Of all the teachings and sermons of the Church Fathers, by far the most recorded and preserved are those of St. John Chrysostom. With hundreds of sermons to read, you could easily spend a lifetime learning from St. John’s powerful rhetoric as well as his own example. What follows here is only a tiny window into the teachings of this great saint. We imagined what life advice St. John might have given to someone in college. We hope it provides some guidance for you and inspires you to want to read more of what St. John has to teach us.
Part I: Be bold in your faith even when it’s unpopular.
St. John famously died in exile because he was willing to preach against the corruption of Empress Eudoxia. In fact, St. John often spoke out against corruption in the imperial court, among the wealthy, and even within the Church. Consider what he has to say about Christian leaders falling short of their responsibility to sanctify the world around them:
I once used to deride secular rulers because they distributed honors, not on grounds of inherent merit, but of wealth or seniority or worldly rank. But when I heard that this stupidity had swaggered into our [the Church’s] own affairs, too, I no longer reckoned their action so strange. For why should we be surprised that worldly people, who love the praise of the mob and do everything for money, should make this mistake, when those who claim to have renounced all these desires are no better?
On the Priesthood
St. John was not afraid to speak boldly about how we as Christians should live and how that example should actually impact how people around us live. He spoke out against injustice and himself was a bold defender of those who were mistreated, even when it was not popular among those in power.
For instance, St. John gave sanctuary to a man who had fallen out of favor with Empress Eudoxia only for that man to later be taken captive and executed. In response to such a shocking turn of events, St. John encouraged his congregation in a sermon with the following words:
But wherefore was I not dismayed? Because I do not fear any present terrors. For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12).
I saw the swords and I meditated on Heaven; I expected death, and I thought of the resurrection; I beheld the sufferings of this lower world, and I took account of the heavenly prizes; I observed the devices of the enemy, and I meditated on the heavenly crown: for the occasion of the contest was sufficient for encouragement and consolation. True! I was being forcibly dragged away, but I suffered no insult from the act; for there is only one real insult, namely sin: and should the whole world insult you, yet if you do not insult yourself, you are not insulted. The only real betrayal is the betrayal of the conscience: do not betray your own conscience, and no one can betray you.
Homily 2 on Eutropius
St. John reminds his congregation—and us—that there is no reason to fear any persecution or rejection or threats to our life and livelihood because of our commitment to follow Christ. Instead, we can feel emboldened by our hope in Christ’s conquering of death, His defeat of the devil, and the promise of our share in His kingdom.
- What makes you feel confident to live boldly as a Christian? What makes you shy away from living boldly?
- In what ways might you be called to speak out against injustice?
- What impact is your way of living having on those around you?
- What do you think St. John means when he says “there is only one real insult, namely sin”?
Part II: Don’t let piety or worldly pleasure take the place of real love and virtue.
If St. John’s first piece of advice to college students might have been to live your faith boldly, his second piece of advice might have been to clarify what it means to “live your faith”. St. John is rather precise and prolific in his moral teachings. He isn’t a fan of either pompous and empty piety or of worldly excess and indulgence. We all often find ourselves torn between these two temptations and can forget what actually being people of love and virtue is like.
In terms of “pietism” or overemphasizing external acts of faith that miss the most important virtues, St. John often reminds us that love requires sacrifice, especially sacrifice of our own comfort and desires. Here are some brief passages from three sermons where St. John corrects his people on this topic:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that?
Homily 50 on Matthew
You honor this altar indeed because it receives Christ’s body. But the poor man, who is himself the body of Christ, you treat with scorn, and when perishing, neglect. You can see this altar lying around everywhere, both in streets and in marketplaces, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on this, too, is sacrifice performed. And as the priest stands invoking the Spirit, so do you too invoke the Spirit, not by speech, but by deeds.
Homily 20 on 2 Corinthians
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said: “By what kind of works?” If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, do not envy him! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances or to busy themselves with strange beauties. […] Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speaking and calumnies. “You shall not receive a false report,” it says.
Let the mouth, too, fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother, and bites the body of his neighbor. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you be not consumed by one of another.” You have not fixed your teeth in the flesh, but you have fixed the slander in the soul and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; you have harmed, in a thousand ways, yourself and him and many others, for in slandering a neighbor you have made him who listens to the slander worse; for should he be a wicked man, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness; and should he be a just man, he is lifted to arrogance, and puffed up; being led on by the sin of others to imagine great things concerning himself.
Homily 3 on the Statues
Throughout his sermons, St. John is careful not to discard one practice for another; just as Christ tells the Pharisees, “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23). St. John does not want his people to stop adorning churches or venerating the Eucharist or fasting during Lent, but he does want them to remember that we shouldn’t do these things at the expense of our brothers and sisters.
On the other hand, St. John is not at all interested in making excuses for the vices of his community. He expects Christians to live modestly and soberly. He encourages us to develop virtues that honor God and protect us from the temptations of worldly living. One striking example comes in a sermon where St. John addresses the raucous partying that happened at weddings in his day:
Marriage is an image of the presence of Christ, and will you get drunk at a wedding? Tell me, if you saw a portrait of the emperor, would you insult it? By no means. Many are indifferent to what goes on at wedding celebrations, but great evil is the result. Looseness and disorder prevail. Paul says, “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity; let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” What, I ask you, goes on at weddings? All of this, and more, for evil talk has become an art, and those who excel in it are applauded! Sins have become an art! We pursue them not by chance, but with studied earnestness, and finally the devil assumes control of his own troops. When drunkenness arrives, chastity departs. Where there is filthy talk, the devil is always eager to make his own contribution. Do you celebrate Christ’s mystery with entertainment like this, by inviting the devil?
I am sure now that I have offended you. You mock me when I rebuke you, and say I am too austere. This is only another proof of your perverted manner of life. Don’t you remember St Paul’s words: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”? Or the Psalmist’s, when he said, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in him with trembling”? But your behavior is dishonorable and blasphemous, totally without restraint. Is it not possible for pleasure and temperance to coexist? Are you fond of music? I would prefer that you love silence best of all, but if you must have songs, choose edifying ones, not satanic ones. Instead of dancing girls, invite the choir of angels to your wedding. “But how can we see them?” you ask. If you drive away the other things, Christ Himself will come to your wedding, and where Christ goes, the angels’ choir follows. If you ask Him, He will work for you an even greater miracle than He worked in Cana: that is, He will transform the water of your unstable passions into the wine of spiritual unity, but remember: if He should come and find the musicians and the crowd making a tumult, He will expel them all before working His wonders. What is more disgusting than these pomps of the devil? There is so much noise that nothing can be heard. When any words are audible, they are meaningless, shameful, and disgusting. There is nothing more pleasurable than virtue, nothing sweeter than orderliness, nothing more honorable than dignity.
Homily 12 on Colossians
It’s incredible how a description of a fourth century party doesn’t sound too far off from what goes on at a party today! He even makes note of how indulging in one vice can easily lead us to bad judgements about other temptations. St. John encourages us to celebrate life’s goodness with sober, simple pleasures and gratitude to God for His goodness. He desires that all of our daily decisions, big and small, are rooted in love for God and neighbor.
- What connections did you make between the different passages from St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on virtue?
- What did you find most important about St. John’s instructions on steering clear of pietism?
- How would you apply St. John’s advice for wedding parties to college life?
- If you could make one change in your life to develop real love and virtue, what would it be?
Part III: Be humble and take your responsibilities seriously.
It can be easy when we’re striving to be bold in our faith and truly virtuous to start to believe that we are superior to those around us. And it is certainly a temptation to want to take credit for the good that we do, to post about our best life on social media, or to desire accolades for our accomplishments. Yet again, St. John warns us of another trap in living a Christian life:
Why are earth and ashes proud? Are you high-minded, O man? Why? Tell me, what is the gain? Why are you high-minded against those of your own kind? Do you not share the same nature, the same life? Have you not received the same honor from God? But are you wise? You ought therefore to be thankful, not puffed up. Haughtiness is the first act of ingratitude, for it denies the gift of grace. He that is puffed up, is puffed up as if he had excelled by his own strength, and he who thinks he has thus excelled is ungrateful toward Him who bestowed that honor. Have you any good? Be thankful to Him who gave it.
Homily 5 on Philippians
If we start to forget that it is God who has created us and given us the grace to do well and to grow in virtue, we’ll quickly find ourselves puffed up by pride. St. John suggests gratitude as a means of combating pridefulness. Another way to promote humility in our hearts is to focus on fulfilling the responsibilities which have been placed before us with our best effort without concern for our own acclaim. This does not mean our humble efforts are worthless, however. In fact, St. John shows us that our actions and relationships matter deeply. Take, for example, what he says about how a good marriage can have a ripple effect out into the community:
The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?” Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both of families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down.
Homily 20 on Ephesians
Or take how he points out that having even a little influence or position of authority can change how significant your virtues and vices impact those around you:
The sins of ordinary men are committed in the dark, so to speak, and ruin only those who commit them. But when a man becomes famous and is known to many, his misdeeds inflict a common injury on all. They make backsliders even more supine in their efforts for what is good, and drive to despair those who want to improve. Apart from this, the offenses of the insignificant, even if made public, harm no one seriously. But those who are set upon the pinnacle of this honor not only catch every eye; more than that, however trifling their offenses, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offense, but by the standing of the sinner.
On the Priesthood
St. John sees far-reaching implications for how we approach the responsibilities God has given us. It’s not just that we will be affected positively if we fulfill our duties faithfully or negatively if we neglect them—the societies and systems of which we are a part and all of those individuals we might influence can and will also be impacted. Among all that God has made, humans alone share in responsibility for the temporal and eternal care of the world:
For earth’s inhabitants, having their life in this world, have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels.
On the Priesthood
A steward is the one charged by the King to care for His dominion with the same love and care that He Himself would show. St. John is reminding us that our King has entrusted us even with the things that last beyond this life and that we should fulfill this vocation with awe and seriousness.
- What is the connection between being humble and taking our responsibilities seriously?
- What social and cultural forces make humility difficult?
- What does the seriousness with which St. John discusses marriage, parenting, and the priesthood teach you about your own responsibilities as a student?
- With what has God entrusted you? What does good stewardship of that gift look like?
Conclude your meeting with this prayer of St. John Chrysostom:
O Lord, deprive me not of Your heavenly blessings;
O Lord, deliver me from eternal torment;
O Lord, if I have sinned in my mind or thought, in word deed, forgive me.
O Lord, deliver me from every ignorance and heedlessness, from pettiness of the soul and stony hardness of heart;
O Lord, deliver me from every temptation;
O Lord, enlighten my heart darkened by evil desires;
O Lord, I, being a human being, have sinned; do You, being God, forgive me in Your
lovingkindness, for You know the weakness of my soul.
O Lord, send down Your grace to help me, that I may glorify Your holy Name;
O Lord Jesus Christ, inscribe me, Your servant, in the Book of Life, and grant me a blessed end; O Lord my God, even if I have done nothing good in Your sight, yet grant me, according to Your grace, that I may make a start in doing good.
O Lord, sprinkle on my heart the dew of Your grace;
O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me, Your sinful servant, cold of heart and impure, in Your Kingdom.
O Lord, receive me in repentance;
O Lord, leave me not;
O Lord, save me from temptation;
O Lord, grant me pure thoughts;
O Lord, grant me tears of repentance, remembrance of death, and the sense of peace;
O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins;
O Lord, grant me humility, charity, and obedience;
O Lord, grant me tolerance, magnanimity, and gentleness;
O Lord, implant in me the root of all blessings: the fear of You in my heart;
O Lord, vouchsafe that I may love You with all my heart and soul, and that I may obey in all things Your will;
O Lord, shield me from evil persons and devils and passions and all other lawless matters;
O Lord, Who knows Your creation and that which You have willed for it; may Your will also be fulfilled in me, a sinner, for You are blessed forevermore.