The Last Enemy

The Last Enemy (as named by St. Paul in 1Cor 15:26) was also the first enemy, and has been our enemy throughout human existence: it is death. Death is more than the separation of the soul from the body, it is the threat of non-being. In the writings of the Fathers, particularly those of the East, being is equated with goodness. For it was God who called all things into existence and saw that they were “very good.” As such, being and goodness are deeply and utterly intertwined. We do not say that any created thing is inherently evil. If it has existence, that existence is good. This same fundamental understanding yields its opposite: non-being has the character of evil, or, more accurately, we can say that what we term as “evil” is simply the character and work of non-being. So, Jesus says of Satan that “he was a murderer from the beginning,” and “he is the father of lies.”

In the work of the fathers, most famously in St. Dionysius, evil is described as a “parasite.” It has no existence of its own but rather works to pervert that which does have existence. So evil is not a “thing” or something “existing.” Rather, it is a will, a perversion, a misdirection and an attempt to direct being towards non-being. This is the ultimate rebellion against the goodness of God who is Being, “Being beyond all being,” the source of all existence and every good thing.

There are a variety of ways that this movement towards non-being manifests itself in our lives.

Christ describes two of them. He tells us that if we are angry with our brother, we have committed murder. He also says that if we lust after someone, we have committed adultery. Both this “murder” and this “adultery” are true on the level of being. They are actions that attempt to reduce the being of another. As such, they are actions of Satan, “the murderer from the beginning,” and the “father of lies.”

We also seek to kill ourselves throughout the day. In subtle ways and choices, we often make moves towars lesser being or even non-being itself. The false identities and consumer-based personalities that often fill our closets or inhabit our anxieties are not part of the path to the truth or the reality of being. When Christ says that He has come to “bring life, and that more abundantly,” He is pointing towards the fullness of being that is grounded in God Himself.

It is the nature of our modern culture that it constantly drives us to be what we are not or to become someone (or something) other than ourselves. The ground of our culture is the economy, while the ground of being human is communion with God. Christ is quite clear: “You cannot serve God and mammon (money).” The power of money, and its alure, is its ability to generate pleasure, and forestall pain, neither of which are sinful nor death-dealing in and of themselves. It is, however, the secular nature of the context in which they occur that make them harmful.

Christ said, “There is none good but God.” It is a grounding of the good, as it is the grounding of being as well. A plant that has been up-rooted dies. Human beings do as well, though the death is slow and takes a myriad of forms.

Our rooting in God (“in Him we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28) is essential. The moral compass of a culture in which the Christian tradition is dominant is insufficient to give life. It is, however, of use in preventing a culture from spinning into worlds of death-dealing nonsense. For all intents and purposes, that compass has disappeared for the larger part of our culture purveyors. We are not only dying, but dying in increasingly bizarre ways.

The New Testament occasionally makes comments about “lawlessness.” St. John equates sin and lawlessness (1Jn 3:4). When our communion with God is disrupted, lawlessness is the result. That is to say, the inner law, the natural compass of our well-being, begins to malfunction. We lose our direction. Our actions (even intended “good” actions) can become corrupted and serve only to destroy our lives. That this takes place on a cultural level is deeply alarming. Historically, cultures serve as something of a hedge around our lives. They cannot make us good, but they encourage us towards the good and turn us away from evil. Today, this is decreasingly true.

God has given us more than the background of culture with its shifting laws and mores. He has primarily given us the Church, together with its Tradition, and the life of the sacraments. This is more than a protective “garment of skin” (as the Fathers sometimes described the protection of laws and customs). The Church makes possible our active grounding in the communion of life itself. This is the content of all of the sacraments and the basis for the whole reality of the Church. The canons and moral teachings serve the purpose of nurturing us in the true life of Christ (they are not mere laws of outward conformity).

This reality makes it utterly important that the voices who seek to change the Church’s teaching or discipline to conform it to modern cultural norms should be ignored and resisted. Our culture in no way reasons in accordance with our life in Christ. It is the whisper of death that is of a piece with the first lying whispers in the Garden.

Some time back I ran across an interview with Tom Holland, a non-Christian historian, who readily admits that our civilization is rooted in Christianity and is in great danger of losing that grounding. It is deeply honest and worth a listen if you’re interested. We often take for granted the stability of the culture (at least this was once the case). Today, the case for cultural change is not being driven by rebellious, seditious groups, but by the most powerful political, social, and corporate structures themselves. Not since the Protestant Reformation has such a sea-change been marketed from the “top down.”

I take consolation from two thoughts (and a few others). The Scriptures have this:

Surely men of low degree are a vapor,
Men of high degree are a lie;
If they are weighed on the scales,
They are altogether lighter than vapor.(Psalm 62:9)

And, famously, this:

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

The life of God given to us in the Church abides forever. It is heard in His word. It is written in every rock and tree, every element and molecule of our body.

My prayer, “O Breath of God, blow in our world. Reveal your life in our lives and save us!”

55 comments:

  1. Thank you for speaking these truths to us today, Father. They soothe and calm the unbelievable bewilderment I have been feeling about some of the circumstances in my life.

  2. Father Stephen,
    Isn’t that the pre-existent Logos (Christ) in the icon creating Adam? I know that the appearances of God in the OT are appearances of Christ. I recall the first time I heard this. It very much surprised me.

  3. Dean,
    Yes. It is the common way of portraying this in an icon. Icons are, above all, theological statements. They are not “ahistorical,” per se, but theology shapes the way icons are painted. They are “theology in color.” I suspect that we frequently misread Scripture by concentrating on historical questions (as if that settled anything). Scripture, filled with history, is also, primarily, a theological statement and should be read theologically. I would even go so far as to say that history itself is a theological statement. God is speaking to us in everything, everywhere, and always.

  4. I really love and am edified by your comments Father.
    May God keep you well so you can speak His word to our souls and restore our lives towards His Kingdom.
    Please keep my family and me in your prayers.
    we are all suffering from dysfunction and sin .
    anna .

  5. Thank you, Father Stephen. These truths that you remind us of are a great reminder in the face of all the “reality” around us!

  6. I understand that the experience of dying can be horrific and cruel, and that the death if a loved one brings emotional and sometimes material hardship, but the fact of death itself seems to be a blessing both to the individual and the world. What would become of civilization if the same powerful individuals carried on for hundreds, or thousands, or (as some of our wealthy opinionated suggest is their personal destiny) for endless time)? Death keeps the world alive.

  7. Father, as a long time history buff, your statement that history is a theological statement is true because history is about the nature of mankind. When a different theology is in one’s heart history will be read, written abd interpreted differently. Even one’s own personal history will be different. At least that has been my experience.

  8. Arnold,
    If taken in the most literal sense. You are describing mere separation of the soul from the body. Some people die, though being very truly alive. Some people live while being very truly dead. That our years end as they do is said in Scriptures to be a mercy for us, though not saying that death is anything other than an enemy. But I would not posit a non-dying world filled with people in whom death (in its fullest meaning) was at work. It would simply be a world ever increasing in its evil.

  9. Thanks Father! You have addressed an issue that I have been struggling with for some time. I have for the past few years been asking myself, “What should be my response to the powers and principalities that are encouraging non-being for all humanity?” I have felt that I should speak out against them, because of the connection between the Spirit of God and liberty. The West has for some time been deleting the work of God’s Spirit from the world. Our declining liberties are indicative of this, but the answer is not trying to reverse those liberties for ourselves. It is to reverse the deletion of God’s Spirit from a world that is quickly moving towards totalitarian rule.

  10. Cliff,
    I have presumed that the political fortunes of the world are in the hands of God: He causes the nations to rise and He causes the nations to fall. And though we live in systems we describe as “democratic,” that is less descriptive of what actually is the case. We are a large economic system, driven by economic forces. Both political parties are driven by various economic interests, far more than ideological. Often, any religious interests held by politicians are corrupting of religion far more often than being helpful.

    For example, the studies I’ve seen show that abortion is about as common among Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelicals as it is in the general population. We are not a “leavening” force – rather – we are being corrupted.

    None of that is very encouraging. I’ve taken to reading very careful, well-researched and detailed histories of various periods. In the last couple of years I’ve read materials from 6th century Byzantium, the 14th and 15th centuries in England and France, and the 17th century in England. Basically, the first two were periods during which there were terrible plagues (and worse), and the last was the insanity of the English Civil War that was the seed-bed for all subsequent Protestantism in the West.

    Reading them was a lesson in just how bad things can get (really, really bad), and a lesson in the fact that God is in charge of history, regardless. We are living in a terrible time that will likely become much worse. But, God is in charge and His providence will be triumphant.

    It is for us to be as faithful as possible, to keep the commandments, to pray, and live a godly life. The outcome of history does not belong to us. What Christ has said is utterly sufficient.

  11. But I would not posit a non-dying world filled with people in whom death (in its fullest meaning) was at work. It would simply be a world ever increasing in its evil.

    Is this not why Death was allowed to enter creation? So that we would not live eternally, increasing in evil?

  12. It is for us to be as faithful as possible, to keep the commandments, to pray, and live a godly life.

    Father, pardon a possible sideslip, but I’ve recently come to the tentative conclusion that the Orthodox Mysteries (Sacraments), along with the practices of the Church (fasting, almsgiving, prayer, etc.) are what a life of repentance looks like. These things shape our hearts in God’s Holiness so His love can be seen in/through our lives. This is what your statement seems to mean (copied below, if I am understanding it correctly):

    The Church makes possible our active grounding in the communion of life itself.

    Please correct me if I am wrong. I’ve been considering how to concretely communicate or describe “repentance” so the term doesn’t hang vaporously in the air during any discussion and the Mysteries and practices of the Church came directly to mind.

  13. Byron,
    The practices of the Church and the sacraments exist in order to serve our grounding in the life of God. They are part of a life of repentance. All of the sacraments, interestingly, presume prayer, fasting, turning from sin as we approach them.

    Repentance (metanoia) is a “change of mind (nous)”. The nous is not so much the “thinking” part of the mind as it is the deep part (the heart). Its change implies a transformation of the whole person. No one “gets it right” all the time, or in a single moment. Thus the sacraments allow us to repeatedly bring ourselves to that place of transformation, to allow the life of God working within us to cleanse us, renew us, make us alive, etc. That, I think, is repentance.

  14. Father,

    I often read your blog and have to admit that I am surprised by your outlook on our culture in this post. I have been encouraged by your resistance to engage in any sort of culture war—and yet this post seems to give up on our culture wholesale. While I see many faults in the culture of the United States, particularly the defining of oneself by possessions (a state of non-being), I personally find it more helpful to look for “whatever things are true” and focus on those. Perhaps what you are saying is that these “true” things can be perverted without a basis in Christ. Either way, I would find it hard to exist in our culture without the hopeful attitude of looking for the good.

    Thank you,
    Polly

  15. Polly,
    I’m not interested in the culture wars, per se, primarily because I think that the two sides (including the one with which I would most easily identify) are both enmeshed in darkness. The culture, at least as it is exhibited by the “purveyors” of culture, is pretty much locked in darkness. It is why I consistently point people towards the local, towards the good that is at hand, towards the keeping of Christ’s commandments in the nearest possible manner. The cultural purveyors consistently seek to draw us away towards generalizations, abstractions, and various passions. They waste our time and only want our money.

    I think that, given the fact that we are frequently living in front of tv’s, phones, and computers, we forget those things that are not “screened” to us. I do not think that we will find much goodness in those cultural products.

    But the world is good and there are plenty of places to which we may attend to that goodness. You’re right in looking for it.

    I’m not naive, however. In the cultural wars, people are losing jobs (several in my parish) as HR departments “cancel” those who refuse to go along with new ideological demands. When people start losing jobs, it’s more than an abstract culture war. In that I know many such people, as others do as well, I hope to encourage them. It’s important that acknowledge that something bad is going on and that it’s not likely to improve any time soon.

    I spoke with a mother in my parish recently who told me about her middle schooler. In one school group they were in, fully 1/3 of the children were “identifying” as something other than their birth gender. This is not California, but Tennessee. That’s an absurd number with no possible grounding in a natural phenomenon. It’s a cultural artifact – and the rightly frightens parents who feel out of control as they watch their children become alien to them.

    I do not major in such discussions for a variety of reasons – but I do not and cannot ignore them. I understand your point and can assure you that I’m not shifting the tone of my writing – but these things need to be mentioned from time to time.

    I might also add that Christians have been in a culture war for 2,000 years. The problem today is that some think 1950 would represent a victory. It’s insufficient. But, there will never come a time when we will have “won” the great culture war – not before the coming of Christ. But we cannot make peace with what has been identified as a death-dealing mixture. The spiritual “trick” is to know how not to be consumed by the war but to be consumed by the Life of God.

  16. Father, you said that a world full of living dead people would be one of ever increasing evil. I understand that. That awareness is one factor in trying to take up the work of repentance to learn who I really am no matter my age. However I know of instances where it seemed that the person dying is given a last chance to repent and become alive in death. So death is defeated at times even when it seems to win. The best weapon seems to be two fold: 1. Not fearing its illusory power and 2: Taking every opportunity to repent while still in this life so that our fantasy, fear and passion does not rule. The rest of the Christian life tends to follow if it is wanted. Is that close?

  17. Father,
    I’m grateful for your response to Polly. Sometimes I feel very embattled and have to work hard against despair regarding authentically living the life of Christ. I sincerely believe your vision of this culture is accurate and observes the machinations of this culture in its global context through the eyes of Christ. The only good in this world is that which has been received from Christ.

    One trend of late is the “minimalism” lifestyle. Admittedly I’ve been watching YouTube videos about it on occasion, aware that I’m participating in the reception of the messaging of the “purveyors of culture” you describe. On the surface, it seems to suggest the ways of Christ. However, on closer look, it seems to not curtail acquisition but to offload what you liked and purchased last week but like less this week and will replace once you have off-loaded. It appears to subvert the mindset of anti-mammon with a quasi-anti-accumulation mindset. But on occasion, when it seems anti-materialistic, it also appears to have a ring of emptiness, a hollowness without Christ.

    I recognize a tendency in myself to accumulate, which is a form of acquisition. And it often takes the form of ‘more information or ‘more knowledge’ as if they were objects to acquire. (Deep irony that it often takes the form of goofing off on YouTube– baby videos, kitty or puppy videos, housecleaning videos, etc) But we cannot acquire God. And acquiring book knowledge of theology is not acquiring God. The authentic life in Christ is received, not achieved. Life in Christ is a life in the constant prayer of worship and love of Christ. May God help us to seek communion with Him.

  18. Dee, my wife and I share bit of the acquisitive spirit that you describe. My brother has a fried who joins “alternative communities” on a regular basis until she finds something that is not ‘right’ .

    My brother says it is the lack of the Sacraments she is missing. A sobering realization. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Thanks for this post, Father Stephen, it’s the encouragement I needed today. I recently discovered your blog and have read several of your previous posts — a lot to ponder/think on, and very edifying.

  20. The authentic life in Christ is received, not achieved. Life in Christ is a life in the constant prayer of worship and love of Christ.

    Such a good comment, Dee! Thanks for this!

  21. Fr. Stephen,

    I also take consolation in the fact that the way we’re wired doesn’t ever really get changed by external forces. While people are mistakenly “identifying” right and left these days, these are just events, fads and fireworks that look wonderful and shiny tonight but won’t be so pretty the next morning. When that happens, people are “pre-programmed” (for lack of a better phrase) to do things like cry out to their God, look for love & acceptance, and so on.

    When the chips are down, people – often without any thought involve – operate on their deepest instincts, and those are still uncorrupted. How they act on them can go a number of ways, but the true, primal desires are still the ones God gave us at the beginning. This gives me a lot of hope, because Jesus taught us how to meet these. And for many things, it doesn’t take a specialist. Food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and love for all, etc.

  22. Drewster,
    I think that had we no predisposition towards the good (towards God), it would be impossible to be saved. That’s why the total depravity people also teach a predestination. It’s a theology for puppets. But we are free – created for God – created for love – created for freedom. Christ fulfills the aching, longing heart.

  23. Good thoughts Drewster,
    BTW, This morning I saw a pic of 96 yr old Dick Van Dyck. He had just bought lots of new coats and was loading them into his car. He then was driving to deliver them to folks who need them.
    Heart warming for me to see. Doing the next good thing.

  24. Fr. Stephen: I totally agree. Your statement should be totally obvious and not NEED to be stated. But in the smog we inhabit, that’s not the case.

    Dean: Heartwarming, indeed. This is the immediate good Fr. Stephen often refers to. I think the temptation is to want to see the impact of our good acts and a hint that the weather is changing, but that’s above our paygrade. We must look to Him for all things and simply continue to be like Him in every way we can, kudos or no.

  25. Fr, your post and the comments below remind me of what several of the holy Greek elders from the past century said: that the services of the Church themselves are a spiritual university… that everyone should spend some time at a monastery (if possible) to immerse themselves in Christ and His healing.
    If we really orient ourselves around the fasts and feasts of the Church and toward pursuing communion with the Saints and with our dear Lord, that by itself will start to produce a healthy culture (way of daily living) among the Faithful. Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory heavily underscored this point as well: life immersed within the Life of the Church, instead of being heavily seasoned by modern American society.

  26. Father and Drewster, it is just what I see myself and, unfortunately, others do with my God given freedom … The only viable solution I have ever been shown is repentance which has the side effect of making everybody else look a lot better and it easier to thank God and live closer to joy and peace. In repentance enter the Kingdom of God Matthew 4:17. Even if is just a small taste and for a short while.
    Of course in getting there we also share in The Cross. Since I do not know what I am doing.

  27. Father

    Regarding your comment on freedom (“ But we are free – created for God – created for love – created for freedom.).

    Modern culture stresses the importance of “freedom” in many aspects, freedom from occupation, freedom of speech etc.

    Is it correct that the Orthodox mindset is that man is not free in the absolute sense, as we are created, we die and we are therefore not free. What we have been endowed with, however, is “free will”, we can chose to repent, we can chose to follow Christ’s commandments and potentially share His freedom by grace.

    I feel more comfortable in the idea of free will than the idea of freedom.

  28. Coincidentally, I was listening to Kallistos Ware give a talk on Divine Compassion and Restoring the Human Icon on my drive in this morning, and he spoke extensively about freedom as being part of how we are made in the image of God. Rather than summarize, I’ll quote from it:

    As God is free, so the human person in God’s image is free. God’s freedom is absolute and unrestricted; human freedom is relative, and limited by heredity, upbringing, and by outward circumstances. Yet, there is a genuine analogy between the two levels of freedom. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, “If the human being is created in the image of the loving and supra-essential Godhead, then since the Godhead is liberty, this signifies that the human being as God’s image is also liberty. Equally it is said in the Macarian homilies, “Heaven, sun, moon, and earth have no free will, but you are in the image and likeness of God. Because just as God is his own master and does whatever He wishes, so you, also, are your own master; and if you so choose, you can destroy yourself.” Reflecting on the Divine image, let us call to mind the words of Soren Kierkegaard. “The most tremendous thing granted to human beings is choice, freedom.”

    …Freedom is a precious gift from God, but it also demands sacrifice; and it can even prove tragic. In the words of the Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, “I always knew that freedom gives birth to suffering, while the refusal to be free diminishes suffering.”

    [End quote] He goes on to say that to renounce freedom is to reject the Divine image within us and to deny others their freedom is to dehumanize them.

  29. Mark thank you. You and Met Kallistos ate spot on. I am going to expand on it, I hope, by looking at the other side.

    From my senior year in high school through my senior year in college I got to study the philosophy of “The Will” especially Hegel and Nietzsche and a US “Great Man” Andrew Jackson who lived by the power of “free will”
    The philosophy of free will and choice is a lie. It is the superstructure for tyranny, greed (shopping), debauchery and killing–all revolt against God personally and corporately.
    It is the Satanic lie in the Garden writ large.
    When I recognize the Incarnate Lord and submit to His mercy it is not a choice. It is simply a recognition of who I am and who God is. The Holy Trinity is three Persons (not three ideas). My personhood is because I am created in His image. Once I realized that I look at God, I look at me and recognize my deficiency. Repentance becomes both possible and much easier. A bit like breathing.
    In our culture, founded on the human will, repentance is always a consumer/political choice–which makes it nothing.

  30. Nikolaos,
    It’s an interesting question. Obviously, we are “contingent” – meaning, there is a “necessity” in our lives that is, in a manner of speaking, inescapable. And whatever “freedom” we have is never a freedom that is self-existing. Only God is self-existing. And, even in God, though we don’t call it necessity, the Father is “Father” in that He begets the Son, and the Son is “Son,” in that He is begotten of the Father, etc.

    The freedom for which we are created (found in Gal. 5:1) is true freedom, but not a self-referential freedom. We are free to exist in love – which must be free and must be given as a gift, not as a demand. So, it is true freedom.

    We have, it is said, “free will,” though I’m slightly skeptical about it – in that as broken sinners, we rarely experience our choosing in a truly free manner. The best way to begin the healing of the will is to freely give thanks – always, everywhere, and for all things.

  31. Father giving thanks always for all things always and every where is only real if 1. We are created radically free as a state of being by a 2. Loving and omnipotent God who is a Person (in our case 3 Persons) rather than a force, energy or Cosmic Will, that involves choice, etc. As free beings created in the image we are automatically interrelated.
    Such a Creator also sees to it that repentance is an integral part of our freedom.

    Or am I off the mark?

  32. I often think that the crux of the matter, regarding the most foundational gift of free will in man, is that it is given to us to freely self-determine towards our God.
    Everything springs forth from that foundational inner inclination.
    The various “soils” of our hearts’ ground, described in the parable of the sower, even the varying fecundity of the “good soil” are predicated chiefly upon this inner, freely-determined inclination towards our Maker, irrespective even of circumstance.
    There are of course extremely trying circumstances, but these are just difficult “tests”.

  33. Father that is me most days. But I was driving home from the store and I got to thinking about the difference between giving praise because I am pleased with the outcome (as in free will) or just because I am made in the image of God and it is an integral part of my being (all things are sent by God) except my “free will” messed it up and I can only give thanks for those things that I like or please me. I have been working on it awhile and last night when I could not sleep because of constant pain there were a couple of passing moments when I came close to giving thanks. Repentance in thanks giving was as close as I came.
    Long way to go

  34. Father, forgive me, but when I think about giving praise and thinking about free will and also consider becoming as a little child, I think of the GK Chesterton quote “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”― G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

  35. “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Psalm 118:24

  36. With regard to the will there is always a near-infinite regression of antecedents that create the conditions in which the expression of human will occurs. I think we must be careful when thinking about freedom. We are drawn to God by God. We just cannot raise ourselves up by the strength of our will. It careless for us to assume that we even understand what we are talking about when we use the words “the will.” Just because our understanding about the will is easy to equivocate on lends itself to having more confidence in our understanding than it probably deserves. I say this only to say that we have a tendency to reduce the complexity of the human condition in favor ideas that can be cobbled together like lego blocks, but at the end of the day have little or no actual help.

  37. Simon, et al
    I lean towards Simon’s point of view. There clearly is a certain amount of freedom in our experience, and we clearly have a will. But even St. Paul in Romans 7 lamented the contradictions in his own inward being (“The thing I want to do is not the thing I do, but I do the thing I hate”…etc.). Neither do I think it’s correct to say that we have a “sin nature” or that we’re totally depraved. It’s too easy to have “drawing board” people (Simon’s “cobbled legos”).

    I think it’s possible to just say that we’re very messy and we plod ahead. There is, however, the grace of God, the sheer miracle of our existence and our love for Him and movement towards Him. For me, the most fundamental act of the will (and sometimes I don’t even know if “will” is the right term in this case) is to give thanks always and for all things. It is the sound that our communion with God makes.

  38. In a way I think the question of free will echoes the “can God make a rock God can’t lift?” question. Either response seems to limit God’s power, and so, believers in God’s infinite capacity recoil from answering yes or no with authority. Father Stephen’s citation of Paul highlights something I think is important in that “doing” is not the same at all as “willing” (wanting). What we are able to do has much greater constraint than what we are able to will.

    Earlier in our discussions the question of how important is sincerity, and I think that dovetails here in that for me sincerely seeking God’s will with our own is fundamental. I believe that is what is meant by David’s being a man after God’s own heart and why, for example, David could *do* something as wrong as murdering a man to take his wife and yet receive God’s blessings.

    Similarly, the question of why God placed the forbidden tree in Eden. Why not remove the ability to sin if sin is *doing*? Perhaps—and I do not claim at all to know—but perhaps because man’s will already had that inclination to depart from God’s will that the choice of disobedience made manifest.

    Two powerful examples illustrate the subjugation of this human free will to the Divine. Mary replies to the angel that she is the servant of the Lord and let it be to her according to God’s word. (Kallistos Ware uses this example in the talk I mentioned above.) Second, Jesus in Gethsemane says, “If it be possible, let it pass from me…nevertheless, not as I will but as you will”—the fully human will yielding to the fully God.

    I think “the infinite regression of antecedents” is the same trap that materialism (and its view that the mental process results only from a firing of chemical ions) falls into regarding choice. As C.S. Lewis argued, if our mind’s reason is predetermined, it does not reason at all, and so we cannot trust that it reasons accurately about itself. A way this trap might be escaped, however, is to realize that its jaws depend on limiting time to the more comprehensible, non-eternal sense. As long as our perception is finite we cannot hope to fully understand the infinite.

    Lastly, one reason I appreciated Dorothy Sayers’ book “The Mind of the Maker” so much is her metaphor of humanity as comprising characters in God’s great work of creation. While I cannot comprehend what God does, I can comprehend how an author describes a created character developing a life of his or her own.

  39. Fr Stephen,

    (If you will permit, a small, light-hearted confession: )
    For the many years now that I have listened to and read your work, I have had this nagging quibble against you. You consistently dispute and orate (and rightly I might add) against Modernity and its deleterious effects on our culture and society. I agree, wholeheartedly. My quiet but somewhat desperate retort has always been, “What am I supposed to do about it? I was born into it, it is the water I swim in, I cannot change it. How do I move forward?”

    I suppose if I were a better listener I would have picked up on this much earlier–for you have been consistent–but in this post I finally realized you have answered my question specifically and concretely.

    The Church. I need to enter into and participate in the life and rhythms of the Church. I need to let Christ transform me as part of his Body. It cannot be done from without. “Find peace and a thousand around you will be saved.”

    That is the answer… thank you.

    Therefore, please forgive me for not listening more closely, for harboring such a small gripe against you, and for being so thick-headed. In your gracious way, you have shoved me kicking and screaming into the Church. One of these days, when our paths finally cross, I will have to give you a hug for that.

    Please forgive me.
    Father Bless.

    –Justin

  40. When it comes to discussions about the will I often feel like a heavy burden has been placed on my shoulders. I frequently experience deep inadequacies regarding my ability to ‘make things happen’ (Romans 7). However, I am deeply impressed by the idea of bearing a little shame. That seems like an act of yieldingness rather than an act of the will. I see bearing a little shame as yielding to the physician to un-bandage an embarrassing ulcer and allowing it to be exposed to the light of day rather than hiding it and the infection becoming worse. This to me what confession is. It’s not the admission of guilt, but the exposing our ulcers to the light of sacrament and communion that is confession.

  41. Glory to God, Justin, for this little lighthearted confession you share !
    The tears came to my eyes ! What tenderness in the truth that comes….
    The joy warms the heart. Thank you.

  42. Justin, having had the Grace and honor meeting Fr. Stephen in person–you are in for a treat.

  43. My quiet but somewhat desperate retort has always been, “What am I supposed to do about it? I was born into it, it is the water I swim in, I cannot change it. How do I move forward?”

    …The Church. I need to enter into and participate in the life and rhythms of the Church. I need to let Christ transform me as part of his Body.

    Justin, you make such an obvious statement and I realize I have missed one part of it that is so very important! I need to, “…let Christ transform me as part of His Body” [emphasis mine]. How these seemingly small realizations are like cold water splashed upon my face! Thanks for this. May God bless and hold us all close.

  44. In a bipolar world, the poor can not be without the rich, and both good and evil must exist or our reality collapses.

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