The Work That Saves

Do we cooperate in our salvation? Do our efforts make a difference?

These questions lie at the heart of a centuries-old religious debate in Christianity. Classically, the Protestant reformers said, “No,” to these questions, arguing that we are saved solely and utterly by God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The Catholic Church replied that “faith without works” is dead and that faith alone is insufficient.

This debate, with various twists and turns, has continued down through the centuries of Christian culture. At one point, there were complaints of “cheap grace,” where the exaltation of pure grace over works led to a very complacent and lazy Christianity. There were also periods of extreme reaction, with guilt-driven excesses of devotion.

Eastern Orthodoxy is a late-comer to this debate, but it is not a stranger. Contemporary Orthodox are quick to latch on to the doctrine of “synergy” and take sides against the cheap grace of Protestant Evangelicalism. Classically, Orthodox thought holds both that we are saved through the action of God (grace), but that we necessarily cooperated in that work (synergy=cooperation). For many converts, this balance has seemed attractive and a needed corrective to the feel-good theology of contemporary Christian culture. But it has a dark side.

That dark side is found in the echoes of the guilt-ridden specters of works-righteousness. How much cooperation is enough? For it is obvious that we do not pray as we should or give as we should – or do anything as we should. If our cooperation is required, are we failing? For many in our culture the answer is inevitably, “Yes.” They never do enough, anywhere at any time. Their lives are haunted with disapproval and shame, well-worn paths that rarely let them venture into joy.

But it is a mistake to embrace synergy as part of the classical Protestant/Catholic debate. It was an answer to a question asked in a very different context and in centuries that long-predated the modern conversation. Synergy is not a talking-point within the grace-versus-works debate.

Synergy is certainly an affirmation of the human role in salvation. Its most famous example is found in the ‘yes’ of the Mother of God in the Incarnation of Christ. Her acceptance and embrace of the heavenly announcement are seen as necessary components in God-becoming-man. God does not impose Himself upon human freedom. Our free response is required for the life of true Personhood that is the hallmark of salvation.

Synergy is properly seen as response rather than work. The whole life of salvation is marked by grace and is gracious in all its aspects. Consider this statement in St. Paul:

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…(Rom 4:4-5).

There is a kind of work that has no wages and does not belong to the world of debt described by St. Paul. And it is this sort of work that is encompassed in the term synergy. That work can be described as gracious response. It is worth noting two instances in which the work of our spiritual lives is described:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (Joh 6:28-29)


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:16-18)

In the first case, “work” is equated with believing. It means that the work we do is to love Christ and to keep His commandments. In the second case, the “will of God” is fulfilled in giving thanks for all things. The dynamic of saving grace in our lives is marked by becoming like God. God gives graciously and freely. We receive graciously and freely by giving thanks for all things.

In this manner, our own “work” is itself marked by a kind of grace. We cannot hear the meaning of grace in English, but in the Greek, it also carries the meaning of “gift” (it’s the same word). Gifts are never given with an expectation of return – they are gracious and free. But they are only rightly received with thanksgiving. This is true of the life of grace in the believer.

There is a highly moralized version of synergy, in which God is seen to give us grace, but we must do something in our lives to make it effective. In this model we are always judging the “results” of our “cooperation” with grace, and assuming that the lousy outcomes we see are simply our fault. This experience becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and remorse. It is a distortion of grace-filled synergy.

I have written (and been criticized for it) about the “unmoral Christian.” My intention has been to unmask and disarm this false notion of synergy. We indeed are not saved through the “works” that Protestants tend to criticize. The “work” we do is largely a state of heart from which all subsequent grace-empowered actions flow. That state of heart is best described as “grateful thanksgiving.” The Eucharistic life is the true existence of the Christian. The giving of thanks is the first of all works and the sine qua non of the spiritual life. Everything that proceeds from the giving of thanks works to our salvation. That which does not proceed from the giving of thanks tends to work to our destruction.

There has grown up a virtual cottage industry of Orthodox commentary (particularly on the internet where all of us can self-publish). This commentary (including that by some priests) is often marked by poor theological training or understanding, by argument and debate, and by an extreme lack of experience in the actual guidance of souls towards healing and salvation. That is to say – much of it is worthless and some of it is actually damaging.

This can especially be true in discussions of synergy. The wrong treatment of such pastoral matters can produce despair and distrust in naive readers whose expectations have been raised through the reading of the lives of the saints and yet whose experience is marked by the same repeated moral failures that they have always known. Well-intentioned but ignorant writers argue that what is needed is yet more moral goading. I have been criticized for possibly lightening the moral load or suggesting that all moral effort is of no use.

One form of moral effort (the most common) is indeed of no use. It belongs to the same category as the works criticized by Protestant theology. We pray, with no understanding, laboring to complete a prayer rule that amounts to little more than “going through the motions.” We fast as though every slip were a matter of sin in need of confession. Some go so far as to carefully search through the labels on every grocery product, seeking for tale-tell signs of “milk products,” having invented for themselves a new yoke of bondage that turns Orthodox fasting into a new version of kosher. In short, there is a form of asceticism that is ill-taught and ill-practiced and produces either despairing Christians or oppressive Pharisees (sometimes in one and the same person).

The grounding of the Christian life is thanksgiving. If you cannot fast with thanksgiving, your fast will be of little use. The same extends to all Christian practices and commandments. The essential work of the Christian life is grateful thanksgiving. It is for this reason that Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

There are very deep forms of asceticism, but even these are rightly rooted in the giving of thanks. In the 20th century, perhaps no saint is better known for his ascetical achievements than St. Silouan of Athos. He is known to have endured some 15 years of the experience of hell in his prayers. At its depth, he heard Christ say, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” His interpreter and biographer, the Elder Sophrony of Essex, however, is reported to have said, “If you will give God thanks always and for all things, you will fulfill the saying, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’”

The first duty of a spiritual father is to lead a soul into the practice of giving thanks. In this manner they will acquire the Spirit of Peace and be able to sustain the Christian life. But without thanksgiving, they will only fall into despair or delusion. Thanksgiving is the foundation of the Christian life. When this is understood and in place, other things can be properly understood.

For example, it is common to read in the spiritual writings of Orthodoxy (and to hear in the services) terms such as “self-loathing.” This is quite common, for example, in the Elder Sophrony’s work. It is very easily taken in the wrong way and those without a proper foundation will likely come away with a terrible distortion.

“Self-loathing,” in the sense that it is used, is not brought about by the contemplation of our sins (a moral condemnation and disgust with the self). It is rather brought about by the contemplation of God’s love and His fullness of being. It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.

Thanksgiving, as gracious gift, draws us into the very life of the Trinity. For it is that Life that is described by St. John Chrysostom in his Liturgy:

The priest prays: “…but account me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to You. For You are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to You we ascribe glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

It is this gifting life of the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received that we enter as we rightly give thanks always for all things. This is our work, our true synergy, without which we cannot be saved.

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.






77 responses to “The Work That Saves”

  1. Matthew Avatar

    Does giving thanks to God daily actually empower me to be able to live the Christian life (morally and spiritually speaking) more effectively and transformatively?

  2. Alexander Avatar

    This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially this past Lent, as a convert from a very sola fide stream of Protestantism. I’m still struggling, nearly four years after chrismation, to wrap my head around this without falling into the Protestant/Catholic dichotomy I’m familiar with. Since rejecting sola fide, I’ve found I tend to just operate on the other side of that dichotomy instead, adopting the “have I done enough” mentality with all the anxiety that entails.

    Your critique of that tendency definitely resonates with my experience and discussions with my spiritual father so far. My question, though, is how does rejecting that mentality fit with passages of Scripture that really do seem to say “here’s the bar, meet it or else,” for example in Matthew Ch. 25?

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    In my experience, the answer is yes.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    My first thought is the importance of being aware of the tyranny of our own neurosis – our fear that we have no “done enough.” There are those who rarely have such thoughts, and those of us who can hardly shake such thoughts. In the latter case, we need “outside help” sometimes. That’s part of the usefulness of a confessor – to have someone who can say, “lay these thoughts aside” when they’re getting out of hand.

    As to Matthew 25 – it presents us with clear cases in which we are seeing Christ: the hungry, the sick, the thirsty, etc. It does not ask, “Have you fed enough of the hungry? Have you given enough water? etc. Instead it answers the question: “Lord, when did we ever…?”

    There are a few things, I think, that believers need to settle in their hearts – settled. The first is the goodness of God. God is not my enemy. The second is that He actually wills my salvation – He is not against me. When we begin to doubt such things – there are more fundamental problems than whether we kept the commandments – and that is a fundamental problem of believing in the God who has made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ, rather than a God of our imagination – the god of my neurosis.

    To fight back – give thanks, always and for all things.

  5. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you so much for this wonderful article. I find that I get very disheartened by things that are bad — that go badly for me, when I have been kind or giving to someone and they treat me poorly, when I see people suffering really needlessly, etc. etc. etc. As everyone knows, that list goes on and on.

    But I always think of one line in the play, “Streetcar Named Desire” (yes, believe it or not, Tennessee Williams). Blanche Dubois finds someone loves her, and she says, “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly!” A lot of people, including myself, seem to remember this as “Suddenly there is God!” and while I get disheartened and discouraged at some things, I might be walking down the street the next moment, the sun is shining, and I think that I have to thank God for that because it’s so wonderful. But in that moment when I get upset — boy is it hard for me to be grateful! Although today a couple of things like that began my day, and then later I realized something I felt God was probably trying to get me to accept from those experiences. But I need to pray about it more.

    I think my thinking becomes tainted by what I might call the “demand for evidence” in our culture (or perhaps just a part of the culture when I was younger). You know, that kind of cynicism that says you’re fooling yourself, or worse. I suppose that’s linked to shame — and no doubt to childhood experience too for me. But at any rate, it’s like flipping a switch sometimes.

    I hope this isn’t too convoluted. But it all leads up to me asking if you have any advice 🙂 about it. I really believe, though, that what you say is true. I am also very fortunate in that since I was very small I just had an innate sense that no matter what God loved me. If I need correction, I trust God will give it to me, and always give me the benefit of the doubt because God knows me. At any rate that seems to be my experience. I know a lot of people who would ridicule that experience too, even church people.

  6. Joyce Avatar

    Father, bless.

    Thank you for this essay. Giving thanks for all things is a helpful antidote to an ever-present impulse to judge, fix, correct, react etc. In short – to work!

    It is helpful to know that in the simple response of thankfulness to what I perceive as the difficult behavior of others, I am rightly doing all the work I need to do.

    Glory to God!
    From a recovering codependent

  7. Micki Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for sharing this; it is a topic I have been struggling with. Could you say more about giving thanks? In our culture, we are sometimes told to “be grateful” or “give thanks” in a way that suggests that we must ignore or suppress our anxieties (as though feeling how you feel is bad somehow). Such advice in giving thanks can sometimes feel dismissive of a deep issue and even can produce more shame. For others (and I’m thinking of traumatized individuals here as well), giving thanks can feel much like asking for more heartache or pretending to put on a good face much like they did for early abusers. “My body is terrified of what just happened but I’ll just tell God thank you so that I grow as a Christian.” In such a situation, the inner experience is of more wounding rather than joy. Given the way you talk about giving thanks, I imagine this is not the idea and that you mean something a bit different. I’d like to not only navigate that difference myself but help others who sometimes can’t differentiate what you mean from this understanding. Can you say more about giving thanks?

  8. Anna Avatar

    Father, I love your article . It really helps me . And Joyce , I agree too with your response.
    As a recovering Co-dependant …… thanksgiving toGod for all things is medicine for my heart .

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Good observations and good questions.

    I do not think of the giving of thanks as necessarily a “happy” response – nor a response that ignores suffering. I think of it, rather, as a description of our life in communion with God – in which we give to Him even as He gives to us. There is within that, a recognition that though terrible and traumatic things do indeed happen to us, He is able, nevertheless, to bring good even out of terrible things. Frequently, I think it’s the case that we find ourselves between the Cross and the empty tomb – that is – that a terrible (even the very worst thing) thing has happened to us and we lie as victims, stretched out in the tomb of our suffering. From within the tomb, it just seems like endless death. But there is an end to death.

    Psalm 139 says, “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” So that, in such terrible circumstances, it is still possible to give thanks to God because He is with me and He will not abandon me. Though I have descended into hell, so has He.

    Often I think of the giving of thanks as a state of being rather than an isolated action. It is the “sound” (even when unvoiced) of our communion with God. He is the “Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received.” In the work of giving thanks, we unite ourselves with Him and become part of what is offered, part of what is received.


  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. ,
    In my experience thanksgiving grows out of real repentance and contrition. That is not easy and often involves tears. Yet Matthew 4:17: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    Repentance not only involves offering up my sins, but also realizing at least some of the pain I have caused others–accepting the forgiveness of Jesus is not always easy because I have to let go.

    That in the ball park?

  11. Dino Avatar

    Micki, Father,
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, I think we are talking about unique ‘storms’ and the need for a unique ‘Ark’ for our soul, required in situations such as what Micki described.
    The key issue/difficulty in these storms eventually becomes the sense of being bereft of our God-wards reference, a temporary sense of forsakeness. It then becomes urgent to somehow remember that we can be living what is sometimes called the “referenced” life, [despite the overwhelming internal pressure to the contrary, ie: even in temporary sufferings of a magnitude that forcefully make us forget their temporariness, creating a subjective sense of eternal forsakennes], that we can be “referring” whatsoever has befallen us, back to God, a God we cannot now see, but Who, we attempt to remember, cannot not lovingly see us.
    This spiritual high warfare is far easier to do when one has a Grace-filled spiritual guide than when one doesn’t. Especially when such a guide is at stone’s throw. But there will come times when even those who enjoy such a specialist support will not have this available to them. And, what’s worst, like St Silouan, there will be times of feeling -subjectively- utterly (not just a little) bereft of God’s grace: utterly alone in the Cosmos.
    Such feelings are not unlike being buried alive [and this, without the accompanying all-transforming Divine consolation of God’s Grace that those martyred in such atrocious manner might have had surrounding their whole being].
    But then, at such times, Christ’s word, “why hast Thou forsaken me!”, best become mixed with his word in Gethsemane, “Thy will be done, not mine!”, creating the sublime words: “Thine own of thine own I offer Thee, in all and for all”. It sounds like some convoluted word play, but, when my situation becomes such that there’s no respite, I can’t get out into God’s natural consolation, and I can’t even breathe or even pray and am sinking in the abyss, the paradoxical gratefulness direly needed (it is always needed), can only take the form of such an underlying God-wards orientation (“I offer Thee”), in whatever trust (in an unperceived-at-the-time-Providence) I can muster, if at all possible, so that I, even in such an apparent hell, “despair not!” (as Christ word to St Silouan was). St Sophrony would say that a life of practicing this, “Thine own of thine own I offer Thee” state, through our yet simple yet ceaseless attempts at the perpetual “Jesus prayer” invocation, in humble trust, in illness and in health, in joys and in sorrows, when there is no storm waging around us, is how one securely builds such an “Ark” for when storm wages.
    Father, please give us your wisdom on this!

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m not sure I could add anything…may God build in us such an Ark!

  13. Janine Avatar

    IF I could add my two cents (like always), I would like to say there have been times in my life when I think God has intentionally left me *alone* to face something alone. I suppose that is like the disciples in the midst of the sea and storm. It has happened coincidentally (supposedly) several times, and I think God is teaching me both to rely on God and myself in that synergy sense, that I am not helpless, and/ or perhaps to face fears or learn strengths. It has been too coincidental and too many times for me to think otherwise.

  14. Janine Avatar

    Dino, thank you. Yes, yes, yes *trust* is the word I was looking for and you got it!

  15. Janine Avatar

    Sorry, just musing here, and I hope not distracting. But it occurs to me that abandonment is a common human experience, perhaps a picture of the condition of “fallenness.” But I am thinking, that as Christ lived fully our experience in order to heal us, perhaps we are also given those experiences *as faithful* also in some way to confront/wrestle but *with faith.* For myself, it is certainly a part of my experience, and perhaps God leads me through again but this time to learn something with that trust Dino was speaking about, for the sake of metanoia and transformation in His image, to learn as disciple.

  16. Janine Avatar

    If I could add to my comment above (sorry), I would say these experiences are given also so that we heal

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar


    If I may add my own thoughts to your question, you’re quite right that we shouldn’t pretend the hard situation isn’t hard and invite more of it. “Thank you sir, may I have another?”

    In my experience these hard things cause the thankfulness to be a more involved process. The first step in this is sitting with the pain. Here I am. On the one hand I know that this hurts very much. On the other hand I know what Fr. Stephen said: there is a God, He is good, He loves me, and He wants my salvation – even more than I do.

    A few years ago I was suffering an illness. My nighttime routine was to wake up at midnight with a splitting headache, take another dose of pain meds, have an ice cold shower because it’s the only thing that would touch the pain, and wait 30 minutes to a couple hours before I could sleep again. This went on for several months and the doctors could do nothing immediate for me.

    Over that time I learned that after coping with the pain the best I could, the next step was to simply sit with my situation and acknowledge it. But THEN my best move was to accept that God had allowed this and was sitting with me there in my hell. And because I knew that He loved me, somehow this wasn’t about Him punishing me. In fact He was suffering with me.

    As this awareness slowly permeated my being, I learned to relax, give thanks, look around me and figure how to make lemonade out of the lemons I’d been given. I can tell you through the observation of others that I grew spiritually during that time. I would never choose it – even now – but when I was able to receive my circumstances with thanksgiving, it changed the way I interacted with them and I’m convinced it helped my body to heal more quickly.

    So it wasn’t just a matter of singing a glib “thank you” and putting on a fake smile, but rather a deep change in my heart that came only from being willing to sit with the situation and to trust God above all things.

  18. Andrew Avatar

    Janine, the experience of God’s felt absence at various times is something I can definitely relate with. It shows me repeatedly just how driven by feelings and emotion I so often am. I think you’re right, that God allows these times to teach us, among other things, to walk by faith and not by sight. I think often of this little bit from CS Lewis’s Screwtape letters:

    “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys”

  19. Eric Avatar

    Wonderful article, sounds similar to Khaled Anatolios’ book Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation.

  20. Janine Avatar

    Andrew, thank you so much, and thank you also for that CS Lewis quotation from The Screwtape Letters

  21. Isidora Avatar

    Father, thank you for this and all your blogs! I wonder if, at some point you could go into more detail about this statement: “It is only as we see ourselves in the light of God Himself, that we can “achieve” the “self-loathing” that Sophrony describes. But even this is joyful, because it takes place in the gracious presence of the grace-giving God.” What does this type of self-loathing look like? I cannot get my mind around it.

  22. AR Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Beautiful article.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isidora, it would appear that the self-loathing of which St. Sophrony speaks is not “of the mind” at all so it is futile to try to get one’s mind “around it.

    It is both deeper and much larger than one’s mind I suspect.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, can you speak to that aspect of our created being that allows us to partake of more than what is created.

  25. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It is a difficult thing to grasp, for sure. The self-loathing that we generally know is a deadly form of shame in which we despise and hate our very existence. In Sirach 4:21 (part of the Old Testament that Protestants don’t read) we see this: “For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.”

    The shame that brings sin – is the toxic stuff that hates its own existence. It turns in on itself.

    The healthy experience described by St. Sophrony is one in which the beauty and glory of God are clearly perceived, and in their light, we see our own emptiness, or brokenness, etc.. But, instead of turning in on the self, there is something of a forgetting of self, because the wonder and joy of God becomes everything.

    It is, perhaps, unhelpful at first to see the phrase “self-loathing” used in this double way – a way that is destructive in one meaning, while being health-giving in the other. It is a use of words in a paradoxical manner that is typical in many spiritual writings.

    I think that the healthy “self-loathing” is possible because we discover that the good God who loves mankind actually loves us (me, you) without reservation. I can “loathe” myself and laugh, because He has made my unworthiness and emptiness to be a worthy vessel of His glory and grace.

    If it becomes too troublesome, substitute the phrase “self-forgetting” for “self-loathing.” It will help at first.

  26. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I cannot.

  27. Tom Avatar

    I loved the article and comments but have 2 questions:

    1. “Thine own of thine own I offer Thee, in all and for all”. I sense there is something really profound in this statement for me. But I can’t help hearing that little hymn we sang during the offering time in our anabaptist church: “We give Thee but Thine own, What’re the gift may be, for all is Thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from Thee.” So, in other words, it’s all HIS stuff, so don’t be so stingy! Help me to understand the deeper meaning of this statement.

    2. The Lord’s Prayer. I have often wondered why explicit thankfulness, which is the heart of our response to His goodness, is not there. Maybe thankfulness bleeds from the prayer, without being explicit.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, two phrases come to mind: “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto thee” …. and being created in His Image and Likeness. In my reading and listening realizing those seems to be connected to my repentance. Matthew 4:17: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”

    Something deep within that is teachable only by Grace?

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Not sure what the anabaptist’s might mean by the phrase. Within Orthodoxy, it is profoundly rooted in the Eucharist and extends to life itself as a eucharistic event (at all times). It’s more than our stuff. It is all things – He is the source of our being itself.

    Good question on the Lord’s Prayer. I hear thanksgiving in the phrase, “Hallowed be Thy Name.” Perhaps, as you say, it is more implicit than not.

  30. Simon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have been thinking about your comments to Micki. I have spent a couple of days mulling over your reply and, for what it is worth, I share my thoughts here in the hopes that it might be of use to someone else.

    My particular struggles involve complex PTSD with dramatic shifts in conscious states that toggle sometimes quite rapidly over a matter of minutes. I was recently told by a psychiatrist that I have have a kind of “undifferentiated multiplicity.” He describes it as a state of “fragmented or disintegrated identity” that can arise as a result of prolonged trauma. This has created lifelong questions regarding which version of me is real. Every shift in consciousness feels like the “real me”. But, when I shift out of it feels like a passing mood. But, it is more than that. It is the symptom of an unintegrated psyche where each psychological state feels like it is the real state of personhood.

    I am trying to say just enough about this situation to say that I think my circumstance isn’t unique. That’s why professionals have names for things: they have seen it before. And this circumstance underscores the need–I think–to move how we think about salvation from the psychological domain into the ontological and hypostatic. As long as the conversation remains at the level of the psyche then we are going to think about salvation in terms of psychological phenomena: What do you believe? What do you do? What do you say? Freedom doesn’t exist in the way people think. If you are talking about perspective taking and choices made at the psychological level, then it’s all rubbish. The conversation has to be had at the level of hypostatic and ontological reality.

    Your comment “Often I think of the giving of thanks as a state of being rather than an isolated action.” State of being is ontological and hypostatic. In my honest opinion, we have to realize that the psychological experience for a human is an advanced reptilian experience. It just doesn’t have the freedom we think it does. It isn’t indicative of the things we want it to be indicative of. It’s there to make tools, pick berries, recognize people we love, and get on with it.

    Until we can break ourselves from the grip of the psychological domain there will always be gut wrenching suffering. BUT, part of the solution is retraining our internal dialogue. And that is where I think some of Dino’s comments are of help. We have to select our internal dialogue and I think we can do that in a way that not only can heal wounds, but switch the level at which the dialogue occurs.

    For what it’s worth…

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tom, great questions. The great blessing I have found in the Church is that She always has answers even through fallible people. It may take take time and humility, but the blessings of our Lord are manifest

  32. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I love when you write on the topic of the unmoral Christian because it gets to the heart of the goodness of the Gospel- that God is good, that He is not our enemy, and that He wills our salvation. Nevertheless, I have to confess that my experience of the faith is becoming one of greater and greater dissonance; oscillating between the goodness that you describe here and the bleak testimony of Church Fathers, the hymnography of the Church, the prayerbook, the lives of the Saints, and even at times the Gospel itself. I would love to understand how you extract the goodness of God from – what appears to me to be – the abundance of works righteousness throughout the teaching of the Church.

    I suppose I should explain that I find works righteousness to be so discouraging because my experience practicing Orthodoxy has shown me that though I try, I consistently fail to keep Christ’s commandments. Since becoming Orthodox I have merely demonstrated that I do not actually love Christ and that I cannot do what I must in order to be saved.

    In a nutshell: I cannot save myself. I need a savior, but I fail to do that which makes me salvageable. How can the Gospel, the lives of the Saints, the writings of the Church Fathers, possibly constitute good news to me, a sinner, who seems to be invincibly immune to acquiring virtue? Who can save me? Who can save me in spite of me?

    With Lent fresh in my memory, I remember listening to the Great Canon and it occurred to me that St. Andrew is describing a drowning man – drowning in his own sinfulness, absolutely, but drowning nevertheless – and then St. Andrew proceeds to tell the drowning man that if he desires to be saved, he must rise to the surface, tread water, and then begin swimming in the direction of the shore. The problem is that the drowning man can’t swim!

    As it is, the faith that I have is not my own. I rely on the faith of a few gentle saints, Isaac, Boris and Gleb, Mother Maria, John the Merciful. I rely on little snatches of the Scriptures, the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery, our Lord calling Judas His friend at His betrayal, and when He asks the Father to forgive His executioners. I rely on the faith of gentle priests who somehow descry the good God, the God who is our advocate, within the teaching of the Church that otherwise points to a God who sets a nearly impossible standard of virtue for entry into His kingdom. That borrowed faith is gradually being eroded. Are those saints outliers? Is our Lord only merciful and kind to the truly repentant? Is my apprehension crippled because it seems grim to me that our salvation requires us to be worthy of it?

    The standard prayers are of little solace to me.
    Me: Lord have mercy (x3)
    God: No (x3)

    Me: Have mercy on me O Lord according to Your great mercy
    God: Depart from me, I never knew you!
    Me: and according to the multitude of Your compassions blot out my transgressions
    God: Cast him out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth!

    Me: Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner
    God: You will not have mercy. Even what you mercy you have shall be taken away.

    Me: … accept me today as a communicant
    God: Your garment [..] is not a wedding garment and you will be bound and cast out by the angels.
    Me: … for I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give thee a kiss
    God: It would have been better for that man (me) never to have been born
    Me: … but like the thief will I confess Thee. Remember me O Lord in Thy kingdom.
    God: I will root out the memorial of you from off the earth.

    I have a few comforting prayers, mostly St. Basil’s. I’ve basically thrown out my prayer book or heavily amended the prayers. What has kept me from abandoning the faith is that I pray as though all is fait accompli and I merely thank Him for His goodness and lovingkindness. What worries me is- am I’m praying to an imagined God? Am I deforming myself by: a) using my own prayers and b) believing that God is not miserly with His mercy?

    I would like to make your faith my own, Father. I hope some day to engage with the hymns of the Church, the Fathers, the Scriptures – the fullness, rather than my little fraction of the Orthodox faith – and see something other than the inevitability of my damnation. I am encouraged by your reply to Alexander, that the dourness that I see in the Church and in God, is actually entirely imagined. Apropos of divergent perspectives, during Holy Week, my wife and I were discussing the significance of the Cross and were both startled by the meaning we discerned: I have always seen the Cross as an accusation, “Look at what you have done to me.”; whereas my wife told me that she (and most people, apparently?) see it as a demonstration of love. All that to say I can’t comprehend how the teachings of the Church encourage you, but I trust you, Father. Please, continue these wonderful posts and keep showing us the way of gentleness, goodness, and love. Thank you!

  33. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I hear the struggle. Over the years as a priest, I’ve heard similar things any number of times. It has various origins within us. But, for example, seeing the Cross as a statement of, “Look what you did to me…” versus “See what love…” points to something being amiss (and not sinful, just broken). Without knowing your history or other sort of things – it’s hard to say.

    I have a friend with severe OCD who, off and on, has been tormented by such thoughts. The torment is in the OCD.

    But, I think the strategy of concentrating on the small things that are helpful (“Isaac, Boris and Gleb, Mother Maria, John the Merciful. I rely on little snatches of the Scriptures, the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery, our Lord calling Judas His friend at His betrayal, and when He asks the Father to forgive His executioners. I rely on the faith of gentle priests who somehow descry the good God, the God who is our advocate”) is excellent and sane.

    It’s interesting to me. When I was an Anglican in seminary, there was a definite general feeling of dislike for the “Prayer of Humble Access.”

    We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
    trusting in our own righteousness,
    but in your abundant and great mercies.
    We are not worthy so much as to gather up
    the crumbs under your table;
    but you are the same Lord
    whose character is always to have mercy.
    Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
    so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ,
    and to drink his blood,
    that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.  Amen. (1979 version)

    I loved the prayer (and still do). But, apparently, what many heard (drowning out everything else) was “we are not worthy…” They used to make jokes about it and called it “groveling” and the like.

    What I heard was, “But Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…etc.”

    I think I have much the same attitude to the liturgical poetry in the Church. The point is never to grind us into the dust, but to magnify the mercy and grace of God. Lovers say crazy things.

    But, I very much appreciate your encouragement for my posts – God show us His mercy!

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s so much value in what you’re saying. St. Sophrony made a distinction between the ontological and the psychological in terms of Christian experience. He also noted that the ontological experience was fairly rare and that most people would not move beyond the psychological. But, that is best understood as describing “experience.” We see the world through the fog of our damaged personalities for the most part – with occasional glimpses of something more clear.

    For me, it has meant not over-emphasizing my psychological experience on any given day. If it’s a bad day (say, depressive), I allow it to be a description of my brain, but try not to expand it to a description of the world. In terms of my faith, I have settled on certain rock-bottom affirmations that I allow to remain settled: that God loves me utterly (and all of us); that Christ’s suffering and death is cosmic and is an unqualified statement and revelation of the love of God; that the resurrection of Christ is a revelation that all will be well. I could go on-and-on about why those are settled matters for me – but I’ll just leave it at that.

    It helps having such things settled as a means of “retraining our internal dialog.”

    I appreciate your sharing!

  35. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Simon. I have never thought about such things in such a way. I want so much to enter the deeper, the richer, the more loving, the hypostatic and the ontological, etc. Pray for me please of you are a praying person.

    Carlos … THANKS THANKS THANKS! You articulate so well what I think I so often feel. I didn´t have such thoughts and problems as a fundamentalist Protestant though.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    “I didn´t have such thoughts and problems as a fundamentalist Protestant though.”

    I find that fascinating. Was it simply the doctrine of unmerited grace that worked so well for you in that?

  37. Simon Avatar

    For me, understanding the human psyche in this way is self-loathing. The
    psychological experience we treasure so much will trap us through the strength of its distraction. It must be “despised.”

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes, that makes good sense of the phrase. My caution around it is just being sure that when people hear the phrase – that it not be confused with issues of toxic shame. Such shame is so common for many – which is why we so easily stumble and have difficulties with the extreme expressions frequently found in devotional poetic examples.

    I remember a phrase from years back: “Everyone on the bus is crazy.”

  39. Matthew Avatar

    Hello Fr. Stephen.

    Knowing that I was saved (as Reformed Calvinists understand salvation of course) was what pulled me away from Roman Catholicism way back in the 90´s. I also responded well to the charismatic movement (it´s music and clapping mainly) and the freedom I was experiencing in the assembly. I discovered a life in Christ that, at the time, I thought was deep and rich and totally experiential … beyond anything I had experienced in Roman Catholicism growing up.

    All that said … as time went by (maybe 20 years?) I began to see things differently as I pressed into my faith more deeply (theologically, historically, philosophically, spiritually, etc.). I saw in the ancient church a good, true, and beautiful Gospel. I saw a REALLY rich and deep spirituality. I saw … at least I thought I saw … a God that I no longer had to fear and a hell I no longer had to be destined to inhabit.

    But Carlos´ wonderfully honest post pinpoints where I now find myself often as I consider converting to Orthodoxy. I see the good, the true and the beautiful – but I also see a necessary life of virtue that I never seem to be able to acheive. That is what worries me the most. The teaching of unmerited grace, yes, greatly helped me with my worries since I was certain I was part of the elect as Calvinists understand it. The “us”/”them” paradigm only began to become unsettling for me much later in my journey. For a long time it was extremely comforting I must say.

  40. Simon Avatar

    In math every set of axes has an origin. You can have an infinite number of axes but in order to do any math they have to share an origin. Once you fix the origin everything else mathematically starts to fall out from there. I am learning to anchor my own internal dialog in the ways you have settled in yourself regarding the Cross.

    It feels like an arbitrary gesture. I think for myself and maybe many others it is an arbitrary “nail on the wall on which to hang your hat.” From a purely psychological perspective almost anything will serve as an organizing reference point. From an Orthodox perspective the Cross is the only reference point (origin) from which one can build a life (a living system) of faith. With grace everything else will fall out in time…or at least that’s the hope. I think this echoes Paul’s language about “building on no other foundation.”

  41. Matthew Avatar

    Also, Fr. Stephen, I wanted to mention that when I was leaving the Roman Catholic Church back in the late 90´s for evangelicalism I asked a priest what would I be losing. In a wink of an eye he clearly said:

    “The Sacraments”

    I now believe he was absolutely correct.

  42. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    “Unmerited grace” is likely as succinct as one can state it, but as someone whose experience was like Matthew’s, I can add a couple of other reasons for not being troubled by such thoughts as a Protestant:

    * As I understood Christianity, doubt and worry about one’s own salvation evidenced a lack of faith. Certainly we are sinners, but we should never question God’s mercy toward us. “Us/them” as Matthew says: how you know you are part of “us” and not part of “them” is because you 100 percent believe in the assurance of your personal eternal fate. Therefore, whenever such questions begin to trouble you, shut them down immediately.

    * On a more personal level, despite experiencing much death and loss in my life, I still did not truly think about death in terms of “me.” I would liken it to thinking you have comprehensive car insurance just in case you have an accident, but you don’t really expect to have an accident today or tomorrow. Now I understand that sooner or later, yes, I’m going to have an accident. Consequently, I try to better understand the terms of my policy!

    In case that sounds too self-serving and mercenary, I freely admit to being surprisingly sanguine (and shallow) in my attitude toward my own mortality before coming to Orthodoxy. Likewise, if one believes in Hell it is certainly to be feared, but (honestly) I also as I began moving toward Orthodoxy felt (and feel) a desire not to be told “I never knew you” for its own sake–that is, a desire not to have disappointed God and wasted the enormous love He has given me (all of us).

    In that regard, maybe this is helpful in response to Carlos. What helps reassure me now is–as I think you often express too–God does not seek our destruction and wants us to find our path to Him, no matter how often we stumble.

  43. Janine Avatar

    I don’t know if this will be helpful or not here, but I want to mention that in Orthodoxy morbid guilt is the flipside of self-centeredness; just the other side of the coin. It doesn’t get us anywhere, and accepting God’s love and forgiveness is what Judas failed to do (or so it seems to me). And then that word *trust* comes in here again.

    There are times when I catch myself in different responses to things like hurt: I feel envy, or I even don’t want someone to succeed, or things like that. And I realize these crazy thoughts (logismoi) come so fast and so automatically that if I were really aware of them every second or focus on that then I’d just feel entirely hopeless! But I have to trust that God will correct me in God’s time, when God thinks I’m in the right place to do that — even God will set up the experience for me that I need to face it and wrestle with it. Again — thanks Dino — trust.

    I want to say — with only a bit of a laugh — that being part of Greek culture really helps with this LOL (people who are obsessively guilty are basically seen as having mental health issues)

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think that I do not spend much time thinking about whether I’m virtuous or not. I’m surprised, for example, when someone describes me as “humble,” because I do not particularly think that to be the case. Quite the opposite. But I think it’s sort of the wrong set of thoughts. I don’t know if you’ve ever read my article, The Un-Moral Christian. Carlos referenced it. The measure described in that article (which is not really a measure) is absurdly beyond us – it is impossible! I would add another article to that: Existential Despair and Moral Futility.

    I find comfort in these.

  45. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s crazy and then there’s “Anglo-crazy” (which I can say as an unmitigated Anglo). 🙂

  46. Janine Avatar

    Haha, Fr. Stephen 😀

  47. Pete Avatar

    Modern man is a psychological man. He is not a spiritual man. I must have read that 25 years ago. It is something that I clearly never forgot, as I am quoting it now. That quote either came from Sophrony, or perhaps, Zizioulas or Yannaras. It was probably Sophrony because he speaks of the spiritual life as a living reality, one of which starts as the primordial frame on which mankind is built i.e., the ontological state. The other two authors do as well, but not quite with the same dripping in experience of St Siluoan. All three of these speak of “states” as categories beyond a creation of the human mind. There is an unbounded reality one senses with these writers and authors.

    These states presuppose being as the only category of any substance in which we live, move and have our – guess what? Being too, and that’s Acts 17:28. The wind blows where it listeth and can’t be quantified. The effects are evident but the origins of primordial being are largely hidden. The psychological experience of man is an impoverished substitute for the life in the Spirit. A deep repentance, meaning change; a change that is as radical as a empty tomb found on the third day, where that experience changes absolutely everything for the person in that encounter, and becomes the very meaning of everything from that point, and moving forward, becomes an ever expansive deepening and an awareness of transformation – of every encounter; from creation, of himself, the world and the Kingdom even now.

    This radical change is met with our growing understanding that we are still in that hell we were born into, without the appropriate skill to exercise a will underdeveloped, yet to be free. He has the sense to long for it. Remember it took “only” seventeen years for St Mary of Egypt to finally be free from her passions. At some point her pleasure became the virtues. Her pleasure ceased to be the vices over time. She had a radical encounter first and that’s something to consider. Quite simply, she became exercised through her properly oriented desire. Will was transformation by desire and that took time.

    We think this work is too much, but what we don’t see is that process, is that this encounter becomes our source of renewal, evening our failings. Just keep your mind in hell. Christ becomes that pearl of great price here, because we experience him as source, journey and crowning telos all at once. Many saints speak in this manner. First, he is source. Sense that.

    This “keeping yourself in hell and fearing not” of Sophrony, means that encounter in our graves with his grave and our subsequent inability to live the life in Christ. This becomes the key to a growing awareness of what comprises the spiritual life i.e., on one side of it, to see yourself as you truly before your God and to see God as he truly is, on the other. He has already reached out, and with our *inability to respond properly, that becomes the very thing that breaks our hearts.* You want that ,because that is your key to the Kingdom. It’s not something different than that. The pattern, as reflexive response, to rely on Christ, only grows with the bitter joy of an authentic encounter and life truly lived because he sees and experiences “all things” by that encounter. His heaven, his hell, his earth becomes his tapestry; his kaleidoscope. His God, his brokenness, all of creation and the gathering of all things are sensed as a restoration and a reality he lives in daily. Everything has been recast. We have a sense of the fire brought forth by a kind of ‘violence.’

    The psychological man doesn’t live like this. The psychological man is like the man in this life, but already in Abraham’s bosom, that sees himself but, without the eyes to see the very thing that will save him. He is still the psychological man cited above. The inner way requires thoughtfulness, and prayer in the simplest of forms, said with great care, – to feel the words. Stop trying to be a spiritual warrior, because you’re probably not there. Let Christ heal your wounds. At one point, one day, you may be ready for battle. Maybe you never will. Until then, be broken, because that is how God sees you.

    Let him heal you first. That occurs in the hell, the nadir, of our very existence. In the tender mercies of Christ, he will reveal to us that we may have held onto our own care, when the whole time he was asking us to receive his care. We don’t understand the remedy. The spiritual life is more nuanced than first imagined. We’re still largely acting like the primordial Adam in the Garden. He got that wrong. In the course of his life from the point after the fall, he found himself bereft of much good – but, he did become a psychological man.

    The liturgical man is not a psychological man. He is a free man. He lives in God’s house with the lightness of a child. He knows his heavenly father’s voice and in the brokenness of his own being – united to Christ, with a sense of that, here encountering his joy; he’s singing a new song with new senses.

    You don’t want psychology. You want this: Become a seer of secrets and a bard. Become a saint. He senses a sweetness here more than anything else, even in his sin and in his moral failing, because he is his father’s own. He takes baby steps, one at a time, because that is how he gets there. These aren’t feats of heroism, but the steps of a small child in his father’s house.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am likely wrong, but since I have been contemplating Mt 4:17 “Repent! for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”; the act of repentance has become less flagellant and more simple, I think
    It is an act of acknowledging Him and His Mercy.

    I believe that without His Mercy, I am less than nothing—not in a self-condemnstory way but as a matter of fact.

    The Mercy of Christ is the heart of salvation. It is given and received through the incarnate reality of The Cross.

    That is a mystery that permeates everything and every heart. I find anything more than too complicated.

    Too receive His Mercy, I ask; the heart of the Jesus Prayer.

    In my falleness, my mind and heart partake of hell and separation.

    Lord, have Mercy on me, a sinner. Grant the gift of tears.

  49. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen for the links to the articles.

    Un-moral Christian. Interesting. A bit antinomian and Calvinist … no? 🙂

    I agree with the sentiments in both articles, especially the thoughts about morality. The standard is impossible. It is good to learn that God is more concerned about our communion with Him rather than how good I am at behaving!

  50. hélène d Avatar
    hélène d

    When thoughts are invasive and sterile, even bad, when the psychic being is heavy and above all filled with its own satisfaction, incapable of letting light penetrate and welcome a breath of grace, there is a marvel that works in an incomparable way , it is the Akathist to the Mother of God, sung or said aloud…. All the theological content is of incredible living and active poetry! Forgive me, but having experienced this recently, I can assure you that the Mother of God has very great power, because it is she who carried the One who carries everything ! And entering into the words, the spiritual realities of the Acathist, getting closer to the All Holy, and with her, to the Lord Himself, something opens towards the new life, the “psychological state” so narrow, is no longer locked in his own measures… and now a deep joy begins to dawn…
    Truly, the contents of Orthodox prayers and services are of great “effectiveness” and protection ! It saves !

  51. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Ouch! Not antinomian – but ontological. Certainly not Calvinist (please no!).

    I’ll say that when I first used the term “un-moral” – in order to make a point – I got a lot of pushback and it created misunderstanding. I suspect that many only read the title and not the article itself.


  52. Janine Avatar

    Helene, thank you for that reminder of the Akathist 🙂

  53. Simon Avatar

    Pete, I really like this: “The liturgical man is not a psychological man. He is a free man. He lives in God’s house with the lightness of a child. He knows his heavenly father’s voice and in the brokenness of his own being – united to Christ, with a sense of that, here encountering his joy; he’s singing a new song with new senses.”

    I like the idea of a liturgical man as referring to that which is ontological and hypostatic, which includes but transcends the psychological.

    Fr. Stephen, over the course of reading and rereading the post and its comments I am wondering whether it isn’t proper to think of repentance as turning away from the false self. I think that is is safe to say that repentance is turning away from any directions we have followed that lead to death. But it seems that the antecedent impulse to follow those directions comes, at least in part, from a false self: An identity conditioned by the reptilian brain. Perhaps everything we might have to repent from is driven by a false self with its concomitant “damaged personality.”

    What are your thoughts?

  54. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I agree. I think we fumble around in the false self, sometimes for years on end. It’s sort of where we find ourselves as we stumble into adulthood. It is striking to me that Jesus seems to frequently address people by their names. He never says, “Hey you! Up there in the tree! Yeah you. The little guy…” It’s “Zachaeus! Come down! I’m going to your house.”

    We see other examples, and I suspect that it occurred far more times than not. I also think that it is in that calling of our name that we hear a hint of the true self.

    I think quite often of my first encounter with Orthodoxy – when my best friend handed me a library book (Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church) with the words, “Steve! Read this!” I had never dreamed to find such wonders in a book.

  55. Andrew Avatar

    This is one of those posts where the ongoing conversation within the comments is as valuable as the post itself. Thank you all for your contributions to the conversation in helping to flesh this out for me.

    Carlos, thank you for sharing and for your honesty. Many of the notes you shared are included in the song of my own life. I’ve said often that I’m still recovering from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. That kind of Christianity had it’s roots in my from an early age and, despite 10 years of inquiry and study before finally entering the Church and now 10 year’s in her embrace, I still find traces of it’s roots in me. A few quotes I’ve held on to and return to often for comfort:

    “Don’t worry too much about how spiritually poor you are, God sees that, but for you it is expected to trust in God and pray to Him as best you can, never to fall into despair and to struggle according to your strength. If you ever begin to think you are spiritually “well off” then you can know for sure that you aren’t! True spiritual life, even on the most elementary level, is always accompanied by suffering and difficulties. Therefore you should rejoice in all your difficulties and sorrows.”

    – Fr. Seraphim Rose if Blessed Memory

    “God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched. What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.”

    – St. John Maximovitch

    “To repent is not to look downwards at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s love, it is not to look backwards with self-reproach but forward with trustfulness, it is to see not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I might yet become.”

    – (often attributed to St. John Cassian, but I believe it was actually Met. Kallistos Ware)

  56. Andrew Avatar

    Just found the last quote, it is Met. Kallistos Ware of Blessed Memory, from his work “The Orthodox Way” on page 99 (in the Kindle version at least):

    “Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope—not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become…”

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    “The Sacraments”. So much in those two words. In Orthodoxy, the substantive reality is so much more than the appearances. Even now, as of this year, 10 years in, it is revealed to me that there are so much greater depths to plumb. Ever so gently in the hands of the Lord.

  58. Matthew Avatar

    What is the false self?

  59. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    St. Paul writes: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4)

    So, out of the gate, the “false self” is a psychological construct that is not consistent with the “life hidden with Christ in God.”

    St. Paul also says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…” The “false self” is the “old man” of St. Paul’s epistles.

    I believe (and see) that the “new man” (the “true self”) is already coming forth in the Christian life, though much of it is hidden. It is not unrelated to the “old man” – but is, nonetheless, a “new creation.”

    In other contemporary terms, I would especially identify the “false self” with the creations of toxic shame, in which we create false identities to just try and get by…to hide the pain within.

    I have found it useful to use this terminology (“false self”/”true self”) in writing about the spiritual life – it seems to be accessible to many (and I’m not the first one to have used such language).

    Hope that’s of use.

  60. Simon Avatar


    Speaking for myself and my own understanding the false self is an illusion. It forms like condensation from the interaction of the psyche with the world. Its persistence makes it seem real and the more we believe it to be real the more concrete it seems. After awhile we take its reality for granted so that nothing seems more obviously real than the false self.

  61. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I think there’s some substance to the “false self” – not total illusion/delusion. Sifting through the mist is part of the human experience – more mist in some and less in others.

  62. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Regarding Lossky’s book, do you think it would be of use to an unbeliever, or did it affect you because you were already in a place that made you receptive to it? I’ve two people in mind who have been exposed to Christianity their whole lives and seem to have completely rejected it but who dialogue with me nevertheless. I am at a loss as to suggest something “new” to them that might help them look with fresh eyes.

    Having recently read “The Confessions,” your story reminds me of this from St. Augustine:

    I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, “to-morrow, and tomorrow?” Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness?

    So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. “ …So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find…. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
    [end quote]

  63. Janine Avatar

    Andrew, thank you so much for all of those wonderfully substantial and refreshing quotations about repentance/metanoia — I especially love that Met. Kallistos used “conversion.” Our conversion is always ongoing.

    Re true self/false self: Personally I always think of it as going from false self (those pesky logismoi/learned stuff) to true. That just seems like the always ongoing job. Everything in existence is meant to be transfigured. Once upon a time a priest in Greece said to me, “We bless everything.” And I figure this is why!

    Dee, so right about sacraments and their eternal depth always waiting for us

    Thanks to everybody for the conversation and inspirations here

  64. Janine Avatar

    Father, this discussion about true self/false self puts me in mind of your (frequent?) admonition that it is at the Cross that all is revealed in truth, as it truthfully is. (I hope I didn’t get that mixed up.)

    So I started thinking or musing, does this mean that when we make the sign of the Cross, we are in some way asking for this true self; in a sense, to ask God who God calls us to be. I know the Cross is for all things but I am wondering what you think about this.

    If you have already written about making the sign of the Cross, would be interested to read — or else to encourage you to do so. I can only begin to think there must be so much packed into this one simple act.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, what a beautiful thought. Thank you.

  66. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Thank you for the encouragement, Fr. Stephen. It’s good to hear that I am not alone with these thoughts, and that there is something broken in me. I can bear brokenness, but I can’t contend with a God who hates me.

    The Prayer of Humble Access is lovely in spite of the “… we are not worthy” phrasing precisely because it is countermanded by “Thou art the same God whose property is always to have mercy.” In contrast, St. John Chrysostom’s second prayer before communion “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient…” doesn’t express the same certitude, the same trust that the Prayer of Humble Access does. “…consent also to lie in the manger of mine irrational soul…”; “… deign also to enter into the house of my lowly soul”; it seems like Jesus could decide to do otherwise.

    That is perhaps besides the point. I really have in mind my own children. My son was beside himself with shame because he was in trouble for misbehaving, and when it was time for supper he said that he didn’t deserve to be fed. This broke my heart, my poor son! Worthiness and deserving are completely inadequate concepts in the relationship. Love, food, clothing, shelter, all are his without asking, without merit, because he’s my son. By analogy, I suppose that’s why I’m so discouraged by talk of worthiness in our prayers. I may not be God’s child, because I am a sinner, yet God is my Creator, my Sustainer, and my End; He made me for Him. Why then this talk about worthiness? How does that even come to mind? It’s absurd- He knows my wretchedness; I have no worth or virtue next to God, and if for some reason I did, it was a gift from His abundance. I just want to be with Him. But yet, that idea of worthiness is in so many of our prayers that I can’t pretend that it doesn’t have some pedagogical function.

  67. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I can only speculate as to why the language of “worth” is so common. I gather you’ve not read my book on shame in the spiritual life (Face to Face). “Worthy” is about shame – and shame is literally the first emotion described in Genesis (after the Fall). And it is not God who brings the subject up – it’s us. I would say that “unworthy” is an expression of our shame. I would immediately add to that that God’s response to our shame was to cover us (our nakedness). He made “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve.

    The metaphor of being clothed runs throughout the Scriptures – up to being “clothed with the righteousness of Christ.” The father clothes the prodigal son with a robe (and a ring, and a party, and the fatted calf, etc.).

    Our language of worthiness (“I am not worthy”) is descriptive of our experience of shame – our desire to hide from God – and ultimately from ourselves. God comes to us and clothes us. He covers our shame. He does not come to expose us. But if we avoided all mention of worth, we would be hiding from the shame that binds us.

    I don’t mean to make a plug for my book – but you might find it to be of interest.

  68. Janine Avatar

    Michael, thank you.

    Carlos, I may be inserting myself into something I don’t understand well. But I believe that at least part of that unworthiness in the Chrysostom prayer has to do with the notion that we don’t “earn” communion by merit. We can’t. It’s incomparable to what we can do. But it is ours as a gift by grace. In this sense, nobody “deserves” it, but it is an unbreakable law by grace that we may receive it.

  69. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ll add that much of what you’ve described, including the story of your son, point to major issues surrounding shame. I’m no stranger to it (there’s a lot of personal experience in my book). But I seriously recommend it as a good Orthodox read and a reflection for what is right and what is wrong with shame. Let me know if you do…I’d like to know what you think of it.

  70. Janine Avatar

    PS “I am not worthy” is also echoing the words of the centurion whose servant was ill.

  71. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro


    I’m glad that I could put into words your own thoughts on this gloomy matter, if only better to understand them.

    As I mentioned, I vacillate between a deep, inalienable sense of God’s love and goodness – that which Father Stephen talks about establishing, prior to keeping the commandments – and the despair I get from some of the prayers, parts of scripture, lives of the saints, &c. It feels like the Truth of the Orthodox faith, is divorced from Goodness and Beauty. It’s debilitating in a way because the whole edifice collapses if I lean too heavily on one or the other. I don’t want to lose Orthodoxy, but it seems to be cutting into my trust of God’s Beauty and Goodness. If I say that my understanding of Goodness and Beauty is flawed because it doesn’t align with Orthodoxy, then how can I possibly trust my ability to recognize Truth?

    Nevertheless, in those moments when I’m able to trust that the loving God has given me this experience, I’ve had some beautiful encounters with people, some in the faith, outside the faith or with no faith at all, in whom Christ is abiding. They are all without exception people of love, patience and gentleness. It’s like they can’t even see evil, just the great Goodness of God’s creation. So, with God’s grace, I’m going to try to be gentle, patient and loving, with the faith, with myself, until I can be like Father Stephen and only see Its goodness.

    Be assured that I keep you in my prayers, friend!

  72. Kenneth Avatar

    Also, John the Baptist said he wasn’t worthy even to untie or carry Jesus’s shoes.

  73. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!

  74. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro


    Thank you for replying! I understand what you’re saying about unworthiness and I totally agree, it is absolutely by God’s grace, and without merit that we partake of communion. What is so sad to me is that when we ask God to make us worthy to partake, or to condescend to abide in us &c., is the thought that He might be saying no, He will not condescend and abide in me, and that if I approach the chalice, I eat and drink my damnation.

    Do you see the distinction there?

  75. Janine Avatar

    Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist.

    Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms of expression with modern forms of individualistic psychological concerns that lead us moderns to misunderstand this language. As a species, or as some kind of collective class, we humans are not equal and neither are we divine, and in that sense we “unworthy” — we do not de facto “merit” what is God’s.

    The centurion was Gentile with a reverence for Jewish spiritual ity and the God that was worshiped. But he did not “merit” that Jesus should come under his roof at least in part because he was a Gentile and so the law was already prohibitive to that. But this is a kind of “class.” I suppose we wouldn’t know what other ways he might have understood preparation for receiving a holy man or teacher within the society.

    John the Baptist was speaking of the difference between himself as a prophet in the line of the Old Testament prophets compared to what would be ushered in by the Christ (Jesus also made a comparison between those in the Kingdom and John the Baptist, even though “among those born of women,” John was greatest. Again, we might think of it as a “class” distinction in some corporate sense, not as an individual who was unworthy or unqualified for some personal reason.

    I think the shame issues are important as Fr. Stephen advised. But I believe it’s kind of a different thing than the prayers mean. The ancient world had far more a sense of corporate or “class” (that’s a general term, not economic) identity. We are focused individually. I hope this makes sense. If we are sinners, in this corporate sense it is because we are all sinners as humans.

    Open to correction/elaboration by those more knowledgeable

  76. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro


    Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply that heuristic to, say, the pre-communion prayers. First of all, I’m not a liturgical scholar, so applying that corporate sense may be anachronistic. More importantly, though, why do we recite them privately if they are, properly speaking, public prayers? Does that make sense? As it is, I can’t see how one prays as an instantiation of a class if the prayers aren’t in the first person plural.

    Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let’s say that these prayers are meant corporately- how does that reinterpret the difficulty I have when I ask for God to condescend to meet me in the eucharist? How do I know whether He has deigned to actually do so? What if I am inadequately shriven and I have taken communion for condemnation?

    Does that clarify the problem? I think we might be speaking past each one another, otherwise.

  77. Janine Avatar

    Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to pray as members of this body. (The Lord’s Prayer is in first person plural.)

    But let’s return to the poignant story of your son, in which you may have an answer to your own question. How do you know God is not looking at you the same way you see your son?

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Latest Comments

  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

  3. Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist. Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms…

  4. Janine, Thank you for replying! I understand what you’re saying about unworthiness and I totally agree, it is absolutely by…

  5. Father Stephen, Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!

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