The Slow Work of Grace

In the minds of many, grace is a legal concept – an expression of the kindness of God in the forgiveness of sins. As such, grace is instant and complete. This fits well within the legal conceptions of salvation. In the classical understanding of the Orthodox faith, salvation can indeed have a quality of “suddenness” – the thief on the Cross found paradise “in a single moment” according to the hymns of the Orthodox Church. But for most people – salvation is a life-long process in which we “work out our salvation from day to day in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). That experience, like most of life, has a slow quality to it.

From Prayer by the Elder Sophrony:

At times prayer seems over-slow in bringing results, and life is so short. Instinctively we cry, “Make haste unto me.” But He does not always respond at once. Like fruit on a tree , our soul is left to scorch in the sun, to endure the cold wind, the scorching wind, to die of thirst or be drowned in the rain. But if we do not let go of the hem of His garment, all will end well.

We live in a culture of fast food, and tend to want grace to operate on the same speed track. Some versions of Christianity make grace as “quick” as walking the aisle. This, of course, is misleading.

In my experience, grace works on a level that is proper to human beings with some notable exceptions (but even then one can wonder). Grace takes time because we are not built on a fast track. Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me). We take 9 months of gestation, and we do not reach puberty for 13 years, traditionally. We are not instant people.

Neither does grace work on such an instant level (or is not at least noticeable on such an instant level). We should know that to be human requires years for some things, including things pertaining to God.

I am comforted, that, unlike physicists, theologians do not reach their best work until near retirement age. I’m waiting for my maturity!

But each of us would do well to slow down our expections and speed up our efforts of prayer. Pray more, but wait on God. This lesson of patience is not something God does to us to torture us, but is something He does to bring us back into line with our humanity. Let patience have her perfect work (James 1:4).

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43 Responses to “The Slow Work of Grace”

  1. Darlene Says:

    Father,

    I know all about express Christianity, gettin’ the quick fix and spiritual jolt. The first time I entered a particular “walk the aisle” church, I encountered fast food Christianity in a nutshell. While imploring people to come to the altar and make a decision for Christ, the minister said somthing to the effect of, ” I don’t care if I ever see you again. The important thing is that you settle the matter of your salvation this day. You can confess your sins to God, ask for forgiveness, and know that you are saved from an eternity of Hell this very day. You can know that you are saved and your destination is Heaven. Leave without making that decision and you may die and enter a Christ-less eternity.”

    Many people walked that aisle over the years in that church, and said the prayer, only to pick up from where they left off beforehand. Or, some began the walk of faith, but resisted the struggle and gave up on faith. Yet, what a shame if these same folks think they can slide into Heaven on a wing and a prayer.

    Coming from Protestant Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy has been quite an eye opener for me. And yet, I’ve only just wet my toes. I know there is a whole treaure trough yet to be uncovered and discovered.

    May Christ our God bless you this day, Father. Have a peaceful Great Lent.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    Father Bless! Thank you for these words of encouragment – esp. needed during Lent!

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,
    I fully understand the good intentions of some who “don’t care if I ever see you again” and urge a decision now. It is born of a theological error with regard to the character of salvation.

    The gospel needs to be preached – but people need to hear to fullness of the gospel and not the truncated versions that have been birthed in the last few centuries (and shortened yet more as time goes on).

    Salvation is ultimately lived within the life of the Church – which is indeed slow, occasionally tedious, and full of opportunity for repentance and forgiveneess (even if only for the many ways we sin against one another within the life of the Church).

    I am much older than when I began my Christian pilgrimage – and the older I get – the more the message of patience – repeated frequently in the NT – seems a comfort. It does not encourage me to be slack – but rather not to lose heart. For the good God is indeed patient with sinners such as myself (and I am not alone).

  4. Micah Says:

    Great post Fr. Stephen thank you.

    If I could just backtrack to the idea of sacred spaces as it seems particularly relevant here.

    There seems to be this idea doing the rounds. I have heard it said on a number of occasions that there exists an implicit agreement between the temporal and spiritual “powers” to remain within predefined frameworks (so as one presumes, to avoid conflicting interests).

    The idea is a misplacement of the Lord’s “give unto Caesar” quote. The problem is that the language of spirituality has over time become so subjugated by the language of the temporal that it has ceased to enjoy its natural preeminence in the divine order.

    One frequently hears for instance, how the Lord is more interested in healing the soul than the body – this is cited as one of the chief reasons why physical healing is less common than it was during the Lord’s earthly ministry. This, frankly is nonsense.

    To get to the problem we have to understand where the roots are. Modern science has created a plethora of spurious needs – for instance the need to be entertained the whole time – these needs distort the soul (made in the likeness of God) so that it is unable to seek the face of God in spontaneity. The mind becomes easily swayed by sound bytes that sound plausible but are neither spiritual nor true. God is a Spirit (or rather, God is the Spirit) and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

    Modernity has so obscured man’s innate need to be in context with God all the time that he has forgotten the spatial dimension of the divine covenant.

    In the Lord ’s Day, divine miracles always take place in a particular context. Zacchaeus was busy climbing a tree, Lazarus was days dead, the Disciples were on a boat in a storm, the Leper fell immediately on his face. Where is modern man when he comes to God?

    Modernity looks for a soul that is dry, a montage that can be airbrushed out of the picture. The body is little more than a machine, and sometimes less than the sum of its parts. Machines do not have context.

    But it is context that connects the soul to the body and just as importantly, to the earth out of which it is formed. This is clearer in the Old Testament:

    “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face …. then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

    Christ the prince of peace is in our midst!

  5. Micah Says:

    Please forgive my very obvious lack of patience with modernity, Fr. Stephen. I know that we are well into Lent — the gap between the Church and the world sometimes just can’t be ignored — Peace to all!

  6. Ian Says:

    Father, bless.

    Thank you; I was comforted, as well as encouraged and challenged, by your words. And Elder Sophrony’s words too.

    As an aside, I have listened to a few podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio in which you feature: thank you for this ministry too.

  7. NW Nikolai Says:

    “This life has been given to you for repentance, do not waste it on vain pursuits.” -St. Isaac of Syria-

    As a former Protestant “pursue the dream” American I keep stumbling over the absurdity of this statement to my rational self-centeredness. Lord have mercy on me as I grapple with it within the context of working out salvation with fear and trembling.

    I want the benefits of the Great Fast now, please.🙂

  8. David Dickens Says:

    Is there ever a time when God works with haste for those who call on Him? Or is every call for rescue merely born of impatience?

  9. poorerquarters Says:

    “Human beings don’t wean until about 2 1/2 years, properly (women you may correct me).”
    sadly, even this has been dealt with by our culture of impatience. nursing is viewed by so many as an inconvenience, taking too much time away from what *I* want to be doing. not being a mother myself, I’m not sure what the natural or ideal time frame is for nursing, but most women (outside the Church, and even some within it) seem to try to wean their child as soon as possible – putting them on formula by six months or so.
    thank you, father, for these great thoughts. as yet another convert from protestantism, and a child of the American culture, I struggle with patience on a daily basis. I appreciate the encouragement you give.
    ~Veronica

  10. NW Juliana Says:

    Veronica, I personally don’t think the word “most” fits. Most of the women I know — in the church or out — nurse for more than six months. I think it’s coming back around; the benefits of nursing are outweighing a woman’s preference again. (My mom didn’t nurse me or my sisters because she played cards on Friday nights and didn’t want to miss out on that LOL). I just weaned our 22 month old; most of the gals I know nurse for more than a year and many like me for 18-24 months. Just a comment as I read here before I head to bed. 🙂

  11. Darrell Lahay Says:

    Thanks for your post. I too am not onoy discouraged by the “fast food” doctrines I observe, but sometimes subject to them myself.

    To be sure, our exodus from Eygypt (eternal bondage to sin) has been secured. Moses with miracles, have delivered us once and for all from the Pharoh.”It is finshed”

    To be more sure, the Angel Of The LORD, has been leading us around Sinai. Teaching, testing, purifying, and disciplining us.”It is happenening”

    To the faithful, there is a certainty of inheiritance. The threshold of our promise land is closer than when we first believed.A land of eternal blessedness and sweetness. Conquests and unending Kingdom years await those good and faithful ones. “It will come to pass”

    Shalom

  12. TUCKER Says:

    Father,
    Thank you for your blog. I am trying to understand where you are coming from, because Orthodox theology is new to me. For a protestant, salvation means that a person is covered by the Blood of Christ and will be raised into Life. Sanctification is a life long purification of that believer. In light of this idea it seems like salvation is an instantaneous act by God that begins a life long process.
    I appreciate your insight.

  13. Shawn L Says:

    But I need to be freed from sin now! I may not have the luxury of a long life for a drawn out repentance.

  14. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless! I have read the the average age of weaning world wide is 3 years old, and in some traditional cultures it is longer than this. I had the joy (and work!) of nursing both my children for 2 1/2 years, and my kids are about 2 1/2 years apart which meant I nursed for 5 years straight! There are huge health benefits for both mother and child in this God-given design that extend well beyond the physical. I’m glad that attitudes had changed about nursing and that I had the support of skilled medical professionals and my husband to be able to do this successfully. Not every mom is so fortunate.

    This post reminds me of a song by Christian contemporary singers, “Wendy and Mary” who were popular back in the late seventies and early eighties. They had a comical little song about the need for the virtue of patience that had a litany of all the “instant” things so prevalent in our modern culture of which I remember only the “instant coffee” and something about the microwave. Anyway, the last line of the song was, “Lord, give me patience. . . . I want it NOW!”🙂

  15. David Dickens Says:

    I think this is what I was getting at Shawn. Though I’ve been draw into the Church and enjoyed a great blessing, I have grown very aware of the incremental (when even increments happen) nature of that experience. I am doing damage to myself and others now, and I would like to end this field of entropy around me. God being order and life and light is what’s needed–more of Him, so much more of Him. But He has a patience for the corruption in my life that I do not have. I am forced to conclude that I am a liar and do not want purification, because if I desired it and it was good (how could it not be) He would have given me bread. He must be respecting my “freedom” the extent of which, I would rather Him not. Apparently God can only fix me “rapidly” by de-personalizing me, so I must wait for the slow cure, though it means a great evil still torments from my soul.

  16. Marsha Says:

    David, I do totally understand! I even think this desire to “quit hurting other people with my sin NOW” is what led me to Orthodoxy…it seemed the only real “fix” that didn’t involve pasting pretty wallpaper over the rotting plaster beneath.

    But it happens slowly. And it happens most often when we aren’t looking. When our focus is on serving and loving God by loving the others in our lives and just being faithful when it seems too difficult to rise above our inertia.

    Hear you go: be patient…NOW!🙂

  17. Alexandra Says:

    Thank you so much Father, for posting this!

    It is what I have tried to realize over the course of the past .. well, while.

    That if sometimes prayer is slow, and not giving insta-fruits (what kind of fruits to expect, I don’t even know), I shouldn’t be scared. God knows me, He knows my heart, He likes patience, He allows the holy men in the desert and monasteries to ‘ripe’ for tens of years. Why would I then have any expectations and demands when I’m in fact a lot younger, a lot more sinful, a lot more uncorrected and my effort is so little compared to others’s?

    And it also helps getting rid of that … vanity? When I think I ‘feel’ something during a prayer, I remember once again the holy men and the fact that they were rewarded only after long efforts. And if I am under the wrong impression that I’ve “achieved” something with my unworthy prayer, that can’t be right. I should persevere but ignore anything that attempts to make me appear higher than I really am into my own eyes.

    So thank you once again. Maybe I should stick this post to the wall, to have it in front of my eyes when I pray. It is the kind of encouragement that would help me be a little more humble, and God knows my hyperinflated ego needs that like the desert needs the rain.

  18. Tyler John in Denver Says:

    Were you reading my mind?!

  19. Michael Bauman Says:

    Tyler John, if he was reading your mind, he was reading mine too. AAAAGH. Patience is definately not my strong point. Lord have mercy.

    When I reflect with how incredibly patience Jesus has been and continues to be with me I should have more, but I don’t.

    Part of it though is becasue we don’t often realize the extent of change that He has made in us already. Every so often I am confronted with the reality of the way I used to be and where I am now and realize change has actually occured. Change in spite of my best efforts to resist it at times, but change nonetheless.

    As Fr. Stephen reminds us constantly, gratitude is essential to the Christian life. Gratitude is never impatient.

  20. poorerquarters Says:

    NW Juliana,
    I’m very glad that nursing for longer is making a comeback! I guess I should watch my use of superlatives : )
    -Veronica

  21. Damaris Says:

    I nursed all four of mine for 2 years each. I was fortunate — and unusual — because my mother and my grandmother both nursed all their babies. In fact I was was shocked to find, at the age of thirty, that many people didn’t nurse their children.

  22. Nicholas Says:

    Father Bless,
    I know that in our faith miracles are spoken of and seen countlessly, what type of response can you give someone that believes that the type of miracles seen in the book of acts no longer continue and to beware that this is a work of the evil one, because after the apostles there was no need for this type of work from GOD, I am sure you have heard this in protestant thought. please help with a right response to this it hits close to home. thank you father and please forgive me.

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Nicholas,
    Such miracles indeed continue to abound. Orthodoxy speaks reluctantly of such things since there is a general attitude that such things can lead to delusion in many. We believe in God, and we believe He continues to act as He always has. The idea that because of the “NT” such things “are no longer necessary” is a product of pure human reason, an idea born in the 19th century at that. It is incorrect. The miracles were never “necessary” evidenced by the fact that many who witnessed such things did not believe. Those who witness such things today do not necessarily believe – for belief is not a matter of reason (I’m convinced by a miracle) but always a matter of the heart. Miracles confirm for one who already believes. For those whose heart is set against God, no miracle would make a difference. And it has always been so. And the Scriptures amply indicate this.

  24. anonymousgodblogger Says:

    “Apparently God can only fix me ‘rapidly’ by de-personalizing me, so I must wait for the slow cure, though it means a great evil still torments from my soul.”

    Thank you, David Dickens.

    “Molecule by molecule…”

  25. Mary Says:

    Fr Tom Hopko has a new podcast on AFR that touches on this very thing, and I found it very helpful. It’s called “Why does God play favorites?”

  26. Nicholas Says:

    Thank you Father

  27. To Be or Not To Be Says:

    Speaking of patience, I am IMpatient with my maturity process. I diligently attend the Orthodox Church-have done so for many years-yet have not converted. Why not? Many ask me, and frankly I’m sick of the question because the truth is, I don’t know. I’m “patiently” waiting for an epiphany, a surety that all will be well if I do. I’m not in complete accord with all you believe, yet I’m also not in complete accord with my roots either. That leaves me……where exactly? This is my daily conundrum. Any insights would be welcome!

  28. fatherstephen Says:

    To be or not to be,
    Seek God and to know Him. Nothing else matters, frankly. The Truth has been given to us in Christ – and we only know the Truth in Him. But if you follow this faithfully and above all, the other matters will begin to become clear. I will pray for you. May Christ keep you as His very own!

  29. Karen Says:

    Nicholas, I just reread the memoir of a youthful Greek spiritual seeker (now faithful Orthodox in middle age) called, The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. It is a very edifying account of a young spiritual seeker’s twelve year relationship with this God-bearing Elder on Mt. Athos (who will surely be canonized someday as a Saint) and the contrast with the gurus he encountered on pilgrimage in India. It illustrates the Orthodox Christian experience in this area (even to the present day–Elder Paisios fell asleep in the Lord in 1991) and contrasts it with the delusion and occult counterfeits that exist everywhere and which have attracted so many from nominally Christian backgrounds away from Christ and into various forms of Eastern mysticism to their spiritual destruction. The book definitely presents a challenge to the rationalistic explanations of recent Protestantism about the supposed disappearance of miraculous spiritual gifts in the Church after the NT era.

  30. John Smith Says:

    Nicholas,

    I like Fr. Stephen’s metaphor of a two-storey universe. Those who dare “climb” to the upper chambers invariably get to meet St. Peter on the way, but it is downstairs in the kitchen, that we really partake of Christ’s sublime consubstantiality with the beloved Father, God of all!

    Be very blessed!

    Truly Christ is in our midst!

  31. DaveN Says:

    Excellent! Thank you Father.

  32. Lina Says:

    to be or not to be: Experince, mine and others, has shown me that sometimes one has to take a leap of faith.

  33. Lizzy L Says:

    Karen, it is hard for me to believe that “spiritual destruction” is the necessary result of those Christians who have chosen to explore Eastern mysticism. Christ, who can do all things, can surely live in and inspire the hearts of Buddhists and Hindus, including those who come from a Christian background. That is my thought — however, I would be grateful for Father Stephen’s comment on this.

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    Lizzy, Christ is able to do all things – but the witness of the young man in the book she mentioned is worth reading. It moves from the area of speculating about what God might do – to the actual experience of someone. God can and does work to save us all. But there are certainly spiritual dangers out there worth being cautious about. All things are not equal.

    I should add that because of the unusual background of the young man (in the book) – including extensive involvement in the occult and a fascination with certain issues (such as spiritual power, etc.) the book has a strong slant – not an incorrect one – but one that you do not often encounter in Orthodox writing. There is a reluctance to speak too freely about certain aspects of spiritual experience which is, I think, very healthy. This book probably says more than I’ve seen in many places.

    God is a good God who wills that all should be saved and come to repentance (according to the witness of Scripture). He obviously uses many things in our lives that He would never command us to do (but even our disobedience is turned towards our salvation by His kindness). But the Scripture and the teaching of the faith are clear – knowledge of the true God, ultimately comes only through Christ – for there is no God but the triune God and there is no “getting behind the Trinity” in order to know the God who says (in Christ’s words), “No one comes to the Father but by me.” But God in His kindness uses whatever is at hand to draw us to Himself. There is this well-known passage in the Book of Acts, in which St. Paul addresses the pagans and philosophers in ancient Athens (chapter 17)

    22Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

    TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

    Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26And He has made from one ◙ blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

  35. Micah Says:

    Karen,

    I will get round to reading The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios as soon as I can. I wanted to read, at the very least, a review on Google books but it was unavailable. I did however manage to get through a good part of Elder Arseny: A cloud of witnesses yesterday which I would recommend to anyone wanting to get more familiar with what fullness means.

    Shalom!

  36. Lizzy L Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Father Stephen.

  37. mary Says:

    this is monday the 1st. of march,last sat. nite at vespers a very sweet and soft spoken priest visited our humble little mission.he said “just love God”. these words were the grace of God to my heart. thank-you.

  38. Anna Says:

    To be or not to be,

    What a difficult place for you to be in. I remember the frightening feeling of not feeling at home in our local Orthodox church, and yet going back to where I had been attending as a Protestant and also not feeling at home. It was scary to become increasingly uncomfortable with where I had been, yet not know for certain whether I was going to like where I seemed to be heading. May God’s mercy and peace be with you as you seek Him.

    Anna

  39. Darlene Says:

    To Be or Not to Be:

    Anna’s comment was very kind and understanding. I can empathize as well. I recall that at one time I thought of myself as a “Limbo” Christian. I didn’t know where I belonged or where I was going. My husband is in this No Man’s Land of a place. He struggles intensely.

    The answer? One simple answer, which may not solve your immediate dilemma, but will help you endure it: Be present with God where you are as much as you are able. Practice being aware of His presence in the present moment. Jesus said, “Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

    Only you know what the obstacles are that keep you frozen at this impasse. If you are able to reside in this place with peace, and believe that Christ will give you an answer at the right time, then trust Him, leave the matter with Him, and continue loving Him in the present moment. If you are deeply troubled about the place in which you currently reside, then take the measures necessary so that you can move on. If you don’t know what those measures are, seek advice from a person that you consider to possess wisdom – perhaps a priest or person in the parish you attend.

    There is an answer – even though you may not know exactly what it is at this point. When immediate answers elude us, faith in Christ our God is needed. Faith that He will comfort, lead, and sustain you now and in the future. As blessed David said, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me ALL the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” {emphasis on the word ‘ALL’ is mine,🙂 }

  40. Darrell Lahay Says:

    Father Stephen, you said: “oddly, the theories about reading the Bible and salvation are not what the Bible says about salvation. It’s the content, not the book.” I find that statement interesting, and i would love to hear some more wisdom on that.

    If you find time, could you please expand on this statement?

    Shalom, and Thanks

  41. Patience « Sowing Seeds of Orthodoxy Says:

    […] Slow Work of Grace […]

  42. amberen reviews Says:

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    The Slow Work of Grace « Glory to God for All Things…

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