In teaching the 10 Commandments, Christians often speak of “keeping” the commandments – but what if it’s the other way around?
The classic Orthodox collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia contains writings from saints and monks spanning centuries. Outside of St. Maximos the Confessor, no one contributed more to this collection than the mysterious St. Peter of Damaskos. Little is known of St. Peter except that he was a monk, living before the hesychast controversy, most likely in the 11th or 12 century. In his “The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline,” he has a unique take on the commandments:
…the evil that we commit ourselves is our own responsibility and arises from our own laziness with the help of the demons. On the other hand, all knowledge, strength and virtue are the grace of God, as are all other things. And through grace He has given all men the power to become sons of God (cf. John 1:12) by keeping the divine commandments. or, rather, these commandments keep us, and are the grace of God, since without His grace we cannot keep them. We have nothing to offer Him except our faith, our resolution and, in brief, all the true dogmas that we hold with firm faith through the teaching we have heard (cf. Rom. 10:17).
Note the synergism that marks the Orthodox view of salvation. It is only by cooperating with God than we can obey God, and we return to God our faith and will, which themselves are gifts He gives us that we might keep the commandments.
Or, rather, “these commandments keep us.” As Chesterton remarked centuries later, doctrine and discipline are walls, but they are the fence around the playground. They are the guard rails that keep us on the road that leads to life.
The commandments, then, are not arbitrary rules imposed on use from the outside. They are, instead, the form that grace takes in our daily lives, a means through which God orders our lives so that we might grow in Him. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13, NRSV)
Sin distorts us, our egos betray us, our hearts deceive us, but the commandments keep us. Thanks be to God.
Source: The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume III, p. 89 (emphasis added). The biographical information on St. Peter above comes from the introductory note at the beginning of this volume.