If You Love Me, Keep My Commandments
A non-Orthodox friend recently commented that it seemed to him that being Orthodox is more about avoiding sins than doing good deeds. Non-Orthodox people probably do find Orthodox Christianity very different to what they are used to – this is particularly true when we are fasting. Having said that, fasting involves a lot more than just reading food packets. During fasts we struggle to keep not only the food fasting regulations but also increase our church attendance, spiritual reading and almsgiving.
The Orthodox Church particularly emphasizes almsgiving because through it we show love for our neighbour. Likewise, we avoid sins because we are striving for perfect love. St. Paul teaches: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’ (1. Cor. 13:1).
Christ calls us to love our enemies and those who persecute us (cf. Matt. 5:44), and not to confine our love only to those from whom we expect love in return: ‘If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them’ (Luke 6:32). How hard is this! Nevertheless, it is something that we should be striving to attain because as Christ teaches: ‘If a man say I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?’ (1 John 4:20).
Showing love to our enemies is the summit of the Christian life. After all, if we don’t honour our parents (cf. Matt. 15:4) how can we love our enemies? To climb this summit we have to acquire the other virtues by rejecting sins. We are strengthened in our ascent by the Grace of God that we receive in our Orthodox Baptism, and by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ at the Divine Liturgy. However, this struggle is not easy because we ‘wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Eph. 6:12).
Spiritual struggle is part of our correct worship of God because, as St. Paul says, we glorify God with our souls and our bodies. (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20). The word ‘Orthodoxy’ actually means ‘correct worship’. We glorify God with our bodies when we fast, when we stand for prayer and when we make prostrations. This glorification of God with our bodies also involves refraining from sexual intercourse before marriage and other sexual acts such as masturbation and watching pornography.
We struggle to avoid sins because we trying to love God as we ought. Christ says: ‘If you love me, keep My Commandments’ (John 14:15). Orthodoxy might seem to have a lot of ‘rules’, but a careful reading of the Gospels reveals quite a lot of rules too! However, all the rules that we keep have one end – to guide us to the Kingdom of Heaven.
We should realise though, that Orthodoxy is therapeutic not legalistic; the Orthodox Church is called a spiritual hospital and not a spiritual court! We are all sinners in need of healing and have fallen far short of the Gospel Commandments. Even if we have managed to avoid a serious fall into sin, we should not become complacent because small sins, if left untreated, can fester and lead to serious spiritual illness. Saint John Chrysostom, speaking to the newly baptised, explains this:
Each day, then, let us be eager and careful to keep this bright robe of ours without spot or wrinkle. Even in things that are considered not to be important, let us keep close watch, so that we may also be able to escape more serious sins. If we start to scorn some sins as insignificant, little by little as we walk the way of life we will come to falls which are disastrous.
We cannot hope to be healed of the wounds caused by our sins if we reject the treatment that the Church offers. Spiritual struggle strengthens us and makes us able to love according to the Commandments of Christ: loving not only our friends, but also our enemies. In fact, what we been asked to do will bring its own reward as Christ says: ‘He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much’ (Luke 16:10).
We keep the traditions of Orthodoxy because although we believe correctly, we are still trying to worship correctly and live correctly. The small sacrifices that we make because we are Orthodox strengthen and protect us as we journey toward our ultimate destination – the Kingdom of Heaven.