Rules, Rules, Rules!

I think from the outside looking in, all the rules in Orthodox Christianity can look like so much legalism. Do this, do that. Don't eat this, do eat that. What's the point?

Well, why does Bob Greene tell Oprah to get off her butt and do x, y, and z? Why does he tell her to eat or not eat certain things? To get her in shape and keep her that way, of course.

It's the same way with the Orthodox Church. It is basically a very old and very effective training course for overcoming one's passions and for building spiritual strength, for preparing one for being with God.

But the irony is, the further one goes on this path, the deeper one's awareness of one's own sins. So you never get to the point where you are saying "Yah, I'm perfect now!" If you are, it's called delusion and is very very spiritually dangerous. The Russians have a word: "Prelest". It means spiritual delusion.

So, I was out at a Chinese restaurant last night, talking with a friend about all these things. Me: "It all seems sort of 'rules-y, doesn't it?" "Yeah," she said. "But I think the point is to teach us how to love." "But there are going to be those people who love the rules and who like to check off their list, like OK, I've done this and this, so I'm safe from purgatory or whatever." (My friend is Roman Catholic). "Yeah, but it's like saint Paul writes: If we have not love, we are but a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal....and all these so-called-legalistic rules are tools designed to make us stronger that we can either embrace or resist. What if they are embraced in a spirit of grace and love? Then it becomes a very effective training program for spiritual growth."

Personally, I'm very glad not to have to invent ways to strengthen myself spiritually. I have a hard enough time choosing to do the good I know I could be doing. Darn it! Do I pick up my Bible, or a prayer book when I have a few extra minutes and I need to put my feet up? Or do I whip out the lap top and cruise Youtube for old ABBA videos? ...ahem...ask me how far I had to reach to come up with that example...{as I'm humming Dancing Queen to myself in my head...} (Not that there's anything wrong with old ABBA vids on's just that, if I had eyes to see, I think I would see that it is an utter waste of time. And time is limited.)


Anonymous said…
I do understand all this, the difference between legalism and exercise, but my problem is that in Orthodoxy one never sees any progress. One can do the exercises all one wants and all one seems to learn is how much MORE sinful one is than one thought. This is, well, not at all motivating for me. If I do almost *any* other kind of exercise, from physical to intellectual, I actually see progress. Or I am allowed to stop! In Orthodoxy, if I stop, it's just another example of how sinful I am.

Alana said…
As Saint Isaac the Syrian says: "This life is given to you for repentance. Do not waste it in vain pursuits."

What else IS there? Rejoice when you see your sins and grieve when you cannot see them, for then you have been given the opportunity to repent. And really, truly, what else IS there?
Anonymous said…
Well...I can think of lots of things actually, like friends, music, happiness, good work, fellowship, taking care of one's family, beauty natural and beauty human-created. What among those are vain pursuits?

If I'm spending all my time looking for sins, when do I get to appreciate and be grateful for the wonderful things around me? I feel like there is a LOT more to life than repentance...and I'm afraid I can't back down just because St Isaac is St. Isaac... notwithstanding.
Alana said…
There are many things in life that do not interfere with the path of repentance. And there is a way of living life, and living it very well, in which all these things can be enjoyed as gifts from God while at the same time one is on that path of repentance. That is what I strive for in life, and it certainly is NOT all doom and gloom and hideousness. And I do not believe that I am alone in this, either. This path towards God of which I write is the foundation and the context for all of my life. After all, I am going to die someday. And I will have either spent my time moving towards God, or moving away from God. I don't obsess about all my sins. I trust the Holy Spirit will reveal them to me when I am ready, and I do ask God to do that, and God does. Meanwhile there is much joy in simply praying the Jesus prayer and hoping that my heart is yielded to God.

I have made it my life motto, many years before becoming Orthodox, that if God shows me a sin that I'm committing, I will strive to repent of it. Period.

Now, there are some things that have been easy to repent of (as in, not do any more) and there are some things that I have to take to confession over and over and over again. But I do see changes and growth in my own heart and in my actions and my life, and I do find that I am covering "new territory" in confession, which I see as progress. Ask my family. I still yell at them, but I yell at them less often than I used to. And besides the things I know that I struggle against, there's always going to be more and surprises, right around the corner (I imagine my heart and this whole process of repentance to be like a rugged canyon, and I journey along with a small light and can only see what is right in front of me, and not what is around the corner or even necessarily where the next turn until I get there and God shows it to me) and I've made the commitment to myself that when I see it, I will confess it and strive to repent.

It's not comfortable, believe me! But I'd rather do it now than later. That's just how I'm living MY life. You, of course, are free to choose differently.

May God bless you on your journey, and may you finally reach the top someday.
james said…
I'm with Sisyphus. Punishing oneself over and over again does not necessarily equal repentance. Fasting more than 51% only makes people tired and grumpy.

Jesus said to fast, but He never said how to fast. Meat, dairy, olive oil, marital relations, movies, parties, wine, beer ... if those things stand in one's way of salvation than cut down on them if not out all together. But, Christ never demanded any specifics.
Ted said…
it does appear that christianity is excessively dominated by rules of what you can/cannot do. but if, as a christian, one lives his faith by way of rules alone then that person has missed christ's message. god does not say "do this and this and this because i don't want you to enjoy your life," rather he gives us specific basic commands that need not be interpreted through the eyes of "religion." "love your neighbor as yourself" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are common sense issues of kindness and wisdom. beyond such basic commands, christ's life is an example that our behavior should reflect, not to restrict or confine us into boring rules and routines, but to allow us to experience the true joy of life as it was designed--without the pain that sin causes.

the "rules" god established through the prophets and through christ are in place not only to remind us of our sins and ultimate fallibilities, but also to guide us to a happier and more fulfilling existence. as paul wrote, "'everything is permissible'--but not everything is beneficial. 'everything is permissible'--but not everything is constructive." god wants us to use our minds to determine the rightness or wrongness of our actions according to the subsequent effects they have. "do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." god gave us intellect and the freedom to use it in judging our actions wisely.

forget rules! live a christ-centered life led by the holy spirit and rules will prove irrelevant.

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