All the Fullness of God

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A good Biblical word, used frequently in Orthodox writing and liturgy, is the word “fullness.” I think I have long preferred to say that the Orthodox Church is the “fullness” of the Christian faith, rather than say, “This is the one, true Church.” I believe it is the one, true Church, but how I understand that as an Orthodox Christian is quite different from how such a statement might be understood by a non-Orthodox Christian. Thus, I prefer the term “fullness.” It says the same thing (in a way) but also says it in a way that allows someone to ask questions and not just have an argument. The Scriptures (Eph. 1:23) describe the Church as “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Thus it is a Scriptural description of the Church.

By the same token, fullness is also a good term for what salvation itself is about, particularly if you are trying to help someone have a larger vision than simply “going to heaven.” We are created as human beings – created in the image of God – but there is a fullness that is lacking in each of us. None of us are fully what we were created to be. And the word is helpful here, because fullness is not a word that carries a lot of moral baggage – and moral baggage is simply not at all the issue of salvation. It is far more helpful to speak of living more and more into the fullness of our being, than it is to use some phrase that is the equivalent of moral perfection.

I recall some years ago, when I was a graduate student at Duke, having an acquaintance, a fellow grad student, who came from some kind of Holiness (Pentecostal) background. He told me that he had been without sin for three years. I remember both being completely taken aback by the statement as well as thinking that his understanding of sin and my understanding were obviously miles apart. Whatever “sinless perfection” meant to him, it certainly is not the same thing as fullness in an Orthodox context. I have encountered Orthodox individuals whom I would describe as manifesting more completely the fullness for which we were created than others I have met. I have no idea how that might relate to “sinless perfection.” Oddly, I know that I would rather meet someone in the fullness of their beingthan someone who had acheived some version of “sinless perfection.”

There are several things that fullness means to me.

1. Fullness means being truly what you were meant to be. Thus a person is more truly human only as they live into the fullness of their being.

2. Fullness means more than being correct. It is possible to be correct about something, and yet be empty and lifeless. Fullness is correct because it is a true reflection of God and not because it can be measured against the law or a set of rules (or the canons, etc.).

3. Fullness implies an abundance. Christ promised us an “abundant life,” though that phrase has been denigrated by teachers of “prosperity” to simply mean we will have lots of “stuff.” The abundant life promised to us is nothing other than the Life of God dwelling in us. Christ is the abundance – not cars, houses, flat-screen televisions, or vacations in Aruba. To be in the presence of a person who manifests the fullness promised to us is to be in the presence of something larger than the life we know. In such a presence I am always aware that the “inside is larger than the outside.”

4. Fullness implies a completeness. One famous 20th century Orthodox theologian described Orthodoxy as the “absence of one-sidedness.” I like that. Part of my experience as an Orthodox priest is the constant unfolding of Scripture and the mystery of salvation. Nothing ever seems to be superfluous. Everything fits. Indeed I never knew until I was Orthodox (and then not for a while) how thoroughly and completely every doctrine, feast, and even custom, fits with the whole of the faith. Nothing is lacking.

5. Fullness is related to the idea of a “one-storey” universe. It is not the case that heavenly and spiritual realities are located elsewhere, but rather that there is a depth and a fullness to life all around us that we either ignore or refuse to acknowledge. We do not see all that there is – and we do not even see the little that is apparent to us as it truly is. We do not see the fullness of creation. To embrace creation in its fullness is thus to embrace it in a manner and in an intention that goes far beyond what we are accustomed to.

6. Fullnessfinds its roots in love. Christ makes known to us the fullness of God and reveals this most clearly in His sacrifice on the Cross. The complete giving of ourselves to others and for others – the sacrifice of love – is the true fullness for which we were created. Thus envy, malice, hatred, bitterness, are opposed to fullness – they lessen what we are and threaten to draw us into their ever lessening spire. The act of forgiveness – which in love is a great sacrifice – is an expansion – a going forth from ourselves that allows us to be even more than we are – to reach forth into a fullness. This is the life of God– a fullness that knows no envy, malice, hatred or bitterness – a love that is kind even to its enemies for there can be no lessening of God. His is the “fullness which filleth all in all.”

Christ seems to have constantly seen things to which others were oblivious. He sees fields that are “white for the harvest.” He sees that those whom others thought to be religious experts were little more than “white-washed sepulchres.” He sees the work of His Father around Him while others have no knowledge of His Father whatsoever. His vision of the world was truly of its fullness as well as where it failed to meet that fullness.

There is within the human heart a God-given hunger for the fullness. Many people have an intuition that their lives or the version of the world they have been given is somehow not quite right. There is an instinct that there is or should be something more. This is an important hunger and one not to be ignored. We must not settle for less than what God has called us to be or the fullness He has promised as our inheritance. To give up on the reality of that fullness is to yield to the lie that life is largely empty and futile. There is something more and we should pursue it with all our heart.

I could probably continue to add to this posting. Your own experience of fullness may be something you’d like to share within our comments section. I do know, and have said elsewhere, “Why would anyone want something less than the fullness of the faith?” Indeed.

22 Responses to “All the Fullness of God”

  1. Meg Says:

    Loved this definition of “fullness,” especially the part about being “fully human,” because it reminds me of the priest who chrismated me — an older man (recently turned 77), who is my ideal Christian because he isn’t afraid to be human. One day we were reminiscing about those old cigarette ads, and he scoffed, “‘I’d walk a mile for a Camel’?! Who’d walk a mile for a cigarette?!” Then he added, “I’d walk a mile for a *pastry*…” How can you not admire someone who is so completely aware of his own humanity, while at the same time completely in tune with God?

  2. mrselizabethj Says:

    I loved this post.🙂

  3. Varia « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Says:

    […] Fr. Stephen Freeman has an interesting look at the the word “fullness” and its implications within Orthodox Christianity. It is very much worth reading in its entirety, but a couple of points jump out at me: Fullness means more than being correct. It is possible to be correct about something, and yet be empty and lifeless. Fullness is correct because it is a true reflection of God and not because it can be measured against the law or a set of rules (or the canons, etc.). […]

  4. David Says:

    My wife and I talk about the problem of being right about something but still being wrong. That is, a sort of factual correctness, but lacking in the understanding to apply that fact, or even more to the point being subject to vainglory about being right at all.

    One thing drawing me into Orthodoxy is that it is about being “fully” right. That is, not just having a set of facts, but having the wisdom to know what those facts mean and living them out as God intended (loving God and loving man).

    One fact might be “do not lie”. But some Saints understood that fact and in wisdom “lied” to someone to demonstrate a spiritual truth (such as to avoid recognition and be tempted by such adoration).

    We all want to be of sober mind knowing truth from fiction but we can praise the Fools-for-Christ even though some were clearly mad, because it was a Godly madness.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    David,

    Indeed. I think the only way we get there is to seek God. There are so many “rabbit trails” in religion – so many things other than God to be interested in – and then enjoy the delusion that it has something to do with God because it’s “religious.” God is God and nothing else is, and yet when we find Him because we sought Him, everything becomes full of Him because He is the fullness. We lose everything for Him only to gain everything from Him.

  6. Priest Seraphim Holland Says:

    Dear Fr Stephen: I have taken to regularly reading your blog since I got into blogging after stopping outside fulltime work. It is on my “short list”, and one of the few I link to on our BLOG.

    Excellent words on fullness; please let me share with you something less sublime. Years ago, I knew a priest who would give as a reason for so many things the answer “To much fullness”. For example, he would explain why the church was noticeably less full on St Thomas Sunday as “Too much fullness”. Or if discussing the early time for a weekday liturgy and seeing some frowns, would ask “Too much fullness?

    He was so funny the way he said it, but later he became an Episcopalian, so sign me up for as much “fullness” as possible!

  7. Theophan Says:

    Father, Bless.

    I’ve been following your blogsite since I met you last fall at the Icon Workshop in Maggie Valley. I’ve been needing to say “Thank you” for some time for the nourishment you offer here. Your postings are full of kindness and compassion, with honest and keen insight, and no compromise. Thanks also for your recent introduction to “The River of Fire” — Wow! It is indeed the fullness of Orthodoxy that led me to be received into the Church a year ago October. Little did I know then that fullness would just continue to get “fuller”. I think of it as having placed a tap into the ocean; it is simply inexhaustible, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages! Glory be to God!

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Theophan,

    Many thanks for the kind words – may God indeed bless you and grant you ever more of His fullness. My Maggie Valley icon stays with my icon corner in my office at Church – a good friend and a reminder of good friends.

  9. artisticmisfit Says:

    Bless, Father
    I wanted to comment on this,
    “By the same token, fullness is also a good term for what salvation itself is about, particularly if you are trying to help someone have a larger vision than simply “going to heaven.”:
    I have to honestly say that I don’t really care about “going to heaven” at this point, I just care about getting along with my fellow man. One day it hit me that I don’t know what comes after this life, I don’t know if its better or if its worse, that I had better stop looking at death as an escape. That was a sobering thought, and one I am eternally grateful for. I guess I am more concerned with making peace on earth here and now with my fellow man than I am with the kingdom to come, or, maybe, that is my concern with the kingdom to come: my desire to get along with my fellow man in this life…
    So perhaps for me the fullness of faith means learning how to embrace the human race, for I believe I was a bit of misanthrope before my conversion because of all the wrongs human beings had done to the planet, the animals, and one another.

  10. Charles Fomevor Says:

    The fullness in my perspective points to a God lacking in absolute nothing. A God from which the most challenging thoughts of human are dealt adequately with. I am all the same thankful for the insight this publication has provides.

  11. Hartmut Says:

    father,
    one of my favourite songs at the ARTOKLASIA is this:
    “The rich have become poor and hungry, but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.” I believe this does not only refer to our “daily bread” but to this fullness you mention today. (the daily bread – yes. Christ promises that if we first seek his kingdom and his righteousness, then all these things shall be ours as well).
    He, who seeks the Lord, who follows him, who loves him, bears this abundance in his heart, the Lord Himfelf, and therefore there can not be any want.
    To know this, to confess this before the Lord can also be helpful when we have to deal with sin and temptation. “The old serpent” in paradise leads Adam and Eve to believe, that they will miss something very importand, something so sweet and tasty. I know this temting voice, too. Sometimes I fall. But sometimes I can remember and pray: In Thee, Lord I have all I need, the fullness, the abundance of life, no lack, no want.
    Please pray for me, that this may be dailay before my eyes.

  12. Hartmut Says:

    Sorry, I have to correct the last line:

    Please pray for me, that this may be daily before my eyes.

  13. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Monday Highlights Says:

    […] A word, fullness. […]

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Charles,

    Charles, to say that fullness speaks of a God who lacks nothing is, of course, true, but it has a more positive content than that. It implies more than the absence of a lack, but an abundance, more than enough, complete, even overwhelming. What is striking is that the Scriptures use this word in regard to the Church in a certain aspect, and through that to us as well, in God’s intention.

  15. The Scylding Says:

    Good words. The sinless perfection thing is a horrific burden – I suffered from that from age 9 to age 25, due to the sect I was brought up in. It stifles and deadens. It gives birth to psychological issues ranging from depression to grandiose self-deception. It breeds heresies.

    Maybe I sound severe, but having come away from that, I have experienced all of the above. May God grant fullness, and expose our self deceptions of perfectionism.

  16. artisticmisfit Says:

    The Scylding, may I ask what sect you were brought up in? Depression is a physiological issue first, remember we were talking about that on this blog the other day? Only God is perfect.

  17. momesansnom Says:

    Sometimes, the word depression is just used to signify sadness or frustration, not a particular psychological sickness that is clinical.

  18. The Scylding Says:

    Sect that is South African based, called KwaSizabantu Mission. Read all about my experience at http://scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com/2007/09/scyldings-journey-part-ii.html and http://scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com/2007/09/scyldings-journey-part-iii.html .

    I’m using ‘depression’ in a non-clinical, physiological sense, allthough clinical depression is by no means precluded from the sectarian experience.

  19. artisticmisfit Says:

    The Scylding, forgive me for taking up so much space on this blog, but you mentioned you had a sectarian background, and that is what I was inquiring about. I guess knowing what clinical depression is, I am very reluctant to discuss any other form of depression now. Perhaps we should use the word despondency or despair, and keep it within a religious or spiritual context as per the ten commandments and the Gospels? Or could we do this? I want to make sure my tone is not flippant, but concerned only.

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    Scylding,

    I’ve read your story before – it’s quite moving. Religious abuse (which is a term I’ve heard for the kind of rules and control exercised in your experience) is all too common, it seems. Sometimes I find this to be going on even in Orthodox contexts. The Patriarch of Moscow once issued a paper (I do not have its reference handy) on “Young Elders” which is an oxymoron in Russian, to condemn the practice of young priests setting themselves up with expectatations of obedience as though they were monastic elders and the like. The potential for abuse in such a practice is abundant. I generally do not use obedience in my parish. I hear confessions, occasionally offer an insight or suggestion, but I would rarely if ever try to use an obedience as a way of ministering to a person in my congregation, and would generally have the support of my Archbishop in this approach. Other priests may do otherwise. We all have to answer to the same God for our actions as priests, so I cannot judge what another does. It’s just that I’ve seen too much abuse through control in all its various forms (Protestant, Orthodox, etc.).

    I’ve almost never seen a cult group without such obedience and control. I would, of course, exempt the monastic practice of obedience from this observation. It is generally a part of monastic life. But a parish is not a monastery and a Rector is not an abbot or an Elder, and a monastery is not the proper model for the parish church. This I cite as more than my opinion, but the considered opinion of most of the hierarchs that I know as well as many older, wiser priests than myself. There may be exceptions to this, I would readily grant and do not wish to judge any other priests practice, but it seemed an appropriate observation within this conversation.

  21. Chip. Says:

    Father Stephen —

    One question about the fullness you speak of. People can go astray from a lack of discernment, incorrectly valuing a small part of G-d’s revelation as if it were the whole. When just the fringe of Christ’s garment – or the mere shadow of His followers – have such enormous impact, we can neglect the One wearing the clothes or forget Who has sent the messengers. Some might call this phenomenon a “majoring in the minors.”

    How to appreciate the fullness, we who are overwhelmed with the smallest touches of grace?

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    I don’t think we do appreciate the fullness, or that we can appreciate it as yet. We know in part (as St. Paul says). But we will know even as we are known is also a promise given to us (again St. Paul). But fullness is an important Orthodox understanding, a word underappreciated in much of the Christian world. I bring it to your attention.

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