Greetings and many blessings, people of prayer. Let us pray now as we begin:
O Spirit of God, guide us as we strive to understand more deeply how to be humble and contrite of heart, that we may experience more profoundly the fullness of Your love and mercy. Amen.
Our author gives quite a large assortment of sayings from the Church Fathers, with particularly generous selections from St. John Climacus and St. Isaac of Syria. Rather than try to sort through them all in pieces, once again I will write the reflections that are given to me, as always inviting you to do the same.
I can make no argument against the need for humility and contrition. I would be a fool to try such a thing. Yet there is something just beneath the surface, needing to be said – and so I will write and see if it comes forth.
Let us begin with this excerpt from St. Isaac of Syria,
“So long as you are in this life, scorn your self by the constant remembrance of your sins. Confess them before the merciful God in contrition and you will gain intimacy with him.”
Does anyone else feel a tension in this brief passage?
I want intimacy with God more than anything. I believe He is merciful – merciful beyond my imagining.
But then why, I ask myself, would He want me to be constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself?
Not only does this sound very painful, but it sounds like an oddly gloomy way of living, inconsistent with Christian joy. Furthermore, it seems strange that God would want us to “constantly” remember our sins when He has promised to not remember them Himself (Isaiah 43: 25; Hebrews 8: 12; 10: 17).
Are we to never allow ourselves to feel forgiven in this life?
Herein lies the tension: if I am constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself for them, it seems that I am not truly accepting the mercy and redemption offered by the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, if I allow myself to feel forgiven and “forget” my sins, is this not the pathway to a pride in which I imagine myself to be good and no longer in need of redemption?
Yes, this is the heart of it. In order to address this tension, let us consider first what it means for God to remember our sins no more versus what it means for us to remember them no more.
For God to say to us, “Your sins I remember no more,” (Isaiah 43:25) is not to say that He is incapable of recalling them. God does not have memory deficits.
But, in His mercy, God can and does choose to never bring them up again, to not “call them to mind” (the meaning of “remember”, from Latin “rememorari”). Hence, our joy lies in our trust that, having confessed and received forgiveness, God will not be confronting us at the end of our lives with a list of these transgressions. They are gone, as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103: 12).
However, the meaning – and consequences – are quite different if we consider our forgetting or failing to remember our sins. There are two ways in which I might fail to remember my sins (aside from memory impairment).
One is that I make no effort to remember and I literally forget that I did these wrong deeds or cultivated these sinful attitudes. While surely this can happen, I suspect that it is the second route that is more common and perhaps more pernicious.
This second route is when we can, with effort, call to mind our wrong-doings of the past, but they no longer seem like a particularly big deal to us. After all, they have been forgiven, the past is the past and I’m better now.
I was a sinner but I’ve been saved.
The problem here is the past tense. “I was a sinner.” And this is why I think it is probably the more pernicious of the two possible modes of not remembering.
It is unlikely that someone without memory impairment is going to literally forget every sin they ever committed, even if they make little effort to remember. And I don’t think what is essential is that we remember every sin we’ve ever committed – or even most of them.
What is vital is our recognition that we are still sinners, even if we have not knowingly engaged in serious sin in recent times. Without this knowledge, we drift away from that watchfulness (“nepsis”) which keeps guard over our purity and humility.
In other words, without awareness that I am a sinner and must be ever watchful, pride creeps back in.
I am reminded of Fr. Stephen’s writing on the disease model of sin (click here). This forgetting of ours is not unlike the “forgetting” of many people who have a chronic physical or mental illness. Once my symptoms have been in remission for a good while, it is easy to believe that I am no longer ill. “I’m not sick. I don’t really need this medication anymore.”
In our spiritual lives, if we do not make an effort to remember (“call to mind”) our sins, we can easily forget that we still have a disease. Not recognizing our diseased state is extraordinarily dangerous – even more so than in the medical world, because so much more is at stake.
Terrible as it is to have an unnecessary episode of physical or mental illness – or even to suffer bodily death, it is far worse to cut ourselves off from God through pride, blindly believing ourselves to be “good Christians”.
The question might arise in our minds: why am I still diseased if the Lord Jesus has forgiven me and blotted out my sins?
On a practical level, it is usually easy enough to recognize that I am still a sinner – because I sin. However, if pride ever tempts me to think otherwise, I need only ask myself if I am experiencing theosis. After I finish laughing at myself, I must again acknowledge that I am in sin, even if momentarily I do not see the symptoms of my disease.
The broader question of why I am still diseased if Christ has saved me, is both simple and complex. I will leave the complex discussion to the theologians. The simple answer is because the battle is still being fought.
Christ is undoubtedly victorious over sin and death. There is no question. However, for reasons known only to God, the evil one is still at large and will be until time in our world is brought to an end. Our full communion with God will not be complete until the resurrection of the dead (see p. 107).
Hence, except by special gift from God, we cannot expect to be fully healed from our disease while fighting a toxic presence. This would be like expecting a cure from lung disease while actively handling asbestos.
Or perhaps more aptly, while smoking cigarettes – because we still crave our poison and are often ambivalent about getting well.
So if indeed I must remember my sins and “scorn” myself, what does this mean? Am I called to dwell on everything I’ve ever done wrong and hate myself for my failings?
Expressed in this way, no. But there is a truth here that we do not want to miss.
I need to remember always that I bear the disease of sin, not forgetting it for a moment. If I have confessed, my contrition shines with humble gratitude – for I know I have received a great gift. If I have not, I am preparing myself with both deep sorrow and eager anticipation.
If my sins stand constantly before me, wracking me with shame, I pray for the grace to bear my symptoms until God sees fit to relieve me of them. If I cannot see my sins, I pray for the grace to know them, that I might repent more genuinely rather than become proud.
I do not despise myself as does the depressed person, wishing I had never been given life. Rather, I lay my broken, diseased self before the living God with words such as these:
o my Father,
when You made me,
You gave me a heart
that was pure and clean,
holy and beautiful.
and now i have ruined it.
You designed it to find
its joy in You.
but i sought my joy
in everything but You.
You created me for love,
yet i love only myself –
which is no love at all.
i have destroyed
this beautiful heart
and i am ashamed.
i am nothing before You.
i have no right to ask You
but they tell me that
a broken, humbled heart
You will not spurn.
and so I bring You mine.
i need a new heart,
o my God.
create for me
a new, clean heart
and put a steadfast spirit
i am nothing,
but You are mercy,
o endless Love,
my mercy, my joy.
(Comments and questions are always welcome as we pray this book together. Peace to all, in Christ’s love.)