Sweet Commandments

10commandments_2425344bSomewhere in the early ’70’s, I recall being in a group of Church youth. They were singing a song based on Psalm 19:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

At the time, I found it hard to sing the song with conviction. It seemed to me that we were saying, “God, I really love your rules! Your rules are so wonderful! Nothing is better than your rules! I’d rather have rules than money! Your rules are sweeter than honey!”

I wanted to mean it (“After all,” I thought, “this is Scripture!”). But with any measure of honesty added in, I could not bring myself to say, “I love rules!” I still don’t like rules.

There are people who do like rules. There were always at least one or two kids in any grammar school class who wanted to know first thing what the rules were and then excelled in keeping them and in gathering up all of the trinkets and privileges doled out by teachers for those who did. I got all of the punishments given to those who talk too much and who interrupt others.

Even on a serious, adult level, I still wonder at those who love rules. The godly commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” is a good law. It is a holy law. And though I don’t want anyone to break such a commandment, it is hard to say, “I just love this commandment!” For the man who has broken the commandment, it is crushing and life-ending. It would be perverse for others to stand around as his death sentence was carried out and say, “I love this commandment!” Of course, this is one of the perversities in which our fractured culture occasionally engages.

So why does the Psalmist sing as he does? How are the commandments of God “sweeter than honey?”

The question, it seems to me, is related to Christ’s statement, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Again, this makes sense, but sounds heartless. “If you love me, do what I say,” is distant and cold and correct. Distant, cold and correct are not things I associate with love. So how are commandments sweeter than honey and the manifestation of love? Over the years, my experience has shown “rule-keepers” to often be judgmental and neurotic. Their observance of the rules is not always an example of love, but only one more form taken by human deviance.

The mystery and meaning of Christ’s statement is revealed when we understand that the commandments of Christ are a “verbal icon” of Christ Himself. The “keeping” of His commandments is an act of union with Christ in the heart of His life rather than a neurotic effort to “do the right thing.”

Of course, the commandments of Christ are nowhere as boring as the cultural morality of the mainstream. Forgiveness of enemies and doing good to those who do evil is a world away from the general civility that most people find to be a sufficient modern morality. The radical love of Christ embodied in His commandments are eschatological in their demands (having to do with the “last things”). His commandments are a description of what is like when the Kingdom of God has come – for, in truth, in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come. The community which is the Body of Christ is specifically called to the keeping of His commandments because the Body of Christ is specifically the community of the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God does not represent an adaptation to life in this world. We are nowhere commanded to “do the best you can.” But neither are we commanded to keep the commandments for the sake of Christ or for the sake of His Kingdom. Christ recognizes that His commandments are “impossible.” The commandments of Christ have about them the nature of the resurrection – and they can only be kept in and through the power of the resurrection. Union with Christ Himself makes possible what is impossible (“with God all things are possible”).

The keeping of Christ’s commandments is not an exercise in human morality – it is life from the dead. Christ has not commanded us to walk on water – but we can only love our enemies through the same power by which we would. This is the nature of the Kingdom, and the nature of the gospel itself. As such, the commandments of the Lord are indeed pure and sweeter than honey.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


113 responses to “Sweet Commandments”

  1. Chrys Avatar

    “Without God, bad stuff is just bad stuff. With Him it becomes an offering.”

    True – but then, without God, it isn’t bad or good — it doesn’t have any meaning at all.

    But, in fact – or rather, in experience, that “bad stuff” – the suffering we undergo becomes a means of our salvation of the hands of God; it tears down the egoism (which the “good stuff” often feeds) that keeps us trapped in ourselves and cut off from God. It exposes the lie and the illusion from which the commandments, if followed, would have protected us. We think this egoism is our life, but it is our death. It is often only in suffering that we let go of this “mind of the flesh” and find Life and Truth (that is, God).

  2. Shane Avatar

    TLO said “All I was saying is that I’d prefer a deity that showed some weakness with which I can relate. That would be somehow comforting.”

    Hello TLO, I would encourage you to attend, if possible, the Orthodox Holy Friday service next week – Veneration of the Shroud and Lamentations at the Tomb. You just might discover some of God’s weakness that you’re still looking for.

  3. TLO Avatar

    In the Christian paradigm “bad stuff” happens because of our rejection of God

    There would be no tsunamis, tornadoes, avalanches, floods, allergies, or mild sunburns if people hadn’t rejected god?

    Without God, bad stuff is just bad stuff. With Him it becomes an offering.

    Bad stuff is an offering? That’s rather like saying that every curse is a prayer.

    …without God, it isn’t bad or good

    Of course it is.

    PJ and Shane:

    You’ve never been betrayed by a friend? Misunderstood by those closest to you?

    …Veneration of the Shroud and Lamentations at the Tomb…

    It is one thing to have things done to you. That is not weakness. You can place graffiti on a rock. That doesn’t make it any less of a rock.

    “The good are innocent and create justice. The bad are guilty, which is why they invent mercy.”

  4. Dino Avatar

    your comment:
    “There would be no tsunamis, tornadoes, avalanches, floods, allergies, or mild sunburns if people hadn’t rejected god?”
    ignores the crux of your misunderstanding concerning the INTERPRETATION of all being (including good &bad stuff)…!
    The ancient Epictetus (often cited with approval by Church Fathers) hit the nail on the head when he said:
    “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things…. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.”

  5. Chrys Avatar

    …without God, it isn’t bad or good

    Of course it is.

    Father, forgive me. I failed to express my point clearly (a perennial problem unfortunately).

    I had in mind those who claim there is no God, who believe – or live – as materialists, as atheists. If one starts from the assumption that there is no God, then you must also accept that everything is just molecules and thus there is no meaning, there is nothing we can call good or bad in any meaningful way. I hope this is clearer.

    Interjecting a comment about materialists/a materialist viewpoint was not as random as it may seem (at least, it does not seem so to me). As I thought about how we live, I realized how often my behavior exhibits just such a lack of faith. That is, I have begun to realize that, in practice, my faith is often immature, weak — or, as Christ put it, “little.” At the moment of testing – the moment of challenge – when I am faced with adhering to the commandment of God or to grasping after godlike control of my existence, I seem to reenact the fall all over again: I reflexively grasp once again to gain control. Unlike Christ in the desert, I do not say “Man does not live by (whatever the need is), buy by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

    For those who assert that the events of our lives have meaning – that stuff is good or bad – is to presume God (otherwise, again, it is just molecules) . . even if we live every or any other part of our life as if He does not exist(the “functional atheism” of our “little faith”).

    Of course, you are right that of course there is indeed bad stuff – and it is pervasive. As I often tell my children, we were made by God for a perfect world – for heaven (for communion), as it were – but we live in a fallen world where disorder, death, disease and every distortion is the result of our fall, of sin. Severed from the life of God, death contaminates existence. But God, Who is everywhere present, is perpetually pouring out grace upon grace to turn what we have done into something good, to transform our acts of disintegration into opportunities for repentance and a means to deeper communion (which is a wordy version of what I think Michael meant).

    It increasingly amazes me how God turns our bad stuff – the bad stuff we do and the bad things that happen to us – into medicine for our soul and the means of our salvation. This becomes especially evident in reading the lives of the saints and seeing how God used the very evils that they endured to sanctify them (St. Nektarios is a vivid example). As the Patriarch Joseph said (Gen 50:20), “What you meant for evil, God used for good.” Beginning to see this has helped me to accept such things in my life as providential, as tools that God can and will use to work out my salvation. I trust that He will do this, too, with the worst evils in my life, which are not those done to me, but those done by me. Then someday, perhaps, when I encounter temptation I will be able to answer with Christ that “I do not live by (the temptation at hand), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” that it is not my wishes (or, more to the point, my ego) that I serve or need, but “the Lord God and Him only shall I serve.”

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    TLO, there is a sense in which all we have to offer God is our brokenness both personally and as a worshipping community. The cruse is our knowledge of good and evil without the ability to really discern. He alone judges righteously. So we offer everything to God in thanksgiving and pray for the healing, transformation and increase only He can give.

    Every ‘bad’ thing that has ever happened to me has brought me closer to God the more I offer up my judgements, feelings, sorrow and grief.

    He replaces the emptiness, anger and dispair with joy.
    His abundance is made manifest in my poverty.

  7. Dino Avatar

    This is yet another word on interpretation – our judgement of things, even if it doesn’t originally look like one..
    An Elder in Greece who had a great deal of “bad stuff” happen to him and suffered from virtually every illness under the sun (it was a miracle he was alive according to his doctor) would often repeat enthusiastic words such as these:

    Christ is everything. He is Joy, He is Life, He is Light. He is the true Light that makes Man joyful, soaring with gladness; He makes him see and clearly comprehend everything and everyone.

    He is indeed our all, the true objective of all desire. He is Love, Eros, Passion, enthusiasm, fervour, longing for the Divine; a Joy that transforms us into another person; a spiritual madness in the eyes of the world but not in Christ. This spiritual wine has the power to inebriate far more than pure unadulterated wine. The Prophet David says, “You have anointed my head with oil and your cup intoxicates me most mightily.” Such divine intoxication is a gift of God, given firstly according to one’s purity of heart.

    Christ’s joy lasts forever, and brings eternal delight. It is the Joy of our Lord bestowing assured peace, serene delight and the fullness of bliss. It makes you forget to eat, forget to sleep, forget to sit…

    This is what our Faith is in truth. What is Paradise you ask? It is Christ. Jesus Christ is Paradise, my children and that Paradise begins here and now. Here and now. What Christ wants most of all is to fill us with Joy, because He is the well-spring of true Joy. This joy is a gift of Christ. In this joy we come to know Him.

    If, for instance, you are in love, you can live amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre and be utterly unaware that you are in the heart of the city. You see neither cars nor people nor anything else. Within yourself you are with the person you love. Nothing more, nothing less. You experience that person, you take delight in them, they inspire you. Are these things not true? Imagine now that the person you love is Christ. Christ is in you mind, Christ is in your heart, Christ is in your whole being, Christ is everywhere and all is seen through Him.

    Whoever therefore loves Christ also overflows with love for all other people and truly lives life. Loving others thus we love the Church –His Body- Jesus Christ.

    Compare this to life without Christ, it is death, it is hell, it is not life. This is what hell is – the absence of love. Life therefore is Christ. Love is that life of Christ. Either you will be in life or death. It’s up to you to decide.

    Let us love Christ and let our only hope and care be for Him. Let us love Christ for His sake only. Never for our sake. Let Him place us wherever He likes. Let him give us whatever He wishes.

  8. TLO Avatar


    “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things…. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.”

    OK. So, one who is unperturbed about homosexuality, stem cell research, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, child porn, and abortion do not suffer from some moral failing, do they? If it doesn’t bother them, that thing must not be wrong (to them).

    This thought would seem to support that morality is subjective. “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    The natural outcome is that any further moral argument put forth by Christians as irrelevant. I kinda don’t think this is the case and so I don’t think that this quote really means what it seems to mean. At least, it’s not one that should be put forth as an argument with non-theists unless your intention is to prove them correct.


    I had in mind those who claim there is no God, who believe – or live – as materialists, as atheists.

    Why does “atheist” equal “immoral” in your mind? There are as many immoral Christians as atheists (percentage-wise) and as many moral persons in each camp. It’s nonsense to say that bad stuff happens because of atheists or atheism.

    As far as “materialism” is concerned, I don’t think that any American in qualified to even talk about the issue (certainly not anyone with a computer and Internet access!). It is like the social drinker condemning people who drink more than they do. We are all materialists in the good old US of A. There are mo teetotalers in regards to materialism. Not here. That’s why people come here, IMHO, to have better and more stuff.

    I don’t intend this as a bag on you. I am merely stating that the fish in the pond ought not to condemn those who live in a fog on the land. Both are surrounded by H2O but the fish has no reference points for land lubbering. We are all fish in the West.

  9. TLO Avatar

    Ah, well, my posts aren’t posting. Perhaps the gods of the web are speaking and telling me to shut up.


  10. dino Avatar

    you are right in suspecting that you misunderstood the quote of Epictitus – it is not what it seems to you according to your comment above. It is especially not referring to any “subjective morality”
    It is far more related to Kalomoiros’ the River of Fire who there expounds in detail how one can interpret experience (God’s Love in that case) as the complete opposite to another person, all based on their respective internal disposition. So 2 people look at the same thing (God’s Love, or his providence, or what befalls them) and one perceives “bad stuff” the other perceives”good stuff” (Heaven and Hell is far more in the eye of the beholder). The proper, objective experience perceives “good stuff” where the the darkened, subjective self-centred individual perceives “bad stuff”.
    Yet another example of this is comparing Jean Paul Sartre and Saints like St Silouan or St Seraphim. One says “others are my hell” while the the others say “others are my paradise”….

  11. PJ Avatar

    “It is one thing to have things done to you. That is not weakness. You can place graffiti on a rock. That doesn’t make it any less of a rock.”

    What? Being vulnerable isn’t a form of weakness?

  12. Chrys Avatar

    TLO, I am referring to philosophical materialism (ala Francis Crick), not economic materialism – to the viewpoint that, per my first post, there is no God, only matter. The point there was that such a view renders all renders the one who holds it incapable of any coherent notion of meaning, or giving priority to anything, or of any sense of there being “good or bad stuff.” We may quickly recognize the horror and bankruptcy of such a perspective on life, and yet fail to see that when we yield to sin or the passions, that is the “ground’ we take up in our behavior. In that sense do we reprise the fall of Adam in ourselves and show our own vacuous egotism, our own inclination to grasp after divinity. It also shows how unlike Christ we are – in our yielding to self over truth, to short-term desire over enduring truth, to appetite over commandment, in grasping after what prerogatives we do not have when He did not even grasp after the prerogatives He had (Phil. 2:5-8.) It shows the need for ever-deepening repentance, obedience, and humility; and that humility, in turn, makes a place in our hearts for communion with God.

  13. Dino Avatar

    Another way to look at the paramount importance of the way we condition ourselves to interpret all “Being“, or through what lens we train ourselves to see God, others and all that befalls us, is that it also reveals our “eternal interpretation”…

    Elder Paisios’ once described this vision:

    In Hell there is a gigantic table at the centre of which lies a huge Chalice containing the most desirable ever drink, the most desirable ever Light (etc etc…) All who sit around this table have a gigantic ladle attached to their hand. But they are unbelievably miserable and utterly desperate: No matter how hard they try, they know the ladle is too long to ever reach their own mouth and they are in the most unbearable darkness, alone and tormented by dryness.

    In Paradise the situation looks similar. People around the same enormous table, the same immeasurably long ladles attached, but with one key difference: They are not trapped inside that “enclosement” of the Self, through thinking of the Other first, they enjoy the ‘First Commandment’ (they enjoy the Light and Love and that quenching of their thirst from that “Chalice”) through the ‘Second Commandment’ by feeding each other lovingly…

    The title of Met. J. Zizioulas’ most famous work, “Being as Communion“, is (in my mind), a key notion to an Orthodox ‘phronema’ on Heaven and Hell, (no matter how various Fathers interpret these at times).
    What I mean to say is that one’s “enclosement” inside of his ego (one’s inability to relate to God and to any other, through various degrees of egocentricity) is his degree of Hell.
    If I am my god, and this Lie has become my mode of being, God cannot be seen as my God or my heaven, and perhaps the fact that He actually is, makes things worse for those who desire the Truth to be a Lie and the Lie to be the Truth, as Sartre said: “others are my Hell”… (and vice versa of course)…

    p.s: I have also (more or less) posted this same comment on Father Aidan’s site.

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