Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

Demonic Influence vs. Free Will

“…angelic and demonic thoughts as gifts or temptations from the outside involve some degree of free choice. While it is not in a person’s power to decide whether a demonic or angelic thought will pass through one’s mind, people can choose to act on it or to ignore it. Upon determining the origin of a given thought, a person is quite free to reject the thought or admit it by lingering on it. No matter how enticing a demonic thought maybe, it can only urge not coerce. This can be seen both in the account of the fall and of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, well-aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes,

‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, ever kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

(Fr. Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 60)

Our Demons are Our Own Wills

Abraham, Abba Agathon’s abba, asked Abba Poemen: “Why are the demons doing battle with me so?” and Abba Poemen said to him: “Are the demons doing battle with you? The demons do not battle with us as long as we are following our own wills, for our wills have become demons; it is they that oppress us so that we fulfill them. Do you want to see with whom the demons do battle? It is with Moses and those like him” (Give me a Word,p. 238).

A Statue of Responsibility


“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)


To Sin is Not Freedom but Slavery

Theologically speaking, freedom and free will have particular connotations in Orthodox thinking that they don’t have in secular culture.  Modern Western culture, influenced by the Enlightenment, sees true human freedom as the ability of an individual to shake off the shackles which society imposes on the individual’s thinking.  Freedom in popular thinking is defined more as the individual choosing to do whatever that person wants to do.  Government, society, law, all become oppressors of the individual as do tradition, culture, social or religious norms.  Freedom means freeing oneself from the expectations of others.

Theologically though freedom has more to do with the path we choose in life and the consequences of those decisions.  God places before each individual life and all its choices.  There is a path that leads to humans being more godlike, and there is a path which leads away from God.  We are free to choose the path we will follow, but the paths have very different consequences for ourselves and for all of humanity.

One path, which does follow human choice also means we become more attuned to ourselves as individuals, isolated and alienated from all others.  On this path, we lose our belonging to humanity as a whole, we lose our sense of being a relational, interdependent being.  We choose our way into a confinement, a slavery to self which ends up being guided by sin.  This path seems like the greatest personal freedom but it also involves ever increasingly becoming a slave to self, to sin, to death.

Christ, Adam and Eve in Eden

The other path also requires choice, and sometimes is a difficult path, but in it we choose to maintain our relationship with God and with others.  It is a path of love which leads to self denial – for the good of the other.  We sometimes may feel we are giving up personal freedoms to follow a path of another – of God.  But it also is the path which enables us to become most godlike.  It involves free choice, but the choice is to limit one’s self interest.  It means not making self preservation the greatest good, but to choose to make love for others to be the greatest good.

If we follow the first path we do end up being slaves to self, sin, death and Satan.  It may maximize our sense of being freed from the constraint of others. We choose our way to that end. But it does separate us from others and from God, and thus is death.   But God who is love willingly provides redemption for those who find themselves in that dead end.  No matter how far down that path one may walk, God provides the way out.  But, we have to choose to accept God’s offer.

St. Basil the Great writes:

“…let him hear the whole truth of the matter: that every human soul has bowed down under the evil yoke of slavery imposed by the common enemy of all and, being deprived of the very freedom which it received from the Creator, has been led captive through sin. Every captive has need of ransoms for his freedom. Now, neither a brother can ransom his brother, nor can anyone ransom himself, because he who is ransoming must be much better than he who has been overcome and is now a slave. But, actually, no man has the power with respect to God to make atonement for a sinner, since he himself is liable for sin. ‘All have sinned have need of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ our Lord.‘”  (The Fathers of the Church: St. Basil Exegetic Homilies, p. 317)

God’s love for us never ends, even when we choose our way to slavery to sin and death.  We will find in that enslavement that we are not free to grow in godliness or to attain eternal life.  God provides us a way out of that enslavement to sin and death.  We cannot free ourselves of it, but God offers us life if we choose our way back to Him.

Becoming Christian

Becoming Christian 

  • Jesus Christ’s act of salvation, his victory over death and sin through his cross and resurrection, is indeed complete and definitive.

  • Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9).
  • But, while the Lord’s victory is certainly an accomplished fact, my personal participation in that victory is as yet far from complete.
  • As St. Paul states “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own…” (Phil 3:12).
  • My personal incorporation in Christ is incomplete, not because of any defect or lack of strength on his side, but because for my part I retain continuing freedom of choice, the ability to refuse as well as to obey.
  • In the words of St. Anthony the Great of Egypt: “Expect temptation until your last breath” and with temptation there always goes the possibility of falling.
  • My trust is therefore in Christ, not in myself, and I am confident that Christ is faithful and stands firm.

  • According, then, to the soteriological perspective of the Orthodox Church, salvation – when viewed from the standpoint of the human subject that receives it – is not a single event in that person’s past but an ongoing process.
  • To quote Martin Luther (not that the Lutherans consider salvation to be a process): “This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming.
  • I am on a journey, and that journey has not yet reached its conclusion.  
  • On the Orthodox understanding of the fall and its consequences, humans – retaining as they do the divine image – retain also the freedom to choose between right and wrong.

  • The exercise of our free choice, while restricted and undetermined by the fall, has not been abolished.
  • In our fallen state the human will is sick but it is not dead; and although more difficult, it is still possible for humans to choose the good.
  • We Orthodox cannot agree with Augustine when he maintains that, in consequence of the fall, “free will was lost” or when he claims that we are under “a harsh necessity” of committing sin, and that “human nature was overcome by the fault into which it fell, and so came to lack freedom.”
  • Against this the Orthodox Church affirms, in the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, that each human being “has the power to do what it wishes. For you do not sin by virtue of your birth.” Fallen humanity has always the possibility to resist temptation: “The devil can make suggestions, but does not have the power to compel you against your will.

(Kallistos Ware, How are we Saved?, pp. 4, 6, 32)

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).


Called by God to Choose to Obey

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)

St. John Chrysostom presents an interesting picture of the relationship between God’s will and our free will.

“God does not compel, but allows people to be masters of their own choices even after the call.” (Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet, p 213)

God calls us to follow Him and to obey Him, but even when the omnipotent God calls us, God allows us to choose how to respond.  There is a true synergy between God and any human – we have to cooperate with God for our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

To Make the Heart Right With God

10commadments“Orthodoxy calls upon us to exercise our free will in cooperation with God’s grace. It does not call upon us to act as puppets or robots to social convention or even to the words of divine revelation. If the mechanical fulfilment of the ten commandments or even the whole of the law could have made one ‘righteous’ or bestowed ‘holiness,’ there would have been no need for the Incarnation. No deed which does not proceed from the heart, motivated by love, has any actual moral value. Fulfilling the law out of fear, social pressure or any kind of self-interest could have no genuine moral value.

Fulfilling it unselfishly, motivated by love, would require a genuinely free choice that would reflect the image and likeness of God in us. We might choose to obey the written law simply out of fear of punishment, but we need love in order to freely, without coercion, choose to cooperate with divine grace. Cooperating with God’s grace does not place us in bondage to mechanical actions nor abolish our free will. We must still make free choices, even those informed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, which inclines us toward certain choices but does not force us to accept them. Choices made under coercion or fear are not accepted in the heart, not made ‘in spirit,’ they are not free. They may lead to ‘correct behavior’ but they cannot make the ‘heart right with God.’ ” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Freedom to Believe, pp 14-16)

Mind Over Matter?

Mind & BrainScientists who are willing to talk about human consciousness and free will attract my attention.  They are often going against the materialistic stream of thought which is part of the philosophical assumption of mainstream science.  So the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, caught my attention first in a Steve Volk article in the November issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE , “Rewiring the Brain to Treat OCD.”  I wrote a three part blog series on that article which began with the blog, “Demons, Free Will and OCD.”   Volk’s article interested me enough to make me purchase the book THE MIND AND THE BRAIN by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley.

When I was a student at Ohio State in the early 1970’s the psychology department was pretty much dominated by those who held to the ideas of behaviorism.   I was at that time moving away from my original major in chemistry to a greater interest in the social sciences as I was keenly fascinated by just what it means to be human.   Schwartz has a clearly negative view of the limits imposed on humanity by behaviorism:

The very first paragraph of the very first paper that formally announced the behaviorist creed—John B. Watson’s 1913 classic, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”—managed, in a single throw-down-the-gauntlet statement, to deny man’s humanity, to dismiss the significance of a mind capable of reflection, and to deny implicitly the existence of free will: “The behaviorist,” declared Watson, “recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.” Rarely in the seventy-five years since Watson has a secular discipline adhered so faithfully to a core principle of its founder. Behaviorists, ignoring the gains of the cognitive revolution that had been building momentum and winning converts throughout the 1980s, continued to believe that there is no need for a therapist to acknowledge a patient’s inner experiences while attempting to treat, say, a psychological illness such as a phobia; rather, this school holds that all desired changes in behavior can be accomplished by systematically controlling relevant aspects of a patient’s environment, much as one would train a pigeon to peck particular keys on a keyboard by offering it rewards to reinforce correct behavior and punishments to reverse incorrect behavior.   (Schwartz and Begley, THE MIND AND THE BRAIN,   Kindle Loc. 83-92)

Dr. Schwartz through his own research into helping patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) saw that most of the psychiatric and psychological efforts to deal with OCD were based in behaviorism.  He describes in the book some of the rather barbaric methods used to help the patients overcome their compulsion.  He has begun to challenge the assumptions at the basis of behaviorism as being philosophical rather than proven science.

Like all of modern science, the field of psychiatry, especially in its current biological incarnation, has become smitten with materialist reductionism, the idea that all phenomena can be explained by the interaction and movements of material particles. As a result, to suggest that anything other than brain mechanisms in and of themselves constitute the causal dynamics of a mental phenomenon is to risk being dismissed out of hand. But there was another problem. For decades, a key tenet of neuroscience held that although the organization and wiring of the infant brain are molded by its environment, the functional organization and structure of the adult brain are immutable.  (Kindle 281-86)

Thus the assumption of behaviorism is that mental illness must have biological or materialist cause.   In this thinking, there cannot be any immaterial cause of mental health problems or of mental disorder.   This is an ideological assumption of scientific materialism.  Dr. Schwartz’s research is challenging this foundational principle of materialism.  He has begun to deal with both thoughts and mental processes as also having a non-material basis.  This doesn’t deny that our thoughts (our minds) are related to our brains, but only that some mental problems and their cures may require us to recognize these immaterial forces as causative in mental health or mental illness.  Our thoughts are part of reality.  Schwartz assumes both consciousness and free will are real and not just clever deceptions caused by the brain.

His thinking has been influenced by the work in physics with quantum mechanics in which an observer does affect the outcome of an experiment.

What we now know about quantum physics gives us reason to believe that conscious thoughts and volitions can, and do, play a powerful causal role in the world, including influencing the activity of the brain. Mind and matter, in other words, can interact.   (Kindle Loc. 316-18)

So far I’ve only read the introduction of Schwartz’s book, but I am already impressed with his work and the concluding words of his introduction:

Through the mental act of focusing attention, mental effort becomes directed mental force. “[T]he effort to attend,” James believed, may well be a true and genuine “original force.” Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state (with physically describable brain state correlates) that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense…. Those choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.”  (Kindle Loc. 341-45)

That the mind, our thoughts and will, might be a real and measurable force in the universe is a complete challenge to scientific materialism which philosophically cannot admit to the existence of such immaterial forces at work in the cosmos.  Schwartz says about his book:

In the last section of the book, we explore this third rail of neuroscience: the existence, character, and causal efficacy of will. There, I propose that the time has come for science to confront the serious implications of the fact that directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function; that the exertion of willful effort generates a physical force that has the power to change how the brain works and even its physical structure. The result is directed neuroplasticity. The cause is what I call directed mental force.   (Kindle Loc. 332-36)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book and what evidence he has to offer.