There is no man who lives and does not sin. – from the Burial Office
There are many reactions to the pain of our existence. I try to remember from hour to hour that I live among the “walking wounded.” As the Jewish philosopher Philo said, “Everyone you see is fighting a difficult battle.” One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to an inner standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short. We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins, carrying the shame (often unrecognized) of another period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.
This scenario could take another thousand forms. At its core is our expectation that the mind (thoughts and emotions) can and should be brought into some measure of Christian performance. There are things at which our thoughts often excel. We can master a system of thought or belief and defend it against those things which present a challenge. We can do the same with people – maintaining a version of “canon law” in our head against which behavior may be judged. It is this comparison and judging, systemization and defense that the mind truly loves. If we occupy the mind with “religious things,” even “Orthodox things,” then we easily begin to think that we are being faithful. We start to think of ourselves as trying and judge our failures (anger, hatred, envy, etc.) as mere stumbles than can be corrected and adjusted. This is certainly better than doing nothing, but is often more harmful than good. The local parish is often a community of neurotic minds, psychically rushing about trying to do good, but hurting one another in the name of God as the ego works desperately to meet its needs and feed its narrative. The parish is not always a safe place.
For the purposes of this post, I am choosing to refer to the ego’s struggle to behave as the “moral” man. I often use the word “moral” and “morality” to describe the life lived as an effort to conform to external rules and norms. It is a struggle that even unbelievers may (and do) undertake. There is nothing particularly Christian about it. I have said elsewhere, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.”
St. Paul takes this approach when speaking of what I’m calling the moral man. He does not counsel us to try and do better. There is no scheme of moral improvement in all of Paul’s writings. His language is quite clear:
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:5, 8-10).
St. Paul’s language of “putting off” and “putting on” is the language of Baptism. We “put off” the old man and “put on” Christ. We are “clothed in righteousness,” etc. The Baptismal liturgy continues to display this language in its actions.
It is language that differs greatly from that of “moral” striving. To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.
The ego’s efforts to behave itself have little to nothing to do with such an inward, profound change. Non-believers can adopt a set of rules and endeavor to keep them. There is nothing particularly or uniquely Christian about moral efforts. This is one of the great weaknesses of those versions of Christianity that are largely extrinsic in nature. Theories of salvation in which an extrensic atonement is “accepted,” followed by a life of moral effort do not rise to the level of St. Paul’s “putting to death.”
The ego loves narrative – all of its greatest skills can be employed in destruction, construction and revision. Stories of conversion are extremely well-suited to such an existence. Those of us who are adult converts are easily enthralled with the story of our own conversion and just as easily enthralled by the ongoing narratives of others. Something is missing.
Our lives are like a Jane Austen novel. The narrative moves along with great drama. Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet and the whole cast, holding our attention, now up, now down. Whom will she marry? Will she be bereft of love forever? What will we wear to the dance? Is Mr. Darcy Orthodox? And so the drama unwinds.
When the drama of the Christian life comes to a happy ending (its conversion), there stretches before it the “ever-after” years (decades) of our life. Without the drama, the thought of settling down in the heart, praying, and restoring the mind and emotions to their proper state can seem quite boring.
Of course, there will always be ecclesiastical scandals, debates and small parish dramas to feed our disorder and stave away the fear of boredom. But all of this is to move away from salvation. It is a form of “Orthodox” damnation.
Here the Macarian saying is helpful:
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)
Life lived in the heart is a progression into the treasuries of grace. A moment of paradise outweighs all the pleasantries of the ego’s drama. Getting past the darker fears and wounds of shame and its kin, bringing thoughts and emotions to occasional calm, allows the work of the heart to begin. The dragons and lions, poisonous beasts and treasures of evil to be met there are greater than those we face in the early battles of the ego. But at the same time, we stand in the place of the angels, the kingdom and the light when we engage those struggles.
That battle is not at all the same as moral improvement. The moral man (and the immoral man) is put to death. The life that is hid with Christ in God is the new man. He is more than moral – he is good. He is no longer dead – he is alive. And it is for this man fully alive that Christ died.
Excellent! Great words that hopefully soak in!
I don’t know who it is that I should give credit, but I remember reading a piece that described each of us as an actor in his/her own little play, showing the audience (including ourselves) our best sides, making the appropriate dramatic motions, and making ourselves into the protagonist we wish to be known as. We do this although the costume doesn’t quite fit right, our legs are getting tired, and the spotlight often shows us the things we don’t like to see in ourselves.
In relation to your post, I would say that we often adjust the ‘character’ to the morality we wish to adhere to. The ‘actor’ himself, in playing the part, does not actually change.
I think analogies are easier than actually understanding where it is that I, as an individual, make these mistakes. The actor and the character are intertwined so tightly. My current target is the ‘angry man’, the one I’ve apparently focused into my character’s displays of righteous indignation. The ‘angry man’ is my primary source of pain.
Finally said, “written,” outloud. Amen, amen, amen, what does Stoic morality got to do with the Gospel!? Only God is αγαθος, we are called to be what we were created to be and ever have been in God’s sight, καλός! Your post makes me sing.
I agree that moral improvement is not the goal, but moral improvement MUST be part of the effort… actions have real consequences and impact on real people, so fellow Christians, let us act in love for HE acts in Love toward us. Parishes should not be dangerous places (and no person driven by love would allow the parish to be so). The parish is a place for sheep, and sheep must be led by those (namely, priests and spiritual directors) who have sworn to Christ to feed His sheep. A sheep can only tread as high as the shepherd leads.
These are the invaluable words of a Hesychast describing the inner life to us secular Christians…
Indeed, the true inner life is not extrinsic or moral but something entirely different. It looks (and is) ever so difficult yet at the same time is ever so easy and immediate! I can become the New Adam (even if initially this does not last) in one instant! I merely shift the centre from Me to Him…
Another great and invaluable aid in this, is the ineffably beautiful combination of Holy Communion and the Jesus prayer. These contain the whole secret. With Christ inside of me I do not stop sinning in a moral way but in an ontological way, as St. Paul says, how can I use these members that are Christ for sin? And repentance has a very different flavour too: I am first and foremost thankful for the Lords infinite mercy…
“To put to death “covetousness,” is quite different than trying not to desire someone else’s property. The language of “putting to death,” is rooted in our being (it is ontological) rather than our decision-making (legal, forensic). St. Paul’s language implies that something within us has profoundly changed.”
This is not just a matter of semantics. The difference may seem subtle but is huge. Thank you Fr. Stephen.
I think it’s huge to even be able to name the target – as well as to see that the actor and the character are intertwined. There is such a thing as righteous indignation, but very few of us can aspire to it. Most indignation is just unrighteous anger. But seeing this is really a very important thing.
Hi Fr. Stephen,
I really hope that these post are going to move in a more “helpful” direction. 😉 What I mean to say is that you have done an excellent job of describing the problem; I need some help with the solution. You have been describing me, as you have been describing most of us. I have known these things about myself for sometime…and I’m not sure where to go from here. I pray; I attend Church; I do all of things that I am “supposed” to do, and most of the time, I feel on the verge of dispair about my state…what the heck?
Kelly, in my experience, despair is the weapon the evil one uses to keep us from recognizing the work that Christ is doing/has done. Sometimes, just refusing to despair — fighting it off– allows you to take another step in the right direction and to recognize where you really are.
Just below the despair, often, is joy–waiting there to burst forth. It may not change anything, but it changes everything. Joy is a gift of God and comes only from him. Happiness is a dark, twisted substitute that, more often than not, keeps us bound by our favorite passion.
It is not really me (you) that will change myself (or yourself), but, Christ. To despair from oneself fully, while simultaneously hoping and believing fully in God’s power to transform me is the way. It really is. There must be no ‘expectation’ though, just total & unshakeable belief. He WILL give me (you) total dispassion, total Love – what if it takes a month, 6 months, a year, 6 years, 60 years…? it is just smoke compared to eternity …
Orthodox belief in everyone’s ability for dispassion is such.
The important point is that I do not give up, and the even more important point is that I do not want to ‘cure myself’ for the sake of myself, but I trust He will cure myself for sure, whenever and however He wants…
The curious combination of this desire -because He wants it (not to make me feel better)- with a lack of worry is key.
Here’s an example:
I put myself under the rays of the sun to acquire a tan. I cannot artificially tan myself, the sun does it the more I remain exposed to it. Also, I do not want to be tanned because it will make me look good, no… the one I love told me he wants me to look tanned; that is why I am doing it!
I previously meant this exactly, concerning the combination of frequent Communion and the Jesus Prayer.
as with so many others she asks a question of Fr Stephen, and the choir rushes to answer her. 🙂
I wonder if blog etiquette should be to wait a couple days at least for the author to speak, before chiming in?
Or is this not true to the nature of blogging?
Well, I am an off-key choir member with something to say too. (and I have always loved David Hume’s observation that the most consistent human trait is inconsistence ;)) Kelly, I have found that despair with lack of personal improvement is veiled pride. My only solution has been to shift, slowly, to expect the worst from myself. In the synergy I am a deeply damaged and inefficient contributor. Why would there be change?
I was only able to come to this by coming to believe in my depths that God loves me, unshakably loves me, and in fact my improvement or growth is of no consequence to His saving love. I must shift to trust His work, His timing. Life is an unfolding mystery, and there is a whole universe of dysfunction operating within me.
I pray every morning, “That others would become holier than me, O Jesus grant me the grace to desire it. That I might become as holy as I should, O Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.”
But regardless my desire, God is doing exactly what needs to be done in me, at exactly the right pace. My frustration with lack of progress is a wish to *appear* better than I am (even if only in my own eyes), and comes from a lack of faith that the Hidden God is doing His good work within me.
Mark Basil writes: “I have found that despair with lack of personal improvement is veiled pride.”
Yes, indeed! I find it somewhat comical (if profoundly frustrating to my ego) that one of my most embarrassing sinful behaviors is one I commit because I am angry with myself and my own failed performance.
I think the answer to Kelly’s question is also in this post. It is the embrace of our own poverty/utter dependence upon Christ and a commitment to practice (in tiny baby steps, one step forward, two back, if we must) prayer of the heart. The prayer for humility “that others become holier than me”–that’s a good one, too. I know the way to freedom in Christ is by dying to my own need to be respected/loved. Mark Basil is right–this can only come by clinging to the truth of Christ’s unspeakable and unstoppable love for me, until it begins to sink in. . . .
Thank you very much, Father. A very helpful post for me.
Thank you for your honesty and the willingness to say that you need help. That’s a huge part of the struggle. Even the despair means that you “get” what’s been said.
I will indeed be moving in a “helping” direction (which I hope will be helpful). The question has to be asked before the answer is useful. Thanks.
I was talking about this with my children the other day ON the way to confession. But your words, as usual, paved way for a more concise explanation. This post will be shared today with my precious three. Thanks so much!
point taken, you are totally right on the matter of blog etiquette actually and I agree (even though I am the culprit)… sorry 🙂
Thank you. I resemble your remark My despair can be a very useful ‘signpost’ for me that I’m missing the mark in my relationship with God.
I think of pride and despair like the back and forth of windshield wipers showing me my reliance on myself and not HIm.
My pride says ‘I’ve got this, don’t need His help’ and my despair says “He can’t help me”. So, I see my despair as the flip side of the pride/self sufficiency coin. When I see this pattern of pride and despair, I’m confident that I’ve forgotten that God is my Center, my Hope, My Life, and the only real question isn’t whether He’s real (and His attributes are gifts He would like to give me) but whether I’m willing to cooperate and receive what He so freely offers. I’ve used my self sufficiency to place myself in the center of my life not Him.
What does it mean to cooperation with Christ? I have much to learn here but I think it begins with letting go of the blocks I’ve placed in my desires, beliefs, and actions which separate me from Him. The Psalms talk about the ‘sacrifice of praise’ and Romans 12:1 describes the ‘living sacrifice’ which proceeds the ‘renewal of the mind’ described in Romans 12:2. I’ve got to be willing to sacrifice my despair and rely on the Hope of praising Him for who He is…realizing it’s not my job to take care of myself; it’s His and it’s my job to do His work.
For me, I’m often closest to God when I’m in this ‘broken’ place which can clearly show me ‘my way’ doesn’t work. Despair can begin to be thought of as a friend who is inviting me to find God in a new place where I’m now alone.
I am a little embarrassed that I have elicited such a response from your readership. Thank you blog friends for your responses; I appreciate your help. I will look forward to your future posts: don’t leave me hanging 😉
I chimed in Kelly because your comment sounded so like my own experience with desparing. Didn’t mean to jump the gun. In any case, I really appreciate your sharing — it helped clarify some things for me. Thanks.
I hope I didn’t embarrass you with my lastest response. I am grateful for your response! I liked what you said about joy too, “changing nothing and everything. We are all in this together; that’s one of the beauties of our Church.
“One of the great pains for active believers is the struggle to be moral. This struggle becomes all the more painful as we become aware of our inner life. We profess belief in the commandments of Christ only to discover that within us lives a judgmental Pharisee. We constantly compare ourselves to others, and compare ourselves to an inner standard, and in these comparisons, everyone comes up short. We come repeatedly to confession, bearing the same sins, carrying the shame (often unrecognized) of another period of failure. We want to change but we don’t.”
Dear Fr Stephen,
I agree with Kelly… I am waiting for more on how to come out of this vicious circle… Your last two posts have kept me thinking about how I see myself and how others see me vs how God sees me. Along with a deep sense of my failure to measure up, is a deep sense of God’s love for me. But getting rid of this attitude of constantly criticizing, and judging myself and others (even if only in thought), is a very difficult matter.
On another note, it’ s been some time that I follow your posts, and I truly thank God for you and for the wisdom He gave you…
While awaiting Fr Stephen’s next, this word from Met. Kallistos Ware has helped me very much, and I think is in keeping with the tenor of the post:
To keep us in simplicity, God may hide our spiritual progress from us, and it is not for us to measure ourselves.
Looking back over my many years is fascinating. I can remember a time when I constantly bombarded God with, “But I don’t feel like a new creation God.” Somewhere along the line, I stopped whining about the situation and asked God to please make me a new creation. What a difference this has made in my life: Granting God permission to come in and clean house.
PS Most of us from childhood up are taught to say please and thank you on the appropriate occasion. How many times do we say please and thank you to God?
I don’t mean to take anything away from a wonderful blog post but I guess I’m a bit of a Pharisee for the verification of quotes. I’ve heard “be kind to everyone” attributed to Philo in various American Orthodox contexts, even in sermons during the Divine Liturgy. It would be really interesting to trace its source. A few years ago, I searched through Yonge’s translation of Philo’s works but was unsuccessful finding the quote. I found it attributed on the web to either Philo and Plato but it doesn’t sound like Plato either. Searching the phrase in Google Books gives a book by Sir William Robertson Nicoll, who claims it was the favorite motto of the Rev. John Watson (http://tinyurl.com/2de3xyo). Rev. Watson was a Scottish author and theologian who wrote under the pseudonym Ian Maclaren (http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/m#a2364). I have not tried to find the quote in Maclaren’s works.
I think I saw it cited recently in Louth’s work on the history of mystical thought from Plato through the early fathers. I’ll try to track it down. Thanks.
Wonders never cease. Great post Father, thank you.
I can’t find the quote within Philo either. Obviously attributed to him, but with no citation that I can find. Wasn’t in Louth. Hmmm. I have thousands of books on my shelves full of things I didn’t say. At last I have something in common with great men!
Very Augustinian! Thank you, Father!
I certainly hope not.
While you obviously have many theological disagreements with Saint Augustine, your sense of God’s transformative and regenerative presence, as well as your abiding wonder at creation and existence, are indeed reminiscent of the great bishop of Hippo. Many of your more introspective pieces remind me of The Confessions.
Reading Elder Aimilianos’ homilies on St. Augustins’, St. Makarius and St. Anthony’s Monastic rules, I realized that there is a world of difference in how (admiring) Western minds perceive St. Augustin and how (admiring) Orthodox perceive him. There is no criticism whatsoever of St. Augustin, (we ARE talking about admiring minds), just a v. different understanding to what the West has.
Like others, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment. “Put to death”, “put on”, “put off”, what can it all mean and how can we do it?
I should have thought, at least on the face of it, that “putting on Christ” has an extrinsic quality about it, by analogy with putting on one’s overcoat on a rainy day rather than developing one’s own oily waterproofing in the manner of a duck. But it isn’t clear how one puts off one’s old nature except by choice, aided by grace, let alone puts it to death.
Thank you for this wonderful blogpost. It’s so timely for where I am–with my faith. I attend St. George Greek Orthodox Church. This past Sunday Father A. asked the congregation to consider whether we were “luke warm” or “on fire”. After the service, I asked him if he thought I needed to carry my bible around with me because “I so often forget…..” He shook his head “no” and pointed to my heart. “GO THERE” was all he said.
I find it interesting and wonderful the way God made us need each other. In fact, perhaps the rest of us needed Kelly even more than she needed us.
There’s no shame in that; we’re not in competition for God’s love. It’s just that some learn by asking and other by answers – and of course we all learn by listening. Fr. Stephen seems to be the director of a heavenly choir of thoughts. This is a treasure.
I’m sure I don’t deserve the title – but it’s the nicest job description I’ve ever heard. 🙂
June 7, 2012 at 11:45 pm
Delightful. Couldn’t have put it any better! 🙂
Dear Fr. Freeman,
I apologise for bumping an old essay of yours to the top of the pile, but I have a nagging question in my mind, and it would be a huge relief to get some clarity on this. My question might sound silly, and I was therefore very hesitant to ask you this for a long time, but it burns up a lot of mental energy in my life.
For almost the whole of the last decade of my life, I have put in strenuous efforts trying to improve my skills of planning, time management, and strategies for better efficiency and effectiveness at work and study. And just as you have noted in this article, the results of this quest can be summed up in the line, “I want to change, but I don’t.”
So, am I wasting my time by continuing to get better at being more organised and effective at work and study? Should I just give up? (I recall you have written somewhere that spiritual growth often looks like “giving up.”) Is all this time and effort better spent in simply humbling myself by accepting my brokenness? Or should I continue my efforts at becoming better organised while using the inevitable failures in that quest as opportunities to accept my broken-ness?
On reading over what I have written, it probably sounds silly and trivial, but for me, this causes great anguish. So pardon me for asking this, Father, but I really need some light on this dark corner of frustration in my heart! Please pray for me!
I can certainly commiserate with you. I have this problem too. I think it is interesting however when someone else (outside my own head) expresses this dilemma how a thought of inspiration can arise. When I read your comment, I remembered the biblical story of the disciples attempting to fish for hours without success. Then Christ appears on the shore and tells them to lower their nets on the other side of the boat. What had always stuck me was how futile I would have thought putting the net on the other side of the boat, had I been in the boat with the disciples. But they trusted and lower their nets once again on the other side. Undoubtedly there is a lot going on here beneath the obvious in this story, I think. But for me the big lesson is trust.
Thank you for your comment and the inspiration that you evoked.
Perhaps the time would be well spent in finding the answers to a few questions. What is it about you (brain, etc.) that makes certain skills (organization, time management, etc.) difficult? Is it ADHD or something similar (it is for me). If so, then it’s very easy to find yourself “pushing a limp rope,” trying to be good at something that will never come naturally.
A good strategy, I think, consists, not in trying to change what will not change, but in finding effective ways to adapt to the problem. What is it that needs to be organized, etc.? Are there other ways to go about this that are more suited to a handicap?
I make small lists. If I don’t write it down, the “list in my mind” becomes oppressive and unbearable – and I cannot make any progress. Making it exterior to my brain helps. I also try not to put myself in positions where others are depending on me to do something I’m bad at. I delegate organization, etc., when I can. I ask for help (my wife is very good in this regard).
It’s not trivial – this is doubtless something you have to confront all the time. My prayers!
Dear Fr. Freeman,
Thank you very much for your reply!
In addition to the opinion of a therapist whom I consulted (his conclusion was that I had developed an Anxious-Avoidant Personality Disorder, which made sense to me), during a recent retreat I examined my life when preparing for a General Confession and came to the conclusion that my patterns of vice were caused by the following:
1. Anxiety, and the lack of mental tools to deal with it, resulting in depression
2. Lack of recollection (I suppose the nearest equivalent Orthodox term is “nepsis.”)
3. A blunting & shallowing of my mind due to overuse of digital media
Regarding ” finding effective ways to adapt to the problem,” it is quite a relief to read this recommendation from you, since I have been trying more or less the same thing by learning and applying the principles of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). (In fact, your recent article “ A Priest’s Thoughts on Depression, Anxiety, the Soul, Your Body and Your Brain ” has been very much helpful for me.)
But in doing this, I worry about whether I am falling into the trap that you described as “We cling to what we know and reduce our understanding to a virtually mechanical world. There we engage in various therapies and moralities, which have the ability to change appearances but never the substance of reality.” in your essay The Change We Should Believe In
Also, regarding the above-mentioned essay of yours, I have another question. (Thanks for being patient with my inquisitiveness, Father!)
In the essay, you state “One of the great challenges in living an Orthodox Christian life is making the transition from psychology to true spirituality. ” But is it possible that there is some overlap between the territories of psychological therapy and Christian spirituality, and when one makes this transition that you describe, can it be that one finds tools learnt in therapy to be of continuing use in the spiritual life, at least in the beginning stages of the spiritual life?
I ask this because I notice that “spiritual experts” like Orthodox priests Fr. Alexis Trader & Fr. George Morelli and Catholics like <a href="https://www.amazon.in/Spiritual-Passages-Psychology-Development-Paper/dp/0824506286"Fr. Benedict Groeschel have written voluminously attempting to draw parallels between the Christian ascetical tradition and certain systems of therapy like CBT and ACT. (e.g., Fr. Alexis Trader in his book Ancient Christian Wisdom, where he deals with CBT, and his writings on his blog where he also looks at ACT)
I have high regard for Fr. Alexis Trader’s work and have corresponded with him on occasion. I think most of us live at the place where psychology meets the faith – and much of our brokenness needs the sort of treatments often described in the various psychological approaches. My reference to making the distinction between the psychological and the spiritual is to the teaching of the Elder Sophrony. He, indeed, noted that most, including most monastics, will likely not move beyond the psychological in this lifetime. The “spiritual” has to do with a layer and level of reality that transcends the psychological. The psychological can calm a soul – the spiritual can raise the dead.
I added that observation lest we make the mistake of thinking that the psychological battles in which engage are the end-point. They’re just a beginning.
Thank you, Fr. Freeman!
Your reply was exactly what was needed to calm the scruples in my thoughts! I once briefly had an auto-immune condition, probably due to stress, and since then I have thought that Scrupulosity is an auto-immune disease too. [But whether it is a disease of the soul, heart or of the mind, I am not yet sure! 🙂 Probably in the mind, since the way it “presents” is in the form of constantly re-playing thoughts, very much like an “ear-worm” tune that simply will not stop.]
Thanks for your prayers, and for the explanation, Father!