“Walking the Talk” — The Moral Life
— Fr. Bohdan Hladio
April, 2009 A.D.
Orthodox Christians often encounter the word theosis (θεοσις), or deification. Deification refers to the process by which a human being may become, by grace, that which God is in His essence.
Theosis is the culmination of a three-part process. Spiritual teachers generally identify the first step of this process as illumination, i.e., the illumination of our heart by God’s Grace. The second part of this process is purification, when we are purified of our sinful, fallen passions through prayer, fasting, vigilance over our thoughts and feelings, and by adhering to the moral precepts of our faith, by living a life of Christian virtue.
C.S. Lewis writes:
“People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence and eternal loneliness”
— Mere Christianity
The moral precepts of our faith must never be understood simply as the observance of rules. The real goal of Christian morality is the purification of the heart, for as Jesus teaches us, only the pure in heart see God (Mt. 5:8).
Christian morality is rooted in two distinct realities – God’s law, and human conscience.
The Bible offers many examples of God giving commandments to His people. These commandments are given by revelation, as opposed to the laws of physics, for example, which are discovered by observation and deduction. God’s laws, however, are no less real or effective than the laws of science. “God’s law” is simply God telling us how life works, and how to conduct our lives if we wish to remain sane, healthy, and in communion with both Him and each other. A simple examination of the 10 commandments (Ex. 20: 2–17), for example, reveals that commandments 1–4 relate to our relationship with God, while commandments 5–10, when broken, result in the rupturing of human relationships.
St. Paul teaches that even those unfamiliar with God’s commandments are still guided by human conscience (c.f. Rom. 2: 14–16), by the “law written in our hearts”. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes:
“…The fact is, it is very difficult to live according to conscience, and it is very easy to live in the same way as everybody else, just taking things as they come. There is an excellent proverb: ‘What belongs to God is expensive; what belongs to the devil is cheap.’ And everyone rushes to buy these cheap goods. How easy it is to live without effort, in the constant cinema show of encounters and conversations, without taking any obligations on oneself, without forcing oneself to do anything, but just feeding one’s conceit, laziness, and frivolity…”
— Fragments From a Diary
Christ is both the origin and the fulfillment of our desire to live in accordance with the norms of Christian morality. In other words, I live a moral life because I want to know Christ, and by living such a life I give myself the possibility of realizing this desire.
We occasionally encounter or hear about people who try to legislate morality in a political sense. It is important for us to publicly support what is good, true and just, and to work for the eradication of such blatant evils as poverty, abortion or “euthanasia”. But if we wish to see a more moral, just, or “happier” society we will not try to change people’s morals by legislation, we will introduce them to Christ. Why should you not hop into bed with someone you’re not married to, make a mint selling drugs to addicts, or cheat your company out of money? Ultimately the only reason is because I know God, and trust His Word.
People who live immorally have very little chance of ever knowing Christ, and therefore of even understanding morality or moral behaviour. As C.S. Lewis notes (and in regards to this subject it would be very beneficial to read Book 3 of Mere Christianity in its entirety):
“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right… Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
If we honestly wish to know Christ, besides praying, fasting, and keeping watch over our thoughts, inclinations and desires we will abide by His moral teachings and God’s commandments. The spiritual result will be our purification and illumination. The “practical” by-product will be a more peaceful, just, righteous and humane community, society and world.