A Man Above Harm, Freedom that Enslaves, and the Power of Phroneo

Let this mind be in you …” (Phil. 2:5).

Mind, in the above instance in the Greek, phroneo. When applied to the Christian life it means, basically, to have understanding, to be wise. To think as to think soberly. It is in some sense a governing principle. One’s phroneo will indicate one’s state.

Phroneo can become corrupted and perverted.

St. Paul says in Romans, For they that are after the flesh do mind [phroneo] the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit” (8:5).

The mind will govern the orientation, the trajectory, to goals of a person’s life, “Set your mind [phroneo] on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2).

When the mind is controlled by the world, that which is created to be a life-giving force becomes a destructive one. “Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind [phroneo] earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).

The “mind” is a spiritual reality. Thus, one may see, most of all, in the modern-day a very concerted effort to control the mind. The enemy knows its power. I have, in the past touched on this subject before, see here and here.

The enemy seeks to enslave the mind by chaining it to this fallen world. He constantly offers “freedom,” which is the broad path. He offers because he cannot force anyone to betray himself, that is a person must willingly and freely give himself over to spiritual slavery through a perverse phroneo.

This is the demonic form of control: deluding people into handing over their God-given freedom and thinking that they are “free” in doing so.

It is through the illusion of “freedom” that the enemy deludes people into freely compromising themselves, to the extent that sometimes they even love the slavery, and will be convinced that slavery is actual freedom. In this state they will guard their slavery at all costs, thinking they are fighting for “freedom.” This is a scary state.

Christ the Lord offers the Cross, which seems to be slavery. Deny yourself, take it up, He says. Lose your life and you will find it (cf. Matt. 16:24ff). Enter by the narrow gate (cf. Matt 7:13ff). Through what appears to be “loss” and “confinement” true spiritual freedom, true liberty, is found.

When the phroneo ascends, through the cross, to heavenly things and is enlightened by the truth of God, it becomes truly free.

The mind of Christ, the true phroneo, keeps a man; while guarded by it, nothing can harm such a man. As St. John Chrysostom says, “Nothing can harm a man who does not harm himself.” The saint has a whole small treatise on this subject, which is well worth reading in its entirety.

St. John tells us, “I will demonstrate clearly that no one could inflict … injury or bring … ruin upon us unless we betray ourselves.” Speaking of ultimate things, he says, “Damage does not come from another [that is an outside source] but comes directly from within the man himself.” We might sum up this thought by saying no one is a victim unless he victimizes himself.

To understand more completely St. John instructs that we must comprehend wherein lies true human virtue. He subsequently discounts all the things that the world holds dear, such as riches, fame, health, civil liberty, and so forth. All these are not virtues at all, in and of themselves. He eloquently writes, “What is not the virtue of man? It is not riches that you should fear poverty. It is not health of the body that you should dread sickness. It is not the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm. It is not life simply for life’s own sake that death should terrify you. It is not freedom that you should avoid servitude.”

How closely he strikes to all our “modern” values! He then tells us what is the virtue of man, “The virtue of man is found in carefully holding to true doctrine and to living a morally correct life. Not ever the devil himself will be able to rob a man of these things, if he who possesses them guards them carefully.” Keep in mind he is not speaking about “moralizing” but rather the lofty sense of moral, which is not just “do’s and don’ts.” True morality is tied to true spirituality, for they are spiritual principles.

Again he makes clear, “The virtue of man is found in the right actions of the soul.”

Thus, a man is truly free or enslaved in his phroneo. Without discounting the grace of God, St. John makes clear that when we are enslaved it is only because we have chosen to be so, spiritually speaking.

He says, “They have entirely abandoned themselves to pleasure and are therefore enslaved to it.” That is, in brief, Christ the Lord in His Incarnation set mankind free, thus when we return to slavery it is of our own free will. This is why the enemy works so hard to have us of our own free will relinquish the true freedom offered by our Lord.

In short, many events are related to this fact. But, St. John says, “All these things cannot even slightly disturb the man who is brave, self-restrained, and watchful.”

If we maintain our true virtue, then all things will work for our benefit and salvation.

This spiritual principle is contrary to the modern “anti-virtues.” The acceptance of many of these anti-virtue  is currently the cause of so much strife and turmoil. People are seeking “virtue” in externals.

Further, St. John while speaking of the Three Holy Youths, teaches that they were able to keep themselves in the midst of a godless environment because “They had spiritual wisdom superior to worldly ways.”

Since they “showed themselves noble and brave, they won for themselves the help of God and so accomplished their aim … they kept the Law in a foreign land.” They guarded as most precious the phroneo which had been given them, through the revelation of God to Israel. St. John confirms this by saying, “The reason I admire those youths, calling them blessed and wanting to be like them, is not because they trampled on the flame and vanquished the force of fire. It is because they were bound, cast into the furnace, and delivered to the fire for the sake of true doctrine. This is really what brought about the completion of their triumph.”

Clearly, we are told, it is not the fact that they were not burned that makes them so great, it is rather for the fact that they would not change their God-given phroneo when commanded to do so (by Godless authority); they were willing to be cast into the fire for true doctrine. St. John says we Christians are called to emulate this. The three youths were preserved in the fire because they had first preserved in themselves, to the point of death, true and right phroneo – doctrine.

I,” St. John, “appeal to you,” Christians “to be alert and serious-minded in the Lord at all times. May we endure all painful things bravely so that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The world cannot take from us true faith unless we give it freely to it. We are the only ones who can betray ourselves, for if we hold fast to the phroneo of Christ, then nothing can harm us, unless we harm ourselves.

This is why the enemy is working so diligently to seduce everyone, but most especially right-believing Christians, to willingly and freely compromise themselves and their faith. Thus, we must understand that there is a war for our phroneo, and we must, by God’s grace, guarded it with all our strength. Compromise will mean defeat and even possibly death.

About the author

Husband, father, and Priest.

Schooling: Kharkov State University (Ukraine); Brownsville School of Ministry; St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary (M.Div.).

Author and illustrator of St. Patrick, Enlightener of the Irish Lands (Conciliar Press, out of print) and illustrator of The Life of St. Brigid (authored by Jane G. Meyer).

Proprietor and writer at the Inkless Pen Blog, at which, based on the foundation of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, a wide variety of topics are addressed. Fr. Zechariah has translated some works by St. Dimitry of Rostov and New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvesdensky), these translations are also available on his blog.

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