When I was in seminary, my husband and I met with a trusted pastor. We told him how we were savoring our courses in systematics and biblical studies. The conversation then turned toward our personal lives. My husband mentioned that he was struggling to spend time in prayer and that he and I were fighting like cats and dogs.
Our pastor matter-of-factly replied, “You know, you can’t have orthodoxy without orthopraxy.”
We were familiar with this idea, but nonetheless it struck both my husband and me like lightning. We had entered seminary to steep in Scripture and good doctrine, but we needed to be reminded that orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right action) are so essentially entwined that if we neglect one, we lose the other.
Christians champion this unity of belief and action. But they often neglect another key part of faithfulness: orthopathy.
The word denotes right passions or feelings. It names the reality that we as Christians not only profess the truth of Jesus and practice the things he says to practice, but we also endeavor to do all this in the posture of Christ.
Orthopathy involves a redeemed and transformed interior life. This includes our feelings and emotions. But more foundationally, it involves our motivational structure, our longings, and our desires—that which most deeply drives us. The broader goal of orthopathy is that our total disposition would be changed to be more like that of Jesus.
This idea isn’t new. Isaac the Syrian said that virtue is not simply doing the right thing but doing it with “a heart that is wise in what it hopes for, and whose actions are accompanied by right intention.” Augustine told his flock that any study of Scripture and doctrine must be for the purpose of building up charity, love, and graciousness.
We’ve all seen the ugly results when someone passionate about orthodoxy doesn’t embody the internal disposition of Jesus. They end up destroying people.
All of us are capable of seemingly speaking truth in a spirit of contempt, impatience, pride, or fear. “Standing for truth” without humility or kindness falsifies the gospel we proclaim. You can’t have orthodoxy without orthopathy.
In the same way, you can’t have orthopraxy without orthopathy. If people seek biblically motivated action by, say, caring for the poor or advocating for justice, but they do so without the posture of Jesus, then orthopraxy is lost amid arrogance, legalism, or self-righteous political posturing.
The ultimate vision of Christian orthopathy is the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5, when Paul contrasts this fruit with the “acts of the flesh,” he includes internal states of the heart: impurity, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, rivalry, and envy.
Someone can be devoted to these acts even as they profess right ideas about Christology, ecclesiology, or human sexuality, and even as they volunteer in a soup kitchen or lead worship. This possibility should make all of us tremble a bit. It’s far easier to declare a view, recite a creed, or give time to a worthy cause than it is to rid ourselves of resentment, pride, or antipathy.
In these passages, Paul suggests that our interior depths, not just our beliefs and actions, must be healed and changed by Jesus.
How then do we cultivate orthopathy? It’s not a matter of will, where we can simply redouble our efforts to “do better.” It doesn’t automatically spring from orthodoxy, so we can’t grasp it through better doctrine. Nor does it inevitably flow from orthopraxy, so we can’t busy ourselves with Christian duties enough to achieve it.
Instead, the shaping and healing of our interior life comes through years of repentance and deep union and communion with God.
Taking on the disposition of Jesus isn’t something we can easily control, manage, or produce on our own. We need the transformation of God. We need the profound healing of Christ. And we need the mysterious leading of the Holy Spirit to help us embody Christian wholeness in its entirety: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night.
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