On the Essence of True Morality

By Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo)

True morality consists far more in how well we care for one another than in what kind of external behavior we wish to force on other people. Too often, moralism is confused with morality, but they are far from being the same. The moralistic notion that Christianity has a duty to try to force one or another denomination’s understanding of biblical morality on any nation or community is quite destructive and usually leads to persecutions and violence. People with such ideas will usually ignore the Gospel itself and rummage through the Old Testament seeking a bludgeon to use against someone or some group. Another construct that appears to be problematic is focusing the whole concept of morality on sexual matters, often to the exclusion of other very serious issues. One of the greatest moral problems in our era is the destruction of the environment, and this is rooted in egoism and self-centredness. These two, egoism and self-centredness (or “self-love”) are the very bases of all that is genuinely immoral, and moralism itself is a form of egoism and self-focus.

Let us look, for a moment, at the usually misunderstood creation narrative in Genesis and see what this story actually teaches us about the human condition and the true meaning of morality.

Christ's hand in Creation

The creation narrative is not a scientific treatise; it does not actually tell us any of the details about the creation of the universe, only that it was the work of God. The moral idea of the creation narrative is its most important aspect. We are told that God created mankind from pure love. This means that He gave man freedom, for love given without freedom is obsession but it is not love, and love demanded without freedom is a psychosis; it is not love. So God created us with love and gave to us that other factor which is essential to love – trust. If there is to be freedom then there also must be choice.

The story of the two trees in the garden is essentially a prophecy about the Cross of Christ, but in this narrative they also signify a choice and the choice was whether or not to love God and trust Him. The story about the temptation is important because it was a test of the sincerity of love, for love without trust cannot be sincere. We are told that Adam and Eve were created in God’s image and they also had the grace of immortality through unity with God. Satan tempts mankind by offering him a counterfeit of something that he already has. In essence he says “Do not trust God; disobey Him and you will become like God.” Adam and Eve accepted the counterfeit and this was the beginning of egoism and self love: “You will have special knowledge and you will become like God.” The fall of mankind was a fall from an atmosphere of unselfish love and harmony into egoism, self-centredness and self-love.

The real moral issue for mankind is precisely this condition of egoism and self-centredness. Every normal emotion that races out of control into a destructive passion– every offense, every explosion of anger, every murder and every war– is rooted in our egoism and self-centredness. The real moral struggle, therefore, is against these deficits and an ascent to an unselfish love which blossoms into a co-suffering love. Since the real meaning of sin is the misuse of our energies, and this is driven by our egoism and self-focus, unselfish love is the key to true morality. Did Christ really say anything different when He told us that the entire law and the prophets are condensed into this one thing: that we love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves? The only way we can love our neighbor as ourselves is through a genuine empathy. There is no other way to defeat Satan in our lives, the lives of our parishes and the world around us except through the power of co-suffering love, the kind of love that Christ Himself revealed to us in His life, His earthly ministry and the Cross. In order to do this we must see the foremost order of morality as a transformation of the heart, and not in the enforcement of a legalistic code of external behavior.

Where does your moral compass point?

The efforts of some religious bodies to manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law is nothing else but sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love. It is therefore the very opposite of true morality and it has no place for Orthodox Christians. Our greatest moral obligation is to develop an unselfish love for God, our neighbor, and the realization that all of mankind is our neighbor and each one of those human beings is the image and likeness of the living God. If we cannot love the image and likeness of God how shall we learn to love God Himself? Moralism involves fantasies of a “more Christian past,” and is filled with judgment and condemnation, yet Christ ” came not to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved.” Moralism does not use the language of healing, but the language of fire, the rhetoric of self-righteousness and often of hate and violence. Let us think back on two instances from Christ’s own example and one of His parables. The woman taken in adultery was brought before Christ and accused. “According to the law, she ought to be stoned to death!” With a few simple words, Christ sent the arrogant legalists slinking away in shame. To the woman herself, however, He made no word of accusation. But let us think about this: if the fear of the horrible death by stoning and the shame before the whole community could not deliver this woman from the bondage of her passion, how could the simple words of Christ, “go and sin no more,” accomplish this? It could do so because at the same time, Christ penetrated into her heart with the power of His co-suffering love. Nor did our Savior speak a single hurtful or critical word to the Samaritan woman who had lived with several different men. Rather, He likewise healed her heart with that ultimate healing ointment: the balm of co-suffering love. In the parable of the prodigal son, is it not clear that the father’s forgiveness did not come into being when he saw the son returning home; rather the father’s forgiveness followed him the very day that he left home, and it was always there waiting for him when he turned around to face it and entered back into the father’s arms and home. Such are the images of true morality and true faith which our Lord Jesus Christ has imparted to us. We are in this world to strive to be spiritual healers, not to be prosecuting attorneys.

Jesus at the well with the Samaritan Woman

If you desire to be a truly moral person then above all else struggle to conform yourself to the image of the unselfish, co-suffering love of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. Strive to escape the temptation to judge and condemn, and become a spiritual healer through unselfish love, even while you are striving to find healing for yourself. True righteousness consists in nothing else but a pure, Christlike unselfish love; true holiness consists in a heart transformed by the power of a co-suffering love that radiates out from that heart with the light of Christ.

17 thoughts on “On the Essence of True Morality

  1. Fr. Timothy Sas

    Thank you, Vladica! This is a very timely issue, not just for Orthodox Christians in the social/political arena, rather for the entire Body of the Church. Blessed Holy Week and Pascha!

  2. No name

    Laws are enacted morality, *by definition*.

    So, if: “the efforts of some religious bodies to manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law is nothing else but sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love” as you state, does that mean that we should just through up our hands, and not try to preserve the sanctity of life? Was the Church unjustified in opposing untold thousands being sent to sanatariums, prisons and death camps simply because it was in accordance with Soviet policy?

    If I may, you seem to have an all too Canadian view of politics, in that there is an inherent assumption that politicians are honest and nice, and are doing things for the good of the nation. The worldwide reality is *far* different, as is even the truth about politics in our own common nation (I’m a Canadian too!).

    I hope your comment may have really had more to do with the actions and interests of various lobby groups, and *in that context alone*, your comment makes sense. I just hope that you expressed yourself poorly, and left yourself open to a host of illogical and unchristian interpretations of your words by accident.

  3. Brian Jackson

    I am curious to hear an example of a civil law which is not an expression of a moral concept, Biblical or otherwise.

    1. Brian McCulloh

      You won’t, because not only are they all based on a moral law, they are all based on the SAME moral law, and that is to protect us the threat of anyone forcing us to do something we don’t want to do (i.e. “freedom”).

      Note that this moral is not specific to Christianity (although without God it wouldn’t exist). Thus, Christian doctrine has (or should have) no influence on government.

      1. Brian Jackson

        You should have stopped at “you won’t.” That was sufficient to express the point I was making by asking the question. First, the question was meant to express the nonsense I quoted in my comment below. For the sake of clarity, here it is: “The efforts of some religious bodies to manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law is nothing else but sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love.” Either His Grace is arguing that laws should not reflect moral concepts at all (which is inane), or His Grace is arguing that only religious bodies should not try to influence the fashioning of laws which reflect their worldviews and insights. So…only a ‘secular’ ethic and morality is allowable? And of what does this consist? What is ‘orthodox secular’ moral thinking which is translatable into law? Only what His Grace would deem appropriate? Only what the ACLU deems appropriate? Only what Mr. McCulloh thinks is appropriate? What is the magisterium which determines which moral concepts are ‘religious’ and which purely ‘secular?’ Every person who is invested in influencing the legislation which will have authority over American life is operating from a worldview, whether religious or otherwise, and I do not believe it is somehow a neutral or more reasonable position to immediately disqualify any religious voice simply because it is explicitly religious, or specifically Christian. Many churches used their authority to protest in favor of civil rights for minorities…was this an unreasonable encroachment on American freedom because their actions were motivated by a Christian concept of the image of God in all men? Similarly, are Christians not permitted now to speak out vehemently in support of protecting the lives of the massacred unborn, or even promoting–gasp!–laws which protect their lives, simply because some will accuse us of ‘legislating morality?’ Ludicrous! All laws, as noted above, are legislation of moral precepts, and Christians have just as much freedom, nay obligation, as anyone else to ensure that laws reflect a concept of justice and truth which Christians can recognize as just and true.

        I also don’t understand what it means to have a law which “protect[s] us [from] the threat of anyone forcing us to do something we don’t want to do (i.e. ‘freedom’).” What? What law is there which does not seek to compel action or, in some cases, nonaction? What purpose would there be for any law at all if we are all guarateed to have the same desires and motivations and resulting actions, and laws were only meant not to interfere with that? I have no idea what this means. All law is directed precisely toward those who would otherwise seek to act in a contrary manner, and all law compels specific behavior with the threat of punishment if breached. I think that your statement is nonsense, even apart from the dubious concept that all laws are based upon the same moral law, one which is not specific to Christianity. To which ‘same’ moral law are you referring? And please, help me to understand, presuming you are Orthodox, how a law which you state comes from God has nothing to do with Christian doctrine.

  4. Deacon Marty

    If I read Vladika correctly, he is saying that anything that condemns another is inherently unchristian, given the express words of Our Lord that he came not to judge nor condemn, even though the authority to do so was given to Him by the Father.

    Every example of Christ’s encounter with sin and sinful people was (with only one exception) met with forgiveness and no condemnation. Even the exception is telling – that was the sin of making the Temple into a house of commerce.

    For the Orthodox Christian, the standard of Truth, and the standard of Morality, is the person (words, actions) of Jesus who is the Christ. By following His example, we become His true disciples. And His example never condemned nor judged another.

  5. No Name

    “His example never condemned nor judged another” – are you sure about that? Moneychangers? Temple? Anything ringing a bell yet?

    You may need to re-read the Gospels.

  6. Alec

    But Christ did condemn sin. The very words “go and sin no more” indicate this: You are a sinner, stop doing it. The false idea here, with respect, is that speaking out in defense of moral living is “condemning and judging”. It is not! It is an attempt to remind our nation(s) of the commands of Christ to go and sin no more. All of our laws are moral statutes. Each of us is responsible as citizens to raise our voices in support of what we want our nation’s laws to be. We do not live in autocratic societies where we have no say. To remain silent is to turn your responsibilities over to another. It is not “love” nor “grace” to allow your nation to slide into the “slough of despond”. It is love to cry out for righteousness in all areas of society and offer grace to those who heed the call. God has called all men to repent and believe the Gospel (which means to obey Christ), not just those who show up to church on Sunday.

  7. Brian Jackson

    “The efforts of some religious bodies to manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law is nothing else but sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love.”

    There’s nothing here warning against condemnation. The statement is quite clear, and, honestly, offers its own condemnation.

  8. Matt Karnes

    The Archbishop doesn’t understand democracy. All of the people, the religious and the irreligious have to make decisions together, we are corporately the king, and have the power and right to make whatever law we wish to make. And all of those laws, from laws against murder to laws regulating commercial transactions reflect the morality of the people who made those laws.

    1. Brian McCulloh

      Our country is based upon freedom. The same type of freedom that comes from God. If it was unlawful to have bad morals, then you would be taking the freedom out of the equation, which would be in direct conflict to the freedom offered by our founding fathers, as well as by our Lord. There is ABSOLUTELY no room for religious doctrines in our government.

      Our government exists to protect us from harm, not to tell us how we should live. It is a tool, not a teacher.

      1. No Name

        Assuming you’re American, how to you propose to demonstrate that there is no religious doctrinal basis of:

        “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ”” That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

        Seriously? Sounds like it was based in religious doctrine to me.

      2. Matt Karnes

        Brian, human freedom is a religious doctrine. Are we not free because we are made in the image and likeness of God? What are the bankruptcy laws in the English Speaking world if not an adaptation of Deuteronomy 15:1-2. What is the spousal privliege in criminal prceedings from testimony if not an application of Genesis 2:24 to the right against self-incrimination? And even more fundamentally, what is the seperation of powers (judicial,legislative,executive) if not an acknowledgement that no one man is fit to exercise of the governing authority of God as outlined in Isaiah 33:22?

        As for the government protecting us from harm and not being a teacher, can’t both be true? Plato taught us that government is one of our first teachers. The laws of government inform our conscienceces. I don’t know if you have children, but if you do you have probably told your children that something is wrong only to have them ask, “is it against the law?” Children know instinctively that the laws made by men should reflect the Law of God.

        The task of men is not, I think, to create paradise on earth. Jesus will do that when he returns. Our task is, I thnk, to make laws as close to God’s laws as possible, all the while recognizing that we are not God and that inthe adjucation and execution of those man made laws there is the threat of tyranny, unequal enforcement, oppression, and all manner of evil. It is also necessary to recognize that law does not save anyone. It does not regenerate anyone. The Church does that through the Holy Mysteries. All the law can do is force us not to hurt each other and point to the way things should be.

  9. Ann

    Sexuality is a part of God’s creation and as such just as relevant to discuss as the environment. We need to engage the world on God’s plan for us as sexual beings with compassion, but the church is needed now more than ever to guide us on these issues.We harm the image of God within us by our sexual sins. If we love others, we will teach them God’s plan for a holy and peaceful life of blessing. We should stick up for the weakest amongst us, the unborn. We should also make sure greed does not prey upon the poor and hardworking of a nation. We should also take care to make sure the environment is cared for, also. All of these are moral issues that the Church should be a witness to in the world. We show a lack of love to not instruct the world on the laws of God and His Holy Gospel. Because we love, we enact laws to protect the innocent from the attacks of another. The New Testament clearly states that government is allowed by God to be a stabilizing force in this fallen world. As for partisan politics, well, I feel no party’s platform truly represents the moral teachings of Jesus. I personally vote for those who most represent the ideals of life, morality, and justice for the poor and care for God’s environment.

  10. Janotec

    This argument is a little like that of Yannaros, and it betrays the same weaknesses.

    St. James and St. Paul, in their epistles, probably come off too “moralistic” themselves under the rubrics of this argument.

    I think it is dangerous (and maybe a little egoistic) to dismiss the Creation account as a-historical and completely unscientific simply because it is mythical. That is much like the error of the Lateran Council which said that, against Berengarius, because the Eucharist is real, it is therefore not “symbolic.”

    Perhaps the author of this article cannot escape his own confinement in the modernistic moralism of this age.

    For heaven’s sake, what in the world is so dangerous about condemning sin? We all know, from kindergarten, that the sinner is never to be condemned. But part of his healing is in coming to terms that he violated his own nature. The awareness of that violation might feel like it is an arbitrary imposition of colonial rule. But that deficient awareness does not at all change the reality of the inherent danger and toxicity of sin.

    Holy Tradition has always warned us of sin, and so have the Holy Fathers. Sin against the lineaments of human nature is bound to bring dissolution of the spirit. Chastity in celibacy and heterosexual nuptial union protects human nature. So does the protection of life, even to the extent of assistance by civil law. The stewardship of the environment is also a virtue of human nature. Being courteous and loving is another.

    I am certainly no Tea Partier myself, and I cannot abide fundamentalism. But this is a bad article. The arbitrary selection of a few virtues, and the dismissal of old fashioned “moralisms,” is moralistic itself, and is tantamount to a bad sort of politicization.

    I cannot believe this was sent to the youth of the diocese.

  11. Karen

    Janotec, well said! In addition to the cleansing of the Temple, I also note that Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was quite pointed as well. He called them “a brood of vipers” and “white-washed tombs.” I wouldn’t argue for Fundamentalism either. I came to Orthodoxy from an Evangelical background largely because “penal substitution” began to make no sense to me in light of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and then I discovered that the understanding the Holy Spirit began to impress upon my heart about the nature of God’s mercy and judgment coincided with the Orthodox understanding expounded in Alexander Kalomiros’ “The River of Fire.” From then on, I was beating a path to the Orthodox Church, and now I am celebrating four years as an Orthodox Christian. Nevertheless, if we are to be true to the fullness of Orthodox faith, there is clearly a time and place for publicly condemning public policy and public words/actions. Given the proper motives and in the right context, this, too, is the outworking of God’s mercy, and you have expressed this much better than I can.


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