Remembering Sin as the Path to Humility

Generally, when it comes to the New Year, we like to forget the bad things that happened in the past year and look forward to positive things in the New.  Or sometimes people take this time of year to remember the best of the previous year.  Orthodox spiritual writers, however, think there is good reason to remember past sins – not to feed shame and self-loathing, but to help us repent.  Repentance means change – to move in a new direction.  Remembering our past sins, reminds us not to be so quick to judge others in their sins and failures.  Rather, remembering our past failures can help us sustain a healthy humility in our selves as well as patience, empathy and mercy for others as we see them wrestle with their own sins and temptations.  We can learn how to bear with one another as well as how to bear one another’s burdens (Romans 15:1; Galatians 6:2).  New Year’s resolutions can include remembering our past sins so that we don’t repeat them but rather learn from them so that we will be the better person from now on.

But, my brethren, let us not forget our offences, even if we wrongly think that they have been forgiven through repentance; let us always remember our sinful acts and never cease to mourn over them, so that we may acquire humility as our constant companion, and thus escape the snares of self-esteem and pride.   (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11216-24)

3 thoughts on “Remembering Sin as the Path to Humility

  1. I certainly agree with this post, in particular, the following:

    “Rather, remembering our past failures can help us sustain a healthy humility in our selves as well as patience, empathy and mercy for others as we see them wrestle with their own sins and temptations. We can learn how to bear with one another as well as how to bear one another’s burdens (Romans 15:1; Galatians 6:2). New Year’s resolutions can include remembering our past sins so that we don’t repeat them but rather learn from them so that we will be the better person from now on.”

    What I would like to inquire about is what St. Theodore the Great Ascetic had written, which is contained in the Philokalia as you cited at the end of the post, Fr. Ted:

    “But, my brethren, let us not forget our offences, even if we wrongly think that they have been forgiven through repentance;…”

    In Acts 3:19 we have the following

    “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” (NRSV)

    Furthermore it is written in Acts 11:18 as follows:

    “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (NRSV)

    I am trying to understand why one would be wrong in thinking that they have been forgiven of an offence through repentance? Thank you kindly, Fr. Ted!

    1. Fr. Ted

      I thought about deleting that phrase because it is as some would say, “an irritant” – hard to understand. But then that Fathers often felt such ‘irritants’ in Scripture were there to make us stop and have to think about a passage rather than glossing over it.
      I won’t pretend I know what he meant but many things come to my mind:
      1) He might be implying that sometimes we don’t sincerely repent but we think repentance is some kind of magic – just say “sorry” and all is forgiven. He is reminding us our sins have consequences which don’t go away simply because we mumble “sorry” or because we feel badly about what we’ve done.
      2) He might simply be saying don’t forget your sins, whether or not they have really been forgiven. Keep them in mind so that you can really change.
      3) He might be implying we each are way too willing to downplay our own sins and think they aren’t as bad as they are, or not as harmful, or not as consequential. We might imagine we’ve been forgiven even if we never repented, or that God’s job is to overlook our offenses, so they don’t really matter. There once was a character in a John Updike novel (I think) who quipped that God made a perfect world – it is His job to forgive my sins and my job to commit sins so he has something to forgive.
      4) Or that when we don’t confess to another (like our confessor), but just think about our sins to ourselves, we tend to think our sins aren’t that bad. Kind of like the Pharisee in the parable with the publican. The Pharisee prays to himself – all in his head, not really to God.
      5) He might be suggesting sometimes we deceive ourselves and think we’ve repented when we have barely considered our sin. Especially for monks who are spending their entire life in repentance. They may imagine that since they pray all the time, they can’t really commit any serious sin and so assume forgiveness is guaranteed. He is reminding us sins, even little ones, are still sins against God.

      Note that he is not saying that your sins are never forgiven or that it is wrong to ever imagine you are forgiven, but only that it can happen that we haven’t really repented or haven’t really been forgiven. but we just imagine it. He is not trying to feed a compulsive person’s worries. He is rather speaking to monks and perhaps sees some who no longer consider their sins serious since they are monks.

      Jesus and John the Baptist both preach, “Repent!” And we pray in all our services that we might spend the remaining time of our life in repentance.
      So is there ever a time when we should stop repenting because we feel we are forgiven? Are saints also called to hear the message “Repent”? Is there ever a time when it is not appropriate to pray Psalm 51 because we have nothing to repent of? Or is repentance somehow a way of life for us – and thus always on our hearts and minds even if we are well behaved and living a godly life?

      If we in fact are forgiven, are we then freed from following the command to repent? Or is repentance actually our proper attitude toward God? Psalm 51 should always be on our lips and in our heart?

      Just a few thoughts. I don’t know exactly what St Theodoros had in mind when he made his comment, but it did make me stop and think about what he wrote. It did you too. That is what an “irritant” does for us.

      1. Thank you kindly, Fr. Ted, for your response! The thoughts you shared helped elucidate the passage by St. Theodore on the relationship between offenses, repentance, and humility. I definitely agree with what he said, then, and appreciate you sharing this! May 2020 be a year filled with many blessings for you Fr. Ted, and may all that you do through your writing and ministry as an Orthodox priest bring glory to God!

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