Love and Freedom

 

The most difficult aspect of love is the freedom it inherently requires. Love, in its ultimate and proper form, only exists between equals. There can be a sort of benevolence and nobility towards another who is not equal, but never love. This makes it difficult to understand the God-who-is-love.

It will quickly be said by most that God is not our equal, and that we can never be His equal. What we suggest by that is that He can never love us and we can never love Him. He can be kind and caring towards us, and we can be affectionate and respectful towards Him, but we can never love Him as our equal.

Against this denial is the blatant Christian teaching (constantly affirmed in the Orthodox Church) that God’s intention towards us is to raise us up as equals. We say that “God became man so that man could become God.” Often that statement is “fudged.” We quickly add that we do not mean that human beings will become “God” in the same manner that He is God. But what the Fathers say is that we will become, by grace, everything that God is by nature. This is to say that we will become what He is because it is His gift to us.

And in this gift, we can say that He loves us. He intends to raise us up as equals.

Christ says, “I no longer call you servants… but friends” (Jn. 15:15). He has held nothing back from us.

The image that speaks of this most deeply for me is that of seeing God “face to face.” This is much more than an expression of closeness or visibility. It is also an expression of an encounter with an equal.

All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact that God wills Himself to be our equal. It is His condescension that makes it possible. He became “small” and “weak,” not only to enter into our world, but, in entering it, to come as our equal. He came as a man among men, not as a ruler or a lord. He washed feet with the commandment that we should do the same.

And this is love. Love is only possible between equals. This is perhaps not obvious to us at first. We think of parent and child and do not consider them equal. But, properly, they are. Something which establishes our equality with one another is the nature of our “boundaries.” There is something inviolable and intrinsically deserving of regard and respect between equals. With my dog, such a boundary does not quite exist. He conforms to my will and, generally, gets no vote in matters that arise. A child is not a dog. Though a child requires more guidance and help from an adult, they have boundaries that remain. Those boundaries say to an adult, “You cannot trespass here, without doing harm.” The child’s boundaries become equal to the parent in that moment.

For that matter, even a dog has a certain form of equality: that of a fellow creature. We cannot do with them just anything. Cruelty is real and constitutes an unwarranted violation of an animal.

It is said (by some) that God has no boundaries regarding us, that He is God and may do with us (and to us) whatever He wills. This, of course, is true in an abstract sense. However, it is not true of God as He has made Himself known in Christ. Christ is a God who “asks.” He is the God who allows a freedom so great that it can kill Him.

The mystery of our freedom is found in the condescending love of God. The exercise of our freedom, particularly when used for evil ends, inevitably makes God appear weak or non-existent. We rarely consider the fact that it makes Him look like an equal, and an equal who loves us. Obviously, this allows for the tragedy of our evil actions. But, even there, God does not exempt Himself from that tragedy but embraces its consequences in His death on the Cross. It is fully within our freedom that He addresses us and rescues us from the consequences of our own evil (and the evil of others).

Of course, such a voluntarily weak God is deeply frustrating. He could do so much more. What we want Him to do is not love some in order to love others. If He ignores the freedom of the evil-doer in order to preserve the life of the innocent, we ask Him to violate His love (or negate it). This reality creates the paradox of love and freedom. That paradox is only solved in the mystery of Pascha itself. In His voluntary suffering and death, God takes upon Himself the suffering that love allowed to our freedom. Without violating that freedom, He nullifies the effects of its abuse in the resurrection of the dead (not just His own, but that of all).

All of this turns the usual arguments (and thoughts) about the so-called “problem of evil” on its head. Those arguments require a God whose power selectively loves and nowhere limits itself. When I have written that Pascha is at the heart of everything (and I believe this faithfully represents the teaching of the Church) this weakness born of love is its consequence. It is the love of God that surrounds us and calls us to be His friends. It seeks us, face to face, even searching for us when we hide. But it is a love that stands weakly at the border of our freedom, and waits for our invitation.

47 comments:

  1. In Lutheran theology, this idea (or at least something similar) would be referred to as “Theology of the Cross.” That is, everything we can know about God is shown most perfectly in the mystery of His death and resurrection. One cannot rightly understand anything about God, separate from what happens on the Cross. It’s often a stumbling block to those who want God to conform to some human ideal of goodness, or sovereignty, or glory. It can’t really be systematized, i.e., fit neatly into a schematized understanding of theology, or Who God Is, or what He has done for us. It must instead be simply pondered in prayer and proclaimed in the liturgy and the sacraments.

    And that’s precisely where we come “face to face” with the Lord God, Creator of the Universe. Here in lowly form, in the bread and in the cup, is the true Body and Blood of Christ. He so loves us that He empties Himself to die on a tree, to feed us on His own flesh, to wash us in His own blood, that we might rise to new life in Him. It’s a stunningly intimate encounter.

  2. This instantly reminded me og Dostoyevsky’s profound insight into what man finds the most scandalous about God – which if I recall well he puts on the lips of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov – God’s absolute respect for man’s spiritual freedom, despite all that entails.

  3. He could do so much more.

    One of the calling cards of modern society (even heard in the Church) is the call to “do more”. I have seen such a mindset refuted in Orthodoxy and come to recognize that the economia of the Church allows us to do enough, as opportunity presents itself. Someone here has said, “be kind–do the good that is in front of you”. How jolting to think of God in those terms! Thank you Father.

  4. Father,
    I’m reading in your words that God’s love entails freedom, and equality, as qualities of His outpouring love, not as separate ‘gifts’. And also that His love is intrinsic to His voluntary Pascha.

    It seems in western history and philosophy there is a propensity to separate these qualities of God’s love as separate actions or endeavors (or goals or virtues).

    There is a kind of holism in your description that I appreciate. For example, you don’t parse out freedom and into varieties between God and man, which in effect, would have made His Incarnation and Pascha incomplete.

  5. Thank you Father!
    These words are very comporting, but they are equally disturbing, even terrifying.
    For when I think what they imply… “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”… His Love for us, if only it could be less… I could be satisfied with less! I do not want to be perfect! Just a little comfort, a little care… I want to be a slave, I want to be a dog… not His son! Because a father expects so much from his son, than an owner expects from their dog!
    And I want to cry out: “Dear God, please do not love me! Do not respect my freedom! Put a collar on me, just give something to eat, and a warm place to sleep.”
    Yet I know this will not work. He is ready to die to save me, and so I must be too.

  6. Fr. Stephen,

    This article is too much. I believe every word of it, but we live in a world where it’s supremely difficult to get anyone to say “I love you” with any kind of depth and sincerity, let alone talk about how this awesome God truly loves us unconditionally and in such real ways. We live in a world where we are sold love through products and lies and we fully understand that there is a transaction which must take place because only fools give things away for free – let alone true lordship!

    It’s too much. I can hear the demons raging and the worldly wise scoffing uproariously. It’s an article that could get you mobbed. It’s a truth we may no longer be able to hear. Treat me poorly and tell me you don’t hate me that much anymore. But tell me that God loves me so much He wants me to exist right alongside Him as an equal!!! I can’t take it. It has every ring of truth, but one I’m not able to hear. God have mercy!

    Maybe I’m just channeling my inner pagan right now, but this is my first reaction to your post.

  7. Yes, Father, I believe that Dostoevsky had a great understanding of human soul and captured so many things perfectly in his books. And Karamazov Brothers was always my favorite.

    And it is certainly true of me. I am afraid of freedom. I know I am capable of nasty things. I am not a good man and I do not deserve His love. I would rather that God take away my freedom…

  8. Sergey, et al
    Love, in its most profound form, is ecstatic – it is like a loss of self. “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” That ecstatic love is the love of Christ on the Cross who “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:5-11). It is the most primal act of freedom – that we empty ourselves (abandon ourselves) towards God without care. This kind of love towards God and towards others is actually the manner in which we finally learn the truth of ourselves. Our measures in which we hold back, always trap us in a fearful, diminished version that is a false self.

  9. Thank you Father, I will reflect on your words. They strike deep… and fear is certainly a feeling that has always been integral to my perception of the world, and other people.

  10. The Cross, the Grave, the Glorious Third Day Ressurection. The epitome of love.
    The epitome of fear: my unwillingness to face my own corruption in repentance, instead judging others and blaming God which began with Adam when faced with the chaos unleashed by eating the forbidden fruit cried out: “This woman You gave me!’
    The opposite of love ‘Hell is other people” a line from Sartre’s play No Exit which ends with the characters refusal to exit.
    “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” Mt 3:2.
    Lord, forgive me a sinner.

  11. Father thank you for your comment at 12:01pm. These words in particular are helpful:

    This kind of love towards God and towards others is actually the manner in which we finally learn the truth of ourselves. Our measures in which we hold back, always trap us in a fearful, diminished version that is a false self.

  12. Very timely and apropos for myself as well…being struggling with the temptation to blame others for (apparently, at least) not receiving the love and honor I wish to give them when all along I struggle with receiving the love and honor God wishes to (and does) give. So many years of feeling worth-less can be difficult to undo.

    Interestingly enough I was recently reading a book on romantic/marital relationships (“Keeping the Love You Find”) where Dr Hendrix writes, “If your self-hatred makes it impossible for you to believe you are lovable, it is impossible for the love of a partner to heal your wounds…we defend ourselves from love because we are afraid of reactivating the punitive voices of the past, which told us to reject part of ourselves”.

    He then goes on to say that “you must direct Eros away from the self and its self-preservation toward the emotional, physical, and spiritual welfare of the other….to risk the self in the service of the other is to save the self”. Which uncoincidentally is precisely what God in Christ has done and ever does for us.

  13. Dee,
    I’m working very hard on this new book, which centers largely around shame. As I dig, pray, read, contemplate, more and more things are yielding themselves. A lot of material on the false self – and the place of love in the healing of shame (shame creates the false self).

  14. Ir recently had a discussion on line with a gentleman regarding the shame that twists the interrelationships between men and women. Anything in you book on that. It got a bit contentious briefly but we ended on a good note without any real resolution on our different understandings

  15. I think perhaps fr. Staniloae describes our relationship with God like this: the human being is entirely in God, but also, at the same time, in front of God, facing Him, and God is in the human being, but at the same time in front of him/her. Not sure about what I want to say, but I guess it might be the fact that equality is just half of the equation (human being and God facing each other). As for the other half, no idea what the suitable word for it might be.

  16. Reminds me of a theologian I like.

    “If there is no friendship with them [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to liberation, because love exists only among equals.”-Gustavo Guiterrez

  17. Two primary emotions keep us isolated or alone in confusion, our human response muted with both love and community suffering: fear and shame. It is thus with the pandemic and all decisions in and out of crises.

    Father, does honest repentance overcome shame if done properly?

  18. Father,

    What a beautiful post. I will share it with my daughter who struggles with theodicy.

    I would post ot except for one word, “everything.”

    Please forgive me Father, but it is my understanding that we will not become everything God is by nature through grace. I don’t recall ever seeing it articulated that we will become omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. There may very well be some other aspects of His nature, but I can’t think of them now.

    While there may be a PPT (Patristic Proof Text) somewhere, I don’t believe that it would pass the Vincentian canon of everywhere, everyone at all time.

    Please forgive me, a sinner.

    Love in Christ,
    Fr Nathan

  19. Sorry, one more thing. With your blessing I would like to quote it in teachings, writings and even a sermon.

    Thank you so much for your faithful ministry.

    Fr Nathan

  20. Our relationship with God is not symmetric or perfectly ‘equal’. God loves us friends but we must also serve him as Lord. This is paralleled by God’s relationship with his Son, and Christ’s relationship with his Church. When you make the sign of the cross, raising your finger up could signify our upward relationship of being under God’s authority while the sideways motion reflects God treating us as equals. I got this concept from coming across the correct understanding of authority in marriage. Egalitarianism is false, authority is part of the trinity, humankind and creation and is not a result of the fall but is truly good. Unfortunately authority is often abused, hence the greatest command is to love. Again another example is that monastic obedience or spiritual fatherhood is not blind servitude but an appropriate balance of both love and authority between the respective persons. Orthodoxy is red-pilled by design while modern Christianity has been blue-pilled to a great degree.

    Father I hear from even faithful Christians that it is an oxymoron to love oneself and that love is only real when it is directed from one person to another person. I strongly disagree with this as it was absolutely critical for my healing journey to ‘love myself’ and if we consider the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself does it not presume and implicitly command for us to love ourselves? I would appreciate some clarification on this matter.

  21. Fr. Nathan,
    I don’t think I would ever want to write an article exploring all that it means that we become by grace what God is by nature. Indeed, I do not think the Tradition speaks to this in detail. The only place I am aware of in which such things are even suggested is in St. Sophrony’s exploration of the fullness of personhood. On the other hand – I have only ever seen the qualifier “by grace” place on the statement. I have seen “all that He is by nature” from time to time. It seemed so commonplace that I didn’t even think to record it – other than to accept and know it.

    But, I wouldn’t know how to begin to argue the point. I would assume if the “all” included the “omni’s” – it would mean that our union with God would include our participation in those things – not our authorization to set up shop as independent gods. But, eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man, the good things God has prepared for those who love Him.

    Such things, of course, could easily be distractions for people. I do not normally write or speak about such things. Feel free to use anything of mine that is of help in your ministry! Also feel free to ignore things that are not useful. 🙂

  22. Thank you, Fr. Stephen.

    Every four weeks in the Office, we read 1 John 3:2:

    “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

    I think I am starting to understand it!

  23. When you speak of the boundaries between parent/child, person/animal, the image that comes to mind is of a beautiful harmonious structure, which maintains each thing in its distinctness and relationality, exemplified by Irenaeus of Lyon’s description of Adam and Eve as “kissing one another” in the Garden.
    But as someone who’s boundaries have been trespassed against, I can also see the reality is that this beautiful structure has collapsed into a whirling storm, more like Hobbes’ state of nature. It is a structure in ruin.
    I’ve wondered “where was God then,” but lately this has led me to wonder “well, where is God now.” Which is to say, here, as “here” as He has ever been. As you say, waiting at the edge of freedom.
    Freedom does seem, in a way, to be the thing that we offer to God. It’s a heavy thing to have to carry. I’d rather be home than free, but maybe being home is really what freedom is or where it brings us.

  24. Fathers, the ontological reality of union with God would automatically mean our participation in the life of God would it not? I will have to go back and check but St. Athanasius surely has something on this I would think.

  25. Anonymo

    Have you come across Saint Kosmas Aitolos’ explanation of the meaning of crossing ourselves ?

    “Listen my Christians how the Cross is made and what it means. The Bible tells us that the Holy Trinity, God, is glorified in heaven more than the angels. What should you also do? You bring your three fingers of your right hand and not being able to ascend to heaven to worship, you place your hand to your head because your head is round and indicates heaven, and you say with your mouth: ‘Just as Your angels glorify the Holy Trinity in heaven, likewise I as an unworthy servant, glorify and worship the Holy Trinity.’ And as these fingers are three – they are separate and they are together – this way is also the Holy Trinity, God, three persons and a single God. You then lower your hand from your head and place it on your belly and say: ‘I submit to You and worship You, my Lord, for You condescended and were incarnated in the belly of the Theotokos for our sins.’ You then place it on your right shoulder and say: ‘I supplicate You, my God, to forgive me and place me at Your right, along with the just.’ Then placing the hand on the left shoulder, you say: ‘I implore You my Lord, do not place me at Your left, with the sinners.’ Then bending down to the ground you say: ‘I glorify You my God, I submit and worship You, for as You were placed in the Tomb, so too will I be placed in the tomb.’ And when you stand erect, you indicate the Resurrection and say: ‘I glorify You my Lord, I submit and worship You, for You arose from the dead, to grant us eternal life.’ That is what is the meaning of the most-holy Cross.’

    Source:
    https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2019/03/the-sign-of-cross-its-power-meaning-and.html#more

  26. Jordan that was a beautiful reflection and I found your last sentence particularly poignant.

    Thankyou Nikolas, I had not heard the full meaning as that Saint describes it. I am still getting used to the physical action itself haha.

  27. Indeed, a lovely prayer, Nikolaos! Thank you for sharing it.

    Anonymo, it’s interesting how each of us are a little different in our first steps into Orthodoxy. While crossing myself came rather easy without self-consciousness, kissing the icons in the Church and at home was a little awkward at first, for me. But with practice and patience with oneself, all of our worship becomes part of our life blood over time. Now my husband (who doesn’t consider himself to be Christian) reminds me to say the mealtime prayer before we eat!

    Slowly these things come, thanks be to God for His mercy.

  28. Dee, I don’t find it awkward but natural and grounding. Just hasn’t become muscle memory yet, so I forgot that one starts the cross at their head and then down. If I were to pick something that would take some time getting used to it would be prayer to saints.

  29. Dee, I appreciate your phrase : “all of our worship is part of our life blood over time.”
    Yes, and we also ask the Lord : “By Your Blood, purify my blood” …
    May it be patience, that is to say time, and our living remedy which is the Eucharist, it is that is, Eternal Life in the Lord, our purification, our new birth is coming, is being fulfilled, and even though sometimes we feel like “nothing is happening”, or worse, that the Lord is absent from our life, untold miracles are at work, in the living silence all rustling with eternity, our blood is renewed, our heart begins to take shape to welcome the great love of God.
    I remember a phrase I heard often in my childhood, “I had bad blood”. I felt a force in those words that made me worried, like something too serious, beyond me.
    We find a deep meaning, later, in significant events and it is a great consolation that puts back into good circulation what had frozen for a moment ….

    I pray and give thanks for all the good people present on this blog so enriching and warm …

  30. Father, I am intensely reading Kenneth Adams on enmeshment and his more recent book discusses the emergence of the false self and shame as a child reacts to problems presented by the parent in a role reversed manner, so when the child becomes parentified and the caretaker of the parent

    I mention this because it seems to parallel the two story misrepresentation of reality, where God watches from a distance and judges our contribution to fixing things. It is like giving the child the unfixable problem and the false sense of self emerges

    You quoted St Macimum saying the word proportion a while ago
    It must be at least three , that God suffers at least 3 times as much as we do. For the pain of any sin we suffer He suffered before the foundation of the world, on the Cross, and concurrently with us. Minimum of three, likely much much more, perhaps continuously

    It matters so much whether God suffers or not. He suffered it first for all pain and I really think his enfleshment (as we were taught Incarnation means at CUA) is in all flesh but outside the doors of the heart to respect our freedom untilvee invite Him in

    That painting of Jesus knocking on the door of the heart is at Keeble College where I studied briefly. It is only dawning on me know how wonderful the quote is

  31. Nicole,
    I take comfort in the fact that the “true-self” is not a project that we are constructing. It is, instead, a “treasure that lies hidden in a field,” or a “lost coin.” It is synonymous with the Kingdom of God and has God as its ally and its guarantor. There is so much that takes place to obscure it, or to displace it. But it abides. God grant us grace to find what He so protects and shields.

  32. Father thank you for your comment to Nicole. These are good words for all of us to remember.

  33. Dee,
    Thank you. As I’m working my way through this “shame-related” book, it is a thought that sits constantly in front of me. It is grounded in the Fathers and confirmed in our experience. If we had to construct the sanity that is the true self, I think no one would ever make it. Like everything true and good, it is a gift – not of works. The “work” is to accept the gift – and that’s the really difficult thing.

    But, at every moment,despite all of our failures and tortures, we can still give thanks that beneath everything else, there is the solid reality of the very truth of our being – our soul – that is beautiful and wonderful and a divine treasure. Regardless of how difficult the battle might be each day, it abides and waits for us.

  34. Father, in the reading I am doing right now the necessity of repentance is popping up everywhere. Unfortunately the modern way of thinking repentance is associated tightly with shame. That is then off loaded to “its everybody else’s fault.” That leads to identity politics in which everyone must be legally ” empowered” to project and protect the false self forcing everyone else to acknowledge it.
    Scripturally and Patristically the opposite is true. Deep repentance is the way to receive the gift of one’s true self and have peace and joy. That spreads to others leading them to repentance as well, by grace. Thus Blessed Seraphim’s dictum: “If you acquire the spirit of peace thousands around you will be saved.

    But repentance is so encrusted by the mind of the world, it becomes difficult to enter into.
    Shame, trying to keep us from freedom.

  35. Michael,

    In the language of the world, “repentance” means “apology”. It is grounded in shame, loss of stature, and an unhealthy humiliation. In the Kingdom of God, repentance is a cleansing confession, a healing of body and soul, and a renewal of the communion of love. As you have said, and as with everything else, the world inverts the Truth. Just my thoughts.

  36. Byron,
    That may be the greatest succinct summary of repentance (and its true and false aspects) that I have ever come across. Very helpful. Thank you.

  37. Bryon, for a long time I looked at repentance the same way. The first real break through for me was reading and contemplating the nature of shame ad Father has explicated it– which he has been doing implicitly for a long time.
    Thank you Father!

  38. Dear Father, do you know if a high-res version of the baby-and-icon image is available? I would dearly like to have one for my wall.

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