On the Law of Love

The Ascetic Path to Refuting Contemporary Critics of the Faith

Today criticism of Christians for failing to be loving and tolerant, even of hatred, is common. Often this is a cynically appeal made by those advocating social agendas inconsistent with the practice of Orthodox Christianity. As sincere Orthodox, it is impossible to ignore such rhetoric; our prayers ask forgiveness for sins committed in knowledge and ignorance, known and unknown, voluntary and involuntary.

Clear thinking is needed to see though these accusations. The clear thinking needed is not about the rhetoric but about the practice of faith.

Repentance is the name describing, "Seeking to live in unity with God by turning away from state of living in self-willed alienation from God."

The phrase "state of living in self-willed alienation from God" is a description of the meaning of Christian ascetical term "the world."

Confusion arises because "God is Love." (First Epistle of John).

The inner heart of the life of each Christian is entry into communion with God by doing his work; this is given formal, community recognition by the centrality of the Liturgy (the work of the people made complete by thanksgiving). To live in unity with God, who is love, one must live the life of love. Moreover, that love must be perfect for God himself is perfect love.

This is profoundly difficult, indeed, without Christ, impossible. Christ makes this possible by using the Cross to abolish Death. Orthodox Christians are empowered to participate in Christ's Cross by taking up a portion of it, taking up one's own cross to bring love and peace to the world.

There are precisely two ways to do this: to love God with all your strength, mind, and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Obedience to these two laws determines every rule made regarding how to live life and to make each person into prophetic witnesses to the God of love. Of course, neither way is mutually exclusive, and, at different times in life, one way may be stressed over another, and life choice and circumstance may lead to one mode as primary.

At any one time, and in every circumstance, implementation process is a complex set of conflicting choices to be balanced against each other. The name for the process of determining how to live is discernment. Adequately performing the task of discernment on one's own would be impossible were it not for prayers and intercessions of the the Ever-Virgin Mary, who, in agreeing to become the Mother of God, chose to participate in the life-giving grace of the Holy Spirit.

As presented, all this is abstract. Treating the second law, love of others, more specifically will help clarify and tie all of this back to worldly critiques and issues.

The intent of the commandment to love others is for each person to participate in, to express, the creativity of Love. For individuals to express love toward others is to enter into the creative work of God. The outcome of working to express love is the creation of humanity, perfecting the image of God within creation. As an active process for each individual, the scope of that work is contingent upon the exact situation and circumstances of each person's life, those elements in which a person has direct discretion and the authority to act.

The condition of having discretion and authority is called responsibility. As such, the command to love others is not an invitation to invent with extraordinary activities rooted in personal opinions, rather it is a call to live consistent with God, Himself, who provides for the best life for everyone, good or bad, kind or mean, appreciative or thankless, at all the times and places of God's dominion.

Arguments made in the contemporary world for changes designed to produce "social justice," "civil rights," or other social or political outcomes are alien to the command to love, though rhetorical appeal is often made to it by advocates. Note, living a faithful Christian life will change the world as a result, indeed, the more faithful, the more radically the world will be changed, but the goal of the Christian is not to seek to change the world, which is God's responsibility. This view is reflected clearly in the First Epistle of Peter, which exhorts Christians to pray for the same civil authorities that are persecuting them, in the Epistle of James, which declares piety in itself worthless and demands that faith be acted out in every aspect of life, and in Paul's Letter on Philemon, explaining the relationship between a Christian slave and, a possibly Christian master.

As St Paul explains, the call of Orthodox Christianity is to a life of radical virtuousness. Virtuousness is the assembly of personal characteristics an individual has the power to develop as part of trying to love God. As such, against the pursuit of virtue there can be no law. It is a life expressing kindness, compassion, long-suffering, gentleness, temperance, and generosity, and demands self-control, chastity, bravery, honesty, equanimity, loyalty, and fidelity. As a result or practicing and developing these qualities, an individual attains more and more perfections, such as humility, mercifulness, and virginity.

Pragmatically, the most common way this is carried out is through married life, and if so blessed, the raising of children. It is the most common for the simple reason that it is the normal way to meet the responsibilities for supporting oneself, expressing one skills and abilities, and living harmoniously with biological realities. Moreover, the abstract concept of "humanity" is exemplified by procreation of new human life, children.

The fullness of marriage resides not in the begetting of children per se, but in the procreation of humanity. Children are a material blessing, a gift, from God through biology, not a requirement for the fruitfulness of a marriage. Indeed, some married saints had no children, but instead used their time and resources to create humanity in other ways.

Nevertheless, some activists for some social causes demand everyone conform to their vision. This has produced great martyrs, in ancient times, society demanded that every women be married and Christian women were martyred, society demanded that sacrifices be made to various gods or people presenting themselves as gods, and again Christians were slain. Today, as in ancient times, what is demanded is recognition of such and so activity be recognized as good or somehow godly, when it in fact goes against the moral framework provided by God for instruction. The argument directed at Christians is that failure to accept their claims is not merely a failure to practice virtue, but a positive assertion against love, that is, an act of hate.

The falsity of the argument is exposed in two ways, first in the demand for judgment about God's morality and their vision, and second, by the confusion created by seeming contradictions between virtues.

To the first, as Christians know from the Gospels, that only the hypocritical Pharisees judge, for the authority to judge belongs to God alone. Pilate judges with the authority granted to him by civil, worldly authorities, based on worldly laws. Seeing no violation of law, he chooses to differ to the politics. In addition, Christian discernment is choosing to accept into life that which is of God. Equally important, having accepted what is properly of God, we, as the servants to the Virgin at the Wedding at Cana, are to be obedient to everything Christ tells us. In this respect, it should be noted, that the decision asked of us is precisely that presented to Eve when the serpent argues that the fruit of the tree will not result in Death, as God had said. To be clear, Christians must seek to judge no one and no thing, simple choose to live as closely as possible in accordance with the law of love.

To the second, the virtues of kindness, gentleness, and charity are not rooted in feelings, but in willful actions to bring about consistency with the law of love. As such, it does not mean agreeing, supporting, or accepting murder, behavior, or situations that result in the suicide or death of another, let alone ourselves. While death has been destroyed, hence martyrdom is neither sought nor refused but accepted for having its end in the love of God, murder and suicide are the results of human judgment that attempt to restore the kingdom of evil to earthly life. It is deeply the responsibility of each person to promote choices that result in the superabundance of life in God (eternal life) and to reject the ways of death (sinning against God through self-alienation, immoral activity). This argument might seem stark except for the facts behind recent events in the news in which a 17-year-old woman was charged with murder for encouraging (successfully) through text messages her boyfriend to be brave enough to complete his suicide, or for several other murders with profoundly perverse justifications. In all cases, the defense was that the deaths caused were out of love for another.

It is important to note that consistency in virtue, also called integrity, can be complete as virtue is not a law but a performance goal. The goal, of course, is to attain to such a unity of life with God that the creativity of God as Love is expressed as the complete content of our particular life. This requires an ever-expanding life of care and compassion, heart, for all creation. This expansion of heart brings one both into greater unity with God, and can bring great sorrow over the suffering of others. As Orthodox, this sorrow is well known to us through the suffering of the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross. Sorrow for the contents of the world, however, results in intercession. Intercession is not to intervene in situations in which one has no scope of action, strength, but to be more mindful of creation of humanity so that God may act, doing His Will in the earth (work in the soul), that is, attending to the first commandment of loving God with all ones strength, mind, and soul.

Regarding The Way, the commandment to love God, it may be said that to follow the law of loving others is choosing of life-giving action by attempting to lead a consistently virtuous, or God-pleasing, life, as to please God is to requite, or to respond with love, God's love of us. To requite the love of God is to offer to self-completely, in its most radical of forms, monasticism, this is a death to the world in order to live in the presence of God. Central to living according to first commandment of love is to understand that "God is with us" (Isaiah 7).

To understand fully that God is with us is to perceive Christ, by being with Christ. For those, unlike Thomas, who have not seen Christ in the flesh, the perception of God with us is possible by looking inwardly, into one's own soul. To look into one's soul requires a terrifying ruthless honesty. As Orthodox, this is the well-known, and much loved, experience of confession.

The central deterrents to making one's confession are tedium and despair. Tedium is the name for a paralysis of the mind that results from the failure of the will, the courage, to be mindful of what one is not doing, to examine the passions that lead to sins of ignorance. Of course, knowing something has implications, as Christ says in John, to say one understands is to take away the defense of ignorance, making one liable to terrifying judgment. Terrifying judgment is the result of judging one's self by God's standards not by God's love that is mercilessness.

Often in order to look inwardly the assumption is that one must isolate the self in the world so that it can be examined, not as a part of an overall big picture social connections and interactions, but as an isolated occurrence of humanity. Isolation and passion-produced ignorance lead to despondency, merciless despondency leads to despair or worse. The appeal of the world is rooted in its ability to distract those who would be despondent or despairing, by filling the time with activity as a substitute for living according to love. As such, filling time with activity is the mirror to a life of creating humanity.

The alternative is to look inwardly not by isolating the self IN the world but FROM the world, to seek the mercy of Christ. To do that, one searches for Christ within the self, separating those things in the self that belong to Christ from those that do not. The choice of to attempt to discover Christ within oneself presumes faith, while to make the choice is to have a fundamental attitude of hope, and to find even a small fragment of Christ actually in the self is to find love. Hence, the three great spiritual virtues: faith, hope, and love. Love abolishes loneliness and isolation, for God is with us, to understand that is to have wisdom.

Wisdom is not a static object, a data point, a type of knowledge. Wisdom is the product of love set against love; an analogue is the offspring of a marriage. It is the expectancy, the anticipation, of acquiring wisdom, that pushes one to overcome the temptations of tedium, despondency, and despair produced by human loneliness for others and for God. To expect to find Christ with us is to be filled with joy. Out of joy over the hope for God, it is possible to say, with the Psalmist, "let everything that has breath, praise the Lord."

Such hope, joy, and cheerfulness is rare in daily life. It is very infectious, and if all one can do is to share something of that with another, through some kindness, some act of mercy, thoughtfulness, compassion, forbearance, most especially when it is least expected, such as when the other person is mean, obnoxious, or worse, then that is a great work.

Such great works are very hard to do, the consequences of the bed of passions and sinfulness of our condition. Nevertheless, try one must. It will be a powerful witness to all that those who accuse Christians of hate are confused by creating a cognitive disconnect between what is experienced and what is claimed.

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