Sin and Morality: Part One
Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou · April 11, 2014
Fr. Vassilios explains why we are asked to overcome our pride and acquire humility.
In Orthodox Christianity, there is no morality, and I know it shocks many people when I say that, but I say it for a good reason: because morality is not really a theological but a philosophical idea. Morality is commonly understood as a sense of right and wrong, and I think to a certain extent everyone has that sense of right and wrong, regardless of cultures or religions or times in which we live. I don’t think anyone has ever considered selfishness or cowardice to be something good. People do not consider it a good thing to be horrible to people who are good to you, whatever your religious belief and whatever age you live in, whichever culture you live in. There’s an agreed sense of right and wrong.
But there are some variations. Some would say that it is acceptable to take vengeance, and others would say we should not take vengeance. Some would say a man should have only one wife, and others would say he can have several. Some would say you should be good to those who are good to you, and others would say you should be good to those who are not good to you as well.
So if we’re going to use the term “Christian morality,” we could say that it is simply the principle which govern the sense of right and wrong. It tells us to not take vengeance, to be good to those who hate us, to love our enemies, to only have one wife, and so on. But it is still really nothing more than a moral law, which does not really tell us why those things are right or wrong, and neither does it tell us why doing right things is actually so difficult while doing the wrong things seems so easy. And that’s because we are not even getting into the real heart of the matter; we’re not getting into the essence of Christianity, which is theology, not a set of laws or rules for moral conduct.
Christ did not come to start up a new religion, nor to simply give us principles to live by. He was not a philosopher or a great moral teacher. He came to give us true life, his life. And for as long as we fail to understand that Christianity is about true life and not morality, theology and not philosophy, we can never understand the notions of sin and holiness, because Christianity is rooted not in a sense of right and wrong, which people of other faiths (and of no faiths) also have, but in the knowledge of God and our relationship with him.
It is clear that there is a misunderstanding of Christianity when people say things like this: “Why do I need religion or why should I go to church to be a good person?” And this always brings to mind the gospel passage in which the rich young ruler comes to Christ and says, “Good Master, what must I do to have eternal life?” And Christ responds, “Why do you call me ‘good’? Only God is good.” And that is the first principle of what many would call Christian morality. We measure goodness not by some standard of social behavior or by some kind of morality or law, but by God himself, who is the only good one. We do not need religion or church to be what many would call good, that is, someone who keeps the laws of society, someone who doesn’t kill or steal, but Christ is not asking us to simply abide by laws. He says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Be holy, for I am holy.”
Perfection means wholeness, and it is worth noting that Christ says this, to be perfect, in the context of his sermon on the mount, when he gives us the commandments: “Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. If someone takes your cloak, give him your coat as well. If someone compels you to travel one mile, travel two. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also.” And Christ gives the reason we should do this: “For God causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust and is kind to both the righteous and the wicked.” This is not morality, and I’ll keep saying to people that if we’re going to locate any kind of morality, any moral law, in Christianity in the Scriptures, it would be the ten commandments, which is really largely a list of “don’t do this, don’t do that,” [with] some positive commandments as well, of course. And a lot of people would say, “I’m a good person because I don’t kill, I don’t steal.” Nobody lists a bunch of commandments.
But when you read Christ’s sermon on the mount, when you read the Gospel of Matthew, and we are being told that it’s all about the human heart, that you must love those who hate you, bless and pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek, and when he also tells us that someone can do what seem to be good deeds but for the wrong motives, he says, “Do not pray or give alms for the praise of others or you have no reward in heaven,” this has taken us way beyond morality. This has nothing to do with morality. This is about the heart. This is about our relationship with God, largely through our relationship with others.
Since Christian morality is rooted in our relationship with God, Christian spirituality uses a different kind of language to that of society, usually, when speaking of right and wrong. The secularist is inclined to speak of values rather than virtues, of vices or crimes rather than passions or sins. And that word, “sin,” seems to be almost a dirty word these days, a word so prevalent in the Scriptures and in the Church writings, but many deplore it and dismiss it as an anachronism. But it is important that we preserve that, because we’re not talking simply about crimes; we are talking about the inward man.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that the Greek word, “sin, amartiya,” means “missing the mark.” It’s not simply a transgression, breaking the rules, but failing to reach that Christian ideal: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Now, why do we find it so difficult to do what is right or to have pure motives? St. Paul sums it up really well in his epistle to the Romans. He says:
We know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do, for I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. What I do is not the good I want to do. No, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing. And if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
So we have, in other words, this conflict between what we know to be right and our fallen nature and our instincts. For example, if someone heard a person crying for help, we would probably feel two completely conflicting things. There is on the one hand a sense that… a desire to help that person, because we know that that is what’s right and because we are fundamentally good and we have a sense of wanting to help other people when they are in need. But we will also feel a desire for self-preservation, to look out for ourselves rather than to help that person. So what we have here is a conflict between what we know is right and our instincts.
So it is the spiritual life, our ascetic life, is in fact all about learning to overcome those passions and instincts which actually often interfere with what we know to be right. It’s all very well saying, “I love people,” but if I lash out when I’m in a foul temper and then say something really hurtful, whatever, however good my intentions, because I have not mastered my anger, I am going to hurt people. In a similar way, if I can’t overcome my greed, others are going to go without because I’m having more than I need. Because I can’t control this passion, I cannot love fully. Our battle with sin is really a quest for divine love, to acquire that perfect love, “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
There are two things in particular I want to talk about today. I want to talk about, in relation to sin and holiness, one passion or sin and one virtue. The passion I want to talk about today has been described by Christian writers and thinkers throughout the ages as the worst sin of all, and it is the sin of pride. And that may surprise a lot of people. Why is this the worst thing of all? Surely murder is worse; even anger and hatred are surely worse. But we need to understand that this passion in fact is the root of so many other sins, and we may not even realize it’s the root of the sin, but often it is.
Pride was described by C.S. Lewis as “the complete anti-God state of mind,” which is quite an interesting statement, but I think it’s a very accurate one. According to the Christian tradition, pride was in fact the sin of the devil. So in a sense it is the most demonic sin of all. For a non-Christian, or at least perhaps an atheist, it may seem harmless, and he would probably think calling it a great sin is in fact an exaggeration. Yet even amongst the most anti-religious people, there is no sin that annoys people more than pride. All the time I hear people complaining that so-and-so is full of himself, this person is conceited, he thinks he’s better than others, and so on. The very people who say, “It doesn’t matter what you do and believe as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” can’t stand this sin of pride when they see it in others. Given this pride and this conceit is not doing anyone any harm, it’s hard to see what the problem is, and I think deep down everyone really understands that there is a difference between sin and virtue.
But of course, we hate this sin when we see it in everyone else, but we often don’t see it in ourselves, because that is the nature of pride. It is self-love. I am annoyed that someone else is the center of attention, because I wanted to be the center of attention. I am annoyed that someone is successful, because I think I deserve better than that person. Pride is essentially something competitive. It’s always thinking that you are better than others or that you deserve better than others. When we recognize this sin in ourselves or when it’s pointed out to us, we are completely oblivious to us or at best we justify it, but as soon as we see it in somebody else, we have no mercy at all.
Pride, therefore, contradicts the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” because if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves, then no one would be annoyed that someone else is more successful or happier or better off than we are, because we love them as we would ourselves. But in its truest and purest form, it’s also in opposition to the first great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” because, again as C.S. Lewis said, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people, and for as long as you are looking down, you can’t see something above you.” In other words, a proud person cannot look up to God. In its purest form, it is a denial of God, and, indeed, it is why it is a sin of the devil: he wanted to be greater than God. It is, really is, the anti-God state of mind.
And the virtue opposed to pride is humility. And if pride is the anti-God state of mind, if pride is the most demonic sin, the [sin] that makes us most like the devil, then humility is the virtue that makes us most like God. If pride is the sin which blinds us to the truth, makes it impossible for us to see things as they really are, to see our faults, then humility is the virtue that sees the truth, that sees things as they really are. It shouldn’t strike us as strange that humility is to be like God, because God himself is humble, and I think perhaps that’s an idea that people can’t get their head around, but if you look at anything that is truly beautiful and wonderful and noble and good, it is also by nature naturally humble. A little child, laughing and playing, is truly humble and truly beautiful. A swan on the lake is truly humble and yet truly beautiful. And there’s nothing [assuming] about that kind of beauty.
God himself is humble. Christ said, “Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” He entered the world as a baby. He came to us as a humble man. So humility really is the virtue of God, because what is truly good and pure and beautiful has no need to show off, has no need to prove itself. It is by nature what it is, and it need not be compared to anything else to be that. And in the same way God is not God because compared to us he is greater than us; he is God because he is by his nature God.
So God is by nature humble, and it is also the virtue which makes love possible. If pride is the love of self, humility is what enables us to deny ourselves for our neighbor. This is why this passion and this virtue are so fundamental in Christian spirituality. Pride is what makes us like the devil; humility is what makes us like God. Our battle with the passions is really about mastering that pride, overcoming that pride, and acquiring that humility. Only when we do that can we make progress in our spiritual life. Only then can we learn to overcome our anger, our envy, our idleness, our gossiping, our slandering, and only then can we actually learn to love our neighbor as ourselves. Only then can I be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect. Only then can I be holy as God is holy.