The Ontological Model Part 2: How Good Is Your Will?


Suppose I give you a bicycle for the convenience of travel. Suppose, however, that the bicycle is broken: flat tires, missing spokes, a chain that slips frequently. Nevertheless, you figure out a way to make it go. The ride is bumpy and you often have to stop and fix the chain. You fear that one day the wheels will just come apart as the spokes yield to the weight. Nevertheless, in fits and starts, you bumble along the road. This, I suggest, is an apt model for the human will.

The will is not absent, but it’s broken. It’s more broken in some people than others.

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:15-25)

St. Paul’s famous lament, “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice…” is a heartbreaking echo of every human heart. It is particularly frustrating in a culture that elevates the power of the will above all things in its strange perversion of liberty. We have a will, and it plays a role in our life. However, it is not the primary defining aspect of our humanity. Man as a moral agent is frequently little more than a fiction.

I have been writing about problems in the legal/forensic model of salvation. Juridical images have a place (primarily within preaching). They can easily become moralistic, describing the human condition as being largely about correct choices and the consequences for the bad ones. Indeed, in the legal/forensic model, moral agency is pretty much the only aspect of humanity that matters. Morality is about decisions. There are rules, warnings and consequences. We are then free to choose and suffer accordingly.

I will observe, parenthetically, that this same judicial model has come to govern almost every aspect of modern culture, particularly in liberal democracies of the capitalist world. For in those societies, there are winners and losers. It is quite comforting for those who have succeeded to assume that the failure of others is the result of their wrong choices. Indeed, the consequences of those choices, it is often thought, serve as a good lesson for all. America defines itself as a nation of moral agents, often presuming that it is the most moral of all nations.

However, the landscape of the nation points to one of the flaws of the juridical approach. There is, and always has been, an intractable portion of the population who fail to succeed. If you do historical studies you will find that the problem has existed in America since its earliest colonial days and has never disappeared.1 Successive political regimes have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways, but none have ever managed to make it disappear. Christ’s observation, “The poor you have with you always,” remains unchallenged. This intractable poverty is more than economic: it represents a failure of moral agency. Anyone who works with the poorest segment of society has to admit that there are some people who can never seem to manage their lives in a manner that avoids trouble and failure. Their own frustration is heart-breaking.

Moral agency generally divides people into winners and losers with the winners feeling somehow justified in their choices and decisions. But what if the will is like a broken bicycle? What if, in the lottery of life, the winners simply inherited a less-broken bicycle and only travel on well-paved, well-maintained roads? What if circumstances fail to reveal the brokenness of some while magnifying that of others? What if none of us is completely responsible for anything?

The ontological approach (I apologize again for the term) does not see human beings primarily as moral agents. First, we are beings. We have a will, but it is broken. The doctrine of the Church, as articulated in the 6th Council and its surrounding theology, describes our human nature as having a will (the natural will), but also notes that the natural will is impaired in its application through the mode of willing known as the gnomic will. The intricacies of this understanding do not have to be completely understood. If you want to try, then read St. Maximus the Confessor. He is the great Doctor of that Council.

The subtleties of this understanding go a long way towards describing the true frustration of the human predicament. St. Paul articulated it with his groaning, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The brokenness of the will is a problem of being, not a failure of moral agency.

Certain versions of Protestantism recognize the brokenness of the will, but remain committed to moral agency as the primary lens for understanding our relationship with God. For them, man is thoroughly corrupt, incapable of truly willing the good. That some seem to succeed while others fail is attributed to the sovereign will of God. Some are chosen, some are not. It has been a very compatible theology for the landscape of modern capitalist democracies. The Elect do well – “God shed His grace on thee.”

The ministry of Christ seems to have gone past the question of moral agency. Those who championed their choices (Pharisees) did not fare so well in their interactions with Christ. However, He seemed particularly drawn to those who occupied the broken layers of humanity marked by poverty, disease and bad choices. A woman taken in the act of adultery finds compassion. A woman living out-of-wedlock, having failed five times in marriage is engaged forthrightly and finds salvation. Christ seems to look past the moral brokenness and into the very heart of their existence. He answers with mercy even the failure of religious belief, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

We are not autonomous moral agents running around shaping our lives and world by our choices. Our choices, having been exalted by modern philosophical theories, have reached an apex of absurdity. Justice Kennedy gave voice to the delusional view of modern moral agency:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Human beings are first and foremost human beings. Our very existence is a gift from God. Existence itself is good and is intended to become even better moving towards true eternal being in union with God. We are human beings who have a will (broken and dysfunctional). But we ourselves are not a will. Modernity tends to think of human beings as a will that has a body. Of course, many human beings (infants for one) either have an impaired will or are not able to manifest the will as choice and decision. These odd creatures are a bother to moralists. They are flies in the ointment that are generally relegated to some less-than-fully-human status. It is not surprising that in the secular version of the juridical world, such people are easily put to death as non-persons.

 Our existence is always contingent – it is a gift from God and only continues because it participates in His existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and thus towards non-existence. The primary category of sin is death, or non-being. This death manifests itself in us in many ways, including those that are described as “moral.” It is of note that the Tradition describes us as being in “bondage to sin and death.” This is the primary image of Pascha (Passover), and thus of our salvation. God sends Moses into Egypt to lead His people out of bondage. He does not go there primarily to improve their role as moral agents. Christ enters our world in order to lead us out of bondage to sin and death. The healing of our will is, over time, part of the fulfillment of that Exodus.

How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence. The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a moral improvement society. There are many to be saved who will seem like the worst moral failures among us. In His compassion, Jesus loved them greatly. They have suffered much, often at their own hands.

The excellence of moral agents, like the wealth of the successful American, is not a matter for boasting. Everything is a gift. We have earned nothing. The gifts of God are given to us for the purpose of giving Him thanks and to share with those who have less. The excellence of a moral agent is measured in deeds of compassion and self-offering, not in the fastidious adherence to a code of conduct that is often little more than middle-class conformity.

God give us grace!



Footnotes for this article

  1. An excellent review of this history can be found in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.


  1. I think it makes a huge difference when sin is framed in terms of life and death rather than simply right and wrong.
    An article I recently read described the gnomic will (as Maximus the Confessor explained it) along the lines of blind, dumb deliberation. I imagine it like this: say you are in a room and the only way out is through one of two doors. Behind one door is a pack of ravenous lions, ready to devour you (death). Behind the other door is your family- life, communion, love, peace- a future. The thing is, you have no faculties for determining which door leads to which; you can’t tell the two doors apart at all. It is literally left to your blind, dumb deliberation.
    It is also an interesting picture in terms of freedom, an idea which is often connected to human will. We are used to thinking of freedom as the ability to do or choose whatever we want to. In that situation, you are technically “free” to choose either door. However, with no way to leave the room and without any faculties to discern which door leads to life or death are you really free? I think don’t think so. Real freedom could involve being guided as to what is behind each door. But in my mind, real freedom would mean already being away from the possibility of certain death, in communion with those you love.
    I know this is not a perfect illustration, but it is something I think of when I think about human will outside of communion with God. Distorted, sinful humanity is not free in any way.

  2. “How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence. The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a moral improvement society.”

    This is always a good reminder. Thank you Fr. Stephen.

    When you say that “God Himself is the core of our existence“ do you mean that God’s will is the center of our being and that the goal is to conform our will to His will? That seems to be the process of theosis and the only “improvement” one is to work towards. How does one balance wanting to improve this way and still keeping in mind that we will fall short of this ideal?

    Sometimes self-criticism comes up within and feelings of “worthlessness” emerge and it’s hard to remember that “God Himself is the core of our existence“. How does one keep that in mind when self-criticism/cowardice/etc. come up?

  3. I appreciate how this article describes well the involuntary action in sin and it’s involuntary communal impacts. There are cultural values that endorse and enables greed and rewards fastidiousness in self righteousness, however ways that might be manifested. Glory to God for St Paul’s capacity for self reflection to identify these sins within. Few of us are so honest with themselves. This level of self-honesty and humility is God’s blessing and gift.

  4. Coming from Protestament background, I am lacking in understanding. So we are not about living a moral life but one devoted to communion to re-establish our broken ties. This accomplished thru prayer, study, focus…? Thus heaven is full communion with God and hell is not being in communion with God. So what about the literal hell of fire and brimstone? Any suggested protestant authors that may fill the gaps? Or is the distinction a difference totally of different religions?

  5. Dennis,
    Fr Stephen will have a better and more complete answer. But one point that Fr Stephen is trying to make is that sin is death itself and doing ‘moral acts’ will not undo this state of affairs we’re currently in. I doubt there are Protestant writers who espouse this theology but perhaps some catholic writers make have similar. BTW Fr Stephen writes on Orthodox theology and this is Classical Christian theology, not a ‘denominational flavor’ or some other, or modern new religion. Fr Stephen writes within the Tradition of the traditional Church. I hope this helps however minimal my comment is. May God help your discernment and bless you!

  6. In high school and college I felt (and looked) like a pretty good person… monogamous, church attending, good grades, etc.
    It was only much later that I realized that I made all those “good choices” only for bad reasons, fear of being outcast, fear of not being successful, and lots of other things that had to do with selfishness and not union with Christ. I had been given a decent bicycle, so to speak, and I was committed to everyone praising me for my great bike. I was also of the school that blamed those who were not as well off as me… “if only they had made better choices”…
    It has taken a lot of life experience to slowly start to break those habits of thought, and to realize that even with a “more functional bicycle”, I am the chief of sinners. Thank you for this unveiling of reality, and stripping away the false veneer of moral autonomy…

  7. Dennis,
    MamaV’s comment offers a good example of the emptiness involved in morality that is a “mere morality” (though I haven’t used that phrase in the article). Much that people in our culture value as good and moral behavior is, when really analyzed and understood, little more than good behavior driven by the fear of shame and such. In Dostoevsky’s time they would have described this as “bourgeoise morality,” meaning, a morality that is simply cultural conditioning and conformity. The rather shrill accusations and demands by those who have now subscribed to the new gender fluidity rules (don’t know what to call all of it), are excellent examples of such a cultural morality. Thirty years ago, they would have said quite the opposite, and only say it now because of the dynamic of “group think.” For that matter, others condemn this new morality, often for “moral” reasons that are themselves just as empty.

    Outwardly, two people might exhibit similar behavior – but one be empty and the other full. Jesus describes this in his term of “white-washed sepulchers” applied to the Pharisees. Outwardly, they did the moral thing, but inwardly they were filled with dead men’s bones. And, there were many among the outcasts – prostitutes, tax-collectors, etc., who found their way into the Kingdom despite their failings. Inwardly, they were truly being healed and renewed.

    I’m not sure of any Protestants using this treatment – though there may well be. Hell certainly describes a manifestation of broken communion. The Orthodox faith teaches (definitively) that the fire of hell is not literal, but symbolic (cf. St. Mark of Ephesus). There is a lot to say about this – but not here – not now.

  8. Fr. Freeman,
    I always had a notion that our will is very limited, so it seems that we can only say kind of “I approve this event” or I don’t approve”. Just one bit . Yet that one bit is a big responsibility:
    Isaiah 5:20
    “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

  9. Fr Stephen:

    “Bourgeois morality” exactly describes what I am prone to falling into. I don’t know if I have heard or noticed that phrase before, but it describes me very well.

  10. Also, on account of not outwardly committing all those sensational sins such as fornication, murder, and the like, I fall into the much more insidious sin of pride, heartily judging anyone who “isn’t as good as me”. Coming to Orthodoxy where Christ’s commandment not to judge is taken very seriously was a big wake-up call. Uprooting that deep pride is a work I have only just begun. Lord have mercy.

  11. Luke,
    We’re certainly responsible for what we do with what we’ve been given – on some level. But, in any given action or choice, there is so much at work, that we overplay our hand if we make such individual decisions the fulcrum of our existence. It’s just more complicated than that.

    Someone noted above as well, that our culture has picked up this erroneous view of the will in such a way to punish and despise those who choose badly. We declare that they deserve it, etc. If we were to read what the Fathers (and the Scriptures) have to say about the relationship between rich and poor – we would all tremble – and rightly so.

  12. MamaV,
    The term comes too easily to my lips – revealing a period in my life in which a sort of counter-culture tendency also had a bit of a Marxist edge. I think it is still quite apt.

  13. I appreciate your articulation of this truth more than I can possibly say, Fr. Stephen. I have been blessed with “healthy” mental function, but not “healthy” physical function. The result is that I have “failed” to achieve anything of value in the eyes of this world. As a non-believer, this reality left me feeling like my life was a “failure.” Now, as a believer, I see that this “failure” has been a great gift from God because it is probably the only way He could have ever gotten my attention long enough for me to hear His invitation to follow Him. It makes me insane when I hear people (yes, even other Orthodox Christians) say, “That person is where he is because of the choices he has made in his life.” It’s just NOT that simple. It’s extremely difficult for us not to judge others based on our own capabilities and experiences, forgetting that EVERYTHING in our life has either been given to us or taken away from us by God Himself.

    Thank you! 💗 Thank you! 💗 Thank you! 💗

  14. Maybe off the subject, but I have always been troubled by St. Paul’s lament in that it seems to speak of a kind of dualism (the Church rejects all such dualism). While the lament rejects the efficacy of moral will being sufficient to salvation, it also seems to reject the inherent goodness of the created world thus leading strange theology such as PSA, the theology of the elect, etc.

    Is the moral will just badly broken or is it fatally diseased? Can we make any “good” moral choices or is our choice simply to follow Christ or not?

    If the latter, what is the content of our witness to the destructive practice of abortion/euthanasia and the insanity of gender choice?

    How do we witness to the essential goodness of Creation?

  15. Fr. Stephen,
    What you have written here, with your comments, is so freeing to me, like a gentle, cool breeze softly rustling through my inward being. It refreshes and cleanses as no other “spiritual” astringent could ever do. Thank God for the truth of Orthodoxy. A friend, later a deacon, was the first convert in a Serbian congregation. A member of the church, early on, asked him, “Brad, why are you here?” My friend responded, “Because you have the truth.” And yes, this truth can truly set one free.

  16. Esmee,
    It is death and the remembrance of death that makes it possible not to judge, I think. Some people are healthy, wealthy, or intelligent, and some aren’t. But we are all going to die and those factors that seem like such a big deal in our life end up not mattering except insofar as we used them to unite ourselves to Christ. My husband was telling me about a saint who reminds us that health is a gift fromGod and sickness is ESPECIALLY a gift from God, because it reminds us of our death, and weakness, and our need for him.

  17. Mama V
    I think I know who the Saint that says that, ‘health is a gift from God and sickness is ESPECIALLY a gift from God, because it reminds us of our death, and weakness, and our need for him.’ is….
    He also says a great deal on the subject of will.
    It is quite a challenge to translate any of it though, as in Greek he makes a very fine differentiation between various kinds of notions – which all translate as’ will’ (or at most they would vary using: volition, intent, inclination, impetus etc) terms such as βούλησή, θέληση, θέλημα, πρόθεση are all critical. I don’t know if anyone else knows more about this?

  18. Michael,
    I think the will is damaged (the gnomic will) – and that we nevertheless use it as best we can. If all of the gender stuff stopped tomorrow, and all abortions ceased, however, the world would ontologically be no different, no closer to salvation. There would only be the waiting for the next wave of madness. But we can be saved. We can be changed – St. Paul, himself, is witness to how profound that change can be.

    Those who bear witness outside the abortion clinics, and give of their time and money to provide alternatives, can recite many, many stories of changed lives. There are, I think, critical moments in a life – “thin places” to use the old Irish description. In those moments, there is a possibility of a choice – something utterly in union with the natural will – that seems to set in motion or release the saving power of God. Think of Dostoevsky’s moment in which, condemned for death, awaiting the firing squad, his sentence is suddenly commuted to four years in a Siberian prison. He is never the same.

    In my own life, for what it’s worth, my decision to become Orthodox, when it actually came down to it (not just the thinking and reading), had a sort of irrevocable force not unlike jumping off a diving board (with no promise of water at the bottom, I might add). It was the beginning of a deep healing in my soul that has been playing out over the past 20 some-odd years (and not always in a pleasant way).

    Choices matter – but not quite the way the culture imagines them.

  19. what is the content of our witness to the destructive practice of abortion/euthanasia and the insanity of gender choice?

    Michael, “live not by lies”. The shape of that will be determined by context but will always be done in love. It is, as I think you know, a difficult path to walk.

    How do we witness to the essential goodness of Creation?

    Father posted this elsewhere:
    Love your enemies.
    Forgive everyone for everything.
    Share what you have.
    Do good to those who do evil.
    Put God’s Kingdom above everything.
    Speak simply and speak the truth.
    Trust in God for your daily needs.
    Do not be anxious.
    Be kind.

  20. Thank you again. I’m continuing to be stretched and challenged by your writings and thoughts. The title of a Francis Schaeffer’s book is coming to mind, “How Should We Then Live?” I’m beginning to grasp the drastic differences between an ontological approach to our salvation vs a legal/forensic one. The two present challenges I find myself with though are: how to internalize this and what it should mean for my day to day life. I wish I could articulate what I mean better – how should these truths affect the way I live? Practically. How should it influence how I pray, read the scriptures, engage in the Liturgy etc. I wonder if you might be able to provide some examples or practical applications for how this paradigm shift might look in the life of an average Joe (or Jane)?

  21. Dino,
    Yes. English is terrible in this regard. “Inclination” is a better way to describe the “natural will” (or something like that). Years ago, in describing an action that unites both gnomic and natural will, I used “fundamental option.” The “choices” people make when they shop are hardly worth describing under the heading of “will.” They are mostly merely giving attention to various passions. It is why fasting, vigils, etc., have such power, I think. They are actions that run against the passions and help us clarify things. In such a circumstance, those deeper aspects of the will can be more easily manifested. The same can be said when we voluntarily offer thanks, even in the midst of suffering. It calms the passions and allows a greater unity in our being.

    English has so many words – but not the experience that gives us access to the subtle distinctions within the Tradition.

  22. I find Elder Aimilianos’ words to be wise and comforting as we ever take courage and ask God for His grace as members of His Body.
    (I recently read these the other day)

    Elder Aimilianos~
    The sinners are in the Church also. The sinners too? Of course, the sinners too. God never shuts them out. He keeps them within His body until the very last moment, tied to Him, so that they don’t ever despair at all, and the despair doesn’t overwhelm them, and they don’t lose their crown. “You too, who are a sinner,” says Christ, “are my child, part of my body. Courage then, my child, in your struggle and you will triumph! If you want, I’ll give you even more grace and in the end we will find ourselves in heaven together.” . . . The Church is the Body of Christ. This means that all of us, since we all belong to the body of the Church, are no longer independent bodies, but are members of hers. I am one hand, you the other. You are an eye, he the other. Each of us is one member (1 Cor 12:14-18). Therefore we must not look at another with indifference and coldly, but with tender-hearted love. My hand hurts? I will suffer. That is, we are to see the other people as our hand. We are to love them.

  23. Thanks for comments and encouragement! oh yeah…protestament background??? why I shouldn’t write while standing in line at diner. Protestant..

  24. Father,

    Thank you. While I’ve seen those before, I’ve never looked at them in this light. Re-reading them now I’m noticing virtually none of them have anything to do with morals per se, but more the attitude with which we live our lives. These will undoubtedly require frequent review. Thank you for bringing them back to my attention.

  25. The Orthodox cross has the foot stool on one side pointed up to heaven and the other down to hades.
    To me that is the fulcrum of existence,
    but maybe it really isn’t. Now I an not so sure. I have to ponder all this..
    Seems like choosing badly is not the defining thing but choosing wrongly (and with full faculties intact) and not repenting is. ……Luke

  26. Appreciate this post, Father. Thank you.

    I have wondered for some time now why one of the favorite mantras of the secular progressives is “do not judge”. I have been accused of judging when I have done nothing of the sort. And I am wondering what it is they “hear”.
    Here you say : “Our choices, having been exalted by modern philosophical theories, have reached an apex of absurdity.”
    In my mind, to judge another means to condemn their person…to call them out of name, for whatever reason. But in our culture you are accused of judging when you are critical of someones choice in a particular matter. Disagreement itself is the infraction. You are thought of as intolerant of their right to choose. And it is defined as “judgment”.
    No wonder conversations can get quite confusing, even difficult, when both people use the same words but define them differently.

  27. Paula,

    Our society is so focused on autonomy that any questioning of another is seen as judgement on them. It is why so many demand an apology for anything that challenges their viewpoint or choice. They see it as an attack on their autonomy, which has been elevated to the status of a god. The evil of our culture is deeply rooted.

  28. Paula, Byron,
    I think it’s simply the dynamics of shame. To be called out, or disagreed with, is inherently shameful. No one likes to be wrong. Of course, it’s a minor thing most of the time and unavoidable. But we live in a time in which shame has risen to a kind of epidemic level. If shame is “how we feel about who we are,” then we can say that in modernity, there is a vast existential crisis – we don’t know who we are – we are alienated from the true self. Another hallmark of modernity is the false notion that we create our own identities. As such, the “who we are” is little more than a flimsy gauze of self-construction – deeply vulnerable to change and loss. It makes for a perfect shame storm. People are highly reactive because we are highly insecure (and rightly so, given how poorly our identities are constructed).

    “Do not judge” is a misuse of the Scripture – but it’s not the point. The point is that we are being told, “I don’t really know who I am, and disagreeing with me makes me feel shame. Please stop.” That being the case, it is possible to enter a conversation and get behind the shame and touch the soul. This is difficult, and rare, and a great gift from God when it happens.

    If shame is the emotion that we experience when we are out of communion – and hell is the state of being out of communion – then think of how often we are encountering other souls in hell. Our job is to get them out. That is Pascha.

  29. Byron,
    What you say is certainly true.
    So how do we as Christians proceed?
    In the morning prayer of St Philaret there are two lines that I heartily pray:
    “Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs all”
    “Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others.”

    It is not easy to act firmly and wisely without embittering. I think true peace in your soul is the key, and it is that which will soften hearts. This is why we ourselves need healing of our ontological “being”. We strive for this through prayer, fasting, charity…ascetic deeds.
    I feel I am responsible, for the sake of Christ and the Church, to impart some semblance of peace in my dealings with others. People may not respond like we want them to, but they can sense very clearly our convictions. I think it leaves a lasting impression. And it is for the salvation of our (and all) souls. We do not have an easy vocation…but it is the only true and lasting one.
    As Father sums up at the end of the post, “God give us grace.”

  30. Father, could you say a little about human freedom of the will in the Church Fathers being analogous to God’s freedom and so one of the defining factors (for them) of being made in the image of God? Doesn’t this imply moral agency being essential in some way to defining our being made in God’s image? I would really like to know how this relates to the predicament you are describing here. Perhaps the Fathers are talking of the natural human will and you the gnomic? I know the context is different.

  31. Oh Father! I posted without seeing your comment! Yes, it is the shame thing. And lack of identity…we don’t know who we are. A recent article of yours quoted St Paul…”it is not I who lives, but Christ in me.” That is our identity.
    “If shame is the emotion that we experience when we are out of communion – and hell is the state of being out of communion – then think of how often we are encountering other souls in hell. Our job is to get them out. That is Pascha.”
    Amen, Father! What a wonder that Christ calls us to stand alongside Him. I can’t get over that. Makes me want to be very careful…

  32. Karen,
    It’s a good question that I’m not sure how to answer. Sometimes, in reading the Fathers, it’s possible to see a sort of naive treatment of free will that implies things about moral agency that, I think, don’t hold up. Then, you read a St. Maximus and see much more complexity. The freedom that makes us like God is, no doubt, the natural will. The gnomic will is a sad, broken and damaged icon of our true freedom. Even as such, it is important that it be engaged – particularly in the context of ascesis – our struggle towards healing.

    I think that much of my point in deconstructing moral agency as it is treated popularly, is that moral agency in the modern world is deeply colored by the assumptions of consumer capitalism. It is seen in how we view the so-called freedom of each individual – such that it’s your fault that you’re poor, sick, stupid, etc. And we think that success is the result of good moral agency. Our system has come to mirror that of the Pharisees – in which our dead men’s bones are lording it over the poor, etc.

    If you say much in this direction on social media, for example, there is an immediate deluge of anti-socialists, etc., making all kinds of accusations and promoting a sort of boot-strap moral agency that is simply not true and deeply contrary to the gospel.

    There is freedom – but it’s not all that our culture has made it out to be. I think that it requires reading the Fathers in a larger context – as large as possible.

  33. Paula, what you said is true: we cannot impart to others what we don’t have. Healing our own hearts so we do not embitter those around us is and should be our primary focus.

    If shame is “how we feel about who we are,” then we can say that in modernity, there is a vast existential crisis – we don’t know who we are – we are alienated from the true self. Another hallmark of modernity is the false notion that we create our own identities. As such, the “who we are” is little more than a flimsy gauze of self-construction – deeply vulnerable to change and loss. It makes for a perfect shame storm. People are highly reactive because we are highly insecure (and rightly so, given how poorly our identities are constructed)..

    As ever, Father, thank you for going deeper into the topic and providing greater focus for us!

  34. Thank you, Father. That is helpful, Modern psychology describes the human tendency to “blame the victim”. We see this in extreme forms in cultures that punish the rape victim and let her perpetrators off the hook, and rigid caste systems based on fatalistic notions of karmic consequences of past lives’ sins, which doom lower castes and untouchables as scapegoats and whipping boys to lives of abject misery, seemingly without a twinge of conscience on the part of those in upper castes. It is a deeply disordered and anti-gospel way of thinking, and you are quite right to address the forms this takes in our own culture and religious subculture. I appreciate it. Istm we ought to approach these matters with the utmost sober fear and trembling as we look at our own hearts and lives in light of the criteria of the Last Judgment the Lord describes in Matthew 25.

  35. What I have often been intrigued about (in the ascetic saints’ teaching on man’s responsibility in using ‘freedom’) is how we seem to be far less culpable than we think on some of our rare ‘great big choices’ and far more culpable than we assume in many of the frequent but tiniest ones…

  36. Wow thank you Paula, Karen, and Byron for engaging Fr Stephen in this very edifying conversation.

    Fr Stephen, I’ve been in a conversation recently in which “individualism” was lauded as a hallmark of ‘high intellectualism’ and freedom, first introduced into the world by Ancient Greek ‘thinkers’. The gist (I think) is to ascribe modernity to classical philosophy and to align it with the “classical foundation “ of western culture.

    Thanks be to God I kept my mouth shut in this situation. However I did suggest reading the book the ‘Unintended Reformation…” subsequently, without reference to the earlier content in the conversation. Are there good history of ideas books to explore the description of ‘the person’ and meanings in Ancient Greece? Or am I wrong to ascribe this concept of individualism only to modernity? I don’t think a philosophy book is what I’m seeking but something closer to the ‘Unintended Reformation’ approach that explores an earlier period.

  37. Dee,
    A rather massive tome is Charles Taylor’s, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. He’s a Canadian Philosopher, deeply respected. His book is almost the definitive treatment of the topic.

  38. One of the themes I wish someone like you would develop when speaking about the will, is the role of exorcism in liberating the will. I do not mean a Charismatic approach or that Christians should be getting exorcised, but in the early Church and still practiced in Orthodox baptism – illumination and freedom from the devil and incorporation into Christ’s resurrection and the impartation of the Holy Spirit – these are all solutions to the bondage of the will, and then after, asceticism, life in the Church, etc.

    For a Protestant the answer to the Bondage of the Will (Luther, Calvin, and Evangelicals who have modified their theology) is regeneration whether you were elected from eternity or not. But it’s quite obvious to me that for Orthodox it is the removal of death, forgivenss for sins, the grace of the Holy Spirit – and freedom from Satan. Orthodox to me, seem ashamed to emphasize freedom from Satan as much as a liberal Protestant would reduce Satan to psychological projections. But there He, they, are in all of our services, prayers, baptisms, etc. I think if we are ever going to talk about freedom of the will in whatever limited capacity it entails, we have to emphasize not only conditioning by the world, but conditioning by nefarious forces dead set against us and not retreat from that reality for fear of looking strange (by no means am I implying you are part of this). I just mean, if people want some liberty to “do the good they want to do”, you have to factor in the ways that not just moral (in the sense you’ve rightly criticized) choices impair this wish, but also the forces that bind the will of man. The psychological, physical, spiriitual, etc – all of these influence the will.

    God bless you!

  39. Bryon, thank you.

    Of course one of the great products of modern progress is anxiety and fear.

  40. Matthew Lyon – This quote was posted on Facebook by a well-kniwn Orthodox priest yesterday and acknowledges the demons as being a primary force in the sins we commit:

    + + +

    Other people are not the enemy.

    Even when they are wrong, they are not the enemy.

    We Christians have an enemy, who is the devil. And the devil has demons — false gods — who are asking for our worship.

    When someone falls under the sway of demonic powers, that does not make him the enemy. It makes him a prisoner who needs to be set free.

    And we also are prisoners ourselves to the degree that we give in to sin and participate in evil.

    We cannot set any prisoner free, including ourselves. Only Christ can do that. But we can participate in Christ, and thus present Christ to the prisoner.

    All these affirmations together should lead us to humility and to love, because all of us are afflicted by these dark powers.

    Christians are not in the world to replace the Savior nor to treat others like they are the devil. We are here to witness to being set free by Christ, to strive to keep and increase that freedom, and joyfully and self-sacrificially to imitate our Lord Jesus by inviting others to that freedom.

    ~Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

  41. This is an amazing article!! So many people think “morals” and “right choices” are the heart of religion and the indicator of a good person. I grew up in a family that taught and believed this, and yet I had a twin sister (we were adopted) that seemed to do everything wrong and was the family scapegoat and the brunt of family jokes. She was not successful. This article cuts to the heart of our existence and levels the playing field. We are all in need of God’s mercy. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy!!

  42. Dennis:

    One Protestant author who has some interesting things to say on being, hell, morality, etc., is C.S. Lewis. For a Protestant take on relational being (ontology), you could check out Colin Gunton (The Promise of Trinitarian Theology or The One The Three and the Many). Gunton was deeply influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy, being close friends with the Metropolitan of Pergamon, John Zizioulas. Gunton’s work can be heavy and scholarly so if you want something more readable, you could check out Baxter Kruger (The Great Dance and Jesus and the Undoing of Adam).

  43. Andrew – I have noticed The Beatitudes do not have anything to do with morals per se. Perhaps that is why the same is true of both Fr. Hopko’s and Fr. Stephen’s maxims as well.

  44. Mama V: I could have written your comments myself, and in the case of a recent-to-not-so-recent article, I did, just not as eloquently. It was late, and I was tired, and when it is late and I am tired I am unfortunately doomed to sound like a shallow, tiny-brained person. It is difficult to face oneself in the light of Orthodoxy…things that were obscured in the shadows are now – at least somewhat – illuminated, and the “plight” of having to face that is difficult work, particularly when one is 50+ and there seems as though perhaps there will not be enough lifetime left to “get it right”.

    Esmee, there are many out here who feel the same failure feelings, my Sister. I have to constantly re-adjust my lens to remind myself that I did not fail in a vacuum…there were many factors from my childhood on that “helped” me make little of my life. For me, though, I think I would not have felt the general sense of failure very much if I were a non-Christian, and definitely not as deeply had I never entered Orthodoxy as I have since I became Orthodox. I thank God for the Orthodox church and the help it has given me to face the darker corners of my life, especially Fr. Stephen’s blog thoughts. He holds a particular genius for tapping on my soul and turning me towards the cross. And I find more and more peace in facing these dark corners and enduring a little personal shame before God, after which I feel so much healthier and very grateful for another day. I am shocked to find that I am judge-y – not in my conscious, like I am so much better than that poor schmoe, but in my sub-conscious. It’s a weird thing and it is an embarrassing discovery about myself at this age because I thought I went out of my way to NOT judge people.

    Dean, refreshing breeze…yes! So much, so often with what Father writes. Thanks for putting that happy feeling into words.

  45. Having been introduced to a book about centering prayer 3-4 years ago, I discovered the concept of attachment, i.e., the habit of attaching myself to an emotion, an event, a thought, etc. In other words, as things would transpire, and I would begin to feel something, I would “attach” myself to those feelings and I would add to my concept of who I thought I was. In the book, another practice was mentioned, that of the welcoming prayer, in which these things were acknowledged for what they are, “allowed” to exist, but not succumbed to. It was then that I understood the phrase, “Bring every thought captive to Christ.”

    And now, with this next installment re ontology, I have discovered another practice that further fleshes out what I mention above (pun intended). I cannot pinpoint exactly what was said, and this may be a cumulative effect of both posts, not to mention every other post of yours I’ve read, but what I began doing, is that when I see myself a particular way, based on an emotion, a state of body (tired, hungry, etc.), someone’s remark, and all manner of things, I listen to His voice. It says, “You are Jeff. Those things are what they are. You are Jeff.”

    When God says something, it is. “Let there be light.” And there was light. He saw that it was good. He goes on to say a lot of things and we are here and have a home…the earth in which His Glory dwells. He made man, male and female, on the sixth day. At the end of the sixth day, He looks at everything He’s made, including us, and sees that it is very good.

    I have been counseled during my life to see myself as God sees me. I heard that as “Try to know that God loves you, and even though you’re kind of a crumb. He knows you’re a crumb, but He loves you anyway.”


    These posts have revealed that what God says, is. I am Jeff. I am not a _________________ (fill in blank with whatever attachment I’ve clung to based on years of negative self talk).

    Having said that about me, God takes my hand and I walk with Him–around the thought that pulls, over the event that demands my head, through the doubt of my right to exist.

    When I let go, He waits.

    I see Him again and we continue.

    I like it much better, this living of Life as opposed to the years of settling for death.

    It is truly is grand.

    God grant me mercy to “choose” You–always. Thank you for always choosing me.

    It is very good, this sixth day. 🙂

  46. Oh, well, I’m still Jeff 🙂

    Even though I messed up the italics. I meant to italicize one or two words, and obviously I forgot a step. LOL

  47. Jeff,
    I think those words were meant to be italicized. Good thoughts….thanks!

  48. Esmee,

    Loved the Fr Andrew quote. Thank you!


    It’s nice to meet a fellow struggler. Please pray for me!


  49. I was pondering this post a bit in light of the Good Thief, and his repentance, seeing Christ’s moral greatness, alongside his final plea to simply be remembered in God’s Kingdom…why the prayer, “Lord have mercy”, is the prayer of the heart… in this prayer, the Good Thief mustered all the powers of his soul unto so profound a repentance…
    This article spoke to me a bit, pondering this…

  50. Thank you for these posts on ontology, Father Stephen. Coming, as they do, midfeast in Easter, they beautifully elaborate upon how Christ is ‘trampling down death by death’. And to me the analogy (and it is more than an analogy) points to what life on earth is actually itself doing. The sower sowing seed, the seed falling into the ground, I am the vine…

    As a gardener, I see that all of my errors – my failed plantings, the prunings, the dead leaves – as they corrupt and dissolve they are transformed into food for new plantings. I often wish for my plants to live, (being not a good gardener, many don’t.) But even the best gardeners have this happen.

    So of course, Mary Magdalene thought He was the gardener at first. She would know that, wouldn’t she?

    The miracle of the seed is that even it, from which comes new life, physically dies. So, while indeed sin is death, when it falls into the earth of repentance/forgiveness the miracle of earthly life happens. Earthly life, which is our great gift from God, Who wants us to see as He sees, hear what He has told us, love as He has loved!

    Indeed He is Risen!

  51. Juliania…thank you. Like many others here, your words always edify. I was actually thinking this morning…where is Juliania? She always has something good to say…always very kind. Sounds silly, I know. But not so much when you are weary. This morning I am weary.
    O wretched (wo)man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?!
    Of course, it is through Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Have mercy! Lord…!
    Jeff…your words “you are Jeff”…not the noise in the head, but how Christ sees us, like Juliania said “He wants us to see how He sees…” … run through my mind too.
    Shame…it is hard to bear.
    I am tired of the ego. It wants way too much attention.
    Do a rope…have a cup of tea…pray…repent…forgive…
    Trust God. He alone is good.

    Forgive me.

  52. Matthew Lyon,
    You have brought up a question concerning the somewhat discrete way that exorcism is practiced in the Orthodox Church. I too wish to learn more. I wish to learning from Fr Stephen and others, and I offer a few of my own reflections.

    The Book of Job appears to indicate that Satan speaks to God and again we see this with Christ’s temptations in the desert and in His healing people by ejecting a harmful ‘spirit’. And when Peter confronts Christ about the impending Crucifixion, Christ orders: “Satan get behind me”. (simply put in our language: ‘Satan you’re not going to get in my way’)–indicating that Christ hears Satan through Peter’s voice and objections.

    I think these biblical references indicate that man, by nature (essence), is fundamentally made for communion with God, as is all of creation. It is by a process of diversion that he turns away. If I interpret Fr Stephen rightly, we have a gnomic will that allows us to be deliberate in the walk of our life toward God. One active stimulus in this deliberate walk is Satan.

    And I interpret the ‘ladder’ to heaven to be the gnomic will. Each small step, those actions that seem insignificant, are small ‘obediences’ to the call of Christ. (I appreciate Dino’s comment in this matter). However the devils/Satan, also call to us at each of these small steps. Our goal and preference is to follow Christ, to respond to His call.

    I believe that the exorcism helps to ‘flush out’ Satan to be able to hear Christ’s call with greater clarity, in order to help us differentiate the Lord’s voice in each small step and orient ourselves toward God. It is a process that fashions an internal ‘compass’ in preparation for those moments when we are in complete darkness. And it is because of this internal ‘winnowing’ (though that internal compass) that Paul is able to see his failures.

    As we approach Pentecost, in this stretch of time, we are waiting for the ‘coming down’ of the Holy Spirit. I think, similar to Christ’s going down into Hell and Harrowing Hell, so it is in the exorcism. Christ is overturning the tables in our soul. And we are asked to hold on to Him, as we are being washed, baptized, and preparing for the entrance of the Holy Spirit into our souls, and as we ‘put on Christ’, our new clothing.

    All aspects of this process (of theosis) is both physical and spiritual and the ‘will’ plays an important part in it, as broken as it is. One small step at a time, we walk in Christ, like a small child.

  53. Paula,
    Your comment wasn’t up when I started writing and I hadn’t had a chance to read it until this moment. God bless you with peace and embrace your heart with love. You are constantly reflecting God’s love to others.

    I thank you for your presence here.

  54. I’m frustrated by my typos:
    ‘I wish to learn’ in first paragraph.
    ‘through that internal compass’ in fifth paragraph.

  55. Father Stephen,
    Please forgive these multiple comments. In my long comment to Matthew, it may seem that I suggest the importance of ‘choice’ as the heart of our existence. And I don’t wish to convey that but it might be read that way. Please forgive this coloration and correct as you see fit.

  56. Matthew Lyon, Dee,

    Despite the frequent mention of the adversary’s defeat, you don’t actually see him getting a lot of attention in the Fathers. Reading the Ladder of Divine Ascent, for example, he just not a big or common subject. The charismatic/pentecostal treatment of the subject has contributed a lot of false images (as have the movies). “Resist the devil and he will flee,” is probably the most helpful advice on the subject in Scripture. He is also mentioned in many things that speak of making the sign of the Cross. I have, a times on the blog, mentioned the Prayer to the Holy Cross, as the best prayer to be used in battling back, when needed.

    Apart from Holy Baptism, I have never been involved in an Orthodox exorcism. I know of a few priests who have – complete with hair-raising stories. Such things are generally not at all involved in our daily struggle to keep the commandments. It is difficult to discern where diabolical suggestion and mere passions start, begin and end. And, for practical purposes, it doesn’t much matter. It does matter, however, for many unbalanced souls in which the tendency to hypostasize their own imagination is a problem (imagining the devil when the problem is nothing of the sort).

    Some cultures do more with all of this – and not always in a healthy way.

    Generally, do your prayers, keep the commandments (those of Christ), go to confession and communion. The healing of the will is slow, and the battle is quite inward rather than outward.

  57. Thank you Fr Stephen for your very helpful answer. I haven’t heard of any exorcism except in the service before Holy Baptism and I was attempting to extrapolate it’s purpose from that, albeit not so helpfully, perhaps.

    I sincerely appreciate your description of the potential error in hypostasizing ones own imagination as diabolical influences apart from one’s own passions. This is an important warning.

  58. Deep thanks, Dee. God is good. He loves us all.

    I really appreciate your reflections on Satan and the role he plays, Christ’s victory, and our place in this cosmic reality. I think you explain it well, that it is a turning toward Christ, a constant turning, and not merely a choice. You use the word “diversion”. Yes, this is the ‘turning away’. Christ, through the Spirit, re-diverts, if you will, to Himself…not by force, but by, how do I say, beckoning us, and speaks to our natural (but damaged) inclination toward the Good. “Christ is overturning the tables in our soul”. Very well said.
    I see fruits of your reading and contemplation of the The Ladder.
    As we approach Pentecost I am reminded that it is a continual filling, to the overflow (His bounty, His abundance), and again, not merely a one time choice.
    Yes, one small step at a time (I thank you too, Dino…edifying reminder), in the healing of our soul. In its depth, we find God. Like Father said, we are not our broken gnomic will. Yet Christ, by clothing Himself in flesh, without sin becomes sin that we may be truly free from this body of death. It is a process. A life’s journey.

    Father, this time I checked before posting…your response to Dee is most helpful and kind of what I expected. I remember you saying these things in the past.
    Thank you.

  59. I have repeatedly read in the writings of both ancient and modern Elders that the Psalms specifically chase away the demons. Crazy John of Athens, a modern Fool-for-Christ, gave the Psalter to everyone for this reason. He told them to read from it every day, and said that even if we don’t understand what we are reading, the demons definitely do and will flee.

  60. Father…you mention crossing yourself, and then Prayer to the Holy Cross. Is that one and the same thing? (Can’t find anything in the archives at this moment)

  61. Found it Father! Makes sense now. We pray in this manner many times in the LIturgy:

    Orthodox Prayer to the Holy Cross (Let God Arise)
    Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered; and let those who hate Him flee from His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; and as wax melts from the presence of fire, so let the demons perish from the presence of those who love God and who sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and say with gladness: Hail, most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, for Thou drivest away the demons by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ Who was crucified on thee, went down to hell and trampled on the power of the devil, and gave us thee, His honorable Cross, for driving away all enemies. O most precious and life-giving Cross of the Lord, help me with our holy Lady, the Virgin Theotokos, and with all the Saints throughout the ages. Amen.

  62. But how to forgive yourself? The ease of the Good Thief’s death is that his self-disgust lasted only til the sun went down.

  63. Your comment, Paula,
    (and thanks for the prayer) reminded me of how I used to view the cross. I would maybe wear one, perhaps hang one on my wall, and sing “The Old Rugged Cross.” That’s about it. I certainly would never have personified it by praying to it or bowing down to it in veneration. For a long while now, however, I have done just that. I don’t know how much I have changed. I rather believe that the cross in some way has changed me. Matter matters to me now. Thank you Lord for Thy precious and life-giving cross.

  64. Thanks Dean.
    Yes, the Old Rugged Cross…I remember. But without Him hanging on it. Crucifix’s were a no-no.
    I agree with you, the Cross, veneration of it, kissing it at the end of each liturgy…even before I go to sleep at night…has changed, and still is changing me, “in someway”. And yes, Christ redeemed the whole cosmos…visible and invisible, spirit and matter, even the rocks who cry out in praise!

  65. The prayer to the Holy Cross is included in the Orthodox Prayer Book (translated from the Russian) published by the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. I’ve never seen it anywhere else and would love to know where it originated. It is beautiful and powerful.

  66. Esmee,
    I do not know where the prayer originated, but it is the first prayer used in an exorcism, if I’m not mistaken. Famously, if you’ve seen the film, The Island (Ostrov), it is the prayer that Fr. Anatoly uses on the island when the exorcises the demon from the young woman.

  67. Ah, thank you Father, that makes sense. I’ve seen The Island once, but need to watch it again and I will be sure to take note of that scene when I do.

  68. Scott,
    Brother, if you will, I hope you don’t mind me adding my ‘two-cents’. I wonder if it makes sense to you that there is really no forgiving yourself without knowing that you first have been forgiven. The thief on the cross (his name is Dismas) most certainly knew he was forgiven…and that is the essence of our healing…even our salvation. Even if it was on Dismas’ dying day, many others die in great fear of death, very sadly without a peaceful end.
    This is not to undermine Father’s knowledge about counseling. If you have read his works it is quite evident that the Church encourages counseling, and if needed, medicine to help readjust brain function. I’ve been there myself.
    But forgiving oneself I think can not be truly realized until you know you yourself are forgiven. This is where, as Dee alluded to, there is intention, by God’s grace, to turn to Him and cry out for mercy. This is a lowering of oneself, recognizing our weakness (we are all weak) and receiving back what He gives to us…His peace. It enables the strength to live. Even if it is only enough to take another breath, that very breath is life. Our whole life journey consists of these struggles and conquests. And here we find joy. This is different than fleeting “happiness”.
    I know exactly what it means to feel that disgust, Scott. It wasn’t until my later years, upon entering the Church, that I realized God’s forgiveness…and still, to this day, battle the thought that I must “do something” more (it’s never “good enough”) to be in His good graces. I have found that even as I still continue to sin, He still loves and forgives. But I could not imagine not asking for forgiveness. In His wisdom, He has given us the sacrament of confession, as a means to heal. We need to confess and know we are forgiven. I believe knowing this, in time, you begin to heal and be at peace. It is a process…and it is slow. That’s why we call it a journey.

    Praying for you, Scott.
    Hang on….

  69. And everything Paula said :). I think healing is a lifetime affair, and is truly brought about through love that comes from the source of all love, God. I have found it is in the Life in the Church that this deep healing can take place as God pours His oil of mercy upon our souls through Baptism, Confession (a continual renewal of Baptism), Brothers and Sisters in Christ who love us, support us, and pray for us, the love and dedication on our behalf of the Saints who intercede for us and love us, God’s living love manifested in the Hymns and beauty, Spiritual Fathers who give continual loving care to us, and the actual forgiveness wrought in Confession. It is in Holy Communion, where Christ gives himself to us for healing of both soul and body. I have found that healing is a lifetime journey in the Church, and that God simply asks of me to not take my eyes off of Him, and it is Christ who truly heals.

  70. Amen Anonymous! It is as you say. The Church is the Ark of salvation. It is Christ Himself…”who offers and is offered”. It is love in earnest…as exists the Godhead Trinity!

    Ps 22: 22
    “I will declare Your name to My brethren;
    In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.”

  71. Exorcism again…

    I think the gist of my post was sort of missed and that is my fault I assume. I’m thinking of the person who is being brought into the Church not so much people already in the Church – but having a right understanding of conversion is the starting point for right presuppositions about salvation. If you read St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s catechism Satan gets plenty of “airtime” and the same is true as it relates to the stimulation of the passions in numerous Church Fathers.

    So, my point is this – when we are going to talk about the freedom of the will, again, in whatever limited capacity the will has as a determinative force for good or evil, and if we are going to reduce or enlarge culpability of a person based on this capacity, then an obvious way of measuring to some degree someone’s capacity of will is to look for ways in which it is handicapped, bound, whatever…

    In St. Cyril of Jerusalem the catechumen was prepared for baptism preceded by exorcism, even prepared for the possibility of multiple exorcisms. Why? This is where the soteriology East/West comes out in stark contrast for me. Because, instead of the will being in a permanent state of only willing to sin – Original Sin / Total Depravity – I’ve decided to coin the term Total Impossibility (I think it’s original, not sure) – meaning there is a Total Impossibility that a person will ever use their will to choose God due to the effects of the fall and their transmission to all men via Original Sin. The will can only choose what is good to it, what seems right and if you are born with Original Sin then the will must only choose sin because that is all it can, all it is capable of seeing as good, desirable, pleasurable. This means that no one will be able to be saved unless God foreordained them to be by a miraculous intervention whereby God overhauls the human will apart from the wishes of the human, the elect one, and then they can see and enjoy the love of God.

    In Orthodoxy, instead of this predestination which is require for anyone to be saved due to Original Sin, what do you get – exorcism. That every one is under possession by the devil, or affliction by nefarious spirits, whatever you want to call it, is part of the problem, in fact is a gigantic problem Messiah came to solve on our behalf. It is a basic presuppostion that all humans have sin as a problem, death as a problem, and Satan as a problem. Sin is forgiven, death is trampled down, but how is Satan dealt with – you get exorcised in baptism, you spit at him and renounce him and vow never to return to him. And if you do go back, you are handed over to him for a time that you may repent, renew your baptism, and perform the works befitting repentance.

    Why does everyone go through this rite in Orthodoxy and not just former Pagans? Because we all share in the vulnerabiltiy of soul to the persuasion, affliction, and possibly possession of the demons.

    So, how does God save us, he frees us from the bondage of the devil who took us captive to do his will – where does He do this? In baptism — which includes exorcism. How do we keep from being re-bound to Satan. We renew our baptism in the sacraments and an ongoing life of repentance.

    So, whenever we talk “will” – we have conditioning – social/cultural/etc, we have biology and epigenetics and DNA, we have our own choices and patterns of behavior we have laid down, hardwired in our brains, and left out of the whole mix hiding in the shadows smiling – is the person/s whose life goal is to enslave us in sin running along scot-free. Perhaps we may escape the snares of the devil.

    Pay attention to the words in the services that have to do with Satan, demons – they are not all victory proclamations.

    Every Vespers service has prayers to be delivered from demons, from imaginations aroused by demons – they are short but they are there.

    A prayer like this is prayed on a regular basis, “Deliver us from the terror of the night and from everything that walketh in darkness, and grant that the sleep which thou has appointed for the repose of our weakness may be free from every imagination of the devil.” Vespers prayer of the Entrance…”deliver us from all who seek after our souls.” “Guard them at all times…from all adverse powers of the Devil, and from vain thoughts and evil imaginations.”

    Since the Liturgy is celebratory it makes sense that there is not as much mention, although in St. Basil’s liturgy there is a prayer for those vexed by unclean spirits. Also during the Prayer of Thanksgiving that partaking in communion would be to the turning aside of every adversary. Most all of the pre and post communion prayers entreat that by partaking it would expel or protect us from demons.

    But the baptismal liturgy is explicit that the person needs released from the bondage of the devil. And at one time baptisms were not private events they were communal (as I think they should be – we are the body of Christ, not just having personal relationships with Jesus – the whole community would be present for every exorcism and the reality of the devil, the danger that sin leads to slavery to sin, etc – would have reeinforced the reality of Satan and his effect on the will of man.

    Last, I don’t know if there’s anything to this theory of mine but Psalm 90 is an exorcism Psalm found at Qumran among the Exorcism Scrolls and almost every time it’s quoted in the NT it’s connection is to Jesus’ temptation or safety from the devil. Psalm 90 is the first Psalm at every Orthodox funeral. When you combine this with the early notion of the tollhouses – I’m really not trying to get into that – it’s easy to think of Psalm 90s placement as a prayer for protection from the demonic after death and would actually give a lot of rationale for praying for the departed.

    Matthew Lyon

  72. I have been taught that when it feels like many temptations are around me, or people may be reacting negatively to me, or it seems that God’s protection is something needful, to simply find my inner quiet, and to not pay attention to anything else (to not be negatively swayed by anything else, but to keep my focus on Christ), and just say the Jesus Prayer. I have found this to be truly helpful. It is quieting and calming, steadfast, and centering to the soul, in Christ.

    Also, something that really came to my mind in reading your post, Matthew, is that Elder Aimilianos taught that God places a bridge in everyone’s life, unto Himself. I don’t know why your post made me think about that, but it did. 🙂

  73. Matthew Lyon, You have made some really interesting observations on this subject. Thank you for taking the time to explain your meaning in more detail. There is much to ponder in what you have said. I look forward to Father Stephen’s response.

  74. “And if you do go back, you are handed over to him for a time that you may repent, renew your baptism, and perform the works befitting repentance.”

    Matthew , if I interpret your meaning in this sentence correctly, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think this is accurate.

    “but having a right understanding of conversion is the starting point for right presuppositions about salvation.”

    I believe it’s the other way around: having the right understanding of salvation (with Christ’s Life and Resurrection as the focus point) brings about an understanding of conversion.

    I’m not sure whether you’re looking for information on exorcism, itself, as it seems that you want to initiate a conversation to link this practice to ‘the will’. I’ve read a short description of exorcism of the Orthodox church in other ‘official’ links which anyone can google. What I don’t see in such places is a discussion of salvation linked with the discussion or a link to the concept of the will with these definitions and practices. While at the same time exorcisms are conducted during the service of Holy Baptism.

    If there is such a discussion that is needful, I will leave that to Fr Stephen or others. This is well out of my depth.

  75. Paula AZ et al, I’ve confessed to, and begged God to forgive me many times for past sins I have repented of and successfully stopped. God healed me of the desire but not the deeds. I don’t think I’ll feel forgiven until He gets His pound of flesh. I stewed in forensic Christianity so long, I could probably change my mind but not my intuition. Maybe I could wall off my past sins like a cyst and try to forget them, but they would still exist. If only I could be nailed up like Dismas so my enemies could see me strain against the wood and be satisfied, then I would be satisfied. Other than that, mere confession to other people just sounds like a good way of multiplying my enemies.

    I have to apologize to the host since this isn’t a fit venue for the counseling he suggested. I will have to stop here.

  76. Scott,
    If you desire not to sin but still do, this is, in essence, the same thing St Paul is saying, who Father quotes in this post (Rm 7: 15-25). St Paul groans over this: “who will deliver me from this body of death!” Then he says “I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
    St Paul still laments, but knows that what Christ accomplished in His Passion and Resurrection is what matters, and not so much how he feels. Feelings are all over the place. Christ’s work for our salvation, our peace, stands firm. He forgives a heart that is turned toward Him. I would that you would know that for yourself.

    As for the years spent in “forensic Christianity”, do you realize its fallacy? So you say it would be possible to change your mind but not your intuition. You would never be able to change. You’d always react from the gut. Scott, how can you predict this though? Do you believe that with God all things are possible? Try to reason with your “gut”…you know?
    These feelings and emotions we have need to be dealt with. Perhaps counseling.
    A willingness to attend church…pray, read, study…reach out for help.
    Do you want to do this, Scott? Are you willing to face these challenges? I encourage you to do so.
    And remember… you are not alone.

  77. Forgive me Scott…one more thing (for now 🙂 )….
    I received in my inbox this morning, from a dear friend, a link to a podcast she found to be “very good”. So she shared it with me…and I pass it on to you:
    You may have read Father’s post(s) on this topic. I think the reason he writes on certain topics repeatedly over the years is that, for one thing, we need to hear things over and over again for it to begin to sink in. In this podcast, we are asked to start small. When we go to church, we ‘present’ ourselves. Our “presence” is just that. If you feel lousy, you are still ‘present’ (for lousy is not who you are). If you feel good, same thing. Because, as Father explains in the podcast, our ideas and feelings can be misleading and can easily lead us to think they constitute reality. But we shall find that in being present it is not an encounter with our thinking and emotions that constitute reality, but rather it is an encounter with God .
    And again, he reminds us “we need to learn to live slowly”.
    Anyway Scott, if you do listen to the podcast, I hope it gives you some encouragement. Because these things bear repeating.

    Thank you. I am glad that as you reach within yourself you are at the same time reaching out. Take it slow, and if you can, trust God. Even if it is feeble, trust God. Like a child, trust Him. In its foolishness, trust Him. He loves you and doesn’t need your “pound of flesh”. He desires that we unite with Him and discover our true self.

  78. Paula, thank you.
    “Our “presence” is just that. If you feel lousy, you are still ‘present’ (for lousy is not who you are). If you feel good, same thing. Because, as Father explains in the podcast, our ideas and feelings can be misleading and can easily lead us to think they constitute reality. But we shall find that in being present it is not an encounter with our thinking and emotions that constitute reality, but rather it is an encounter with God .”

    Truth. Living giving truth. From this fount may I ever drink. Thank you, Paula, for being one of His streams. You’re refreshing and life-giving in your words and your presence.

    It is good to be here in this place with each and every one of you. Glory to God.

  79. Paula,
    There’s another reason I write repeatedly on certain topics… My private rule is only to write on what I actually know (theoretically and experientially). It greatly limits what I can do. So, I try to do as much as I can with what little I know. When you see something truly new on the blog, it is a singular moment!

  80. Father…you are very humble!..”with what little I know”! With what little you know, there is something that is imparted to us that we need to hear so very much! Repeatedly! I think a lot of it is your disposition…you are kind, and you relate personally to our suffering and not ashamed to admit it. So in that respect, you may not be a “walking encyclopedia” but you undoubtedly set a good example.

    I do try to speak about what I have experienced as well. That is a good rule to follow. It seems to comes across as more authentic. But with myself, I am still learning, “theoretically and experimentally”. With you, you have many more years of experience, and direct experience intimately at the altar. This, to me, would cause an awesome “fear and trembling” and a carefulness on how you treat such knowledge.
    So, you know…we like to imitate such people 🙂 .

    ” When you see something truly new on the blog, it is a singular moment!” Ah!.. we like to hear about those extraordinary “time stoppers” just as much as the repeats!

  81. Getting back to the observation that Dino made upstream in this comment stream, here is a quote that my parish priest sent out to my parish. I think it’s helpful and fits with Fr Stephen’s thoughts in his article above.

    “ Obedience begins by what are apparently the most insignificant details of everyday life, by the most humble work, but its end is the consciousness that ‘I am.’ We must keep this attitude of mind with the energy of faith in the resurrection.”

    Elder Sophrony Sakharov, Words of Life, published 2010, page 47

  82. Adam (the first comment),
    I think true freedom is being content to both choose a door, or, not choose a door. And if you chose a door, being at peace regardless of which door you chose.

    Such freedom can come only from the Peace given by God. If I am saved (first hymn in the Coptic Liturgy), then it doesn’t matter whether I stay, or choose a door, or which door I choose. I am eternally with God.

  83. Dear Scott,
    Christ is Risen! (This is the Paschal greeting given to each other in the Orthodox Church between Pascha and the Feast of the Ascension of Christ). I have come to really love this greeting as it says it all, really: Christ is Risen and so may we forever put our trust in Him so we may rise too, to be with Him forever.
    I just wanted to encourage you, and to give you a couple of resources you might be interested in, and to mostly let you know you have our prayers, you will be in prayer. I regularly visit a beautiful Monastery that every day prays for the world. That is their mission, and their honor. You will be in their prayers. One of my favorite Psalms they regularly chant is Psalm 103. It is beautiful, just beautiful when they sing it. It speaks so deeply to the heart. Please always remember this Psalm, a Psalm of God’s heart. Christ is the Good Shepherd, and there is more joy in Heaven when one lost sheep repents than over all of the 99 in the field, in their labor. When God gifted you repentance in your life, please know Heaven rejoiced. This is joyful, this is our rejoicing. What I have come to love about the Orthodox Church is that repentance is a lifetime journey. In fact some living Saints with God given gifts of foresight, healing, and so on, truly Holy men and women, made holy by their labors in the Church in asceticism and the Sacraments, in prayer, and all of God’s life in the Church, and they have been on their death beds and have said “I have not yet repented”. What is repentance? It is metanoia, which in Greek means a change of mind, and even more profoundly, it means a shifting of my view so I can see God. We all need to shift our views so we can see God, and see Him more profoundly, even more clearly, to hear His voice, to be with Him, the one who loves us more than anyone can ever fathom.
    I noticed you seemed to have a different framework of the Sacramental Church because of your experience in the western Protestant Church. The Orthodox Church’s sacramental life is in the Holy Mysteries, rightly named because they are hidden, conduits of God’s grace, His Divine Energies, He gives unto us, to restore our image fully in Him. You are made in the image of God, a beloved child, a person Christ died for. Christ died for all, but He also died for only you…you so that He can restore His image fully and live with you forever in paradise. This I am learning about myself, and I am forever grateful as He does this in me.
    The couple of resources I wanted to leave you with are a website of books you might be interested in reading along your journey. I know a lot of people have been especially helped by “The Orthodox Church” by Kallistos Ware, and also “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil” by Melitios Webber. These types of resources explain the sacramental life, given by Christ himself to the Apostles, who passed it down to Bishops, and so on to this present day in Apostolic succession. This is the website of yet other books as well:
    Most of all, Scott, please know you are a child of God and God loves you, you are the reason God came to this Earth, as are each one of us, and He is with us in Spirit and in Truth. Please know He removes our sins from us as far as the East is from the West in His forgiveness, and the truest healing we all truly seek is in the sacramental Church. We are all His lambs He is saving, as we are all ever repenting. God bless you, you have our prayers.

  84. Dee
    How true that those who wholeheartedly desire to do God’s will even in insignificantly small things, (which are often fairly simple too), are the ones who are lead to tge truly grand “I Am” (Exodus 3:14), which is much harder because it essentially is the wholehearted: “not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42)
    May the Holy Spirit inspire and strengthen us all.

  85. That every one is under possession by the devil, or affliction by nefarious spirits, whatever you want to call it, is part of the problem, in fact is a gigantic problem Messiah came to solve on our behalf.

    Matthew, I’ve never seen this as a “problem to be solved” by Jesus. I only see His coming as the revealing of Himself for our salvation. I don’t deny that “affliction by nefarious spirits” exists and is an issue, but I consider it an issue only because we are not focused on God.

    Scott, God’s forgiveness is the cross; His self-emptying love which is given to all. It is a given; we cannot avoid it. Our struggle, I think, is in giving thanks for His continual love and grace. He does not want a “pound of flesh” but we all too often want it of ourselves.

  86. Thanks for your warm words, PaulaAZ! Please know that in my frequent absences I am most often digesting the excellent posts Father Stephen presents, along with so many good conversations here, and important links. As a ‘newbie’ I’m often ignorant of what has come before, and the current subject is mind-bendingly beautiful. Thank you all so much.

    I’m no expert on exorcism at all, but Matthew’s post stirred my recent memory from Saint Athanasius’s explanation of the Incarnation – so much in line with the discussion about the cross, and earlier what ‘trampling down death by death’ means. His emphasis is upon that Paschal action having been an obliteration of ‘the threat of the law’, that is the original transgression – that death which mankind had inherited until His death upon the cross. So, that was done for all, for all of mankind, His body being able to physically die in that all-encompassing manner with the help of its Divine occupant. Only He could do that.

    Simply put, we are thereafter freed from that burden. He did that. Our natural death is something different, we will still die (as He did) but now we are given a new start. We are newborn. We shall die, but as seeds.

    So now, as Father Stephen says at the beginning of this post, it is about us, about each of us, our will. We can’t blame anyone else for making that mistake and dooming us – that’s been lifted. And in what I was saying about natural corruption we can see that the earth always has had that miracle within natural creation; it already was naturally performing and must have always still done so, the transformation of decay into food for new life – we just get out of step with the program.

    It’s so lovely that on the Cross, Christ was telling the thief about Paradise! Remember us, O Lord, when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom! Happy feast of the Blind Man! He wasn’t very clear about who had healed him, he just knew he could see!

  87. Scott, I have been re-reading the thread this evening, and noticed the many concerned responses to your basic question. It may or may not help you, but feel free to discard this thought. I only know it has helped me, who have been and will always be a very great sinner. That is my life story and it doesn’t go away ever even though I have confessed it many times. The passage I return to that helps me is the story in Luke of the meal to which Christ was invited by Simon, at which a woman has entered and is bathing his feet with costly oil. Christ speaks, knowing that his host is annoyed by this. His words begin, “Simon, do you see this woman?” But the important part for me is when He says, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven her because she has loved much.”

    Even when I am greatly distressed by my failings, which are many and have even affected those I love, this comforts me. ( As I am sure it did her, though it probably also made her cry even more at the time He said it.) God bless you.

  88. I had a small thought that occurred to me this morning: that metanoia unto repentance is an ever increasing shift in more correctly, truthfully, clearly, and profoundly seeing God, but also an ever increasing shift in more correctly, truthfully, clearly, and profoundly seeing oneself, and the truth of one’s life that flows from that…

  89. Exorcism again…Dee, others,

    Again, I don’t have some fascination with exorcism – but it is a necessary piece of salvation and without it I do not know if salvation, in the normative sense (where the thief on the cross is not normative), should be expected without it. And the importance of it is related to the will.

    My posts are not about the rite of exorcism per se, but that it is clearly understood within Orthodoxy that instead of baptismal regeneration wiping away Original Sin, or a monergistic, God-alone electing a sinner from eternity past to be saved apart from any willing on their part – that exorcism is the necessary counter to predestination, to Total Depravity.

    Why does the will function in Orthodoxy but not in Protestant and Catholic theology, because the will is inextricably knitted into what it means to be in God’s Image. It is not the Image itself but part of it. The will, due to Original Sin, Total Depravity, must be overcome by God alone in Western theology (even if they back away from this, it’s foundational). This is the only way for the will to function, God has to free it. Now, God still has to free our will, but the problem is different in Orthodoxy. Death and sin and passions are at times indistinguishable. Death stimulates passions, but Satan was the lord of the dead. Sin leads to death and bondage – “whoever sins is a slave to sin”. Passions, when given in to, give the illusion of escaping death because pleasure is an escape much of the time. The demons help perpetuate this cycle. We have lost the worldview of the Bible and the Fathers.

    All the nations after Babel were under foreign deities, real, actual “gods”. Paul understands that Messiah came to regather the nations – why do you think we pray the prayer of Simeon all the time?? – a light to lighten the Gentiles – the Gentiles were under the power of the “gods” who had fallen. Therefore, as soon as Messiah comes – the question of “when will you restore the kingdom” gets answered by, “go into all the world”. Kingdom rebuilding wasn’t on the table but regathering those under the dominon of false gods was, and this was accompanied by exorcism (Acts).

    Those who participated in the sacrifices of pagan “gods” were communicants with the “gods”, that’s why Paul tells them not to (and the whole argument is actually proof that he saw the Lord’s Supper as a real communing with the Body and Blood of Christ).

    But, the point is, before baptism (and I don’t know how early exorcism rites were part of baptisms, I want to find this out), you were under the “powers”, after you weren’t, and this made the will functional to do the will of God along with ongoing repentance. It’s not that exorcism alone will free the will, we have to believe in the Resurrection, we have to seek the Holy Spirit, we have to mortify the passions… Since Jews practiced exorcism, Jesus did, certain Psalms were considered to have been written for the purpose of exorcism, then it makes perfect sense that it would have been common.

    Think of the story with Elisha and Naaman. Naaman brings dirt home so that he can worship Yahweh back in his home town. Why? He and that world understood that there were geographical territories of God and the gods. How do I worship the true God somewhere else? Bring some dirt from Yahweh’s portion. After Messiah comes, the territory of the gods is invaded and the whole earth increasingly becomes full of the knowledge of God. Think of when the 70 are sent out and they come back happy that they could cast out demons. They were going into hostile territory, not neutral territory. Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning…” Whether that was a recollection or a forseeing or something that was happening then – regardless, He relates this to their exorcism power. He gives them power to tread on serpents (this is a reference to demons”.

    The fact that exorcisms are not based on your prior religious experience in Orthodoxy should be proof that it is a universal need.

    Because Christ through His Saints destroyed the delusion of idols, and we live in a culture who is monotheistic, we assume exorcism prayers before baptism are a product of need that no longer exists. But as C.S. Lewis has said in my paraphrase, the demons would love to scare you to death and toment you, but if they did you might go running to God (this was the tactic on the whole Roman world – they were scared to death that these Christian were atheists pissing off their gods putting them in danger of their anger). So, demons are more content in our day to have people see them as psychological projections of fear. But our need for freedom from Satan is as real as ever.

    And all of this relates to the functionality of the will.

    Dee of St Hermans says:
    May 31, 2019 at 7:58 pm
    “And if you do go back, you are handed over to him for a time that you may repent, renew your baptism, and perform the works befitting repentance.”
    Matthew , if I interpret your meaning in this sentence correctly, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t think this is accurate.

    Paul hands over someone to Satan that they may repent. When you return, if you do, what are you doing besides renewing your baptism – this is what confession and repentance are. You come back home.

    “but having a right understanding of conversion is the starting point for right presuppositions about salvation.”
    I believe it’s the other way around: having the right understanding of salvation (with Christ’s Life and Resurrection as the focus point) brings about an understanding of conversion.

    First, I think you basically said I what I said. What you and others, and I don’t blame you, it took me a long time to see it – don’t see, is that exorcism is part of having a right understanding of salvation. I think some of you are focusing on the weirdness of an exorcism instead of freedom from the demons. What you see yourself as being saved from, which the early Christians clearly understood and we do not, is needed for us in our time. We constantly turn the work of Jesus into a psychological remedy for our self-image, self-worth, guilt problems, family problems, money problems, etc. – it’s not that Jesus doesn’t have a holistic plan for us, but He starts with sin, devil removals, self-denial, cross lifting, enemy loving, death killing, etc. If you don’t understand what your problem is, and this is why many lament that if our generation was Pagan, they would basically understand their problem… Lewis does (God in the Dock) – we do not understand the problem because Christianity has been reduced to moralism (as Fr. Freeman helpfully criticizes) and self-care. Paul would have none of this.

    I’m not sure whether you’re looking for information on exorcism, itself, as it seems that you want to initiate a conversation to link this practice to ‘the will’. I’ve read a short description of exorcism of the Orthodox church in other ‘official’ links which anyone can google. What I don’t see in such places is a discussion of salvation linked with the discussion or a link to the concept of the will with these definitions and practices.

    I think this is rather tragic if true but I cannot confirm it at the moment. I only know if you read early Fathers and I’m leaning heavy on St. Cyril of Jerusalem because I’ve been reading him lately, it’s there. Why else practice it? Makes no sense. Exorcism, even house blessings, are all about removal of evil influences, many of which have been invited by us over long periods of time.

    Anytime anyone intentionally (I can think of several example of even unintentinally) hands over their will to sin they are also handing over their will to demons. This doesn’t mean their possessed but it does mean that a detachment process will ensue if they are to be free.

    Why did the desert Fathers go to the desert? To escape life in the world, no, to imitate Jesus’s temptation – to face their demons one on one, or one on many.

    I think, whereas Protestants feel that the will is basically useless until conversion (those of the Reformed type – who have influenced all denominations) – naive Orthodox could see that the will is basically free or just basically conditioned never seeing demons as a horrible source of much of their conditioning. This is tragic. Every Sunday after communing I pray the prayers in the service book and most all of them ask for the Eucharist to be an aversion, a cleansing, a removal of evil influences – all of this to free the will to function for God. Every Communion is like a mini-exorcism – I’m not reducing it to that – but it is that and much more. What is theosis except the will going from self interest motivated by death, devils, passions to self-less love with no motivation by passions, death, devils?

    Thanks for interacting.

  90. Forgive me Matthew, I realize that what I might have said and still attempt to say may end up being just another frustrating comment.

    When you express concern about this conversation in your comments, what is frustrating you, I believe, is the response or the ‘redirection’ of the comment-response to Christ. Christ, is in fact, the answer.

    I may be glossing over too much but the consistent thread I’m getting from your comment is the relationship of the will to the exorcism service or to salvation or to all three.

    The key to salvation is Christ and nothing else. Also babies are baptized and they undergo exorcisms as well (all without much ado with their ‘will’) And I believe you already know these things about the baptism.

    My interpretation is that you persist in your questions for what appears to be a desire for a systematic treatment of your questions concerning the adversary and the human will. (If I interpret your comments correctly) I haven’t found such a systematic treatment. And that, in itself, is a form of statement about ‘how to proceed’.

    As I said before, I’m out of my depth. Therefore my answers are likely over-simplistic and frustrating. Please forgive me if what I say only adds to your frustration and if it is unhelpful:

    I note that if we are to live as Christ lives, what He has shown us to do with the adversary is relatively brief and simple, rebuke him and ‘move on’, that is, to say ‘yes’ to the love of the Father, and Christ focused His attention on the living the life of “Thy will be done”. The attention needs to be on Christ’s example, simply put.

    I’ll add a few sentences from Fr Alexander Schememann, from his book “Of Water and the Spirit” pg 21 under the heading of “exorcisms”:
    It is not our purpose to outline, even superficially, the Orthodox teaching concerning the Devil. In fact, the Church has never formulated it systematically, in the form of a clear concise “doctrine”. What is of paramount importance for us, however, is that the Church has always had the experience of the demonic, has always, in plain words, known the Devil. If this direct knowledge has not resulted in a neat and orderly doctrine, it is because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, rationally to define the irrational……..
    (pg 23 next) And when we contemplate evil in ourselves and outside ourselves in the world, how incredibly cheap and superficial appear all rational explanations, all “reductions” of evil to neat and rational theories….

    Matthew, please forgive me in this admission of my ignorance. Perhaps reading Fr Schmemann’s book might be helpful.

  91. In an appropriate reverence to the sacrament, I should have used the words, “Holy Baptism”.

  92. Matthew,
    Sorry if this is a matter of consternation. I have never seen a particular development of exorcism as normative to salvation. It is a normal part of the Baptismal rite. But there are any number of instances in which it might be foregone (in emergency settings, for one). Essentially, saying “yes” to God is inherently saying “no” to everything else. The Baptismal rite represents a fullness and a completeness – but when something begins to be developed along the lines of what is necessary to salvation – then I think you are on problematic ground. St. Cyril is, of course, describing and explaining Baptism, exorcisms, etc., in what is/was a normative practice. But that is not to be mistaken for the basis of a dogmatic treatment of the subject. This is the kind of thing that too easily results in confusion.

    Theosis is union with God – plain and simple.

  93. Fr. Freeman,

    Maybe the confusion is that I am equating freedom from demonic forces which bind the will with exorcism. For the will to function in a capacity where it is able to respond to God it must have some liberation from demonic energy. Otherwise God would be unjust to judge humanity. If Satan is so powerful over a person that they have no way to choose God, God is unjust to judge such a person. But also, if a person is to progress in holiness, in theosis, from one degree of glory to another – their will must have the capacity to engage with God in synergy. If through demonic activity the will remains bound such that either a person cannot will towards God or make any progress after initially willing, God is defeated. But if “by the finger of God I cast out demons – Luke 11:20, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

    So, while the exorcism rite may not be normative to salvation, freedom for the tyranny of the devil is . That’s all I mean, and that freedom comes normatively in Orthodoxy to my knowledge in baptism which includes exorcism.

    Dee: “The key to salvation is Christ and nothing else…”

    Salvation from death, the demonic, and sin is in Christ and nothing else, of course. Christ brings this salvation through His Bride to humanity and it includes a wide range of healing medicines to remedy our many maladies. I understand that I may be coming across as if I want some systematic treatment, I’m not sure why that would be the case, but I hear you. It’s not that, we have to be able to explain how the will can be functional (not in a systematic way) to choose God when it is so disadvantaged – and in addition to belief in the Resurrection which ideally would defeat our fear of death and put an end to passions, and in addition to needing our sins to be forgiven, is the need for Satan to lose his grip on our souls.

    I have no desire to formulate doctrines for the devil or explanations of the irrantional. My concern is that when we speak about willing, especially when it comes to sharing our faith with Protestants and possibly Catholics, that we have a Biblical understanding of what Messiah came to do on our behalf – and that includes giving freedom to the will where it was prevented due to sin, passions, death, and demons. I don’t need to know all about demons or exorcisms, not my concern – it’s that we are not prey to the “wolf of souls”. And also, when Protestants and Catholics have Original Sin and Total Depravity for the will, and the Pelagians make man’s will unaffected almost by sin – and they look at Orthodox and say we are semi-Pelagian or that we have a naive view of the fall, the extent of it, etc. – and if you were involved in these conversations they do – that we give a counter that is consistent with our beliefs and it is found in freedom from the demons, death, sin, forgiveness for sins, the grace of the Holy Spirit, etc.

    Maybe it’s only people who try and understand the theological differences that center around the will among the Reformed, Catholics, and Orthodox that see these things? I’m weird in that way, but I was a devout Calvinist and for me, whether it is spoken of systematically or not, the counter to Total Depravity – to the impossibility that the will can function towards God – is that it can if the enemies of the soul can be pushed back, removed – whether this is through exorcism, asceticism, whatever – then if “the Son sets you free you are free indeed.” Notice Jesus says this to Jews, that their father is the devil, after he tells them that they can only do the will of their father. The slave to sin is equted with devil as your father. John 8:31-59. They turn around and tell Jesus He has a demon! But before this He has said, “if the Son sets you free”, free from what? Satan as father, sin as slave master.

    I could go on all day on this theme because it’s all over Scripture. But my point is, we are not naive about the wills’ capacity if acknowledge that freedom from sin, death, demons, etc. can come about and must. Then we can walk in the freedom and glory of the children of God.

  94. Matthew,
    I see your point. The question regarding freedom from demonic influence is worth considering. Generally speaking, the demonic does not override the human will. Even in the case of possession, the will is not completely overridden. It is severely curtailed, yes. I would compare it to being held captive by terrorists. I can’t get free – they’re doing terrible things to me – but I want to get out and I want them to leave me alone. There is, at the core, a freedom that cannot be destroyed.

    Think of the exorcism in the Baptism service. We renounce the devil. And a list of “spirits” (hardly distinguishable from the passions) are mentioned. The enemy is rebuked and told not to try to “influence” them, either by day or by night. It is also important to know that Christ utterly defeats the enemy in His Pascha. We are not now trying to repeat Pascha (it needs no repetition). Rather, we are “applying” the power of Pascha to this particular case. But throughout the service, we do not do again what has already been done.

    I very much understand your concern viz. Calvinism. Sometimes, errors can draw us into a line of thought that is too influenced by the concerns of the error. Sola Scriptura, it has been suggested in Orthodox circles, came about through the debates with Islam, when Christians in the West were drawn into comparing our “Book” to their “Book,” not realizing that they were changing the very character of the Christian Scriptures in doing so. The fundamental freedom and integrity of human nature is a dogma of the Orthodox faith. We certainly have a war against spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places – describing that battle carefully is important.

  95. Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you. When I was wrestling with Orthodox notions of freedom, and it was a long haul for me as a Calvinist, Orthodox came across to me as Pelagian. Many Orthodox sound Pelagian. I could not see how Christianity could function without Original Sin, Total Depravity, etc. If you hop over to Reformed Orthodox Bridge you’ll find this is a common problem with Reformed Protestants and many Evangelicals. For them, though they profess a belief in Satan, soteriologically, Satan and the demonic have little to do with salvation. Satan doesn’t fit in the TULIP. But in Orthodoxy he is a real power to be defeated because he was lord of death. This is our counter to the charge that Orthodoxy has a naïve view of man, the capacity of the will, the fall, etc. Orthodoxy celebrates Christ’s victory over the demonic realm whereas Western theology has basically taken that element out altogether.

    For a Reformed/Evangelical Satan’s only power (besides the rare instances in their mind of possession, affliction) is the accusation of our sins before God which will damn us eternally. But when a person has faith, they are born again and Satan is no longer a player against their salvation. Even their notion of being born again derives from Total Depravity, then the notion of Satan’s defeat is tied to PSA – because if Christ was thoroughly punished by God for the sins of the Elect (or the world) then once someone has appropriated Christ then all wrath due to them from God (Original Sin again) was absorbed into Christ and Satan can bring no charge against God’s elect – Christ has forgiven, literally paid the Father with His blood, and the Elect may suffer much trial but it has been predestined according to the loving will of God – Satan is no longer a player. He may get “airtime”, he may be mentioned, but if you study the soteriology he eventually is reduced to a non-agent.

    I ask my Reformed friends, if you took Satan out of Scripture how would it change your soteriology? It would change the story of the fall and so forth (but the fall for them is explained by God ordaining it anyway) but pepole would still be born Totally Depraved or with a Total Impossibility of ever using their will to choose God, would still become Hitlers, would still perpetuate and invent new evils.

    But the NT doesn’t take this line. Satan is the father of lies, he is the original rebel (I know it’s “the Satan” and all of that). When you factor in how the book of Enoch played such a tremendous role in 2nd Temple thought and for the Biblical writers, human depravity, the source of it comes from fallen spirits not Original Sin. Orthodoxy carries this line of thought. Fr. De Young has gone into some detail on this with his blog.

    Again, this is not about thorough explanations of what evil or the devil is and so on, it is about the fact that in subtle ways (I don’t expect to see Hollywood type exorcism events when I go to a baptism or when my Priest blesses our house), the hunter, the lion prowling – that we often barely believe in – desires to ensnare us. This is our counter to a naive view of man. When combined with Christ’s other work on our behalf, it is a satisfying, serious, Biblical, Patristic solution to the problem of the will.

    If Satan was powerless after the Resurrection there would be no exorcism, there would be no warnings in Scripture, and Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray to be delivered from the evil one. So, I agree, it is no new Pascha, it is applying Pascha. It is the movement of the reign of Christ into territory not surrendered to His Pascha.

  96. Thanks for your clarification Matthew. I didn’t come from Protestantism nor Catholicism before my conversion. There is enough of it embedded in the culture, which thankfully in my early childhood was extremely diluted by a very different culture. It seems all of us have ‘errors’ of one kind or another. If by providence I’ve missed the western theology ‘bullets’, I still bear the scars of other kinds.

    I don’t ‘hear’ Pelagianism so readily in Orthodox writers. But what I do hear are ‘imperialist Evangelical’ tendencies among former Protestants. My background/history make me particularly sensitive to such a ‘tone’. When I hear it I attempt to remind myself that such tone is triggering my own passions and to take care of my mind and heart not to get distracted by it. —easily said than done.

    May God grant you peace and joy. Thank you for your comments.

  97. Matthew,
    Indeed. One thing essential about the Orthodox ways of speaking of the atonement (versus the PSA), is the narrative always involves the demonic forces of sin and death. The nature of the narrative of salvation is summed up in St. Paul’s statement, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” Christ’s Pascha is our Passover – it is our deliverance from the Egypt of Sin and Death, through the Red Sea (in which we are Baptized into Christ’s death), raised in triumph on the shores of the Kingdom, while Egypt (the demons, etc.) are drowned. Gustav Aulen dubbed this the “Christus Victor” model of the atonement – it is ontological in its character – we actually become participants in Christ’s Pascha – it is truly “our” Passover.

    That drama is completely missing from the PSA. Your observation that the PSA can be told with no reference to the devil is absolutely on target – and is revealed to be alien to the “scope” of the New Testament. It’s simply a completely different narrative. It misses the point that Israel’s life in the Promised Land is a “Passover-shaped” life. The rhythm of the Sabbath laws, particularly seen in the 7 year cycles and the Jubilee, is a reenactment of the Passover story within the life of the nation. This is played out on a cosmic level in Christ’s fulfillment.

  98. Thank you for these posts and conversations. I have been confronted twice in recent weeks with the Protestant perspective in discussion. I was mostly silent and asked questions (trying to avoid verbal judgement and offense, but also understand). This gives me some language and perspective to begin to feel comfortable to speak about Orthodoxy.

    We so heavily weigh on reward (and mental analysis) for what we discern and value. It is tough to have that be only part of a bigger picture. And I like the word ‘ontology’! The beingness of who we are is so tough to express.

  99. Dee/Fr. Freeman, (I’m checking out after this)

    I sympathize with your comments. I have no imperialist delusions, not that I took that as an accusation. But I’m sensitive to the fact that Evangelical converts often bring their baggage into their conversion. The Reformed tradition is extermely critical of Evangelicalism and rightly so, they just think they are the solution. I think there is a uniqueness to a Reformed convert, and I’m not saying this to add anything to myself, but the devout Reformed are thoroughly trained theologically in soteriology and in all the competing views. I was, and could have made anyone who believed in free will squirm and doubt it extensively. In fact I’m sure I’m responsible for converting a few to Calvinism (or the Doctrines of Grace to be more precise). But the Reformation (and the Reformed today, the conservative ones), centered around the place of the will – who took Augustine most logically, most sincerely, most seriously. Therefore a Reformed Christian, who has read the polemics versus Catholics and Evangelicals and so on, is just in a good place to see where/what such a theology leads. Most converts I have encountered are few from the Reformed and there are few devout Reformed in our country anyway.

    I really recommend a book you can get cheap used on Amazon, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Lorraine Boettner. When you begin to realize this is what was brought to the colonies, then when it was modified because of the offense that people had to God’s complete sovereignty over salvation – you get a clearer picture of the Christian world around us. It’s why there are Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists (in fact right now they are in an uproar because so many pastors have rediscovered their roots as Calvinists – though a Presbyterian would never call them Calvinists). Everyone is Reformed, Reformed-lite, or reactionary against Reformed theology in our country. When you understand the Reformed postition, you can begin to understand them all. And then when you ask, “what about the devil” and you get affirmation but you see the contradiction – you have an aha moment when you read the baptismal liturgy, many key players are missing.

    In fact, if I was sharing with a Protestant, one of the first things I would have them do is read it given the right opportunity.

    Thanks for your interaction,

  100. Matthew,
    Thanks for the book suggestion. Indeed, becoming generally, or deeply, familiar with the history of Protestantism in America is an excellent beginning for any Protestant. The general ignorance of where certain beliefs come form, how utterly dependent they are on American culture of one period or another, and utterly removed from ancient Christian teaching, is commonplace. I’ve long thought of Reform as a minor player in the contemporary scene, though its influence is growing. I have a brother-in-law who is a major player in Reform thought (small world).

    America has been the breeding ground of bad Christian theology.

    BTW, I read a book this year, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light, which is an excellent historical study of the effects of the First Great Awakening on the New England Puritan Churches. I love good historical writing.

  101. Also,

    I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t have my own baggage, I know I do and it sucks to know I have years to go before I get rid of it all – but I have had a full blown discarding of the soteriology (Absolute predestination, Total Depravity, PSA, Monergistic Regeneration, absolute assurance of salvation) – and I feel that for many converts, they have never understood why these ideas are totally incompatible with Orthodoxy and it is because they never really knew how all of their theology was dependent upon Original Sin. I see it because the Reformed worldview is nothing without Original Sin.

    If you ever get the change to listen to Evangelical critiques of Orthodoxy – and they are coming, more and more, and will continue to. Listen and you will see that you can tie every one of their criticisms (and if you think carefully even criticism of Icons, Apostolic Succession, Mary and the Saints, etc) to their doctrine of Original Sin. It is unquestionable, therefore, if we do not question it for them – they assure their flocks that Orthodoxy is another false Christianity – all on the basis of a false anthropology of man that never goes questioned. Even those who renounce Original Sin among Evangelicals, keep a very Reformed sounding Gospel – why? They only ditched their first presupposition concerning the fall and man, but kept much of the rest. They don’t see that they have only modified, and with much contradiction, Reformed theology.

    And so, they accuse the Orthodox of a naïve view of man, the fall, etc. All the while, we have substantive, forceful arguments that give much weight to the role of the demonic, to death, to sin, etc.

    So, my concerns are evangelistic and also that the converts coming in don’t smuggle their Reformed theology into the Church because no one ever taught them how incompatible it is with Orthodoxy.

    Sorry, I thought I was done…

  102. Fr Freeman,

    Sorry again, but if a movement became normal within Orthodox catechism to spend significant time on how Original Sin affects the whole of their theology, Catholic theology, etc.. – then people, and I say this for myself because I want motivated by the Priests in our Church – would see, that instead of moralism, instead of nominal Christianity, instead of vaccinating ourselves with forgiveness of sins in some psychological capacity, we are all on the path towards Christ with much struggle having been baptized into Christ. Showing the stark differences makes ongoing union with Christ glow as the only path worth following towards the eternal day. Whereas the heretical paths mixed in with Orthodox piety may very well fail at producing healing.

    God bless you,

    I promise this time, I’m done….

  103. Matthew,
    Your posts made me smile. I thought I was the only one who did multiple posts. : )

    I was worried after I posted my last comment, that I had made a mistake to add my experience into the mix. I had hoped that you would understand that I was not attempting to ascribe characteristics to you. This medium doesn’t offer much in the way of nuance. Only a really great writer can do that (I’m not one of those, as all can see) and even then, readers will see or read only what they desire or have predisposition to see. I’m grateful that you didn’t take or apply my comment to yourself, when I described a protestant “tone”.

    We are all involved in catechism in some respects. As you have well described, the process is unequivocally one of transformation. And yet, sometimes (without going into particulars) there is at least an attempt among some catechists to approach their entry as a form of ‘integration”. And this is especially so it seems, when people from “Christological” backgrounds desire to enter into the Orthodox Church. It seems their approach is similar to that of ‘entering a different denomination’ of Christianity, rather than that of transformation. For this reason, I’m oriented toward Holy Baptism for all, although I realize this is a “hot” topic and my opinion is only that, an opinion. Please understand, however, that those who I have known who have entered without Holy Baptism have been a source of great joy and edification. Not the least of whom is Fr Stephen. I sincerely believe discernment is necessary, as well.

    I sincerely appreciate your elaboration of the pitfalls of those of us who have had a firm (and even not so firm) foundation in the Reformed theology. Your personal struggle has shed much light and I hope that I will be able to apply what I have learned from your struggle, so that I might ‘shed’ some of that baggage or help others if they should ask for such help. Indeed, since, as you say, this culture at large has been influenced by it. These are ample reasons to reflect upon my own understandings and misunderstandings. (Thanks be to God, I’m leading a discussion on Holy Baptism and your mentioning these issues are timely)

    Fr Stephen, thank you so much for your continued reflections and instruction on this theme. Your comments are so helpful and affirm the Orthodox approach. I’m ordering up that book you mentioned. One of my loved ones is into history. (I have a lot of reading work this summer!!!!)

  104. I promise this time, I’m done….”
    God love you, Matt!
    I love your tenacity. It speaks loudly of your love for God and neighbor .
    Really, I thank you all for this thread!
    Matt, I remember in another post, a while ago, Father encouraged a dialogue with you when you were maybe hesitant to explain yourself more extensively (probably there was some push back on our part). I remember that. It is a sweetness of pastoral concern and a love that covers the “lack” and brings out the best.
    Thank you…

    (interesting conversations going on here and there on the blog 🙂 )

  105. Dee,
    I am disappointed that we were not baptized as well. I understand the logic and Fr. Hopko’s series on the Canons is very helpful on this. But, I’m talking about all this exorcism, freedom of the will stuff – and I was not exorcised. But my wife, when we were about to be Chrismated had always assumed she was baptized as an infant. I asked her to call her mother and she had not been. I have to say, that her baptism was one of the most memorable times in my life where I sensed the Holy Spirit, and especially so during the exorcism prayers. So much of my study into the Church, it’s origins – their world being my world was extremely real during her baptism. This happens in liturgy from time to time but it was extremely moving during her baptism. I don’t think there should be any private baptisms unless an emergency required it, and I also believe that catechumens should be dismissed and treated like catechumens not like people joining another denomination. I’ve suggested to our Priest that we re-implement this practice. The people in the Church are not given the opportunity to know who the catechumens are, they don’t get to see that the Eucharist is for believers and feel the weight of that, they don’t have the concern to pray for the catechumens, etc. And the catechumens don’t get the benefit of taking their conversion so seriously, that this is more important that anything else in their lives, and feel the weight of what they are embarking on – or have the proper time devoted to actually catechizing them. These things go together that I have such a concern for.

  106. Matthew Lyon – At my OCA church, catechumens do leave the Liturgy after the point at which we pray for them in the service and go receive catechetical instruction from a knowledgeable parishioner most of the time. So the practice has not been entirely abandoned.

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