In the past few weeks, it has been emphasized the necessity to act according to your faith – to order your life to conform with the laws of righteousness that God has given us. This week, the Apostle seems to say that such actions are of no effect, for in speaking of the law he says, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” This impression however ignores the context of the Apostle’s instructions and serves not to diminish the importance of our labors to live a righteous life, however, rather to emphasize the importance of a renewal of our interior spiritual life, at the same time. He says to us that “in Christ Jesus … (only) a new creature” will be effective. It is our renewed interior spiritual life that is the “new creature” which is vital to our salvation. Thus we see that our external conformity to the law of righteousness must be accompanied by an internal life in Christ – the birth and development of the “new man” of righteousness.
We have, in our Orthodox tradition, a great accumulation of rules for life: when to fast, when to feast, when to stand, when to kneel, what to eat, rules for prayer and on and on. These rules, by themselves, are meaningless. We cannot ignore them, however, because they have a purpose and that purpose is that by conforming our outer life to the life of Christ, we foster the conditions for our soul to also conform to Christ. We must become like Christ both in our outward behavior and in our inward life. Thus we see that it is not only important what we do – but why we do it as well.
The Apostle here is giving us an example of keeping the law externally, but with the wrong internal component – that is doing the right thing but for the wrong reason, the Apostle was correct. In the early Christian Church there was a faction that insisted on the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Their thinking was still rooted in the idea that it was the keeping of the Law that saved them. They were right in the sense that the purpose of the Law is to nurture the development of the inner man in a Christ-like direction, but they were wrong in that they ignored this link to the spiritual life.
And in this case (as in many places throughout the early Church) this emphasis on keeping the Law came to have nothing to do with the development of the inner man, but rather the desire of these advocates of the Law (Judaizers as they were known) wanted the Christian Church to look like the synagogues of the Jews and thereby avoid criticism of the Jews and of society as a whole. They didn’t want to be “different” and so pushed, even the gentile converts, to be circumcised and to strictly adhere to Mosaic Law.
This motivation was definitely flawed – for these Judaizers were concerned less with being like Christ and more with not being different from their neighbors. Their keeping of the law, legalism, was not motivated out of love for Christ, but rather out of fear of the criticism of the world around them. Sound familiar?
We have seen this same process occur frequently in the Orthodox diaspora. Many immigrants from Orthodox Christian cultures to Western Europe and the New World have tried to minimize the difference between their faith and traditions on one hand and the heterodox practices of the Roman Catholics and Protestants around them on the other. Thus we see parishes where the sanctuary is filled with pews or that have incorporated organs and other instruments into their worship. We see a compromise of traditions by which we express our veneration and honor towards holy things and holy people. Many people are reluctant to make the sign of the cross in public or to pray before a meal in a restaurant for fear of looking different or out of place. Often we see people ignore the fast in order to avoid having to explain their “strange” diet and so they just eat what everyone else is eating. All of these compromises by Orthodox Christians, echo the behavior of the Judaizers of the early Church, in that they are born from the desire to avoid criticism by looking like everyone else. Their compromises arise from a desire to preserve the “self” – i.e. the “old man” of sin – rather than to sacrifice the “old man” and foster the growth of the “new man” of righteousness. Isn’t the world around us pushing this upon us each and every day?
There is also another side to this, kind of “doing the right thing for the wrong reason” and that can be seen from an overly strict adherence to the Church traditions not out of love for Christ but out of fear of offending God which results from forgetting His love and mercy for us or out of a desire to look pious and holy and thereby impress everyone with one’s advanced spirituality. The Fathers talk about this situation frequently when they warn us against engaging in overly strict ascetic practices which endanger our health. They note that in most cases such excessive strictness does not have to do with the love of Christ, but rather with the love of self (self-esteem) and the praise of others. We can see that in both cases these “wrong reasons” all go back to the common element of love of self rather than the love of Christ.
Having looked at the “wrong reasons” let us now consider the “right reason”. The “right reason” for doing all of these things is, as we have mentioned, the love of Jesus Christ. If we love God, then, we will eagerly seek to do those things that please Him. How do we know what pleases God? Quite simply; He has given us His law as a description of the kind of person that pleases Him.
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Therefore we follow the law, not because it will save us or for any worldly reason, but rather because we love God and want to please Him.
This is the only “good reason” for doing anything in our lives – to please God and to glorify Him. Any other reason is bound to this world or to our own self-centerness and as a result creates a barrier between us and God.
God also loves us and draws us to Himself by means of that love. Our love for Him is the response to His love for us – even while we were yet sinners, God has loved us and gives Himself to us. This mutual love creates a connection between His life and ours so that we begin to move in complete and perfect harmony with Him. The object of our lives becomes the desire to move in perfect unity with our Lord Jesus Christ. His divine nature and human nature acted in perfect unity, and this is an example of what He desires for us and of the result of our love for Him – to participate in that perfect union of God and man that was first accomplished in the Incarnation.
How do we then avoid the errors of the “wrong motives” and pursue the “right motive”. First is to nurture within ourselves the love of God – to recognize and embrace His love for us and to return that love with our love for Him. Let your every act be done out of love for God and for His glory. Secondly we must crucify ourselves, sacrificing our own lives and receiving in return His life. His life becomes ours – as the Apostle has said, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The pursuit of the life of Christ through the sacrifice of our own lives and through God’s love in us, is how we find and embrace the “right reason” which is in fact the love of God.
Avoiding the “wrong reason” is also wrapped up in our self-sacrifice. Since the “wrong reason” is our own self-love, we have to take every measure to set aside the self – our self-esteem, our self-will, our self-reliance, and all the other “self”s that we have in our lives. The best tool that we have for this is obedience. We talked about this a few weeks ago. The essence of obedience is to set aside one’s own will, in order to follow the will of another. In our lives this is accomplished simply by asking a blessing for the things that we do. By this I don’t mean that we should ask a blessing for every little thing during the day, but rather that whenever we depart from the “normal routine” of life we ask for a blessing. For example, we should all fast and pray according to the rule that we have been given by the Church and by our confessor. But sometimes maybe we wish to add more prayers or to fast more strictly for a particular purpose or to relax our rule somewhat – and then is the time to ask a blessing from your parish priest, your Confessor.
When you are faced with a decision in life – to change jobs, to move to a new home, to make a major purchase – take the simple step of asking and talking to your Spiritual Father, normally your Parish Priest, here this would be Fr Gabriel, and asking for a blessing.
This practice extends even beyond your relationship with your confessor and can be exercised in your own household. Husbands and wives should never undertake a change in their lives without asking for a blessing from one another. Children should always ask a blessing from their parents for every new thing they undertake. Even when brothers and sisters live together in Christian harmony, to ask a blessing of one another adds the dimension of mutual submission and humility to the household. To ask a blessing helps to insure that you are not doing things out of self-will, self-pride, self-love or out of fear for one’s self – because the sacrifice of one’s self is an inherent part of asking a blessing — Obedience.
It is not acting according to the law that sanctifies us, but the love of God – and our love for God is shown by our actions. These two things – faith and works or love of God and following the law – are the inseparable rhythm of our Christian life. With these two elements we are doing the right thing for the right reason which will bring us into perfect harmony and unity with the life of Christ.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner!!
Apostle James, the Lord’s Brother, pray to God for us!