The Law Of God was one of the last books I read before getting baptized in the Church. It served as a catechism that taught me both the broad outline of the faith along with curious little details such as how to use a censer in the home or what days prostrations can’t be done in church. It was written by Russian priest Daniel Sysoev, who was martyred in 2009 at the hands of an Islamic murderer inside his parish church because he was successfully evangelizing to Muslims. Reading the words of someone who willingly died to spread the word of Christ made the book a powerful confession for the Orthodox faith, and so it’s no surprise that I converted soon after reading it.
What is faith?
Faith has two forms. We call the first of these belief in God, and the second—trust in God. The first is limited to recognition of the Creator’s existence, but his need not necessarily affect one’s life. The Bible says that even the demons have this kind of faith: the devils also believe, and tremble (James 2:19). This faith is not perfect, and man cannot please God with this kind of faith alone. The second type of faith presumes trust in the Creator’s words and a rejection of self-reliance, an active increase in love. It is this kind of faith that is salvific.
The existence of God is self-evident
Even the pagans, who do not know the Scriptures, are not left without the knowledge of God that is placed into their hearts, handed down to them through Tradition from their ancestors, and garnered from contemplating nature. For this reason they will have no excuse on the day of Judgment: For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:20).
Even ordinary experience shows us that order does not arise spontaneously out of chaos. Rather, the opposite is true: any order tends to break down spontaneously, and rationally-directed efforts are needed to preserve it. The second law of thermodynamics bears this out, stating that in closed systems (of which, according to materialism, the universe is one) entropy constantly increases. Even if we examine an open system, rational intervention is needed to improve order. Otherwise the principle of the bull in the china shop comes into play. Hence, the existence of order testifies to the existence of the Great Intellect Who set the universe in order. And the unity of the laws of nature testifies that this Intellect is the only one there is.
What is the reason for such widespread obviously irrational views of the world’s origin? Saint Theophan the Recluse says this occurs because people ‘are carried away by the broad path of the passions: ‘We don’t want to know positive commandments,’ they say; ‘we need palpable natural laws.’ And so they pursued them. What was the results? They cast their lot with irrational beasts. Is it not this moral collapse that also engendered the theory of man’s origin from animals? See just how far they go! And so it goes, always fleeting from the Lord…’
For a long time, I believe that the world came about in a random manner. Even a flying paper airplane cannot be formed randomly on its own in a billion years, and yet I believed that everything from the stars and planets down to the incredibly intricate biochemical workings of our cells happen just because. I was trapped in the heights of delusion, because that delusion removed all barriers for me to fulfill my passions. By not believing in God, there was no objective morality, and the path to being a “good person” while simultaneously committing horrendous evils was opened before me. If you examine the life of someone who refuses God, they are participating in grave sins that are diametrically opposed to the Christian life. Once they repent of their sins, they will snap out of their spell and come to be embarrassed for all the lies they believed in.
God’s plan to save fallen man
…in His mercy the Lord Himself intervened for His creation. Three obstacles stood before Him. The first of these was the gulf between the Divine and human natures. For it was said to Moses, Thou canst not see My face: for there shall no man see Me, and live (Ex. 33:20).
How can a weak creation stand before the might of the Source of all power. Would it not be burned up like a moth in a flame? On the other hand, where is a person to find life unless he is united with the original Life?
The second obstacle was sin, which cannot go ignored by Holy God. For the righteous Creator cannot allow crime to go unpunished. On the other hand, there is no man that lives and does not sin; hence, all must be punished.
The third obstacle was death, which destroys man’s nature. What is there to be said if all man’s works are devoured by death? How can a mortal being commune with the Immortal unless his death has been destroyed?
And here the Lord Jesus Christ comes to destroy these obstacles, to save man, and to make him a god by grace.
In God the Son, God the Father appointed a place for every person who is saved. He resolved beforehand to adopt Christians to sonship through Jesus Christ, so that His grace might abide in us. After the fullness of time had been arranged He foreordained that all things earthly and heavenly be united beneath a Head, which is Christ (Eph. 1:3-10), so that all rational beings might enter into the blessed life of the Trinity.
To accomplish this great design God determined the seasons and the times, that in this temporal world, as in a school for souls, he might teach free beings through love to know the Unoriginate Life.”
What is evil?
Evil is a violation of God’s will, iniquity, abuse of the good properties of the nature God has created. Evil has no essence, and arises when the free will of a rational being abuses the gift of choice. Evil acts that become a habit are called passions (i.e., that which causes suffering and deprives a person of his freedom), and if the evildoer does not fight them they will corrupt his nature. For in the end sin produces death, both temporal and eternal. Naturally, the Creator does not wish that His creation perish, and it is for this reason that He forbids evil.
Fasting helps to overcome the devil, intensifies prayer, and enables one to control one’s heart. During the fasts one must refrain from meat and dairy products (during strict fasts fish is also prohibited), as well as gluttony and drunkenness (which of course are impermissible at any time). By mutual consent marital relations are also suspended during this time. During the fast one must refrain from idle entertainments, instead abiding in prayer, reading the Bible, and increasing works of charity. Naturally, the fasts do not apply to the sick, women who are pregnant or nursing, those in the army or in captivity, and travelers. These fast as they are able.
Remembering Judas’ betrayal of the Lord we fast on Wednesday, while on Friday we lament the Lord’s Crucifixion. According to the Apostolic Canons, whoever does not fast on Wednesday and Friday and during Great Lent without a compelling reason is excommunicated from the Church.
I once heard an Orthodox priest say that if you don’t fast, you’re a “lousy Christian.” I don’t want to be a lousy Christian, so I fast.
Sex as political control
A certain Greek tyrant once came to a colleague and asked, “How can I ensure that rebellion will not be raised against me?” The latter replied, “Lead the most intelligent and influential citizens to harlots, and they will cease to be a threat to you.”
This has been achieved in our time. I’m not a fanboy of the Taliban, but they were able to defeat the American empire in Afghanistan because they were not watching pornography, trying to match with secular girls on Tinder, or going to bars to get drunk and score a one-night stand. All their innate masculine energy was focused on defeating the biggest empire in the world, and they succeeded in doing so.
If someone attempts to involve us in judging another, we must not listen silently, let alone agree. Rather, as St. John advises, we must answer: “‘Stop, brother! I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?'”
When someone shares with you a complaint of another person, what they really want is for you to agree with them. I cannot do that.
The sincere believer learns to bear all these sorrows with patience, understanding that everything that happens to him is necessary either as a punishment for sin or as a test of his faith.
The importance of prayer
As we have said above, the virtues are, in essence, a reflection of the properties of God Himself in the created world. Given this, they cannot be properly fulfilled without the help of the Creator. And how is one to obtain this help if one does not ask it? This explains the need for prayer.
The Lord does not fulfill harmful or untimely requests, however. We ourselves would not fulfill the request of a child which if granted, would kill him, make him sick, or hurt him in any other way, and God the Father treats all believers likewise. People often wonder, “Why did God not hear me when I prayed?” He did hear, but what we asked for would have been harmful or premature for us.
St. John of the Ladder: “Prayer by reason of its nature is the converse and union of man with God, and by reason of its action upholds the world and brings about reconciliation with God; it is the mother and also the daughter of tears [the mother because the person praying begins to see his own sins, producing mourning, and the daughter become mourning intensifies prayer and purifies it of all superfluous thoughts-Auth.], the propitiation for sins, a bridge over temptations, a wall against afflictions, a crushing of conflicts, work of angels, food of all the spiritual beings, future gladness, boundless activity, the spring of virtues, the source of graces, invisible progress, food of the soul, the enlightening of the mind, an axe for despair, a demonstration of hope, the annulling of sorrow, the wealth of monks, the treasure of solitaries, the reduction of anger, the mirror of progress, the realization of success, a proof of one’s condition, a revelation of the future, a sign of glory.”
Without communion with other Christians it is difficult to receive the divine gifts that the parishioners of a church receive. As Father Paul Florensky rightly said, a “Lord, have mercy” in church is of greater value than dozens of akathists at home. Even desert dwellers who had withdrawn from the world would hasten to the “assemblies of the faithful” to find relief in their struggle against it.
I don’t know how I got through life for so long without praying first thing upon waking and last thing before sleeping. Actually, I do know: I enveloped my entire days in sins and pleasure, looking to the world to give me meaning that it couldn’t possibly give.
The importance of sacraments
In the sacraments lies the very heart of Christianity. One may have Orthodox faith, do good works, and pray, but without participation in the sacramental life of the Church a person will never become a Christian and cannot achieve salvation. For while faith gives a proper understanding of God and His providence, good works make one to resemble Him, and prayer enables one to commune with Him, only in the sacraments does true union with God take place, transforming the whole person.
The ideal marriage
In the Orthodox family there is neither democracy nor tyranny. The husband is the image of Christ, the head of the family, the protector and guide of the wife, and the chief upbringer of the children. He is answerable to Christ and must become the religious leader of the family; he is solely responsible for everything. At the same time the husband must honor his wife as a coheir of the life of grace. The wife is an image of the Church, the helper of the husband. She must honor her husband and be obedient to him in all things that do not contradict the commandments. All issues must be resolved based on the principle of Christ’ love.
The calling of Abraham
The nations became ever more deeply enshrouded in the darkness of paganism. Only a few families preserved the light of the original Revelation. And then it pleased God to establish a separate people for Himself, in whom not only the original knowledge of Him would be handed down, but also the salvation of all mankind would be prepared.
The function of the Mosaic Law
The law became a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3). It did not permit the people to destroy themselves with sin, and protected them from self-destruction. Men’s freedom was shackled, for they were still children, incapable of freely serving the Creator. The commandments kept men from sliding into the swamp of satanization, and the animal sacrifices showed that the innocent blood of the Savior must be shed, which is able to cleanse men from sin. True freedom will only enter a person when the Law of God has been written by the Holy Spirit upon the heart of each one who has believed, who like a son fulfills the will of the Heavenly Father. The need for the external observance of Moses’ law then disappears, but its content remains forever. And so it happened after the death of Jesus Christ, Whose Sacrifice took the place of all the sacrifices of the Law.
The punishment for sin
The forty years of wandering came to an end, and Moses’ sister Miriam died. At this time the Hebrews began to lack water, and a new revolt against God arose. Through God’s Revelation Moses and Aaron were to bring forth water from a granite cliff, but Moses fell into anger and lack of faith, and struck the cliff with his rod twice, which the Lord had not commanded him to do. The cliff immediately produced water, but for their unbelief Moses and Aaron forfeit their chance to enter into the Promised Land. Here we see that the closer a person is to God, the more responsible he is for his sins, and that what would have been forgivable for some people prevents one who spoke with God face to face from seeing his dream realized. To many of us it seems that if a person is holy everything is permitted him, but Scripture says the reverse: to whom much is given, from him much shall be required.
I believe this is why Russia suffered so badly in the 20th century. They had the true faith, the full revelation of God, enough to give them the moniker “Holy Russia,” and then they committed adultery with Western ideas. If you are walking in the garden with God, and you turn away from Him, your punishment will be severe, as Adam’s was, but if you were never in the garden to begin with, and instead had only a limited revelation, your ongoing existence that is distant from God may be punishment enough.
If you get baptized in the Orthodox Church, and you fall away, I do not want to imagine your punishment. You will be sent to the lowest level of hell, because your refusal of His Church was a direct rebuking of God Himself. If you turn away from Buddhism or Islam into nihilism, however, I imagine the eternal outcome of your soul will be changed by a smaller degree, if at all.
The mistake of the Pharisaical Jews
The Pharisees (meaning “set apart”), who considered themselves the only ones who were right and pure, believed in the resurrection of the dead, immortality of the soul, and the existence of the Holy Spirit and angels. They boasted of their exact observance of the letter of the Law, though their hearts were far from God. But instead of fulfilling the Scriptures they substituted their own interpretations (the traditions of the elders), distorting the essence of Revelation. The Pharisees emphasized the necessity of separating from the pagans, and under their influence the Jews began to consider themselves exceptional people to whom all nations must be subjected. In their imagination the future Messiah began to be perceived not as a Savior from sin and death, but as a great Conqueror of the world.
How little things have changed. The Jews of today still consider themselves exceptional people who must rule over the world, putting all underneath their heel.
Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane
…Jesus entered the garden of Gethsemane (“olive press”), so that just as man had fallen in a garden, so also in a garden his salvation might begin. There Christ was seized by deathly terror, for He, the only one Who need not have died, being sinless, was going to the sufferings of death. The desire to live, which God placed in every living thing, is even strong in Christ’s human nature, since His nature is not compromised by sin. Death was the more terrible for the Lord because He was to drink to the dregs the cup of God’s wrath, which was intended for us. He, being innocent, died for the guilty, and took upon Himself our curse, that we might be blessed. Small wonder that Christ as a man was afraid.
Once they had begun changing Church tradition, the Roman Catholics proved unable to stop. They introduced new dogmas: purgatory, in which a person allegedly pays for unredeemed sins; that the Theotokos was born without original sin; supererogation, or good works of the saints in excess of the amount required for salvation, which are transferred to the papal treasury and from there are distributed to those who lack sufficient good works (which gave rise to the practice of indulgences). The rites of the sacraments were also changed. Baptism began to be practiced by aspersion (Sprinkling), and not by immersion, as the apostles had commanded. Chrismation began to be performed only after reaching adolescence, and thus children were deprived of the grace of the Holy Spirit and of Communion. The Liturgy began to be served using unleavened bread, and the laity were given Communion only in the form of bread, contrary to the Lord’s words, Drink ye all of it (Mt. 26:27). Many other apostolic practices and dogmatic teachings were also distorted.
The Protestants initially spoke out against the heresies of Rome, such as the sale of indulgences, papal supremacy, and secular power. Instead of returning to the Orthodox Church, however, they decided to “restore the Church of the apostles.” This proud idea led them to reject the better part of Church Tradition, proclaiming Sola scriptura (“Only Scripture”) as their watchword. They began to teach that faith in Christ alone is sufficient for salvation, and no good works are necessary.
They lost apostolic succession and consequently rejected practically all of the sacraments, losing the very essence of the Gospel. Having lost every possible criterion for understanding the Bible, the Protestants promptly split into numerous sects.
My favorite sections of The Law Of God were summaries of Bible books and stories, which were essential for me to know before I started to read the Old Testament. One downside of the book is that it reads like a textbook. The information is complete, accurate, and detailed, but it may sometimes feel like a trial to get through its 500 pages. Overall, it seamlessly connected the prophecies of the Old Testament with Christ’s ministry to give me the full revelation of God and how that revelation is contained in the purest form within the Orthodox Church. The book not only allowed me to develop a deep understanding of the faith but also served as a direct aid to my conversion into the Church. I recommend this book for all Orthodox Christians and those who are inquiring.
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