Choices Made in the Heart

Bud Cross WE LIVE IN A SECULAR SOCIETY which greatly prizes freedom of choice, and in fact our Lord, God, and Savior died on the Cross to make us free. However, it is necessary that we have a correct understanding of "freedom" in order to avoid the trap of confusing "freedom" with "license." "Freedom" speaks to the absence of external restraint or repression, which the internal free will of man demands by nature. "License," on the other hand, is pseudo-freedom, disguising self-seeking permissiveness. License denotes abuse of freedom through contempt for reasonable rules of society and the commandments of God. The devil is the author of many licentious choices. The truly free man rejects the devil's permissiveness and accepts obedience to the law of God guided by "a spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind," which virtues come from God (St. Paul, Second Letter to Timothy, 1:7). The choice of obedience opens up the opportunity for undreamed-of choices unknown to the man enslaved by sin.

We note the following citation from St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (2:14-15) which will lead us into our discussion:

Forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, Christ also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

First of all, we might inquire, "In what sense did Christ destroy our enemy, the devil, who taught man to aspire to a godhood without God?"

In English the first meaning of destroy is not to annihilate, but "to ruin the structure, organic existence, or condition of something or someone." That is, to do serious damage to the object. To express the idea "destroy," St. Paul uses the Greek word katargeo, a verb based on the concept, "to be idle." Kata gives the base word a stronger meaning, namely, "to render idle; to stop the activity of someone or something." In this case, Christ's death terminated the activity of the devil, at least as far as concerns all those who are united to Christ through dying and rising with Him in Holy Baptism.

From other scriptural references we know that though the devil himself has been weakened, he has not been annihilated, for as St. Peter writes, the devil "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8). Therefore, everyone, even the baptized, must be sober and vigilant and avoid presumption, for spiritual danger always lurks nearby. The devil can tempt us, as he did Eve, with the dream of self-divinity.

St. Paul addressing St. Timothy observes, "Separating us from bondage to the devil, God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7). This helps us understand that with God's grace and our own cooperating struggle we are able to cast fear out of our lives, especially the fear of death, because such fear is unworthy of Christ's own.

There is an old adage in Orthodoxy: "The rule of prayer is the rule of faith." One can know what kind of faith one has, how strong it is, from how and what one prays. If one doesn't pray at all, one's faith is probably virtually non-existent. Implicit in this rule is that neglect of prayer will cause a loss of faith, while perseverance in prayer will cause a strengthening of faith.

A cardinal principle of the spiritual life is the apostolic exhortation, "Pray always!" While unceasing prayer is beyond the capacity of unaided human effort, the saints have acquired it as a gift of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul writes, "The Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Itself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered" (Rom. 8:26).

We cannot will or demand this gift of unceasing prayer, but we can cooperate with God's grace by praying whenever and wherever we can. Prayer can occur without words. Silent worship before the mystery of the Holy Trinity is valid prayer and may help prepare our souls for the gift of unceasing prayer. We can pray with silent attention to God and His Word. We can respond, "Amen," for example, at the conclusion of the prayers of the priest. We can stand or sit in front of an icon wherever we are, and allow the recollection of the sacred person or event to act upon our mind and heart.

Silent prayer should emanate from a humble self-renunciation in emulation of the self-sacrifice of Christ. We should not ignore the value of silence as worship. Especially in our day we should resist the world's demand that we fill up the hours and days of our home life with listening to and viewing the trivial foolishness of modern radio and television. Home should be the sacred sanctuary in which we renew our physical and spiritual strength by closing our eyes and ears to the mind of the world and opening them to the mind of Christ.

It is only when individual Christians gather together for corporate vocal prayer that they are transformed into Church. The very act of leaving separate homes to come together in service is sacramental, being the very condition of all that takes place in community. The gathered assembly anticipates the eschaton, when all things will finally be drawn together into Christ. We are assured by Christ that even now, "where two or three are gathered" in His Name, He is there present (Matt. 18:20).

When St. Paul speaks of the virtue of prayer, he says, "I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind." In both Old and New Testaments man has either hardened his heart against God, or he has chosen to receive, that is, accept, enlightenment of the heart. The spirit or spiritual capacity of the receptive man accepts the Holy Spirit in the heart (2 Cor. 1:22; Gal. 4:6), or, as St. Paul puts it, "the inner man" (Eph. 3:16). Thus St. Paul declares that it is the orientation of the heart that determines man's liberty, and the fundamental choices made in the heart that decide man's destiny.

Those who wish to be successful members of society spend most of their lives acquiring knowledge and intellectual skills to assist them in controlling that part of the environment with which they must deal daily as citizens of a secular state. If they allow their mind and heart to become totally enmeshed with the secular environment, if they permit the environment to control their intellect and inflate their passions, they will be imitating Adam and making Adam's mistake. That will weaken or destroy any communion they might have had with God, and will open the door of their heart and mind to spiritual maladies of all kinds: depression, fear, anxiety, unhappiness, despair, and ultimately spiritual death.

When activated by the Holy Spirit, however, the mind (nous) acquires unceasing memory of God (unceasing prayer), a state of liberation from all demonic influences. When so liberated, man does not confuse the energies of God with the energies of creatures and especially the devil, as does the man in bondage. The truly liberated man can make choices which are free of sin. The rule of God takes over within his mind in direct proportion as demonic influence is expelled. Only the continuing memory of God can illumine the intellect and the passions, cleansing them and protecting them from further assaults of the devil and the world. Only then is it possible for man to be gradually purified, illumined, and ultimately deified by the grace of God.

What is the result of earnest attention to prayer of the heart?

The divine energies of Christ's life, death, and resurrection cause man's self-love, selfishness, and self-centeredness gradually to be replaced by the love which does not seek its own, that is, by agape. This happy outcome is what we should earnestly desire as we contemplate strengthening our prayer life. Love, as freedom, opens up undreamed-of options of service to God and neighbor.

Father John Bockman

The Holy Fathers Speak


The following is a text which most openly shows the freedom of the human will: "If My people had heard me, if Israel had walked in My ways" (Ps. 80:12) and "My people heard not My voice and Israel gave no heed to Me" (Ps.80:10). The words "If My people had heard Me" shows that it was in the power of the people to listen to His voice. But how is it that although God has given us the capacity to hear or to refuse to hear, yet salvation can in no way be thought of as depending on us?


Here you must pay attention to the rest of this text: "Quickly would I have humbled their enemies and upon their oppressors would I have laid My hand" (Ps.80:13). No one may twist the meaning of these texts through a mistaken interpretation which, showing that nothing happens without God, tries then to assert the freedom of the will and tries to deny God's grace and daily assistance with the texts: "My people heard not my voice," that is, "Did not listen to Me" and "If My people had heard Me; if My people had walked in My ways," etc.

The fact is, if one only looks at it, that while the freedom of the will is demonstrated by the disobedience of the people, the daily providential help of God is shown by God as He cries out to His people and advises them. When He says, "If My people had listened to Me," He shows that He had spoken to them earlier. And God does not speak only by way of written law. But every day He is giving advice, as Esaias proclaims: "Every day I have stretched out my hand to My people, who do not believe in Me and who speak out against Me" (Is. 65:2).

In fact, both free will and divine grace are shown by this text: "If My people had listened to me, if Israel had walked in My ways, I would surely have laid low Israel's enemies and I would have raised My hands against those who were disturbing it." Free will is shown by the disobedience of the people. Providence and God's help appear at the beginning and end of the passage where God reminds us that He had spoken earlier and that He would have laid low the enemies of Israel if only Israel had listened to Him.

So in citing these texts, I was not trying to undermine the freedom of the will. What I really wanted to show was that every day and every moment the help and grace of God are very necessary to the will.

The monk Paphnutius, having instructed us with these words, sent us away. It was just before midnight. We left his cell with more regret than joy. For what was the most obvious result of the talk he had given us? We had believed that in giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the first renunciation we had come within sight of the summit of perfection. And here we were now with the beginnings of an awareness that even in our dreams we had not come close to glimpsing the heights of the monastic life.

St. John Cassian, in Conversation between Germanus
and Paphnutius in Conference Three

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