All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)
St Paul writes about the freedom we have in God. No longer are we bound by the minutia of the Law; from now on love is to be our guide more than the Law. So we don’t have to fret about what is forbidden by the Old Testament Law as all things are now lawful for me. However, once we remove the limitations imposed by the Law, we come to realize that not everything accessible to us is helpful to our spiritual lives. Now we have to choose things based upon what is helpful to us, what edifies us or those around us. There is an additional caveat – in love we should be looking to the needs of others and what is good for others rather than selfishly focusing on our own needs and wants. This is the law of love. Our task is to remove those things from our lives, hearts, minds and souls which do not unite us to God. A story from the desert fathers:
A priest of the Pagans came down to Scete; he came to my cell and slept [there]. Seeing the monks’ way of life, he said to me: ‘Living like this, do you not see any [visions] from your God?’ ‘No,’ I said to him, and the priest said to me: ‘And yet, when we perform sacred rites for our god he hides nothing from us but reveals his mysteries to us. You who perform such labors: all night vigils, hesychia, spiritual disciplines, you say “We see nothing?” You must certainly have evil logismoi in your hearts if you see nothing – and that is what separates you from your God. And for that reason his mysteries are not revealed to you.’
[The Pagan priest tells the Christian monk that the Pagans regularly are given visions from their god and he concludes that the reason the Christian monks do not receive visions from God is that that their hearts and minds are filled with evil thoughts and desires despite their very ascetical piety. These evil thoughts and desires are separating the Christians from God. The monks agree with his assessment and admit that they must clean their hearts and minds of evil thoughts and desires in order to hear God’s word. All the asceticism in the world won’t help us if our hearts are filled with evil wishes.]
Off I went and reported the priest’s words to the elders. They were amazed, saying: ‘That is indeed so: impure logismoi separate God from man.’ (Abba Olympius, GIVE ME A WORD, p 219)
The story shows the monks that those of other faiths do have spiritual insight and truth, and one can learn from them. They also have to admit that though certain thoughts that come into their hearts and mind are ‘lawful’, they are not all helpful. Those that do not lead to salvation, to union with God, need to be expelled from our hearts and minds. Just because something is pleasureable, doesn’t mean it is spiritually beneficial – it may not lead us to union with God. We have to discern to what we should pay attention in terms of our thoughts and feelings and only entertain those which edify us or help us in some way to maintain our union with God.
But what if others are offended by our piety and the choices for the good that we make? The spiritual advice is not to worry about those who are offended at us Christians for no good reason. In other words, if others don’t like it when we choose the good or holy, we are not responsible for their feelings. Theodoret of Cyrus comments:
The Lord bids us give no heed to those taking offense without reason: when the apostles said, ‘Are you aware that when the pharisees heard the word, they took offense?’ he replied, ‘Leave them be: they are blind leaders of the blind’ (Matthew 15:12, 14). So he urges them to give no cause for justified accusation. (COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF ST PAUL Vol 2, p 217)
Our decisions, thoughts, words and actions should never be aimed at giving offense to others. But if others take offense at our not being willing to join them in their activities (1 Peter 4:4-5), we should just leave them alone and not become embroiled in arguments with them. Our task is to do the good and right thing.