Out of the Fountain that is Christ: Free Will, Tolerance and Forgiveness


By Fr. George Morelli

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will. (Phlm 1: 14)

In today's secular society there are two extreme views of those serious followers of Christ who apply Christ's teachings on tolerance and forgiveness in their lives. One view is that such Christians are wanting in courage by failing to call for retribution and vengeance for crimes  society may rightly find abhorrent. On the other hand, committed Christians are viewed as intolerant if they choose to reject values and practices that are un-Christ like. The Christian response can only be understood by deepening our understanding of the Holy Trinity and the relationship of the Persons of the Holy Trinity among themselves.

What we know of the essence of the Godhead, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God, is magnificently summarized by St. John Chrysostom in his Divine Liturgy: "for Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same."  The Holy Spirit-inspired Church and its early Councils undertook the task of trying to understand and express the relationship between the veiled prototype of the Holy Trinity contained in the Old Testament Scriptures and God as One-in-Three as revealed by Christ Himself.  McGuckin summarizes that it consisted of a "theology of three perfectly coequal divine persons (hypostases), all sharing the selfsame divine nature (ousia). . . more succinctly . . .a vision of God where the Son and Holy Spirit were homoousion with the Father though hypostatically distinct."

God's Essence

When I was a child my religion teacher tried to impress on us the impossibility of explaining God's essence. She used a story and a picture depicting an incident from the life of our Holy Church Father Blessed Augustine of Hippo. A child and Bishop Augustine are on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The child asks the future Saint to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  Blessed Augustine took his Episcopal Staff and made a small hole in the sand and then, pointing to the vast waters, answered the child: 'It would be easier to take the entire sea and pour it into this hole, than to explain the mystery of the Trinity.' The inability of mankind to comprehend God is even farther beyond the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (13: 12): "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." Thus, whatever words we use we can never understand the essence of the Holy Trinity, that is to say the essence of God. Humanly speaking, whatever we say about God's essence will at best be an antinomy - a holding together of opposites, as: God is Unity and God is Trinity.

However, to help us describe the 'three' aspect of the 'one' God, that is to say, a three-fold unity, we might use the psychological construct, proprium, as understood and used by Allport (1955,1961).  Allport considers that proprium "confers unity. . . but it is never the unity of fulfillment, of repose. . . ." In our limited understanding the essence of the proprium of the Father is to be unbegotten, to be uncaused, to be  ungenerated, The Father does not receive His Divinity from another. Furthermore, He is the co-eternal principle of the Divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, but this principle is without beginning. (Bobrinskoy, 1999).  Lossky (1955) quotes St. John of Damascus: "All that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being: and unless the Father is, neither the Son nor the Spirit is." Lossky goes on to say: "It is the Father who distinguishes the hypostases 'in an eternal movement of love' according to an expression of St. Maximus the Confessor."

Regarding the proprium of the Son, Bobrinskoy (1999) would have us reflect on the words of St. Gregory Nazianzen who said: "You hear about birth? Do not inquire about how." Having said this, Bobrinskoy quotes St. Cyril of Jerusalem: ". . .the person or "hypostasis" of the Son becomes as it were the form and countenance by which the Father is made known, and the person or "hypostasis" of the Father is made known in the form of the Son. . . ."

Likewise, in considering the proprium of the Holy Spirit we would do well to contemplate St. Gregory Nazianzen's caution as quoted by Bobrinskoy (1999): "You hear that the [Holy] Spirit proceeds from the Father, do not investigate anxiously how this happens." The proprium of the Holy Spirit, is "mysterious." The term "procession" (exporeusis), that is to say, going forth, is ambiguous, "ineffable," not definitional. Bobrinskoy  points out that it is known that procession is other than the filiation of the Son.  The spirit "comes from the Father, but also that He is in Him, and toward Him." The Holy Spirit comes from the Father and rests on the Son. The revelation known by the Church, noted in the Scriptural text is: "But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me." (Jn. 15: 26)

The filiation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are of the nature of God. Lossky (1978)  informs us: ". . .St. John of Damascus, in the eighth century, was to distinguish the work of nature, which is generation and procession, and the work of the will, which is the creation of the world."

The Divine Will of His Essence

St. John of Damascus gives some context for the Divine Will in chapter VIII of his treatise On the Holy Trinity. God, he says, is:

One God, one beginning,  having no beginning, uncreate, unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen, the fountain of goodness and justice, the light of the mind, inaccessible; a power known by no measure, measurable only by His own will [emphasis mine] alone (for all things that He wills He can ). . . [thus God is] one essence, one divinity, one power, one will [emphasis mine], one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences . . . in Father and Son and Holy Spirit. i

The Divine Persons and their communicative interrelationship in love are intrinsic to the Divine Nature. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be conceived apart from each other, in as much as the Divine Essence will lead to Divine action (Divine Energy) and the creation of the cosmos and mankind itself. Mankind was created to be in communion with God and with one another. The depth of the Trinitarian communion of love, which is descriptive of their essence and which also will serve as the purpose of mankind's creation, is summarized magnificently by Olivier Clément 1993):

The Divine Persons are not added to another, they exist in one another: the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, the Spirit is united to the Father together with the Son and 'completes the blessed Trinity' as if He were ensuring the circulation of love within it. This circulation of love was called by the Fathers [Sts. Basil and Maximus the Confessor] perichoresis, another key word of their spirituality . . . along with kenosis [emptying]. Perichoresis, the exchange of being by which each Person exists only in virtue of His relationship with the Others, might be defined as a 'joyful kenosis'. The kenosis of the Son in history is the extension of the kenosis of the Trinity and allows us to share in it.

For God, perichoresis and kenosis is done beyond  eternity and time as we know it.   It is above created eternity and time, which is God's gift to mankind by his loving Will. “Created” eternity reflects the distinction made by Georges Florovsky as quoted by Meyendorff (1974): "we have to distinguish, as it were, two modes of eternity: the essential eternity in which only the Trinity lies and the contingent eternity of the free acts of Divine grace."

 

God's Gift to Us: Contingent Eternity

God's Will

No discussion of free will can begin without considering what has been revealed to us about God's own Will.  As we understand from St. Gregory Palamas: “God’s volition [will]is other than the Divine Essence. . .but] it does exist and pertains to God, who possesses not only Essence but also a will with which He creates.” (Philokalia IV).  St. Gregory goes on to explain that God’s Essence acts through His Divine Energy which makes Him evident.  “According to the true faith of God’s Church which by His grace we hold, God possesses inherent Energy that make Him manifest and is in this respect distinct from His Essence.” (Philokalia IV)

Creation itself is a free act of God: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light." (Gen 1: 1-3). The author of 2nd Maccabees (7:28) implores us:  "I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed." St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews (11:3), picks up on this theme: ". . . we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear." Thus, not only the cosmos comes into existence, but also mankind comes into being. God had no need to create the cosmos, He did so out of His intrinsic love.  The Holy Trinity itself is love. As St. John tells us: "God is love.(1Jn 4: 8). St. Maximus the Confessor points out ". . . we maintain that only the Divine Essence has no opposite, since it is eternal and infinite and bestows eternity on other things."  (Philokalia II).

Quoting St. John of Damascus, Lossky, (1955)  proffers an explanation of how creation takes place: that the thought-will of God, which Lossky terms "volitional thought,"  in which creation is not of God's being, or  essence, (as in the West, Benignus, 1947)ii but of God's "dynamic intentional will":

God contemplated all things before their existence, formulating them in His mind; and each being received its existence at a particular moment, according to His eternal thought and will, which is a predestination, an image and a model.

Mankind: Created in time, but given the gift of eternity

St. Maximus tells us:

When God brought into being natures endowed with intelligence and intellect He communicated to them, in His supreme goodness, four of the divine attributes by which He sustains, protects and preserves created things. These attributes are being, eternal being, goodness and wisdom.  Of the four He granted the first two, being and eternal being. to their essence, and the second two, goodness and wisdom, to their volitive faculty, so that what He is in His essence the creature may become by participation. This is why man is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God. (cf. Gn 1: 26). . . .only the good and wise will attain His likeness."(Philokalia II)

St. Peter makes clear: ". . . but the word of the Lord abides for ever." (1 Pt 1: 25). We learn from St. Paul "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." (Rm 11: 29).  We also know of God's promise to us as told to the Romans (6: 22) by St. Paul: "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life." Of utmost importance, however, are the words of Jesus Himself, spoken to the Apostles at the Last Supper and handed down to us by St. John (17: 1-3): "When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent."

The steadfastness of God as understood by St. Maximus the Confessor

St. Maximus writes:

The being of created things, on the other hand, has non-being as its opposite.  Whether or not it exists eternally depends on the power of Him who alone exists in a substantive sense. But since 'the gifts of God are irrevocable' (Rm 11: 29), the being of created things always is and always will be sustained by His  almighty power, even though it has, as we said, an opposite; for it has been brought into being from non-being, and whether or not it exists depends on the will of God. (Philokalia II).

Goodness and Wisdom must be chosen

The great spiritual perception of St. Maximus is that the being and eternity of mankind is simply given to us gratis. While God is unbounded, He freely binds Himself not to take this being and eternity from us. But goodness and wisdom is another matter completely; it is up to our volitive faculty.  We have to recognize goodness and wisdom; we have to desire goodness and wisdom, and we have to work at being wise and choosing to do good. 

St. Mark the Ascetic informs us: "God 'tested Abraham’ (c.f. Gen 22: 1-14), that is, God afflicted him for his own benefit, not in order to learn what kind of man Abraham was -- for He knew him, since He knows all things before they come into existence -- but in order to provide him with opportunities for showing perfect faith." (Philokalia I) In other words, using the spiritual insight of St. Maximus to attain wisdom and choose the good. Interestingly, St. Mark the Ascetic would have us consider the afflictions of life beneficent in attaining virtue.  This is not as puzzling as it may first seem if we understand affliction to be anything that would be accompanied by distress.

Although using different words, St. Anthony the Great also indicates to us the choices  that lie before us as a consequence of God giving us free will:

If you so wish, you are a slave of the passions; and if you so wish, you are free and do not yield to the passions. For God created you with free will; and he who overcomes the passions of the flesh is crowned with incorruption. If there were no passions there would be no virtues, and no crowns awarded by God to those who are worthy. (Philokalia I)

Goodness and wisdom vs. the passions

In a previous paper (Morelli, 2006c) I wrote about an alternative other than choosing to do God's Will. It is based on the brokenness that exists in our nature -- our passions.

What is brokenness? Where does it come from? Brokenness is the term that describes the fundamental disorder that exists in creation that affects a person's relationships and creative activity. We experience it inwardly in a way that St. Paul described as that pull between right and wrong where we know what is good but choose the opposite. Outwardly it is expressed by the scandals of greed, sexual abuse, and other crimes that seem ever more prevalent year by year.

Where does brokenness come from? The Church tells us to look to Scripture, particularly the narrative of creation in the book of Genesis. The source of brokenness does not begin with Adam and Eve, or even with God speaking the world into existence. Rather, brokenness has its source in another creature of God: the angel who at one time was chief of the angelic hosts - Satan and his cohorts.

Later in that same paper, making reference to St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977), I went on to explain:

The brokenness we have inherited from Adam we experience as passions. Passions are defined as the inclinations to sin. St. Dorotheos wrote: "[Our passions] are . . .those innate tendencies which lead us to evil. Sin is one thing but instinctive reaction or passion another. These are our reactions: pride, anger, sexual indulgence, hate, greed and so on. The corresponding sins bring into corporeal reality those works which were suggested to him by his innate desires arising, but not giving way to them is by no means impossible" (emphasis added).

Our Will: Christ our model in conforming our human will to the Divine Will

The Holy Spirit, through His Spirit-inspired Church, taught us that Christ had two wills: a Divine Will and a human will.  The controversy over whether Christ had one will, a Divine Will (Monothelitism) only, or two wills, Divine and human (Dyothelitism), was settled in the Council of Constantinople III (680-681 AD). The Divinely inspired Church Council Fathers, as McGuckin (2004) tells us, saw "that to deny a human will to Christ was to render His humanity specious." Previous council decisions always witnessed the harmony in Christ of both his natures in his one personhood. McGuckin informs us that the Christological union of both natures in one person had to be posited, as St. Maximus the Confessor taught, "in the concept of a free and gracious person." This means love and goodness that is concrete and existential, that is freely chosen, not a goodness and love that is merely an abstract theological concept.

Agony in the GardenAgony in the Garden

Lossky (1955) informs us of St. John of Damascus' teaching that the Divine Will enables the will of humans to will. In the case of Christ, He would, for example, experience hunger, thirst, human love, and grief. "His human spirit had recourse to prayer, the nourishment of all created spirit. One powerful example will suffice.  Immediately before His arrest, passion, crucifixion and death on the Cross, Christ in a bloody sweat and anxiety cried out to His Father from His human nature: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;" (Mt 26: 39); Our Lord's reaction was totally human, proper to facing a horrific death. But most important is the second part of His prayer which conforms His human will to the Divine Will:  “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." Lossky quotes St. John of Damascus:

His human will refused to accept death, and His Divine Will made way for this manifestation of His humanity; the Lord, in conformity with His human nature, submitted to struggle and fear, and prayed to be spared from death. But since His Divine Will desired that His human will should accept death, the humanity of Christ voluntary accepted the passion.

So, too, we, at the choice points and conflicts of life, are to interiorize Christ in such a way that we conform our wills to God's Will.

Choice Points: The Psychology of Conflict

The psychological structure of conflict was first reported by Kurt Lewin (1935) and followed up by experimental investigation by Neal Miller (1944). Over two decades later Brown   (1955) extended conflict theory to include attitude and cognitive adjustments.  Basically, conflict is defined as when two or more incompatible cognitive-behavioral attractions act on the individual.  Most conflict situations related to the moral life of the committed Christian involve what would be termed two attractive goals, one godly and the other evil, thus called an approach-approach conflict. The conflict is that only one of the goals can be chosen, and the two goals are incompatible.iii

Toward a Psychological Resolution of Conflict

Allport (1937) suggests that what he describes as a "mature personality" is one that is so integrated that "all motivation seems to be centered in one master sentiment."  Holzman, (1958) points out that this master sentiment is the common denominator "of the scaling of options" in Miller's Approach-Approach Conflict Model. The practical meaning of this is that more psychologically mature individuals will be able to better determine the value of the choices.  Conversely, people with the "less-well-integrated personalities" will be more likely to have irreconcilable motives. Holzman points out that personality integration is "the development of a fairly consistent system of preferences, a sense of the relative importance of various potential goals." These goals make up the individual’s value system. Holzman, writing in 1958, goes on to make a very perspicacious assessment that is certainly more true in the secularized, self-centered, hedonistic, power- driven Godless society that makes up the 21st Century of today  (Morelli 2010c), than in the relatively bucolic, serene, family-oriented 1950's in which her study was done.  She writes: "since value systems incorporating independent ends are typical of individuals in our culture, we can expect this source of conflict to be an important one.”

Connecting Psychological and Spiritual Maturity

As has been pointed out so many times before (Morelli, 2006b, 2007a), the precept of St. Maximus the Confessor is that “grace builds on nature” Maturity of personality is linked to higher levels of moral development. Morelli (2011, in press) recently wrote:  "Kohlberg (1976) proposed the highest stage of moral development to be the adoption of "universal ethical principles." These are self-chosen precepts that are an "articulated, integrated, thought out and consistently followed system of values.""  It is just such 'higher levels', if they coincide with similarly high level of moral development, that can be a factor in a committed Christian’s resolving of choice point conflicts by choosing the godly Choice. To employ Holzman's terminology, they will have developed a consistent system of preferences based on a Godly value system.

The Passions

Choices motivated by the passions can be seen for what they are -- self-centered, self-directed inclinations that do not emulate the love that is definitive of God, the persons of the Holy Trinity by their individual proprium, or by the loving actions of their joint Divine Will , for "God is Love," (1Jn 4:8). We can look at the so-called seven capital sins, actually more accurately labeled the seven passions, and immediately discern the 'low' developmental level and egocentric quality that characterize them. They are more accurately called passions because they are inclinations ,the values that are in the depth of our hearts, which guide our thoughts, words and deeds. As Christ Himself has told us: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Lk 12: 34).  Let us examine the passions in terms of their core meaning and thus what inclines us to make evil choices:

  • Pride: Ascribing one's accomplishments, gifts, virtues, and rights to choose (& have control over self and others) to oneself, thereby regarding oneself as above others and equal to God.
  • Greed: A magnified desire for earthly wealth; not giving God His due; nor trusting in His providence; nor helping those in need.
  • Lust: A love of sexual pleasure so as to have thoughts, desires and deeds that are self-centered and not conforming to the love the Persons of God, the Holy Trinity, have for themselves and to the creative love of the Divine Economy (as in  blessed marriage, male and female, becoming one flesh with intention to  produce offspring).
  • Anger: A magnified sense of our own importance (above God and others) that justifies and impels us to be belligerent and vengeful toward God and our neighbors.
  • Gluttony: Not caring for our body, or the bodies of our neighbors which are God's gift to us, by inappropriate eating, drinking and drugs. (Smoking is never appropriate, as well as indicating a lack of respect for the health and welfare of those around us, thus a lack of love of neighbor). 
  • Envy: Grief, regret and resentment for the good and blessings others have or are receiving. Often leads to hostility in thought, word and actions.
  • Sloth: Being entrapped by worldly things and comfort so that one is indifferent to and ignores the things of God: prayer, worship and charity.

By nature we are not slaves to the passions

Now, while we are influenced by the passions, we are not determined by them. St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) first reminds us of the words of Moses in the Book of Genesis: " . . .the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth. . . ." Then St. Dorotheos goes on to teach:

. . .if we really want to go through the keeping of these commandments we can be purified not only from our sins but from those innate tendencies which lead us to evil.  Sin is one thing but instinctive reactions or passion is another. . . [see list above] . . . .The corresponding sins are the gratification of these passions: when a man acts and brings into corporeal reality those works which were suggested to him by his innate desires. It is impossible to exist without natural desires arising, but not to give way to them is by no means impossible.

Putting on the armor of God and the armor of a God-centered personality

St Paul tells the Ephesians (6:13): "Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." The armor which may aid us in making Godly decisions at the  conflict choice points of our daily lives would be an integrated personality enlivened by the spiritually developed heart integrated around God's love and will. This would help us fulfill St. Paul's counsel to the Romans (12:2):  "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

As St. Diadochos of Photki informs us:  "All men are made in God's image; but to be in His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom in subjection to God." (Philokalia I). He then gives us a reminder and a great counsel:

Free will is the power of a deiform soul to direct itself by deliberate choice towards whatever it decides.  Let us make sure that our soul directs itself deliberately only towards what is good, so that we always consume our remembrance of evil with good thoughts.

Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Wheeler, 1977), with his God-inspired sapience pointed out: ". . .the words "I can't" have no validity in man's life, It is the words "I don't want" or "I don't love" which lead man to say "I can't."" The Elder considers that those who say "I can't" feel that an outside power stops them choosing good. But the Elder goes on to say that the power is "rooted inside them." Then he draws the obvious conclusion: "Since they love their passions they are unable to get rid of them." The Elder's spiritual medicine for this illness: "First, they must hate their passions and then find something better to direct and transfer their love to. Otherwise. . . they will keep on suffering." Obviously, they must direct and transfer their love to the Godly Good.

St. Antony the Great tells us what true freedom is.  The "purity and detachment" he speaks of can only come from what is in the heart, that is to say what "reflects an inner beauty."

Regard as free not those whose statues makes them outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct. For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked for dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions. Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things . . . .Holiness and intelligence of soul are to be recognized from a man's eye, walk, voice, laugh, the way he spends his time and the company he keeps. Everything is transformed and reflects an inner beauty.  For the intellect which enjoys the love of God is a watchful gate-keeper and bars entry to evil and defiling thoughts.  (Philokalia I)

Hate the sin

In a previous paper (Morelli, 2010b) I mentioned a popular injunction 'hate the sin but love the sinner' erroneously  attributed to Sacred Scripture, but that, nevertheless, is in the "spirit" of  Christ's actual words about an heretical Gnostic sect that He spoke about  to St. John the Evangelist: "Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." (Rev 2:6). So there is no doubt that we too are called to hate and not choose to sin.  Sin is an illness and infirmity by which we succumb to our passions and make an evil choice. St. Maximus the Confessor (Philokalia II) calls evil "a privation of good." St. Symeon the New Theologian (Philokalia IV) expands our understanding:

Baptism does not take away our free will or freedom of choice, but gives us the freedom no longer to be tyrannized by the devil unless we choose to be. ... Whoever after baptism deliberately submits to the will of the devil and carries out his wishes, estranges himself -- to adapt David's words  -- from the holy womb of baptism (cf. Ps 57:3) ... We are created good by God -- for God creates nothing evil -- and we remain unchanging in our nature and essence as created. But we do what we choose and want, whether good or bad, of our own free will.

St. Symeon goes on to give an example: that a knife remains what it is composed of - "iron" - whether it be used for good or evil. So, too, we remain good in our nature as God created it, but we can choose to turn away from good choices, thus depriving ourselves of what is good.

God tolerates our evil choices

Let us contemplate the words of St. Isaac of Syria (Alfeyev, 2000) on "how compassionate God is, and how patient; and how He loves creation, and how He carries it, gently enduring its importunity, the various sins and wickedness, the terrible blasphemies of demons and evil men." Tolerance is intrinsic to the Love that is God.  Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev informs us that "all living creatures exist in God's mind before their creation." What this implies is that their place in the structure of the cosmos is retained even if someone falls away from God. In one of the most beautiful and compelling descriptions of God's everlasting tolerance St. Isaac tells us:

Everyone has a single place in [God's] purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them and all the rest of created beings.... He has a single ranking of complete and impassible love towards everyone, and He has a single caring concern for those who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not fallen.

It must be pointed out that this is not to say that God condones evil in any manner, shape or form. Just the opposite, as St. Isaac understands it we must have relentless repentance: "continual and mournful supplication by means of prayer filled with compunction draws nigh to God in order to seek forgiveness of past offenses, and entreaty for preservation from future [offenses]." And for what purpose? St. Isaac answers for us that "they [sinners] will be perfected in love for Him, with a perfect mind which is above any aberration in all its stirrings." (Wensinck, 1923)

Our call to emulate God's tolerance

If God tolerates our choice of evil, waiting for us to turn to the Good, the Love that He is, can we do anything other than be patient and tolerate the bad choices of others? Once again,  'tolerate' does not mean condoning or excusing the sins of others. It means to endure. It means to wait out the unfavorable condition one is in. It is a recognition that the beliefs and practices of others may be different from ours. It is a disposition to allow others the freedom of choice and behavior that God has given to us.

The requirements of charity and the judicial system

It is important to emphasize an important caveat in this matter. Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) tells us: "When others depend on you, you must always take them into consideration, so they will not end up suffering or being dissatisfied."  In practical (legal and moral) terms there are some choices that are made by others that are so egregious (and illegal) that they cannot be tolerated. An example would be physical, sexual, emotional and/or neglectful abuse. Another example would be unabated adultery, alcoholism and drug use.  Reporting abuse to the legal authorities is imperative, as is seeking spiritual and mental health counseling in such matters. I discuss this more completely in relation to the Domestic Church, marriage and parenting in Morelli 2010a.

The purpose of tolerance

And what is the purpose of tolerance? The short answer is that God is waiting for us to love Him in response to His Love for us. The longer answer is given by St. Isaac of Syria:

So then, let us not attribute to God's actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather we should speak of Fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital; and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love.... looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things of the past. (quoted by Alfeyev, 2000)

A god of requital, that is to say a god that distributes even deserved penalty, a returning in kind, is, according to St. Isaac: "Such are the feeble ways of understanding the Creator."

God's tolerance is eternal

God tolerates sinners eternally because he is waiting for them to return to His eternal love. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2009)  references a verse from the 6th Ode of the Holy Saturday Orthros (Lamentation) Service. In the Antiochian Orthodox usage the verse reads:

Verily, Hades ruled the race of man, but not forever; for thou, O mighty One, when thou wast placed in the grave didst demolish the locks of death with the palm of thy hand, O Element of Life, proclaiming to those sitting yonder from the ages a true salvation, having become, O Savior, the Firstborn of the dead. . . .

He then goes on to explain how the verse proclaims the boundless eternal mercy of God as understood by St. Gregory of Nyssa (and, by implication, St. Issac of Syria (Alfeyev, 2000);

How should we understand the words, indicated above in italics, which indicate the reign of hell is not eternal? Can we see in them an echo of the theologoumenon on the finiteness of hell's torments, expressed in the fourth century by [St.] Gregory of Nyssa [and in the seventh century by St. Isaac the Syrian], or does it say that hell, unlike God, is not eternal since it appeared as something "introduced from the outside,"  foreign to God and therefore subject to annihilation? Again we stand before questions to which there are no single, easy answers. The services of Great Saturday raise the curtain of a mystery that cannot be solved. The answer to this mystery will be revealed only in the kingdom to come, in which we will see God as he is ["Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1Jn 3:2]  and in which God will be "all in all." [When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one. 1Cor 15:28].

It appears several pages later that Archbishop Hilarion answers his own questions.  He starts out by saying: “Personal opinions (theologoumena) of individual church writers, however respected they may be, are not always representative of church doctrine." However, the writing of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian in this case are consistent with the Liturgical practice of the Church as is noted in the Holy Saturday Lamentation service above. And of the Liturgy, Archbishop Hilarion states:

Certain works of the Church Fathers can contain disputable or even incorrect opinions. This cannot be said about the canonical liturgical texts, for Church Tradition throughout many centuries weeds out any such opinions. Therefore, if we were to create a certain hierarchy of authorities, the liturgical texts would come in second place after scripture.

However, even this being so about God's tolerance and His waiting for all to respond to His grace, even those in Hades, it must be pointed out that salvation is not automatic or universal. It will in some way have to involve the free response of man, by the action of grace, to God's abiding Love.  As Archbishop Hilarion emphatically points out in his earlier work (2000): "But this salvation will not be forced upon anyone: each person will turn to God of his own free will when he reaches the state of maturity."

What is critical for us to focus on in this essay is the boundless mercy of God, the extent to which He tolerates our sinfulness, brokenness, weaknesses, illnesses and infirmities, eternally waiting for us to respond to His everlasting love. If this is the way God acts due to His Divine Economy, can we do any differently toward those around us? Think of the most heinous, egregious actions anyone has ever perpetrated. That is the person God is waiting to turn to Him and respond to His Love.  He is tolerant, and patient. He desires all mankind to repent, is waiting to forgive.  We are commanded to be like God. He is asking us to do the same. We are made in His image and called to be like him

God's calling to us to Love

Jesus told the Pharisees:  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  (Mt 22: 37,39).  These two commandments are intimately intertwined. This is made clear to us by St. John (1Jn 4: 20) who tells us:  "If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."

Most readers are familiar with St. Paul's extensive description of love  in his first  Epistle to the Corinthians (13: 1--8). The list includes: love is patient, kind; not jealous, boastful, arrogant, rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable, resentful, or rejoicing at wrong; love rejoices in the right, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never ends. This description bespeaks tolerance and forgiveness. All these characteristics of love are a call to us to emulate the loving, ever tolerant and ready to forgive God. A call is an invitation, not a compelling demand. God gave all free will; that means we have choice. We can recall St. Paul's words to the Romans (7: 19-20): "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me." 

Our call to be like God by emulating His forgiveness

Sometimes the title of a chapter or a book can be a nutshell of its entire theme. Such is the title of Chapter VI in St. Dorotheos of Gaza's Discourses and Sayings (Wheeler, 1977): On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor. St. Dorotheos considers judging our neighbor   the 'gravest' of wrongs.  Is it any wonder St. Dorotheos would devote a whole chapter on this considering the stress put on forgiveness by Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, Himself.

Let us consider what Our Lord says about forgiveness.  St. Luke (17: 3-4) records the words of Jesus: "Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebukeiv him [in kindness], and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, `I repent,' you must forgive him." It would appear that forgiveness of others is so important that without doing so we cannot even pray to God. St. Mark (11: 25) tells us: "And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." To put this colloquially: until we forgive others, that is to say, forgive all others who have asked for forgiveness, as well as those who have not yet asked for forgiveness, we "do not stand a chance" for our own forgiveness and  deification.  This may seem extreme, but it certainly puts in perspective  the divinely good choices versus the evil choices we encounter in our earthly existence.

If God will not accept the prayer of those who choose not to forgive, He certainly will not accept any homage and especially any sacrifice of the unforgiving. Note Our Lord's strong words: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt 5: 23-24).v

St. Dorotheos of Gaza understands the concrete expression of "has something against you." to be "calumniating, condemning, or despising his neighbor." One essential component of clinical intervention is the use of behavioral pinpointing.  This means not using abstract descriptions but the exact words someone is actually saying. (Morelli, 2006a).  Approximately 1500 years before the advent of modern scientific clinical psychology, St. Dorotheos describes the problem in behaviorally pinpointed terms:

Running a man down is saying that so-and-so has told a lie or got into a rage or gone whoring, or the like. A man already has committed calumny if he speaks about his brother's sins as if with sympathy. Condemning a man is saying 'he is a wicked liar, or he is an angry man, or he is a fornicator. For in this way one judges the condition of his soul and draws a conclusion about his whole life.vi

St. Peter of Damaskos tells us: "In this way [love and compassion for others] God's grace, our universal mother, will give us gentleness, so that we begin to imitate Christ. This constitutes the third commandment  [beatitude]; for the Lords says, 'Blessed are the gentle [meek]' Matt. 5: 5).”  (Philokalia III). St. Peter goes on to point out that it is even to our own spiritual benefit when someone is intolerant of us.  He says, "even if someone gets furious with us, we are not troubled; on the contrary, we are glad to have been given an opportunity to profit." Why does bearing others’ anger accrue to our spiritual welfare? It may be a chance to obtain forgiveness for something we may have "unwittingly or wittingly" done. Out of love we have to tolerate or endure even those who are ired at us.

The Gospel for Forgiveness Sunday: The key to our Forgiveness

The Gospel for Forgiveness Sunday, at the cusp of Lent, tells us the condition of whether our sins will be forgiven by God: " The Lord said to His Disciples: If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Forgiveness (Mt 6: 14-15). The prayer that begins Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday will not be heard by God, unless it is preceded by we ourselves forgiving all who have offended us.

When I call to mind the many evils I have done, and I think upon the fearful day of judgment, seized with trembling I flee to Thee for refuge, O God Who lovest mankind. Turn not away from me, I beseech Thee, Who alone art free from sin; but before the end comes grant compunction to my humbled soul and save me.

At the very least praying for the good and welfare of all who have wounded us, or those whom we love and cherish is the first and  minimum step we can take in forgiveness. (Morelli, 2007b,c). The icon of Forgiveness Sunday depicts Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise, by God, because of their disobedience and pride. But it also depicts God's readiness to forgive them.

We are called to interiorize God's eternal readiness to forgive in our own lives.

The Body of Christ called to emulate God's Love

The spiritual ethos of tolerance and forgiveness lies in the Divinity itself. As pointed out at the beginning of this essay, it starts with the relationship of Love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in its essence, the continuation of this love by the Divine Energy by its creative acts. This can be especially seen in the specific act of Love by Christ’s emptying Himself of His Divinity, by His taking on our human nature, and even to His passion, crucifixion death for our salvation.

What do we know about the Body of Christ?

St. Paul writes to the Romans (12: 4-5): "For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."  Writing to the Corinthians ( I Cor. 12: 12, 25-27) he again emphasizes that all who are baptized into Christ are members of His Body.  But his discourse to the Corinthians goes further; it means that there should be no discord or dissension among Christians. However, St. Paul does not stop even at this. He raises the standard of membership in Christ's Body even higher. He points out that if one member suffers, all suffer: "For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . .that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." Think of it in terms of the human body. If there is a sickness in some part of the body, it affects the whole body. For example, even a simple infection, say in a fingernail, mobilizes white blood cells to fight the infection and these cells travel throughout the whole body. Interestingly, St. James has an insightful comment on discord. He extends this, one of the passions that we choose to follow, as one of the causes of global strife, " What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? (Jas 4: 1).

Cosmic tenderness

Our love, however, cannot encompass just the baptized; it has to extend to all creation. "Cosmic tenderness” is a beautiful phrase used by Paul Evdokimov (1998) to describe the overflowing love and mercy, and by implication, tolerance and forgiveness that we must have for all mankind. A prayerful, deep reflection on the words of the holy Church Spiritual Father who could be called the "saint of Divine Mercy," St. Isaac of Syria,  (Wensinck. 1923) points to the boundless love we must have in the depth of our hearts as true followers of Christ:

And what is a merciful heart? He replied: The burning of the heart unto the whole creation, man fowls and beasts, demons and whatever exists; so that by the recollection and the sight of them the eyes shed tears on account of the force of mercy which moves the heart by great compassion. Then the heart becomes weak and it is not able to bear hearing or examining injury or any insignificant suffering of anything in creation. . . even in behalf of. . . the enemies of truth and even in behalf of those who do harm to it, at all times he offers prayers with tears that they may be guarded and strengthened. . .after the example of God.

Evdokimov points out that "the shortest distance between God and each person is through one's neighbor." He goes on to say that forgiveness is at the core of the relationship between "God who is holy and man who is a sinner." Evdokimov would have us consider that this makes forgiveness an act of infinite gravity. This echoes what St. Paul  tells the Colossians (2: 13-14). "God made [mankind] alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross." In the Lord's Prayer we implore the Father to "forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." (Mt 6:12). Therefore not only is forgiveness of cosmic tenderness and significance, it is also the "condition of our pardon."  It is imperative that in our hearts our own salvation be linked to the salvation of all mankind.

We know that tolerance and forgiveness of others is necessary for our own "[partaking] in the Divine Nature," ( 2 Pt. 1:4) from the beautiful prayer said by the priest during the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the conclusion of the Great Entrance.  This prayer is said as the gifts of bread and wine, soon to become the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ are placed on the Holy Table [altar]:

...with the Father and the Spirit was thou, O Christ, filling all things, thyself uncircumscribed.

As giving life, as more splendid that Paradise, and more radiant than any royal chamber, O Christ, is shown forth thy tomb, the fountain of our Resurrection.

It is this Christ who died for the remission of our sins which is the font of our Resurrection.

Remember that Christ died for the wicked, as Scripture says (Rm 9:6) and not for the good. Consider it a much greater thing to suffer on behalf of evil people and do good to sinners, than to do this for the righteous. (Brock, 1997)

 

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ENDNOTES

i http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf209.iii.iv.i.viii.htmlv

ii Brother Benignus (1947) writes (in a widely used Roman Catholic Seminary text): "The object of the will is the good apprehended by the intellect, but the only good apprehended in itself by God's intellect is His divine essence; wherefore, the first and principal object of His will is this same divine essence, which God loves as the Supreme Good."

iii From: Holzman,  M. (1958):

 

Figure 2Figure 2

It is to be noted that applying this model to moral choice: G1 would refer to a Godly choice, while G2 would refer to an ungodly choice motivated by our passions.

iv In the English language "rebuke" has a harsh connotation. But this is not a Christ-like understanding. Consider the words of St. Paul to the Galatians (6:1) "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted." Such was even known in the Old Testament. Regard the words from Sirach (40:17)"Kindness is like a garden of blessings." In fact, as noted by Morelli, 2005), to reprimand someone in anger has serious deleterious psychological and spiritual consequences for the one who is angered as well as for the one who is the object of the anger. 

v On a human level forgiveness is quite difficult. For many, to ask for forgiveness for an offense or to accept the forgiveness of others is often a slow process, first indirect before being able to be direct. It takes nurturing the virtue of humility. (Morelli 2007b)

vi St. Dorotheos displays another important modern clinical psychological insight.  That is, to avoid descriptions of people in "to be" or statement of being terms. For example, a parent or teacher is not to say "Good boy or girl," but to pinpoint the "activity"  that is good or bad. For example: "That is a good solution to a tough question, good job."  Likewise clinically, scientific psychologists do not describe their patients by an action they have done, rather they simply label  "the action." Thus: the statement "I regularly drink too much alcohol"  is more clinically precise than "I am an alcoholic." [I know that Alcoholics Anonymous  (AA) does not adhere to this. From a scientific view this would  considered a critique of AA. Despite this, AA as a community non-professional service performs a great contribution to society.]  St. Dorotheos is scientifically accurate when he goes on to state:  "This is a very serious thing [to condemn someone]. For it is one thing to say ‘He got mad’, and another thing to say 'He is bad-tempered', and to reveal, as we said, the whole disposition of his life."