You’re Not Doing Better

confess2“I’m doing better.” Over the years I’m sure I’ve heard this many times in confession. I’ve also heard, “I’m not doing so well.” These are timely updates, personal measures and reports on the state of spiritual lives. And they are wrong.

You are not doing better. You are not doing worse.

In truth, we don’t know how we’re doing. Only God knows. But we have internalized a cultural narrative and made it the story of our soul. That narrative is the story of progress (or decline). It is the story that the modern world tells itself and the story by which it frequently justifies its actions. In the name of progress we have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Progress describes a movement and a direction. It presumes that the movement and direction are good. Of course, it also presumes that it is possible to know what the most desirable direction should be. In general we think that greater wealth, greater choice, greater freedom, greater health, greater education and such things are the stuff of progress. The more such things are provided, the greater our progress.

In philosophy all of this is known as Utilitarianism – classically stated as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” There are also classical faults recognized in such thinking. How do we measure the greatest good? What constitutes the greatest number? Is the harming of the lesser number justified for the sake of the greater number? These same questions, when applied to our personal moral calculus reveal the same problems. Our Christian lives are not a moral project. This is worth thinking about very carefully. So I will state it again:

Our Christian lives are not a moral project.

The moral improvement (or progress) of our lives is not the goal of the Christian life. It is not even on the same page. We imagine that if we manage to tell fewer lies, or lust fewer times, or fast a little more carefully, and swallow our angry words more completely, we are somehow the better for it and have “made progress.” But this is not so.

St. Gregory of Nyssa once stated, “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” This is not the story of progress. We are not mud that is somehow improving itself towards divinity. There is nothing mud can do to become divine. And if we were honest with ourselves, we don’t even become better mud.

I have been a priest for 34 years (15 as Orthodox). In general, people do not improve. Many people, once they begin the discipline of confession, become frustrated as they notice that they confess the same sins time after time. Often they are embarrassed by this fact and try to apologize to the priest. “I feel like I’m not making any progress at all,” is not an uncommon statement. I tell such penitents that they should not expect to make progress. I don’t mean that they shouldn’t resist sin, only that they will discover that they consistently struggle with the same temptations and succeed and fail more or less over time. That’s how life really is.

So what is mud like us to do? What is our struggle about?

“I do unite myself to Christ,” is the statement candidates make at Holy Baptism. These are the words of mud speaking of the most wonderful possible gift. That we should become gods is Christ’s gift to us, not our achievement. It is a reality birthed in our muddy souls at Baptism. And what is birthed in us is a new creation, not really the mud man at all.

The life in Christ is not at all about improvement. It is rather more about failure. It has nothing to do with improvement.

Our holy failure is described repeatedly in Scripture:

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Mat 16:25)

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2Co 12:9)

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He emptied Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phi 2:5-8)

More could of course be added. But the thrust of these verses has nothing to do with improvement, let alone moral improvement. What is happening in our spiritual lives is not the perfecting of a better “me.” It is like a comparison between mud and light. Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.”

But these verses point the way forward. It consists of losing, of weakness and emptiness. The spiritual life is not an improvement of the moral self, it is the finding and the living into the true self (the New Man), birthed in us through Christ. We lose the moral self in order to find the true self. We confess our moral weakness and there we find the true strength of the New Man. We empty the moral self and understand that even its best effort and performance is but “hay, wood and straw” (1 Cor. 3:12).

Elder Sophrony offers this maxim: “The way up is the way down.” It is into the depths of our moral (and existential) nothingness that we go in order to find the heights of union with Christ. This is, ultimately, the most proper practice of confession.

Confession is acknowledging my failure, my weakness and emptiness in the presence of God (and His priestly witness). St. Isaiah tells us: 

But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; (Isa 64:6)

Even our righteousness, our best and most successful moral performances are like unmentionably filthy rags! If we understood this rightly, we would acknowledge that the very things we have in mind when we say, “I’m improving…” are as empty and useless as the things of which we feel ashamed.

And it is that very shame that would open to us the gate of paradise. Only a saint could face the complete emptiness of that point, but all of us can bear “a little shame” (in the words of Archimandrite Zacharias). For it is in the weakness and failure of our life that we become “poor in Spirit.”

This same emptiness and weakness is also the place where we find that we become generous and courageous. The generosity of the moral self is always an effort of the rich. We struggle to share and even admire ourselves when we succeed. I have always observed a very different dynamic when one poor person helps another. I have seen the poor give half of everything they have (and more), as if it were nothing. And this is extremely common. The greatest generosity in the world is among the poor. I recall an Anglican bishop telling me how, when he visited a poor village in India, he was staggered to learn that many in the village had not eaten that day in order to offer a decent meal to him. And they did so with joy. That same generous joy often permeates the very poorest areas of the world that move the rest of us to such pity. We should pity ourselves!

The sacrament of Confession is not the place to become better or to report on our progress. It is the place to become poor, weak, and empty and to embrace the shame of it like our dearest friend. For it is only in that place that we will truly find Christ. This is the Hades into which He descended and where He awaits us (that He might raise us up).

The wisdom of the Church’s prayers are filled with this knowledge. St. John Chrysostom offers these golden words:

O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that You should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and You do not have a fitting place in me to lay Your head. But as from the heights of Your glory You humbled Yourself, so now bear me in my humility; as You deigned to lie in a manger in a cave, so deign now also to come into the manger of my mute soul and corrupt body. As You did not refrain from entering into the house of Simon the leper, or shrink from eating there with sinners, so also enter the house of my poor soul, all leprous and full of sin. You did not reject the sinful woman who ventured to draw near to touch You, so also have pity on me, a sinner, as I approach. And grant that I may partake of Your All-holy Body and Precious Blood…

Indeed.

84 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post Fr. Stephen. I’m afraid my current list has many of the same sins on it from last time. Including sexual sin and worrying on the very top of that list and was rather embarrassed about how my next confession would pan out.

  2. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding this post. I’m not out to “create a better me”, but I am out to intentionally love others, to live less fearfully, to be kind, etc. out of gratitude and wonder and hope in the character of God. That’s “progress”. Where is the line between being “zealous” for good deeds and saying that “progress” in actually doing so is a myth?

  3. “And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2Co 12:9)”

    Reminded me of the little poem that I wrote in my bible near 2 Cor 12.9 when I was a Protestant.

    “When I am weak in the strength that is mine,
    Then am I strong in strength Divine.”

  4. Mike,

    My understanding is that this work is not so much “progress” (as if we are moving towards a defined moral goal) but “change” (as we seek to partake of Grace and grow closer in relationship to God–the actions of which you speak are really an off-shoot of that relationship). I’m sure others can do a better job of explaining this, if it is indeed correct.

    Many thanks, as always, Father for your wonderful insight.

  5. Mike,
    Doubtless it is a good thing to intentionally love others and to live less fearfully, to be kind, etc. As a moral quest it is good. But it only has a certain limited range, will not increase much beyond a certain point. It is not a bad thing to do, but will not result in “progress” in the long run. We will generally be about as moral now as we were at age 8.

    Christ did not come to make us moral – if He did then something is terribly wrong.

    We are called to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). You’re describing something nice but far short of our call.

  6. Mike,
    we find the notion of ‘the double knowledge’ (knowledge of “my utter weakness and God’s utter power and mercy”) in the Fathers. The acquisition of more and more of that knowledge could be rightfully termed progress if you wish to retain that ‘term’. The progression, the journey of the soul towards more and more of this knolwedge is no different to Elder Sophrony’s quote in the article. But greater trust in God and distrust in ourselves cannot really be described as “I am doing better” or “I am doing worse” can it?

  7. I was confused by several aspects of the essay and trying to better my understanding:

    “Really great, truly outstanding mud, can only ever be mud. It never becomes more “light-like.””

    Is it not true that mud becomes God in the Incarnation?

    Also, how is the typical monastic understanding of the stages of the spiritual life (illumination-purification-theosis) not “progressive”?

  8. I’ve had a hard time understanding how to reconcile this clarification of Christian life you’re offering here (that I very much like) with another understanding of Christian life that seems to me to conflict with this one.

    I’m talking about the way some Orthodox describe Christian life very systematically as a therapeutic method of healing individual humans of their passions/vices/sins. I’ve often felt that the latter understanding is somehow tied to the idea of progress or gradual self-improvement.

    Fr. Stephen, if you understand what I’m getting at could you tell me if their is a way to reconcile these two approaches?

  9. Thanks for the comments.

    I am doing better/worse is a relative statement. The question for me is, relative to what? Relative to an arbitrary set of moral rules, no. Relative to God, isn’t it fair to say that we have times where doing better or worse in that “relationship”. Obsessing over where we rank on some moral scale is bound to bring a sense of utter failure and a sense that we’ll never get there. But at the same time, I still have a wife that I’m trying to love, a daughter to raise, a job, friends, etc. I have a life to live and that has to be woven together with “partaking of the divine nature” and “dying to my false self” doesn’t it? It’s not one or the other is it? I’m not saying that we aim to be good. I’m saying that we aim to know God and that the goodness can be the result of that. Wouldn’t that be “progress”.

    In terms of “partaking of the divine nature”, doesn’t that, however, manifest itself in terms of our actual concrete existence?

    Thanks again, things for me to chew on.

  10. Greg,
    Illumination-purification-theosis is not progressive. It is a misunderstanding to think of it as such. It is more like: emptying, emptying, emptying. The fullness (and the filling) is of God.

    Yes on the Incarnation. But this mud (my mud) must become light. So, yes, it does become light – but in a manner like the Resurrection, not moral progression.

  11. Trifon, it is not self-improvement, it is a gradual abandonment of a false self for the image and likeness that we already are. God transforms us by His grace. We cooperate with Him or resist Him or try to ignore Him.

    I cannot make myself other than I am. I can strive to attain virtue (as opposed to being a moral person) so that my sins will be less evident. Is that progress?

    Only if an unveiling can be considered progress.

  12. Trifon,
    See the earlier comment on purification-illumination-theosis. Yes the descriptions and treatments of therapeutic method is too often described in a way that can sound progressive, and as a gradual self-improvement. What I can say is that these descriptions have not been careful enough to avoid a moralistic interpretation. This article adds that caveat. There is no moral improvement. There is healing – or theosis – but the way there is profoundly about self-emptying and profoundly not about getting gradually better.

    I would suggest reading lots of the Elder Sophrony. I know that Met. Hierotheos Vlachos and Archm. Zacharias are very good friends. And I’m sure they see no contradiction whatever in this. (Vlachos is associated with the books on therapeutic method, Zach. on the Elder Sophrony).

  13. I am reminded of the scene in Till We Have Faces. Psyche faces divinity and describes her feelings to her sister:

    “I felt ashamed.”

    “But of what? Psyche, they hadn’t stripped you naked or anything?”

    “No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal — of being a mortal.”

    “But how could you help that?”

    “Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

    My experience is limited, but the common responses you (Fr. Stephen) catalogue here echo my own sense of inadequacy, which—even though I recognize the wonderful truth and justice of your remarks—often stems from insecurity less about God’s judgement, and more about a priest’s ability to maintain the attitude you profess. I tend to assume all humans will, for the most part, be human and be as disappointed with me, as I am. A priest may agree with your post here when he reads it, but does he hold such truths before his mind during my confession? Or is my concern another sign of my mistaken attitude toward its purpose. I’m new to this stuff.

  14. Thank you for pounding home in various ways the same theme, father. St. Paul was not averse in bringing to remembrance things he had already taught. I need to hear again and again that our life in Christ is not about progress but rather about failure. This theme is so counter cultural even in the larger ” Christian world. ” God bless you for your labors in writing. For me they clarify, strengthen, challenge, provoke :)…and the verbs could continue.

  15. Father, I’m going to have to re-read this one numerous times, and even then I’m not sure I’ll get it. I resonate with Triphon’s comment above. Youre advice to Triphon was:

    “There is healing – or theosis – but the way there is profoundly about self-emptying and profoundly not about getting gradually better.” Father, isn’t self-emptying getting better? I mean, if over time a person does more and more self-emptying, is that person not gradually getting better?

    Also, where do I go to find writings of Elder Saphrony?

    Lastly Father, as I said, I’m sure I’m not getting your point, although I deeply desire to. I’m not Orthodox (but wish to be) and one of things that troubled me about Evangelicalism and caused me to seek out Orthodoxy is what I see as wide spread anti-nomianism within Evangelicalism. In my former church, the attitude i saw that greatly bothered me was “well, we’ll never get any better, so why try? Thank God that we’re saved by His grace alone!!” So, you can see how Orthodoxy with theosis, and ascetic practices greatly appealed to me. I do wish to cooperate with God’s grace in my life and hopefully move toward theosis and healing from sin in my life. So in some ways, this post from you is a bit discouraging to me.

    Father, please forgive my comments here. I know less about Orthodoxy than anyone else who comments here. My desire is genuinely to understand what you’re writing.

  16. Tullius,
    My experience of priests (for I make confession as well as hear them) is generally very good. We are taught that it is a great sin to judge anyone who comes to confession. I also know horror stories, but they are rare. It’s also possible, outside of confession, to discuss this with a priest.

    You have to remember that the priest is equally human – and is in no place to judge. I have blushed before – not at shame or bold sin – I have blushed at innocence. I have sometimes been shaken in hearing a confession – because of how truly and deeply someone bared their soul before God. At such moments, I feel terribly unworthy and know that I am not in the presence of shame, but in the Holy of Holies. For the more completely we uncover ourselves, the more boldly God reveals Himself.

    I once heard a confession that was in Russian, I didn’t understand a word of it. But I was profoundly shaken. I have almost never heard a soul so completely unburden itself. I knew I had never spoken in such a way to God myself.

  17. Fr. Freeman,

    Have you written anything on the purpose of confession in light of what you have said here?

    I must admit I am struggling to accept what you have said here as I don’t think the idea to which you are responding and your response itself are mutually exclusive. Speaking of improvements in our spiritual lives seems completely adequate and justified in certain circumstances.

  18. MormontoOrthodox,
    Any confession is adequate. They’re all hard to do. I sometimes will tell someone in confession not to measure themselves or think in terms of how they’re doing, just to speak of what they’ve done. Some of that is an effort to help someone be present to themselves and God rather than stepping back and looking at themselves as if they were somewhere else. First, confession is not something that just comes naturally – it often takes a bit of coaching. The most important thing is to help someone get used to it, get through it, and slowly build the habit of making confession. In time, with trust built, you can help them go deeper and move towards the depths where the most healing will come.
    There is much important teaching within this article, but it should not be read in an exclusive way. Every confession is adequate. Sometimes, I’ve seen someone coming to confession with tears already running down their cheeks. The confession has already occurred, though they don’t know it. We will only be formalizing a repentance that God has wondrously birthed within them.
    The Fathers call repentance (confession) a “second baptism.” They also call “tears” the same thing. I hope to be able to write about tears in a year or two. As God wills.
    With the article, take anything in it that seems useful and let the rest of it go.

  19. This excerpt is from St. Symeon the New Theologian, “The Three Ways of Attention and Prayer” translated from the greek by Demetrios S. Skagias:

    “…It is this war of attention and prayer on which both life and death of the soul depend. By attention that we keep our prayer safe and therefore we *progress*: if we do not have attention to keep to keep it clear and we leave it unguarded, then it is inflected by evil thoughts and we become wicked and hopeless…”

    Now, assuming Mr. Skagias translated the greek well and “progress” is a appropriate (perhaps Dino has an opinion), can we reserve the term for use in discipline and perhaps other narrow areas? I understand (I think) the thesis of Christian spiritual life and acesis not being a “moral progression”. Indeed, in the first of the three ways St. Symeon describes a self destructive pride that can arise in thinking this. Indeed, as my acesis has “progressed” (or is it my discipline in prayer life/watchfullness, etc.?) over the years my sin is more apparent than ever, my “moral failings” all the more obvious, and distance from God and my real nothingness better understood. This is not “moral progress” – in fact my passions are so ever present and overwhelming that now that I am aware of them I can say with the psalmist that I am truly drowning in my sins probably for the first time in my life. It is true that my discipline has simply “revealed” the depths (and then only for short periods during the day when I am truly prayerful/watchful) – no “progress” up or out or “better” here. However, a beginning has to be made, and recommendations, actions, are carried out, and as we “progress”…I am not even convincing myself – sorry for the stream of consciousness…

  20. “Progress” on the lips (or in the thoughts) of any modern person is hopelessly distorted. Frankly, we should never judge our spiritual progress. There’s just nothing to be gained by it. What possible benefit would it be to think that I was doing better? There’s not a single example that I can think of in the normal daily prayers in which we are encouraged to pray or think in such a way – rather quite the opposite.

    The point is humility and self-emptying, for Christ is everything. How can I, whom am nothing, “progress.”

    In fact, I cannot even conceive the thought except by abandoning the moment, stepping outside of the present, and assuming an imaginary position from which I pretend to see myself. Nope.

  21. Father, what specifically of “progress” in relation to a particular sexual sin, viz. internet pornography? Arch Zacharias once told me in confession, sadly and bluntly, “oh but you *must* stop this.” Surely to receive the grace finally to put such a sin behind oneself, if not also the sin of lustfulness generally, must be accounted a kind of progress, no? My heart longs for this and cannot conceive of it as anything other than as journey/milestone/progress.

  22. Anon,
    one needs to tread carefully, perhaps recognise that the actual manifestation of their lustful sinfulness, thankfully, has been replaced, their bad habit controlled for the time-being (a ‘progress’ if you will) -through opening to God’s grace. But calling it ‘progress’ nowadays is rarely understood as a revelation of the new Adam already present at baptism.
    At the same time, the increasing wonder and gratitude (a ‘progress’ again) felt by the soul which advances in humility and trust in God is so entirely NOT self-centred that I cannot say “I am doing better”.
    Ascesis, purification, watchfulness, illumination can be seen as an advancement, a movement, but it is highly dangerous and problematic to self-analyse and become aware of “self-improvement” (progress in that sense).
    My left hand (analytical mind) must not know what the right hand (of God) is doing, my heart must simply wonder and glorify Him.

  23. Anon,
    In other words, “a milestone” (through cooperating with Grace) [one might one day -for example- wake up to find out that all his lust, his anger, his fears have vanished and dispassion has been granted him] is only ever actualised when he is so absorbed in God that he does not actually see the ‘milestone’ as anything other than the realisation that ‘he is nothing and God is everything’. If it wasn’t like that, he would -like Lucifer- marvel at his glory as if it is his very own instead of exclaiming to God ‘thine own of thine own’. This all-consuming gratitude with the simultaneous awareness of one’s utter weakness is what attracts and retains “milestone” (as you put it) Grace. But the context for all this is also an unceasing watchfulness that cannot self-analyse in its clinging on to God alone.

  24. Here is the tricky part the idea of progress is so interwoven with the self-sufficiency of man that it cannot describe the Christian way of life.

    At the same time it seems prudent to not fall into the Lutheran trap that God’s grace does not change us. We may still be mud, but we are a different mud. We become a living mud.

    As Father has often said, God did not come to make bad men good but to make dead men alive.

    In Christ we pass from death to life.

    We are either dead and partskers of death or we are alive and partakers of life going from glory to glory.

    The paradox being that to become alive we have to die both spiritually and in some cases physically.

    I certainly tend to linger in the shadowlands longing at times for the false promise of oblivion snd fulfillment of desire that the world offers.

  25. Anon,
    It is worth recalling the story about St. Silouan. A holy elder heard his confession (when the Saint was still young) and marveled at him with the words, “If you are like this now, what will you be like when you’re old?” (or words to that effect). And the thought (very much a “progress” thought) plunged him into the 15 year torment of the flames of hell.

    It would indeed be a matter of rejoicing to be freed from a particular sin. You should treat the word of the Archimandrite to you as a private word – as a word to you – and not generalize. He gave you a word (and that is a powerful thing) and I would cling to his prayers. I would even take such a word as a promise from God that this problem will be overcome.

    To generalize it is to rob it of its power. And instead of despair, use your failures to empty yourself and plead your weakness before Christ. We’re only saved in our weakness.

  26. Father I see a bit of the 12 step approach here the acknowledgment that we are powerless against our passions.

    Personally only in the Church have I begun to embrace my own broke ness and offer it to God.

    Life it seems is a constant offering of God a constant recognition that I am far from Him even at my “best”

  27. There are some interesting conversations about this article on Facebook. Mostly, the negative comments are blowback on the thought of “no progress.” This idea dies hard (and it’s noted in the comments here as well). Some of the blowback is just semantics, arguing that “well, this would be progress, or that would be progress, etc.”

    I’ve been hearing confessions now for 34 years. I do not see any moral progress. Even when a habit is beaten. I quit smoking 25 years ago. I am deeply grateful. But it was not moral progress. Frankly, I didn’t quit through some great moral (or spiritual) effort. I suffered terribly and squealed like a pig and struggled (it was at least the 100th time of quitting). But somehow, I quit. In hindsight, I think it was through the prayers of my spiritual father. I cannot explain how I quit. I said later that if I had known it was actually going to work, I would have never tried to quit.

    It is possible, of course, to think of our learning to lose more and more as “progress.” But the very thought is so inconsistent with the reality that it would destroy anything that had come before.

    I saw some citing of RC saints (the Interior Castle for one). I’m not very familiar with all of that. If it indeed speaks of spiritual progress, then it would be quite foreign to Orthodox thought. But I have serious doubts about how these things were being characterized. I cannot comprehend a holiness that thinks in terms of progress. Only emptiness can receive fullness. Every thought of progress is a thought of self and becomes a distraction.

    Nope.

  28. Father, I totally get the concept of dwelling on one’s “progress” leading towards an emphasis on the self, and consequently away from God. However, as much as I have read the saints, isn’t it true that self-emptying and “acquiring the Spirit” lead towards moral perfection? Even if the Saints never acknowledged any progress, quite the contrary, the rest of us can see some degree of cessation from sin, which I’m presuming is akin to moral perfection.

    Forgive me if I’m missing from your post or your comments.

  29. Only if by “sin” we mean moral peccadilloes. The saints themselves never say such things. The holier they are, the more the speak of their sinfulness – and the more truly aware of it they are. “Sin” is not a moral problem – it is ontological and existential. It’s about our being. It is rooted in the fact that we are created from nothing and that we reject that and want to live as though we possess our own being. Every sinful act flows from this distortion of our existence. This is the problem with moral progress. It is a concept that thinks of us as autonomous individuals who are centers of our own existence.

    The perfect saint is both utterly aware of God, and is filled with Him, and also utterly aware of His own emptiness and the nothingness of his existence (which he will call sin).

    “Cessation from sin” requires that we misunderstand sin.

  30. When I walk into the church, I am filled with a realization of my own creaturliness and knowing that I have nothing to give. I can only compare it with the sinful woman who wept at the feet of Jesus drying them with her hair and pouring oil on them without saying a word. Words don’t heal only a contrite and humble heart knowing that I kneel at the feet of Mercy Himself.

  31. Even if [the ‘milestone’ as Anon put it of] dispassion is far more about one’s internal disorientation becoming healed and oriented properly; would the definition of dispassion as profound awareness of one’s sinfulness, an awareness of such depth that its manifestation (sinfulness’) into actual “[sinful] deeds” reaches a cessation, be of any help? (It is the “anti-progress progress” of Elder Sophrony’s maxim: “The way up is the way down.” )

  32. Dino says:

    ‘thine own of thine own’

    Dino, my priest came back from headquarters about a month ago with the latest service books. This is no longer correct – it is “your own of your own”. Now, of course that sounds as course as my neighbors diesel truck. I tell you though, it will certainly jar you out of any “unwatchfulness” you might be experiencing during liturgy 😉 In addition, it is now “we pray to yyyooouuuu”. Rolls off the tongue like a wet squid. Where as I was ambivalent before, I am now officially in the “liturgical english” camp…ok, back to regular programming…

  33. Elder Paisios used to lament and mock even mere considerations of such changes to liturgical language (in Greek).

  34. Once again your essays are so timely for me. I rarely write, but…

    What to do when one confesses for the first time, in tears, to the priest replacing a long-trusted father confessor, and receives the answer that he will absolve and pray for one this time, but if these things (anger, despondency, depression, struggles with one’s children and husband) continue, he will have to recommend one seek medication?

    I so keenly experience this backward movement and feel such failure (pride, pride, pride, I know, but “knowing” doesn’t change it), since part of me so hoped for “progress”/healing after my baptism, but began to find after blessed year or so of grace, that slowly began to my great dismay that it slowly began to go away. (And that perhaps that year was so grace-filled because I had no expectations, was simply at the bottom, looking up with such gratitude, but somehow, somewhere along the line the expectations crept back in, and pride with it.)

    These words, these ideas that you touch on here are my hope and I pray for mercy, but in the meantime, my family, and now my priest seem to also want to see progress, but I sorely disappoint. I had once hoped that God’s love would so clearly shine through that my husband couldn’t fail to see and understand. But that was prideful too. Somewhere I made Me the agent (though I truly thought I believed God was the agent).

    I haven’t been able to make myself go back to confession yet. And I am used to going very frequently.

    I vacillate between trusting in this path and God and feeling His mercy and work in my heart–and that dark temptation….fearing that what I believe/trust is not true, that I am going insane, that maybe my agnostic husband is right, that my faith and hope are just grand illusions/delusions, and it’s exactly my new path that is making me not better but worse….Lord have mercy. I can’t live without God. I’ve already been to the bottom. I can only turn to Him, and cry for mercy.

    Lord have mercy.

  35. Fr. Freeman,

    I am so conditioned to think in terms of progress that this article barely makes sense to me. The idea here is hard to grasp. Yet, I also suspect you are correct.

    I would appreciate some more writing in this topic.

  36. “The perfect saint is both utterly aware of God, and is filled with Him, and also utterly aware of His own emptiness and the nothingness of his existence (which he will call sin).”

    This kind of reads as if “sin” is the same as “being a created and dependent being” (or is that not where the “emptiness and nothingness of his existence” comes in?), but that seems deeply wrong and I suspect I’m misinterpreting what you’re trying to say.

    Earlier in the same comment you say, “‘Sin’ … is rooted in the fact that we are created from nothing and that we reject that and want to live as though we possess our own being.” – here it sounds like maybe the sin is not so much about the fact of being created and dependent as about how we relate to that fact (or do not relate to it, by rejecting it)?

  37. beautiful article… the position spoken of here, methinks, is a revelation, Godly realisation of the truth of things. an invitation to rest once one ‘gets it’.

  38. Another Anon,
    We speak of a “return to God”-kind-of-healing, rather than a “progress”-kind-of-healing. But returning to God means coming to know and live that ‘I’ am not god (which is what the notion of self progress implies, and is its danger).
    He is.
    It also means that this return is experienced as an increase in humility – a humility that means a greater awareness of my pride and self-centeredness amongst other things.
    All this does not infer one will give up in despondency; on the contrary, it is the only foundation (God-centeredness instead of self-centeredness) that safeguards one’s determination.

    We need spiritual guidance profoundly in order not to derail.
    Even if somehow the zaniest things (say, that a president is a hologram or something) become proven, the saints (and only them) do not delude and are not deluded, therefore be utterly confident that it is not faith but lack of faith that is the grandest delusion.

  39. Hi Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. It has definitely challenged me to think differently.

    I have often puzzled over the fact that great saints all seemed to regard themselves as “the worst of sinners.” In the prayer before Communion we all confess to being “first” among sinners, and it seems that saints truly think about themselves this way. This has been hard for me to understand– how could a saint really believe himself to be THE worst sinner? But I guess the reason must be that, as you said, saints are able to face their complete emptiness.

    Sometimes I start to feel pleased with myself for making “moral progess,” and I start to imagine that I am very good person– but then I catch myself and remember that this is exactly the opposite of how the saints thought about themselves. So the very fact that I am having the thought that “I am doing better” is evidence that I am not, in fact, doing better.

    This is still a subject that is hard for me to understand, but you have given me some things to think about.

  40. what a post! I could almost hear the demon of pride squeal as I was reading it. leaves me with nothing to boast about. just as it is written: “for you are saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves – the gift of God. Not of ‘progress’, lest any man should boast.”
    may God save you, Batyushka!

  41. AnotherAnon,
    It sounds to me that your priest and family are not looking for progress, but are sounding a concerned note. If the priest suggests medication might be appropriate, it probably is. I would encourage you to discuss this more with him or your family doctor. There is no failure in taking medication – it is not a spiritual problem. One elder on Mt. Athos recently gave a wonderful description of the role that certain medications play in some lives. The brain is not the soul. He compared the brain to a violin and the soul to a skillful musician. He noted that if the violin needed to be tuned, or suffered damage in some way, it would effect the ability of the musician to express himself. So too, certain conditions, often treatable with medication, hinder the soul’s ability to express itself. Many fears, obsessions, depressive thoughts, thoughts of self-harm, are quite physical in their origins and need treatment. Not every thought in our mind is amenable to spiritual treatment. We experience certain brain-related problems as thoughts – but those thoughts are physical artifacts and not spiritual issues. Again, I encourage you to explore this further.

  42. Cassiane,
    You’re reading me correctly. We tend to treat the word sin as though it were a moral problem, a “wrong-doing.” When it is actually an “ontological” problem, or a problem within our very being (more or less). Thus, St. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.” And Adam and Eve were told that “in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” But in neither case is death a consequence because it is a divine punishment. Death is not a divine punishment. It is rather a “natural” result from breaking communion with God.

    We were created for communion with God, and in a state of communion with God. We have broken that and therefore move towards our original nature – “nothingness.” This is the teaching on the Fall as described in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

    So, sin, in its primary and truest sense, is the character of our existence when considered apart from communion with God. It is a drive towards non-being. The “sins” – the things we do wrong – are simply symptoms of this underlying spiritual disease (death).

    Sin is death. Resurrection is its cure.

    When you take all of that into consideration and think of what it means – then you come out with what I have written and described.

  43. Father, the wonder is that God so loves us that no matter how far down the slide toward nothingness we get, He never allows us to get there.

  44. Thank you, Father! I needed to read this because I have been so hung up on how I haven’t shown the fruits of my repentance from the same old same old stuff, I still overeat, I still like love stories, I’m still lazy, I still carry about a lot of wounded pride, I still have my obsessions and aren’t I supposed to mean it when I say I’m sorry?

    I like my priest, he’s a nice man with a lovely family, and I feel so bad when I’m not growing in Christ, and admit it to him. And, there, people pleasing is a sin, too. I used to be a Protestant and did a lot of moving around from church to church until I found a true home in Orthodoxy.

  45. For all,
    We must come to our senses! The constant monitoring of our moral selves, and measuring our spiritual progress is just spinning our neurosis into the life of faith and it gets us nowhere. The true work of repentance doesn’t even begin there. For St. Peter, the true work of repentance began with the words, “Simon, Son of Jonah, Do you love (agape) me more than these?” And his deep, deep knowing, in the light of his denial, that He did not. “Lord, you know that I am your friend (philo). And the second time the same question, with the same evasive answer. And the third, piercing question, “Simon, are you my friend?” How utterly emptying. And his answer, “Lord, you know everything! You know that I am your friend.”

    But this was the beginning of repentance for Peter. It is worth noting, that there is no discussion of the “sin” of denying Christ. Jesus directs Peter’s attention to the depth of his being.

  46. I am particularly fond of the portrayal of the perception of our sinfulness -once we leave it to enter the presence of the Lord (as Mary of Egypt did in the desert)- as proof of already, unbeknownst to us, being in His hypostatic light. As Fr J. Behr says somewhere: To fathom the depth of our fallen condition -as a result of the encounter with Christ- that is to scale the heights of divine love.

  47. Are you saying that there is no hope? Why bother then?

    Why all the stories of healing if we can’t get better?

  48. Fr. , and comment-ers,
    This series of posts, going back to at least the ones about history, and the comments, have been amazing, challenging…but the language we use seems so inadequate. It’s hard to get at, in words.
    To undo some our conceptions is one thing, like sweeping clean the house, but then what? The Lord’s reality (no word really works)–prayer and repentance–thanksgiving, as when a besetting sin was overcome through an illness, not of my own effort at all. It’s just gone, maybe temporarily, but completely. And if it returns, or if it is gone forever, I will know that the gift was given not as a reward, only as a gift.

  49. The word “progress” should be abandoned because it is hard to separate it and all that it connotes from one’s efforts. In other words, to say that I am making progress is to say, however subtly, that I had something to do with it. If there is any “progress” made in my struggle it is surely despite my efforts not because of them. My “self” is the biggest obstacle to any “progress” that might be made. It is not I who pray but Christ who prays within me. The corny old bumper sticker was right: “Let go and let God”.

  50. Of course there is hope. But it comes by way of ‘joy-creating mourning’. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy..

    It’s a call to self-emptying. He who has ears, let him hear!

  51. Haley Rowland,
    I think the answer to your questions is found many times in the comments:

    We speak of a “return to God”-kind-of-healing, rather than a “progress”-kind-of-healing. But returning to God means coming to know and live that ‘I’ am not god (which is what the notion of self progress implies, and is its danger).
    He is.

  52. Haley,
    There is profound healing and overwhelming hope. But it is not the hope of progress or the distortions we use when we say, “I am getting better.” We are pushing and dancing and pulling an understanding together in these articles and discussion that is a serious re-orientation. Christ is my healing and my hope. My healing comes in me, when He lives in me. As Christ becomes my life (my actual life), then hope breaks forth in me. “Christ in you, the hope of glory…” Col. 1:27

  53. Fr. Stephen,

    Rod Dreher’s latest post entitled “Dear Modernity, I Love You Hard” reminds me of at least one reason we cling to progress and modernity: suffering and death. we are afraid of suffering and death and “progress”, in this case advances in medicine over our ancestors, keep us from certain kinds of suffering (but not death). Now, we tend to almost completely overrate the extent of these sufferings and underrate how we despite modern medicine will suffer and die. In the end it is fear (as well as our arrogance) that ensures we will keep one foot in modernity’s warm caress…

  54. Christopher,
    wasn’t it Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who, being a chain smoker, once exclaimed to a health fanatic that:
    “the difference between you and me is that, I will get cancer, and die, and you will live healthily and die“…?

  55. Christopher-

    As someone who owes the lives of all three members of his immediate family, as well as his own ability to walk upright and live without immense pain, I can certainly appreciate the advances in modern medical understanding that have occurred since the Civil War. But Fr. Stephen has previously said that sort of progress, as in gaining a better understanding and refining techniques, is not what he’s critiquing. Rather, and correct me here, Father, he’s discussing the idea that we are progressing towards something, some goal, and that any steps taken by medicine are necessarily good because they fall into this modern gospel of progress.

    I’m sure I’m distorting his message, but we can both learn from my mistakes.

    Moreover, I can tell you from personal experience that the suffering I experienced for 18 months of my life, and which was eventually ended by modern medical science, was spiritually ennobling. The constant pain and limitations put on my physical body served to empty me before God, and there has never been a time in my life when I was more fully presented with my sinful nature than during that time. To wish for a return to that would be foolish, but I appreciate and am daily thankful for that time so that I can sit here today while typing this and know just how full of my own pride I am.

  56. Matth,

    I don’t disagree with anything you said. I praise God for your healing! What the Dreher article got me thinking about more I think was how we tend to grab something and and go with it, even when it no longer is useful. I think we often do this in our thinking (it’s the ‘I have a hammer and do everything is a nail’ problem). With many of us I think modernity and “progress” is like that. They see some alleged good, and then they (unknowingly or “subconsciously” it seems). Antibiotics, why they are a good thing. “Progress” is responsible for that, so how can “progress” not be applied to our spiritual lives, or the Church (say with abortion or homosexualism or WO, etc.), or literally everything else? It almost has certain abnormal “psychological” character – a type of intellectual and spiritual tunnel vision and obsession. I suppose this is just to say that it is a worldview that is held and for many many of us, we simply are not all that aware of our worldview – we “have” one, but we can’t critically examine it…

  57. I should add that my take on the Dreher article was not what Dreher intended – I was just struck by how he was taking such a view of “modernity”, given his history, his Orthodoxy, and what else I know (or think I know) about him…

  58. Father,

    Hello. Its the Lutheran Nathan you have talked to many a time.

    In I Timothy 4:15 we read this exhortation to Paul to the young pastor: “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress”

    Is it possible there is simply a good understanding of progress and a bad one? You say that “Every thought of progress is a thought of self and becomes a distraction”, and on one level this makes sense. On the other hand does not the believer, in communion with Christ, really have a new man that battles against the old man (for example in Gal. 5 and Rom. 7?). I tend to think that the more someone genuinely attains righteousness in this life, this usually will mean seeing one’s self as more sinful. That said, I also wonder if being convinced one is THE chief of sinners might also be a sign of pride. Don’t we always think that we are more unique than we are?

    Thanks for your article.

    -Nathan

  59. Thinking oneself to be the chief of sinners could be a sign of a deep mental illness. I take it that this was not so in St. Paul. I also take it not to be so when every Orthodox Christian says the same of himself before taking Communion in Church (it’s one of our prayers).

    But I think that when you said “seeing one’s self as more sinful” that you are actually using “sinful” in a moralistic manner. I think most neurotics think of themselves this way. If you don’t, then you’re more than neurotic, perhaps a sociopath.

    But there is a manner of seeing our sinfulness (in the ontological sense) that is life-giving and not neurotic in the least. True humility has no neurosis about it at all. The problem with the cultural treatment of moralistic sin is that it is inherently neurotic. I’ve watched people make themselves crazy with bad theology. The Church can either be about teaching and re-teaching good theology, or continue to cooperate in making people crazy.

    The “new man” who battles against the “old man” is, in popular Christian treatments, just a twisting of language to describe the moralistic struggle. This is because the popular Christian treatment has no root in the Fathers and has no spiritual guidance from saints who actually know what they are talking about. Most Christians in our culture speak a “Christianized psycho-babble” when it comes to these matters. We have taken words and phrases and changed their meaning.

    I’m just working at getting our words back to where they need to be.

  60. Father Freeman,

    “The “new man” who battles against the “old man” is, in popular Christian treatments, just a twisting of language to describe the moralistic struggle.”

    How do you see Paul using the language in Galatians 5? I think that is definitely a struggle between the new self created in Christ in us and the old Adam that remains. Or no?

    “But I think that when you said “seeing one’s self as more sinful” that you are actually using “sinful” in a moralistic manner.”

    Is it moralistic to realize (not necessarily obsess over) the fact that one does not love God or neighbor in the way one should?

    Nathan

  61. This posting is disturbing. It appears to be teaching a doctrine of Complete Corruption.

    If I wanted to be part of a faith where I’m not doing better, I’d go back to being a Protestant.

  62. If we need a word or term to describe what is happening to us through our self-emptying in Christ, rather than ‘progress’, could we not use either ‘transformed’ or ‘transfigured’? Both have Scriptural provenance, and do greater justice to the mystery that is accomplished in us through the work of the Holy Spirit.

    Two small quotes from Scripture have always helped me frame this process of transformation/transfiguration: ‘He must increase, as I must decrease’ (Jn. 3:30); ‘…it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal: 2:20).

    That said, I do appreciate the point made by Anon that often those who struggle with particular passions (in which group I include myself) when they are confronted with their own ‘failures’ again and again may eventually fall into despondency or even worse, despair. However, it is in despairing in our own power to bring about the desired changes that makes us turn to God for help.

    Is it wrong, then, for those who struggle with the passions to take note of (and share with others) those graced changes in their behaviours when these occur, either in the reduction/elimination of negative habits (smoking, drinking alcohol, gossiping, using internet pornography, etc, etc), or in the increase of positive habits (time spent in prayer, fasting, etc)? Personally, I don’t believe it is wrong to note these signs of transformation in Christ, nor to give thanks to God the Father for them, nor to witness to God’s mercy through sharing with others what God is accomplishing in us. Indeed, this is the whole message of the Gospel: that God is accomplishing the work of salvation in us, with our free cooperation, every moment of our existence.

    One proviso, though. We do not look at the positive changes in our lives (ie our being conformed ever more closely to the image and likeness of Christ thorugh the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in us) as OUR achievements. If we want to boast, then, like St. Paul, let us boast about our weaknesses and about the fact that it is God’s power that is being made perfect through them, as we learn more and more to cooperate with and surrender to his grace (2 Cor. 11: 30; 12:9).

    So, like Father Stephen, I am not keen on using the word ‘progress’ to denote or describe our transformation in Christ; but I also totally agree with Anon that we need not be blind to the changes wrought in us by God’s grace, nor need we be shy about sharing them with others – just as long as it is to God that we give the glory. Also, I find it helpful to remember that we are not transformed despite our passions, but through our passions. Without our ‘thorn in the flesh’, how will we know that indeed God’s grace is sufficient for us (2 Cor. 12:9)?

  63. Blair,
    I do not hold to a doctrine of complete corruption in any way shape or form. But I do hold, along with the saints, that our very existence of necessity requires that it be sustained by God. Apart from that sustaining and communion, we begin to fall back towards nothingness. This is explicitly taught in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. But, through Christ, we not only have existence, we can have well-being, and ultimately, eternal being.

    In this article, following the Fathers, I have pulled the veil back on the nature of that “nothingness” and “corruption” that yawns beneath us. The good news is that Christ has entered all of that and saves us. Accepting the existential truth of this is simply repentance. As the Elder Sophrony said, “The way down is the way up.”

    Sorry that the article was disturbing for you.

  64. Alban,
    If our feeble efforts and small transformations are the bulwark needed to hold back despondency, then we will indeed be overwhelmed repeatedly. I know that many people use all of this in that manner. My observation over the years is that it trivializes our life in Christ. It is Christ Himself that is our bulwark. It is His resurrection that is our hope and promise of transfiguration. His life is “hidden” in us.

    Though it is a difficult struggle, we do well to keep in mind (as you suggest) “He must increase and I must decrease.” But keep it in that order.

    The moments of transformation that occur are certainly times for rejoicing and thanksgiving. But we do better to just rejoice that Christ is victorious than that we are doing better. I mentioned that I quit smoking 25 years ago. It was very hard, but I cannot explain how I succeeded. I had quit before – many times – only to shamefully fall back in a very short time. That’s common among smokers. But why was the last time different? I can point to nothing other than the prayers of my spiritual father. At the time (it was Lent of ’89) he said, “Yes, give them up for Lent. But at Easter do not begin again.” I know his prayers were with me. I do know that on several great moments of temptation, something would happen that saved me. I’ve never gone back and never even fantasize about it. It has nothing for me. But it’s not me. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.” (Rom 7:18)

    Blair wrote that I seem to be teaching a doctrine of complete corruption (total depravity). I am not, though I see why he might think that. But I know that what St. Paul says is true. I suppose the theological caveat is his aside “that is, in my flesh.”

  65. Sisyphus, I advise that you seek first the kingdom of God then the means of overcoming your depression will become evident, criticising Fr. Stephan’s efforts to lead us to the most needful thing and how to correctly think about it ain’t helping you in your struggle. Just an observation from somebody who is struggling as you.

  66. Sisyphus,
    There’s got to be a better way than anger. Medication perhaps?

    I have no idea about what is “okay or not okay.” That’s a moral question. There are many reasons to get married – and almost all of our reasons have distortions within them. We do nothing perfectly. But having said that – it is better to marry a person than to marry marriage. As someone who’s been married for 39 years, I can say that no matter what you think ahead of time, life comes back to day-to-day existence. Granted, I would rather struggle in my day-to-day existence together with my wife than without her. I’m not at all sure that I would have done very well as a single man. If in marriage we find a good “fit” – someone’s whose strengths benefit us – and to whom we can be a benefit – then we may do well.

    There’s no magic in it – no easy formula. But a good marriage is a great gift from God – and something to pray for and hope for. Monasticism is in own grace and its own struggle. What is perhaps the most unbearable existence is simply the modern single life.

    I will pray for you. There is probably no “one” perfect mate – a “soul mate.” But there are certainly better “fits”

    And in the meantime, we work to live well even single – to become the kind of person someone would want to marry. Anger will not be healed by a marriage – since the lack of a marriage didn’t cause it.

    The Proverbs say, “Better to live on a corner of the rooftop than in a wide house with an angry woman.” The same is true for a wide house with an angry man.

  67. “The Proverbs say, “Better to live on a corner of the rooftop than in a wide house with an angry woman.” The same is true for a wide house with an angry man.”

    As the kids say, “laughing out loud”!!! I will have to look that one up. I understand some have speculated that “the thorn” St. Paul referred to may have been his wife! I don’t think this is an Orthodox speculation however – perhaps it’s those guys with the marbles 😉

    Fr. Stephen’s thoughts on marriage got me to thank God again for my marriage today. I am truly unworthy of my wife. Then, I can also affirm that marriage does not “fix” anything in yourself or your problems “with the world” so to speak. It is a struggle on so many levels, and just when you think you are out of patience it turns out you need more patience, and then some more patience, and after that much forbearance with a little patience sprinkled on top.

  68. “If our feeble efforts and small transformations are the bulwark needed to hold back despondency, then we will indeed be overwhelmed repeatedly”

    I believe this to be true and fits my experience. In what ever way I “progress”, it simply is too little too late to be the foundation of my Faith, my joy, etc.

  69. Speaking from experience anything you bring into a marriage will be amplified. Love, mercy and humility begats more love mercy and humility. Anger begats more anger and it can often become intractable.

  70. Dino (December 8, 2014 at 3:08 pm),

    There is a fine line between humility (seeing others’ achievements in life and just wondering how they managed to do it, how they manage to go on) and a perverse form of pride, that is, when you take pride in doing nothing.

  71. Father Stephen:

    Many thanks for your comments on what I had written. I have to say that it was only after reading and re-reading your comments several times that the meaning of your words started to make sense to me. Timely words. Thank you.

  72. Father,
    This was an interesting post. I have been thinking lately how people don’t change much. Working with adults with problems; I notice that many of them don’t change at all, they stay the same. I went into the field of social work thinking I can help make a difference. I was just thinking they don’t change, everyone expects them to( jobs, society, etc) As a priest, the only one that I have heard say this, what are some things I can do?
    Thanks
    Joseph

  73. Thank you, Fr Stephen.

    I want to share an excerption from the Prof. Osipov’s lecture:

    What is the difference in understanding the faith in the Orthodoxy and the Protestantism? The Orthodoxy says that man is saved by faith, but sin is counted to the believer for sin. What sort of faith is it? – Not a mental one, but the state acquired trough correct Christian life, thanks to which one gets assured that only Christ can save him from bondage and poignant passions. How can one achieve this faith-state? Through compulsion to observe the Gospel commandments and sincere repentance. St. Simeon the New Theologian says: “Through strict observance of Christ’s commandments man learns his infirmity”, that is one discovers his inability to extirpate passions without God’s help. For man alone it is impossible, but together with God everything is possible. Correct Christian life reveals to man, first, his passions-illnesses, second, that God is near each of us, and finally, that at any instance He is ready to come to the rescue and save us from sin. But He saves us not without us, not without our efforts and struggle. Act of faith is necessary to make us able to accept Christ, for they show us that we cannot heal ourselves without God. Only when I am drowning I realize I need a Saviour, when there is nobody on the bank, and only when I feel I am drowning in the poignant passions, I turn to Christ. And He comes and helps. This is where the living saving faith starts. The Orthodoxy’s teaching is about freedom and worthiness of man as a God’s co-worker in his salvation, and not as a “salt pillar” according to Luther that cannot do anything. This makes clear the meaning of all Gospel commandments, leading a Christian to salvation, not faith alone, and makes obvious the truth of the Orthodoxy.

    http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/7174.htm

  74. PS Excuse my poor English. It’s not my native language.

    PPS Fr Stephen’s article reminds me of Prof. Osipov’s lectures that I enjoy a lot. The main similar thing is understanding of who a Christian is. Orthodoxy, the ancient Christian faith, says that a Christian is not the one who goes to the church every Sunday. It’s not the one who knows and interprets the Bible better than others. It’s not the one who prays, fasts, gives alms, and does all other OUTWARD things. (Pharisees did the same but they didn’t become Christians). And, of course, it’s not the one who believes that 2 000 years ago the Son of God came to die for his sins, therefore all his sins have been forgiven. The latter is nothing but a self-delusion.

    A Christian is the one who needs Jesus Christ as His Savior every moment of his life. It is the one who sees his own sickness (anger, jealousy, hatred, self-opinion, lust, lies, pride, self-importance, sinful thoughts, judging others, etc), fights against it, and realizes that he can’t conquer his passions with his own strength. Therefore, he feels the need in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. A Christian says, “I am not a righteous man but a great sinner. I can’t save/help/heal myself. That’s why I need God. That’s why I need Christ as my Savior. Lord, have mercy on me.”

    The Orthodox Christian faith is not only the way of life but also the state of mind. It is the condition of humility and repentance which is similar to the condition of the tax collector and the good thief. The tax-collector didn’t have a delusion about himself. He knew who he was: a sinner. Therefore, he humbled himself and prayed, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:9-14). The good thief didn’t exalt himself either. He repented on the cross and received the forgiveness. (Matthew 23:39-43)

    The essence of Christian life is neither reading interpretations of the Bible, nor listening to Sunday sermons, nor bringing in more members to the church but spiritual life that leads us to experiencing God and a union with Him. Orthodox Spiritual life is a warfare against our passions. It’s the right prayer (with great attention, humility, reverence, and repentance). And of course, it’s keeping the commandments of the Gospels (not just 10 commandments of the Old Testament); repentance, reading the Bible and writings of the Church Fathers, living in humility, and taking part in the Sacraments of the Church. This is what original and ancient Christian life like, the path where we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. (Philippians 2:12).

    After all, Orthodoxy is not about history, doctrines, and rituals. It’s about the right spiritual life.

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