A comment on a previous post which mentioned the Biblical and patristic teaching that we should “give thanks to God for all things” has been an occasion for personal reflection – the substance of which forms this present post. For those who wrestle with the inherent difficulties of giving thanks for all things – I hope this reflection will be helpful.
The comment which occasioned these thoughts:
..I think the lines separating suffering FOR Christ/for His sake and the suffering in life as is common to ALL men have become blurred….if i suffer persecution or if i am treated unjustly for naming Christ or for righteousness sake then i partake/share in Christ’s sufferings and would have joyful reason to Thank God for it…Yet for the christian NOT ALL suffering experienced is FOR Christ’s sake…the vast majority (if not all)of my sufferings and trials while living my life as an american christian has nothing at all to do with my being a christian but is the common ‘stuff’ of life….there is a difference.. is there not?
As I thought about this very excellent question – I began to see the familiar pattern of secular thought which marks the “default position” of our culture – for believers and un-believers alike. Secularism does not disbelieve in God, but it divides the world into separate spheres: we inhabit a natural “non-God” arena – but God may be “accessed” in prayer, etc. In earlier writings I have described this construct as a “two-storey universe.” God dwells in heaven (or somewhere) while we live here in a world which works according to its own laws, etc. Transcendent meaning and all things “religious” are thus exiled to certain moments, or certain spaces, or to events of a certain nature. Things that are not so exiled are just “the stuff of life.”
In such a scenario, suffering takes on a “two-storey” character. There are specifically difficult things to be borne for Christ’s sake – persecution and other heroic religious acts – but there is also suffering that is just the “stuff of life”: cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes, being lost in a bad economy, the death of a child or a spouse, etc. This division of the world in which some suffering is “for Christ’s sake” while other suffering carries no particular meaning at all, partakes of the same problems raised by the two-storey model in every other area it touches. One part of our life is capable of transcendence while most of our lives collapse into the banality of “stuff.” Thus most of life is meaningless and absurd. It also seems to me, that the islands of transcendence which we posit in such a massive sea of absurdity, run the risk of a constantly shrinking shoreline. Transcendent meaning has not only been diminished, but stands on the edge of extinction.
I will offer a few observations:
1. Either Christ’s Pascha (His death and resurrection) contained all of existence (including all suffering) or it contained nothing.
2. Either Christ’s Pascha has filled everything with transcendence or it has filled nothing.
3. Every event, every particle of existence is “for Christ’s sake,” or nothing is “for His sake.”
This “all or nothing” approach to Christ and His Pascha lies at the very heart of the gospel and alone represents the fullness of life in Christ.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).
St. Paul’s description of Christ’s saving work is expressed in cosmic, all-encompassing terms. In Romans 8 he describes the “whole” creation as groaning in travail awaiting the freedom that comes in Christ. In the first chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul speaks in unmistakeable terms:
Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…” (Ephesians 1:9-11).
One of the great theological aphorisms of the fathers is that of St. Gregory the Theologian, who, addressing the doctrine of Christ’s humanity, said: “That which is not assumed is not saved.” His point was that our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.
In the same manner, all of creation would have no hope were it not for the fact that the Creator assumed creation.
The two-storey approach to the world also creates a two-storey approach to our salvation. Those acts which have significance and transcendence are ultimately connected with human choice. Thus Christ dies for our sins (our wrong choices and actions). Actions which are not “wrong” thus have no need of redemption. Cancer caused the our choice to smoke, might thus be seen as a redeemable suffering – but the mindless, meaningless suffering of a childhood cancer cannot partake of that redemption. It is simply absurd within a two-storey universe.
I would readily grant that the suffering and evil which we encounter within the created order has the character of absurdity – but this is also part of its very character. If “all things are being gathered together in Christ,” then even absurdity is being gathered into Him – and in that union ceases to be absurd.
The Orthodox approach to the saving action of Christ has always had a very all-encompassing approach. The redemption of the world is not isolated to Christ’s death on the Cross (as payment for sin), but begins with His incarnation, when the Creator unites Himself to creation. That same Creator is crucified on the cross, and within Him all creation is crucified. The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection. “That which is not assumed is not saved.” All is assumed.
The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.
The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”
For which I give thanks.
“The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished.”
This is exactly to which I referred in my response to “mike” (and to whose question this post by Fr. Freeman is directed). Our active participation, our work of laying all at Christ’s feet, this is the sanctification – the setting apart – of all things. This our part is indeed not at all insignificant for it requires not merely a “choice for Christ” or passive acceptance of “the way things are”. It necessitates the involvement of our entire being, a true ontological change. I posit that Fr. Stephen’s “One Storey-Universe” is nothing other than Paradise itself, the very Kingdom of God.
The alternative is to sink (further) into a selfish and ultimately meaningless absurdity. But with the advent of Christ we
now have a choice.
I believe the will plays a not insignificant part – but I am cautious to make too much of it. We choose Christ (for those who are blessed with the ability to choose) but He alone makes the true ontological change in us. Additionally, over the years I have come to see a great deal of mystery in the human will. How we come to choose something is not as straightforward as it would seem at first glance.
Fr. Stephen writes: “The same Christ takes all of creation with Him in Hades and raises it together with Him in the resurrection.”
Having recently listened again to my “Resurrection!” CD containing the Paschal Liturgy, “With Himself He has raised all the dead!” from “The Angel Cried” is a line from that hymn that never fails to thrill my heart. Rejoice, indeed!
Agreed Father Stephen. It is an unresolvable mystery. We cannot attain one iota of ontological change on our own – and we do well to keep this in mind. However, in the immediate context of this subject in regards to human suffering, the burden shifts (if it is all appropriate to use such language) to us – for it is up to us who are “confronted” by our experiences to make of it as we will: are these experiences mere absurd meaningless “stuff of life” in a two-storey universe; or, rather, events that we sanctify and recapitulate by means of our active participation into and identification with Christ?
Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen!
I wonder if there is not some redemptive element in our own suffering – perhaps tied to our culpability for the sins of others?
….i am left somewhat speechless here by the shear depth of exegesis…this is redemption taken to the 10th power…re-reading ‘2 storey universe’ was somewhat revelatory for me this time in the context of current discussion… i appreciate this platform Fr Stephen..i am “re-learning” much…..please pray for me..
I have the uncomfortable feeling of being forced into false dichotomies.
The fact is that there is not only evil in this world but also an element of randomness. I can not tell you whether a coin will turn up heads or tails but I can tell you with significant certainty that a coin flipped 1,000 times will land heads up approximately 500 times. Likewise, an actuarial table can not tell you which individuals of a given population will be dead by age 50 but it can predict, with great accuracy, how many men will die by various ages.
Perhaps, that is the reason we have been directed to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
In exegetical terms, all suffering, has at it’s root, some deficiency brought about by man’s willful separation from God — hence the belief in Judaism that it is impossible to be mournful in the presence of the Shekinah.
Met. Kallistos’s injunction to behold the suffering God implies the transformation of everything, including suffering, separation, into all-sufficiency, life eternal.
Here, the true nature of everything is revealed — as having God’s signature.
But there is a distinction between the suffering of a woman giving birth to a child and that of a woman being raped. Both have their root in the fall, but a birth and a lifetime of recovery from a rape are very different fruit.
Would you please explain more of what is ment by transcendence? I looked it up in the dictionary and it tells me that (I’ll paraphrase to show my understanding) it is something that lies outside of understanding. Or another variation in there tells me that it is something that is outside our ability to describe.
What were you thinking when you mentioned transcendency in the above article? I’m afraid that I’m asking you to define an undefinable word here . . .
It is ever possible, even in the extreme case of Elizabeth’s example above, that conception leads to Godly fruit. It is not human suffering per se that determines the outcome, but the relational to the Divine.
Mike, your words echo my own: I am left speechless by the sheer wisdom in Father’s newest post–I read it last night, and could not think of an adequate response except “Thank you, Father!!”.
Elizabeth, giving birth is an exquisite example of the suffering involved in cooperating with God’s plan for my life and I can easily think through uniting it to God. Rape exists and is not as easy to link to God’s plan; it is a sinful choice for the perpetrator, with me as victim, just as Jesus’s death on the cross. His prayer: “Father, forgive them…” must be my prayer as I suffer the consequences of this horrendous act. And I must remember always that Resurrection follows death. I place my hope in the completion of this truth in my own life. And I suffer…
You are quite correct – there is indeed a distinction between such sufferings. Suffering caused by an evil act (such as rape) is far more than pain – the wound goes very deep. But for a rape victim – a Christ who has taken upon Himself her suffering would be no Christ at all. And He has taken upon Himself the sin of the rapist. Our healing (if we find it in this life) can be found in Christ, who not only takes our suffering but transforms it.
There are many forms of suffering – the unspeakable things that have been done to human beings by others – even the unspeakable things that some suffer from disease – are just that – unspeakable. Words fail. But there are not two categories of suffering (one related to God and the other one being just the stuff of life). The more unspeakable the suffering the more greatly we need union with Christ.
I have been reading a series of books lately on the Soviet Gulag, as well as some stories of modern saints who suffered there and under the Nazis and their evil. What has been to human beings is unthinkable. But Christ is there, and suffers in each, loves in each, forgives in each. Union with Christ is our only answer. Suffering would be meaningless and absurd, except that He takes it and us within Himself and restores. It is indeed a great mystery – but this is the true “stuff of life.”
To take it from the theoretical a bit:
It is no accident that Jesus prayer to forgive us came from the Cross.
Forgiveness and repentance transform, by the grace of God, the work of the devil.
Father, in your comment to Elizabeth, did you mean to say:
“But for a rape victim – a Christ who has [not] taken upon Himself her suffering would be no Christ at all.”
Everything is for the sake of Christ. Thank you for sharing that.
The mystery of the human will is indeed very great F.Stephen.
Time and again it amazes.
it seems..if i am understanding the scope of this correctly…..that all (in the end) will be saved..and in actuality ALL of creation is already redeemed NOW..in a manner of speaking…
The teaching of the Church is not that all will be saved – but that God wills all to be saved. The mystery of our freedom leaves open the possibility that not all will be saved.
The difficulty that comes in when we say “creation is redeemed now” is the problem of conceiving of everything in a linear time fashion. Christ has truly accomplished and finished our salvation (“it is finished”). But it is not yet fully seen. In technical terms, our salvation is “eschatological”, it will not be fully revealed until the end of all things – though it’s also true that the end of things is sometimes visible already. Our life should be rooted in Christ (the Alpha and Omega) and our hope that is made sure in his accomplishment of all things.
Thank you for this post. I struggle with understanding why I was born with an autism spectrum disorder and why I have had to live through all the suffering that condition has brought to my life.
I have a hard time grasping philosophy and a hard time with the more abstract concepts of theology but I love Christ and I love the Church and I have faith that my mind will grasp what is crucial for me to know.
“That which is not assumed is not saved.” How did Christ assume autism? (I am not asking this to be contentious.) Is it because autism is one part of the human condition and Christ assumed the entire human condition by assuming one human body? Is it sort of holographic in a way? The piece carrying everything of the whole? Christ in the flesh as an icon representing all human flesh? You say ” our salvation in Christ was made possible by the fact that He took upon Himself the whole of human nature.” Is that where autism comes in? (I have had some tell me that autism is not part of human nature but is an aberration that renders one less than human. This is why I am asking these questions. I apologize if they seem simple or obvious or antagonistic. I mean no harm.)
You write about Christ transforming our suffering. How will I recognize when my suffering has been transformed? Or is it something I will not experience until after my death?
And finally, “Glory to God for All Things” . . . does that mean “Glory to God for my autism”? Or does it mean “Glory to God for assuming and transforming my autism”? Or does it mean something else that I haven’t thought of yet?
Thank you. I have been reading your blog for a long time now and gain much from it. I apologize if my questions are stupid or childish. Like I said, I do struggle with the more abstract concepts of theology but I want to understand because every time I come to understand some element of theology it greatly enriches my life.
Christ took our human nature, and in doing so, took our mortality upon Him, and all of our suffering. At the fullness of His ministry (the crucifixion), Scripture says that “God made Him to be sin who knew no sin…that we might become the righteousness of life…”
As difficult as autism is – it is simply part of the brokenness of our humanity – but it does not make us less than human. Sometimes the things that seem to be handicaps can also be the source of unique insight and experience.
May God help us all.
Unstrangemind, my daughter, now 11, is on the autism spectrum as well. She is also mildly mentally impaired (in a way you, obviously, are not, judging from the clarity with which you express yourself), but goes to school in a regular classroom and enjoys being with her peers. Her public school staff have a special place in their hearts for her and genuinely enjoy and love her, but chances are she will struggle socially and require support–social, vocational, and financial–for all of her life. Despite that reality, I can without hesitation reiterate Fr. Stephen’s assertion that being on the autism spectrum does not make you less human (any more than having heart disease makes a person less human). Such hardship can cast us more fully onto the grace of God and therefore be used for our sanctification. If anything, my daughter more purely reflects the image of God in that she is incapable, because of the way her brain works, of the kind of artifice, manipulation, and guile that tend to characterize those of us who are labeled “typical” (particularly as we grow out of childhood and get “wise” to the ways of the world). In some ways, she will always be more childlike and, as such, more capable of the kind of faith and vulnerability that Jesus said is required for us to attain to the Kingdom of God. Though I know the road ahead will likely hold many sufferings for us, I have hope that because of God’s grace transforming all of our experience that His blessings will outweigh our afflictions. Because of the Incarnation, I believe even what you experience as weakness is working for God’s glory in your life. I see the faith you express in your comment as evidence of that very thing.
..Karen said:”Because of the Incarnation, I believe even what you experience as weakness is working for God’s glory in your life.” ….if i may be frank here…IF i could believe this i could ‘move on’ with my life(in a manner of speaking) and relieve myself of lifelong guilt due to a specific besetting ‘sin’ which i cannot overcome…is this correctly administering Karens statement..?
It is clear that we are not saved “by our sins” but also it is clear that “where sin did abound, grace did more abound,” thus God is able “to work all things together for good for those who love Him.” There are besetting sins that involve other people (not just ourselves) in which case “moving on” means also dealing with the consequences of that sin for others. But remaining stuck, it seems to me, is the work of the enemy who paralyzes us with guilt. By God give you abounding grace!
…this is good news……..thank you for answering my question Father Stephen..
Identifying with the doings of the ego, is inadvertedly identifying with the ego. The point is to learn initially by realising that something is wrong – most people maintain their sinful ways because they do not see any wrong with them – and afterwards, resolve to distance oneself from it.
This will not happen in a flash, but it can and should be approached methodically and combatitively. The important thing is to practically confront the issue from the inside out and as a manner of a wholistic life approach. The Church provides a ready framawork for this with its liturgical year and the fasts, however own involvement is also necessary; setting aside time and space for prayer, and having a spiritual guide.
It is true of course that grace is imperative, however in my experience grace will rarely work without resolve and effort in doing actual spiritual work and movement.
..Father Stephen rightfully said “It is clear that we are not saved by our sins…..”… I would further add that we are not saved without them either..this is what im taking consolation in..yet not ‘glorying’ in it(sin) at the same time…Karens statement:”Because of the Incarnation, I believe even what you experience as weakness is working for God’s glory in your life.” gives me tremendous hope and joy in my imperfect christian journey….that God will even take something as a besetting personal sin and at some point use it for His glory is redemption x10 and a cause for Thanksgiving..I particularly like your statement Yannis :”Identifying with the doings of the ego, is inadvertedly identifying with the ego”…in other words its no longer me..but sin acting in me…
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While it is important to be aware of our own sinfulness, this should be done in order to avert pride and exhaltation and bring humility. When it brings to despair it is an egoic trick – most people who experience afflictive emotions and see things in a negative spectrum are unaware that these things feed on themselves, that is if you assert them once they become ten times more pronounced.
What is needed is dettachment – apotagi in Greek – ie to simply not engage. Let the temptation or despair or anger or sadness (or exhaltation or pride or excitement) run its course without jumping into its stream, but without trying to block it either. Simply, and as calmly as possible watch it and let it run its course and it will go of its own accord.
This is wisdom most excellent — thank you. Humility is indispensible to the spiritual life and far beyond the reach of reason or emotion.
It is interesting that etymologically the word “emotion” refers to movement and flux (e-motion). This gives a very good idea of the thoughts stream, what the Fathers of the Orthodox Church call “logismoi”. The idea is to disengage from them. Engaging them and moreover identifying with them generates ego. In that sense dettachment is at the very basis of humility ie of the ever going movement away from the ego.
For its part reason sheds a useful but forever partial point of view in the world. When reasonable reasoning is taken to its conclusion it becomes in fact unreasonable. Hence when say profit is becoming an end in itself – in other words a metaphysical value – it creates a dog-eat-dog world in which no action is base enough as long as it can pass as legitimate.
Reason is always a means to an end and it can never be an end in itself as modern man thought. This is because behind the reasoning there is a person and its intentions. There is no “objective” reason without a person and its intentions as the founders of the so-called “enlightment” believed. The only objectivity that exists is that which is proposed by subjectivity. Hence why the Heart and the journey within is all that matters. It is from there that all starts. There that it all happens.
Mike and Yannis, I definitely struggle with that “egoic trick.” Thanks for the clarifying questions and answers.
“Never despair.” That is good advice, indeed.
Mike, I do believe there is hope through Christ for increasing freedom from our besetting sins. Fr. Stephen and Yannis have reminded us of the basics in cooperating with God for our recovery. I do like the recovery model of the 12 steps as well. Fr. Meletios Webber has a good book looking at the 12 steps from an Orthodox perspective. Many Christians (particularly in my former Evangelical subculture) try some (usually solo) version of a grit-your-teeth, grab-yourself- by-the-scruff-of-the-neck attempt at using certain spiritual disciplines to overcome such sins. I suppose even formal Confession, can, God forbid, be approached this way. But the 12 steps emphasize admitting our own powerlessness, doing a fearless and complete self-examination, truth telling in front of others, and leaning for support on others (God/Higher Power, the sponsor, and frequent assembly with a support group), making restitution where possible, and perseverance in the struggle to recover in the face of failures. I see many parallels with these steps and proper Orthodox praxis. I think one of the keys to real freedom is bringing our besetting sins into the light in the presence of an empathetic listener (or listeners) who will compassionately support us through our failure and yet also help us to take responsibility for the struggle to take hold of grace as well. Ideally, our Father Confessor will be one of those key people. There is nothing like secrecy and shame to bind us to our sin. (Needless to say, however, this is NOT a recommendation to blab our guilty secrets all over the Internet!)
i struggle too with that trick and many other tricks : )
May God give you strength to take care of your daughter. Being a mother is so difficult and so sacred.
Some of God’s graces indeed come well disguised — the problem there is not with the gift but with the way we see ourselves…
I am curious how the suffering of Christ in his humanity relates to his divinity. There are many theologians in Protestant Christianity who speak of “the suffering God”, that God came and suffered with us in Christ and they say that the idea of the impassibility of God was an import from Greek philosophy.
Others say that this idea of “the suffering God” is a reemergence of patripassianism. Can you speak on this at all?
This is HUGE. Thank you!!!!!!!!
The fathers addressed this both in the doctrine of the hypostatic union (Council of Ephesus) and in their writings under the heading of the communicatio idiomatum. The second person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos, is the only person in the God/Man Christ Jesus. There are two natures (Chalcedon), Divine and human, that are shared in the one person, Jesus Christ. Christ is the subject, if you will, of both his Divine nature and his human nature. The communicatio idiomatum means “the communion of properties,” and by this, the fathers meant that because the person of Christ is one, the attributes of each nature can be applied to him. Thus it is proper to say that Mary is the “Mother of God,” and that “God suffered in the flesh.”
The difficulty with such things is often found in Christology. Lutheran and Reform had some differences in the matter (though it should have long been a settled doctrine).
Because the Person of Christ is both God and man, it is proper to say that God suffered. The impassible God suffered. The God who cannot be known made Himself known, etc. such paradoxes are the common stuff of Orthodox theology. Where there is no paradox, I suspect we have over simplified.
Thank you, Yannis!
Thanks Father. So yes God is impassible and yes God suffered in Christ. I like the acceptance of paradox.
You said “God suffered in the flesh”. Did the Father suffer in any way? And when Jesus said “my God, my God why have you forsaken me.” was there actually some sense of separation in the trinity?
I do not think there was some sense of separation in the Trinity. There is a common protestant idea that hell or sin is separation from God, but Scripture tells us, “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there.” Christ is quoting Psalm 22 (which is very much about the crucifixion). There is, in addition to the communicatio idiomatum (in reference to the two natures in Christ, the doctrine of the perichoresis (mutual indwelling) of the persons of the Trinity – which would touch somewhat on your question.
My best recommendation on Christological doctrine is Meyendorff’s Christ in Eastern Christian Thought.
Thanks to Henry for reminding us of the same humblng truth that Werner Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle speaks to us of, i.e. the human mind, just when it presumes to understand something of the the mind of God, enters an abyss of smoke and mirrors….which is, I suppose, as it should be.
I appreciate my dear friend Henry’s comments – but – I would suggest that the metaphor of two-storey or one-storey universe is not really a question of options. It is a critique of false assumptions created by a secular culture. That critique is by no means original. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote very persuasively of its falsehoods and destructiveness for the Christian life. He considered it among the most important matters of concern for modern Christians.
My own examination is both to describe the secular world-view and look at the alternative view found in classical Orthodox Christian teaching. If God is truly “everywhere present and filling all things” (as is offered in the daily prayer ‘O, Heavenly King’) then the language or framework that seeks to establish places and things where He is not present is absurd. Indeed, it would seem to me that belief in the Christian God requires that we accept His presence in such a manner. The habits of thought engendered by modern/secular culture create islands in our hearts what God is removed – the opposite of what we should desire.
I do not think we have to deny cause and effect (though I think we often accept a very truncated version of it). That actuarial tables are statistically significant, they do not necessarily imply a world of cause and effect independent of God. None of this is to tear away a veil that claims to unravel divine mysteries – but it is to tear away a veil of cultural assumptions that hide the reality of the Kingdom of God.
Well said Father. The corollary to the secular worldview therefore, is that evil is resident not so much in “the world” (whatever that nay be) as in men’s hearts. Likewise God, but He is known.
As I reread through these comments a picture of the crucifixion came to mind. Where was Jesus that day? Between two thieves. In the midst of the disaster of two lives. Showing us that even at the last minute there can be hope. And it seems to me that each of us embodies those two thieves. Moses said, ” Chose life or death.” Joshua challenged, “Chose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” Daily, hourly, minute-ly we need to learn to choose.