Bob, His Doctor, and Your Moral Life

bridegroomBob woke up one morning and felt terrible. He had no energy and his head hurt. After a while, he decided to go to see his doctor. When he got there the doctor had a number of questions for him:

“Are you eating good meals? A balanced diet?”

Bob replied, “Yes.”

“Are you getting enough exercise?” the doctor continued.

“Yes,” Bob said.

“Do you smoke?”

“No.”

“Then, I think you’re well,” the doctor said.

“But, doctor. My head is hurting and I have no energy,” Bob complained.

“You should cheer up,” said the doctor. “According to your answers, I think you’re doing what you should do. Keep it up.”

Bob is disappointed. He knew the doctor was right. He had done all the things he was supposed to do, but still he felt lousy. Maybe he just didn’t appreciate how well he was actually doing. He needed to learn to trust his doctor more.

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Of course this is fiction – but it is fiction based on how many Christians think of their spiritual lives. Christ is the physician of our souls. The Church, the Fathers say, is a hospital for sinners. So why do we think like Bob and his doctor? Why do we think that who we are and how we are doing can be described by how well we adhere to rules?

“Bob feels terrible.” That is a simple description that says something is wrong. What is wrong might not be reflected in any knowledge or practice of the rules. And there is by no means a direct correlation between the rules of the spiritual life and the actual condition of our spiritual lives. When we go to the doctor, what we expect is for him/her to diagnose what is actually going on. The rules of healthy living are only germane inasmuch as they relate to the diagnosis. If my symptoms point to problems with my liver, then the doctor is obviously going to ask about my consumption of alcohol. That question is not a moral question (though many patients answer such questions with morality-driven answers, making the diagnosis that much more difficult).

The Christian life is not a “moral” life when understood in this manner. Its purpose is not, on the deepest level, concerned with how well we have or have not kept the rules. The commandments of God are not arbitrary: they reflect God’s concern for our well-being. What is described as “sin” is the consequence, not of God’s punishment, nor a moral calculation regarding the commandments. Sin is the disease of death and corruption that works in us when we live in a manner that breaks our living communion with God, the Lord and Giver of Life.

This is not meant to trash or discard the term “moral.” Rather, my intention is to reveal its proper meaning. When someone says in confession, “I have neglected my prayers,” this itself is not a “sin.” Sin is something deeper at work within the soul that manifests itself with such neglect. If you read through a classic treatise such as the Ladder of Divine Ascent, you will not find a chapter on “neglecting prayers.” There are, however, chapters on sloth and carelessness and the like. And those chapters, much like a medical treatise, seek to understand the nature and the origin of the disease we call sin. Likewise, it is concerned with its treatment.

If I come into my doctor’s office and say, “I feel terrible, my head hurts and I have no energy.” It will be of no use whatsoever to be told, “Try not to do that anymore.” Lecturing a patient about his symptoms as though they were a moral problem is simple malpractice. In many ways, the same is true with regard to the manifestation of sin in our lives.

Morality, as popularly understood (or misunderstood), is seen as a simple misuse of the will. “There is a commandment. I broke it. I must have chosen to do so.” The cure must then be to choose to keep the commandment. Repentance must therefore be seen as a promise to try harder and choose better. But this is a useless caricature of our inner life. St. Paul in the seventh chapter of Romans writes with great anguish about the experience of doing what he didn’t want to do:

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I want to do, I don’t do; but what I hate, that I do…. Therefore, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me…. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:15, 17, 24).

Morality, rightly understood, is the spiritual science of the nature and working of sin and righteousness within the inner life of human beings. Rules alone are, at best, diagnostic tools. Wisdom and discernment, rooted in spiritual experience and the tradition of the Church are required to understand and interpret what is actually taking place within the soul and the proper path to its healing. And, most importantly, that path is rarely one of simply making better choices and trying harder. Sometimes, as St. Paul admits, the more we try the worse the problem becomes.

I have offered strong criticisms of “morality” in the past, and been taken to task by others who meant well. But the abuse of “morality” in a culture that is utterly convinced that the core of human existence is defined by the will and the choices we make has made it necessary to state in the clearest possible terms that such “morality” is false, misleading, and even positively harmful, inasmuch as it keeps us from properly understanding the nature of our condition and seeking proper care from the Physician of Our Souls. Orthodoxy might be “synergistic,” but we do not believe that our healing comes as a result of our choice or effort. Our “choice,” is to turn to God.

In a false morality of will and choice, success is measured by the keeping of the rules. But St. Paul acknowledges that regarding the Law (the rules), he was “blameless” (Philippians 3:6). But with such blamelessness his soul was darkened to the point that he persecuted the Church. He said that he later considered such blamelessness to be absolutely useless.

The false measure of “moral success” can make very little sense of how useful, even essential, our weakness can be. Moral failure is, paradoxically, sometimes the most useful thing in the spiritual life. It is not unusual in our physical lives to be sick, but not sick enough to get well. We trudge along in mild misery, thinking to ourselves that what is happening is not worth going to the doctor. Alcoholics, for example, begin their road to recovery by admitting that “their lives had become unmanageable.” But for many, their lives are just manageable enough to get by. And they manage just well enough to lose their souls. Failure can be among the greatest gifts of the spiritual life.

We are sick and we are all much sicker than we think. We need a diagnosis and a willingness to submit ourselves to the cure. We need a doctor for our souls, not a lawyer for our morality. As Christians, we need to recover the true morality of the Church and forsake the moralistic legalism that has been set in its place.

I place my hope in Your boundless mercy and approach You:

Receive me, O Christ, Lover of mankind, as You received the harlot and the thief, the publican and the prodigal son. Remove the heavy burden of my sins, for You take away the sin of the world and heal man’s weaknesses; You call the weary and over-burdened, giving them rest.

From the Prayers in Preparation for Holy Communion

 

30 comments:

  1. Thank you Father for this post. I have often said that sin is not the action itself, but the attitude that leads to the action. We can either choose God’s way or our way. Inevitably, our way is tainted by sin because it is full of the ego. Your post has helped me to understand what I have been learning about sin and its effects.

  2. I realize that we suffer from the consequences of sin and I realize that turning to God in His sacraments is where we can receive healing. But how do we know if we truly have the full diagnosis and are fully submitting ourselves to the cure? How does one know if they have fully and truly turned to God? It so often feels like a very lonely journey with no guide, even though we are surrounded by so many others….just as wounded as we are and in some cases more so. I know I have no other avenue but to fully trust God in all things, and yet I remain unsure of the path forward….but forward I go, as I am sure so many others do.

  3. Chris,
    “Truly,” and “fully,” absolutely not yet. You can count on that. We give ourselves to the sacramental life of the Church and all that this entails. That is the medicine of immortality.

  4. Nicholas,
    It’s more than our attitude. There is a “disease process” that St. Paul describes as “corruption and death” at work in us. That is what sin is. And this corrupts attitudes, the will, etc. We can no more “choose” to get rid of sin than we can choose to grow another arm. We can choose, in some manner, to give ourselves over to God who alone cures us. The cure for sin is death. Christ “tramples down death by death.” You cannot cure sin by any other means.

    St. Paul tells us to “put to death the deeds of the body.” That’s not at all the same thing as “try to do better.” Learning how to put sin to death is the art of the Christian spiritual life.

    We have exchanged the knowledge of this birthright for a message of moralistic pottage.

  5. This brings to mind a recent experience I had with the veneration of an icon of Mary I received from a Russian hermitage where I order incense and such. They always include one of these icons in my orders. I’ve hung on to them – must have about three on my fridge. They are little paper icons – I’m new to all of this so, in good Protestant fashion, I haven’t invested in a proper icon (yet) 🙂

    In any case, I seem to have a good number of moral failures that I find pretty troublesome and cause not a little bit of drama in the lives of those around me. I have been so sad about how I am so weak. One morning I decided after prayer to attempt venerating my little paper icon of Mary. As I sat there gazing into her eyes I received so much grace from her. As if she was saying directly to my heart – and I hate to put this into words because it will do the experience injustice – but, it was if she was saying “all will be well – my Son loves you – I’ll stay with you in your weakness – thank you for confessing your weakness. I honor your weakness.” My heart responded with joy – deep, moving joy. Relief. Forgiveness. Joy. I felt unhooked – released from a long history of pain (with this particular weakness).

    I share this story because I truly believe that we are given icons to remind us that we are not alone and that the defeat of moral failures is found in the joy of being told that we are part of Christ’s Body, of being reminded by these Saints – that we won’t be forsaken – that a broken and a contrite spirit will not be despised. I also believe that this grace-received, this joy of communion – is what brings about our transformation, from death to Life.

    I pray that my ongoing experiences of joy and my veneration of His Mother so full of grace becomes a witness to the Life He offers me in exchange for my paltry attempts at being morally perfect.

    Please pray for me and pardon the long post.

  6. My Rector Emeritus (the founding Priest of my parish, which is located in the “Mecca” of American Evangelicalism) has said more than once from the pulpit words to the effect, “I don’t worry about whether I’m saved or not–it’s Christ’s job to save me!” (And, of course, implicit in this statement is his active, present-tense trust in Christ to be going about the business of doing just that.) I find this sort of attitude in my Priest tremendously helpful. It properly shifts my focus from trying to do things right to daring to lean on the One apart from Whom I can do nothing (John 15).

  7. Karen,
    Yes. I think that’s healthy. “Working out our salvation,” is not, properly, “working out our ultimate disposition with God.” That, to a degree, is just none of our business. We shouldn’t worry about it. “My salvation” is from the hell that is breeding in my soul right now. If we tend to that, we’ll be fine. We pray and beg God’s mercy for our ultimate salvation. But, since I have absolutely no way of accurately judging myself, other than to know that when every day is done, at the most “I am an unprofitable servant.”

    So, that’s the end of every day.

    But each moment, I should attend to God, giving thanks for all things, remembering Him in all things, being generous and kind to all people. That would do the trick. And even when we fall and come face to face with our miserable failures yet again, we can lie on the floor and give thanks. Nothing can prevent us from giving thanks. And then we’ll be well.

  8. I must revisit Romans, this time not with my defense attorney but as if entering the ER helplessly on a gurney. Very enlightening, prays please.

  9. “…This is not meant to trash or discard the term “moral.” Rather, my intention is to reveal its proper meaning.”

    I wonder Father if your critique is not aimed at our calculating, reasoning, judging (and willful) minds more than “morality” as such. This morning I had to have some breakfast, and this required calculation – what to have, when to have it, how to prepare it, what tools I need to prepare it, how to use those tools, etc. It even required a “moral” judgement, a “check” on my *desire* otherwise I would have prepared chocolate cake this morning (and the day before that, and the day before that…).

    Thing is, this calculating, judging, reasoning self is itself in the same boat as the rest of me, and thus is imperfect and does not save. Yet, like the rest of me, it is not created “bad”. It, along with the rest of my soul needs (and will) die to become as it should be. Yet, as a modern person I rely on, define myself, even worship my “reasonable” self as it is after all who and what I am – it the truth in the “myth of metaphysics” that our ancestors mistook for gods – I don’t need to be “superstitious” about it (I obviously speak as a modern person).

    My reason is a failure – it does not save in any of it’s judgments or aspects (including it’s “moral” calculations). So I give thanks even on the mornings when I eat cake (usually in the form of round one with a hole in it, because that is what “morning cake” is supposed to look like).

  10. Thank you for another reminder about the moral pitfall of the Christian life. Forgive me if you’ve addressed this elsewhere, but I am wondering if it’s ever proper/beneficial to “take stock” of the work that Christ has done in our life. Recovering alcoholics in AA, for instance, keep track of the number of days they’ve been sober, and still yet consider themselves diseased by alcoholism (from what I’m told). It seems like this sort of practice keeps one from falling into despair when the battle with sin is difficult. If the Gospel is truly at work in us, we should be growing into His likeness and image. Is it ever profitable to look back on our growth? Thank you.

  11. Another Chris, your comment on “taking stock” immediately made me think of the workplace signs that proclaim “accident free for XX days”. I don’t think this is a healthy approach, and you may not consider your comment to reflect this focus, as it revolves around avoiding an action as opposed to growing in God’s grace.

    I suppose, if we are to “take stock” of our situation, it should always be in relation to God so that we may fall once again upon His Mercy and give thanks. Just my thoughts. Please forgive me if I have misunderstood your post and correct me (all) if I am off-base here….

  12. Probably my favorite part of the Divine Liturgy is the injunction, “Let us commend ourselves, each other, and all our lives unto Christ our God.” Yet just as with the perpetual prayers for mercy, the old moralist in me has tended to view that as a requirement I must meet (am I commending/committing myself enough?) rather than as a sick patient entrusting myself fully to the Divine Physician. (Mercy, I have discovered, is not a “don’t condemn me to hell” prayer, but rather an “anoint me with Your healing oil” request.)

    Another prayer I’ve begun to pray is like unto the prayer, “I believe; Lord, help my unbelief”: “Lord, I depend on You; help my independence.” I’m very, very glad to be on the Orthodox path after years of anxiety regarding the juridical/legal/moralistic understanding of salvation – thanks in no small part to this merciful, healing blog. Glory to God!

  13. Father, thank you. And thank God! I enjoy all of your writing, but it is your posts on this topic that seem to affect me most deeply. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because I entered into Orthodoxy with a priest who taught as you do, moved to a new city, and now the advice only seems to be “try harder.” (The priest is a wonderful man, however.) Well, I would if I knew how!

    I spent my whole life trying harder in the world of academia and that messed me up in all kinds of ways. Instead of asking for help, I lied about my progress. Instead of coming clean about failures, I covered them up. I constantly assumed that I could improve myself, that I could make progress all on my own, and it ended in disaster.

    When I found spirituality, and then Christianity, and then Orthodoxy, I consciously gave up “try harder,” because I knew in my bones that that way didn’t work. It was entirely counter-productive. Somehow, through that realization, the “try harder” impulse left me entirely. I have no choice but to throw myself on the mercy of God.

    Please pray for me, Father!

  14. Nicholas – I can relate. I work in academia where pressure can be overwhelming. It is a crucible. However failing here, morally and intellectually, in this crucible – as I have done – also in public ways, is teaching my heart that I am not alone while I bear the shame. I dedicate my weakness and failure to Him and watch how He brings those little deaths to Life. Blessings on The Way, Brother Nicholas!

  15. Another Chris,

    I was praying Ps 78 this morning and was reminded again of how faithless and forgetful I am. I think we are commanded to remember what God has done for us. Not so that we can see our progress (because we are the ones who again and again forget while the manna is still in our mouths) but so that we live our lives in the liberating fear of God with gratitude for his never ending mercy.

  16. Thank you, Sharon. Yes, the “disaster” I alluded to has actually been a great rebirth for me, one that is still ongoing. Blessings to you as well.

  17. Perhaps its not total depravity that is our issue but total delusion or ineptness. Sometimes I think there is a crazy man at the helm of my brain. He is always trying to get me to do self destructive things.

  18. I just heard a homily on ancient faith radio where the priest said that we should be asking ourselves and others ” How am I doing in my salvation today?” The rest of the homily was very good but that sort of talk in orthodoxy really turns me off. It seems the opposite of what your saying in this blog.

  19. Father Stephen, your blessing,

    In view of this truth revealing post, I would be grateful if you could add a section (or point me to an existing one) about the Orthodox way to confess. I have heard so many conflicting things, all well meaning I am sure. I cannot find it on the menu above, perhaps under repentance or Journey of Faith.

    It is difficult to have a spiritual father at hand in modern life – many times we live without guidance. Personally, confession is 2 months of trying to find the time to go, book an appointment and 10′ with a spiritual Father to confess my sins. It rarely happens as a new baptism and I know that is also my fault.

  20. Thomas,
    I’ve really not written such an article. The relationship between priest and penitent is quite unique, and needs to be worked at and worked on with each other. How I hear confessions may differ greatly from how other priests hear them. It’s really very ok to just talk to your priest about this. He may sometimes feel a bit lost at sea himself. Not every priest is suited to being a “spiritual father,” but certainly can hear confessions and absolve.

  21. Fr. Stephen,

    Would “morality” as you describe it in this and previous articles be equivalent to the Law as St. Paul uses the term in his epistles?

  22. Father,

    There are two phrases that I believe you are fond of using: The first is that God did not become man to make good men bad but to make dead men alive (hence the shortcomings of a “moral” approach to the Christian life). The other is the famous Solzhenistyn quote about the line between good and evil running through every man’s heart.

    Could you help me reconcile these two statements? They seem contradictory to me in what they teach about the state of man. If all men are “dead in their sins”, then all moral/immoral action is beside the point. A “moral” man may follow good rules, but doing so imparts no life to him – he’s still dead. This view seems to me to divide humanity very cleanly into two groups – those who are alive in Christ and those who are still dead.

    If, on the other hand, the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every man, then man isn’t really dead so much as part dead, part alive. He can participate in life – in Christ, in God – by choosing and following the good, or he can participate in death by choosing and following what is evil. This view sees humanity and each person as a mixed bag: all of us are somewhere on the spectrum between good/live and bad/dead. In this case, living a moral life does seem to matter quite a bit.

    I do not ask merely speculatively, but for the sake of my faith, which is weak. I think it would help if I knew whether I was dead or alive (and whether my atheist friend was dead or alive).

    (And if you say we’re all dead apart from God, who is Life – this I know. But – can everyone participate equally in Life, or does the Christian life – the sacraments, or prayer in Christ’s name – give the Christian a piece of Life that those “outside” don’t have? I’ve been wrestling with this for a long time. I find it terribly hard to believe that I have something others don’t; this type of thinking just seems to divide the world into “us” vs “them”).

  23. John,
    Good questions. Thank you for reading me so carefully!

    God is at work, always and everywhere to reconcile us to Himself. First, though having cut ourselves off from God, we are “dead,” nevertheless, we clearly still exist and have some measure or form of life. This existence and life itself, even though it is not the fullness of the life He means for us, is still truly life.

    We should draw from that – that even the atheist lives an existence that is the gift of God and enjoys a life that is a gift. In this sense, as well, no one is “outside.”

    Baptism, the life of the sacraments, etc., are medicine towards that fullness (“the medicine of immortality” in St. Ignatius’ words).

    So, we are indeed dead in our sins – death is at work in us – St. Paul calls it “corruption.” But it has done its worst. We are still alive and are sustained in our existence.

    The “line” that Solzhenitsyn observes is the line dividing “good and evil.” He means to say that it does not run between individuals, but within each individual. Everything that exists is inherently good. This is God’s word in our creation. This “good” constitutes our very nature and essence. No action that we can do can change our nature. Even the atheist is good by nature. He does not live in true accordance with his nature, and Christians don’t do so much of the time either. But the nature is the same.

    But Solzhenitsyn would turn our eyes toward the heart. When the atheist acts in accordance with his nature, this is a cooperation with grace and is of benefit to him. It would be of greater benefit if he turned to God and availed himself of everything God has for him. And the dividing line within his life runs through his heart. I’ve never met an atheist who was “totally depraved.” It’s very, very difficult to live completely contrary to your nature.

    The believer should turn his eyes to his heart as well. He is being given grace every moment to live in accordance with his nature and fulfill what his nature was meant to do – become like Christ. But he will see that the dividing line runs within his own heart as well. No other human being is our enemy.

    It’s often problematic to think in terms of “us” and “them.” Think of it this way. We have all been engaged in a terrible war, and there have been many casualties. The battlefield is still active. But, though you were wounded, you have been taken behind the lines to a field hospital and are receiving treatment and healing. The Church is the field hospital. The “we” is all of us – because the battle belongs to all of us.

    Atheists are not our enemies. They are our comrades in arms, though they may not acknowledge it. Every human being is on “our side.” That’s how God views us. The Church exists, not to separate us, but to heal all of us. But we’re in the middle of all of this battle at the moment and we’re in a large variety of places within the battlefield, etc.

    If you have been given anything (and the grace of Baptism, etc., is great indeed), then it is for all. Not to separate you, but to heal you and make you more fit for the battle we are all waging for the healing of all.

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