Before the Judgment Seat of Christ

 

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, unashamed, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.

From my childhood, I have memories of the phrase, “Great White Throne of Judgment.” It comes complete with an abundance of frightening images and threats. It is the last possible moment before all hell breaks loose and the preachers at long last get one right. Of course, that same childhood heard lots of predictions about troop movements in the Middle East, explanations of Gog and Magog, and warnings about where everything was leading. The future was not a happy place. At this point in my life as an Orthodox Christian, it is hard not to hear echoes of these frightful threats in the prayer regarding the “dread judgment seat of Christ.”

I’ve only been in front of a judge twice in my life: for a speeding ticket and to testify in a child custody case (worse than a speeding ticket). It was dreadful.

But what is this dread judgment seat? Do we have any examples? The answer is actually quite clear, and it is not what the preachers imagined (based on their misreading of Revelation).

The dread judgment seat of Christ is actually something quite familiar, something that enters our life any number of times and on a regular basis. I suggest that you rid yourself of what you think a “throne” is, for the throne of Christ is nothing other than His Cross.

From the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:

Today the Cross is lifted up,
and all the world is sanctified.
For You, while enthroned with the Father
and with the All-holy Spirit,
by stretching out Your hands thereon,
have drawn the whole world to Yourself,
that it might know You, O my Christ.
Therefore, grant divine glory
to those who trust in Your goodness.

The irony of this identification (Cross and Throne) is revealed on the very day of the crucifixion. Kings are normally crowned while sitting on a throne. This King is crowned as He “sits” upon the Cross. It is proclaimed for all to see: “King of the Jews.” Orthodox iconography makes the irony yet more clear, by changing the description hanging above the crucified Christ into the “King of Glory.” The Cross is His throne and the Cross reveals His glory.

My childhood Christianity made a huge distinction between the Jesus of the Cross and the Jesus of Judgment Day. For all intents and purposes, they were two different entities. Jesus on the Cross was meek and mild. This, however, was treated like a temporary feint. The “real” Jesus was the one who was coming again and there was to be nothing meek or mild about that coming. The Cross was past tense. The coming throne could be seen in Revelation 20, and this was taken to be the true and permanent revelation of Christ.

There is so much lost in this modern mis-reading of Revelation. The champion of that book is the “Lamb who was slain,” and it is this Lamb who is most closely associated with “Him who sits upon the throne.” The Great Irony of the Christian gospel, is that all of these images of power are most clearly manifest in the Crucified Christ. Thus St. Paul says that he is determined to know only “Christ Crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) St. Paul does not treat this as a temporary, passing image, but the very image of God: “Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). This is not a momentary diversion. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. It is an eternal image and revelation.

It is Christ Crucified that reveals all things to be what they truly are. It unmasks every pretense of uprightness and self-justification. It welcomes the thief while the hypocrisy of others drives them away. This is the judgment that we avoid. Think back to the last argument you had. Perhaps you were in the right. Take that argument and stand before Christ on the Cross. For myself, I cannot imagine any such argument that I’ve had that isn’t revealed in its absurdity and emptiness in that context. Presently, we live in a world of arguments. Enslaved to our own shame and anger, we are slowly pulling each other down towards an abyss of meaninglessness. All of this is taking place in the presence of the Crucified Christ. It takes place before the dread judgment seat.

Understanding the nature of the judgment seat reveals why it is rightly called “dread.” It is not some fearful pronouncement we need fear so much as the truth of ourselves that is revealed in that place. The image of judgment in Matthew 25 (the sheep and the goats) is often drawn on by the imagination. Interestingly, the parable combines both the concept of “ontology” (our being) as well as “character” (our actions). It begins with sheep and goats – that is, what we actually are (ontology). And that description is revealed in the character of our actions: what did we do to the least of these in our lifetime? This is revealed to have been nothing other than the treatment of Christ Himself. We can say that we moment by moment stand before the dread judgment seat of the Crucified Christ. He is present in every opportunity of love and sacrifice, of mercy and generosity. With every embrace of Christ, our path moves more steadily to the right, becoming the path of a sheep. With every rejection, the path moves towards the left, the path of a goat. And with every opportunity, we not only move on that path, we become what the path reveals.

There are some who treat the parable as a reference to the heart of each individual – of the “sheep” or “goat” within. Very few of us are all goat, even fewer all sheep. It is similar to Solzhenitsyn’s reflection:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – The Gulag Archipelago

At the first revelation of the judgment seat, outside Jerusalem in 33 AD, most fled like frightened goats. The Beloved Disciple and the Mother of God remained steadfast, having long before settled the matter in their hearts. She was enduring the sword that would “pierce her own soul,” while St. John refused to abandon the One who loved him. He is given paradise that day in becoming the new son of that Holy Mother. That reality would later win him the footrace with Peter to the empty tomb.

Peter had encountered the Crucified Christ three times in the evening before (in the guise of those who accused him of being a follower of Jesus). With each challenge he bleated (like a goat), “I don’t know Him.” Such is the mercy of the Crucified Savior that Peter was not given over to the judgment of his own fear. A final question is put to him three times on the shore of the Galilee: “Peter, do you love me?” His answer impels him on the path of a sheep, one that will ultimately lead to his own crucifixion some 40 years later.

It is essential, I think, that we acknowledge that this judgment begins within our hearts. As we meet Christ in the disguise of shame (poor, hungry, naked, in prison) we are brought face to face with our own shame. It is invariably the case that those who are the kindest and most generous to the poor, hungry, naked and in prison, are those who themselves are poor, hungry, naked and in prison. I have witnessed this countless times. We should fear our excellence and our competence above all things.

Humility alone stands unashamed before the dread judgment seat of the Cross. And this is the greatest irony. For humility is nothing other than the voluntary bearing of a little shame. It has nothing in common with the modesty of the excellent. Be careful not to remove Christ from the Cross as you stand there. Many Christians have done frightful, angry and boastful things under the sign of a naked Cross.

The Elder Sophrony once said, “God never judges twice.” That which we bring before Christ now, we will never hear about again. Without shame or fear, those who willingly bear a little shame in this life will have none in the next. Peter’s judgment is instructive: The one who had denied Christ is not upbraided about that three-fold incident. He is asked, “Do you love me?” It was doubtless the most searching question that could have been spoken. It is the likeliest form that the judgment will take for us all. Many times each day.

27 comments:

  1. “Peter’s judgment is instructive: The one who had denied Christ is not upbraided about that three-fold incident. He is asked, “Do you love me?” It was doubtless the most searching question that could have been spoken. It is the likeliest form that the judgment will take for us all.”

    If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – The Gulag Archipelago

    YES.

  2. Father, the concept of “bearing a little shame” is everywhere in your work, but I’m ashamed to admit I’m not sure exactly what you mean by it.

    Is being ashamed good, or bad? On one hand, it seems like you say to be ashamed is bad: It keeps us from being whole and who we are created to be. On the other, you seem to say we need to be ashamed (at least a little?) in order to remain humble. I struggle to understand if “bearing a little shame” is the same as “being ashamed”, or if you are using the phrase “bearing a little shame” synonymously with “being humble.”

    Maybe you are saying that one cannot be humble without being ashamed? I’m not sure, so I thought I’d ask for clarity.

    Grateful for you.

  3. Thank you, Father. I can remember passing by beggars even this weekend. I saw them, recognized them, and turned away. “Do you love me?” is a trying question for the soul. Lord have mercy.

  4. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for these words. Since I don’t have a computer, it took me a while to see what the painting was portraying. The blessed Holy Mother at the feet of Jesus in her anguish. Some with jeering smiles, the religious gloating. Soldiers doing their grim duty, the open tomb, a few faithful followers, mostly women. Haunting.
    At different times I have been all of the above, with exception of the Holy Theotokos. The cross is my judgment. Yes, how trite and trivial seem our arguments when seen at His crucified feet. But there I must live also, having to bear my own cross. But for His peace and joy I feel I would be crushed beneath its weight. “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” Sweet words of encouragement from He who has gone before, and continues at our side.

  5. Aric,
    I will say much more – but along and along – I suspect. So, keep reading. But shame is a bit like asking about anger. Anger has both a positive and a negative aspect. It is essential in a human life, though is most often destructive. Shame, at its core, is a neuro-biological affect – that is, it is a physical/emotional reaction to certain things that is hard-wired. We’re supposed to experience it. We use the word most often for the very negative, destructive aspects of shame. But this is also misleading. At its heart, it is the experience of vulnerability, of being exposed (as in naked). In negative terms, it is how we feel about “who” we are, but in terms of our inadequacy, etc. But the mechanism of shame – that core “affect“, is not inherently negative. It’s just a reaction, like joy, disgust, anger, dissmell, and a number of others. It has some very peculiar properties – theorists call it the “master emotion” because it controls and triggers so many other things. Most of the shame we experience we do not notice as shame – but rather as anger or sadness, for example.

    It is the Elder Sophrony who taught “bear a little shame.” In some ways, it is gaining understanding and grace to get through the terrible web of emotions and reactions that are triggered by the experience of shame in order to reach the very core of our existence. It is generally masked and we never get there. Being able to bear it (even just a little) is also a liberation and a freedom that cannot come any other way. We cannot rid ourselves of shame any more than we can rid ourselves of surprise or anger or the other “affects.” But without growth in this – we become its slave. One way to describe bearing a little shame is “humility.” As I noted, humility is being able to bear your faults and incompetence. Most people think of humility as modesty – how we feel about our excellence. That’s for English gentlemen – not Christians. Hope that helps. Keep reading…

  6. Thank you for the reply Father.

    I guess I still wonder what it means to “bear” my faults. I spoke with a holy man recently who thought that my shame may be keeping me from experiencing Christ’s love: He mentioned that Christ is not ashamed of me, regardless of my many perceived faults.

    I view myself as unlovable (this is what I understand as shame). To “bear” it, I suppose, is to understand I am broken, but to still know that I am loved? To know Jesus sees me differently than I see myself? Forgive me, I’m a bit obtuse.

    I will indeed keep reading!

  7. Aric,
    The experience of feeling unlovable is indeed rooted in the experience of shame. It is, forgive my suggestions, probably rooted in some childhood experiences (such feelings generally are). It is when we first experience the rupture of communion. Parents often intend well but cannot avoid some rupture in the communion we desperately want from them. More often, the parents’ own emotional injuries get translated into difficult experiences. I grew up at a time that children were regularly beaten as part of their discipline. It transcended spanking. We frequently shame children as a means of discipline. We tell them not that they have done something wrong, but that they *are* something wrong. Of course, adolescence, particularly in school, is almost one unrelenting experience of shame. We are utterly unsure of who we are, of our identity. We form cliques to protect ourselves, but bullies still get through. It’s brutal. Among the most formative experience in people’s lives is the painful shame of adolescence.

    The healing of this negative shame requires a lot of love, a lot of care, a lot of reassurance. Being in the presence of Christ, and knowing that I am accepted in all of my brokenness, that He intends to heal me, but takes me as I am, regardless, is a key part of that healing. Many ministers in ignorance use shame to control people, seeking like ignorant parents to simply make people behave in a moral manner. It’s why I write as harshly about morality as I do. It’s often abused and coupled with devastating shame and does not do the work of God.

    You are beloved of God.

  8. An apology to recent commenters. There’s a glitch I’m having checked out (it’ll be late tomorrow since Ancient Faith’s IT guy lives in Hawaii) but the glitch has some people sending “messages” which is different than comments. I’m getting them in my email, but they’re not posting as comments. So, if you’ve intended to make a comment, and it hasn’t shown up, I’ve probably gotten it and I’ll send a private response…and try to get everything up and working right sometime tomorrow.

  9. Aric,

    I will share a bit about my poor attempts to “sit with my shame.” Perhaps it will be of help, perhaps not. I’m not even sure I’m doing it right… Fr. Freeman can correct me if I say something wrong.

    Anyway, I have been blessed (!) with a thorn in my flesh – a very high level of anxiety. (A therapist even diagnosed me with “Anxious Avoidant Personality Disorder” though he warned me not to get too caught up in identifying myself with the definition. However, it has helped me to “know myself” in the sense that these days, whenever I experience high levels of anxiety, I say to myself, “Why, there’s my old A-AvPD acting up again! Ha ha!” and try to carry on with “doing the good at hand” in the Present Moment.)

    To expand on the above, ever so often, when I do manage, by the undeserved grace of God, to get something right (e.g., stick to my time-table for a week at a stretch) a small voice of anxiety whispers into the ear of my mind, “Ha! What use is this anyway? You’ve wasted countless opportunities already by not corresponding to the grace of God! Do you really think you can repair the damage and wounds in your life?” In the older days, before I became a regular reader of this blog, I would think, “Yes, that’s true! It’s all useless anyway.” and then I would be immersed in the shame of my past failures, and would seek to “medicate the pain” by whatever distraction that was at hand (and in our digital age, we have no dearth of distractions!).

    But these days, whenever that insidious whisper comes up in my mind, I say to myself, “Yes, that’s true. I’m broken, but if I accept this fact that I’m broken, Christ can enter my hardened heart and heal my broken-ness, though it might take seventeen years like St. Mary of Egypt or even more than that. Also, it’s true that I’ll probably not be able to repair, ‘objectively speaking,’ the damage in my life. That’s all the more reason to do the right thing purely out of love for God and for the greater glory of God, rather than being motivated by the possibility of become a shining exemplar of moral uprightness among my fellow-men. It’s true that I’m an unprofitable servant, but the Lord in his graciousness has never turned away workers that showed up at his vineyard even at the eleventh hour! So let me focus on doing the good at hand, and not try to estimate what the future holds for me.”

    This is how I attempt to put into practice “sitting with my shame.”

    -NSP

  10. Aric, you are not obtuse. Seems like you are beginning to get it. I echo NSP but with.a wrinke. Recently God’s grace through Jesus Christ healed me of a certain shame. It was a long process that took years of facing a little bit at a time but the Crux of the healing came when I admitted to myself and others that I was powerless over it. I cryed out to God in utter helplessness. He responded. In an instant I.was transformed. Glory to Him. I also went and showed myself to my priest.

    Not only that, part of the indescribable moment was that I was shown the same grace reverberating to all of the damage I had done throughout my life attempting to hide and cover my shame. Reordering even in people now dead.

  11. The ‘shame-bearing’ of humility can perhaps also be understood better through the characterization of humility as ‘acceptance’, (which we are reluctant to do): acceptance of others, of God and of self, as they are (including one’s self), without any desire to change any of them, trustfully surrendering all to the Lord, gratefully remembering that things are as they should be for me, that God works His salvation for all through whatever my current situation is. There’s no humility without this reorientation of our inner ‘focus’ away from the demanding self to the accepted Other, to God, accepting the shame of our continuous disinclination towards this, of our ‘defaulting’ “back to self” at every second.
    Although our hope in God is inversely proportional to our blessed despair from self, the drive towards this ‘reorientation’ of our entire being comes first from one’s trust in God’s unfathomable love and second from one’s ‘hate’ [Luke 14, 26] of the old self– one’s desire for the release from the enslavement of our selfishness. Everything we do, ascesis, almsgiving, confession, fasting, prayer etc. is done within this framework. We incline our focus towards the One who truly is and away from the futility of everything else.
    Our shame at the constant inclination of our self towards the wrong direction (not God) is an honest. admission/ confession to the One who sees our hearts and Who can refashion them whenever and however He sees fit.
    Man’s inner inclination, even more so than one’s outward deeds, is the key here… “He who desires to do something and cannot, is seen as one and the same with the one who has actually done it in the eyes of the heart-seeing God. This is true of both good and bad.”
    St. Mark the Ascetic

  12. Not only that, part of the indescribable moment was that I was shown the same grace reverberating to all of the damage I had done throughout my life attempting to hide and cover my shame. Reordering even in people now dead.

    My priest if fond of saying, “Grace is communicable.” It does not simply flow into us but through us and into those around. “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

  13. Dear NSP,
    thank you very much for your message for Aric. I hope he finds it of use, I surely did.

    I had the same struggle to understand the concept and I went through the same process.
    I always heard this negative voice, plus it got worse when I was seeking communion and got rejected.

    God created us to have communion with Him. When all will be gone – us, this world – that’s all that’ll be left.
    Our mission in life is to try deepen and practice this type of communion – holy – with our brothers and sisters. Maybe it can never be fully accomplished because there are so many obstacles, but in trying this we learn about our God who wants us to be like Him.
    He didn’t create us then to serve practical purposes, to do this and that. This and that are secondary as long as we never lose sight of our main mission.

    This helped me to accept me as I am, to deal with the issues of my troubled childhood, to accept the ones surrounding me as they are – broken, as I am.

    Also a thought I got from a movie, maybe it sounds flimsy but it worked for me – could be that my life seems to be worth nothing (much), but that’s why the effort has even more merit, for keeping trying despite this thought. I think Saint Basil the Great said that all our inner dialogues are also heard in heaven. Oftentimes when I stumble with a big block of negativity, I only say: “Save us God, save us, ’cause by not being able to give You any answer, this prayer offer You, us, sinners” (approx. translation, sorry, I’m not English-speaker).

    May God comfort you and us all.
    A.

  14. What beautiful and helpful comments!
    Thank you Adriana, I really love your ‘movie advice’ – our life is worth little, but that is an even bigger reason to live it well and live it for the Glory of God. It is a gift from God anyways, so the only way to make it worth anything is to refer is back to God and accept everything as coming from Him, as Dino reminds us so beautifully. Thank you Dino!

    NSP, what a great example of “bearing a little shame”… Truly beautiful, and the only way to approach our life authentically and non-superficially. That quote from Mark the Acetic is so nice, God see our content, and our desires to please Him (or lack of it) and appreciates (or is saddened) by our effort (I also like the Adriana’s image of our inner dialogue being seen in heaven, what an inspiration to pray unceasingly!).

    “It’s true that I’m an unprofitable servant, but the Lord in his graciousness has never turned away workers that showed up at his vineyard even at the eleventh hour! So let me focus on doing the good at hand, and not try to estimate what the future holds for me.”

    NSP, this reminds me of hearing Fr. Zacharias a few times mentioning “the greatest of the commandments in the New Testament”! He would sometimes query his audiences about which is the greatest NT commandment? After hearing very good answers (“Love God and your neighbor”, “Love God with all your heart, mind and strength”) he would say: no, it’s in 17th Chapter of Luke, verse 10…

    “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”

    Thank you for sharing, and I join Adriana in her prayer to comfort you and all of us….

  15. Dino, thank you for elaborating on this “reorientation of our inner ‘focus.'” This only seems real to me during the Divine Liturgy. Your comment helped bring it into my day more today.

    Adriana, thank you for your comment about God creating us for communion with Him, with our brothers and sisters, and not just to serve practical purposes, doing this and that. In much of my pre-Orthodox Christian years, though blessed in many ways, there was an underlying sense of being an almost mechanical type of project of God’s, often with the fruits of the Spirit in Galations 5 (and evangelism) being a type of self-improvement undertaking measuring my spirituality and worth. The internal (and often external) pressure was and still residually is crippling. Hence, my appreciation for Dino’s comments and others’ and for this blog, which help me so much.

  16. Father Stephen,
    I was thinking about how varied in background…education, societal status, religious affiliation, training, nationality, life experiences, et cetera, are those who respond here. Some are highly trained in theology, others in psychology, some teachers, lawyers, doctors, stay at home moms, people in various trades, those in business, retirees like myself, even butchers, bakers and candlestick makers (like some nuns I know)! And all drawn here, again for varied reasons. Yet I am so thankful that any of us can respond here and not feel threatened that our ideas or opinions may not count. Because we are so different (but in many ways the same) each commenter, I am certain, reaches a particular set of persons. Each sees life through a different prism and the light reflected does catch the attention of some other. So, thank you all who comment. I gain so much not only from Fr. Freeman’s essays, but also from each one of you.

  17. Thank you Father Stephen and thank you all who are vulnerable enough to share here – exposing yourselves in this forum is a humility that is producing much fruit in my life, and I am so very grateful.

    ‘Humility alone stands unashamed before the dread judgement seat of the Cross’
    Every time I read this particular blog there is more …bearing my shame is me without any explanation or excuse or minimization or drama standing in my sin without any words, in the presence of our dear Christ…even more standing before Him on His throne of the Cross bearing all sin, as a Crucified and Risen Lamb…THIS is my King, the One I have tried to avoid – with all my perfectionism, self-judgement and despair. This is where His healing is, standing in, bearing my shame before the One who carries ALL shame – the paradox of paradoxes…dear Christ, help us bear our shame before You that You might exchange it for Your glory in Your time.

  18. “Think back to the last argument you had.
    Perhaps you were in the right.
    Take that argument and stand before Christ on the Cross.
    For myself, I cannot imagine any such argument that I’ve had that isn’t revealed in its absurdity and emptiness in that context.”

    Absolutely brilliant, shining perfection. This image will stay with me for the rest of my life.

  19. Dean…well said. I too am thankful that we can respond here and not feel threatened.
    Father, your responses to Aric help me to face the root of my insecurities. It is one thing to know about them. It is another thing to bear the shame and face them. The thought of being unlovable, the result childhood experiences which create a great deal of shame…a view of the self as marred, and therefore impossible to love and be loved, is truly almost impossible to bear. As it is said, this leads to anger and depression. There is something I found in Christ, His life giving power of love, that broke through all this. Somehow, He revealed Himself to me and made me able to begin to heal through Him. Your articles, the teachings of the Church, all point to the Cross…the beginning and the end of all things, all circumstances, all sufferings, life itself. When I contemplate the depth of the Cross, one of the (many) profitable effects is that it helps get the focus off myself and onto Him. It is only there where I begin to understand the meaning of union/communion with Him, and see that this can only be done in and through the Church. Entrance into the Church, His body, was the true beginning of my healing. Indeed, it is the healing of all creation.
    Your articles have been remarkably helpful in dealing with these personal issues. Even more so now, as I realize how my negative attitude quenched the grace I might have received to lead to a better understanding of life as seen through the eyes of the Church. Anger and frustration are as much grace-quenching, as love, forgiveness and humility is grace-producing.
    So Father, I thank you again and again. Certain topics taught and discussed, combined with recommended books have been a blessing. Plus the blog site as another wonderful place of communion. Thank you kindly for your labors here. And thanks to all of you who comment.
    Glory to You, O Lord, Glory to You!

  20. I also found NSP’s explanation very helpful and common to my experience. I bear a little shame through admitting to my faults and weaknesses as they rear their heads. Doing so not only diffuses the evil one’s whispers in my ears but it also allows me to carry on with my day. Over time it is as if I was about to step into a big hole and then someone points it out. I thank them, sidestep the hole and keep going. While before the fact that there are big holes in my life would be a reason for despair. But on those occasions when I trust in Christ for the answer to these things, I am then able to acknowledge their existence and keep living, keep breathing.

  21. “‘Do you love me?’ It was doubtless the most searching question that could have been spoken. It is the likeliest form that the judgment will take for us all. Many times each day.” My immediate thought: “Yep!”

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