The Purpose of Righteousness (II)

This is the 2nd blog in this series, the 1st blog being The Purpose of Righteousness.  The Psalmist ponders how he almost came himself to unbelief by contemplating how the wicked also can prosper in the world, and at least in this world are not brought to justice even when they defy God (Psalm 72/73).  He raises a question which many believers wrestle with:  what is the purpose of being righteous if in this world God gives rain and sunshine to those who are good and to those who are wicked?   For indeed sometimes, as can readily be observed, the righteous suffer for their goodness and are not blessed, while the unrighteous suffer no ill consequences in this world for their wickedness.

We can see the dilemma troubled not only the Psalmist but also saints through the ages.  St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century), famous as we shall soon see for his great emphasis on the mercy and love of God over justice (or put in another way that divine justice is God’s mercy and love), also raises the same troubling question:

“If these people were right, what would then be the purpose of all the trouble of the solitary life and of purity from ‘the world’ or the illumination of thoughts resulting from the time of prayer?  We would be enduring all this to no purpose, and our labours would be in vain, if the object of our hope only extended to that which a secular person, despite being involved in the world and tied to a wife and children, is capable of achieving whenever he likes.”  (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 76)

St. Isaac’s conundrum is found in other monastic writers as well – if monks don’t receive some special benefit/reward from being monks, then why should they live such a life of ascetic self-denial?   His rhetorical question though flies in the face of what is often offered today that purpose and goal of the monastic life is no different from the life of the average lay person – of perhaps is different in degree but not in kind.  St. Isaac’s question is if God will bless and reward (secular) lay people as he does monks, then what purpose does monasticism serve?

Athonite Monk Alexis Trader raises similar concerns in his book on the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.  He is critical of Protestant movements such as Pentecostals and charismatics for believing they can receive the power of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without first having committed themselves to a life a self-denial as monastics do.  For him, there is no doubt that the monastic effort prepares them for the Holy Spirit in a way that non-monastics are not prepared and therefore cannot receive the Holy Spirit:

“According to the Fathers, spiritual gifts are given so that the struggling believer can more fully lead the Christian life by observing ‘all things whatsoever Christ commanded the Apostles to do.’ Saint Maximus goes so far as to define a gift of the Spirit as ‘every capacity for fulfilling a commandment.’[…]God is quiet ready to shed His gifts upon His children, but his children first must cleanse and ready the vessel (i.e., their entire existence: body and soul) in which the gifts can be received. Saint Basil the Great notes that God grants His gifts not only with the benefit of others in mind, but also according to the faith, peace, and purity from the passions of the one receiving the gift.[…]Purification through repentance is required before the believer reaches the stage of illumination in which the gifts are given.[…]Thus in order for a believer to receive spiritual gifts, he not only requires a general purity from the passions, but the good soil of a ready mind or heart well fertilized with the virtue that most corresponds to that spiritual gift. The reception of spiritual gifts, like every aspect in the work of man’s salvation, is the joint activity of (synergy between) the grace of God and the free will of man.” (In Peace Let Us Pray to the Lord, pgs. 48-50)

This really is the same problem the Psalmist wrestles with in Pslam 72/73 and because of which nearly comes to disbelief.  Why struggle with being righteous either as a Torah observing Jew or a Tradition bound Orthodox monk if there is no special reward in it?

St. Isaac who raises the question quickly offers a counter thought:

“… for not many people discover it, but only a few individuals.  This is because such things do not occur in accordance with (a person’s) labours, but in accordance with God’ purpose and knowledge, for He knows to whom it is appropriate to give.  But we for our part should not cease form expectation in our mode of life during the whole extent of our lives.

Should this be found, however, we must not be proud or imagine that we have been held worthy of it because of the high quality of our mode of life.  Nor, if it is delayed for us, should we be grieved or downcast, like people who work for God for a reward: that is the opinion of those who are not trained in the labour of humility and in (earnest) longing for God.  For we realize that, as I have said, God does not grant things of this sort to a person as a result of many labours – nor does He hold them back because of a lack of such labours – but (He gives them) to those for whom He knows it will be beneficial.”  (Isaac of Nineveh, THE SECOND PART, CHAPTERS IV-XLI, p 116)

We don’t struggle to be righteous for the reward.  We are struggling to be righteous for righteousness’ sake.  We struggle with being righteous in order to witness to being God’s children:  to loving as God loves us, freely, unconstrained, expecting nothing in return.  As Jesus taught us:

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:44-45)’

As is oft noted in spiritual writings from many different religions:  if we please God just to get rewards such as entrance into heaven, then we are nothing but mercenaries.  If we please God to avoid hell, we are nothing but slaves.  But if we please God in order to be His children, then we are really being like the God of love for we are acting for no reason except for love for the God of love.

Many atheists rightly criticize “faithists” for holding to morality only because they believe they will be rewarded for doing so.  There are atheists who are very moral, and they do it neither to get into heaven, nor to avoid hell – for they don’t believe either exists.  They embrace morality, the good, for goodness sake.

Is it worth it to us Christians to be good, to love, to be like the Father if there is no reward?    Do we embrace goodness out of love for God, out of imitating God’s love, or will we abandon God and His brand of self-emptying and co-suffering love if we think there is no reward for doing it?  Are we willing to love and obey God even if we see the wicked prospering and ourselves afflicted and impoverished?

Next:  The Purpose of Righteousness (III)

The Purpose of Righteousness

“… your Father who is in heaven… makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . . You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:45, 48)

God is righteous and calls us to righteousness – to be perfect as He is perfect.  That we are called to divine righteousness, to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16) as God is holy, is usually not a debated point among Christians.   In what manner we can be holy is sometimes questioned – what does it take to be holy?  Strict obedience to laws, rules and regulations?   Loving as Christ loves us?  Sacrificial and co-suffering love?   Theological faithfulness?   Union with God?

Even when we can embrace ideas of what it means to be holy, there often is still the question, why?  Why be holy ?  What purpose does it serve?   It is a question that has long been asked by the people of God.  Many have wrestled with a notion that our righteousness, our holiness, is done so that we might please God and be rewarded by Him.

The problem with that thinking – righteousness is done in order that we be rewarded – is that it isn’t consistent with the entirety of Scripture or of the Gospel.  God is not righteous in order to be rewarded.

We are to be perfect as He is perfect.   God in His righteousness gives rain and sunshine to the wicked and to the good, to the righteous and unrighteous alike.  And we are told to be like Him.

We can look at Psalm 72 (from the Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 73 in most other English translations) to see how the godly have wrestled with the issue of being righteous from ancient times.

“How good God is to Israel, to the upright in heart.  But as for me, my feet were almost shaken; My steps had nearly slipped.  For I was jealous of the lawless when I beheld the peace of sinners.”

The Psalmist is struck by the dilemma which is obvious to many: often unbelievers, the godless, the immoral, or the lawless prosper.  If the universe was perfectly just, if God is righteous, why do the wicked prosper ever?  Not only do they prosper but they both defy God and deny His power.


For there is no upward gaze at their death nor steadfastness in their chastening. They are not in difficulties as other men, and they shall not be chastened with other men.  For this reason arrogance mastered them; They clothed themselves with their wrongdoing and ungodliness;  Their wrongdoing shall go forth as from fatness; They passed through to their heart’s intent.  They thought and spoke in evil; They spoke in wrongdoing to the height. They set their mouth against heaven, And their tongue passed through the earth.  For this reason my people shall return here; Days of fullness shall be found in them.  They said, “How does God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”  Behold, these are sinners, and they prosper; They possess wealth in this age.

And so the Psalmist is disheartened and discouraged, as anyone who wants a totally just and logical universe might be.

And I said, “Surely in vain have I kept my heart righteous, and washed my hands with the innocent.”  For all day long I was scourged, and my reproof persisted through the night.  If I should speak, I would describe it thus: Behold, I am breaking covenant with the generation of your children.  And I sought to understand this; It was difficult in my sight

Though the Psalmist is puzzled by and in dismay at the reality he sees in this world, his thinking is confronted by another truth: the temple still testifies to the existence of God and God’s way.  There is more to life than this world:  there is heaven above and there is a future beyond this world.  We cannot understand God or righteousness in this world alone.  Whatever is happening now, whatever is triumphing now, will in time itself be displaced for this world is always changing and passing away.   The Psalmist realizes that it is life beyond this world, beyond the grave, beyond time, which gives permanent meaning to what we experience in the here and now.  It is true that the victors are the ones who tell history, but even the victors eventually pass away.

I sought to understand this; It was difficult in my sight, until I came into God’s holy place and understood their end.  Surely, for their deceits You appointed deceits for them; You cast them down in their exaltation.  Oh, how they came into desolation suddenly! They ceased to be; they perished in their lawlessness.  Like a dream to one who is awakened, so, O Lord, You shall despise their image in Your city.  For my heart was kindled, And my reins were changed, and I was despised, and did not know; I became like a beast before You.  And I am continually with You; You hold fast my right hand; With Your counsel You guide me, And with glory You take hold of me.  For what is there in heaven for me but You, And what do I desire on earth besides You? My heart and my flesh fail, O God of my heart; and God is my portion forever.  For behold, those who keep themselves far away from You shall perish; You destroy away from You all who act unfaithfully.  But as for me, it is good to cling to God, to put my hope in the Lord, that I may proclaim all Your praises In the gates of the daughter of Zion.

The righteousness the Psalmist believes in and hopes for can only be fulfilled in that bigger picture of life beyond the world:  in God, in heaven, in a final judgment.  This is all an issue of faith, of believing and trusting in God.  As the Lord Jesus said:

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

We Christians believe that Christ has destroyed death, Hades, sin, Hell, Satan and evil.  Yet in this world we still encounter death and sin, evil and suffering.  The issue of faith takes us into another dimension of this world – a Kingdom coming and yet not fully here, immanent and yet still transcendent.

Next:  The Purpose of Righteousness (II)