Sometimes one sentence in a book just clicks. It opens up a new avenue of understanding, which can drill deep across layers of thought and practice. I had one such experience just this morning. While reading a book by Maximos the Confessor (c. 580–662), I came across this line:
“The subjection of the passions does not suffice the soul for spiritual gladness if it has not acquired the virtues by the fulfillment of the commandments” (Two Hundres Chapters on Theology, 1.77).
The sentence sounds complicated. But that has more to do with the old-time language than it does with the actual point. Maximos means this: if you simply stop sinning, you will not be glad. You need to stop sinning and do good to be joyful.
While we can fill-in the blanks to clarify the point further, I think he is right. The temptation to feel good because we have avoided sin is real. But what if we have not pursued righteousness? That, I think, is the crux.
And as a life-long sinner tempted by a specific kind of legalism, Maximos has helped me to understand why this brand of legalism is so appealing. Avoiding sin is much easier than avoiding sin and pursuing righteousness. It is much easier to not be angry than it is to be kind; it is much easier to avoid stealing than it is to give charitably.
While legalism may enjoy various definitions, I want to clarify that I am talking about a specific form of it. This form pursues the appearance of good by avoiding obvious sin, while at the same time not pursuing the weightier matters of the law: love, joy, and kindness.
It feels right because this species of legalism avoids obvious sins, but it really covers a monumental emptiness within. It is joyless, duty-bound. It judges others who transgress its boundaries, but it rarely can see its own sin: lack of kindness, judgmentalism, and so on.
This species, I think, tempts even the best of us.
Scripture speaks of the need both to put off sin and to pursue righteousness. Paul says, Put off the old man and put on the new man. Jesus tells us that a happy or blessed person pursues mercy, peace, and so on.
What particularly struck me while reading Maximos, however, was this. This kind of legalism avoids the appearance and practice of evil through its rules but often joylessly so and under a cloud of harshness. Joy seems to lack among us when we pursue “doing good” under the form of “not doing bad.”
I say “we” here intentionally. I tend towards satisfaction at only avoiding sin rather than in also pursuing the good. But here are some of the highest virtues which Paul presents in Titus 3:2:
- to speak evil of no one,
- to avoid quarreling,
- to be gentle,
- and to show perfect courtesy toward all people
I can tell you that it is much easier to avoid theft, external anger, illicit drugs, and so on than it is to speak evil of no one; to avoid quarreling; to be gentle and to show perfect courtesy to all people.
But should we feel good that we do not steal? Many in the world also do not. Many do not use illicit drugs. Should that make us feel good that we do not use illicit drugs? So do many others.
And that really is the draw of legalism. It is a false confidence that entices us because it is easy. We put off the old man. Then stop. It feels easy to stop here. We can stop obvious sin, but then we fill the void which a lack of positive virtue has left open with something quite deleterious.
When we lust, we stop lusting by overworking. But overworking itself is not good—but it distracts us from lust. So what then? Where is the joy and peace that goes beyond all understanding?
It is not present because as Maximos observed: spiritual gladness comes not from merely stopping sin but by seeking after righteousness. It turns out that if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” then “all these things will be added to you.”
That is wisdom from above—it is pure, simple, and joyful. Resist legalism then for the sake of joy, not out of joyless duty (itself a possible form of legalism). Jesus motivates us first by fear, then by love. When love is perfected in us, it casts out all fear.
It brings us to a place where the peace of Jesus Christ can indwell our hearts richly because we have put off the old man, put on the new man, and have had the joy of our salvation restored to us.
Choose joy today. Despite the world falling apart around us, joy waits for us. The Spirit empowers us, renewing our nature, so that we can truly and genuinely do good. If we are in Christ, we have the Spirit of God who brings the Father’s good work in us to completion (Phil 1:6).
So do not make the same mistake that I have often made. Do not think that only avoiding evil makes us good. Also, pursue virtue. And then you will acquire “spiritual gladness.”