A Cruciform Providence

The entire mystery of the economy of our salvation consists in the self-emptying and abasement of the Son of God – St. Cyril of Alexandria

Trust in the providence of God is much more than a general theory of how things are arranged in our lives and in the world. We tend to discuss the notion in the abstract, wondering whether this action or event is to be properly attributed to God. There is a much deeper matter, however, one that goes to the heart of the Christian life and the nature of salvation itself. Providence is not a theory about how things are – it is the very nature of salvation.

A proper place to begin in thinking about this is with Christ Himself.  Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (Joh 6:38) This is a clear declaration of His self-emptying and abasement, a kenotic action that is consummated on the Cross.

In a similar manner, trust in Divine providence is a form of self-emptying on the part of the believer. Such trust has a very traditional expression: the giving of thanks. To give thanks always, everywhere and for all things is the fullest form of self-emptying. The Elder Sophrony once said that if one were to practice thanksgiving always and everywhere, he would fulfill the saying to St. Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

The common objection to trust in God’s providence is similar to the objections for thanksgiving. We fear that such trust and thanks will result in non-action, an acquiescence to the reign of evil. If the Christian life is rightly understood (and lived), this result is not an issue. This fear, understandably common, is intensified within the mindset and narrative of modernity.

The modern narrative tends to claim that human problems were largely left unattended and uncorrected until the advent of modern social science and political efforts. It fails to recognize that the very period of time that is marked by “modern,” has also contained many of the most egregious human rights violations known to history. Racial slavery, as practiced in America, for example, was maintained and justified almost exclusively on the grounds of very modern reasons.

The fear of inaction is a charge that can easily be brought against the Cross itself. The weakness of Christ Crucified appears (on the surface) to be the acquiescence of God to evil. This is certainly what the powers of evil thought:

…We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:7-8)

To trust in providence is not the same as inaction. Rather, it is a description of the form and character of action. The death of Christ on the Cross is in no wise involuntary – it is not passive. A life lived in union with the providence of God is in no way passive – it is the action of the Cross within the world.

The Cross should not be relegated to an event that accomplishes our salvation as an isolated or unique transaction. The Crucified Christ reveals the very nature and character of God and the nature and character of the life of salvation. The Christian life is the process of increasing transformation into the image and likeness of Christ. That image and likeness is specifically that of the Crucified (Phil. 2:5-11).

We are told to keep the commandments. Those commandments include care for the poor, the homeless, those in prison, etc. Indeed, the Cross teaches us to radically identify with them, rather than simply to offer a helping hand. Our concern for justice all too rarely engages anyone face-to-face, nor does it leave us with substantially less money. We fail to understand the true nature of violence, and refuse to acknowledge its inherent  role in “making the world a better place.” Modernity is married to violence and pleads that it is all in a good cause.

The justice of the Cross is a way of life – one which makes no sense apart from the resurrection. I once heard it said that a Christian should live their life in such a way that, if Christ had not been raised from the dead, it would be absurd. That absurdity is nothing less than the foolishness of the Cross. In arguments with modernity, the way of the Cross will always lose, will always seem to fall short of solving problems and fixing things. Every human plan is better.

However, if the preaching of the Cross carries with it no foolishness, then something less than the Cross is being preached. Those who have reduced the Cross to a pagan sacrifice, appeasing an angry god, have made of it a wise investment and a safe bet. Such “faith” is beside the point.

Within our daily lives, if we confront the day with thanksgiving, the Cross will quickly reveal itself. The first moment that the giving of thanks becomes difficult, we have reached the wood of the Cross itself. We stand in the very gates of Hades. If, in that moment of difficulty, we persist in giving thanks, then Hades trembles and the dead are raised. This is our personal kenosis, our self-emptying in the presence of the good God. “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”

This same heart will indeed feed the poor and clothe the naked. It may very well give away everything that it owns. It will not make the world a better place, for it is the place where a better world has already become incarnate.

 

38 comments:

  1. Father – The Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, in arguing against Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement, asserts that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred as a result of the will of man, not the will of God. She even goes so far as to assert that, had the Divine Will been carried out on Good Friday, the crucifixion would not have occurred. I find her argument to be facially appealing, yet there seems to be something wrong with it. Your latest post reinforces my suspicions, but I cannot quite put my finger on what the problem is. Any help you could provide would be greatly appreciated. I am reading her book as a member of my old RC reading club and I would like to be able to share the Orthodox view. [BTW: Elizabeth Johnson is widely admired by other RC theologians, but generally disliked by the bishops and curia of the RC church, so what she is saying should not be though of as “official” church teaching.]

  2. This post and the last one have directed back into the Book of Job. As I read it this time along with a little commentary by Fr. Pat Reardon, I am convinced more than ever that is a marvellous resource for us today, especially for men.
    I have circled around it for 45 years, this time, God willing, I will dip my toes in and maybe even paddle around in the shallows. If I get the gumption I will visit St John Chrysostom about it.

    Interestingly enough my initial reading led me to Psalns 103 and 104 (Western numbering).
    It certainly fits the Cruciform life. The death and Ressurection if Christ.

  3. One of my favorite posts! That awesome picture that you chose may have a little to do with it, but the post itself, and the series to which it belongs, is amazing. Many thanks for reposting, Father!

  4. Positively, truly, and utterly brilliant, Father Stephen. Thank you. This post aligns so perfectly with the newly published English translation of the book “The Sunflower: Conforming the Will of Man to the Will of God” by Saint John of Tobolsk, which was originally written in the early 1600s by the German Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and convert from Lutheranism, Jeremias Drexelius. He uses examples from both the Old and New Testaments to show how we, as Christians, need to understand everything that happens to us in this earthly life as either being willed by God or permitted by God for the purpose of our salvation. It is one of the most helpful books I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough to anyone who struggles with this issue.

  5. And of course Saint John Chrysostom’s book On the Providence of God is also a wonderful text on this subject.

  6. Thank you for this article, Fr Stephen. I’m grateful for your capacity to speak to the heart of matters. It brings me much peace today.

  7. I think a ‘train wreck’ amply describes my life of late. It isn’t fun by any stretch of the imagination, but such events give me lessons and consequentially an enriched life that I’m not sure I would have been able to learn and live otherwise.

  8. Thanks for the article. I have a question about giving thanks: do I thank God for the situation I am in or do I thank Him for His good providence? E.g. should I say: thank you God for giving me this disease OR should I say thank you God for your providence in giving me this disease and I know it will work for my good? In the second I don’t thank for the disease but for God’s providence I thank.

    Maybe hard to follow what I mean but I hope you understand and can answer,

    Thank you

  9. Johan,
    It is possible, for some, to give thanks for the situation itself (the disease), but this is a gift and a perception that is difficult for most. It is sufficient, I think, to simply set the situation into the greater work of God’s providence and give thanks. Thanking God that despite this terrible thing, He will “nevertheless” work good in you and in the world.

    Giving thanks for the disease itself has many pitfalls for the heart.

  10. Johan, thank you for your question and Father for your answer. And a wonderful post.

    Father, according to what you said in the article, “The first moment that the giving of thanks becomes difficult, we have reached the wood of the Cross itself”…this is strangely most comforting. Because if this is true, which I believe it is, then I do stand at the Wood.

    Life has been very difficult lately, ever since the death of my horse (of 30 yrs.). I certainly do not thank God for her death. Nor do I thank Him for my two “hospice” dogs I am caring for at this time. But I do thank Him for carrying me through day by day. And I thank Him for bringing them to me so many years ago. I thank Him for the ability to care for them and the others that are still with me. But something happens in the soul when you loose a loved one…a piece dies with them.
    You speak of a “personal kenosis”. I’m beginning to see that this is what happens when we give thanks as a piece of our soul dies. The thing about it is we can’t produce for ourselves a moment for kenosis…that moment is Providential, in God’s hands. It is something out of our control. But God allows this profound loss, this death within, piece by piece, to transform us through self-emptying, time after time, by giving thanks. It is in essence saying, Thou knowest Lord. I trust You. Yes, and Thy will be done.

    It is profound because God’s ways are so very profound.

    Death is strikingly unnatural. But until we see the fullness of Christ’s victory over death, we will have to live with the dis-comfort, the dis-ease of its deep loss. They are ‘no more’. You stand there and look at a lifeless body and what can you do? What do you think except ‘they are gone’. It is so not right. You well describe what I have no words for…standing at the gates of Hades.
    I must say, for some of us it seems our entire life exists at those gates…

    Yes, it is difficult to give thanks. But I do. I know He grieves with me. And I know He works for our good.

    Thank you again Father.

  11. This answers a question that I have long wrestled with on the balance of trusting and doing within the Orthodox view. Much more simple but much more difficult. Thanks Father.

  12. Thank you Paula. Your words remind us all of our loved ones who have passed out of this life. My heart grieves with yours. May God bless us to be with our loved ones in the world to come.

  13. I have a question for Fr. Stephen that is actually entirely unrelated to this post, or at best, tangently related 🙂

    I have been very curious to read, in the writings of and about Elder Sophrony, St. Silouan, and Archimandrite Zacharias – really, everyone connected with that whole spiritual lineage – that, if a priest prays, and the one coming to them prays, and is humble and has faith in God, what comes up in the priest’s heart will be the will of God. The implication, at least to my mind, is that it does not matter so much who the priest is, so long as he does this. However, I have only seen this stated explicitly once, and in many places in our Orthodox Tradition the idea is stated that one should be extremely careful in choosing a spiritual guide, because virtues are needed in order to hear God’s voice in prayer. However, I think the idea here is that the grace of the priesthood is what allows for this.

    My question for Fr. Stephen is: based on your writings of Elder Sophrony, which I believe you’ve studies, is this idea (of what comes up in the priest’s heart as being the will of God) accurate?

    And, if this is so, why does this other strand exist (i.e., seeking out elders)?

  14. Pyphorios,
    I’m not sure how Fr Stephen will answer this. I trust my own confessor’s heart in his role as my confessor. But discerning the will of God I suspect might need more than the leanings of two hearts. Perhaps a third is better but I’m not sure. Probably discernment requires more than this, particularly if the circumstances are complex. Time and patience for the Holy Spirit to act is also an important element required for discernment.

  15. Bless, Father.

    I very much needed this message. Thank you. Our priest is leaving and it’s proven a bit difficult of a cross to bear.

  16. The problem with Johnson’s idea that Christ would not have been crucified had the will of God been carried out on Good Friday is that she fails to appreciate, per St. Cyril, that the entire mystery of the economy of our salvation consists in the self-emptying and a debasement of the Son of God. Duh. Sorry I brought it up, Father

  17. Porphyrios, in the Church it is seldom either or. The Will of God is difficult to discern often because we are looking for it elsewhere and as something different. Perhaps we want someone to tell us that the will of God is not already manifesting in our lives. We just need to praise Him and get to work. At least that is what I have found to be true in my life. I wasted a lot of time and energy wanting something other than I had been given.

  18. “The Elder Sophrony once said that if one were to practice thanksgiving always and everywhere, he would fulfill the saying to St. Silouan, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” ”

    Thank you for this post, Father. The saying of St. Silouan struck me negatively, perhaps because the world seems presently to contain so much that is hellish, and my opposing ‘thought’ is rather to take the mind into the heart, so I appreciate that you prefaced his saying with Elder Sofrony’s comment on thanksgiving.

    I haven’t read far into the comments as yet, so apologies if I miss the mark. On David’s question about Good Friday, to me Orthodoxy never does what I think sometimes happens in other churches – that is never do we approach the Crucifixion absent the Resurrection, even then. I think that is because we are only human (if approaching theosis and desiring that state) and only Christ is both divine and human. We need his help; we can’t survive hell alone.

    So it is that on the eve of Lent the Resurrection hymn is sung to support those who might not be still alive when Easter comes. So it is that every Sunday even in Lent is a resurrection liturgy. So it is we can and do sing at Easter “Yesterday I was buried with you, O Christ; today I rise with you in your resurrection; yesterday I was crucified with you; glorify me with you in your kingdom.”

    If the resurrection had happened on Friday, the good thief would have been alone on the cross. We are not alone.

  19. I went back to read the previous thread this evening, and it might be helpful to recall that a spiritual writer – it might have been Saint Theophan the Recluse – gave the advice that if a saying or statement made in a teaching has not made sense to one, the best thing to do is to pass over it and not be troubled, since it is more likely that one hasn’t caught the meaning, is not yet ready for it, or simply has misunderstood.

    This was very helpful to me when I first started reading about Orthodoxy. There was so much to be excited by and to immediately grasp and love, so even in reading the Philokalia there have been passages I couldn’t myself relate to. That is more indicative of where I am at than where the person who wrote those teachings is, so I keep Saint Theophan’s words in mind. I have to do a lot of it on my own these days, so thank you all for your discussions; they are most helpful. And of course special thanks to Father Freeman for his insights and understandings here.

  20. “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” ”

    Well, I have read this teaching several times now, and I can infer several things for myself that make sense to me.
    But at this third juncture, I have decided to ask Fr Stephen (et al), could you please elaborate?

  21. Janine,
    After three decades of fixation with it, as if to a mighty cure, what I mostly understand that ‘Keep thy mind in hell and despair not’ – is about, is the greatest self-condemnation united to the greatest hope in the true Other, the ‘not me’, God. The first without the second can certainly become morbid, the second without the first, presumptuous. As an ascetical ‘technique’, sincerely employed towards the heights and depths of love and humility, I think it needs a blessing from one’s spiritual Father, as an internal guiding star it can lead us to the heights of “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42) and makes a person courageous in humility, hopeful in the face of all adversity, internal and external. There’s a patristic notion that closely relates to many elements of this word of Christ to St Silouan, it’s the concept of “twofold knowledge”: (1) I am nothing and (2) You [God] are everything. The joyous self-abasement and humility of applying this paradoxical advise, (which is truly challenging at increasing intensities), is virtually identical to saying ‘thank You’ for your Cross, while plumbing its unbearability, it is a process that almost magically takes off the weight however.

  22. A more concise interpretation of it (albeit more Elder Aimilianos than Elder Sophrony) that was already repeated before in older comments here is this:
    “Keep thy mind in hell” – in the undemanding contentment of thy lot, whatever that is – “and despair not” – do not cease presenting your soul before God in trust and complete self-forgetting orientation towards Him…

  23. PS I had thought that perhaps “here” is hell, as it so often seems. But also the image of hell as the purifying fire of God we experience as burning which is again is so common to our experience

  24. Janine,
    The idea of hell “here” while retaining acceptant hope despite it, is something I have often heard from Elder Sophrony’s disciples.
    I’ve lost count of how many times I have read that book! but, the hell that Saint Silouan knew and ‘used’ is that of utter separation from God. But, despairing not of Him! It is a strange combination that can be understood after experience of that authentic life.

  25. Thank you, Dino, for put words to what I felt that quote meant, but was unable to state so clearly within my own mind.

    Thank you, Janine, for asking the question.

  26. Dino…to keep the mind utterly separated from God and not despair is indeed strange! I am glad you added that it can not be experienced unless you have experienced the heights and depths of these Saints.
    “I am nothing and You are everything” I think most of us believe. But I’m not sure it is wise for one to attempt an “utter” separation from God unless, as you mentioned, it is by the blessing of their spiritual guide. Although most of us will not be reaching such heights (at the least because most of us do not have the type of spiritual guide you speak of), it is still to our advantage to learn about these Saints and be blessed by the heritage they pass onto us.

    Juliania…thank you for reminding us of St. Theophan’s advice to pass over difficult passages for the moment and not be troubled. That is a good thing to remember!

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