We can think of the Christian Faith in a negative way, as if it was about things which are forbidden to us, and things which will limit our freedom. We can imagine that all our effort must be given without any clear idea that it will ever be rewarded. It can seem that everyone else is free to enjoy themselves, and that we alone must make choices which will take away every pleasure. When we look at the way in which many people live in the world around us, we can wonder what the Christian Faith has to offer, beyond a distant hope of Heaven. The teachings of the Church can seem to be harsh and cruel, when they are applied to the way that many kind and thoughtful people live outside the Church.
Why does the Church seem to criticise those who live in a different way to us, when many of them are better people? Why should we be committed to the Christian way of life when others seem to be kinder, more friendly, more generous? Why does the Church seem to judge others when they are not harming anyone? Is it the Christian life which is normal, or that of the millions of people around us who do not know God?
These are some of the questions that many of our thoughtful young people ask themselves and ask the Church. Many of these different ways of living are being increasingly experienced by members of our own Coptic Orthodox Church. They are no longer things which are taking place far away. They are ways of living and acting which are a direct challenge and a temptation to Coptic Orthodox Christians in every place.
We can name some of these things. They are the overwhelming influence of sexual promiscuity, of pornography and sexual habits, and of ideas about homosexual acts and gender. All of these things are affecting young people in our Coptic Orthodox Church, both directly and personally, as well as indirectly. When we have negative ways of thinking about our Orthodox Faith, as if it is just a matter of forbidding things, then we do not have the tools to address these issues or respond to then ourselves.
There is a necessary obedience in the Orthodox Christian life, but obedience always has to be towards a purpose. If I want to learn to play the piano I will have to obey my teacher. She will instruct me in a detailed way how to hold my hands. She will make me repeat simple exercises and scales over and over again. I will begin by playing only very simple pieces with her guidance. But slowly, and with effort, I will become more accomplished, and I will begin to understand what she has been teaching, and why she has been teaching it in a particular way. At some point my obedience to my teacher has to become a personal desire to take hold of the particular discipline of learning to play the piano, otherwise I will never progress beyond a certain point. We don’t give up our obedience when we become completely committed to something, even something like learning to play the piano. But the obedience with understanding has to move from being something outside ourselves to something inside ourselves, even if we still need a teacher.
The same rule applies to any and every human activity. If I want to get really fit I will need a coach or instructor at the gym. But I will only really make progress when the obedience to the discipline of fitness becomes a part of me, guided by the coach. If I want to learn a language, the teacher is necessary, but at some point I have to bring this desire to learn inside myself so that the teacher guides me and does not have to keep making me do homework or study.
All of these issues which have been mentioned do require obedience in each of us if we are seeking to be faithful Orthodox Christians. Especially when we are beginning in the Faith, the Church in her wisdom, guides us to that which is life-giving, and away form that which is harmful. But many of us find ourselves in a place where simple obedience no longer quite seems an answer. More is required. A different way of thinking about our unchanging and Apostolic faith that allows us to commit to obedience within our own hearts, and to think about these contemporary issues in a better way so that the teaching of the Church can be seen as Good News and not as something negative. It is not our Faith which needs to change, but it needs to be explained in a way that communicates our Faith properly and comprehensively.
Many of us, if we are serious young people in the Church, have been obedient. But now there is a need to bring that obedience inside of ourselves, to commit to it, and not simply respond to what our parents, or servants, or priests tell us. We need to understand, and then obedience becomes something else. Not just doing or not doing something physically, with the outside of ourselves, but being changed in our thinking, so that our obedience becomes an expression of who we are.
This is really necessary, because many in the Church are personally caught up in some of these issues or have adopted the attitudes towards them of people outside the Church. There is an epidemic of pornography and habitual sexual sins in the Church. It Is not just a matter of thinking about other people’s behaviour. Our own behaviour is affected, and for many young people, young men and young women, these things are overwhelming, and it seems impossible to obey the teaching of the Church. It has ceased to be about simply challenging sexual practices and ideas outside the Church. Now these ideas and practices are shared by some of the youth in the Church and are a habit that cannot be broken by countless others.
So, what are we to do and think about these issues of sexual promiscuity, of pornography and sexual habits, of ideas about homosexual acts and gender? We can say that the teaching of the Orthodox life is that these things are forbidden. That is true for sure. But that leaves us in the same place that we started. There is another way of looking at the Christian life, which addresses the same issues, but presents the same message in a different way. Perhaps a way that makes more sense to those of us living in these present times and in our modern societies. Making sense is necessary if we want to be able to commit ourselves to the Orthodox life in obedience.
I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. John 10:10
The Orthodox Christian life is something entirely positive, even if it requires sweat and tears, and the wholehearted giving of ourselves to God. But it is something positive. This life is an abundant life. It is an overflowing fountain of life and love within us. What was the intention of God in making each one of us? It was that we might share in his love, and that we experience becoming that unique human person he created us to be. When God created mankind, he made us in his own image. We have a connection with God that is not a matter of religious choice but is built into our very nature. We have been made to know God, to share his love, and to become the person we were created to be in an increasing closeness and with a growing freedom by the strength of the Holy Spirit.
It is an essential teaching of our Orthodox Faith that we only become truly and authentically human through the experience of life with God. There is no other way of becoming really alive. This is the abundant life that the Lord Jesus speaks about. When we begin to become truly alive everything else begins to take on a different perspective. The whole of the Gospels describes this different way of living with God so that we become the person we were created to be. The Lord Jesus speaks in these ways, saying…
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Matthew 6:33.
This not a commandment, nor is it a bargain we make with God. I will do these things if you give me these things. This is the invitation God gives us. This is why when the preaching ministry of the Lord Jesus begins with the message about the Kingdom, it is proclaimed or announced as Good News. This is the truth, life with God is Good News. Everything we need in this life, to become who we are, to become truly alive, is found when we seek God first, because that is how we are made. That is how every human is meant to live. This is the only way that any human person can truly become alive.
How do we know that we are not yet truly alive, authentically human, and becoming that person God has uniquely created us to be? It is because we find ourselves distressed and unsettled. We can sense that there is something necessary missing in our lives. We find ourselves anxious, lonely, bored, afraid and bound by all manner of habits and addictions. This is not because we are bad people. Nor are these punishments from God. Rather, they are the consequences for all of us, whether in the Church or not, of trying to live the human life without being connected to God.
We know that the word sin is the translation of the Greek word, hamartia. This word means to miss the mark, or to miss the goal. We can think of it only as breaking a rule or a law. Sometimes that is helpful. But when we understand that sin is failing to be and become what God has made us to be, failing to achieve what he created us for, then we understand how sin stands in the way of us experience all that God desires for us. Sin is so serious because it prevents us being alive in God, and God is glorified when we become the person he made us to be.
This is not a matter of selfishness, as if I simply want to have a better life. But it does mean that the best life, the abundant life, the life that God has created each of us for, is only possible when we live in God and for God. God is glorified in his creation when we live an authentic human life. We do not honour God when we do not live the life that is hitting the mark, reaching the goal. It Is not surprising that when we try to live a life that is not connected to God we find that things inside ourselves don’t work properly. Sin is not living the life that God has created us for. Sin is not living in an authentically human way. Sin is failing to become the person God created us to be.
The things we think, and say, and do, and the habits that bind us, are all expressions of the fact that we are not yet alive. They are signs that we are still choosing not to be alive, to be dead. We are choosing sickness and distress, even though we don’t see it that way. We are choosing slavery, instead of freedom, limitations instead of abundance in God. Much of this is because we do not see things properly and do not think in the right way about God, ourselves, and the world. Most people want to have a better life, a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit, even if they are not Christians. Most people would love to experience love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, but even within the Church many people don’t quite know how and experience the opposite. This is why sin is so serious, so deadly. It is not so much that it is a rule that we are breaking. Some of them are. But in the Orthodox life sin is all that leads us away from God and prevents us being the person God has made us to be and calls us to become.
The Lord Jesus describes this when he says…
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28
This shows us that for the Orthodox Christian it is no longer a matter of keeping a list of rules, but of having a heart and a life that is completely transformed by God. It is relatively easy not to commit adultery, but this is not what it means to be alive in God with the abundant life that Christ gives us. To allow our desire to settle on another person is already to have fallen away from the unfailing seeking after God first of all. This doesn’t mean that on top of all the requirements of the Law we find many smaller and harder rules have been added by Christ. This is not what it means to be truly alive, authentically human. On the contrary it requires us to turn from what we can do in our own strength and ability, which is never enough, and seek after God with our whole heart, and mind, and soul, so that in finding him we discover entirely what God created each one of us for.
Sin is so serious that we must deal with it by turning to God. Sin is so deadly that we can overcome it only by being united in the mercy and compassion of God to his eternal life. God has to become everything, so that as St Paul says…
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. Galatians 2:20
When we seek the Kingdom of God before all else, and begin to experience life with Christ by the Holy Spirit, then with St Paul we can find that we live in the strength and grace of God so that all of the things which seemed impossible begin to become possible. Not as if we were successful in our own strength but that the life we live, our human life, is now filled with God’s life and love. This is the abundant life which Christ offers each of us.
If this is true life, then everything that is not of God, and not of Christ, and not by the Holy Spirit, leads us away from this life. When we consider the issues that we started with, we can see that pornography leads us way from God. It fills the heart and mind with passionate and lustful thoughts and leads to passionate and lustful acts that become habitual and addictive so that we become slaves of them. We do not avoid pornography and the acts it leads to because it is a sin. Of course, it is. But we need to understand that it prevents us becoming the person God has made us to be, and it prevents us becoming truly alive. It is not a religious matter, but a human thing. Pornography prevents all people becoming truly and authentically human. Even more than that, the deadly force in pornography, in sexual habits, in homosexual acts, is not the thing itself, but the way that we allow the desire of our heart and mind to be attracted away from God.
This is what makes us less than human, and slaves to our desires. The desire need not even be for the sexual things we have discussed. When we desire anything above and beyond our desire for God then we cannot avoid falling away from the experience of real life in God, and becoming less alive, less balanced, more anxious, more lonely, angry, isolated, bored with life, distressed and dissatisfied. It is the same for all people, because all people are made to be connected with God, and all life only becomes truly fruitful when God is first.
Why does the Church warn us about pornography, sexual acts, and homosexual activity? It is not because the Church is ashamed or afraid of sexual acts. It is not because the Church has decided arbitrarily to condemn these things. It is because when we engage in them they lead us to become less than human, less the person we are created to be, and prevent us experiencing the abundant life that Christ offers us. This is not a religious issue. It is about what it means to be really alive. These things prevent us, and prevent all people, from becoming truly alive as God desires.
So, are the things which we are thinking about a matter of freedom? Are we being denied choices by God and the Church? Is this a limitation on our experiences? In fact, we can do anything. No one can easily prevent a person looking at pornography, engaging in sexual sin, developing habits of sexual behaviour, even adopting homosexual practices. All of these are easy. They are so easy that many of the young people in our Coptic Orthodox Church are already engaged in these things and find themselves with habits of sexual behaviour.
It is easy to do these things. What is difficult, what is almost impossible, is to stop doing these things. If we have a habit, and addiction, that forces us to turn to pornography and sexual sins then in what sense are we free at all. If we cannot decide to stop something then we are a slave to it. If we are a slave to something then we are not truly alive, authentically human, or that person God made us to be.
The Lord Jesus says…
Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. John 8:34
And St Paul says…
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? Romans 6:16
We can do whatever we want, but the things that attract so many people lead to slavery and are not an expression of our freedom. When we choose the things that the Scriptures and the Church warn us about, things that God warns us about, it is not to limit our freedom, but to protect us from falling into slavery, a real slavery that can trap people for the rest of their lives. This slavery leads us to death, to the experience of life lived without the connection with God, without the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and with the increasing distress that going our own way causes.
St Paul leads us back to the beginning. It is in obedience that we find life, true life, abundant life. It is in seeking God as the first thing in our life that we become truly ourselves. It is In living with God in every moment that we discover that our life is filled with the life of Christ. We resist sin because it makes us less than we could be, and it will easily make us its slave. We resist sin because it makes us less than God created us to be, so that his glory is diminished in us. We resist sin because far from giving us lasting pleasure, it creates in us a lasting distress as we fall away from God. We are obedient because we understand that every sin, even the slightest passionate desire for something less than God, makes us less than ourselves, less alive, less human.
This is a positive way of understanding and dealing with sin, and the temptations we find in our modern society. In choosing God we are choosing the best, discovering lasting and true freedom, glorifying God in our lives, and finally becoming the unique person we were created to be. In this abundant life with God and in God we find every opportunity, every fulfilment, every satisfaction. These other things lose their attraction until in the end, in his mercy and compassion, and as he wills and desires for every person he has made, God finally becomes all in all in our life.