Before the Judgment Seat of Christ

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, unashamed, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.

From my childhood, I have memories of the phrase, “Great White Throne of Judgment.” It comes complete with an abundance of frightening images and threats. It is the last possible moment before all hell breaks loose and the preachers at long last get one right. Of course, that same childhood heard lots of predictions about troop movements in the Middle East, explanations of Gog and Magog, and warnings about where everything was leading. The future was not a happy place. At this point in my life as an Orthodox Christian, it is hard not to hear echoes of these frightful threats in the prayer regarding the “dread judgment seat of Christ.”

I’ve only been in front of a judge twice in my life: for a speeding ticket and to testify in a child custody case (worse than a speeding ticket). It was dreadful.

But what is this dread judgment seat? Do we have any examples? The answer is actually quite clear, and it is not what the preachers imagined (based on their misreading of Revelation).

The dread judgment seat of Christ is actually something quite familiar, something that enters our life any number of times and on a regular basis. I suggest that you rid yourself of what you think a “throne” is, for the throne of Christ is nothing other than His Cross.

From the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Today the Cross is lifted up,
and all the world is sanctified.
For You, while enthroned with the Father
and with the All-holy Spirit,
by stretching out Your hands thereon,
have drawn the whole world to Yourself,
that it might know You, O my Christ.
Therefore, grant divine glory
to those who trust in Your goodness.

The irony of this identification (Cross and Throne) is revealed on the very day of the crucifixion. Kings are normally crowned while sitting on a throne. This King is crowned as He “sits” upon the Cross. It is proclaimed for all to see: “King of the Jews.” Orthodox iconography makes the irony yet more clear, by changing the description hanging above the crucified Christ into the “King of Glory.” The Cross is His throne and the Cross reveals His glory.

My childhood Christianity made a huge distinction between the Jesus of the Cross and the Jesus of Judgment Day. For all intents and purposes, they were two different entities. Jesus on the Cross was meek and mild. This, however, was treated like a temporary feint. The “real” Jesus was the one who was coming again and there was to be nothing meek or mild about that coming. The Cross was past tense. The coming throne could be seen in Revelation 20, and this was taken to be the true and permanent revelation of Christ.

There is so much lost in this modern mis-reading of Revelation. The champion of that book is the “Lamb who was slain,” and it is this Lamb who is most closely associated with “Him who sits upon the throne.” The Great Irony of the Christian gospel, is that all of these images of power are most clearly manifest in the Crucified Christ. Thus St. Paul says that he is determined to know only “Christ Crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) St. Paul does not treat this as a temporary, passing image, but the very image of God: “Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). This is not a momentary diversion. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. It is an eternal image and revelation.

It is Christ Crucified that reveals all things to be what they truly are. It unmasks every pretense of uprightness and self-justification. It welcomes the thief while the hypocrisy of others drives them away. This is the judgment that we avoid. Think back to the last argument you had. Perhaps you were in the right. Take that argument and stand before Christ on the Cross. For myself, I cannot imagine any such argument that I’ve had that isn’t revealed in its absurdity and emptiness in that context. Presently, we live in a world of arguments. Enslaved to our own shame and anger, we are slowly pulling each other down towards an abyss of meaninglessness. All of this is taking place in the presence of the Crucified Christ. It takes place before the dread judgment seat.

Understanding the nature of the judgment seat reveals why it is rightly called “dread.” It is not some fearful pronouncement we need fear so much as the truth of ourselves that is revealed in that place. The image of judgment in Matthew 25 (the sheep and the goats) is often drawn on by the imagination. Interestingly, the parable combines both the concept of “ontology” (our being) as well as “character” (our actions). It begins with sheep and goats – that is, what we actually are (ontology). And that description is revealed in the character of our actions: what did we do to the least of these in our lifetime? This is revealed to have been nothing other than the treatment of Christ Himself. We can say that we moment by moment stand before the dread judgment seat of the Crucified Christ. He is present in every opportunity of love and sacrifice, of mercy and generosity. With every embrace of Christ, our path moves more steadily to the right, becoming the path of a sheep. With every rejection, the path moves towards the left, the path of a goat. And with every opportunity, we not only move on that path, we become what the path reveals.

There are some who treat the parable as a reference to the heart of each individual – of the “sheep” or “goat” within. Very few of us are all goat, even fewer all sheep. It is similar to Solzhenitsyn’s reflection:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – The Gulag Archipelago

At the first revelation of the judgment seat, outside Jerusalem in 33 AD, most fled like frightened goats. The Beloved Disciple and the Mother of God remained steadfast, having long before settled the matter in their hearts. She was enduring the sword that would “pierce her own soul,” while St. John refused to abandon the One who loved him. He is given paradise that day in becoming the new son of that Holy Mother. That reality would later win him the footrace with Peter to the empty tomb.

Peter had encountered the Crucified Christ three times in the evening before (in the guise of those who accused him of being a follower of Jesus). With each challenge he bleated (like a goat), “I don’t know Him.” Such is the mercy of the Crucified Savior that Peter was not given over to the judgment of his own fear. A final question is put to him three times on the shore of the Galilee: “Peter, do you love me?” His answer impels him on the path of a sheep, one that will ultimately lead to his own crucifixion some 40 years later.

It is essential, I think, that we acknowledge that this judgment begins within our hearts. As we meet Christ in the disguise of shame (poor, hungry, naked, in prison) we are brought face to face with our own shame. It is invariably the case that those who are the kindest and most generous to the poor, hungry, naked and in prison, are those who themselves are poor, hungry, naked and in prison. I have witnessed this countless times. We should fear our excellence and our competence above all things.

Humility alone stands unashamed before the dread judgment seat of the Cross. And this is the greatest irony. For humility is nothing other than the voluntary bearing of a little shame. It has nothing in common with the modesty of the excellent. Be careful not to remove Christ from the Cross as you stand there. Many Christians have done frightful, angry and boastful things under the sign of a naked Cross.

The Elder Sophrony once said, “God never judges twice.” That which we bring before Christ now, we will never hear about again. Without shame or fear, those who willingly bear a little shame in this life will have none in the next. Peter’s judgment is instructive: The one who had denied Christ is not upbraided about that three-fold incident. He is asked, “Do you love me?” It was doubtless the most searching question that could have been spoken. It is the likeliest form that the judgment will take for us all. Many times each day.

_____________

Artwork: “What Our Lord Saw From the Cross” – James Joseph Jacques Tissot (1836-1902)

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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56 responses to “Before the Judgment Seat of Christ”

  1. Fr David Gilchrist Avatar
    Fr David Gilchrist

    Thank you Father!
    Am I ‘chickening out’ if I translate φοβερός as ‘awesome’ instead of ‘dread’?
    Your quotation from St Sophrony reminds me that we sometimes revisit our sins and may doubt our forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom used to say, “God has cast our sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19), and he puts up a sign saying ‘No fishing!’ ”

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. David,
    In truth, I’ve never been happy with “dread,” though it’s accurate. “Awesome” is accurate as well. It is interesting to me that, while I was researching my book on shame, to discover that “awe” is impossible without “healthy” shame. In our present culture, “awesome” has come to mean “I like it,” losing that healthy sense of overwhelming-ness and wonder that somehow makes us feel naked and exposed.

    English has so many words…

  3. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Even in modern Greek people sometimes use “foveros” in the same way we use “awesome” today. It can mean great, fantastic, tremendous, too. Like being in awe of someone’s talent or performance. Or it can just mean something amazing. But it still retains the root sense of terrifying or inspiring fear. Sometimes I feel that original sense is both, we’ve just forgotten what awe at something completely beyond our ken is.

  4. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS This discussion of φοβερός reminds me of the Star Trek episode in which there was an exceptionally wise, non-corporeal ambassador called a Medusan, named “Kollos” (pronounced like kalos, “good” or “beauty”) who was kept in a box like a treasure chest, as he was just too fearful for human beings to look at, said to drive them insane and to death. Actually he was said to be too frighteningly ugly. Only a woman who surprisingly turned out to be blind could communicate with him. (Mr Spock has to communicate telepathically, but an accidental glimpse drove even him temporarily insane.) But in the end the woman posed the question, “Too ugly or too beautiful?” Titled “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”

  5. Eric Dunn Avatar
    Eric Dunn

    You make Jesus and Scripture humanly accessible. Thankyou.

  6. Cam Avatar
    Cam

    On the fearful side, the Orthodox Church certainly wasn’t helped along by the hellfire-and-damnation style of early homilists like Chrysostom.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Cam,
    I find St. John Chrysostom to be more of a moralist. Compared to some, he’s relatively mild.

  8. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    As a child I recall being at a Saturday matinee watching Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan. I was so frightened at one scene that I remember squatting on the floor behind the seats and only taking a peek now and again at the frightful gorillas!
    About that same time I was being scared out of my wits by the fire and damnation preaching by our pastor and visiting evangelists.
    Yet even in my teens I could not reconcile what I knew of Christ to the teaching of everlasting torment in hell. Seventy plus years of sinful life could not merit unending suffering even to my 17 year old mind.
    Now at almost 78 I know my “warranty” is running out. Every Sunday as I look at Christ Jesus on the iconostasis I ask that He judge me now so that I won’t be judged by Him on that Day. “We entreat Your goodness: cleanse us from our sins and accept our prayer in Your great tenderness of heart….”

  9. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    It was the disciple who asked Christ if they should send down fire on opponents who also wrote that God is love, and that perfect love casts out fear.

    My experience of faith has been led through prayer for many decades, and every day I learn there is something else I need to change. I mean, it started with me asking God to show me and teach me because I was confused and bewildered, and hard-headed too. But, for my experience, this has always been given in what I feel as love, even in correction that embarrasses and shames me, even in very painful experiences that somehow God has allowed for me. So I accept that God will correct me with love.

    I do not take as harsh this passage from John either: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18), because I think this is about a depth of the heart only God knows and not a nominal, simple, and purely intellectual choice. It’s also about trust, not “belief” — and trust is linked with love.

  10. Leah Avatar
    Leah

    Thank you, Father – so helpful and moving as always. Your writings are such a gift to us all.

    I wanted to ask for clarity on one thing. When you say “those who are the kindest and most generous to the poor, hungry, naked and in prison, are those who themselves are poor, hungry, naked and in prison,” are you meaning in spirit or in the physical, material sense (or both?). This makes sense to me “in spirit” but, at least from my own time and place, I haven’t observed the truth of it in the material sense of these states. For example, my brother was in and out of prison for several years and there was very little kindness and generosity within those walls. Also, I lived several years in an urban area with much poverty and homelessness and it didn’t seem that the people in that state were treating each other with kindness and generosity very often. In both these examples, there was also a lot of mental illness and drug addiction at play, so perhaps those factors prevent the virtues that might have otherwise emerged in those individuals…?

  11. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dear Leah, I once had occasion to observe what Father said. I was an undergraduate, driving my little car on the freeway about to cross the bridge over San Francisco Bay toward Berkeley. Traffic was heavy because it was Dec 23 and all the shoppers were returning home at evening. My clutch cable snapped, and I was blocking one lane that threaded to the bridge. I must have backed up traffic for 25 miles on that freeway waiting to be towed (Highway Patrol finally pushed me to the off-ramp). While frat boys from my school in BMWs shouted and cursed me as they went by, several people tried to help. All of them were poor or looked like they were in need of help themselves: an old hippie driving a used post office truck with a chopped down Christmas tree tied to the top, a black man from Oakland who stopped to help but told me he couldn’t fix that, a packed carload of people with a big whip antenna on an old sedan with Oklahoma plates who told me, “Don’t worry honey, we’ll get ’em on the radio.” Taught me a lesson.

    I have since lived in poor and rough neighborhoods where there can be a harsh law of the streets and of course the elements of addiction, mental illness, and also gang crime where that law of the street is all the parenting some kids know with horrible results. But then there is the personal side where compassionate acts of generosity surprise and shine through. So much depends on love, if people have had a parent or someone who loves/loved them in their lives. Some older survivors of the gangs tried to help the kids and teach them how to live a different adult life. This is for me one more crucial reason for the importance of our faith in the world, the One who died for us out of love. That still heals people too.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Leah,
    Those in prison, hungry, poor, etc., often live very dysfunctional, even combative lives. My observation has been to see occasions of amazing generosity (like the widow’s mite) even from those dysfunctional sources. They’re not paragons of virtue, but places with interesting incongruities. On the other hand, for those of us who enjoy a middle class lifestyle or better – we can be more guarded in our generosity – more likely to want to know that our gifts are not wasted, etc.

    The highest per capita charitable giving in the U.S. has, most years, been found first in Utah (the Mormons have their tithing rules) and in Mississippi – the poorest state in the Union. Don’t know if those numbers are still true.

  13. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    We are not alone as we die and begin to face the judgement. 15 years ago as my first wife lay dying, I saw and angel come, place his hands on either side of her head and pray with great intensity as our priest and two chanters sang hymns. My late wife’s best friend saw the angel as well. With Pascha that year just a couple weeks away, the Resurrection was personally quite impactful too.

  14. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I have now been to my third Divine Liturgy in a row. I am beginning to get a much better feel for the life of the liturgy in the Greek Orthodox Church. When I came home, I watched a Divine Liturgy (St. John Chrysostom´s Liturgy) in English on YouTube. It was good to see that what I experienced in the morning in church was being done in basically the same exact way in the English YouTube video. It so helped me get a grasp as to what is really going on in the Divine Liturgy. I think what I appreciated the most was that the sermon was very short (maybe 6 minutes??) and that it happened after the Eucharist was distributed, not before. The bishop stood with his staff, didn´t look at one notecard, and proclaimed the Risen Christ (Christos Anesti!)! He encouraged Orthodox Christians to be lights in a dark world and to show the way to Jesus Christ. No 4 point sermon. No Christian leadership skills seminar. I so appreciated that.

    You are all so right. You simply cannot understand Orthodox without living it. Actually being in a Divine Liturgy is so much more than reading about Orthodoxy or watching a Divine Liturgy on YouTube. So the journey continues …

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Some quick thoughts… Sermons can be done just after the gospel, or, after communion. It varies from place to place. Also, sermon length is very variable. Mine are usually around 15 minutes (so long as I practice strict rabbit trail control). Otherwise, there’s very little difference across the Orthodox world – small things. Here in the US, the Greeks and Antiochians often omit certain litanies that are never omitted in Slavic practice (including the OCA), except when they are 🙂

    I have traveled and spoken in parishes across the US – varying jurisdictions. It’s been a great experience to see what is done in this place and that – to see the commonality as well as the uniqueness.

  16. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. Commonality as well a uniqueness. I like that very much.

    I simply wanted to express that as a Protestant it was refreshing to hear a Gospel-centered sermon that I was able to hear, understand, and digest without my eyes glazing over. I can handle 15 minutes too, but much more than that I begin to fade away … 🙂

  17. Bradley David Avatar
    Bradley David

    Matthew, I find it interesting what you say about your experience of the homily during the Divine Liturgy vs what you experienced in protestant services. My Mother who is not Orthodox but visits our parish sometimes usually expresses disappointment in how short the homily is…and how long the Liturgy is altogether. Keep in mind that the homily is usually no less than 15-20 minutes. What I have gathered from her (and I think this is true for protestants generally) is that the high point and goal of the service is the sermon when the “word of God” is proclaimed. Her experience is more Southern Baptist and baptist adjacent non-denominational groups.

  18. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Bradley! I say I am Protestant, but it is really in name only. I am basically Orthodox in heart and mind, though I have a process to go through (of course) before I am chrismated. How long that will be … well … I have no idea. Prayers would be appreciated.

    You are correct. The sermon is the high point for most Protestants (especially evangelical ones). I now realize that the high point always was and should be the celebration of the Eucharist. I am tired of long sermons that are often no more than how to be a better person, how to be a better leader, etc. or are so filled with scholastic doctrine that is entirely disconnected from the heart of the Church and her teachings/understanding.

    That is why I was so moved by what I heard on YouTube. The best 6 minutes of preaching I may have ever heard! May I provide a link Fr. Stephen?

  19. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this wonderful reflection on the judgment seat. I regularly pray the Orthodox morning prayers and have often wondered about the parts that say “We thank thee that thou hast not destroyed us in our transgressions…” (something to this effect appears twice in the morning prayers that I learned). This sounds as if it reflects a latent worry that such a thing might happen. Yet elsewhere the same prayer also refers to God’s “infinite goodness,” a wonderfully rich phrase. Can you help shed any light on this phrase about destruction (i.e., why do think it’s included and how might it be understood by people without a modern Protestant cultural background, etc)?

  20. Jennifer Avatar
    Jennifer

    Thank you so much. This was a perfectly timed reminder for me. Also, I’ve been reading Revelation and realizing about all I know is that I think most of what I’ve been told about understanding it isn’t true. If you have any additional recommendations to read, I would appreciate it.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kenneth, we Orthodox always remember two things: it is only by the Grace of the Trinitarian God that we (each and all) continue to exist and (2) We can rely on it if we truly repent. Sin runs deeply in the human body and soul…it is beyond the reach of even the best neurologist.

    At the same time God’s personal mercy is deeply endemic in His Creation if we call on it in faith. So one sees apparently groveling statements of extravagant sin because I know that I and most are worthy of destruction of the kind you question. The Mercy is one way He communicates with us, quite intimate communication.

  22. Anonymous Avatar
    Anonymous

    I’m a Protestant who’se attended very few Sunday morning liturgies.

    What I have done is attended Friday night akathists to the Theotokos during Lent, multiple Holy Weeks, and countless Saturday night Vespers. Not a sermon or homily in sight.

    For what it’s worth, at this point, homilies carry very little weight in my understanding of orthodox theology.

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Kenneth and Michael. I thought of both of you when I read the following this morning from The Longer Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

    The inquirer or catechumen asks how cleansing and peace can be given to those who have confessed. St. Philaret responds by using the word “epitima” which apparently means punishment. He goes on to say:

    “Under this name are prescribed to the penitent, according as may be requisite, divers particular exercises of piety, and divers abstinences or privations, serving to efface the unrighteousness of sin, and to subdue sinful habit; as, for instance, fasting beyond what is prescribed for all, or for grievous sins suspension from the holy Communion for a given time.”

    I must admit the ideas of divine punishment and destruction (as your comment describes, Kenneth) are hard to swallow. I realize God´s mercy is deeply endemic in His creation, but the fear of having to be punished for confessed sins and being possibly cast from God´s eternal presence and love seem to haunt me to a point where I cannot see, feel, or touch this mercy.

    Fr. Stephen´s article about the judgment seat of Christ has helped me greatly, but as I dive deeper into the fathers I see hints of the kind of theology and spirituality I have already jettisoned. I have said this before in earlier posts: I am not moving toward Orthodoxy so I can embrace the same God I left when I departed from Protestant evangelicalism. My sense is that I am probably, once again, interpreting these things incorrectly. 🙁

  24. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I would be careful of what you read. The angry god is not the God we worship in Orthodoxy. It takes time to obtain an appropriate understanding and interpretation. Typically, catechumens are given particular texts for their preparation; these are chosen by a priest who has gotten to know you and knows something about your life and then helps your understanding by making recommendations. Not all texts are appropriate, even if written by an Orthodox priest or saint. Some texts are in our Church history but are not relied on to be the ‘heart’ or voice of the Church. It takes time to recognize the difference.

    I will also add I’ve read a few modern texts written by Orthodox priests and have found them to be atrocious. Please be careful. Rather than selecting your texts according to your curiosity, I recommend asking Father Stephen what to read and receiving his guidance on your preparations.

  25. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    From a prayer written by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gennadios Scholarios:
    “…I have seen the Lord standing before me always
    for he is at my right hand,
    so that I may not stumble.
    My flesh shall dwell in hope,
    for you, O God, will not abandon my soul unto Hades.
    You have made known to me the ways of life
    and you have filled me with the splendor of your countenance
    delight is in your right hand forever.”

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks SO much Dee. I love the prayer. 🙂

  27. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Kenneth, et al
    Because Orthodoxy is a 2,000 year-old continuous life of faith and understanding – rather than a static ideology (much less a rule-generating bureaucracy), it is always necessary to take into account the historical circumstances of a particular reading or source. St. Philaret is a good example. He writes in 19th century Russia, and is working to give direction and guidance in a quickly changing world. His style, interestingly, is largely borrowed from Catholic and Lutheran sources (the European intellectuals of his day). Indeed, just producing a “Catechism” was itself a borrowing of something that Catholics and Lutherans did, rather than something that had been standard in Orthodox practice. The result is a bit more “wooden” than you might find in many situations. I generally never recommend using it, simply because it creates misunderstandings. Be that as it may.

    Secondly, it is easy to struggle with the language found in a number of Orthodox writings (language of punishments, etc.). Kenneth notes that in a particular prayer there are phrases of abject helplessness – how we deserve destruction, etc. – along with phrases extolling the absolute love and mercy of God. And we feel caught – dangling between both – wondering if our salvation is in doubt, etc.

    The “language of prayer” (I’ll be reprinting an article on this shortly), is poetic, and frequently quite extreme. We are “eavesdropping” on the inner life of saints in many prayers. They are efforts to express the inexpressible. Some prayers are “shame triggers” (depending on someone’s experience and background). It is necessary, over time, to acquire a “taste” for the language of historical prayers – something that is helped by settling certain things in the heart.

    1. God is good. There are no qualifiers added to this. God is good and His mercy endures forever (He does not reach the “end of His rope” with us).
    2. God wills our salvation. This is stated quite plainly in the Scriptures. The whole of the Scriptural story is the story of His saving of us and nothing else.
    3. The language of destruction and punishment describe the inner struggles and warfare we find as we move towards the goodnesss of God.
    4. Because we are free and capable of love, we do not speak in terms that are static and unchanging – the battle is not over until it’s over. But the mercy of God is without measure. In Orthodoxy, we speak of God’s love and actions rescuing us even from hell. It is not a juridical place of assigned punishment, but a place of our self-imposed torment that is being healed by God.

    Again, as in the present article on the Judgement Seat of Christ (the Cross), we should stand before the Crucified Christ when we contemplate any of these things. We are being radically called into the dynamic life of the love of God. The Cross reveals this to us. It will heal and teach the soul.

    It takes a bit of time – and prayer.

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Re: epitimia

    This word is still used quite commonly and refers not to a punishment, but to a discipline given to a penitent to help in their healing. Some confessors (and this varies greatly in different cultures) use this more than others. I rarely if ever use it because I find very few Americans able to bear it without misunderstanding it.

    But, an athlete often takes on specific exercises to correct a problem. It should be seen in just that light.

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee – Matthew, et al
    Dee is quite right about reading – we have access to so much and read without guidance or help. One of my favorite passages is a book written by the mother of Abp. Hilarion Alfeyev. It’s a semi-autobiographical spiritual novel. In it, she presents herself as a post-Soviet intellectual who has come to the faith and is looking for depth, etc. She meets an abbot in a monastery in Georgia. A profound monk. He is teaching her something and she brings up a passage from St. Maximus the Confessor. He says, “You’ve read St. Maximus the Confessor? How can you ever be saved?” He went on to say that no one should read more than they pray.

    St. Paul makes the distinction between babes drinking milk rather than eating meat (1Cor. 3:2). So, this is nothing new. Most people need a “milk diet” – lots of love. Then more love. And compassion mixed with mercy.

    I would say that, by and large, it’s that restricted diet that I serve on the blog. Perhaps there will come a time when we could move on to stronger things. But, in my experience, many are fed badly cooked and poorly seasoned meat diets and suffer terrible forms of indigestion. It can make them quite unpleasant to be around.

    For prayers: read Psalm 118 frequently. Maybe find a way to sing it. Let it permeate the heart.

    “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. Let Israel now say, “His mercy endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron now say, “His mercy endures forever.” Let those who fear the LORD now say, “His mercy endures forever.” I called on the LORD in distress; The LORD answered me and set me in a broad place. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is for me among those who help me; Therefore I shall see my desire on those who hate me. It is better to trust in the LORD Than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD Than to put confidence in princes. All nations surrounded me, But in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. They surrounded me, Yes, they surrounded me; But in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; They were quenched like a fire of thorns; For in the name of the LORD I will destroy them. You pushed me violently, that I might fall, But the LORD helped me. The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation Is in the tents of the righteous; The right hand of the LORD does valiantly. The right hand of the LORD is exalted; The right hand of the LORD does valiantly. I shall not die, but live, And declare the works of the LORD. The LORD has chastened me severely, But He has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, And I will praise the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD, Through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise You, For You have answered me, And have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O LORD; O LORD, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We have blessed you from the house of the LORD. God is the LORD, And He has given us light; Bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, I will exalt You. Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    SO very helpful Fr. Stephen´s blog and comments continue to be. Thanks so much.

  31. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Fr. Stephen,
    For some reason your writings have always resonated with my heart, you articulate that which my heart feels. It is like you are the tuning fork, and as you vibrate my soul soon stirs with the same vibrations. Thank you.
    I would have despaired long ago had it not been for the love, mercy and goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course when I have sinned (too often) I must confess it. Yet even in my sin I do not feel Christ’s condemnation but His wooing me back to His lovingkindness.
    I think it was in this article that you again wrote that we do not meet Christ so much in our successes and triumphs, but in our fallenness, our heartaches and sorrows…in our shame. That’s where I often find myself…and Christ .

  32. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    One last item for today Fr. Stephen. Something that also troubles our family are the often seemingly harsh and damning words Christ Himself speaks in some of His parables. I suppose those words also have to be sifted through a heart that is grounded in the goodness of God and in deep prayer? If Jesus´ultimate beauty, truth, and goodness are the hermeneutic through which we have to run all that we read in Holy Scripture (and even in some of the saints), then those verses of which I speak most likely mean something very different than what I was initially taught … and thank God for that!

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I feel almost the same Dean. Thank you.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, et. al.

    When ever I have experienced our Lord in prayer or in the Eucharist celebration or in the other Sacraments or in spiritual direction it has been an experience of love and mercy even in correction. Facing the darkness in one’s own heart is seldom easy.

    Yet, it can be scary too, but “Blessed is the Kingdom!’” Lord have mercy.

  35. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    No Michael … it is not easy.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We are reminded of the difficulty today in the Church through the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee. May our Lord’s mercy be with each of us.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    On the words of Christ – I read them in the context of Christ Himself, and sometimes have to let something be. I do not understand the mystery of judgment other than in the context of His love.

  38. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for your earlier response to Matthew and me, especially the things that are important to “settle in the heart.” Very helpful! May God continue to bless you and your ministry.

  39. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I absolutely echo the words of Kenneth, Fr. Stephen. Thanks so much. I think it all has to be understood within the context of God´s love. I would toss it all away (I think) if the context were something else. Maybe you are correct, sometimes letting things be is a better option. My wife and I have decided to really try and no longer fear Holy Scripture. We need to settle those things you talked about in our hearts first before we try to explore more fully God´s written revelation … even before we explore more fully Orthodox theology and spirituality. I have had close to 30 years of bad teaching etched into my DNA. I have no idea if God will grant me enough years so that I have enough time to work it all out. Thanks again.

  40. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, Fr. Stephen, et al — thank you for such a great discussion. I echo Fr. Stephen in saying that Dee’s words are wise about reading choices.

    Re Christ’s sometimes harsh or hard-to-grasp words. We should never forget we’re reading words that come from a culture of the Near/Middle East. There is a lot of deliberate exaggeration/poetry/vivid imagery to make a point — so that we “get it.” Important to know in Scripture not everything is meant to be literal like a textbook; it’s a different kind of communication/literature.

  41. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Fr Stephen, thank you for prayers and advice about prayer — and esp the story about the mother of Abp. Alfeyev. Dee, also thanks for that prayer.

  42. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Janine! Everyone here has been so caring and helpful as I make my way into the Church. I only wish I could meet you all in person!

  43. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    You’re welcome Matthew. You never know, we might all meet in person one day, which would be pretty neat :-).

  44. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Yes it would be Janine!

  45. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    But there is no doubt about the communion we join in.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I have found that the context of Holy Scripture within the Church tends to bring core ideas of Holy Scripture to life and fullness. Reading them around the Divine Liturgy and Vespers as well as our marriage and funerals.

    The Orthodox funeral is a revelation of the fullness of humanity in Christ.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Kenneth,
    There is much to be said about the “Orthodox mind” (phronema). Of the many things addressed under that topic among the more important are how we see the Scriptures and how we understand the Fathers and the Tradition. The West has many centuries of codification and systematization (both Catholic and Protestant). That process has created some very important touchstones and mental habits in our culture. Those same habits do not transfer over to Orthodoxy. It really is a different world.

    It’s important to say that within that world, there are a variety of experiences – some of them are themselves borrowings from the West. An important part of my writing and offers of guidance (such as it is) are an effort to point towards an Orthodox path. That is, how to live the Orthodox life (and think it), in a way that guards the heart and moves us towards a growing and abiding union with Christ.

    There are topics I avoid (on purpose). Things like politics (both civil and ecclesiastical) are two of them – and for differing reasons. There are certain points of doctrine or practice that I generally stay away from – often because they require a lot of personal context and are best dealt with in a one-on-one pastoral setting.

    Probably my greatest challenges are those raised in the comments conversations. There, somebody else is often posing the questions (perhaps ignoring my boundaries). They are important, so I treat them as such. But it is still the guarding (and healing) of the heart that is foremost in my mind. So, please forgive me if I dance around certain things or if I seem to struggle with various topics.

    It’s very much like speaking a foreign language. We can get the words right, and follow what we picked up in a class or a phrase book, only to discover a native speaker raising his eyebrows and explaining to us that we have said something terribly wrong. It’s a reason I come back repeatedly to the Liturgy. It is where we speak in the most fluent manner – the place where the deepest parts of the stream can be found. If something is not said there (repeatedly), chances are it is not all that important.

    But – don’t be shy about questions. Just be patient with my answers. 🙂

  48. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    Fr. Stephen, your answers have been extremely helpful. I’ve recently been able to start attending Orthodox services more regularly than ever before. I’ve been working from the assumption that “anything important in the Orthodox liturgy is therefore important.” E.g., I pay attention to what psalms or other scripture in particular are sung or chanted, then look them up when I get home. Often it’s psalms that I previously haven’t given particular attention to. You’ve just raised this point the other way around: If something’s not important in Orthodox liturgy, then chances are it’s not that important. Sounds like a good principle to work with. Thank you for encouraging us toward acquiring the Orthodox phronema.

  49. Job Avatar
    Job

    “The highest per capita charitable giving in the U.S. has, most years, been found first in Utah (the Mormons have their tithing rules) and in Mississippi – the poorest state in the Union. Don’t know if those numbers are still true.”

    Out of curiosity I checked to see how Utah and Mississippi ranked last year. Per capita financial contributions are often only one factor in evaluating a given state’s overall generosity or charitableness.

    According to two different analyses (using different sets of metrics) conducted in 2023 by Forbes and WalletHub, Mississippi ranked low in overall charitableness. In the Forbes analysis, Mississippi ranked 4th lowest in the nation for charitable giving and 11th lowest for informal helping and formal volunteering for an overall rank of 7th-least charitable state in the nation. In the WalletHub analysis, Mississippi ranked 5th lowest in the nation for charitable giving and 4th lowest in the nation for volunteering and service for an overall rank of 3rd-least charitable state in the nation.

    Utah ranked higher than Mississippi in overall charitableness. Sticking with the WalletHub analysis, Utah ranked 5th highest in the nation for charitable giving and 4th highest in the nation for volunteering and service for an overall rank of first place, i.e., most charitable state in the nation. While LDS tithing commitments may at least partially account for Utah’s financial generosity, it is noteworthy that Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Georgia ranked higher in charitable giving. Nor do LDS tithing commitments account for Utah’s high volunteer rate (surpassed only by Wyoming, Maine, and Minnesota) and high number of volunteer hours per capita.

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Job,
    Glad I gave the mention that I was working from memory from some old stats. But, what you’ve cited might be misleading. If a billionaire gives $100 million, and that’s divided by 100 people – then you have a “per capita” giving rate of $1 million. The stats I had – and it’s been a long time – the info came out in a stewardship training conference I was attending years back – but it was about personal giving as a percent of personal income. In such a comparison, a widow’s mite is larger than the billionaire’s $100 million. So, that’s what I’m referencing.

    States with the largest number of wealthy individuals – might rank high in per capita giving because of the wealth.

    New York higher than Utah? I suspect that’s skewed by wealthy donors.

    The stats that would be relevant to my assertion would need to look at charitable giving as a percent of personal income. And, of course, the poor tend to give by cash and do not take a charity deduction (so finding records is problematic).

    Here’s one such set of stats website that lists Utah as first, and Mississippi as second. So, someone agrees with me…

    Thanks.

  51. Job Avatar
    Job

    “He went on to say that no one should read more than they pray.”

    This.

    St. Therese of Lisieux said something similar in Story of a Soul: “I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him.”

    “Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.” ~ St. John of Kronstadt

  52. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Job:

    “Per capita financial contributions are often only one factor in evaluating a given state’s overall generosity or charitableness.”

    In point of fact, researchers often determine the outcome of their research by how and what they choose to measure. For example and in the specific case of the Forbes study, choosing “which percentage of people give at least $25 to charity” is something one can measure, and “number of tax exempt charities per capita within a state” is knowable, but I would be much more comfortable simply stating those facts, rather than trying to interpret them as “a given state’s overall generosity or charitableness.” (Indeed, a very specific metric is how Father Stephen framed his original statement.)

    Can a *state* (collectively) be charitable or generous? I think not, and to focus on that comparison loses sight of the more important question of whether within the individual heart wealth or poverty is more likely to incline someone to generosity.

    Having been watching many of the “prosperity gospel” sermons lately, that does seem to be a disputed point surprisingly (at least to me) even among those who call themselves Christians. As with Job’s friends, human beings tend to want to ascribe bad circumstances as somehow at least in part brought about by the people suffering them. For that reason, I do think empathy more often comes about when we endure bad circumstances ourselves–and thereby realize, if it’s not our fault we lost our job or our house or our health, it’s possible the same thing can happen to others.

  53. Ken Avatar
    Ken

    Mark,
    I appreciate your comments. I’m not sure what circumstance may have brought you to watch prosperity gospel sermons, but I have a close family member who has been following a prosperity gospel preacher for many years. I’ve been pondering for a long time how to gently point out the flaws in prosperity gospel theology and introduce them to Orthodoxy. I’m still not quite sure how to do this!

  54. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Ken,

    My predisposition is to want to hear (and read) directly from people about their beliefs, because of knowing how distorted everything becomes secondhand. My daughter wonders why I watch them as well 🙂

    Also, I have close family and friends who have been put off of Christianity because of perceiving it to be of this form. In discussing God with them, it’s good to know where we have true disagreements, and where we actually might have common ground.

    With my own eyes and ears, I have heard one such minister claim that Jesus was wealthy and that Mark 10 should be read as indicating the Disciples were in fact rich too!

  55. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. I so appreciate your last post addressed to me and Kenneth specifically. So the deep part of the stream is the Divine Liturgy? … hum … well … I better keep going on Saturday mornings then! 🙂 🙂

    The effort that goes into all these comments and responses in no way goes unnoticed. It is greatly, greatly appreciated. What a very valuable ministry.

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