This is a slightly edited version of a post from last June. I plan to use it as an introduction to a series on the choices we make – and don’t make.
Part of the spiritual landscape of American religion is the sizable role played by choice in a culture shaped in the free market – with freedom as a mythic symbol. It is not unusual to hear American politicians describing solutions to social problems as a matter of “trusting Americans as consumers.” It is as though we could “shop” our way out of life’s difficulties.
And thus it is that Calvinism, as a Protestant option, never quite captured the mind of the American religious “consumer.” Our culture has long been driven by its own sense of freedom and the inherent right of every individual to make his or her own choice. Thus Christian teachings which do not give heavy weight to the importance of free-will (such as classical Calvinism) have never come to the place of dominance in American life. For Americans, religion is about a choice.
This is not all wrong – human beings do have freedom and it plays an important role within the life of salvation – even in Orthodox understanding. However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.
This brings me to the title of this short piece: the Kingdom of God is not a choice we make. There are many ways to describe the Kingdom – a variety of metaphors employed in the New Testament – but in every case the Kingdom is God’s Kingdom – not our response to God.
I occasionally state in sermons that “the Kingdom of God is coming whether you like it or not.” In this sense, particularly, it is not a choice we make – it is a gift that is given from God. In Christ, particularly in the fullness of His death and resurrection – the Kingdom of God has come. Though we still pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” we are not devoid of its presence now. “Thy Kingdom come” is a prayer for its fullness – but not for its inauguration.
The Kingdom of God is a reality already among us – though we frequently are oblivious to its presence. The heart of secularism is its assurance that the Kingdom of God is not here now, not yet, and perhaps only refers to something somewhere else or even nothing more than a utopian vision of the future. Of course, secularism and its infection of Christian thought is commonplace in modern culture. The world is not seen as sacramental, capable of bearing the Divine, but at best as a neutral playing field in which human beings choose sides in the religious contest of Christianity (or other religions or none of the above).
But the fullness of Christian truth and revelation is that the Kingdom of God has already broken forth among us, and the Christ who brought it forth promised that it would remain. Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.
The whole of the sacramental life has this character of the Kingdom. And the sacramental life extends far beyond the Seven Sacraments that are traditionally described. The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God, for He is the “giver of every good and perfect gift.”
Every good and perfect gift comes from heaven “above” — and what better gift than the Body and Blood of Christ, who is in fully in God?
“The mind (soul, body and spirit) of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” — Romans 8:6–8
Reading this post called to mind the prayer of St. Symeon ‘Grant me boldness. my Christ, to say all that I wish, but rather teach me all that I should do and say.’
I read about your days in the Holy Land with longing, as I hear about the travel of friends to Mt. Athos, or other places of pilgrimage. Even so, everything good and holy and necessary for salvation is in the parish church. The Kingdom of God is there, undiminshed by the stained carpet, the leaky roof, and my own weak faith. It is the most beautiful place I have been. St. Mary went into the Egyptian desert with only faith and repentance and look where she lived.
If you have answered a question like this before, forgive me and point me in the right direction.
My husband and I have visited an Orthodox church before, but the parish is a lengthy drive away from our home. Indeed, every parish “nearby” is too far with which to form any real connection.
What should people like us, desiring to join the OC, do in the meantime, until we either are graced with a mission in our city (a sizable one in the west) or God opens a way for us to move closer to a parish?
Father bless….well you’ve done it again…i awoke in the middle of the night, eyes wide awake with the thought of how distant the Kingdom is most of the hours of my day(by my own weakness) even though i know differently . In my lack of focus(love), my image gets so distorted!….you are truly one of the beacons guiding my vessel…”how flawed my freedom is”…and how great,you come without a co-pay,thanks
One possibility is to do, together as a family with your husband as leader, the morning prayers and the prayers for the living and departed as found in most Orthodox manuals of prayer (either Jordanville, or St. Tikhon’s have good editions). Evening as well, if possible, before icons in the home (Christ and Theotokos and also a cross). If you can meet with a priest, even across a distance and let him know of your intention it will be helpful to you. Our spiritual father, during such a time, was 5 hours away from us, but it helped to call him when needed. Feel free to ask any questions that you need. I’ll be praying for things to go well for you.
Anna, though I live within walking distance (2 miles) of my Orthodox parish now, I have lived in places where there simply was no Orthodox church. One of the joys of Orthodoxy is to know and experience the presence of Christ and indeed of the whole Church in my tiny room at home when I pray. The Orthodox faith is experienced in the worship services at the church, to be sure, but if that were the only or even the main place of encounter with the Living God, it would be paltry indeed. When we lived remote from an Orthodox church, we did as a family what Fr Stephen recommends. The memories of those “home church” services are golden to me yet. If you have not yet joined yourselves to the Orthodox Church, but have studied and practiced as much as you are able, see if you can be chrismated at the nearest church, and then return home with your gift of faith, to be like seeds in new soil. Who knows what wonders God will do for you where you live? Doors may open for you that you don’t even expect.
“Thus we eat and drink His Body and His Blood – not reminders of a historical event – but a foretaste of the fullness of the Kingdom. It is the Bread of Heaven – food, though not of the world yet in the world.”
“The Kingdom has a quality that breaks into all of life unable to be restrained or hindered by man. We are not in charge of its arrival nor are we the masters of its growth. We may participate in its life and serve as its witnesses – even as citizens – but it is not our creation or something we offer to God. It comes from God and bears God, for He is the “giver of every good and perfect gift.””
Father you certainly have a gift/talent for expressing the truths most of us can never articulate. Above are two examples but there are many, many more in your writings. Thank you for for all you do.
“However, Orthodoxy sees our freedom as something flawed – we do not always choose as we should – nor do we always know what the good is to be chosen. Freedom has a role to play in the life of salvation – but is not itself what constitutes salvation. Indeed, our freedom is itself in need of salvation.”
That we do not always ‘know’ the good to choose attracts me to say something more. We do not always know what we want, for the human mind is fickle, and our eyes are blinded even when actively pursuing theosis. Although not saints of the Orthodox Church, two disciples of “Mt. Carmel,” Theresa de Avila and John of the Cross, provided spiritual counsel to Christians who suffered such darkness on the road to Christ.
But the Kingdom of God comes, as you say, Father Stephen. Indeed, it has “…already broken forth.” In Hymn VIII, verse 7, of Hymns of Paradise (St. Ephrem the Syrian), the sweet saint envisions the point that I am making about lack of sight even as the Kingdom has …”broken forth:”
“Because it was not easy
for us to see our fallen state–
how and whence we had fallen
at the very outset–
He depicted it all together
in that king,
portraying in our fall,
and potraying our return
in his repentant return.
Praise to Him who delineated
this likeness for the repentant.
Our first parish as Orthodox Christians was two hours away. We made the drive every Sunday. This was before the gas prices went out of sight. I know an Orthodox family in West Texas that used to drive 4 hours one way every Sunday to attend Liturgy. If you can’t go every Sunday then go once or twice a month. We later help start an Orthodox mission closer to home as did the family in West Texas. I pray things will work out for you and your husband.
We are that family that drove 4 hrs. to attend Liturgy. We were in exactly your situation just a year ago. With the blessing of Archbishop Dmitri we are an outpost mission with a priest that visits us once a month for Vespers, Divine Liturgy, and instruction. The Sundays that he is not here we do the Hours and Typica. We are a small group of about about a dozen with Catechumens as well. We never imagined last year that we would ever be what we are today. We will pray for you.
Christ is in our midst!
Father, I wish you write at greater length on the subject of free will, if you haven’t already, because it is an issue with which I struggle. Some Orthodox speak glibly about free will in a way that just doesn’t jibe with my own lived experience, or frankly with scripture as I understand it. I grew up in a very broken home environment in which love was in short supply, and I struggle daily with several serious addictions. The problem is not that I don’t know what I need to do, but that frankly I simply don’t want to do it. There is no DESIRE for the good, and without desire–at some level, even if the most rudimentary–will is meaningless. This is where I think Augustine got it absolutely right, and it is an insight that I think many Orthodox apologists still don’t really get. How can you understand the compulsive, addictive nature of the passions as brilliantly as the Orthodox fathers, and still talk glibly about the freedom of the will? Perhaps we are born with free will, but by the time we reach adolescence, at the latest, it seems to me that most of us are in chains.
Thus do we eat and drink His Body and His Blood, not as reminders of a historical event but as a foretaste of His Kingdom come.
This is Freedom.
I will be picking up the thread on free will, tomorrow, God willing. Your insights are on the mark, as I understand the Fathers. Sometimes there is too much undeserved reaction to St. Augustine.
I have been out of town since Monday, and not in a position to write. I’ll be picking up the thread and looking to do a short series on free will, choice, etc. I hope you’ll find it helpful. I suspect it will be in a direction that you’ll appreciate.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for responding to Ron, I look forward to your remarks on Free Will.
Thank you for the good read.
I look forward to hearing more about free will as well. I am thankful that questions such as Ron’s are taken seriously here. I thank God that my experience of Orthodoxy has been such that questions are welcomed and not feared. This is a great gift to us all…