Mere Morality

mere-moralityWhat makes an action moral? I use the word to describe something done in an effort to conform to a rule, a law, or a principle. It is a matter of the will and a matter of effort. All societies require some form of moral behavior. If there were no such behavior, life would be unpredictable, unstable, and quite dangerous. Governments encourage some form of morality (it is the sole purpose of laws). Most religions also endorse a code or moral rule.

Having said all of that – I want to be clear that I do not suggest that people engage in immorality. However…

Morality is not the province of Christianity, nor is the Kingdom of God a matter of moral effort. I have written elsewhere that “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good…He died in order to make dead men live.”

The work of the Holy Spirit in the human life involves the true transformation of the Person. We are not commanded to behave, but to become.

This same principle runs throughout the sacraments of the Church. And the pattern of the sacraments is the pattern of our salvation. Baptism is not a matter of behavior (mere obedience to a command). Baptism is a true union with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2Co 5:17)

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal 6:15)

The waters of Baptism become the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Eucharist is not a new behavior for bread and wine, but a new reality is revealed: they become the true Body and Blood of Christ. We do not eat and drink as a moral act, or a memorial. We eat the true Body and drink the true Blood in order to live.

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (Joh 6:53-55)

There is within our culture a constant pull towards a moral model. The demand that others conform to an external rule, and the drive to force the same on ourselves, is a distraction that draws us away from the truth of our lives. We fail in our repeated moral attempts and secretly upbraid ourselves. With others we become consumed by anger. And both are driven by the pool of shame that failure generates.

But the nature of our life-problem is not failure to behave correctly. Were there to be someone who always acted in a proper moral manner – they would still be as sick as everyone around them. The sinlessness of Christ does not describe His unfailing conformity to the Jewish Law. It is rather His utter integrity with the Father – He is one with the Father and nothing ever severs that relationship.

Moral performance does not secure our union with God.

Christ on the mount of Transfiguration is what the truly “moral” man looks like. Our goal is not conformity to a standard, but life from the dead.

We are able to make “moral” judgments. Societies legislate morality (for this is the sole concern of the law). The good order of a culture is largely measured by its general conformity to its moral code. But this conformity is not the goal of the Christian faith. We have something far greater in mind.

I have noted a tendency among some to treat the Church’s concern for the environment as a moral goal (which is entirely appropriate). But some have confused this moral goal as somehow of a piece with the true goal of the transfiguration of creation. If every scintilla of pollution ceased at this very moment and the climate stabilized for the remainder of our planet’s existence, nothing relevant to the Kingdom of God would have been established. For our goal is not a moral planet (expressed in our stewardship). The proclamation of the gospel is that God has a goal and a purpose in all creation that transcends every moral effort of humanity. The created will be united with the uncreated.  This will not be a measure of its environment but the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Some are troubled (I’ve noticed) when such statements are made, fearing that they lessen the moral demands for stewardship of the environment. That may be, though it is not my intent (and thus not the intent of properly stated theology). But the gift of God is inexorable – not depending on human action. That Christ makes bread to be His body is not therefore a moral demand for better baking (though we should present the finest work of human hands at His altar).

The transformation of creation is the promise of a good God in the face of all human failure and of a creation “made subject to futility.” None of us can predict what the outcome of human habitation of our planet will be. We may yet be so silenced that any comment from the Church on the topic will be unheard. The seas may turn into wormwood and the planet breathe poison as in the earliest days of its formation. I think it completely likely that the planet will reflect the bankruptcy of mankind in every way.

But the transformation will come. That is a gospel promise.

We shall be changed. Everything shall be changed. And that’s the moral of this story.


All articles are by Fr. Stephen Freeman unless otherwise noted. Fr. Stephen is Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.

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.


27 responses to “Mere Morality”

  1. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Much to think about here, Fr. Stephen. But, before I ponder further, I wanted to seek clarification.

    “Morality is not the provence of Christianity” (I assume this is a typo and you mean “province”, as in domain or responsibility?)

    I think I am following the overall direction of your article and am certainly not disagreeing with it. However, I might be more inclined to say that the goal of Christianity goes far beyond mere moral behavior.

    “We are not commanded to behave…” It seems to me that we are, in the Ten Commandments, for example, and in many of the teachings of Jesus, e.g. “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

    However, we would be gravely mistaken if we thought that was all that was involved. Or that we could follow these commands through mere effort, as we might follow traffic laws. And this is where transformation comes in.

    Am I understanding the basic premise? Or still on the wrong boat?

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary – thanks for the spellcheck!

    It is, I think, the “mechanism” of morality that I am getting at. To “behave” is the wrong means of keeping the commandments. What we learn from that is simply our inability to keep the commandments.

    It is the “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” that goes closer to the actual task be before us. To become someone who can love his/her enemies is the point –

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    mary benton: if I am following Father’s thought properly, the commands of which you speak are not simply moral and cannot be fulfilled in a moral way. We can only love ontologically.
    Morally, it makes no sence to love our enemies and morally I dare say it is impossible. Loving my enemies is an action that can only occur from the Cross. The only way to love them is to forgive them even if they kill you.

    That is the action of martyrs.

    Also it is impossible to enter into life in a simply moral way.

    Now to be sure most will not be able to tell the difference unless they encounter a fool for Christ.

    I hope I don’t do violence to your thought Father. Please forgive me if I have.

  4. Jeff Avatar

    ” personhood is ontologically ultimate”, ..but do we ever get past the character or for example holiness of God ( I mean this within the quotes context) …?., I would love to live free and act like any immorality doesn’t hurt someone , , but it does , it wounds the agent , and in a corporate way our ourness, I can’t find a work around

    I’m not sure the created ever becomes the uncreated , ( Zizioulas is a stickler on that.,

  5. Steven Clark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, may I link this blog entry in my own blog? (inviting this to be a guest blog on my blog) ?

  6. Dino Avatar

    This ties in nicely with the previous article that we cannot change the world…

    A key stumbling point for many which is infered here, is the truth that God’s commandments are not there to help others, but to help ourselves. There is a kind of (good) egocentricity in God’s request to become ourselves deified (and not to distract ourselves with others)

  7. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Dino, I am confused by your comment:

    A key stumbling point for many which is infered here, is the truth that God’s commandments are not there to help others, but to help ourselves. There is a kind of (good) egocentricity in God’s request to become ourselves deified (and not to distract ourselves with others)

    I am current reading Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac (a marvelous book, BTW). While it is evident in the life of this holy man that he never lost sight of his own sinfulness and humility before God, helping countless others flowed from that – even when he preferred to be at prayer.

    I do not see how we could “become ourselves deified” without entering into this profound love. Certainly, we must first be changed – if our love does not become His love, it has little value. But the well-being and sufferings of others cannot be considered “distractions”, even as we are on the path toward transformation.

    Perhaps I misunderstand you…

  8. Lina Avatar

    I am very much a new learner in Orthodoxy and often I am confused. I can understand the emphasis that we are to grow in grace and that Christianity is not morality but something greater, a relationship with God.

    But my experience so far seems to me that we must constantly confess and repent of our moral failings, our passions. We are constantly praying, Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner, which seems to me to be referring to our moral failures.

    We tend to link immorality and sin, and hence sinner, together.

    How do we, what process is involved, that takes us from constantly thinking about our moral failings and obeying commandments, to dare I say, enjoying the presence of God?
    Enjoying the gifts that He gives us and even learning to recognize them. Or as some say, developing an sttitude of gratitude.

    Perhaps I am thinking too much in terms of human relationships, but I would think a friend a bore, if all he/she did was apologize for their failings to me.


  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course immoral action, rightly understood, hurts others. It can be described ontologically (or it wouldn’t hurt others). Have you read Yannaras? He has thought long on this.

    The created never “becomes” the uncreated, according to its nature, but it does so according to the Divine Energies. A weakness in Zizioulas, I think, is the absence of the energies in his thought. But as to the union of created and uncreated, this is at the heart of St. Maximus the Confessor.

    I am a great fan of Met. Zizioulas’ work and think he has done marvelous service for contemporary Orthodox thought. There is, however, a tendency to “systematize,” and render his thought somehow less organic to the whole of the tradition. His work on the Person has become quite popular among the non-Orthodox, as a sort of theological cypher. It is used by many in very heterodox ways. This, of course, is not Z’s fault, but does point to a possible weakness in his work.

    Our work and thoughts have to constantly be pulled back towards the life within the Church itself. A “Eucharistic theology” must, ultimately, be grounded in the actual partaking of the Eucharist and the living Eucharistic community – with all of its many painful realities. The tendency to abstract various ideological formulae from the Tradition, and then apply them, always leads us away from the reality of the Tradition.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


  11. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    When I was studying covenants some years ago I was quite struck to discover that the OT laws and covenants terminate in the heart and emanate from the heart. Covenant language chiastically leads beyond the external rules of behavior to an inner heart of the matter between the parties.

    Those who can’t or won’t penetrate the mystery are left holding onto mere injunctions and prohibitions by which they can judge themselves. But those who penetrate deeper find an inner sanctum where the King’s own radiance dwells with them in peace. This is the purpose of the laws and it is always where they invite us to be.

  12. Dino Avatar

    I think you already answered your question by relating Elder Paisios’ help towards others as “flowing” from the sight of his own humility before God.
    Prioritising actively seeking to ‘make a difference’ to the outside world, in place of humbly seeking to find the Kingdom of God that is within, is considered a classic mistake, a ‘delusion’ in the name of helping others. The warnings against this are well documented in monastic writings by all the Fathers – virtually…
    This apparent ‘egocentricity’ (for lack of a better term) that is commanded to novices (on the application of God’s law) – in the hope of ontologically being transformed through His grace – demonstrates that man cannot really ever love as an “old Adam”; love can only ever ‘flow’ from a person when he has been transformed into the ‘New Adam”. This must be the first priority.
    I understand that it is not so in the western understanding of monasticism, but if we look at, say, Saint Anthony the Great (the Father of all monastics), we see that after the years in total seclusion he only ever left solitude twice, once (around 60 !) hoping to become a martyr, and again around 80) after much begging from others. The monastic community that eventually gathered around him might have been huge, but it was entirely concentrated on stillness, quiet and solitude, so much so that Paladios (the only witness) was amazed at the silence that emanated from what was virtually a city in the desert…
    Father Paisios himself used Saint Anthony’s words many a times –that if he visited the city he would be ‘Anthony’ while if he stayed in the desert he would be ‘Anthony the Great’

  13. Mary Bongiorno Avatar
    Mary Bongiorno

    Amen Amen to Christ

  14. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  15. Jeff Avatar

    He’s not a fan of ” maximizing ” the energies, more into the Cappodocian essence and hypostasis ,

    In his words ” thus the view that union between God and the human being – what is called theosis in the Orthodox tradition – is not realized at the level of hypostasis but only that of energia , appears to be questionable. Such a view if accepted , would make it difficult to identify theosis with filial adoption – an identification with deep roots in the Bible …..(processing )

    ” Common to all the Trinity, the concept of energy offers itself for the bridging of the gap between uncreated and created nature via a communion of natural properties, and only indirectly hypostatically.” It’s very simple , he prefers the Maximus emphasis that the gulf is bridged only by incarnation ( he does note : GP is also categorical that it is ultimately the Incarnation and not the energies that unite God and the World )….

    ” it is his modern orthodox interpreters who maximize his teaching about the divine energies to the point of obscuring the truth”

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What has to be understood is the inter-connectedness of all of creation. On one level, all of us are given life by His energies that are a natural part of creation.

    Our sin weakens and even breaks some of the natural connections, cutting us off from one another and from our Creator and the rest of His creation. Forcing us from our natural communion.

    If energies alone were enough to restore, rebuild and return us to our fully natural state, the Incarnation would not be necessary. It is the Incarnation that restores and saves but without the energies we would still be just as dead.

    It is not one or the other it is both acting together.

    As it is now, we have no idea what any part of creation looks like, how it is or was, how we are. We get glimpses from time to time, but we simply cannot perceive the vastness nor the pureness nor the incredible communion we can share/will share with Him in the Resurrection. Everything we experience and share now is just a foretaste and, in a sense, artificial.

    That is why morality alone does not work for salvation.

    All moral codes, however, have an assumed cosmology that points to something greater than the code itself.

    The Christian moral code is nothing without the anthropologic and ontological understanding and reality that is the gift of our Lord’s Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension–taking our whole nature, body and soul, with Him and uniting us with the Godhead in an incredibly intimate way.

    It is that intimacy we seek and are drawn into. True morality is an effect of our greater union with our God, not a cause.

  17. Christopher Avatar

    The problem I see with the idea of a “Christian/Orthodox/Church stewardship of the environment”, is that all the efforts I have seen to date presuppose modernist, materialistic, Malthusian, and the misanthropic morality of the modern environmental movement. In other words, they simply dress up this quite anti-humanistic philosophy with Christian terms and proceed to moralize from there. For example, I made an effort a few years back to read some of the various statements from the “environmental” patriarch (as the media loves to call him) and I simply could not see how he was making any real distinctions between a proper, Christian theology/anthropology (and a proper morality that would flow from this) and the modernist presuppositions of the environmental movement. He simply began with the latter and went from there. This is exactly the wrong place to start since it is not anyway compatible to a traditional/Christian understanding of God, creation, man, the commandments given to man by God, etc.

    Does anyone know of an Orthodox writer who has started at the right place?

  18. Rick Avatar

    “We are not commanded to behave, but to become.”

    I think this is in the image of the parable of the Prodigal Son; where the brother who stayed is improperly concerned with how the brother who left has “behaved”, while the Father is concerned with his sons’ “becoming”.

  19. C.M.C. Fulmer Avatar

    This is message for me at a very personal level. How stupid it is for me to believe in the necessity of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, as sent by Christ, yet at the same instant I am critically angry with how ‘weak’ I and those of the church I work with are, as perceived as fallen regular behavior. Am I truly no longer under the law?

  20. Jeff Avatar

    I think ‘ without division ‘ and ‘ without confusion’, means for Met Z., the uncreated and created dialectic in the person of Christ himself , Christology does not abolish this dialectic ( no inevitability or necessity , and suppression of the dialectic exists in freedom) and in us too as we are filially in Christ…, I guess my observation is that it’s not a downer that we are on the created side of things

  21. ash Avatar

    Is there a distinction in mourning for an act we have commited that we perceive to be immoral and a mourning driven buy our state of separation from God.

  22. Jeff Avatar

    Good question Ash, like to know what others think , as , I guess one highlights the other

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not sure I can answer that in the abstract.

  24. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Ash –

    Far be it from me to claim to be able to do what Fr. Stephen cannot 🙂

    At least in the way you have stated it, it seems to me that “mourning for an act we have committed that we perceive to be immoral” focuses on the behavior and me. The mourning is likely for the consequences of the behavior, e.g. how I feel about myself, how I think others see me as a result, what punishment I anticipate, etc. How it has separated me from God may or may not be under consideration.

    “Mourning driven by our state of separation from God”, on the other hand, is purely relationship-based. The grief is clearly rooted in being separated from the One I love – and knowing that I am responsible for that separation. It involves both a sorrow and a longing.

    (These are my thoughts, offered with the recognition that I may have totally misunderstood your question…)

  25. Jeff Avatar

    I just can’t figure out how the world or perhaps Christians with different answers deliver themselves from self- hatred…, when one needs reconciliation , to reset them in seperation of it …,

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