The Senselessness of Suffering and Death

I recently posted a note on social media in which I said that Christ’s death and resurrection changed the “senseless” character of death. Therefore, Christians need no longer fear it. I got a bit of push-back.

What is senseless about suffering and death?

There are two aspects of suffering and death that are particularly felt to be senseless. The first is suffering that seems to have no purpose: the death of a child quickly comes to mind. The second is death itself: regardless of what we do in this life, we come to an end and pass back into dust. This latter thought is presented in a very stark manner in both the book of Job and Ecclesiastes. The brevity of our existence has always been seen as a challenge to any transcendent meaning. Purpose is swallowed up by meaninglessness.

I am certain that some of the push-back I received was a reaction to so much of popular Christianity that tries to put a happy face on everything in the world. Such glib and shallow treatments of suffering deserve the scorn they receive. On the other hand, no reader of this blog has ever accused me of treating suffering and death lightly. Indeed, in the past year, my writing was described as full of “existential despair.” I certainly hope it is.

The Scriptures, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, do not shy away from the abyss of meaningless suffering. Isaiah states something of the paradox that confronts believers:

The Voice said, “Cry out!”
And he said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is as grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.” (Isa. 40:6-8)

The meaninglessness of our passing existence is brought into contrast with the transcendent reality of God. The great paradox for believers is the question of what one of these has to do with the other. Is the transcendence of God nothing more than a mockery of what we are? Does His exemption from suffering and death do nothing more than increase our misery? Those who approach this mystery in that manner (for whom the transcendence of God usually stands for nothing more than an idea) understandably rail at Christians for our easy pronouncements regarding suffering and death.

This is made all the more problematic by various forms of Christianity that marginalize suffering and death. They are treated like punishments, a suffering that we deserve. The Christian life becomes a moral exercise and an arena where religious belief alone brings a lasting reward. Sometimes, we deserve to be mocked.

But this is not classical Christianity: it is a cheapened version reducing the faith to a postcard and making it a subset of the American Dream.

The problem of suffering and death, the absence of transcendent meaning and existence, are at the true heart of the Christian faith in its classical form. Christianity, properly understood and taught, does not treat suffering and death as problems within something else – they are seen as the very problem itself of our existence and the heart of the Christian gospel. …

Among the most primitive proclamations of the faith is:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Christ is not seen as dying in order to pay a sin debt. Death and sin are synonymous. When the Orthodox say, “sin,” we mean “death,” and all that it entails.

We proclaim that Christ has “trampled down death by death.” This could be restated as “Christ has trampled down senseless suffering and death by senseless suffering and death.” We do not deny that suffering and death are senseless – indeed, that is an inherent part of the problem. Our teaching is that God, in Christ, has Himself become the complete senselessness of suffering and death, such that He has filled them with Himself (cf. 2Cor. 5:21). Suffering and death no longer stand as an absurd triumph over existence, but are now themselves filled with existence.

This is something we say, not by looking at suffering and death. If we look directly at them, we see only suffering and death with all of their senselessness. But we confess our faith by looking at the resurrection of Christ. That event alone is the single evidence of Sense trampling down senselessness, of death trampling down death.

In the resurrection of Christ these things have been abolished – though, that truth is only seen from within. And it is at that point that our conversations come to a stop. I cannot argue with anyone who beholds suffering in this world and declares it to be “senseless.” Of course, it is. And there is nothing whatsoever within that suffering that makes it otherwise.

Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words “heaven” and “hell” has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.

Christ’s resurrection is not an argument: it is a reality. As such it does not serve as a logical solution to the absurd nature of suffering and death. It is only in union with that reality that we can see within suffering and death anything other than complete meaninglessness. This, however, is the very proclamation of the Christian faith. Christ is risen, trampling down meaninglessness by meaninglessness, filling it with Himself, such that this meaninglessness itself is undone and becomes meaning itself.

Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.




  1. Father,
    Another article I’ll reread.
    As you know, I spoke at a funeral yesterday. I tried to infuse my words with hope. I think it was a sober reflection on my brother’s in law life and hopefully a testament to our faith. The separation death brings is always hard to bear. You note that much of modern Christianity deals quite shallowly and blithely with death. I am not exaggerating the following. My uncle was a godly man. However, at the behest of his children, the ending of his evangelical funeral was like a circus event…people singing a raucous chorus, standing, clapping, smiling, almost more than I could bear. Thank you for your sobering, serious thoughts on death and suffering.

  2. Fascinating post, but what if we can’t yet see reality the way you’ve described? I’ve often been frustrated to hear Heaven/the Rapture/the Resurrection as an excuse to forget current problems (i.e., climate change, racial conflict, poverty… WAR). I don’t know what to believe about heaven or, if it even exists, that I’ll make it there. I want to know how to understand/alleviate my suffering, the suffering of the mentally ill folks I work with every day, and the suffering of their families…

  3. Father,
    I am not sure if I grasp what you are saying. This piece is a tough read for me. Given that our temporal existence [what we call our lives] is filled with meaningless suffering and death, does that mean our temporal existence is meaningless as well? Am I to conclude that our human existence is therefore pointless? If our human existence is meaningless, why were we brought into being on earth at all? Is it to endure our meaninglessness lives as a mere prelude to physical death?

  4. Chris,
    To a certain extent, the Orthodox faith would say that Hell is the primary location for the preaching of the gospel. In the stories we tell surrounding Pascha, we include first, the descent of St. John the Baptist into hell to proclaim there the coming of Christ. And, of course, it is Christ’s descent into hell, preaching and setting at liberty those who are held captive that is the very center focus of the proclamation on the night of Holy Pascha. Christ is risen! is first shouted in Hell. It is the true place where the victory begins.

    Extending that (reading backwards), it begins to reveal that Christ’s entire ministry on earth was always a Descent into Hell. It was to the poor, the sick, the halt, the blind, those bound in every possible way (including by demons) that he specifically came. And wherever He was, it became Paradise.

    If Paradise is not proclaimed in the very darkest part of Hell, then it is not worth proclaiming at all…Hell would always threaten to contradict its value.

    This is the great mystery “hidden from before the ages” as St. Paul says. This is the mystery of Christ crucified. I’ll admit, that it sounds quite mystical to say that this is the only true way to know Christ…but that is the clear teaching of the Scriptures.

    As an Orthodox Christian, I would urge you to get an Orthodox icon of the resurrection (which pictures Christ in hell, trampling down death, and taking Adam and Eve by the hand). Read the sermon of St. John Chrysostom. Sit before the icon and listen. Do that for a time each day. It will reveal itself to you in time.

  5. Paul, in and of itself, our temporal existence would indeed be pointless and meaningless. That is very much the point of Ecclesiastes. The Scripture does not wince when it observes this. And it is only when we see this that we can begin to understand Christ’s death and resurrection. His death and resurrection transforms this temporal existence. My temporal existence, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, are full of meaning and hope, of the sweetness of paradise. And not because, from time to time, they are pleasant enough to make me forget the suffering and death that awaits me.

    Read the Akathist Hymn, Glory to God for All things. These words were written and copied within the experience of the Soviet Gulag. They are a true revelation of the transforming reality of Christ’s Pascha. We do not know life until we know death. It is only revealed to us in that context. As we avoid death and suffering and pretend that our life is something other than that, we are delusional. Those who think they have life are dead. Only those who go ahead and “lose” their lives now (in Christ) are truly alive. That’s pretty much the message of the gospel.

  6. Indeed, The Resurrection is the reality. Only a fully incarnate God can ressurect.
    He fills all things with life.

  7. Father,
    I’m not Orthodox; I’m Catholic, so even though I follow your blog, I guess I don’t quite understand Orthodox belief. I believe in the “resurrection of the flesh and the life of the world to come.” I believe in the new heaven and new earth, not as metaphor, but as reality – much as N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis have also written. What you describe here doesn’t sound like the Christianity I understand. What is the Gospel we tell then, if it is not the overcoming of death – actual overcoming, not just a Buddhist-like reconciliation with it and finding peace in the now? Why would Christ have to die to accomplish that? And to think of all the people who have died and will die, believing that death is not the final end. It’s like a trick. It reminds me of the old movie, Logan’s Run, in which, when people turned thirty, they got a fake chance to ascend to new life, but actually all of them were being killed. There was no new life.

  8. “Of course, it’s hard to put that on a bumper sticker.”

    Now you say that, but if the font is sufficiently small…

    There is so much treasure in your post that it could warrant a book about Resurrection and the true meaning of Heaven its own right. I find that I can hardly ever repeat with conviction what you describe so well. It serves as a humbling reminder that one should only speak about matters one knows. And remain silent on others. My children would be spared so much confusion 🙂

  9. Cynthia,

    Perhaps I have been unclear in what I have written. I am certainly speaking of a new heaven and a new earth, not metaphorical but real. I thought I was quite clear that Christ “tramples down death by death.” Christ’s coming out of the tomb is no metaphor. Neither is His entering into hell. We can, however, metaphorically extend to describe our fallen existence – indeed, it is more than metaphor. A world where children suffer and die horrible deaths is indeed a manifestation of hell and the reign of death. And Christ defeats that.

    However, He doesn’t defeat it by waving a wand and making it disappear. He defeats it by actually dying. He truly enters death and hell and destroys them. But that destruction is a transformation so that now, our own death (as does our life) participates in His death and tramples down death as well. And we will be resurrected and live in the “new heaven and the new earth.” Nothing Buddhist about that.

    Read Romans 6. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that as many of as are Baptized, are Baptized into His death?” Christ doesn’t die “instead” of us…we still die. But “if we die with Him” (in Baptism) we shall also live with Him (trampling down death by death, including death in its most literal form). Most Christians leave Christ’s descent into hell out of their thinking. In Orthodoxy we do not. It is quite central in the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection. The implications of that are essential in the faith – certainly within the Eastern fathers.

    I’m actually baffled by what you have written – wondering how you got that from what I wrote. But, again, I must have been less than clear.

  10. Thank you for your post, Father. I quite love what you have written. Personally, I see Christ as the greatest witness (“martyr”); He’s also the Judge. But His death on the Cross is the ultimate witness against death and the evil one. He is, after all, the truly innocent One. Thus, death is defeated within the eschatological framework of the age, and His death and suffering have meaning for all the world. He gives us something in which to participate in our own ways.

    You wrote:
    “Contemporary presentations of heaven and hell often play to the postcard reduction of the faith. Discussions of heaven and hell as answers to suffering and death are like proposing Santa Claus as an answer to poverty. Our conversations must go deeper. That which is referenced by the words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ has no resemblance to the semi-pagan parodies of popular conversation. They have meaning only in the context of the abyss of existential despair.” I write to request that you please elaborate (“go deeper”) on heaven and hell in future posts! Thank you again.

    Yours sincerely,

  11. Cynthia, if I may. Perhaps you have a perspective that is a bit too linear? Christ’s entry into His Creation is total and includes the Ressurection. In a sense it all happens at once but it is hard to describe since it is beyond what we normally experience. It is extrodinarily dynamic. All things are made new in a deeply intimate and personal way yet interconnected and intertwined to everything else at the same time. It is absolutely nothing like Buddhism but it has been seriously attenuated in most of the Christian world.
    Fr. Stephen describes it as a one story universe.

  12. Fr. Stephen,

    I am having a bit a difficulty with this post – not because I think you are incorrect but because of something that seems missing. I am quite sure that it is not missing from your faith but its omission here serves as a distraction – to my way of thinking.

    The death of Jesus in and of itself did not trample down death. Death is not what saves us.

    It is His love that saves us.

    Christ did not need to enter death for two reasons: 1. He never sinned. 2. He was true God as well as true man.

    Hence, He did not stand to gain anything personally by entering into our plight (death, separation from God). His emptying of Himself was completely voluntarily and for no other reason than love.

    It was not simply that He was captured and executed. He gave Himself up BEFORE He was arrested. The Eucharist is our evidence of this truth.

    We are saved because He “undid” the sin of Adam in His death – for His voluntary death was the most perfect, humble and loving act possible for a human being. He gave up His human life, His dignity, His own will, completely out of love.

    And He did not do this for just one person or those who followed Him but for all people, even (or perhaps especially) for the greatest of sinners, the most lost of the lost.

    Death could not hold Him captive – it has no more power over Him. Though His physical death was very real, His resurrection shows us that His love is stronger than death and opens the way to a glorious New Life. (He did not glorify Himself, of course. Rather He was glorified by the Father.)

    We are invited to follow Him into the New Life. And following Him means embracing the Cross as He did. We will suffer and we will die the bodily death but, with Him, we need not be afraid.

    We may well have transient human fears and sorrows, as He did, but we now know them for what they are. Following Him, we bear them humbly and rejoice in being able to love with Him.

    We cannot be part of this love through any goodness of our own. But when we say “yes” to His invitation to follow, He will lead us where we need to go and instruct us with His Spirit.

    (Of course, you already know all of this. I simply needed to write it once again.)

  13. Mary, please forgive me as I attempt an answer to a part of your question. As a long time reader, you likely know I am an infant in the faith and because of that, I hesitate to write in repose to your question. I’m hoping that my answer will be corrected as needed.

    I believe Father writes correctly the Orthodox understanding that it is Christ’s death that tramples down death. If I may say, in other words, Christ’s death transforms the ‘ontological reality’ of death. Christ enters into death fully human and fully God. Christ enters into death as he entered life, as Love and God incarnate and as a human being . Yet He is Life. This Life entering death transforms it. Death is corruption and destruction of our mortal life to non-existence, and ‘logically’ cannot contain Life. There is a paradox but a reality that death is no longer what it was. I’ll stop at this point only because there is a lot more in the words that are spoken in the tradition and my own words are inadequate.

  14. I’m stuck on my usage of the word logically and feel that it is better to say ‘ontologically’ again, and yet this word seems to be inadequate also.

  15. Mary,
    I understand wanting to make love primary. I think, however, what I have written handles what the Scriptures and the Tradition actually say and emphasize. No treatment should minimize death. Death and sin are synonymous for the Orthodox. It is death into which we fall from the Garden. Etc.

  16. Father am I correct to say that unless He entered fully into death, voluntarily and without necessity, the Ressurection would not be complete either. That, it seems, is what was happening in the Garden. That also is part of the death of Lazarus as well-Christ’s grief at Lazurus’ death it seems to me.

  17. Perhaps I need to clarify what I meant…I was not intending to contradict but to elaborate.

    If Jesus, the human being, had merely been captured and executed, His death “in and of itself” would not have led to our salvation. He needed to be both God and man. His entering into death needed to be voluntary and not motivated by self-interest (e.g. “let’s see what they say after I rise from the dead!”). And it needed to be a *love unto death*.

    Hence, death is not minimized in the least – it is absolutely essential. But it is only in this perfect act of love by the God-man that Life enters death and changes the ontological reality of death. Otherwise it would be just another death of a human being.

    My (unnecessary) post was intended as more of a reflection than a source of information – as I am assuming that Fr. Stephen and the readers already know these things about Jesus. Please forgive me if my ramblings detracted from the discussion.

  18. “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
    Mary, first, I don’t see your comments as unnecessary nor distracting. I do, though, wonder if “love” is primary in your thoughts on Christ’s death, as Father said.
    You say :
    “The death of Jesus in and of itself did not trample down death. Death is not what saves us. It is His love that saves us.”
    I quoted that verse from 1Cor. as that came to mind…the point being if Christ had not died, trampling down death by His death, and Risen from the dead, then as Paul states, our faith is futile and we’re still in our sins. In other words, His death is a saving act. It is confusing to me when you attempt to separate Christ’s death with His love and say it is His love that saves. His love encompasses every single fiber of His being, every act He does. In an effort to prove your point that His love is what saves, you say it is not death in and of itself that saves, including His death. Christ’s death, and only His death, does indeed save, His death in and of itself, because no one else has ever, and will ever, do such a thing. His love is inseparable from His death, and His death saves. And we die to our old selves and enter into His death…a death that saves.
    So forgive me Mary, as I too am not the most eloquent in the bunch here…I am only sharing my thoughts. And I sincerely have always welcomed your comments here on this blog. I appreciate the differences in our thoughts and learn much from them.

  19. Thank you very much, sir. I am not a believer, but this holds my attention, and sets a challenge that most contemporary versions of Christianity do not.

  20. EPG,
    If most contemporary versions of Christianity were actually what Christianity taught, I would not be a believer, either. They are terrible distortions in many ways. What I have shared is, essentially, the classical teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith (Eastern Orthodox). It is the oldest form of Christianity, and the second largest group of Christians in the world, but is not very well represented in the West.

  21. Paula,

    Thanks for your kind words. Probably most of my comments do not need to be made…I read the post and find myself writing a comment, even when I didn’t intend to.

    Certainly Christ’s death tramples down death. I am absolutely not disputing that. But this is true because it is CHRIST’S death.

    I agree with what Fr. Stephen wrote: “Death and sin are synonymous…” (for this Catholic as well as for the Orthodox).

    If a reader did not understand the context and simply read that Christ “trampled down death with death”, they might well be puzzled. How can death destroy death? Can sin destroy sin? (The latter we know is not the case – people have been committing sins for centuries in an effort to destroy other people’s sins. We call it war.)

    My reflection was simply one way in which I understand HOW Christ’s death tramples down death.

    I am not attempting to separate Christ’s love from His death. I am trying to separate His death from all other deaths. (Which is my reason for noting what I understand to be the central aspects of His death that makes it uniquely redemptive: that He entered it, voluntarily and humbly, as both God and Man, and with perfect love.)

    If we see death and sin as synonymous, would we say that Christ trampled down sin with sin? If we say it this way, it sounds as though we are saying that it is sin that has the power to save. This, of course, is absurd. Jesus did not sin and thereby save us; He BECAME sin and set us free.

    How His death saves us, what it means that He became sin – are for me essential mysteries of our faith that are often difficult for us to comprehend, let alone explain to nonbelievers. For this reason I reflect on them and share the reflections, striving to deepen my understanding as I write.

    (Note that I am not shouting when I use all caps – I don’t know how to create italics or bold font when adding emphasis.)

  22. Fr. Stephen,

    A question: I recently heard someone teach that it would have been impossible for Jesus to sin because He was God. I found that teaching disturbing – as it suggests that Jesus was not truly human and that the temptations He was subjected to were no struggle for Him.

    While in the eternal Now of Christ’s divinity it was already known that He would not sin, it seems to me that He could not have known this and still be “true man”. Yet some teach that, in His humanity, Christ never ceased having access to all of the Father’s knowledge.

    I would appreciate if you could shed any light on what the Church teaches in this regard – if the question is not too tangential. Thanks.

  23. If you can’t get your wisdom on to a bumper sticker, you need to get a bigger pickup truck! I believe that is in Hezekiah 14:16.
    Good thoughts.
    I think you need to write some more elucidation on this, because it is so counterintuitive to many streams of contemporary thought or lack of thought.
    The way I see the problematic thinking/theology most commonly expressed these days, often by Christians, is “Everything happens for a reason.”
    My bet is that 90 percent of American Christians would say that motto is true. I suppose it’s kind of a vestige of Calvinistic teaching? I’m pretty sure it’s far from true. A in John Piper’s teaching that Jesus sends tornadoes to kill babies in the Midwest for some heavenly reason.
    Perhaps you could explain why it isn’t true. (Or am I barking up the wrong bumper?)
    At the regular contract price we have with you!

  24. Fr. Freeman
    One of the more dubious “gifts” of the modern world has been the coverage of worldwide suffering . I can only imagine that the suffering of the ancient world was enough. Whether by war or pestilence or oppression, suffering was confined to localized areas. That doesn’t by any means reduce the effect on those who actually suffered, but modern technology has introduced us to a virtual sea of sufferings the magnitude of which threatens to be overwhelming.

    I admit that I seem to live a sort of practical detachment. I am not a “great soul”. I watch the news fitfully somewhat like one addicted to something that does him harm. In the light of mass suffering, I see in myself both a temptation to coldness one the one hand and despair on the other. I am too small to think globally. It is difficult enough for a soul like mine to be a follower of Jesus locally.

    As I thought about what you wrote, besides feeling like a man who brings a dinner knife to a fencing match, I wondered if there is a distinction between “senseless” and the idea of “needless” suffering. Furthermore, I wondered if it isn’t the thought that suffering is needless that generates the “push back” you experienced.

    I once proposed to a friend that to be disillusioned is actually a good thing, but that is not to say that it comes about without pain. I believe that the words of Job and Ecclesiastes are true, but they are not the ones that get me out of bed and propel me to work in the morning. And neither, by the way do bumper stickers.

  25. Tim,
    “Everything happens for a reason,” is well-meant, and means to preserve an understanding that God is good. Probably the most problematic thing we can say about suffering is that it is for our good or that it has a good intention behind it. That is particularly true when we see the suffering of the innocent.

    Much of these problems is rooted in a cause-and-effect linear account of life when we speak of God. I wrote in a recent article about the understanding of the cause being located at the end of things. It is a more careful way of speaking, rooted in Scripture and particularly a number of the Fathers (Maximus, Nyssa).

    The end of things is described in Ephesians 1: that God is drawing all things together in one, in Christ Jesus. The end is our true good.

    It is a way of saying that despite the things that happen, God’s purpose for us is constant, drawing us past and through whatever happens towards the good. It does not say that God causes these terrible things to happen in order to create a greater good.

    The mystery, it seems to me, is in the paradox of a free creation and the will of a good God. The Cross, God’s voluntary suffering, represents His own entrance into history and participation in our suffering. That participation reflects His redeeming – His draw us towards the good despite the suffering.

    What I am suggesting in the article, is, for all intents and purposes, a recognition that we can knowingly participate in the end – now. That is something of a “mystical” reality, something that is hidden and not seen from the outside.

    Often, the contemporary use of glib statements are little more than efforts to shield ourselves from the psychological trauma of the suffering around us, an attempt to put a happy face on things. America does not suffer well. Our culture is exceedingly shallow, driven by pleasure and consumption. We do not have a depth of soul. Indeed, because of our peculiar history (coterminous with the modern project) we may well be the most shallow culture ever to grace the surface of the planet.

  26. (Note that I am not shouting when I use all caps – I don’t know how to create italics or bold font when adding emphasis.)

    Mary Benton.
    For italics (couch your statement/word between):

    For bold (couch your statement/word between):

    Hopefully, this comes through correctly!

  27. Byron, I’ll give it a try:

    Mary, to put a word in italics, put a put the carats and the i together without spaces. Then type the word(s). After the word(s), type a < followed by / followed by i followed by <

    To bold something, do the same thing, only use a b instead of an i.

  28. Mary,
    Oh I am glad you responded! Now I better understand your train of thought!
    As for questionable comments, I often think the same of mine, as the thoughts in my mind do not easily go onto “paper”. And because of that, they get lengthy. Mercy! Yet when I read the responses of all of us here, there is not one that doesn’t cause me to think. As Father has said, the blog wouldn’t be the same without the comments (said something like that!).
    So, ok…you say “Christ’s death tramples down death…this is true because it is CHRIST’S death… ” is exactly my point. As for the “how” of this, I agree that it is one of the mysteries of the faith. Trying to explain this to a non-believer or even modern Christians, caught up way too much in secular thought, is down right impossible. The best we can do is respond sincerely, hoping that as we communicate the truth of the faith it will linger in their heart…as the Spirit moves…and cause them to ponder these things.
    You give a good example of a “logical” train of thought, ie, if death tramples death, then sin must trample down sin. But how do you explain *how* Christ became sin without sinning? Again…a mystery. Contrary to secular thinking, to accept the mysteries is to at some point set aside logic. Somewhere faith enters and we accept and embrace these mysteries. As I write this I think of the many times Father mentions “the upside-down” of reality, true reality exposed in Christ. We are mocked because of this. Well, Christ warned us, didn’t He?! Contrary to popular Christian thought, our station here in this life is not bliss! It is blessed, but not bliss…upside-down indeed!
    Where you say the essential mysteries of our faith are hard to comprehend and the reason why “I reflect on them and share the reflections, striving to deepen my understanding as I write.” Me too, Mary! That’s what we do here. That’s why this blog is such a blessing!
    I can not finish without thanking you, Father, for this ministry of yours. As a servant of the Lord, through you He blesses us, even in our unworthiness. A ‘bright sadness’, the paradox, the turning on the head…if I hadn’t begun to understand these things I truly believe I’d be at least ‘zombie-like’ dead. Glory to God, thank you!

  29. Paula,
    Thanks for the comment. Indeed, our community of comments is probably much more important than the blog itself for many…it is something that “makes it work.”

    I also appreciate the thanks. I assure you that the good things in this ministry are a gift and not anything of my own “excellence.” I was recently called out by someone who accused me of “arrogance” because I (apparently) do not scold people for saying nice things to me. If I did that over the course of the blog’s 11 years, I think it would simply be tedious in the extreme. Like anyone, I deeply appreciate words of encouragement. Some days they are a balm to my soul. Accusations of arrogance are like acid, echoing the accusing voice of the evil one.

    So, thanks for your kind words and the tremendous patience that everyone shows in their comments and questions.

  30. mary benton. Italics put before a word or phrase. Put. After the word or phrase. Use strong I’d you want to hold something.

  31. I’m going to try the italics and bold to see if I have it down…

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for this blog. My faith has grown so much over the 5+ years I’ve been reading it.

    It is not arrogant to recognize that we have been given gifts. Humility is not to deny our gifts but to recognize that they come from God and give Him the praise and glory.

  32. I too suffer from a kind of attention deficit disorder; I’m unable to stay focused on one thing for very long. So, I have several books open to the respective page in each book I left off at. When my attention quota depletes on one text I move to another. Just before reading your article I came upon two separate lines. The first was Jaroslav Pelikan: “If Jesus rose from the dead, nothing else matters. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, nothing else matters.” The second was C.S. Lewis: “It is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should reach it.” I am absolutely certain that, were I not Orthodox, neither of these quotes would have made any sense to me. Of the two, the first has proven to be the most important daily consolation when I catch myself, in unguarded moments, stopping to listen to the clamoring, chaotic chatter of the world. Thanks, Father. Thanks very much!

  33. I am personally grateful that you have not scolded me or anyone for our praise. Most of us get scolded enough in the normal course of time! 😊

    Besides if one is blessed or has been helped and lifted up by another it just naturally pours forth – plus I get the feeling that there is a balance between the praise and the comments – perhaps when you are misunderstood – which might give you a heartache or a headache. And please forgive me if I have ever been one to cause either…

  34. Yep. But I saw Bold! in Mary’s last comment so maybe the question is answered?

    If not: without the space (for italics)
    without the space (for bold)

  35. Re: Italics and bold type:
    I wonder if someone could spell out, perhaps in a document, exactly how to place the symbols, so we can see what the whole thing looks like, and then paste the document here. That’s if what I’m asking is even possible and not too much of an effort.

  36. How about this:
    This text is bold
    Leave out the “+” should give you bold? This text is bold
    Same thing for italics
    This text is italic
    Leave out the “+” gives you This text is italic

  37. Good to know people get messed up with writing on computers too! In college we had to write our papers with a typewriter (1970’s). Some profs required footnotes at the bottom of the page. It took me 30-40 minutes to peck out a page. Often I’d get to the bottom and find I hadn’t left enough room…grrr! A wonder I graduated. 🙂

  38. This post, and the following comments have led me to what I think might be a new realization as to what I think could be the source of something that deeply divides Western Christians, particularly Protestants, and the Eastern Churches.

    That is, the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Growing up, the emphasis was always upon how Christ took our punishment (death). How we deserved death. How he was born to die for our sins (12 days for Christmas). There are the stations of the Cross in the Latin Church, which focuses on the pain and shame Christ faced in his last last days before death. There’s the idea of self mortification. The Reformation was instituted largely over a dispute on whether or not you could “buy off” death. I think I read that John Wesley felt it important to emphasize the more grotesque aspects of Christ’s death as a motivation toward more pious behavior. All of this gives you penal substitution theory, and the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ.
    Christ died to pay for your sins, then he was resurrected because he was God.
    In hindsight, with such an emphasis, I can see why you have some “protestants” talking about finding the “bones” of Christ.

    On the other hand, Orthodoxy, with it’s emphasis on Christ rising from the dead, and upon those in tombs bestowing life. The message changes. Did Christ have to die? Well, if you are going to rise from the dead, you kind of have to, but any punishment is not found in the gory details leading up to the Cross. Instead it is found in the parable of the vineyard, all are paid a days wage whether they worked a full day or not, the prodigal son comes home and is greeted with open arms in spite of his prior behavior. In short, the “punishment” is life with Christ – whether you like it or not.
    Christ lives and you are saved because he was resurrected from death…

    I am open to criticism of this idea, as its only really a thesis I’m exploring in my own mind. But I would be extremely curious to see if this dichotomy resonates with anyone else here.

  39. Be careful not to conflate the Roman Catholic view of atonement with that of Calvin and other Protestant leaders. Aquinas has a very different view than Anselm and certainly Calvin. Anselm appears to be the first Latin theologian to break from the Eastern/Orthodox explanation of Christ’s death. Aquinas’s view was not legalistic, i.e., the balancing some cosmic scale of justice articulated by Calvin and other post Luther Protestants. Aquinas also articulated the Roman church’s view of original sin which is different than the Orthodox view. The latter point has helped me better appreciate the Orthodox emphasis on Christ defeat of sin/death and Satan’s hold over mankind.

  40. I have heard it explained as the Western Christian lives in the shadow of the Cross while the Eastern Christian lives in the Glory of the Resurrection. In many ways I think that statement is accurate.

  41. Nicholas,
    I don’t think we separate them. Notions like “joyful sorrow” and such echo the paradox of saying Cross and Resurrection at the same time. Indeed, we generally refer to the Descent Into Hell icon the Resurrection icon…It is the one displayed at Pascha. It is, I think, an icon of both at the same time.

  42. HTML code for bold and italics. Use brackets. Before and after the text. For italics an the letter i is put inside the first bracket. The brackets at the end contained /i.
    For bold use strong and /strong.

    Italics Bold

  43. I agree Father. We do not forget the Cross but we are not stuck there which is what I think the person who made that statement was expressing. We cannot come to the Resurrection without first experiencing the Cross even in our own lives.

  44. I think the main separation of East and West revolves around beards. We got ’em; they don’t. This also fits the “joyful sorrow” theme that Father brought up.

    Maybe. 😉

  45. Mark,

    I so appreciated your comment.

    Some time ago, my wife and I decided decisively to cut off cable, our watching of most Network TV, and virtually all national and international news. We still hear the “news” (primarily via the radio when driving), so I don’t want sound like some pious ascetic (I am not). But even this small step has transformed our life.

    What we realized is that when we look out the window, shop at the store, go to work, or do just about anything we rarely see even a hint of the supposed crises, racial tensions, political riots, mass murders, or any other mania that the media seems bent on convincing their viewers will overwhelm us at any moment. We look around us and see little for which we cannot be utterly grateful. Tragedies happen, of course, but they are now personal to us. The suffering we encounter is that of those whom we can actually call our neighbors (those we encounter personally) rather than essentially ‘nameless’ people whom we ourselves cannot know or touch and are largely powerless to love in a manner other than prayer.

    I am convinced that we are not made to know everything that happens in this world, much less respond to it in love. It is a sort of knowledge that is impersonal, useless, and even damaging to the soul. At least this is my experience.

    I think it was Lewis who said something to the effect that there is no such thing as the sum total of human suffering. There is only the suffering that is experienced by each human person, many of whom are our neighbors – the ones whom Christ commanded us to love and the only ones we have any possibility of actually loving. How utterly distracted we were! We thought that we were ‘caring’ about the world by paying attention to its suffering, and all the while Lazarus was sitting at our gate.

  46. mary benton Hebrews 4:15 as to Jesus full humanity in experiencing temptation. Any time the dynamic balance between Jesus full humanity and full divinity is upset, heresy follows.

  47. “I have heard it explained as the Western Christian lives in the shadow of the Cross while the Eastern Christian lives in the Glory of the Resurrection. In many ways I think that statement is accurate.”

    I didn’t think it could be a new thought. Its just that this particular post and the comments really highlighted it for me. There will always be nuances between the Western denominations.

    When a balance is presented to someone who has lived with extreme emphases, the de-emphasized points make an inordinately larger impact, I think. Just my thoughts.

    Thanks for the commentary.

  48. I think the fervent awareness of Christ’s eternal triumph on the Cross informs the saints’ sufferings at all times (apart from those special moments of apparent ‘God-forsakeness’: which, however, is the birther of the ultimate, yet admittedly extremely hard-won spiritual maturity that can eventually stave off and transform even that – it’s own birther).
    This is in a way, an experience-of-the-final-resurrection-while-in-the-here-and-now-of-our-suffering, a reorientation of our entire being. There is no other way to retain that “context-independant”-joy -i.e.: the only unshakeable joy that there is– that we witness in the saints. (Context-depenant joy is clearly a fickle thing.)
    So Cross and Resurrection are one: Christ confidently promises paradise while still hanging upon the Cross, mere minutes before the ultimate God-forsakeness of “My God, My God!”. What unfathomable mysteries!
    These things might seem impossibly difficult for us to do, being the ultimate manifestations of God’s commandments, but when we say to God that its is so difficult to do these, His answer is astounding, it is the following question to us: “do you want to?!” (Luke 18:27) It is therefore faith that we need first.

  49. I guess I have a hard time seeing the senselessness of suffering and death (and anything, really) because it is hard to imagine living before/without Christ. Intellectually, I suppose I can put myself there, but the way we view the world in The Church is so utterly bound up in Christ that I really can’t conceive of suffering and death in any other way. Ecclesiastes was my favorite book of The OT when I was a [non[pre?]-Orthodox] child, interestingly enough, but I never read it in such a way as to see life (or death, or anything else) as meaningless, only as meaningless insofar as one lacks Christ. I think that is your point, of course, but I can’t think of a way to put myself there without being cut away from God and The Church somehow; perhaps this is part of Dino’s continued exposition on the “God-forsakenness”, which must be an act of Grace, I think, or it becomes sin.

    To pull a bit of a Schmemann, though (and pun intended), I often think about the implications this has not only for suffering, but death and sin, and how their true character are revealed in all this. I am not sure how much should (or even could) be said about that, but that is the kind of thing I think about. Similarly, I do wonder at the precise distinction between sin and death. Not that The Church’s language has always been precise in this matter, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful to look at “real death” as sin borne voluntarily (i.e., not committed) but sin as death involuntarily (and improperly) borne. I am just thinking “out loud” a bit here so this is all quite rough, but that would set things aright in the sense that we can use that framework to view Christ’s Death as The True Death (in the same way as His Life Is The True Life) and our own deaths (from sin) as a caricature and thus a corruption (though yet healed through Christ’s death, Him even “undercutting” and conquering that because it was done *voluntarily*, i.e. within The Will Of God (or, put more clearly for this perspective, The Will Of Life Himself))—that allows us to keep even the darkest parts of our existence Christocentric (as opposed to The Cross as a backup plan, of sorts, which is obviously wrong) and make sense of Christ bearing sin (death, in this particular use of English, as while He did *bear* sin, he never *committed* it), handily defeating it and showing *it* to be not only meaningless, but to show that meaningless itself in non-existent and merely a corruption (or not-yet-fulfillment?) of what truly is. Lots to meditate on.

  50. Let me try!

    To make something italic, type this:
    <em>Italic words here</em>

    To make soemthing bold, type this:
    <strong>Bold words here.</strong>

  51. When we were in Ukraine, many of the people there had fallen prey to “health and wealth” preachers on television and in the community. It is certainly “a cheapened version” of Christianity, and a terrible scourge on the people who come to believe in it.
    I had several people who came to me in tears, or near to tears, because they couldn’t understand what sin it was that was causing their illness and suffering. They had been taught that they were at fault if they were ill or suffering (interestingly, few of them actually believed their belief would result in riches; only health). It was a pernicious doctrine, which only caused more suffering.

  52. Thanks for teaching me the italic/ bold trick (as well as so many other things).

    I believe this site operates different from WordPress. At WordPress, “em” is used for italics and “strong” is used for bold. Here, it appears that “i” is used for italics and “b” is used for bold.

    To test this, I will first type two brief messages using the WordPress code, Then I will type the same brief messages using the latter code. (If it works, it will post as italic or bold; if not, you will still see the code.

    This is a great blog.
    This is a great community of commenters.

    This site’s code:
    This is a great blog.
    This is a great community of commenters.

    Remember, if you can still see code, it didn’t work. If the code doesn’t appear but the italics/bold do, it worked. Will they both work? Will neither work? The moment of suspense as I push the “post” button…

  53. Wow. They both worked! Forgive my silliness but I personally like to put emphasis in when I am writing as it often helps the reader to understand the meaning I intend. The meaning I intend may be altogether incorrect, but at least we will understand each other. 🙂

  54. Raphael and Mary,
    Thank you! Now I will give it a try…
    Glory to God For All Things

    Glory To God For All Things

  55. Brian,

    Thank you so very much for your comments from 11/13 @ 9:20 PM !! That’s great advice and I’m glad for what you are doing. It seems like to do what you’ve done, should be common sense….but sadly it’s not very common for many of us, myself included.
    Thanks again!

  56. Brian and Mark,

    I want to join Alan in thanking you for your comments.

    I managed to avoid listening to the majority of news for the past few years, mostly because of my life’s circumstances (lack of time mainly, and ability to figure out how to get TV hooked up in my new house :-)). Several elections came and went, and I only found out about the results later (although I overheard several heated discussions about them at work). None of the resulting changes seem to influence my life too much – I am very thankful for that and know that it is not the case for everybody.

    But I wanted to share one story related to the topic of watching too much and knowing everything that is going on in the world. On a recent trip, I shared a room with a Russian woman who lives in the Netherlands. We both have elderly mothers, and she told me that she finally figured out where her mother’s heart issues came from: she watched too much TV, news and soap operas, and the real and made-up drama were affecting her heart health (arrhythmia, etc). My friend cancelled the TV subscription for her mom and her health improved.
    When I asked my Mom is this can possibly be her experience (she had a couple trips to ER last year with heart troubles), I was very surprised that she… agreed! I never thought of that prior to my friend mentioning it, although I did notice how my Mom wanted to often tell me about the “problems” her TV characters were experiencing.. When I pointed out that this is all “made up”, she kind of agreed, but still was not able to cut herself off…

    I fear something similar related to my sons, who are now young adults. They seem to be watching shows (not even the news) that are dark, brutal and depressing… They literally pause the show when I walk into the room because the scenes are often just too violent (they know how I don’t like that). I stopped nagging and complaining, I just try to avoid seeing it. But I worry about the effect that has on their souls…

    May God hear our prayers for all those affected by true suffering and forgive us for being too weak in resisting the pull towards the darkness of this world… And may we *want* that Faith, so that we know how to stay close to Christ in all situations (thank you Dino!)

  57. Agata,

    Fr. Ambrose once gave me the admonition to “watch what goes into your heart”. I took it to mean that I should stop letting so many influences into myself. I stopped watching TV (aside from an occasional football game) and turned off the radio. It made a large difference in my life and helped me to focus more on prayer and asceticism (such as I practice). I think turning off, or perhaps restricting a large portion of, social media is the next step, although I have not yet gone there.

  58. Byron,
    I have a quote in my kitchen (I cannot remember from where) that says:
    “What you put in your mouth affects how you look and how you feel.
    What you watch (or maybe it says “what you put in your head”, I cannot remember now, I will check later) affects how you think.
    So watch both”.

    As Mark said above, we don’t need to know “worldwide suffering”… Most of the time I don’t even need to know what the weather is supposed to be… it is what it is…(unless you have a plane to catch, but even then if your flight is cancelled, you are very unlikely to know about it before you get to the airport)… Why we are eager to watch zombies and made-up cruelty on TV is really beyond me…

    Social media is wonderful when we use it well. I loved it when Fr. Stephen was posting his reports from Mt. Athos trip almost in real time… 🙂

  59. Agata,
    You brought to mind St. Paul’ s admonition: Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Phil. 4:8

  60. Dean,
    Very beautiful reminder… Thank you.

    Byron, here is the [updated] wise advice from my yellow sticky 🙂

    “What you put in your body affects how you look and how you feel.
    What you put in your head affects how you think and what you do.
    So watch both.”

    (I think I posted it in hopes my sons would read it… I don’t know if anybody did, but I glance at it from time to time and it helps me, especially when I want to eat bad things late at night 🙂 )

  61. Dean,
    We’ve had a plaque on our wall inscribed with that passage from Philippians for nearly forty years, yet it took me most of that time even to begin to heed Paul’s words. I am clearly a slow learner.

  62. I simply refuse to see life, suffering and death as senseless. I always think it may appear to us that way from our individualistic and self-identity in planning or perceiving our life and future in some form or kind in achievement and having. When something is taken away from us by someone, in opposition to our values, then the loss appears as senseless to us, and I feel rightly so too. But when I go beyond the pain of loss I realize all will go on even after I am long gone. If I had something of God given value it will manifest eventually and live on by some means, like thru our children, friends, community etc. and as a Christian I know even that life was never mine but God given. It is hard to make that dive in and thru pain of any kind of loss in the individualistic life and world view, but if you don’t want to despair you have to do it and LET GO. The world is full of senseless killings and sufferings we inflict on others and even onto our self. So in my view, death and life will go on, like the seasons come and go. And nature is more powerful when we do not abide by God/Nature given Laws and principles, it will catch up with us with a time to live and a time to die. How ever it happens, war, famine, illness, God forbid any worse forms, it follows death by reason, though not necessarily due to every individuals by their action or inaction . Everything happens for a reason, maybe appearing senseless to us and rightly so, but God/Life will live on and on and on. We were just a carrier. And in that I do not despair. Otherwise I would, because life truly can be pure hell. It took me a while even as a Christian- Nondenominational or I will despair. I take the side of reason God allows me to have, understand and communicate and he will work out all things for good to those who Love him. So No reason to despair, even for the simple minded. After all he said let the children come unto me…..26 people in Texas, again 5 in Calif. this is continually happening, senseless pain to struggle with. But the real reason remains WHY, what is wrong in this country, apathy, religious apathy and silence, freedom without restraint etc. ………no God or false Gods, no truth no meaning, MHO Glory to God for all things.

  63. Fr Stephen,
    Is the picture you selected, that of Dresden after the British and American bombing? If so, it is an appropriate picture depicting senseless suffering and death. My first introduction about the history of the bombing of Dresden was through Kurt Vonnegut’s book, “Slaughterhouse Five or The Chrildren’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death”. It was required reading for me in the summer before I entered a boarding school. A month before reading the book, our family was in a horrific car accident killing and mutilating the bodies of our parents and seriously injuring my brother and I. We were traveling to visit family and there was water on the road and the car hyper-planed suddenly, hit the meridian and the car overturned several times before it stopped.

    In the hospital people from some Protestant Churches came to visit. Without going into details, their visit with me was emotionally and spiritually devastating, resembling the outlook you describe in your essay above. The hospital was Catholic and the visitors loud and negative remarks were overheard among other things. They were asked to leave and the resulting confrontation wasn’t complementary of Christianity. This experience redoubled my disdain of Christianity as I had seen it up to that point.

    It may seem unexpected here, but reading Kurt Vonnegut’s book engaged a healing process within. He was willing to speak of suffering and to speak of death that seemed real to me at the age of 17. I am grateful for the Orthodox approach to suffering and death. These early experiences were not the last to confront me and challenge me with intense suffering and senseless death. I am grateful for this essay and for its healing words. These words, Christ trampling down death with death, are indeed life-saving in their own right, needing no further embellishments. They are words of power and beauty.

    And Glory to God for all things.

  64. It may seem trivial, but honoring the words of the hymn:

    Christ is resin from the dead
    Trampling down death by death,
    And upon those in the tombs bestowing life

    I had inserted the word ‘with’ and it should be ‘by’

    Small words can make a big difference. Words can carry the grace of God or not.

  65. What is interesting is the Hebrew word translated as vanity is hebel which is a dry and empty desert wind that serves no purpose and does not bring life giving rain. It forced me to reevaluate what Solomon was saying. Vanity did not quite ring for me because I saw the meaning as self serving vain glory when it really has another meaning.

  66. Nicholas Stephen Griswold,

    Your comment made me realise why I’ve always loved the translation of Ecclesiastes in the Ronald Knox Bible:

    1 Words of the Spokesman, king David’s son, that reigned once at Jerusalem.
    2 A shadow’s shadow, he tells us, a shadow’s shadow; a world of shadows!
    3 How is man the better for all this toiling of his, here under the sun?

    Now that I come to think of it, I also recall reading in the footnotes of the Jerusalem Bible ( footnote “c” on the 2nd page in this PDF ) the same point you mention here. Somehow that footnote stuck in my mind, but I couldn’t tell why it struck me forcefully then. But after reading this article, and the comments here, I see the meaning even more clearly.


  67. The comments seem to be slowing, so, Father, if I may add this. Most of you probably already know you can do this. In the past, it would sometimes take me forever to find a Scripture passage I was looking for. I would look through a concordance, or try a Bible concordance, or spend lots of wasted time simply searching through a book. But with a smart phone, it is easy. If you recall just 3 or 4 words and speak them into your phone or type them in….presto! The passage will come up, and that with varying translations. So, I can toss my Strong’s, Young’s, and any other concordance I may have. It is a great tool for me…perhaps for others as well.

  68. A long time ago I came across this prayer: Thank you Lord for all you have given me; thank you for all you have taken away; thank you for all that remains. When I experience a loss, this prayer comes back to me as does the words of a priest from long ago: God is not against you. He created you, He loves you, and wants you to be with Him for all eternity. You are your own worst enemy.

  69. Helpful reminder, Dean, for those with a smart phone. Especially for those of us who grew up in the pre-computer age. (thinking of the comments above about the “prehistoric” typewriters! Hard to forget those times!)
    Similarly, after reading Nicholas’ explanation of the word vanity, the words “chasing the wind” came to mind. A simple search on my computer lead me to the verse I was looking for:” I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind”. This gives a better understand of the point Nicholas made.
    What to do with our concordances?! They sure came in handy at one time. I now appreciate the ease and time saved in a computer search, though.

  70. My wife was at our parish’s annual women’s retreat Fri & Sat. The topic of God loving us was a major theme. My wife tells me that a number of women there who grew up in the local Calvinistic religious environment had been taught just the opposite prior to becoming Orthodox. Many are still adjusting to the difference.

    Remaining in the Calvinistic environment seems to force one to either declare God as the author of pain, suffering and evil for inscrutable reasons or gravitate to a view of a capricious and senseless world that is beyond understanding that we must improve somehow.

    So the nihilistic vortex is formed and draws us toward its maw. Only the reality of the Cross founded on the experience of the Incarnate and Resurected Lord can draw us away.

    It is, as mary benton said, an unfathomable love that places the Cross in our midst even before the creation of the world. It is not like any love we can know except as it is revealed to us.

    May His mercy be upon us and Glory to Him.

  71. The Epistle yesterday Ephesians 2:14-18, really hit me as answering the question of overcoming death AND the difficulty many people have reconciling God in the OT and God in the NT. Summarized, there was an enmity between God and His creation, especially we humans during OT times. The Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection healed that enmity in one man.

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