If a commanding officer tells a soldier to do something, what should he do? I asked a young Orthodox Christian officer. It! he replied. You do it, you follow the command.
What about the commandments of Christ? The Lord told us to do many things. Why are we so unclear about what we are supposed to do in relation to His commandments? Why do we take them so lightly? We are supposed to follow His commandments, but contrary to the soldier, we have a choice whether to follow our Lord or whether to follow another way. Both have different outcomes.
I have focused on this same message about the commandments of our Lord for years and yet have barely accomplished it myself. In reiterating the words of the Gospel and our Holy Fathers, I both condemn myself and receive renewed hope and vigor to try again, even at the eleventh hour. O Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.
We have all heard the Lord say: If you love Me keep my commandments!
Which commandments does He mean? What do you think of when you hear “Commandments”? Of course, the Ten Commandments brought down from Mt. Sinai by Moses, commandments of great moral and spiritual meaning by which the people of Israel were formed in preparation for the coming of Christ. But the Lord Himself gave us commandments of far greater spiritual content and depth–not as in the past to keep His people in preparation for His coming, but to lead us to be like Him. We find these commandments throughout the Gospels: they are anything and everything He said that we are to do. They are the words He spoke as imperatives or suggested imperatives, as Beatitudes, as the Way of life. Do this and live!
Although The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchininov is a confession and spiritual testimony dedicated to monks of “latter times,” it offers a profound explanation of and insight into the life of striving to fulfill Christ’s commandments which applies to all Christians, both monks and laymen (the difference being not in expectation but in the context of obedience). The Lord also clearly indicates that the commandments are for everyone when He sends out His disciples: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt. 28:19-20). We are all meant to follow Christ’s commandments, which are the expression of His love and the way we live out our divine adoption and calling to be like God. The commandments might strike us as, well, commands, and who likes to be told what to do? But they are words of life, commands of help and consolation and perfection and love–and who would reject such a great gift?
St. Ignatius tells us that the commandments are first to be noted and studied so that they become the property of the mind. In our daily reading of the Bible, especially the Gospels, we should literally take notes on the words the Lord speaks as commands–first, anything and everything that is put in imperative form: Repent, turn the other cheek, give your cloak also, make friends with your adversary, etc. Make note and study their meaning and practical application both in their literal meaning and in their spiritual meaning, as revealed through the writings and preaching of Holy Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Theophylact (whose commentaries we have in English), St. Nicolai Velimirovich, and other ancient and modern Fathers.
Consider the first commandment of the first book of the Gospel preached by St. Matthew. Here the Lord continues to preach in the spirit of St. John the Baptist: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Now, how can we repent unless we know what repentance is? We can all sing, even if we don’t do it very well. We can dance, or jump. But how do we repent? In a way, repentance is something quite specific and technical. We hear over and over again from the Holy Fathers that our life is meant for repentance. St. John of Kronstadt expounds this commandment by saying: Repent and the Kingdom of God will fill you! This indicates that the action of repentance needs further study and understanding if we are going to do it with a soldier’s obedience, and not just hear the words and go on.
Repentance does not mean saying (as we hear unrepentant children say): Sorrrry! And it doesn’t just mean feeling badly for what we did. Rather, it pinnacles in a change of heart and mind, both in a remorse and a will to change, and in fact in a change. It involves sorrow that bears fruit and, therefore, as St. John of the Ladder says, joy-making sorrow, sorrow that bears fruit in real change, even in a beginning of change.
Of the commandments in general, St. Ignatius says: [I]t is evident that the commandments of the Gospel must be so studied that they become the possession, the property of the mind; only then is the exact, constant fulfillment of them possible such as the Lord requires (3). The promise is that in following His commandments the Lord will reveal Himself to us and we, in return for our love of Him, will receive His love and the love of the Father. He says: He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will reveal Myself to him (John 14:21). St. Ignatius warns us not to expect the Lord to appear to the eyes of the senses but that He is seen with the spiritual eye, with the mind, in our thoughts and feelings, transfigured by the Holy Spirit (3).
While obedience to the commandments brings blessings, as they are words of spirit and life, negligence to them has its own effects in fruitlessness, estrangement from God, and losing our inheritance. And then I will confess to them, “I have never known you. Depart from me, you whose work is sin” (Matt. 7:23). It is through following the commandments, which are the will of God, that we overcome the will of the flesh and the old man, and walk in the way of salvation.
We should judge ourselves and confess our sins through the light of the commandments. The Lord said: He who rejects Me and does not accept My words has his judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge at the last day. For I have not spoken on My own authority, but the Father Who sent Me has Himself given Me commandment what to say and what to tell. And I know that His commandment is eternal life (John 12:48-50). St. Ignatius tells us that we shall be judged according to the commandments of the Gospel at the judgment which God has appointed for us Orthodox Christians and on which depends our eternal destiny (6). He then calls us to take care, to become doers of the commandments of the Gospel because we never know when death will come, when we will be called to account for how we lived our life. Blessed are those who have prepared themselves for their passage to eternity by a life in accordance with the Gospel! Woe to the easy-going, the careless, the self-willed, the self-opinionated! In other words, those who have not kept the commandments.
Instead of thinking of all the bad things that have happened to us and that people have done to us, we should consider how we have followed or neglected the commandments. Isn’t this more to the point? Since our life will be weighed in light of the commandments of the Gospel, we too should look at ourselves through this lens. Have I obeyed the commandments to love God fully and my neighbor as myself? How have I sinned against God, against my neighbor, and against myself according to the commandments? This type of introspection and thorough accounting is very much to the point. The sins that bother us might be incomplete when compared to commandments we have not considered or obeyed. More on the positive side, we should consider the commandments as a map to our earthly and heavenly life; and we should consider whether we are “on course” or have veered from the course, for we are athletes with a goal and soldiers with a task, not lazy drunken wanderers.
And now enlighten my mind’s eye and open my mouth to study Thy word and understand Thy commandments and do Thy will and sing to Thee in heartfelt adoration and praise Thy Most Holy Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages Amen. (From the Prayer of St. Basil the Great to the Holy Trinity, Morning prayers, Jordanville Prayer Book)