founder of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull, has a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith. He recently spoke profoundly about the discipline of confession. He related how his spiritual father encouraged him to always bring something to confession that would make his confessor not think well of him.”

    From the OCA Morning Prayers:

    “ Save, O Lord, and have mercy upon my spiritual father (name) and by his holy prayers forgive me my transgressions.”

    Father Stephen,

    What is a “spiritual father” in the Orthodox Church tradition? I attend an Anglican Church in North America congregation currently offering a lay person spiritual direction ministry with our priests training and approving future directors and overseeing the ministry. Would a spiritual director in this context be considered similar to a spiritual father?

    Peace to you.


  12. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Janine.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    In A.A. there is a saying: “First, the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.”

    In our occasional angry outbursts, we see them as a minor thing (and perhaps they sometimes are). But anger (like all the passions) can have a way of “taking over.” When we become governed by the passions, then the truth of our existence becomes obscured and even harder to find.

    I believe that most of the anger we experience is driven by shame. Your sister-in-law continues to “proseletyze” you – which is experienced as disrespect (on some level). It provokes shame and the need to defend. Think of all the things that were falsely said of Christ as the crowds mocked Him on the Cross. The Crucifixion was far more about shame than about pain.

    When we yield ourselves to be governed by the passions – we become ever more estranged from ourselves. At its worst, we become bound by shame, locked in the false persona that it creates.

    Lewis uses an interesting metaphor: “going on forever like a machine.” But I’ve encountered anger machines (there are lust machines, greed machines, envy machines, etc.). There is some need for an intervention. In a struggle towards health – we take our passion machines into Confession and seek forgiveness and healing, and the restoration of our sanity.

    At present, in our modern world, various forces (political, religious, economic, social, etc.) all vie with one another for power, manipulating our passions (lots of religious groups seek to stir up the passions, sadly) in order to bind us to them so we will do their bidding. In Orthodoxy, asceticism (prayer, fasting, alms giving) are specifically given to us to learn how to battle the passions.

    I remember years ago, in seminary, I decided to “give up anger for Lent.” I was pretty much constantly ticked off by the liberalism and heresy of various faculty members (which was real). But, I was losing God in the process. It’s the hardest fast I’ve ever attempted. And I knew very little about what I was doing.

  14. Matthew Avatar

    And I know very little about what I am doing Fr. Stephen. That is why I am here. Thank you.

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think it is intended to be something like that. In Orthodoxy, a “spiritual father” is most commonly your priest-confessor. There are exceptions to this for any number of reasons.

    I’m sort of less than sanguine about the “spiritual direction” ministries that have become popular in some circles (my experience of this was Anglican). I’m just mistrustful of it for various reasons. I’m not really sure it can be learned through training (so that’s got some caveats in it). Also, I think there’s this tendency to think of “directing” as point someone in some direction – and that presumes a level of spiritual knowledge that almost no one actually possesses.

    I hear confessions. I offer observations sometimes if I think it might be helpful. But my presumption is that it is God who gives the “direction,” and He can do so even when we’re doing stupid things and making mistakes. To be honest, the longer I’ve been in ministry, the more fearful I’ve become about giving advice or direction to someone – other than the most general sort of thing.

    In modernity, we all want to be in management, and we think managing is a really good thing. So, I’m afraid of spiritual direction being another form of management – and it’s so ripe for abuse.

    Mostly, I just like confession. Frequent (every month to 6 weeks).

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    May God help us all!

  17. John Avatar

    Fr Stephen, thank you for another thought-provoking article. Just for your information, some of us Anglicans were trained in a contemplative model of Spiritual Direction that gives abundant space for silence, so the Holy Spirit will do the directing. We were constantly instructed to avoid advise-giving, problem-solving, and in short ‘directing’, but instead to create the space for the person to do their own discerning of the presence and activity of God. By the way, is there something you would recommend reading on the forensic/guilt vs being/shame difference that would expand more on your article? Thank you again, John

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I hope that method is helpful. I’ll give some thought on the book recommendation. The difference between an ontological approach versus a juridical approach is massive – and there’s ever so many things I can think of to read – not always so many that focus on it with precision.

    We have problems in Orthodoxy (in my opinion), where priests (or others) have read books depicting the role of a spiritual father or elder, with a sort of monastic obedience and gifts of discernment, etc., and seek to put such a thing into practice in a parish, etc., with no real controlling authority. It easily becomes spiritual abuse and can be very damaging. Being warned away from the “directing” sorts of notions is useful.

    But, I’ll get back to the book suggestion.

  19. Jennifer Avatar

    I can see the truth in what you share and I understand the unhelpfulness of defending oneself. The example of Christ before his accusers is a good reminder. I’ve also read your book. I still don’t quite understand how to cultivate humility and appropriate shame and not descend into toxic shame and despair when a person has had harsh blame and criticism in their life rather chronically. I know boundaries seem to help to some extent but even that has its limitations. How does one protect their own heart and not avoid meeting Christ in their shame? If you have any encouragement and input, I would be greatful.

  20. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think the problem of toxic shame really requires assistance – someone to help us work with it, to heal, to understand, and to counter its power in our lives – and it takes time. It’s useful to know about shame – but it’s hard to work on it by ourselves.

  21. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Just finished my supper…and I “chewed” on the question of books throughout the meal. 🙂

    Frederica Matthewes-Greens book on two different approaches to the Cross might be of use. I’m not sure what else to point to (I touch on it in my book, Everywhere Present). I think it is largely a habit of thought embedded in Orthodox writings – especially in the Cappadocians, St. Maximus, St. Dionysiu the Areopagite, etc., all of whom are major influential figures in the mind of Orthodoxy.

    Much of my writing on the topic (articles, etc.) is sort of a “gathered reflection” that comes out of listening/reading/digesting the whole of the Eastern approach. I think it’s actually there in the New Testament. The problem is that the juridical approach has been so drummed into our culture and its various Christianities that we tend to see it in places where it isn’t.

    I’ll say that I became aware of this as an Anglican, and tended to look for it whenever I could. I wish I could be more helpful…and I’ll keep chewing!

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John something that helped me to begin to see the difference is from the Merchant of Venice; Portia’s plea;
    “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the earth beneath.
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
    It is an attribute of God Himself;
    And earthly power then shows likest God
    When mercy seasons justice.
    Therefore Jew.
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this
    That in the course of justice
    None of us should see salvation.
    We do pray for mercy.
    That same prayer doth teach us all
    To render the deeds of mercy.

    The forensic/guilt model seems to me a reversion to the Law before the Incarnation. The line that has always hit me hard is “in the course of justice none of us should see salvation”

    Father Stephen though St. Athanasius book “On the Incarnation” does not deal directly with the topic it does explain the foundation of ontological approach well. Plus it is an easy read.
    (shameless plug; order it online from Eighth Day Books)

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael, John,
    It occurs to me that many assume that the OT is juridical/forensic in that it works with the “Law.” This is a misunderstanding of the OT. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon’s book on the Atonement is an excellent work that points towards the proper understanding of the nature of sin and atonement, which is the basis for understanding the question.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Forgive me Father, I was not really saying the Old Testament was ,”The Law” but it seems to me that the opposition to Jesus and the Cross is based on a juridical approach: the Pharisees and Rome primarily. I need to read Fr. Reason. A great reason for me to go to Eighth Day and maybe another book will leap off the shelf.

  25. Janine Avatar

    You’re welcome. And by the way, just my 2 cents, but IMO “I don’t really know what I’m doing” is sort of a foundation for Orthodoxy. We need to leave room for mystery (Mystery), for “I don’t know.”

    Once again I’m butting in but I trust that Father will correct me if I get this wrong. It’s strange, but like so much else (and I think this is consistent with Father Stephen’s teaching, but again he’ll correct), humility can play an extraordinary role in toxic shame. Speaking for myself I believe I learned falsely that toxic shame was a way to be “good.” But again, in Orthodoxy, I have read, morbid guilt is another side of the coin of a type of self-centeredness. That is, it’s not really the humility that accepts to take on the tougher acceptance of God’s love and judgment which may shake up relationships and rock the boat, and represents a struggle and major learning curve to a better maturity. Still working on it over here, and every day there’s a new way I find there’s yet more I really have to learn ahead. I’m almost 70 and it just means I better let God lead me

  26. Janine Avatar

    PS Humility is the last thing one wants to hear about with toxic shame, because there is so much self-punishment going on already. So — just my experience only — one wants to run from the saving grace of humility. But humility is the release of our own judgment to God and so it’s the beginning of healing. It’s also relief from all that responsibility for fixing everything

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    John, Oliver,
    I’ve been reflecting on my comments about spiritual direction. Perhaps a bit of clarification. “Spiritual direction” is not a term that is used in Orthodoxy (in my experience). By and large, there is Confession, with a priest, and, depending on the priest and the relationship, so element of conversation regarding any problems in the spiritual life. “Spiritual Father” is a term that is used for a less rare relationship – most commonly in a monastic setting, and sometimes more broadly. It’s also a term that is used somewhat loosely to describe someone whose life and teaching has been a primary formative force in your life. I often refer to my late Archibshop (Dmitri of Dallas) as my spiritual father. He set me on a path and modeled its direction, and, I acted in obedience to him as my bishop and “father in God.”

    When I was an Anglican, I noted a sort of growing popularity surrounding “spiritual direction,” including “schools” to train people for that ministry. I often saw it strongly related to the Cursillo Movement and some other such things. Its roots were primarily Catholic. There’s not a lot I can say about it in that I don’t know much about it first-hand.

    In many ways, there are just differences between East and West, often not easy to describe. And the differences are not always as hard and fast as they might seem. There are many variables. All of us have to serve in good conscience, whatever our circumstances.

    I, for example, cannot work within the framework and metaphors of a forensic/juridical approach (underpinned by the Penal Substitionary Atonement doctrine) because I believe that doctrine to not be true and to misrepresent God. It’s not that I never see or hear it among the Orthodox, but I tend to see it as not typical and problematic.

    I think the overall notion of spiritual direction to be more likely compatible with an ontological approach, in that it would more than likely see itself as nurturing someone “towards” something (the imagery of “movement” is quite common in Orthodoxy – whereas it doesn’t work very well in a juridical framework). There are Anglican figures who worked with some of this (A.M. Allchin comes to mind). And, interestingly to me, there are a number of Anglican traditional prayers that are far more ontological than juridical in nature. My favorite is, “We do not presume to come to this Thy table…” It’s very “Johannine” in its content.

    Be well, and thank you for kind words and thoughtful questions!

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine, Jennifer,
    Toxic shame just throws a lot of wrenches into the works. I generally encourage people to look for some sort of therapy when this is a problem. If I were their priest, I would suggest that, and offer some sort of on-going pastoral support. I have especially treasured the advice of St. Sophrony regarding shame to “bear a little.” I think of this in the safe context of confession, and, again, emphasize the “little.” It’s sort of a learning process – where we learn to trust ourselves and a confessor and to learn that exposing a little shame can be healthy and truly liberating. But, it’s something to “tip-toe” with. Go slow – and be assured that God is with you. He is not our oppressor. He is a good God and loves mankind.

  29. Leah Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I wonder if these ideas about shame apply to children or not.

    I am a catechumen and will soon be doing a “life confession,” so sin during childhood is on my mind. I have trouble seeing how my sins as a young child could have been “caused by my own negligence” or by “my own carelessness.” I was exposed to a lot of dark things as a child, which I think brought out from me some unusually dark sins for someone so young.

    Now that I am a mother of two young boys and have thankfully been able to raise them much differently than I was raised, I observe the wonderful innocence that is natural to children and I am certain that they would be incapable of having the kind of thoughts I had (and of committing the kind of sins I did) at their ages.

    Could I have been demon-possessed? And in cases of demon possession, is the person possessed responsible for their actions, i.e., are they somehow allowing or inviting the possession?

  30. Matthew Avatar

    I am still trying to get my head wrapped around all this. I think I am having trouble because although I have jettisoned the idea of a juridicial/legal/penal understanding of sin, the idea is so ingrained in my DNA it is hard to completely shake.

    So … sticking with the example of losing my temper …

    In a juridical context when I lose my temper, I have committed a legal infraction that doesn´t really have an effect on me ontologically speaking. I simply say to God “I am sorry once again for the sin of losing my temper” and that simple act of repentance is enough. I ask God for his grace to help me not commit the sin again. I then move on with my life feeling no guilt or shame (although this is not always the case).

    In an ontological context when I lose my temper, I have really committed a sinful act against myself. It goes much deeper than a simple legal infraction. It affects my entire person. I have fallen victim to the passion of anger which has caused me to lash out. If I continue to again and again lose my temper, I can ontologically become anger (which represents a false self) thus losing my real personhood. Guilt and shame then sets in.

    Humility (a virtue) and confession to a priest are the ways out of this conundrum. If what I have said in right and on track, then I am wondering where God´s grace is at work in all this? Do Orthodox even understand grace as most Protestants do? FYI – my questions and comments are open to all for response, not just Fr. Stephen. I appreciate all the input I receive here very much.

  31. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen … do you have the title of Frederica´s cross book?

  32. Matthew Avatar

    Got it Fr. Stephen. Found it in the U.S. on Amazon.

  33. Janine Avatar

    I don’t come from a Protestant background (although I’ve grown up in a Protestant culture so can’t really avoid it), so of course Fr. Stephen or someone else will have to answer your questions. But I would like to suggest another perspective. When you lose your temper, it creates a broken communion, not just a sin against yourself. How does it affect the people around you? What would it take to repair that? And your communion with God, where was that while you were losing your temper? Where was it for the one with whom you lost your temper? Not saying indignation is always wrong, that can be righteous too. But we’re assuming here there is something problematic going on. I think the healing, repair, forgiveness, a return to love, even progress or insight must rely on God’s grace, no? Where does a deeper reliance on God for help with this come into it? Once agai assuming Father will offer correction. (Sorry Father, I guess that’s a lot to assume too.)

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I agree that children are innocent. My own experience is that, as an adult, it can be useful to “expose” the darkness found even in our innocence to the Light. Not because it’s our fault or our responsibility – but because it harmed us and we want to be healed. It’s not a legal problem and confession is not a legal process.

  35. Megan Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for such a wonderful post. I read Face to Face with God, and a lot of your posts talking about shame.

    How would you discuss or guide someone who has been abused with shame? Specifically in the context of upbringings or major relationships in which one experienced narcissistic abuse?

    As someone who has experienced this, I struggle with going into internal toxic shame spirals, but also realize I have my own healthy shame as well. However, I have to be cautious about letting the shame overtake me and think that everything is my fault, or worry that I’m just blaming everyone else. Logically I know it’s not, it’s just a very deep wound.

    I approach confession not with an aversion, but with a cautious spirit in order to keep myself from going into the guilt/toxic shame spiral. ( I was also raised Catholic and am still a newly Chrismated Orthodox Christian, so I’m still fresh and in the process of gaining more of the Orthodox mindset.)

    I hope my question makes sense. Thank you in advance.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy teaches that grace is the very life of God. It is the “Divine Energies” or actions of God. It’s possible in your example to overdo the ontological stuff – to become fearful, etc. But yielding to the passions can grow into a habit and habit can grow into character. Character is the “form or shape” of who we are. We are created to acquire the character of the image and likeness of God.

    These ideas are often discussed under the heading of “virtue ethics” – but if you read virtue ethics in an ontological understanding, it gives a pretty good understanding.

    But – a single anger outburst – sure, it effects who I am to some small degree. It makes the next outburst more likely, etc. At the same time, there are many, many good actions that also have an effect, etc. But, if you read the writings on the spiritual life from the Fathers – they are filled with concerns for battling the passions. This is the classical language of the Christian spiritual life.

    Our actions (in classical Christian language) are our “energies.” (The Greek word energeia means “doings, actions”). They reflect what is going on in us and certainly have something of a feedback loop. So, Orthodox asceticism concerns itself with spiritual warfare – battling the passions and resisting the temptations of the evil one, etc. We fast and pray and give alms, acquiring the character of Christ, slowly.

    None of this is apart from grace. It is not us “saving ourselves.” Rather it is God working in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. It is our active cooperation with the grace of God (the Life of God dwelling in us).

    In a juridical understanding – sin is exterior. You commit it, and God takes note of it (but you yourself seem to be immune other than being liable to punishment). You ask forgiveness, so God forgives, and you go on your merry way no longer liable for punishment – but all of this, somehow, takes place apart from you. It simply fails to describe the reality of sin “which dwells in me” (St. Paul).

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Your question makes good sense – and it sounds to me like you are approaching the problems of shame wisely. (“I approach confession not with an aversion, but with a cautious spirit in order to keep myself from going into the guilt/toxic shame spiral.”) With toxic shame, it’s good to find a therapeutic relationship where it can safely be explored and healed to some measure. Recognizing is very, very helpful.

    I recall the words of Fr. Zacharias of Essex that he gave to me regarding the experience of shame: “Sit quietly in God’s presence and pray, ‘O God, comfort me.’” I do this frequently when I’m being assaulted by shame (of either form). I sit with it as my prayer and I see that the shame begins to ease. I don’t hurry it.

    It can be frustrating, I know. The victims of abuse, etc., are like soldiers who have been seriously injured in a war. They are not despised by their commander, but valued and seen for what they truly are. Slowly, over time with prayer and the sacraments, etc., we begin to heal and gain strength. It might well be that we will always walk with a bit of a limp because of our earlier wounds. But we continue in the battle a day at a time.

  38. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you for your clarifying teaching on grace and energies — reminding me of the great basics!

  39. Janine Avatar

    Father, you wrote:
    The victims of abuse, etc., are like soldiers who have been seriously injured in a war. They are not despised by their commander, but valued and seen for what they truly are. Slowly, over time with prayer and the sacraments, etc., we begin to heal and gain strength. It might well be that we will always walk with a bit of a limp because of our earlier wounds. But we continue in the battle a day at a time

    Yes, it really is a form of PTSD, and can affect so much of our brains and bodies also. Thank you for this and the wonderful prayer and wise words of Fr. Zacharias

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Orthodox Sacrament of Confession is wonderful and simple: The you come up and kneel before an icon. The Priest is there standing next to you. He puts his stole over your head and says a prayer. Then he says: “Know that you confess not to me, sinner, but to Christ Himself.” The priest is there to guide and guard you as you are uniquely vulnerable to the world as you open your heart to Christ. Under his stole you are in a Holy cavern completely safe. There are times when I just want to stay there in silence but speaking out loud the sins is crucial too. Then you enter into Christ’s mercy through His Cross.

  41. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The juridical approach to sin is indeed hard to shake because it is so pervasive in the culture of the US (and I’m assuming that it has origins in both Catholicism and Protestantism) and perhaps in all Western cultures. I was once in a conversation with a young woman from China many years ago. I was distraught because I got into some friction with someone (don’t remember now the details). When I had the conversation with this Chinese friend I believe I might have asked her how she handled such experiences. Without really articulating it, I was dealing with shame. Very interestingly and a bit mystifying to me she said that when such things happen to her, she blames her ancestors, and in that sense, didn’t carry it. I don’t think this was just her personal coping mechanism, but just another cultural way to look at aspects of our behavior and how our contexts influence us. I mention this story only to say that there is a lot buried in the ethos of our (western) culture that is hard to see because we’re swimming in it.

    I like very much what Father Steven critiques about the external aspects of the juridical perspective of sin. It leaves out the truth of our existence. Our true self or our real self, the truly existing self, is the self that is in communion with Christ. Anything that takes us out of communion with Christ is not our true self, and it may be damaging enough that returning into communion with Christ is itself a struggle, sometimes complicated by our struggles with shame.

    I noticed in myself recently, a lack of love, specifically about a person who has betrayed my trust. Outwardly, I’ve done nothing wrong. But my heart is not in Christ as I want it to be. I struggle to return, to be and remain in Christ, to love this person in the way the Lord loves them. Then I resort to the prayer that the Lord might fill the gap that I lack. This new activity in my heart would be His grace, His salvation of my brokenness. Sometimes when I admit my brokenness, tears come, and His workings, His Grace is activated. Christ is in our midst!

  42. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “I noticed in myself a pack of love for a person who betrayed my trust..”

    And there is the test. I would say, Dee, that as you are even aware of your lack, you are ahead many. May our Lord strengthen you.

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I remember an image that, early on, was important as I was thinking through the issues regarding a juridical approach versus an ontological approach. There is an image attributed to Martin Luther in which he described the justified sinner as a “snow-covered dung hill.” I remember thinking, “But that means I’m still just a pile of dung. I want to be a snow-covered snow hill.” In Orthodox (and New Testament) understanding – the righteousness of Christ is transformative, not just something that covers us. His life becomes our life (“whosoever drinks My blood abides in Me and I in them, etc.”). Finding ways to think about this and speak about this is what is described by an “ontological” approach – that our very being is tranformed, not just our legal status.

    One attraction of the legal status is that it can be seen as instantaneous. That’s very satisfying in a world of instant everything. Orthodoxy encourages us for the long haul. Nevertheless, in my own experience, my day to day comfort is found in the mercy and love of God rather than looking at myself to check on how I’m doing. St. Paul says our “life is hid with Christ in God.”

  45. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Dee and Fr. Stephen and Mark and … well … everyone. 🙂

    I went to Divine Liturgy this morning at the Greek Orthodox Church. It was the first time I had been there in maybe 2 years. As most of you already know, I have been having some problems with the priest/bishop there in terms of my desire to convert. No problem though. I received the blessed bread at the end of the liturgy. I wasn´t sure I could have some, but when I asked Bishop Emmanuel said “You can certainly have a piece of this bread. You are allowed.” I´m not certain he remembered me or if my question lead him to think this guy is not Orthodox, but at any rate he saw me again. I waited after the liturgy in the nave to talk with him, but he appeared rather busy. They were setting up for an infant baptism (how I would have loved to see that!), so I didn´t get to chat with him. Nevertheless I´m confident he knew I was there. I will also be there next Saturday morning. We will see how it all develops.

    In terms of experience, well, there were times I felt like, man, this is soooo long. At other times, though, I felt peace and closeness to God. Then again at other times I felt very much on the outside. Nearly the entire service is in Greek (which is also beautiful in its own way) and it appears that the only time the congregation verbally participates is when the Lord´s Prayer and the Creed are recited?? As a Protestant I am used to more participation and of course hearing the service in either German or English. There was no homily or sermon. Afterwards, some very happy people were sharing lots of pieces of bread in baskets that were blessed earlier in the liturgy.

    Just as I was approaching the door to the church, my smartphone alarm went off telling me that this weekend in the Orthodox Church is Matthew´s Sunday. I smiled. I had no idea, but as you all know Matthew is my name! Maybe God is up to something after all. 🙂

  46. Dean Avatar

    In many Orthodox congregations there is congregational singing, joining in song as the choir leads. At the time, when our grandson was about 5 or 6 (he attended with family a Protestant church), I asked him what he thought of the service. He replied, “Pop, it’s one long song!”

  47. Matthew Avatar

    Dean … 🙂

  48. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Beautiful story, Matthew! You gave me a smile this morning!

  49. Matthew Avatar

    Dee … 🙂

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I never had the question re: legal vs ontological:
    1. I did not come from a Protestant back ground, and
    2. The Theotokos through The Icon of the Sign greeted me with wide open arms telling me I was welcome.
    Fortunately, most of the service was in English as it is an Antiochian Parish. Some Arabic.
    About 3 months later my new born son, my late wife and I were received through Holy Baptism. That was in 1986.
    When my wife reposed in 2005, I was shown the love of Jesus for all of us as our priest and two chanters were with us praying in song for her salvation. I remarried in 2009 and my new wife was received by Chrismation.
    2022: I began to know how to pray, really pray and how to confess my sins.
    On a basic level.

    Through it all Jesus has shown me that He is a person. Fully man and fully God. When I focus on receiving Him, the Divine Liturgy comes alive for me now in ways it did not before.

    It seems easy to forget that Jesus and the Sacraments are not just theological concepts but He is a person, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. It took a long time for me to acknowledge His Personhood.

  51. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Michael!!

  52. Matthew Avatar

    Does the Paschal liturgy last all night?

  53. Megan Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for your response. It is very helpful. 🙏🏻

    I did process a lot in therapy as a teenager. It is only within the last few years that more of understanding of what was really going on within my family of origin came to light. And I began to see where I was stuck in carrying and trying to fix shame that was not mine. Along with my own.

    I’m grateful that God has led me to the Orthodox Christian church. It feels that it has all been a healing process and this is the remedy I was being prepared for. Process is slow and many layers to sift through. I’m okay with that though. If God can have patience with me, I think I can offer myself some patience too.

    Thank you again!

  54. Janine Avatar

    Thanks everyone for comments.

    Michael, you wrote:
    Through it all Jesus has shown me that He is a person. Fully man and fully God. When I focus on receiving Him, the Divine Liturgy comes alive for me now in ways it did not before.

    Yep, that’s it for me. Explains the importance of icons too. Essential for me. Sometimes it’s as if they come alive in the liturgy.

  55. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Not all night but into the wee hours. Starts at about 11pm and ends about 1:30am Then we break the fast with shared food from our blessed Paschal baskets.

  56. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Dee.

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I found a YouTube lesson on the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. I put it here in case it might be helpful. Learning to say the prayer in Greek may help you to feel more part of the community in congregational worship.

  58. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paschal Liturgy does last a long time but it is the community gathering afterward that takes it deep into the early morning—at least at my parish. Greek practice I don’t know.

  59. Janine Avatar

    In many Greek parishes, the Lord’s Prayer is said by members attending in native languages. It just depends on where people are from, so you might hear it in a whole variety of languages. Also many Greek churches use have English and half Greek, alternating in the liturgy, and there are usually books with both languages, including a transliteration to follow along with the Greek. It’s unusual these days to have an all-Greek liturgy in a lot of places, but I suppose it depends on the parish and community. Also it depends on whether or not you might be at an Old Calendar church.

  60. Janine Avatar

    Sorry for typos — meant to say many Greek churches use half English and half Greek and alternate through the liturgy.

  61. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Dee and Janine. In our Greek Orthodox Church things are almost enitrely in Greek with a little bit of German tossed in at certain points.

    I want to learn Greek, Dee. Maybe the Lord´s Prayer is a good beginning! 🙂

    Wow Michael … until deep in the early morning. I don´t think I have ever been out that late (or early??) on the streets of my city! We´ll see …

  62. Matthew Avatar

    It is beautiful Dee. Thanks so much for posting the short video.

  63. Janine Avatar

    Sorry I assumed you are in the US or Canada. I suppose you must be in Germany

  64. Matthew Avatar

    Yes Janine. I am in Germany.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, the Paschal Greeting Christos Anesti is the only Greek I know with the reply: Alithos Anesti!
    In my parish the Arabic is the most used but English and Russian and Ethiopian is as well are common. We have a significant number of Ethiopians in our community. Their number includes a descendent of the last Christian Emperor, Haile Selassie and the “Keeper of the Ark” occasionally a little German Christus est auferstanden!
    Whatever the language, the Joy of celebrating the Risen Christ is immense.

  66. Matthew Avatar

    Wow Michael, it sounds like your parish is very diverse.

  67. Matthew Avatar

    I agree Janine. It was an extremely helpful comment.

  68. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O

    Thank you Father, another helpful post. A few parts of this also reminded me of things I’ve been learning in a read / study through C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces” (with Mythgard Academy’s current series in it, not yet completed but now going through the last chapters in part 2).

    “The path to such knowledge passes through humility. And the path to humility involves shame.” In Lewis’ book, Psyche describes her meeting the gods, and her shame at being mortal, at being insufficient.

    And as an illustration of what you mentioned about “confessing another person’s sins,” a scene near the end of part 2 chapter one, where the main character admits her true attitude toward another character, called Bardia. As pointed out in the Mythgard class session, the first part is something we all can do, it’s very easy: the main character admits that “I never mocked him myself… I hated them (other people around) for mocking him.”
    But then she realized the other part of the relationship, the wrong that she had done: “but I had a bittersweet pleasure at his clouded face (when they mocked him).” And as the Mythgard professor pointed out, a lot of the time we only realize the first part, which involves blaming others; it takes more honest reflection about ourselves, to admit the second part, what we have done wrong (not just blaming or confessing another persons’s sins).

    Thanks again for another great post. As others I think have said, such as in the comments at a post a few weeks ago, so much of what you write here ties in so well with C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces.”

  69. Christa Avatar

    Good tears and many thanks to God for reflections shared in love! God blesses us, each one!

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