God hides. God makes Himself known. God hides.
This pattern runs throughout the Scriptures. A holy hide-and-seek, the pattern is not accidental nor unintentional. It is rooted in the very nature of things in the Christian life. A Christianity whose God is not hidden is not Christianity at all. But why is this so?
In a previous article, I wrote:
Our faith is about learning to live in the revealing of things that were hidden. True Christianity should never be obvious. It is, indeed, the struggle to live out what is not obvious. The Christian life is rightly meant to be an apocalypse.
God is not obvious. That which is obvious is an object. Objects are inert, static and passive. The tree in my front yard is objectively there (or so it seems). When I get up in the morning and take the dog outside, I expect the tree to be there. If it is autumn, I might study its leaves for their wonderful color change (it’s a Gingko). But generally, I can ignore the tree – or not. That’s what objects are good for. They ask nothing of us. The freedom belongs entirely to us, not to them.
This is the function of an idol – to make a god into an object. He/she/it must be there. The idol captures the divine, objectifies it and renders it inert and passive.
The God of the Christians smashes idols. He will not stay put or become a passive participant in our narcissism. He is not the God-whom-I-want.
Christ tells us, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” The very center of the life promised us in Christ requires asking, seeking and knocking. The reason is straightforward: asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence. But our usual mode of existence is to live an obvious life (a life among objects).
Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to buy an icon and add it to your icon corner than it is to actually spend time and pray in your corner? There is a kind of “Orthodox acquisitiveness” that substitutes such actions for asking, seeking and knocking. Acquisition is part of our obvious form of existence. We have been trained in our culture to consume. We acquire objects. On the whole, we don’t even have to seek the objects we acquire, other than to engage in a little Googling. We no longer forage or hunt. We shop.
But we were created to ask, seek and knock. That mode of existence puts us in the place where we become truly human. The Fathers wrote about this under the heading of eros, desire. Our culture has changed the meaning of eros into erotic, in which we learn to consume through our passions. This is a distortion of true eros.
Christ uses the imagery of seeking or true desire (eros) in a number of His parables: The Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; The Woman with the Lost Coin; The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep; The Father in the Prodigal Son; The Treasure Buried in a Field…
But how does seeking (eros) differ from what I want? Are these parables not images of consuming? Learning the difference is part of the point in God’s holy hide-and-seek. The mode of existence to which He calls us must be learned, and it must be learned through practice.
Objects are manageable. They do not overwhelm or ask too much of us. Consumption is an activity in which we ourselves always have the upper hand. St. James offers this thought:
You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
What we seek (eros) in a godly manner, is something that cannot be managed or objectified. It is always larger and greater than we are. As such, it even presents a little danger. It may require that we be vulnerable and take risks. We are afraid that we might not find it while also being afraid that we will.
The parables are not about a merchant with a string of pearls, or a woman with a coin collection. The merchant risks everything he owns just for the chance of buying this one pearl. The woman seeks this coin as though there were no other coins in the world.
When I was nearing the point of my conversion to Orthodoxy, a primary barrier was finding secular employment. It’s hard for someone whose resume only says, “priest,” to get a job or even an interview for a job. That search had gone on, quietly, for nearly two years. It was not an obsession – rather, more like a hobby. But one day, a job found me. The details are not important here. But the reality is. The simple fact that a job was likely to happen, that I only had to say, “Yes,” was both exciting and frightening in the extreme. If I said yes, then everything I had said I wanted would start to come true (maybe). And everything I knew as comfortable and secure would disappear (with four children to feed). And if everything I said I wanted began to come true, then the frightening possibility that I might not actually want it would also be revealed! I could multiply all of these possibilities many times over and not even begin to relate everything that was in my heart.
But the point that had found me was the beginning of the true search. The risk, the reward, the threat, the danger, the joy and the sorrow, all of them loomed over me, frequently driving me to prayer. I made the leap and began a tumultuous period in my life. But my life, like most, eventually settled down and slowly became obvious.
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one of the great monastic heroes of the Celtic lands, had a way of dealing with the obvious. He would walk into the North Sea from the island where he lived, and stand in the waves up to his neck. It was a dangerous sea, not like an American beach. He stood there at the point of danger – and prayed. St. Brendan crossed the Atlantic with his monastic companions in a boat made of animal hides. Countless thousands of monastics wandered into deserts, forests, holes in the ground, islands, all in order to place themselves at that point where God may be found. Seeking God is not done in the place of safety, though it is the safest place in all the world.
Eros does not shop. True desire, that which is actually endemic to our nature, is not satisfied with the pleasures sought by the passions. It will go to extreme measures, even deep into pain, in order to be found by what it seeks.
All of this is the apocalyptic life of true faith. The question for us is how to live there, or even just go there for once in our lives. I “studied” Orthodoxy for 20 years. All of my friends knew (and often joked) about my interest. Many said they were not surprised when I converted.
I was. I was surprised because I know my own cowardice and fear of shame. If you liked Ferraris, your friends wouldn’t be surprised if you had photos and models, films and t-shirts. But if you sold your house and used the money to make a down payment on one, you’d be thought a fool, possibly insane. Seeking God is like that.
There are quiet ways that do not appear so radical. The right confession before a priest can be such a moment. Prayer before the icons in the corner of a room can become such a moment, though it takes lots of practice and much attention. They cannot be objects and the prayer cannot be obvious.
All of this is of God, may He be thanked. We do not have to invent this for ourselves. It is not “technique.” The God who wants us to seek is also kind enough to hide. Finding out where He is hiding is the first step. Finding out where you are hiding is the next. But the greatest and most wonderful step is turning the corner, buying the field, selling everything that you have, picking up the coin, making that phone call, saying “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”
Father, thank you for this, so true. Longing and desire for God is the way, but so often it is hard to find the desire and longing in oneself until one is in pain and suffering and reaches out having taken too many detours. Suffering is an ally in this regard. I would love to live just in the longing and desire as daily experience without the suffering, however, but probably something just to aspire to at the moment because where would I be without the experiences that direct my attention to God in the most direct manner.
Thank you…I need to hear this
Father, you do not spend much time on the role of suffering in our quest, yet it seems to be critical if, as you say, life in God is cruciform.
I am a stubborn, willful man. My “knowledge” of God, such that it is, has always come from moments of suffering to one degree or another. Some of it deep suffering as when my late wife died in great pain or the pain in my own body driving me to prayer in the middle of the night.
The examples you give of monastics show them seeking discomfort at least.
One aspect of modernity is the denial of suffering, death and discomfort, e.g. the constant creation of “safe spaces” for instance. Trying to make an idol of life and our own will I think.
Many of those who outwardly resist are just seeking to create their own version, their own idol to worship and control.
My wife and I are beginning a devotion to St Luke, the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea. A recent saint having died in 1961. As with most saints his devotion to God led to a great deal of disruption in his life. Yet he became, in life, a master of treating infected wounds and an unmercenary physician, priest and bishop. St Luke began to come into our lives because of the wound in my wife’s back which stubbornly won’t heal. It is infected. It is a struggle.
And yet God seems to be in the midst of such struggles somehow. We do long for a little less struggle some days though.
God forgive us.
Modernity’s wealth and technical prowess has created the ideal of a pain-free life in which suffering is imagined to be something that can be eliminated. Of course, we hide the suffering very well. We speak of an electrified world of “clean energy” while never bothering to look at what some have to endure in order to mine the materials required. When you are wealthy, you can build a shelter that allows you to ignore all the Lazarus’s by your gate, or, just pick and choose enough of them to assuage your guilt.
But, in point of fact, suffering is endemic to this world, in one form or another. It is interesting to me that, through the years, I have spent some time among the truly poor who suffered greatly – both in my work as a hospice chaplain in the mountains of East TN, as well as in volunteering in drug and alcohol rehab in a clinic for the poor. What I found in those settings was far more faith and awareness of God than I have found among the wealthy (and I’ve served among some extremely wealthy people at one point). God seems to hide less from the poor – or maybe they find Him easier while the rich hide very well in their security.
this is one your best, so deep and rich and profound.
suffering is hard as it is, but is increased a hundredfold when it is coupled by any measure of the sense of “God-forsakeness”.
It is obviously alleviated and transformed out of recognition when accompanied by the sense of great Grace.
But the hiding and revealing in waves is what teaches the soul, and the suffering imparts a thirst for God’s presence that approaches the torturous yearnings of great ascetics like St Silouan.
Most would agree that commonly, we have a very subtle sense of Grace carrying us along our sufferings, (almost ‘hidden’ entirely from us though it sustains us) and many fluctuations of our situation (regarding our sense of Grace) include waves of small ‘hells’ of forsakeness.
People’s characters are of paramount importance here though, some have an painful sensitivity and dread, while others (fewer) are lucky to have no such tendencies and might be naturally more prone to calm acceptance.
However, I am reminded of many great saints who have spoken much on suffering and Grace, including the newer ones like Saint Luke, or Saint Joseph, (people of great suffering and unrelenting ‘hounding’ of God’s Grace).
They were unanimous that the spiritual gifts that are bestowed to the soul who endures the hardest forms of suffering (no matter what form suffering takes) can often, in a few moments or hours or days of great intensity, (or months of lower intensity), far exceed what many years of extreme ascesis, struggles to achieve.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, this reflection is so beautiful and profoundly true. Your statement that “asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence” seems to go near the heart of the matter. I’m trying to connect the dots further as to why this mode of existence is so essential to the Christian life and knowing God. It seems that it’s because of the “ontology of love” and the fact that God is love. Love inherently respects the freedom of the other and seeks the other. “Asking, seeking and knocking” are not only how we find God, but are part of the character of God that we ourselves will embody. I’m struggling to express this, but does it seem on the right track or can you help clarify or correct it?
“Modernity’s wealth and technical prowess has created the ideal of a pain-free life in which suffering is imagined to be something that can be illiminated [sic].”
I think this typo is providential. As you point out, suffering cannot be eliminated. But, as you also point out, it cannot properly be hidden, and must be illuminated in the light of Something Else.
We are created in the image and likeness of God (as revealed to us in the God/Man Jesus Christ). We too easily forget that Christ says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” God is a Seeker. He sought Adam in the Garden. He desires us (“The Lord hath chosen Zion, He hath desired her for His habitation). Christ “thirsts” on the Cross – not just for water, but primarily for us. And so on. It is a quiet theme in the Scriptures. These things are revelations not just of something God has done or is doing. God is what He does. What He does reveals who He is.
We are called to seek Him because He first sought us. Who is it who keeps on knocking? Who is it who keeps on seeking? Who is it who keeps on asking? It is Christ.
And, we can carry this to all personal relations. We should “seek” one another but we reduce one another to objects. True relations with another person is dynamic, alive, etc.
Thank you! All of this is amazing.
Also, note this verse:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. Jn. 4:23
What should you do on days where you feel like you believe in God, but you think you might hate him?
These words seem bitter and angry. And I too have been in such a place. Perhaps many of the readers in this blog have been too. However, I see you’re writing here also. And this suggests a reaching for help, a reaching for God. And to my eyes such a reaching is part of the dynamic of true love. When I’ve been in such circumstances as it seems you might be in, I have talked to someone I trusted. It is my sincere hope that you will not give into despair and that you reach for tangible and loving support nearest you as well.
Dear Bill, you are indeed beloved by God, as difficult as it is to hear or believe. I pray my words are helpful, and that Father’s words will help to bring the peace of our God to you.
That’s a truly profound and honest question. First, it doesn’t bother God – it’s not that kind of an issue. I would say, though, on such days, if possible, offer a small prayer. A prayer for more understanding. And, if there is anything that you can think of to give thanks for – do that.
I have found that it is easiest to pray for my enemies when I don’t concentrate on what I have against them – rather on whatever there may be from them that I’m grateful for.
I pray that beneath the wounds, the hatred or anger, you will come to know God. I went through a period in my life when I had to come to grips with the fact that many of my thoughts/feelings about God at the time were tied up with my feelings for my father – and it wasn’t good or true. I had one-sided conversations with God about that topic. I think that, in fact, it was two-sided, because I received the grace of healing – though it was something that went on for some years (and probably still does).
You are in my prayers. Hang in there.
Bill, You are in my prayers too. I think all of us have experienced the pain of battling God. I know I have. May you find grace in the midst of your battle.
Speaking as someone who has been “studying” Orthodoxy from the outside for a few years now – this post (along with many of your others – this is just my first time commenting) really resonated with me.
I like how you bring up Google… today I am so used to being able to find what I’m looking for with just a few clicks, the world at my fingertips. I find the objects I’m looking for, but not what my soul is looking for deep down, and I’m left wanting.
Perhaps this is a bit cheesy, but the song that kept running through my mind while reading this post was the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2. I appreciate how you put it: “asking, seeking and knocking are a mode of existence”.
Someone said somewhere that hate is just a feeling, and it is what you do with it that matters and defines your character. I struggle with God off and on. I find it important to see what’s behind the feeling, as Father said about emotional residue from a parental relationship, and sometimes if I can identify what I am projecting onto God, the difficult feelings ease up or go away.
I like to think of God as tough, and able to withstand projections, like a really good therapist or counselor – the beauty of that is that one can see what one’s feelings are in a safe relationship, and then work with what one learns. One can identify ones wants, and needs, etc. My ideal state vis-a-vis God is not to be in a state of projecting my feelings outward, because I have dealt enough with them or know what’s me and what’s God, and to just “be” in relationship to God and see what develops. That said, there is still so much that is hard to understand after your personal feelings are taken out of the picture, as one is then dealing with the greater picture, universal, cosmic issues, which are even harder to grasp.
I often find that what is behind my anger is a feeling of unrequited love, and of great desire that the world be better than it appears to be, that sufferings, my own and others’, be eased, and other good visions of how things could be. I struggle with reality in its rawness. At this point in the journey on a feeling state, I often think of the people in the Bible who had arguments with God – the names escape me, but I think of Job, Moses, others who bargained with God and said what they had to say. God appears to have listened and responded in some noticeable way. I take these stories as permission to be frank with God about what one is upset about and doesn’t understand. Sometimes things become clearer after being stated. Often, if I am angry at God, I end up in tears and a softer place, for having stated my piece in a heart felt prayer.
They say journalling is helpful with this type of thing, but I haven’t tried it. I have tried to compose music when I am angry at God, and only love comes out in the music, not anger, which is weird. I think that means that my anger is really about a frustrated love that needs expression. I also rely on what I read once in my youth, that if you are angry with someone or hate someone, you are in a relationship, even if you think you are not, because you could not have such strong feelings unless you cared about the relationship.
I think if you are angry with God, then you are in a much better place than a person who has no feelings whatsoever – I think that is a state which afflicts too much of the modern world where people don’t seem to care at all about God or dismiss Him out of hand as an illusion. Those of us who struggle in our relationship with God are in relationship.
I think about a handbook on marriage I once read, that suggested that one can expect to have moments of anger and even hate in a really long marriage, but the key is working through that and staying in relationship at all costs until you clarify what is actually going on. I think of my relationship to God as a long marriage with its ups and downs, but I know God will be there when I am at the end the way a loving spouse would be. That doesn’t mean I haven’t fantasized about “divorce” – I have to laugh when that sentiment comes up, as if I could do that.
Actually, after an anger at God has passed, the humor in the situation sometimes appears, seeing that I was tilting at windmills or some such thing. I think of the poem “The Hound of Heaven” that used to be popular – God has a way of coming after you if you are going to be lost, even if you don’t want Him to. The most important thing is to stay in relationship – pray, go to church, share one’s struggles with God and maybe an advisor or friend who understands, to allow the longing and desire for God to be foremost and to override all else, sit with the feelings and understand where they are coming from, and love – love anyone, as all true love comes from and is in God. Also, try to find people in your life who do not treat you as an “object” but know what true love is and share it — that is very healing to me on the rare occasion when it appears. I have known a couple of holy people, and I try to remember them when I am down on the rest. I’m rooting for you and the rest of us who deal with this issue. Nativity is a good time to look at these issues, as the birth of Christ looms in the near future.
Forgive my editing. I put some paragraph breaks in your comment…it makes a long comment easier to read.
On “unrequited love.” I think you’re on target. Interestingly, unrequited love is one of the more noted triggers of shame (and shame is the primary emotion most of the time behind anger – psychologists call it the “master emotion”).
It is useful, in my experience, to move beneath the anger so that I can see the shame. It is in sitting with the shame that I’m able to be comforted (by God) and brought to a place of peace. I’m learning more about this every day.
What triggers my anger is when I do not get my way. My will is thwarted. Is that also rooted in shame or just a diseased will?
I will edit next time – sorry. I’m usually in a rush when writing. Your thought about shame and unrequited love is interesting. In thinking about it, it seems as though there are several possible experiences one could have in this terrain. (Forgive me, my use of the word shame might be different from how you are using it.) I’m no expert and I haven’t thought about this before in this way.
1. One could be being angry at God, with shame underneath the anger stemming from unresolved childhood issues of being shamed that are triggered by the experience of seeking God and not feeling something coming back in the way one wishes, the anger being a way of not feeling the residue of that old shaming that still lingers on from the time that one felt unloved, punished, isolated, etc. I think generally anger is easier to feel than shame, at least for me. And it is easy to think God should respond in a way that one wants, can recognize, or other people say you should be seeing — whereas the real response may be surprising and unexpected, and even unwelcome. It is easy to fall into thinking God’s love should look a certain way, and projecting one’s needs and wants onto God, instead of waiting for the actual love to appear as it will.
2. If the childhood issues are resolved sufficiently, another possible experience would be being angry at God, but underneath it being the feeling of shame that comes from the knowledge of being human and naked and vulnerable before the universe, and not being comfortable feeling that. I think one can come to terms with this type of shame; after after all, there is nothing to be done about the fact one is a human being (I struggle with this :)) and God made us this way. However, it is not an easy feeling to actually feel the depth of, and anger can take one away from the sheer vulnerability that comes from truly knowing your place in the universe. I guess in this is a possible shame that comes from healthy self-awareness – I’m not sure I think of that as shame, more a sense of vulnerability and being “uncovered”. I think of the fig leaf in the Adam and Eve story as a symbolic mercy of providing a covering for this vulnerability that one has just by being human when one has first become aware of it and feels it as shameful. I don’t think this is shameful – we are just humans, not God, and that is alright. I think we are where we are in our journeys, and sometimes one just can’t feel this vulnerable and shouldn’t because it would be too much to bear, so anger and other feelings may be a protective thing in that situation (I think that is also true in number 1, too).
3. A third path, however, might be that one’s old shame issues are not triggered because they’ve been resolved sufficiently, and one has come to terms with being a vulnerable human being and one’s own place in the universe and does not feel shame about it any more, but one has sin on one’s conscience and that causes shame, and anger is a way of avoiding feeling the shame over what needs to be corrected.
4. The fourth path I can think of would be that shame is not triggered by the feeling of not being responded to by God, and one does not have sin on one’s conscience at the moment, but one experiences a pure longing and desire for God in one’s heart/mind/soul, and then feeling unrequited love in the sense that one is still waiting for God to respond or for one to be aware of God’s presence and love and one can’t come to terms with it. This is what I think of when I use the words “unrequited love”, where one is impatiently or patiently waiting for the beloved and has no idea when the person will respond or if they will. I think it is possible to have pure longing and desire that is not intermixed with shame. In that case, the longing itself provides the energy for the journey to deeper relationship with God, because, of course, God is always there (unlike a human who may be gone as a physical presesnce). I read once that this feeling of unrequited longing is the action of God in one’s soul, so one can shift one’s way of thinking so that the longing becomes a sign of the presence of God and a comfort. It is a sign of love. But I also think this kind of longing can have its own unbearability, and I am not sure most of us are up to living in this space on a daily basis, hence the need for spiritual practices to provide the container for this type of experience. I think it’s easy for this type of longing or desire for relationship to God to trigger the other three experiences of shame, because it is challenging to live with the fire of God in your life, easy to feel inadequate and not sure if you even want to have this experience at all. One can wonder why one is pursuing a God who is not necessarily easy to know. I know in personal life there are people I love who are not in my life any longer, and I long to see them but the pain of that gets to be too much, and I can get angry or just frustrated just to relieve that feeling. It would probably be better to pray for them and find peace rather than wishing I could know how someone is who is no longer in my social life. (I am thinking of people I loved deeply, but was not particularly close to in daily life, and who have moved away.)
5. A last possibility I can think of is that the experience involves one or more or all of the above in conjunction with each other, in which case one has a lot of self-analysis to do to figure out what is going on with oneself. This would be me.
Well, it is useful to delve into this more. I guess we should all be more merciful to each other around these issues, and provide the “cover” and sense of safety needed to travel this terrain and explore our vulnerabilities. I would hope to find this in parish life, but I never do it seems so I feel on my own most of the time with this set of concerns. I do think feeling the longing is a good thing, rather than going with the anger for long periods of time, which can subvert the whole process of spiritual growth. Better to long for what hasn’t appeared yet, or more accurately, to long for what one cannot yet perceive, as it is really always there.
Seraphima (a beautiful name) There is also healthy shame in the realization that I am a sinner and need to repent. Deep repentance, with proper guidance, heals. Repentance heals because God’s “toughness” is actually Mercy.
A quality of being that, when I acknowledge Him, always moves me to both awe and tears. Years of thanksgiving and contrition.
It is His Mercy which is always active and seeking.
It is His Mercy that is revealed by the Cross.
Entering into His Mercy is what is required of Christians. That is why St. Paul preached only Christ and Him Crucified to the Corinthians.
Shoot, even the toxicity of my own will tends to be transformed into joy when I am graced with His presence.
Reading your post reminded me of His gift even in the midst of pain and fear and suffering. Thank you.
You have good perceptions and understanding of shame. Much of what we experience as shame has roots in childhood and family. There is also a fundamental shame that is existential/ontologcal – sort of Adam and Eve naked in the presence of God. There is toxic shame and healthy shame. At its healthiest, shame is the primary component in the virtue of humility – that is, our willingness to bear shame. In the journey to know God it is, perhaps, the last veil to be taken away.
Many other thoughts…
Here is problem. From my perspective, it seems as though God, completely unprovoked (for nothing existed to provoke him), decided to create innumerable creatures and dump them into a sort of cosmic coliseum, where countless innocents die daily for no reason. I don’t want to think like this, but I must in all honesty say that creation to me looks less like an act of love than one of malice.
I think probably everyone has thought this at one time or another – I know I have. My feeble thoughts:
It is not a cosmic coliseum, it is a very terrestrial coliseum. Unless you believe that this life, this world here, is all there is, then there is more to come…
God wants creatures with free will. That will love Him and worship Him out of free will. This has worked out so far with the results that we all can see. Perhaps he should have just made happy happy robots?
He tried giving Laws, clear laws, but that demonstrably did not work. And that business with Noah and flooding and such – humanity came right back as sinful and broken as ever. Everyone can see it.
Why Christ? Before the foundations of the Earth were laid? Maybe He knew something going in…
Is it just possible that God sees things that we don’t? You know, being omniscient and all that. And time is very different for God.
I hate suffering, my own, and that which is abroad in wide swathes of the world. A lot of it at human hands. When will it end? How will it end? Will it ever end?
This is just a random collection of thoughts I’ve had over the decades of thinking about this…
If you were watching a movie, and something bad happened to the protagonist, when then made his/her way through and won in the end, would it be film that you felt was malicious?
The question isn’t suffering, per se, when I look at the world (the cosmic coloseum). The question is: what is the purpose of the suffering? Is/was it worth it?
I can’t make this into a rational measuring comment – but I can say that what I see and understand gathers the whole of suffering into itself and makes it worth it. It is my witness, not my argument. Ivan Karamazov thought otherwise. Oddly, in the “little world” of the Brothers Karamazov, he comes off as the least heroic, least loving, least sacfricial of the brothers.
I think that it is certainly the case that lots of Christians make light of human suffering, or the suffering of creation, and often profess a faith that is trivial. I reached a certain point in my life where that kind of triviality was pushing me towards unbelief. This was around ’73-’74. Something intervened. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize winner, was exiled from the Soviet Union. I became aware of him and familiar with his story. I read essays by him, and they were part of an introduction for me into Russian/Orthodox literature. He was a Communist when he was sent to prison in Siberia. It was while he was in the Gulag that he recovered his Christian faith and his Orthodoxy.
His witness introduced me to a world of Orthodox witnesses who had seen suffering that rivaled the Holocaust – and remained believers. My sense at the time was that if Solzhenitsyn believed in God, having endured all that he endured, then I shouldn’t walk away from the faith. I should walk deeper. It was the beginning of my walk towards Orthodoxy. Long, slow, eyes wide open.
Orthodoxy has been persecuted in terrible ways, having produced more martyrs in the 20th century than all centuries of Christianity before that. And it abides. It bears witness from within the belly of that suffering. I simply got to know some of God’s friends, and listened to their witness. Over time, I have come to be that their witness is true.
It’s made me have to think and ponder far more deeply about who God is – profoundly more than the shallow stuff of my childhood. I have had to walk more deeply into the suffering of Christ and ask what it means.
But, that’s the witness.
It is also the case that there is malice in the universe – and it’s not of God’s making. He has allowed it, but not created it. But that’s another conversation.
A holy person, I can’t remember who, wrote once that anger is the last big struggle in the spiritual life. It might have been Evagrius, I’m not sure. I have pondered over that and wondered why that would be the hardest passion to overcome or take the longest, because the other passions seem like big challenges, too. I am wondering whether that is because of what you wrote, Father, that shame underlies and is the deeper feeling underneath the anger, and it is necessary to bear the shame in order to reach humility, which is the gateway to deeper relationship with God. (Just repeating your thought, I guess.) To get from the anger to the humility, one has to go through the door into the shame experience in its many manifestations. Hmmm . . . that thought is very helpful in handling angry feelings as far as spiritual practice goes. Something to ponder.
Father, many thanks for another deep and insightful reflection. Your connection of unrequited love to the feeling of shame and anger really resonates with my ongoing experience. To bare one’s heart and soul to another with whom you once shared deep, soulful feelings of communion and end up being charged with criminal harassment in the midst of all this societal and ecclesiastical unrest…well it has certainly been a Cross! And yet i see clearly your point about humility being the willingness to bear even deep shame and mischaracterization by someone you deeply care for and love…death of ego…to be resurrected into one’s true self in the image and likeness of Christ. I’m not there yet…I still tend to alternate between hating her and feeling deep compassion and care for her…may God have mercy on us.
And dear Seraphima, thank you too for your reflections…very helpful indeed to contextualize my often-tormented experience. Glory to God for all things, even if the best we can do sometimes is to say it through gritted teeth!
“If you were watching a movie, and something bad happened to the protagonist, when then made his/her way through and won in the end, would it be film that you felt was malicious?”
If the protagonist was an actual person who was actually suffering, and the director could have gone straight to the end without any of it, what else could I think? If God wanted wholly divinized creatures, who or what stopped him from just starting with that as the baseline for creation? Evil is, if Christian metaphysics are correct, a void, A parasite. It has nothing to teach, and adds nothing to the good. A journey through it adds nothing that would not be added equally well or better by simply being blasted in the face with a firehose of good at the first moment of existence, so to speak. Good cannot depend on evil in any way or it ceases to be convertible with existence, so what else can the misery of the world be but an expression of a pointless malice?
I’m sorry to keep bothering you on this point, I know it must seem tiresome, but my mind just keeps going around and around, with no answer in sight. I apologize if it’s getting repetitive for you, and if you ever want me to stop, just ask.
Bill just know you’re not alone in your thoughts. It is truly remarkable (beyond words) that God Himself chose to enter in to the suffering with us. This is the best answer I have right now.
Bill, I can relate as this question is one that I have struggled with a lot over years. There may not be an answer to this question in this life. An awful lot of the terrible things that happen on this planet are an expression of a pointless malice, but it’s the pointless malice of human beings and can’t be laid at God’s door. If people choose to be wicked, they are the ones responsible and the ones who can improve the situation if they so choose. I hold them accountable, every last one, and I am angry about these things, too. It is a conundrum as to why God allows the wicked to prosper (see the Psalms), and I tend to think if I were God I would not allow this stuff. But then, I’m not.
There is a book called “The Sunflower”, I think by Primo Levi (although it could be Elie Wiesel), about the experience of the Holocaust and forced marches. It is a very sad, but very uplifting, book about the existence of and experience of good in even the most terrible circumstances.
The part I struggle with is the natural disaster type of evil – tornadoes, volcanoes, floods, illnesses, etc. The best answer I have found to the question as it relates to these is that the universe has its laws built into how it works — the laws can lead to consequences we see as evil because of how they affect us, but they are not intentionally negative towards us. If you fall off a cliff, you fall because of the law of gravity and get injured, not because anyone maliciously set up the law of gravity (although as an elder sometimes I wish gravity didn’t exist and it seems out to get me :)). If you smash atoms, you get a nuclear reaction. There are natural limitations, restrictions, and conditions to how things work that we are stuck with or we would not have this particular world to live in. We could have a different universe with different conditions and parameters, but there would still be consequences depending on how the parameters are established and those consequences could be worse than the ones we have. Weather patterns (now affected by us, so we are now partly responsible) have their own laws and result in untoward events; tectonic plate movements do, too.
I guess it depends on how much faith one has, and I don’t have that much, but there are examples in scripture of Old Testament prophets, and not to mention Jesus, people who could request God to alter natural laws or actually alter their effects in the case of Jesus. I believe this is possible, but it is challenging to think about. Being an intellectual, this thought does not come easily, as it is nice to have rational answers for everything. I saw this in action when I went to a funeral of a young Native American, the intended chieftain of a tribe whose life was cut short early, where the funeral prayers and procession were said to the Great Spirit. There was a solemn circle dance funeral procession with a hundred or so participants which I watched. Some time into the service, on a crystal clear blue sky windless sort of day, a small whirlwind descended out of the clear sky into the center of the circle and whirled around and then went back up to the sky, doing no damage. I would not have believed it if I had not seen it, and it really took me aback. I had that sense of dumbfoundedness and awestruckness that one has around the holy. Perhaps it was following some natural law of which I’m not aware, but it did seem to occur in conjunction with the prayers of this large group of people. Who knows? No one spoke about the whirlwind afterwards, as if it was perfectly normal for the sky to open up like that and participate in the circle. There are great mysteries on this lovely terrifying planet, so I am at a minimum agnostic about these natural disasters, but we can pray about these things and a good effect may occur, but also maybe not. One has to have great faith to move mountains . . .
Anyway, Bill, don’t give up and keep seeking. Maybe some day you will have an answer to the question. It is a good thing to care so much about the state of the world, and maybe you have a role to play in improving it somehow. Such passion for the good is desperately needed. The question is what do we do with the passion for good?
I hope I haven’t written too much recently, but thought-provoking discussion.
I will continue to pray for you. I do not think that good in any way depends on evil for its outcome. I have not fallen back on the arguments from freedom – that a free creation is vulnerable to evil – though I know it is part of the mystery. I have not fallen back on it because it seems to me to be too facile in the way it gets used – that it fails to plumb the depths of human suffering.
For what it’s worth, it seems to me that you’re going round and around a point that is unsolvable for you (at the moment). When that happens for me, I step back and see if it’s possible to approach the matter in a different way.
Over the years, my “starting point” has been Christ on the Cross (and Christ in general in His ministry). What I see there is an unrelenting love and mercy. I take that as my anchor, my “turning point,” around which all other things move. I am also patient with the things I don’t know or understand. A friend of mine calls them “bookends” (the beginning and the end). I think that the bookends are by far the greatest unknowns. Both are shrouded in stories that reveal as well as obscure. I do know that it’s possible to get stuck pondering them.
I knew a different man for whom these matters were torments – turned out he suffered from OCD – and when he from some relief or help with that – he was able to think of God again without torment.
St. Sophrony of Essex wrote about the “abyss of despair.” He recommended that when we could not bear it – that we step back and “have a cup of tea.” At one point in my young Christian life (around age 20), I was in deep despair. Every thought of God was surrounded with confusion and was painful. At that time, I prayed and told God that I was going to take a break for a few months and not think about Him. I loved Him (on some level), and I continued to go to Church. I quietly took communion (I was an Anglican at the time), and simply did not press any thoughts about God. Over some months, it eased up and began to be more clear.
My suggestion would be to simply say a prayer – put the question in God’s hands, telling Him that you would like help to understand all this – and then let the matter be for a while. Set a time – such as three or four months (so that you’re not just ignoring it, but giving it a rest). Then see what it is like. I do not know what your Church experience or background is – but I would ask for the intercession of the saints. In this case, I would particularly as the prayers of the Mother of God, of St. Sophrony, and St. Silouan. I will be asking the help for you as well.
Lastly, in Dostoevsky’s Brothers K, the answer to Ivan’s tormenting questions are not found in any dialog. Instead, the answer is found in persons: the Elder Zossima, Alyosha, and particularly in the voluntary suffering of Dmitri. I do not know what persons of faithful living you have access to – but they themselves are “answers” in a manner that not explanation can ever be. This is true, as well, of Christ. Those answers speak in a manner that explanations do not – in a language that works when our reasoning does not.
But, know that you have friends here on the blog – people who think that your questions (and particularly the torment that comes with it) matter. Many will have been there. And we’re still here, and found a way through – but not by an explanation that “satisfies.” Only God Himself satisfies.
‘The sky is full of birds, the purple lupins stand up so regally and peaceful, two little old women have sat down on the box for chat, the sun is shining on my face – and right before our eyes mass murder. The whole thing is simply beyond comprehension.’
– Etty Hillesum (murdered in Auschwitz in 1943).
‘If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ you’ll be at rest.’
– Corrie Ten Boom (she spent some time in a concentration camp, but was inexplicably released. Her sister died there).
I suspect that those who survive with any part of their sanity intact do so by refusing to go down the rabbit hole of cosmic terror. I have been no stranger to death, having witnessed and ministered in many hundreds of deaths, many of them in the poverty of Appalachia. Invariably, as I have encountered joy in such circumstances (which has actually been more frequent than otherwise) – it was always found either in the beauty of small things (near, close) or in the transcendent joy of a devotion to God. In the stories of Corrie Ten Boom, or others (such as the Holocaust survivor here in my small town) I would not dream of railing against the God they love. My suffering in this matter would be largely intellectual, while theirs was intensely real. It is like the witness of Solzhenitsyn that I mentioned in an earlier comment. My sense of things is that these individuals have a “case” that they can take up against God, should they so desire. But when they themselves refuse to take up that case, and instead profess faith and love towards Him, I feel that I can let the matter be. It’s not that there’s no case to be brought – it’s just that I do not want to be other than I am. I am not a holocaust victim. I am probably closer to a perpetrator than a victim. They, perhaps, have a case to take up against me.
Why is the world as it is? Why do I refuse the beauty that is before me? In many ways the large question is about what it means to be God. What kind of choices does God make and why does He make them? I think that we only have a very small window into that question. The singular window is the Crucified Christ. That alone gives us an insight into the life of God. Everything else is imaginary. It is in that window that I find my sanity.
thank you for your insight. It amazes me how some people have experienced and, or seen such cruelty and suffering, that I can not even begin to imagine, have retained, their faith, sanity and humanity.
Why is the world as it is? God alone knows. I have thought to myself at times , it shouldn’t be like this and why does God not stop, or do this or that about it. I’m not sure, but I think underlying these questions is pride; I think I could do a better job than God. God forbid; it would turn into another form of tyranny.
Some years ago, I flipped the question on the problem of evil and asked the “problem of goodness.” Why is there any goodness? or beauty? or love? etc. It leads you into a very different conversation.
Andrew: “It would turn out to be another form of tyranny. ”
That resonates with me, brother.
Modernity with its trinity of rationalism, narcissism and nihilism makes tyranny or despair the default mindset. A binary state of mind that dilutes, distorts and destroys humanity as it pretends to exault it.
The fact is that I am nothing but a beast without God’s mercy. No doubt I would be a vicious killer were it not the presence of Jesus Christ in my life.
He sought me out and brought me to Him in the midst of pain and existential suffering. Nothing to compare to the Holocaust or Communist prisons.
The testimony of people who did is part of God revealing Himself.
thank you so much for that; it puts a completely different perspective on reality. That is a direction I’d like to take. It reminds me of the poem, the Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost,
thank you for that. I appreciate your insight and experience. I have been in situations of evil intent when I was younger and thank God, I wasn’t able to to carry it out.
Andrew, here is one story of Christ at work in Romanian Communist prisons that always moves me. Richard Wurmbrand, the teller, became o lover of Orthodoxy because of what he saw.
Despite the torture and the failure he endured and witnessed, the presence of Christ was greater.
That is, I think, the mystery of The Cross. It is a mystery that is supra-rational, Divine but deeply human at the same time. In some ways it is the story of each person’s life.
thank you for that. Christ is present in the darkest of places; He has been there Himself. He is truly everywhere present.
Andrew, my wife suggested I share this link with you. It is our parish home page that has links for live streaming our celebration of the Divine Liturgy. We would love to have you join us if time differences permit.
As someone with severe social anxiety, you have just gave me the courage to make my first visit to an Orthodox church! Thank you!
Thank you Michael. Please thank your wife for the suggestion. I missed some of the liturgy, I came in during the homily. A beautiful, reverent liturgy; thanks be to God.
Roman, Glory be to God.
Andrew, I will let her know. Glad you could make it.
Thank you Michael.
Father Stephen, thank you – you say here: “I suspect that those who survive with any part of their sanity intact do so by refusing to go down the rabbit hole of cosmic terror.”
The priest in my little church, as a young man, was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the fire bombing there – he left the prison, made his way to the Orthodox cathedral, spent the night in the basement with others. It was the feast of the meeting with the righteous elder Symeon. The cathedral, next morning, was the only building in that neighborhood still standing. They sang the service.
When I wonder at the enormous suffering Christ took on Himself in His death on the cross, that has to be part of it, as you have said. He takes even such as this ‘cosmic horror’ on Himself, since it was once, and for all. I cannot hope to imagine what that walk to the cathedral was like, nor that night of terror. I can imagine putting the icons back in place; and the singing. That’s what our little church did Sundays, when we had it.
This post underscores yesterday’s Gospel reading… The Parable of the Great Banquet.
This is one of my favourite verses of scripture, “Ask, and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened,” that awakens and encourages me.
I wish to express gratitude for the beautiful article and comment section.
I have wrestled with much of the same expressed in the comments. Seeing the conversation has passed I will just add these three quotes about suffering and struggle.
“Woe to our times: we now depart from the narrow and sorrowful path leading to eternal life and we seek a happy and peaceful path. But the merciful Lord leads many people from this path, against their will, and places them on the sorrowful one. Through unwanted sorrows and illnesses we draw closer to the Lord, for they humble us by constraint, and humility, when we acquire it, can save us even without works, according to St. Isaac the Syrian.”
St. Macarius of Optina
“Grief will succeed joy, and joy, grief, just as night follows day. This is how the Father of lights has established the path of those who are being saved. Just have patience and hope: engrave these in the depths of your heart-with these, all adversities will be faced.”
~Elder Ephraim of Arizona +
God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor. Sometimes in the arena the wild animals did not touch the righteous ones, but by no means were they all preserved untouched.
What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him.
Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.
+ St. John Maximovitch