What We Really Want

One of the great misunderstandings of our modern world centers around the place of the “will” in our lives. Modern democracies are built around slogans of freedom and fancy themselves to be the vanguard of advancing that cause. It has been a powerful force. Coupled with various aspects of free-market capitalism and the technological revolutions of our age, modernity has produced tremendous wealth and prosperty for many, all of which is re-employed in the sales pitches that surround its existence. Christianity itself has not been immune to this model. To “make a decision for Christ” brings with it deep associations with every commercial encounter of our age. It has left us quite vulnerable to political blandishments (where we are invited to lend our “will”) as well as schemes of prosperity (from the Protestant work ethic to the American Dream – and beyond). We assume we know what the “will” means – and that it appeals to the same mechanisms of choice and preference that accompany us to the mall or the ballot box. The truth is that what popular culture understands to be “freedom” is nothing of the sort. People very rarely engage the will. Indeed, most people live a life in which the will has played very little part. To understand such a claim, it is necessary to think about the will itself as well as the inner operations we use when we “choose.”

We are a culture of shoppers. “Choosey mothers choose Jif!” And so we think of ourselves as a nation who chooses. Sadly, most of the choices that we make barely touch the surface of the will – and even then – the will they touch is something less than the true depths of the human will. Much of what we encounter in our daily choices are little more than the flutterings of the passions. We see an ad (they pop-up everywhere!) and we react with a purchase. This hardly qualifies as the “will.” The will works in the “active voice.” Much of our daily experience is life in the “passive voice.” We respond. We do not choose.

There are choices to be made in our lives – decisions in which we must consider significant differences one way or another. These choices are actions of what the Fathers (especially St. Maximos the Confessor) described as the “gnomic” will. They are the results of deliberations. Interestingly, such deliberations, in the Fathers, are thought of as being a result of our fallen state. The uncertainty behind them is a function of our ignorance (at the very least). And, though fallen, this gnomic will is still of great value. Far greater, however, is the place of the “natural” will. What is it that my human nature wants? What is it that is rightly proper to my nature as a human being?

When speaking of a “nature” I do not mean to conjure of images of a “thing” (like a resident, controlling object within). “Nature” refers to “what we actually are, in essence.” We exist, as human beings, with a direction, purpose, and fundamental drive that marks each of us. This nature has a “will” – it wants to be truly and fully human. It longs for union with God. It desires conformity to His image. Even in the distortions of our fallenness, the natural will can still be discerned.

The spiritual life can be characterized as the struggle to unite the deliberative (gnomic) will with the natural will. It is not a struggle to make us into what we are not – but to become what we truly are. Another way to say this is that Christ Himself is the image of what it looks like to be truly human.

So, how do we experience this on the level of our daily willing? The ascetical efforts of the Church (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc.) have a goal of “waking us up” – waking us from the slumber of life-in-the-passive-voice. The “natural will” of modern culture is economic. It wills for us to produce and consume, frequently without regard for consequences. It does not think about what it means to be human.

One way to think about our “willing” is under the heading of “intentionality.” Our “waking from slumber” is a learning to pay attention in a healthy way (rather than simply reacting to the day). Perhaps the single best way to work at intentionality is through love.

Love is not a passive response. It is an active extension of our being towards others. Love engages the will at its most fundamental level. There is a reason that the love of God and the love of neighbor are considered the very heart of the commandments. If our “nature” inherently desires to be conformed to the image of Christ and to be united to God, and God “is love,” then actively extending ourselves in love is the very heart of true asceticism and the cornerstone of the spiritual life.

If by nature God is love, someone who has acquired perfect love and mercy towards all creation becomes godlike: his perfect state of love towards creation is a mirror wherein he can see a true image and likeness of the Divine Essence. All the saints ‘for for themselves the sign of complete likeness to God: to be perfect in the love of the neighbor.’ (From The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pg. 40)

Our actions, especially our ascetical actions, are properly understaken when they are energized by love. It is easy to see how the Tradition exalts alms-giving above everything. If Christ has declared that He Himself is the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, etc., how do we not (in love) rush to meet Him there?

Our every action throughout the day can be rightly united to prayer, particularly if its energy is love.

Of course, all of us struggle with love. It is a struggle that, when seen in focus, reveals to us how far our lives have lost touch with their meaning and purpose – how far our deliberations have wandered from the fundamental ground of our existence.

To Simon Peter, following the resurrection, Christ speaks to every human heart (as we have all denied Him): “Do you love me?”

This makes sense of St. Augustine’s famous dictum: “Love God and do what you will.”

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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48 responses to “What We Really Want”

  1. Randall Herman Avatar
    Randall Herman

    Thank you, Father! The distinction between ‘genomic’ & ‘natural’ will is helpful.I’m reading that book on St. Isaac right now. Is there a book by St. Maximus you recommend?

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ve not yet seen a book on St. Maximus that does quite what the St. Isaac book does. Most of what I’ve seen are primary sources that are so thick that I can only dip in and out a little at a time. Otherwise, I plow through various articles. There’s a long lecture series (7 hours+) on Maximus by Fr. Maximos Constas that’s very good: https://youtu.be/tFX_IVRAcXI?si=GIJD-inuZpFq6KKT

  3. Matthew Avatar

    I had no idea Fr. Stephen … thank you again.

  4. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for this attempt to communicate something to me which I find difficult to understand! I confess that defining “will” eludes me here, but that’s me, and probably I need to start from a simpler beginning.

    However, there is a topic which often comes up for me, and that is love. That is, how does one define and know love? I have heard so many things (and demands) proffered as defining what love is and would do. If I were a truly loving person, I would get on board with every green initiative, according to some. If I were a truly loving person, I would not tell the truth in some circumstances to avoid hurting feelings, never challenge anybody with too many questions, do whatever it was others asked of me without discernment. Each of these things are just examples I’ve had put my way.

    But love has to be something different, because, in fact, speaking for myself, learning what love is has been a very long journey and — as far as I can see — this has been the point of a walk with God. I feel the fallen state of the world and my life in it has obscured with all kinds of murky and weed-covered paths what love really is and does, and how it operates. It doesn’t just mean coddling every desire, clearly the saints have shown us that, but that seems to be a popular mythology in our culture. What is love? seems to be a staggering central question in life, all the time. “What would Jesus do?” doesn’t cover it, because only Christ was Christ, and what I need to know is what He asks of me, for whatever circumstances there are in my life. That’s, for my 2 cents, the long struggle of learning what love is, how to know it, how to live it. That plus the gift of the loving people who have illumined my life along the way, and always surprise me with the grace in that love.

    (Thanks for listening to what I’m afraid sounds rather like a rant!)

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Not a rant – just honesty – and I think it’s a common experience for us. “love” – as a word in our culture – has almost lost its meaning through its overuse and misuse. I tend to think of it in fairly practical terms.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr Stephen, unfortunately when I think of love my unruly mind starts thinking about Elmer Gantry: the 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis turned into a brilliant movie in 1960 starring Burt Lancaster as the ultimate hypocritical evangelist in America’s heart land: “Love is the morning and the evening star…..”

    In reality, as far as I can see, it is far more simple, direct and requires a surrender to Jesus Christ to begin to know. It seems to be more about forgiving and the Cross.

    Is that the correct direction?

  7. Byron Avatar

    In reading this post, I tend to think of love as always reaching out. That is not a limit to the definition but it does seem to be a characteristic of it. God’s reaching out to us, not leaving us to our own (gnomic) desires, exemplifies it. We reaching to Christ in “the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, etc.” further exemplifies it. True Love is not held in.

  8. Dean Avatar

    Your memory is amazing…Shakespeare, Elmer Gantry quote. 🙂
    I have a friend who’s also amazing. When he tells of an event 40 years ago, he can tell you how many flies were on the wall!

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dean, I was an amateur theater performer for many years so I learned how to memorize and the type of energy used in performance is unique. It came originally from pagan sacrament. It was Christianized to a point with the performance of mystery plays in medieval western Europe.
    Unfortunately, it has been radically debased beginning in the 20th century with entertainment becoming a avenue for the expression of the passions.
    Elmer Gantry caught my imagination pictorially through Burt Lancaster’s performance that, thanks to Sinclair Lewis, that showed the destructive nature of the passions especially in the religious.

    Shakespeare is actually easy to memorize because of the rhyme and the
    rhythm plus he tapped into human nature in a unique way. Despite the darkness of many of his plays.

    The last Shakespeare play I was in was about 50 years ago as The Prince of Verona in Romeo and Juliet. The director had one primary direction: “Play the intention!!!!!” I still remember a few of the pivotal lines. But I enjoy it so I practice frequently. But, once you know the intention and recall it, retention is easier. I find the same principle works in retaining Holy Scripture–I just do not use it enough.

    Actually my memory for many things is quite poor (ask my wife). Thank you

  10. Xanne Avatar

    Thank you Father Steven for this thoughtful post.
    What is the world of of non modernity to look like in my life?

  11. Matthew Avatar

    How can I cultivate the virtue of humility and why does this virtue seem to be the king of all virtues? Does it have something to do with the all important development of the natural will??

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    We’re about to begin the Lenten fast. I invite you to join us in some small way. I have found that Lent brings about a deeper understanding of both humility and the will— these that are the focus of your question.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think it primarily means having our lives guided by the commandments of Christ rather than the forces of the surrounding culture. And that’s not an easy thing. My favorite summary of the daily life is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims. Browse them, post them somewhere, and pick a few to pay attention to as they stand out.

    But, non-modernity does not mean no technology and such. Modernity is a philosophy, not a technology.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Learn to “Bear a little shame” is probably the best path forward towards humility. I think it is the Queen of the virtues because it recognizes and cultivates our need for God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, can bearing a little shame also be a deep recognition and acceptance of His Mercy, that of my own self, sin abounds and there is no Joy?

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    John Chapter 5 (the healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda) comes to mind.

  17. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Dee. Really helpful.

    I went to the Roman Catholic Mass with my wife this evening. I am not becoming Roman Catholic, but my wife is dabbling in Catholicism and I am trying to be supportive.

    The story of Lazarus being raised by Jesus was read in its entirety. What a story it is! I think it is always read the week before Palm Sunday in the west. As I stood in the church my mind wandered to thoughts of the journey I am on. Then the priest talked about listening to God and following God´s calling.

    I think I am doing that now, though the path seems very unclear and a bit fog covered at the moment. Thanks everyone as always.

  18. Matthew Avatar

    Hello again Dee. Thanks so much for the invitation. I have been eating no sweets with the exception of honey and pure maple syrup in small amounts since Ash Wednesday. This is a far cry, I know, from how the Orthodox fast, but it´s what I can manage right now. I know tomorrow is Forgivness Sunday and I will be attending the Divine Liturgy, though I am really confused about the Greek Orthodox church year. I will check some more online.

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Yes, the Orthodox do have a different calendar for Easter or Pascha. The feast and fast seasons and practices are different from the Western practices. The approach to the fast is usually undertaken under the advisement of a priest in the Orthodox Way, especially for the catechumens and newly Baptised. The idea is to begin slowly, not attempting to take on too much, which, if taken too arduously, might discourage.

    As for your wife’s interest in the Roman Catholic service, it seems that there are some readers and commenters here in this blog who have taken a similar path to Orthodoxy by attending (and or converting to) the Roman Catholic Church, first. I believe the desire that motivates that path is the desire for the true partaking of the sacrament of the Eucharist. As this article of Father Stephen’s suggests, we are all looking for what we really want. The Holy Spirit speaks to the heart.

    May Our Lord grant you a blessed Lent and Easter/Pascha!

  20. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Dee! 🙂

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To all: We begin Lent im the Orthodox Church with a marvelous service called Forgiveness Vespers. At the end each person present asks and gives forgiveness of one another. We make a metania and say ( name) forgive me. The response is “God forgives and I forgive. Forgive me’

    It is, next to Paschal, my favorite service. In the Spirit of Great and Holy Lent, I humbly ask each one here for forgives especially if I have offended anyone in my comments. May the Grace of our Lord be with each of you. .

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and also my typos!

  23. Matthew Avatar

    Hello Michael. Thanks so much for the post!

    I am confused. I went to Divine Liturgy last Sunday at the Greek Orthodox Church and though it was Forgiveness Sunday, as a group it didn´t appear that we did anything special. There were two short sermons by two different priests at the end, but overall it seemed to be a similar Liturgy to what I experienced the previous week. Me not understanding the language and the culture probably played a large roll in my misunderstanding. Either way, I love the idea of a day set aside especially for forgiveness.

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I understand the confusion. The day is actually known as the “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden” and sometimes, the day is called, “Cheesefare Sunday,” (because it’s the last day we eat cheese before the Lenten Fast begins). The service of mutual forgiveness is done after Vespers (which may, indeed, be done in the evening). In some places – it might be scheduled differently, or not at all if it’s a mission or has other extenuating circumstances. In America (the main body of our commenters) it’s become a fairly popular service – such that many call it “Forgiveness Sunday.”

    But, you’re right. It’s a wonderful idea.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, sorry for the confusion too. I have only known the service in either of the two Antiochian Orthodox parishes here where I have worshipped for 37 years. Here it is “Forgiveness Vespers” in the evenings–the only name I know. My wife and I wle to attend this year but I wanted to participate as I could.
    May the Joy of our Lord and His Mercy be with each of us as we engage the Great Fast.

  26. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for the clarification Michael and Fr. Stephen.

    I just looked. There was indeed an evening vespers service (is vesper a term for evening?) last Sunday. That is probably when the mutual forgiveness part of the liturgy took place.

  27. Justin Avatar

    Forgiveness Sunday is in my top-2 favorite services (the other being The Lord’s Descent into Hades on Holy Saturday). We celebrated it after a 1:00pm vespers. It’s hard to describe… it just “hits” right.

  28. Matthew Avatar

    Vespers — evening

    Matins — morning

    ??? (Yes … I Googled already :-))

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes – Vespers is the “evening” service, and Matins is the “morning” service. But, that doesn’t mean they always take place at that particular time of the day (just to make it more confusing). There’s an order of services. The “day” begins with Vespers (this is an Old Testament way of reckoning: “evening and morning the first day…” It explains why things like “Christmas Eve” has ever been a thing. Modern society has forgotten this form of reckoning, but there are little reminders here and there.

    So, when you attend a Vespers service, the variable hymns will reflect the themes and saints of the coming day. So, on Saturday night, Vespers will have a resurrectional theme, for example.

    The “day” has this pattern: Ninth Hour, Vespers, and Compline; Nocturns (Midnight Service), Matins, and First Hour; Third and Sixth Hours.

    These services are generally only done in a Monastic setting. In local parishes things are simplified – some things are combined or left out, etc. But the monastic pattern is the standard. So, if someone complains about local parish practices, they’re probably missing the boat. Orthodox thought has two sort of ideas within it. There is the “fullness” that is done in some monasteries (very strong ones with lots of brothers). And then there is parish life (or smaller monasteries) in which things are adjusted according to ability and need. A busy parish simply cannot begin to sustain a monastic-style worship pattern and shouldn’t attempt it.

    But – having said all that – for a variety of reasons – services can be moved. For example, there are times in which Vespers is served in the morning (as on the days of a “Vesperal Liturgy”). Matins, in Russian practice, is often served in the evening, combined with Vespers (Vespers first, then Matins) in a service called the “All-Night Vigil.” This is common in parishes on a Saturday night. Greek practice tends to have Matins just before the Liturgy – so that it’ in the morning before the Liturgy.

    There’s reasoning in all of this – but it takes a good while to get a feel for it while you’ll also be pulling out your hair…

  30. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for the explanation Fr. Stephen. I am not pulling my hair out (yet :-)), but so much is new and some things are a bit confusing.

    It seems that in the Greek Orthodox Church where I have been attending, Vespers are always at 6:00pm.

  31. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your helpful explanation of the services. I have a small question about the Gospel readings. Last night I attended the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy for the first time (which was amazing). The gospel reading was from Mark 11 about faith that moves mountains and then forgiveness, then a piece was added about “Ask and it shall be given…” which was from either Matt 7 or Luke 11. That last part was thematically related and helpful, even though pieced together from a different gospel that was never announced. Is that kind of piecing together from different gospels common in Orthodox worship, and how is it determined?

    This is the first year I’ve been able to attend the services during the first week of Lent, and I’m blown away by them. Many other Christians have no idea what they are missing. It helps me realize I have so much work to do on repentance (“Help me to see my own sins and not judge my brother…”).

  32. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The readings for services are determined by a lectionary – and, from time to time – there are “aggregates” (readings that combine verses from more than one location). Such aggregates are generally announced by the title of the gospel that begins the reading.

    I’m a bit confused. Normally, there is not a gospel reading for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified gifts. Must have been an added commemoration…which happens…

  33. Kenneth Avatar

    Thanks, I’m glad to know about the aggregates (even though not specifically announced — and just to be clear, this was not at all bothersome to me, I was only curious, but many listeners would have thought the entire reading came from Mark). I counted about 19 Psalms that were chanted in their entirety in this service, plus readings from Genesis and Proverbs (and possibly Isaiah?), then later this Gospel reading. The service lasted about 1 hr 45 min.

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    That sounds about right. The bulk of many services consists of Psalms. This was true of early synagogue services prior to Christianity. The Psalms are the “prayer book” of the Church. Even the texts themselves are often composed of various verses and phrases of Scripture. Orthodox worship is, I think, the most “scriptural” of all Christian worship forms – when you think of their content. We swim in it.

  35. Kenneth Avatar

    Yes, I’m becoming way more familiar with the Psalms (and Gospels too) by becoming more immersed in Orthodox services. It’s interesting to me that the Psalms are never announced (which I guess might seem disruptive), and one psalm typically flows into another seamlessly. I’m trying to learn them better but it takes a lot of repetition over a long period of time. It’s ironic that my evangelical Protestant past was quite proud of being “biblical”, yet the Orthodox services are so completely permeated with Scripture in a way that I’ve never before experienced.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Some parishes print up their own booklet for the Presanctified Service, in which case the booklet might have the Psalms and other scriptural readings identified.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You’ll find it of interest that, classically, a monk was expected to memorize all 150 Psalms by heart. This was true in the West as well. I think it’s not great enforced these days – but such memorization was not uncommon, even among the laity, once-upon-a-time. Protestants often reported that the Orthodox were “Bible-ignorant” – because they could not chapter-and-verse things, but ignored the fact that the services had permeated their lives with Scripture. A case of mistaken identity. 🙂

  38. Kenneth Avatar

    Thanks, Dee, you’re right! In fact, I’ve seen people in my own parish following along in a booklet. I’ve resisted that so far because I thought it would distract me from prayer and attending to the service in front of me (and I’m prone to being too analytical), but I realize it’s not necessarily a distraction and might be useful at times.

  39. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, that’s amazing! I would love to learn the Psalms by heart, though it seems like an exceedingly long-term project if in fact it ever happens. But I could at least start with a few. I memorized Psalm 23 as a child and it has stuck with me. I currently use the KJV. Years ago when I memorized any Scripture, I realized I should choose a translation carefully in advance, but the KJV seems not a bad choice given its beauty and track record.

  40. Kenneth Avatar

    Mistaken identity, indeed! 🙂

  41. Kenneth Avatar

    By the way, when Psalms are chanted in English in Orthodox services, do you know what translation is typically used? Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve been hearing KJV in my parish, but it might be something close.

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s not really a standard – so it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. There are several Psalters that have been translated that are their own version. There is a preference for using the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament – with its numbering of the Psalms, so that can sometimes be confusing.

    In the OCA, the New King James is a common version, as is the King James itself.

  43. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you! Blessed Lent to you and us all.

  44. Matthew Avatar

    This is a great discussion! I just stand and sit in the Greek Orthodox Church in my city, I cross myself, I watch others and try to learn. At the end of the day though I really wonder what I should be doing? There seems to be a large disconnect between what I “know” about Orthodoxy and what I want to/should experience in Divine Liturgy. Something must be happening, though I am not aware of much, but the experience (which is much different linguistically and culturally) usually stays with me throughout the week. After the service there are very traditional foods available, some salty some sweet, that the Greeks eat to break what I assume is a fast.

  45. Kenneth Avatar


    When I’m not sure what to do, I say the Jesus Prayer and sometimes make the sign of the Cross. My experience is that Orthodox worship eventually becomes one continual prayer that never ends, though it takes a little getting used to at first. If I remember correctly, Fr. Stephen has said before that “90% of being Orthodox is just showing up” (Father, correct me if I’m wrong). Keep going, be patient, and know that you are never alone. May God bless you on your journey!

  46. Matthew Avatar

    Thank you SOOO much Kenneth!

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, as to “something happening” …. there IS!

    But, that does not mean we perceive it or perceive it accurately. One does have to listen correctly. Some people have a natural gift for it….others have difficulty.

    If someone perceives “something happening” on the unseen level, the experience is difficult to articulate and many folks just do not trust such reports.

    We are in a situation that can be highly charged and subject to error. That is why it is often advised not to share them except to one’s spiritual father or confidant.

    God forgive me, a sinner

  48. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Michael

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