As inhabitants of our modern culture, we find ourselves trapped in a world of “cause and effect.” It is a physical explanation of the universe that has, for all intents and purposes, become a universal metaphor, dominating religion and the most personal aspects of our lives.
We see ourselves as the agents of change – or responsible for the disasters that litter our lives. Those who “succeed” imagine that they are the masters of their fate, or, perhaps the ones who responsibly “chose” God.
For the weak, the addict, the genetically impaired, the myth of choice and the power of freedom are often experienced as a merciless taunt. We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. The “pro-choice” movement and the growing acquiesence to legalized euthanasia are but natural extensions of our “free will.” These last manifestations of our “freedom” are the freedom to kill and to commit suicide, which, of course are only illusions of freedom.
There is an important and occasionally subtle difference between these modern concepts of freedom and choice – man as the agent of change – and the traditional Orthodox understanding of the world and the place that free will plays within it. On the most fundamental level, the world of cause and effect (the realm of our willful choices) is an insufficient arena for the Truth as revealed in Christ. God cannot be described merely as an agent in a world of cause and effect. He cannot be described as First Cause – because He cannot be described by a term of which there is a Second. God is not the First of anything – God is the Only of which there is no other.
The God Who has made Himself known in Christ Jesus is rightly identified as the Creator of all that is. However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator. Instead, an interesting verse in the LXX translation of Exodus offers the suggestion of a better starting point for understanding the role that our choices do and do not play:
Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17:16).
God’s secret hand well describes His involvement in our world – a metaphor which is a recurring theme in the images of Scripture (particularly as understood by Orthodox Christianity).
An excellent example of this theme can be found in the account of the Three Young Men, in the book of Daniel and its continuation in the Song of the Three Young Men (LXX). There, the faithful youths are confronted with the command to commit idolatry, to fall down and worship before an image of the wicked King Nebuchadnezzar. If you will, the threat is typical of those who view the world as simple “cause and effect.” Power is defined as the ability to cause your own will to be done. As such, the Three Young Men are powerless. They are able to do nothing against the power of the King. His threat, of course, is death in a furnace of fire. They refuse, adhering to the commandments of God and trusting in His goodness. Their reply to the king is classic:
So they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? “Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. “But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Dan. 3:13-17).
Thus power, as defined by the world, confronts the power of God, and His secret hand.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire (Dan. 3:24-26).
In the LXX Song of the Three Young Men we hear this added description:
And the flame streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, and it broke through and burned those of the Chaldeans whom it caught about the furnace. But the angel of the Lord came down into the furnace to be with Azariah [Shadrach] and his companions, and drove the fiery flame out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like a moist whistling wind, so that the fire did not touch them at all or hurt or trouble them (Song of the Three Young Men 24-27).
Thus, like the bush that Moses saw on the Holy Mount that burns but is not consumed , or the womb of the Virgin that gives birth to Christ and yet remains a virginal womb (and so the image may be multiplied), God acts in a manner that cannot be described. If we say that He causes these things – then the word “cause” has a meaning other than what we normally mean.
Azariah states it this way in his prayer:
Do not put us to shame, but deal with us in Thy forbearance and in Thine abundant mercy. Deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works, and give glory to Thy name, O Lord! Let all who do harm to Thy servants be put to shame; let them be disgraced and deprived of all power and dominion, and let their strength be broken. Let them know that Thou art the Lord, the only God, glorious over the whole world (Song of the Three Young Men 19-22).
I have added emphasis – “deliver us in accordance with Thy marvelous works.” This is a proper description of the work of God. The power of God is not a power to be compared to the king’s, only bigger. For however the king works, he does not do so in a “marvelous manner.” Such works belong to God alone.
This phrase, “Thy marvelous works,” is echoed in the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters (used at Theophany, Baptism, and all blessings of Holy Water).
“Great art Thou, O Lord, and marvelous are Thy works. There is no word sufficient to hymn Thy praises.”
Calling such words over the waters of the Jordan [as I experienced on pilgrimage in September] only emphasizes the secret hand of the Most High. For in the course of the Blessing of Waters, we specifically call down upon the waters “the blessing of Jordan.” It seems strange, at first, to ask God to make the Jordan to be the Jordan. It is an illustration of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s statement that in the sacraments, we do not ask God not to make things to be something they are not, but to be what they truly are. Thus a blessing is not added to the Jordan, but in the prayer, the Jordan is revealed to be what it is: an icon. It is the place where the people of Israel cross to enter the Promised Land. It is the place that reveals the Pascha of Christ – who descends into death to lead the dead to the Promised land of life. An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.” The Jordan and all water so blessed are an entrance into Pascha.
Icons do not cause, but reveal. To cause would be a magical understanding (magic itself being something from the early modern world – see alchemy).
When we bring this understanding of God’s work to bear on the human predicament – the will is revealed to be other than what we imagine it to be. Rather than the agent of change, it is simply one part of the human creature which is itself in need of redemption and healing.
I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.
Like everything else in the human life – the will is in need of redemption, even though it plays its own small role in its cooperation with grace. We cannot be saved except by grace – even though grace requires our cooperation. That cooperation, however, can sometimes be as minimal as a cry for help. It is the voice of the thief on the cross crying, “Remember me!”
We are not the agents of change – but subjects in need of change. The world of cause and effect in which we can imagine ourselves (like Nebuchadnezzer) to be people of great power, is not, after all, the realm of true power. That realm, ruled by God’s secret hand, became flesh and dwelt among us – doing for us what we could not ourselves do. We could not ascend into heaven and become Divine. He descended among us and became Man – that we might ascend with Him and become partakers of the divine nature.
God cannot be chosen or consumed as though He were a product among products. Neither is He an idea or slogan to which we may give allegiance. He is the God to Whom we may cry for help and Who has manifested His love and assured us of the ready answer to our feeble call.
Among the truest insights within our culture (although itself the product of Christian theology rather than modern culture) is the understanding found within the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step recognizes that we are powerless over the addictions which bind us. Strangely, the alcoholic who wants to be sober, must begin by recognizing that he is powerless to become so alone. The second step recognizes that “only a power greater than ourselves could help us.” I would say that only a power that is utterly unlike anything we know as power can help us. The third step is to turn oneself over to that power. Strangely, millions of men and women have found sobriety, not because of the power of their will, but through the recognition of the weakness of our will. It is the most non-consumer community within the whole of our culture – aside from Christianity rightly lived.
We are not the agents of change, though without change our very existence will become moot. The change for which we, and the world, hunger is finally dependent upon the secret hand of the Most High, Who created us, sustains us, and redeems us through His marvelous works. In Him the weak become strong, the meek inherit the earth, and those who weep laugh, while the mighty fall from their thrones.
From the midst of the flames we hear the Song of the Three Young Men, who see the true freedom of creation – not as inert objects or brute beasts to be coerced by wordly power, but as a joyful chorus of grateful creatures, whose voices unite in the great song offered to the God Whose secret hand sustains us in His presence:
Forgive the length of the article. I edited several times – and it stands as it stands. I hope it is helpful.
Father Stephen, the Three Young Men say “But if not” – would you say more about this?
The world, and also my own thoughts, can offer up the accusation that there is no salvation. So what? I ‘ll follow Christ regardless.
“But if not” is a confession that the “powers” of this world do not define the situation of life. God alone does. He is the definition of my life.
“Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts. ”
Indeed and how true.
The invisible hand of God is a marvel to see the effects of. It can be gentle or a sharp rap on the noggin. He’s done both with me. You refer to Daniel I also find the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, resulting from his question “Is not this Babylon that I have built ?” relevant to your point.
We as a culture, since the rise of the enlightenment, and perhaps earlier have given reason far to great a place. Certainly after the enlightenment it was reason w/o being tempered with God. I love reason and logic. But eventually you realize it is a tool and is only as good as the assumptions, postulates or axioms in Euclids version, that you start with. Thus logic is inherently limited.
Until we realize the limits of ourselves and of reason we can not begin to understand our role in life. And understand the Church and our role in it.
I have only started to realize this. Its awesome to realize how dumb I am.
Great article. God’s Absolute Truth, beyond my ability to understand and comprehend but not to experience, is often revealed in the paradox of my life not its cause and effect. These paradoxes in my life….finding true Strength in my weakness, when I am last I am transformed by what is First, by losing my attachment to what is temporary I bind myself to the Eternal, finding myself by seeking God. As I get out of the way through obedience, gratitude, and humility, the soil of my life circumstance is truly prepared to receive the seed of God’s grace …renewing my mind and drawing me one step closer to the Mind of Christ’s Living Sacrifice. Orthodoxy, like the 12 Steps, is about action and then allowing God’s Truth to be revealed not as a theory in my head but a reality in my heart. In the process, I experience a ‘new freedom and new happiness’ as a gift from God which he’s offering up unceasingly with each breath He gives. Thank you for your outstanding blog…In Christ
Thank you Father. This is timely for me.
These are very helpful words:
“An icon does not symbolize, in the modern sense of the word, but makes present that to which it points. Thus, “as many as are Baptized into Christ are Baptized into His death.””
“I can no more will my salvation than I can will my resurrection.”
“However, how God creates is not a proper subject for scientific study. Cause and effect are simply insufficient as a description of God as Creator.”
Certainly confusion over the meaning and use of “cause” has arisen among Aristotelian Metaphysics (cf. Book X), scientism especially after the 17th-18th century British empiricists, contemporary philosophies of science, and Holy Theology. You have entertained the magical reasoning that pops up when trying to apply “cause” vis-a-vis science to “cause” in Holy Theology. That the isthmus is wide, leads me to paraphrase what you have said:
There is an isthmus that separates what is known from what might become known in cause and effect.
On the basis of a wide isthmus, I have dismissed entertaining arguments about theories of evolution and creationism as oppositional, because they cannot share a common foundation of “cause.” Perhaps the greatest charade of empiricism and its so-called religious adherents is magical thinking, as well. Namely, it is magical to believe that the two can cross the isthmus that divides them. But magic acts have a popular following in Las Vegas and halls of academia.
Evolution is one of the “cups” that will send many heads reeling.
In contrast, the Church is already participating in the divine life of God. Her members commune continually with the Lord and with angels who minister to the Most High. The dynamics couldn’t be more different.
This article brings peace to me, the peace which passes all understanding? I find it funny that this adjustment in understanding manages to inspire me to live better while at the same time remove the feeling that I can and must, if that makes sense?
Not too long, just right, the sounds of truth makes me hungry for more. Thank you.
All I can say is that I thank God through Christ for your gifts as shared with us in your blog. It is always a reliable place to send people that are enquiring about Orthodoxy, because it’s not dryly didactic, but full of the living energy of the Spirit that lives in the Church, and that alone convinces. May God continue to bless you, Father, and give the increase to all the good seed you are planting.
Thank you, Father, for a very wise and moving essay. But what advice would you offer to an addict who on his best days can only say that he wished that he wanted to repent? I love the church and I can’t imagine life without the liturgy and the daily praying of the scriptures, but I feel like such an outsider in the church. I know this is going to sound terribly judgmental, so please forgive me, but when I read the New Testament I think, “This book was written for people like me.” But then I go to church and I find myself surrounded by well scrubbed middle class people and their adorable children and I think, “I do not belong here.” GK Chesterton wrote that catholic means, “here comes everybody.” So why does orthodox in America mean “here comes the bourgeoisie?”
Depends on the Orthodox Church you go to. I was first introduced to live Orthodoxy in a very blue-collar parish. My parishioners run the entire gamut of education, work, addict, non-addict, etc., simply a slice of America.
Indeed, I would say many of our southern OCA churches are like this. Also, having once been an Episcopalian (the quintessential bourgeois Church) I can say that addictions, etc., are no respecter of persons. Everybody’s broken. The nature of the middle class in America is simply that it hides it better.
As for the addict on his best day – Fr. Thomas Hopko says that sometimes the most we can say is “I want to want to want to.”
Ignore the perceived differences of others and pray for those who are able to keep their sins so secret. It’s harder for them to repent and be saved (according to Christ).
Some parishes that are homogenous (whether ethnic or economic) can be off-putting. We have to push through that and not be distracted by the temptations aroused by our sense of “not fitting in.”
It’s just another form of spiritual struggle – and there is no entering the Kingdom without spiritual struggle.
Ron, I wish you could live in Portland, Oregon, where at least a couple of our parishes would be a good spiritual home for people like you and me. As it is, I am in a Greek cathedral parish where I’ve never fit in, but it didn’t bother me. Socially I’ve been a politely snubbed outcast by many people, but by no means all. And I just threw myself into things there, managing at various times the Orthodox bookstore and being general editor of the monthly newsletter. That made me a recognizable and known entity, but except for the people who were in my bible study groups, I was just not cut from the same cloth, and not quite good enough. Currently I am not involved, except for worship, and so I get to attend services at the other two churches I referred to when I need to be in what I consider a more honest and genuine community. Still, church is church, and Fr Stephen is right in everything he advised above. I think it was St Basil who said, “We are all deceived.” And “God alone knows the heart,” is from a kontakion by St Romanos, my nameday saint. Whenever I start to get feelings of resentment towards others, I just start praying the prayer of St Ephraim, “O Lord and Master of my life…” And I keep it up until I’m back to where I should be, “in peace and charity with all men.” Go with God.
Ron, a quick thought. There most definitely is “hierarchy” in heavenly places, only, the rules are turned on their heads. (First is last, love trumps hate, life in death, etc.). It takes some getting used to. We live in a one-storey universe where there is (perfect) order, and one God, etc.
God has blessed you. The situations you and Ron describe are filled with temptations (mostly to anger or resentment) but to be steadfast and to forgive is a great victory in Christ. Sometimes the happiest places do us the least good, though less than happy is hard to bear.
Thanks to Father Stephen, Romanos and Michael. One of my favorite prayers is by St. John Chrysostom. It is included in the service for Morning Prayer in the Old Orthodox Prayer Book published by the Church of the Nativity. I don’t have it memorized, and the sentiment would be shocking if it came from any other source, but the basic idea is, “God, get me into heaven, no matter what it takes, even if you have to drag me into it kicking and screaming because, truth to tell, I don’t really want to go there.” I love your use of the LXX idea of God’s “secret arm.” It tends to confirm what I have always felt about how God works (and bear in mind I remain an Augustinian through and through). God chooses who he chooses because he chooses them, and, as the British writer Alan Bennett pointed out, God has NO taste. Then He uses suffering and adversity to transform those whom He has chosen into the sons he predestined them to be. Take Jacob as an example. When we first meet him, he is a self centered con man. When we leave him on his death bed in Egypt, he is a wise and venerable patriarch. How does he get from A to B? The initiative in the transformation belongs to God, not Jacob. God leads Jacob out into the woodshed of grace and whips him into the man he intended him to be, using his father in law, his wives and his sons for scourges. As in the prayer of the Golden-Mouthed, God simply won’t let Jacob alone, even though I get the impression Jacob would have preferred the Deity to be far less solicitous. (Or is that reading too Calvniist?)
I think, though, that the more appropriate term for God’s secret arm is “providence” rather than “predestination” and the loaded meaning that this word has come to bear in thoughts about God making choices, selections, rather than simply abounding in mercy and “working all things together.”
“Save me whether I want it or not,” is the phrase as I remember it. I preached on it before. It’s one of my favorites as well, and covers a lot of personal territory. Thank God He loves us enough to know our “secret heart” which lies hidden from us most of the time.
In the psalm you quoted at the end of your post, the things and people of and in the world bless God. How does that happen and what does blessing actually do? When we say “God bless you,” after someone sneezes (for example), are we saying “God make you into the one whom He wants you to be”?
“We not only fail – it is judged that we fail because we have not willed to succeed. Our weakness becomes a curse, while the blessed enjoy their prosperity and their health. Choice is a myth believed best by the young. Old age almost invariably makes a mockery of its boasts.”
Due to a recent reprimand at work coupled with my (some would say) overly sensitive nature and propensity to dwell on failure, I found this portion of your post to be extremely moving. Generally, I think, we simply bear the choices of others.
Dear Father, bless!
When I was a Sunday school child, I heard or was taught in church a prayer. It was, “Lord, if I let go of You, please don’t let go of me.” I prayed it then very fervently, having no idea at that time of the temptations I would face throughout my life. The Lord has often reminded me of that prayer when I have felt far from Him.