Chapter 4: Ironies of Pastoral Counsel

Care of Souls in the Classic Tradition
by Thomas C. Oden

Chapter 4: Ironies of Pastoral Counsel

As Gregory’s dipolar method of pastoral case studies proceeds, each case seems to increase in complexity and deepen in pathos. The cases become more subtle and more heavily laden with irony as Gregory reveals the inner stresses of specific situations of counsel.

Although space limitations will not allow us to cover all these dipolarities, in this chapter we will select several prototype cases to examine in some detail. We are interested in revealing both Gregory’s theological method of pastoral practice and the rudiments of his actual procedure of situational pastoral counsel.

Winners and Losers

Both life’s winners and losers come to the pastor for help. Those who seem to live a charmed existence and to succeed in everything they do are to be pastorally guided in a direction that prevents them from becoming the victims of their own prosperity. They may need a gentle reminder that their success is not an unambiguous reward for virtue; rather, each new achievement stands as a challenge to learn to do good on that level of accomplishment or proficiency.1

Gregory thought that pastoral instruction to overachievers had already been anticipated by the Apostle Paul, who reminded his aggressive Corinthian flock that all historical achievements must be viewed eschatologically: "What I mean my friends is this. The time we live in will not last long. While it lasts, married men should be as if they had no wives; mourners should be as if they had nothing to grieve them, the joyful as if they did not rejoice; buyers must not count on keeping what they buy nor those who use the world’s wealth on using it to the full. For the whole frame of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The point is not that persons should avoid buying or marrying or rejoicing but that each of these limited goods is to be viewed in relation to the source of all goods and received in due proportion, not be made absolute. If you buy something, live free from the illusion that you will always have possession of it. Use it "as if" you did not possess it, but only temporarily had stewardship of it. These are pertinent learnings for the person who is spoiled by success, who has not yet learned to deal with poverty or loss.2

A very different sort of pastoral counsel is needed, however, for those who have repeatedly made earnest attempts but never achieved their fondest goals. If they experience themselves always as losers, they may become wearied by the erosions of adversity. What sort of pastoral response is needed? They need most deeply to grasp that God has not given up on them. Two analogies apply: "When a physician gives up hope for a patient, he allows him to have whatever he fancies; but a person whose cure he deems possible is forbidden much that he desires. We take money away from our children yet at the same time reserve for them, as our heirs, the whole patrimony."3 The ironic point for the loser is that if you are now suffering from adversity only then can you be certain that the Lord has not given up on you. The same point is powerfully made by Kierkegaard in his Christian Discourses.4 The person who thinks himself a perennial loser needs the pastor’s encouragement to be enabled to use those very circumstances of adversity for learning, spiritual growth, and discipline.

The Married and the Single

Those who think of marriage counseling as an exclusively modern phenomenon may be surprised to read that Gregory counsels those who are married to "study to please" their sexual partner.5 Partners in marriage are above all counseled "to bear with mutual patience the things in which they sometimes displease each other"6 (cf. Gal. 6:2). Gregory advises each marriage partner to think less on what one is forced to endure from one’s spouse and more on what one’s spouse is required to endure from oneself: "If one considers what is endured from one’s self, that which is endured from another is more easily borne."7

Gregory’s key to marriage counsel comes directly from Paul:

The husband must give the wife what is due to her, and the wife equally must give the husband his due. The wife cannot claim her body as her own; it is her husband’s. Equally the husband cannot claim his body as his own; it is his wife’s. Do not deny yourselves to one another, except when you agree on a temporary abstinence (I Cor. 7:3-5).

Marriage is not to be undertaken simply as a hedonic exercise to increase individual pleasure, without the sense of mutual accountability to one another, yet through this accountability the pleasing of one another is increased.8

Gregory strongly affirmed the freedom of the single state which he himself had chosen as a life-style. He does not share the often prevalent assumption that marriage is normative for mental health or necessary for the good life. He was convinced that the marital relationship involves the undertaking of an extraordinary responsibility that can potentially turn one away from God. Yet Gregory does not deprecate marriage, he even echoes Paul’s dictum: "Better be married than burn with vain desire" (1 Cor. 7:9). Nonetheless, if one remains unmarried, one need not assume that one is psychologically incomplete or morally limited or spiritually incapacitated.

Suppose a parishioner is unmarried and yet has been involved in affairs, perhaps even deeply enmeshed and burned by relationships of intimacy, and is struggling with the guilt that so often comes from such entanglements. Gregory’s pastoral counsel is hardly prudish. One should not assume that any sin is beyond the range of God, for "the life of one burning with love after having sinned is more pleasing to God than a life of innocence that grows languid in its sense of security."9 Jesus made the same point sharply in his parable of the lost sheep: "I tell you there will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent" (Luke 15:7).

Gregory took special note of the woman who, having lived a wild life, brought oil of myrrh in a small flask, wetted Jesus’ feet with tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the myrrh. When the Pharisees said that he should reject this evil woman, Jesus said: "I tell you her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; when little has been forgiven, little love is shown" (Luke 7:36-50). The penitent adulterer is like land with thorns in it: "We love land that produces abundant fruit when its thorns are plowed in, more than land that has no thorns but which, though cultivated, yields a barren harvest."10

The Gluttonous and the Ascetic

Some eat to excess and others do not eat enough. Since the body is God’s gift, to be properly cared for, eating enough but not too much is an appropriate concern of Christian counsel. The pastor from time to time will be called upon to give one kind of spiritual counsel to the gluttonous and another kind to the abstemious.11

You must not deal with both of these cases in the same way, Gregory warned. Paul realized that the abstemious may need to "use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, for thine often infirmities" (I Tim. 5:23, KJV), whereas those more prone to gluttony may need to "abstain from meats" (1 Tim. 4:3 KJV). The pastor needs wisdom to know the difference between the former’s need to relax constraints and the latter’s need for disciplined selfconstraint.

Gluttony is as much a spiritual as a bodily problem. Gregory’s recurrent symbol for intemperate use of food is our first parents grabbing the forbidden fruit even when it was unmistakably prohibited. What do the gluttonous need? Although Gregory knew little about the physiology of heart disease, he grasped accurately the connection between long-term gluttony and the risk of sudden death. He quoted Jesus’ injunction: "Keep a watch on yourselves; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great Day closes upon you suddenly like a trap" (Luke 2 1:36).

Yet in the process of counseling persons in this direction one must carefully guard against the possibility that "in fleeing from the vice of gluttony worse vices are not generated."12 Gluttony is not worse than the pride that may accompany its defeat.

He then turned to the opposite problem — excessive abstemiousness. Those who, perhaps out of some earnest motive, abstain too much from food may elicit new vices of excess, such as harshly judging others’ motives. Paul rightly observed that the one who "does not eat must not pass judgment on the one who does" (Rom. 14:3). Like the Pharisees who boasted of fasting (Luke 18:12), the abstemious may be reinforcing egocentric pride over their abstinence.13 Jesus warned that one is "not defiled by what goes into his mouth, but by what comes out of it" (Matt. 15:11).

The Protector ad the Competitor

In any social organization there are some who are given responsibilities to care for and supply necessities to others, while others who are in a dependency position are called to receive what is given. The family is the most obvious example. Some give, some receive, each according to their capacity to give and receive. This principle of equity applies not only to parents of children, but also to leaders of any organization, administrators of any process, providers for any group. Some are charged with providing necessities for others. These persons can easily elicit anxiety or give offense and incur needless guilt if their ordering of resources is unwise, unjust, ill-conceived, or poorly administered.14

Gregory proceeds through a long list of the perennial problems of the givers and protectors, those whose social role is to provide care for others. They may be inclined toward moral conceit in which they "rate themselves above others on whom they bestow earthly goods."15 They may be dilatory, through penuriousness or tightness inordinately delaying to give what is needed. They may give to some persons who rightly should not be given anything. They may give with an inordinate expectation of receiving thanks. They may give morosely so as to take away others’ joy in receiving. Protectors and parent surrogates "must not esteem themselves to be better just because they see that others are supported by them."16 The pastor will help them grasp that what they are dispensing actually belongs to others, and that it is truly just that the others should receive it. That the dependent receives goods is not a moral deficiency, nor is it a moral virtue to be in the role of dispenser.

If under the guise of liberality they "scatter uselessly what they have," pastoral counsel may need to focus more intently on the need for conservation of resources and for equitable distribution. But suppose the opposite is the case: they delay endlessly; they do not give enough. In this case Paul had to say that one who "sows sparingly will also reap sparingly" (2 Cor. 9:6, RSV). The benefactor is being called to give neither too much nor too little but to discover due proportion in giving a fit and equitable amount, responsive to the competing claims of ever-changing human needs.17 If beneficence is accompanied by a moroseness that silently signals the recipient that it is a very heavy task indeed for the giver to provide, the touchstone of pastoral counsel is "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7, RSV).

The responsible protector, the person who is placed in the position of caring for others, is tempted in either of two directions — to give too little to one to whom something legitimately should be given, or to give too much to one who has less right to receive. In the former case the giver needs the injunction found in Luke 6:30: "Give to everyone who asks." In the latter case the person tempted to provide too liberally, even to those who have no legitimate needs, must be helped to realize that undue giving can reinforce dependency patterns.

Gregory makes a stunning point on the ambiguities of giving to those derelicts among the poor who are by consensus generally regarded as less worthy: One should give not just to the unworthy poor, but also to the worthy poor, regardless of their moral condition, and for a profound reason: because one "gives of his bread to an indigent sinner, not because he is a sinner, but because he is a man. In doing so one actually nourishes a righteous beggar, not a sinner, for he loves in him not his sin but his nature."18

Gregory sharply warned those with ample possessions not to imagine that they can put righteousness up for sale or sin with impunity while they deceive themselves into thinking that gifts to the poor will make up for their own sin. For he who "bestows food or raiment on the poor, yet is stained with wickedness in his soul or body, offers the lesser to righteousness and the greater to sin," for in giving to God his possessions he abandons his soul to death.19

An entirely different sort of pastoral counsel is appropriate for those acquisitive, competitive persons who are not looking after someone else’s resources but trying only to acquire more resources for themselves. Gregory refers especially to those acquisitive people who tend toward opportunism or avarice, who are inclined to seize whatever they can at whatever cost to the other person in order to increase their own power or wealth or influence. Such tough, self-expansive, overly assertive persons may need to hear a tough-minded prognosis from scripture, which the pastor must find a way to say, as did the prophet Habakkuk: "Woe betide you who heap up wealth that is not yours and enrich yourself with goods taken in pledge! Will not your creditors suddenly start up, will not all awake who would shake you until you are empty, and will you not fall a victim to them?" (Hab. 2:6-7). Isaiah said straight out: "Shame on you! You who add house to house and join field to field, until not an acre remains, and you are left to deal alone in the land" (Isa. 5:8). The implication is that if you keep on expanding your power inordinately against the interest of others, then you may fail to see the hidden connection between your own interests and other persons’ interests. Since you cannot learn to live with other people in this world, you may then have to experience painful loneliness as another sort of teacher. This is a damning correlation that the compulsively competitive person had better understand sooner rather than later. 20

Like John Chrysostom before him, Gregory argued that one who "loves money can never have enough" (Eccl. 5:10). Avarice can never be really satisfied.21 The more the covetous invest their love in money, the more frustrated they will be in seeing that they will not be able to reap the fruit of happiness from it. One who makes haste to be rich will seldom be innocent (Prov. 28:20; 20:21). Jesus asked poignantly: "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matt. 16:26, KJV).

Gregory proposed a specific approach to the counsel of the compulsively withholding person who says: "I’ve done nothing wrong, I’m not hurting anybody. I’m just holding on to what I have." Such a person needs tactfully to be instructed that charity for the poor is not merely an act of mercy but also a matter of justice: "When we administer necessities to the needy, we give them what is their own, not what is ours, we pay a debt of justice, rather than do a work of mercy."22 To the compulsive withholder Gregory retells the story of the barren fig tree: It did not harm anybody else, but it did in fact take up ground (Luke 13:7). The axe will be laid to such a tree, as John the Baptist remarked, if it does not produce fruit (Luke 3:9).

Sometimes lavish gifts are offered with a great show of outward rectitude. Gregory does not miss the opportunity to point out that the virtue of liberality may parade outwardly while it disguises the vice of avarice. Most pastors know parishioners who "carefully weigh what is the amount which they give, but neglect to consider how much they seize."23 Gregory compared avarice with an overgrown plant that needs to be pruned. If you do not cut it regularly and carefully, it will grow unmanageably. The energies of self-assertive competition need to be curbed so that we may come to recognize the rights of others. Pastoral counsel seeks to do some of this timely pruning, reducing the tendency of avarice to grow wildly. The assumed joys of possession may become embittered by the poison of avarice. The avaricious cannot honestly "offer to God what they withdraw from the needy."24 If you steal from the poor and offer stolen goods as a sacrifice to God, what is that like to God? It is like one who offers to sacrifice another man’s son in the presence of his father (Sir. 34:20), an unendurable offense.

The Actively Guilty and the Passively Guilty

Those feeling guilt over willed misdeeds are treated differently than those who project fantasies of guilt beyond their willing. This important pastoral distinction is difficult to make and needs a general rule to guide its application. For those grieving over real guilt for actual misdeeds, Gregory hypothesizes that three stages are required for a return to moral health — penitence, pardon, and reparation. The pastoral intention must be to help keep the remorse or regret in due proportion to the values that have actually been negated.

It is appropriate that persons should first experience remorse and the struggle of conscience over unjust actions. The pastor must not try to protect persons from the witness of their own conscience and from going through a reasonable period of keen awareness of lost values.25 During this process it is fitting that these losses should be felt before God and in the presence of God’s holiness. The prototype of the penitential prayer is Psalm 51: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned" (vv. 3, 4, RSV). Pastoral listening cannot cheaply reduce the pain of standing before God in the remembrance of these losses.

But pastoral care does not end with moral sympathy; it continues, in the second place, with the proclamation of forgiveness, for the next pivotal movement of consciousness is the acceptance of divine pardon. Pastoral care, when effective, brings one articulately, clearly, and directly into the presence of divine mercy. The pastor must learn how to use human speech to declare the divine address. The aim is to assist the hearer in trusting God’s forgiving Word and resting serenely in it. The parishioner who cannot meaningfully experience this deep dimension of forgiveness may fall into a habit that Gregory calls "immoderate affliction"26 — forever overemphasizing one’s deficits, always being too hard on oneself, seemingly making it impossible for God to forgive.

Pastoral care of the guilty proceeds, however, with still a third step that is not to be taken lightly — an appropriate act of reparation for wrongs done. Having once rested confidently in God’s forgiveness, a new danger lurks, namely, that one will too readily assume that God will always forgive. This might tend to reinforce the temptation to do the same things over again, or worse. It would be to use God’s pardon as an excuse for sinful self-assertion, turning God’s unmerited mercy into "baneful reassurance."27

Yet every pastor knows that some people are inordinately burdened with guilt feelings. When these guilt feelings are carefully examined, they focus upon nothing that the individual has actually done but upon diffuse social guilt or felt corporate guilt, based on actions that were partially or wholly out of one’s own hands. In some cases guilt adheres only to fantasized misdeeds that have been mentally conceived or imaginatively projected. Guilt in some cases is directed only to something one has thought of doing yet not actually done. Gregory would carefully guide such persons through a discriminating act of self-examination in order to sort out the degree of their own willingness to consent to a harmful deed. This exercise centers upon ascertaining the extent to which one would have given free consent to an overtly evil act had one been given full opportunity.

This self-examination is based on a clearly delineated psychology of will that Gregory had learned from earlier church fathers (Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine) but had himself developed and refined.28 According to this psychology, the dynamics of guilt and self-alienation occur in three distinguishable stages, analogous to the fall of Adam. Stage one: A suggestion of sin is made. Stage two: one then thinks about the imagined pleasure that would accompany the misdeed. Stage three: one freely consents — one wills to do it. Even if one wills to punch a neighbor in the nose, however, one may still have to wait for the opportunity. Hence the crucial determination as to whether one has actually consented, stage three, may require deliberate and detailed self-examination.29

The psychological dynamics of this examination are further complicated by the fact that any of these three stages may be further enmeshed in a triadic collusion between (1) our flesh, which is already prone to sin, (2) a superpersonal demonic power, "the enemy," and (3) our own will, fully determined by us. In the last analysis it is only our will or spirit that can consent. Therefore only the will can sin. The body or flesh in itself has neither freedom or consent. By suggestion and temptation the demonic forces, Gregory hypothesized, were incessantly trying to lure the human will away from God. The flesh anticipates the imagined pleasure that might accompany a misdeed. Yet that in itself is not sin but only its precondition. At that point one may or may not give consent. It is the actual consent for which one is duly responsible. Parishioners are asked carefully to examine into which of these degrees of complicity they have fallen. The first and second degrees of complicity may carry some level of culpability, but finally one can sin only with one’s own will. The psychological principle: the further one has actually gone toward freely willing a misdeed, the greater is the need for penitence, pardon, reparation, and reconciliation with God and neighbor.30

However far toward willing consent one may have gone, pastoral guidance nevertheless wishes to show that the divine pardon is immediately available to the truly penitent. The one who earnestly and actively prays for reconciliation can be confident that forgiveness is immediate and not delayed.31

Feigned Penitence and Penance Without Restitution

Feigned penitent acts are in vain if they do not manifest themselves in seriously attempted behavioral changes. Bathing in tears does not suffice. Gregory employs the devastating analogy of a sow who, taking "a bath in its muddy wallow. . . makes itself even filthier."32 Those who pretend to be trying to change their behavior while pleading with God for forgiveness yet go right back to the muddy wallow are opening themselves up to an even greater deception — the mocking of God’s pardon. The purpose of washing is to become clean. You may as well not take a bath in the first place if you intend immediately to plunge back into the mud. That amounts to thumbing one’s nose at divine mercy.

Suppose you are called into court and plead with the judge for pardon. You gain the pardon, walk right out of the court room, and blatantly do again precisely the wrong for which you had previously asked to be pardoned. Does that not show contempt of the judge?33 It is no easy matter to change such a steady disposition for evil. Those who are by strong predisposition morally evil "are moved in vain by compunction to righteousness, just as, for the most part, good are tempted to sin without harm."34

The pastor will meet those parishioners who will "Do some part of a good deed without completing it," yet remain unduly confident that they have in fact done it already, and only when they will find the regrettable side of their intention manifesting itself, will they become naively surprised. Paul grasped the dynamics of this inner dividedness in this memorable way: "In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily parts a different law, fighting against the law which my reason approves and makes me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin" (Rom. 7:22ff.). On this assumption, the pastor does well to examine not only the initial expression of regret over guilt, but beyond that whatever long-term behavior patterns may follow after it. Gregory’s analysis is largely consistent with modern behavior modification theory and behavior therapy that focuses on actual, regularized, visible, even measurable, behavior change more than the hidden mysteries of supposed intentionality.35

Is reparation required? Gregory takes the case of a parishioner who, let us suppose, having at one point grossly sinned, has now completely desisted from that sin and yet does not wish to go through any semblance of an awkward or embarrassing act of penitence before God for past misdeeds. Inwardly the person is saying, "I’m not trapped there any more. Why do I need to repent?"

Gregory answers with three amusing analogies: a bad poem, an unpaid debt, and an unretrieved insult.36 Suppose I write a very bad poem and then decide to give up writing. That does not efface what I have written just because I am not adding anything to it.

Suppose a person has gotten deeply into debt, but now has decided that he is not going to incur any more debts. That does not mean that all previous debts have been paid off. It simply means that no new debts are being incurred. The debtor still needs to pay off those old debts.

Suppose I insult you and then I say, "I am not going to insult you anymore." My being quiet does not make reparation for the earlier insult. I must go further than that.

Similarly, if it is God before whom we stand, "we certainly do not make reparation merely by ceasing from evil."37 A further active step is needed — from penitence and pardon to the new life that emerges from it. One does not just undergo baptism and then do nothing, for baptism rehearses not only the death of an old life but also the rising to a new life.38

Those who frequently commit small misdeeds are to be counseled in a different way than those who sink into a grave sin only once in their life or very rarely. Frequent irresponsibilities are compared to tiny rain drops: if you get enough of them, they can cause a flood. It is something like a bee sting: one sting does not hurt much, but a thousand can destroy life as completely as a single rapier thrust to the heart. If bilge water is slowly and inconspicuously rising in a ship, and no one notices its continued rising, it has the same devastating effect as if a hurricane threw the ship on the rocks and dashed it to pieces. Thus, if you neglect these small incremental matters of behavioral deficit and minor excess, you may in time be lured into larger self-deceptions and collusions that will spell disaster.

This is the precise problem of the small misdeed — it fosters a lack of concern. One becomes inured to its consequences. One imagines that it is nothing at all. It is powerful only because it is small. Pastoral counsel will try to unpack the correlation between the raindrop and the impending flood, the bee sting and the death, the slowly rising water and the potential disaster.39

On the other side of the fence there is the individual who lives a solemnly upright life, whose small sins are carefully monitored, yet who suddenly finds himself in the midst of an unexpectedly grave sin. The prototype of this behavioral pattern is the legalist of whom Jesus wryly spoke, who filters his wine to get rid of a gnat, but then gulps down a camel (Matt. 23:24). Such persons discern trifles. They are clear about where the tiniest deficits lie. They tithe mint and cumin, the least of all of the herbs, yet forget the weightier matters of law, judgment, and mercy — and faith (Matt. 23:23). Overattentiveness to the small misdeed may contribute to the neglect of the large. To this is added pride, conceit, and a lethargy that comes from spiritual elation, an ecstatic awareness that assumes: "Aren’t we wonderful!"40

The Nonstarter and the Nonfinisher

Gregory’s next bipolar case study distinguishes between (1) one who never gets started on a good project, and (2) one who tends always to start things but never finish them. What pastor has not met both characters working together on the same committee!

The nonstarter must be pastorally assisted to see what values this syndrome is yielding and what it is losing. This may require a tough-minded pastoral encounter that penetrates pretense, absurdity, and immobility. One does not appeal verbally to the person merely to start doing something. You cannot plant until you first clear away weeds. "One who does not feel the pain of a wound will not seek any healing remedy."41 The person who is infinitely tardy in getting started on an improved life-plan should be first shown the dire consequences that may ensue from the direction being pursued. Only then may one learn how good are the values one may now be disregarding.42 On this basis a definite long-range plan may be pastorally commended. Gregory notes that the first act in construction of a house ironically may be an act of destruction — to cut down a tree. By analogy, the first step in getting started toward constructive change may be the painful negation of a dysfunctional pattern.

The case stands differently with those who never seem to complete any attempted good that they have begun. Here persistence is the soul of counsel: "The human soul is like a ship going up stream; it is not allowed to stay still in one place, because it will drop away to the lower reaches unless it strives to gain the upper."43 The care of souls is like guiding a ship going up stream. The current is strong. One must work against the current all the time in order to make even the slightest progress. The instant you relax a step in your overall plan, you are already drifting downstream. This frustration must have been felt in the Church of Sardis to whom it was written: "Wake up, and put some strength into what is left, which must otherwise die! For I have not found any work of yours completed in the eyes of my God. So remember the teaching you received; observe it, and repent" (Rev. 3:1-3). This is not an unusual pastoral situation. The pastor is called to specifically teach persons how to complete what they have begun, so as not inadvertently to destroy hard-won goods that now exist but are vulnerable to erosion.44

An Especially Subtle Case

The secret evildoer and the anonymous do-gooder constitute the last pair of Gregory’s bipolar cases. They present an especially subtle and intricate pastoral problem.

A unique pastoral task concerns the parishioner who inclines to do good openly while doing evil secretly.45 Suppose you have a parishioner who has a wide public reputation for generosity, liberality, and mercy, yet secretly is doing something despicable. Such a person needs a special type and quality of pastoral admonition.

The most crucial learning to be sought in such a situation is the recognition of the fundamental difference between human judgments and divine judgment: that human achievements pass quickly while only the divine judgment is eternal and penetrates everything hidden. Ultimately, according to Gregory, each soul faces final divine judgment. All secret things will be revealed. The pastor does not do the parishioner a favor by withholding teaching about this final judgment. Jesus himself focused intently on this element in his pastoral care:

Be careful not to make a show of your religion before men; if you do. no reward awaits you in your Father’s house in heaven. Thus, when you do some act of charity, do not announce it with a flourish of trumpets, as the hypocrites do in synagogue and in the streets to win admiration from men. I tell you this: They have their reward already. No; when you do some act of charity, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing; your good deed must be secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you" (Matt. 6:1-4).

The other side of this bipolar case study was for Gregory more complex, delicate, and intriguing. Suppose you have a parishioner who is prone to do good, but insists on doing that good in secret. Suppose this parishioner is even willing to allow another person openly to think badly of him or her so as to hide the good deed, deliberately concealing from everyone’s view the good that has been done. Such a parishioner needs a very different kind of pastoral care than that given the secret evildoer. The anonymous benefactor is to be commended for taking seriously Jesus’ teaching to avoid doing good works in order to be seen and approved by other people.

But it is possible that a good behavioral maxim may be carried too far. Gregory straightforwardly counseled such anonymous doers of good that they "should not love their neighbors less than themselves"!46 If in every case you withhold edification from others by concealing the good you do, then nobody else can ever possibly enjoy, emulate, or benefit from that good work. This is why Jesus proclaimed:

You are light for all the world. A town that stands on a hill cannot be hidden. When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lamp-stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good that you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).

But how can it be consistently said on the one hand that we should allow other persons to see our good works (Matt. 5:16), and on the other hand that we should take heed that we do not do our good works in order to be seen by others (Matt. 6:1)? Gregory thinks that these two admonitions, properly understood, are not inconsistent: We are called to do good not in such a way as to be seen by others with a view to drawing to ourselves their praise, but in a way that allows others to see God’s love and constant mercy refracted through our behavior.47 The key difference lies not in the realm of outward activity, but in the realm of inward motivation. It makes sense that, as we do outward good works, others be allowed to behold something of our inner motives for doing them, and of the positive effect of our hidden good motives — though the good deed is not to be done primarily in order to be outwardly observed by others. When others nonetheless behold our good deed, done openly, not for our own glory but for the well-being of our neighbor and the glory of God, they can then receive it, celebrate it, and imitate it. In this sense, good deeds should not be concealed, and, except in rare cases, persons should not carelessly allow evil to be attributed to them. Gregory argued that such persons have some responsibility even for the way others interpret their behavior. Why? Because every person’s behavior is at some level exemplary. Others may imitate what they perceive to be your behavior, even if they are inaccurate in their perception of it.48

Gregory’s biblical prototype for thinking about this pastoral admonition is again Paul. In Corinth the question had arisen concerning the eating of food consecrated to heathen deities. Paul’s most eager hearers were saying, "Forget dietary rules. These are false gods." Paul agreed, yet added:

But not everyone knows this. There are some who have been so accustomed to heathen consecration, and their conscience, being weak, is polluted by the eating. Certainly food will not bring us into God’s presence: If we do not eat, we are none the worse, and if we eat, we are none the better. But be careful that this liberty of yours does not become a pitfall for the weak. If a weak character sees you sitting down to a meal in a heathen temple — you who ‘have knowledge’ — will not his conscience be emboldened to eat food consecrated to the heathen deity? This ‘knowledge’ of yours is utter disaster to the weak, the brother for whom Christ died. In thus sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience, you sin against Christ" (1 Corinthians 8).

In this way parishioners are counseled to be responsible, not only for their own actual behavior, but also for the way that behavior is perceived by others. Even if we are doing something good, others with weak conscience might perceive it as a stumbling block, the means of another’s downfall: in that case we are in some sense partly responsible for that stumbling.

Gregory summarizes his response to these two dipolar cases with this concise maxim: The pastor will help parishioners learn to do good deeds secretly insofar as they are motivated by the need for praise, but openly insofar as they become a means of the glorification of God and the edification of the neighbor.49



1. PC 3.26.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Siren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940).

5. PC 2.27.

6. PC 3.27.

7. Ibid.

8. Cf. Siren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), vol. 2.

9. BPR 3.2.

10. PC 3.28.

11. PC 3.19.

12. Ibid.

13. BPR 3.19.

14. PC 3.20.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. BPR 3.20.

19. PC 3.20.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.; cf. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts, NPNF, 1st series, vol. 9.

22. PC 3.21.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. PC 3.29.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.; cf. Tertullian, On Penitence, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976); Jerome, NPNF, 2d series, vol. 6; Augustine, Confessions and Enchiridion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 7 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953).

29. PC 3.29.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. PC 3.30.

33. Ibid.34. Ibid.

35. BPR 3.30.

36. PC 3.30.

37. Ibid.38. Ibid.

39. BPR 3.30.

40. PC 3.30.

41. PC 3.34.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. PC 3.35.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. BPR 3.35.

49. PC 3.35.