On 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Archbishop Michael (Dahulich) would sometimes explain in Scripture classes during seminary that the reason people often leave the Faith is not primarily because of what we believe, but because of how we are expected to live. “First you lose your morals,” he would say, “then you lose your faith.” He often related this progression to the Hebrews under the Old Covenant—first they abandoned God by their actions, then they discarded the beliefs which had by that time become superfluous.
The way we live is where the rubber hits the road. A Christian lifestyle is inextricably connected to the Christian Faith. I can say I’m a Christian, but do my actions identify me as a follower of Jesus Christ?
If my greatest aim in live is gratifying my desire for pleasure and enjoyment, then haven’t I already in a very real way decided that the Judgment of the living of the dead isn’t really going to happen? If I have already committed myself to selfish enjoyment in this life, haven’t I already in a very real way abandoned my hope of the world to come?
(Not that pleasure and enjoyment are bad in themselves. Even Jesus was accused of being gluttonous and a wino [Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34]! The important thing is moderation—do I control my enjoyments in a healthy manner or do they control me?)
Yet, the reality is that we’re weak and temptation is strong. On our own, we don’t stand a chance of living the way that Christ taught us to. As the Desert Fathers say, the demons of have been tempting people for thousands of years—they know the science of temptation, they know how to exploit our weaknesses. Add to that the reality that these bodies made of earth desire the enjoyments of the earth. Even our own weak bodies war against us in the struggle against temptations, against the overweening desire for food, sex, money, status, control, etc. Some form of these desires is not far from all of us.
(This is why we should mourn when we see a public Christian leader/pastor fall into sin. Instead of judging them, we should say, “Him today, me tomorrow.” That is, it could just as easily be me next time.)
And so we often find that although the desire to live a Christian life is there, the pull of the world is so strong that once we indulge in so-called “little sins,” they turn into big sins. We totter, slip, we fall. What began as an apparently harmless action has the potential of being the cause of spiritual death. It builds and builds, and finally Christian doctrine and living becomes superfluous, because they get in the way of self-indulgent obsessions. “First you lose your morals, then you lose your faith.”
Yet, even in these weak bodies made of dirt, which so easily fall, God’s holiness is still able to dwell in them as in a holy temple; this is so that if we triumph over sin, we’ll know that it’s God-in-us Who grants us the victory and that it hasn’t been won by our feeble strength.
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”2 Corinthians 4:7-11
Yes, the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we don’t have to live according to the overweening desire for pleasure and enjoyment, for gratification and selfishness, because these weak bodies, these “earthen vessels,” like easily broken ceramic jars, can contain the power of the victorious Lord Jesus. Within a chipped and fragile ceramic jar there can be rubies and gold and treasures of incredible value. That’s how it is with us, except the treasure within is infinitely valuable, because it’s the indwelling presence of God Himself.
We’re often hit on every side by temptations, by demons working in collusion with the weakness of our bodies, to lead us into a breach of Christian morality; yet even in the midst of this spiritual clobbering, if we have faith in the Risen Lord, as St. Paul writes, “the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
Yet, this manifestation is not always revealed in this life. For some of the saints, it is—they show God’s miraculous power in their lives by working miracles through the touch of a hand, by reading people’s hearts, even by shining with God’s Uncreated Light. Yet for all Christians, “the life of Jesus” will not be fully manifested in our bodies until the Resurrection of the dead at the end of the world.
Then, if we have endured to the end (Matt. 10:22; 24:13), we will be like Jesus when He was raised from the dead (1 John 3:2): immortal, perfectly holy, no longer subject to restriction or temptations.
As Jesus teaches, those who were faithful to Him in this life will be raised up to the resurrection of eternal life, with the power of His divinity shining in and through our glorified bodies. Yet those who were not faithful to Him, who lived for themselves, who rejected the prodding of their consciences, who abandoned Christian morality, will be raised up to the resurrection of judgment.
“…For the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”John 5:28-29
So it makes a huge difference how we live! One little moral slip has the possibility of becoming an addiction, a passion, a terrible habit; yet, the building up of good habits, by God’s grace, has the opposite potential of protecting us from falling into sin.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem connects the actions done in the body with our eternal state in the following explanation given to people about to be baptized:
“We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past.”Catechetical Lectures 18.19
This is why, in this life, we must teach the body to pray, teach the body to fast, teach the body to love righteousness. “We revere [the body], we love it, we struggle to purify ourselves of sins, so that it too may be glorified” at the resurrection of the dead. (Metropolitan Hierotheos, Life after Death, 228).
Though it may be difficult, painful, we struggle against sin by forming good daily habits that make it more difficult to fall. And if we fall into sin, we need to get into the habit of confessing it as soon as humanly possible, not putting it off a day or an hour longer than is necessary. How we live—what we have done and what we have failed to do—has eternal consequences.
For this reason, St. Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts his catechumens:
“Therefore, brethren, let us be careful of our bodies, nor misuse them as though not our own. Let us…be careful of it as our own; for we must give account to the Lord of all things done through the body. Do not say, no one sees me; do not think that there is no witness of a deed.”Catechetical Lectures 18.20
Archbishop Michael would say, “First you lose your morals, then you lose your faith.” How true this is for our time, and how difficult it truly is to live a Christian life! Often we might feel like we’re being clobbered by temptations, getting it from all sides. But like a ceramic jar, we who believe in Christ carry not only his death but also the glory of His resurrection within our bodies, a glory which will be manifested in the righteous at the resurrection of the dead, a treasure more precious than any earthly riches.
And even if we stumble in the Christian life, even if it seems like we can’t do it, all we need to do is have the desire to endure to the end, to recognize our weakness, and to call on God for strength. Then, with faith in God, His grace will be enough for us, for as He told St. Paul, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The way we live in this life will have eternal consequences for good or for ill, so even the smallest moral failing has the possibility of leading us to abandon Christ entirely. If we consistently give in to the overweening desire for food, sex, money, status, control, etc., then eventually our faith will become superfluous to us. These things become bad habits and hijack our moral compass, leading to spiritual death. Yet for those who endure to the end, the Lord has promised us eternal life—His own light shining in our glorified, victorious, resurrected bodies.
To this effect, we will close with these wise words from C.S. Lewis (whom my seminary buddies affectionately called “St. Clive the Close-enough”):
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 132