This is part of our No Longer Sola Series.
If we desire to feel the warmth of the sun, we must make the physical effort to walk outdoors and expose our skin to its rays, perhaps shedding some of our clothing. After being tanned by the sun's rays, we would claim not that our tan came about as the result of our own power, but rather that we desired it and put ourselves in a position to receive it.
And if there are clouds covering the sun, we do not say, "The sun is angry with me." The sun has not changed in any way nor have the sun's rays ceased to shine. Rather, we acknowledge that the clouds are obstructing the sun's light and power, keeping it from having its natural impact. - "Know the Faith" by Fr. Michael Shanbour
This whole concept was revolutionary to me. It's a very different way of understanding works and grace from what I had known for most of my life.
Even though my Lutheran tradition technically upheld a positive view of God's Law (the so called "Third use" of the law) it was not predominant in the way that the accusatory function of God's Law was. In Lutheranism I understood that human works had absolutely nothing to do with salvation. Good works are to be done only as a response of faith and for the good of our neighbor. I was taught that God's Law, that is, what God expects us to do, always accuses us. It tells us how terrible of a job we are doing and that God is justified in his anger toward us.
Nothing I could do would be good enough to earn God's grace or favor towards me. The whole point of the Law was to show me how true that was. God becomes favorable or kind to me independent of anything I could do. It's only because I am covered with the righteous and perfect life of Jesus that His countenance toward me changes. The Father sees Jesus' life, instead of my filthy works, and is pleased.
The more I studied Scripture the more confusing this theology became. While there are places where works are spoken of negatively (such as in reference to the ceremonial law or the sinful works of darkness) there are also places where works are spoken of positively. The Bible talks about works as something we are supposed to do.
A tension developed because I knew the Biblical call to repentance meant that I needed to change, to turn away from my sins. But absent in my thinking about works was any notion that what I did really mattered. Did I need to turn from my sin or didn't I? Could I even get away from it? Everything I do is tainted with sin, after all. Was it relevant or wasn't it? There were conflicting signals.
The Orthodox understanding of God's grace was so revolutionary to me because there was finally a category for understanding why what I did mattered. Grace is the life and energies of God that transforms man to be more like God. It is not a change in God's attitude about me.
I finally had an answer to my question. Why do I bother living a Godly life and loving Christ by keeping His commandments? Because everything I do either opens me up to what God wants to do in my life, or closes me off to that grace.
Good works are good because they put us in a position to receive God's saving grace. God's grace does the transforming and saving. All that our works do is either open us up to receive God or close us off to Him. God honors our freedom; He does not force us to have a relationship with Him. So when we choose to indulge in those works of darkness, we are turning our backs on God.
The sun is the sun. If I want to go hide under a tree instead of being in the sunshine, the sun isn't going to change its angle in the sky to get at me anyway. The sun stays the same, regardless of my choices, the only difference is whether I allow myself to be changed by the sun's presence or not.
The Orthodox view is liberating to me and helped me understand why God gives commandments. It's not just to show me that I'm a miserable sinner who is bound to fail. I don't give my children rules to follow so I can punish them when they break the rules; I give them rules because I know how to keep them safe and, ultimately, happier than if they simply followed their own whims constantly.
It's the same with God. The reason why He commands me to do certain things and not others is because some works allow me to be changed by His presence, to have communion with Him and to be open to His grace. But the works of darkness close me off to Him, and I cannot have that beneficial relationship with my Creator.