Repentance: So God Can Enter My Heart

“’My victory is Your victory,’ David says to the Lord, ‘and my defeat, which is my sin, is likewise a loss for Your glory, for it interrupts the advance of Your glory in the hearts of men.’  It follows, then, that when we don’t repent, when we have no awareness of our sin, when we are without tears, when we are content to lie in the muck of our sins, we implicate God Himself in our fall. Have we sinned? Do we remain in our sin? If so, then He cries out: ‘They cast me out, the beloved, as a corpse to be despised.’

When I reject the way of repentance, I reject God. When I choose to remain in sin, I expel God from my heart. But as soon as I turn from my sin, God enters my heart. And when He does, I discover my place in the Church, which is His body and His bride.” 

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 221)

Confess Your Sins to Enlist God’s Mercy

Do you see the physician’s prodigality which excels the loving concern of all human fathers? It is not something burdensome and demanding that he requires of us, is it? No, simply heartfelt contrition, a lull in our wild ideas, confession of sins, earnest recourse to him; then he not merely rewards us with the curing of our wounds and renders us cleansed of our sins, but also puts to rights the person who beforehand had been weighed down with countless burdens of sin. O the greatness of love! O the extent of his goodness!

When the sinner confesses his sins and begs forgiveness and gives evidence of carefulness in the future, God immediately declares him law-abiding. For clear proof of this, listen to the prophet’s words: “Take the initiative in declaring your transgressions so that you may be declared upright”(Isaiah 43:26, LXX).  He did not simply say, “Declare your transgressions,” but added, “Take the initiative,” that is to say, don’t wait for someone to accuse you, nor let the prosecutor anticipate you – beat him to the punch by having the first say, so as to deprive the prosecutor of a voice.

Do you see the judge’s lovingkindness? In the case of human courts, whenever anyone admitted to doing this and anticipated proof of the charges by confessing his crimes, he would perhaps be in a position to escape torture and the torments accompanying it, and even if the case came before a lenient judge he would indubitably receive a sentence of death.

In the case of the loving God, on the contrary, the physician of our souls, we meet with ineffable goodness and a liberality exceeding all description. What I mean is this: if we steal a march on our adversary – I mean the devil – who on that dread day will take his stand against us, and already in this present life before our entry into the court we confess our crimes, take the initiative in speaking, and turn accusers against ourselves, we will encourage the Lord not only to reward us with freedom from our sins but also to reckon us among the number of the upright.   (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp. 43-44)

Going to Confession

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a breach with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

Who can give us the certainty that, in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins, we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God? God gives us this certainty through our brother. Our brother breaks the circle of self-deception. A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light. But since the sin must come to light some time, it is better that is happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgment. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment. Our brother has been given me that even here and now I may be certain through him of the reality of God in His judgment and His grace.

As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness. But it is precisely for the sake of this certainty that confession should deal with concrete sins. People usually are satisfied when they make a general confession. But one experiences the utter perdition and corruption of human nature, in so far as this ever enters into experience at all, when one sees his own specific sins. Self-examination on the basis of all Ten Commandments will therefore be the right preparation for confession. Otherwise it might happen that one could still be a hypocrite even in confessing to a brother and thus miss the good of the confession.

Jesus dealt with people whose sins were obvious, with publicans and harlots. They knew why they needed forgiveness, and they received it as forgiveness of their specific sins. Blind Bartimaeus was asked by Jesus: What do you want me to do for you? Before confession we must have a clear answer to this question. In confession we, too, receive the forgiveness of the particular sins which are here brought to light, and by this very token the forgiveness of all our sins, known and unknown.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, pp 138-141)

There is a lot to digest in the quote above, but for us Orthodox, this week, we might pay attention especially to the last paragraph as we prepare for our own confessions.  We should have an answer for the last question when we come to Christ in our own confession – Christ asks us, “what do you want me to do for you?”  What do I need from Christ at the end of my confession?  What do I want from Christ as I confess my sins?    If the answer is “nothing, I’m just fulfilling my obligation”, then we will receive nothing for sure.   Do we want forgiveness of our sins?  Do we want healing of our souls?  Do we want to be cleansed of our sins?  Do we want Christ to abide in our hearts?  Do we want  to be able to forgive others?   Do we want to move in a new direction in life?  Do we want to move toward the Kingdom of God?  Do we want to be able to love others as Christ loves us?

How Do I Confess My Sins?

Confess your sins one to another,” bids us the disciple and brother of the Lord, “and pray one for another, that we may be healed;” and, “if we confess our sins,” the beloved disciple pledges himself also, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” How shall I confess?  By imitating the prodigal in falling down and crying out to the Lord with contrite heart and humbleness of spirit, “I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight; receive me, Father, in my repentance.

How shall I confess? By departing from error and by abominating sin. For it thou shalt turn, and humble thyself before the Lord, and remove unrighteousness far from thy habitation, the Almighty shall be thy helper. And, “Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you,” saith the Lord Almighty. How shall I confess? By turning with all my heart, and by humbling myself with fasting and lamentation and rending of the heart. “For now,” saith the Lord our God, “turn ye to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with lamentation; and rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God, for He is merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy.” How shall I confess? By pitying the poor and the beggar, and by forgiving my neighbor’s faults.

For it says, “The merciful shall obtain mercy,” and, “forgive and it shall be forgiven you,” and “a man’s mercy is to Him as a signet,” and it is a good gift to them that do it before the most High. Thus is sin wiped out, thus are we cleansed of faults.

(St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, pp. 45-46)

The Publican and Pharisee as Spiritual Athletes

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The canon from the Lenten Triodion for Matins for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee uses athletic imagery to contrast the two men in prayer and to help explain Christ’s parable.

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The righteousness of the Pharisee proved to be vanity, and was condemned, for it was yoked to pride;  but the Publican gained humility, which goes with the virtue exalting men on high. 

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The Pharisee thought to drive swiftly in the chariot of the virtues; but the Publican on foot outran him, for he yoked humility with compassion.  Pondering with our minds the parable of the Publican,  let us all emulate him with tears, offering God a contrite spirit and seeking the remission of our sins.

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The Publican and Pharisee both ran in the race of life,  but the one was overcome by foolish pride:  He was brought to a shameful shipwreck,  while the other was saved by humility.   

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 Changing to a righteous course of life,  let us emulate the wisdom of the Publican:  Let us run from the hateful conceit of the Pharisee, so letting ourselves attain to life.  

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St. John Chrysostom offers a comment on the parable of the Publican and Pharisee which brings to the forefront of spiritual thinking what is really important in our struggle to follow Christ:

To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.      For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility.

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The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.  So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.    (Homily V, The Fathers of the Churchp. 158-160)

It is not being a sinner or our sins which will prevent us from attaining the Kingdom of God.  Rather, it is our pride and arrogance, judgmentalism, which will prevent us from being with Christ.  It is not God’s justice which will deny our entry into heaven, but our lack of mercy, humility and love.

See also my post: A Chariot Race: The Publican vs The Pharisee

Repenting of a Serious Sin

A brother asked Abba Poemen: “I have committed a serious sin and I want to repent for three years.” The elder said to him: “It is a long time.” “For a year, then?” said the brother to him, and again the elder said to him: “It is a long time.” They who were present began saying: “How about forty days?” and again he said: “It is a long time,” but he said: “I am telling you that if a person repent with his whole heart and does not go on to commit the sin again, even in three days God will receive him.”

(Abba Poemen, Give Me a Word, p. 229)

The Nativity Fast: Why Humility is Essential

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion.  On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ.  On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose.  As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil  that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:

‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’

They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘

Vigil?’ he would say –

and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘

Withdrawal from the world?’

And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’

‘What then makes you come out?’

and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)

St Mary of Egypt

The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart.   As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!].  It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.

If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons.  The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart.   For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting.  For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide.  What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.

“Every genuine  confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Counsels on Confession

The person who possesses knowledge and knows the truth confesses to God not by reminding himself of things he has done, but by patiently enduring what happens to him.  (St. Mark the MonkCounsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2664-2666)

As we move into the Nativity Fast, it is a good time for us to examine our consciences to see what is in our hearts, and to know of what we need to repent in order to follow Christ.  For basically repentance is removing all those obstacles from our hearts and lives that prevent us from being faithful disciples of Christ.  Confession occurs not just when we go to the sacrament, but daily when we admit our faults and failures to our Lord.  As St Mark the Monk notes above confession occurs daily when we realize that much of what happens to us is the result of our own choices and because we live in a fallen world.  When we recognize the effects of the Fall on our daily lives, we are admitting that the power of sin in the world is noticeable – both in how we behave and how others behave toward us.  The fact that life is not fair, that sin abounds, tells us this is the world of the Fall.  There is a reality that the only person we can change in the world is our self.   [This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice.  It does mean that we must never cease struggling against the sin which is in our own hearts.]

St. Basil  the Great rejected any idea of predestination or pre-determination based on the inescapable power of original sin.  If everything is predetermined by original sin or by genetic makeup then indeed even efforts for justice, correction and reform are worthless since we would only be struggling against an all-powerful fate over which we can never win.  We are to wrestle with those parts of our self over which we actually have control – the only sins we commit occur in those things over which we have control.  Some in the Patristic age thought even doing something once did not constitute sin.  It is sin only if we repeat the action knowing it is wrong – doing it once is a mistake, repeating it is sin.   As St. Basil notes, it really doesn’t do any good for legislators to pass laws forbidding something over which a person has no control anyway.  St. Basil is speaking rhetorically, for he believes people do make choice, at least some.  Not everything we do is predetermined in us.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

For St Basil the failure of predestination thinking is that it tells us nothing matters.  Not only can we incapable of  resisting sin – we also are incapable of change so repentance is impossible. Predestination means even goodness and success will only happen by fate, so no use trying to do good either.  No use planting crops or working hard since fate determines everything including whether there is food to eat.  Might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.  But at this point even many predestination believers can see that it does matter if you try – there is food to eat only because people work hard to make it so.  There are roads, bridges, stores, internet and electricity only because people make the effort to make it happen.  Everything is not just unfolding by fate, people are making decisions and acting on them.  What we do matters and changes the course of human history.  The same is true about our behavior good and bad.

It is because our behavior matters and does affect both others as well as our self, that the examination of conscience and the confession of sins is important.  We are by nature relational beings, we need to consider how our behavior, thoughts and even our attitude is a reflection of whether or not we are guided by the Gospel commandment to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34).  Admitting our sins, faults and foibles is not failure but rather how we show that we recognize Christ’s lordship over our daily lives.  Confession is acknowledgment of reality, of what is in our hearts, as shameful as it might be, as reluctant as we are to admit it.

Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.”   ( St.  John Climacus, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1624-25)

St John Climacus recognizes that admitting one’s sins is a good thing, and yet it has to be practiced with wisdom and discretion.  Just a fear of scandalizing others is not in itself justification for concealing one’s sin (note he said sin, he didn’t say every thought that comes into your head, just your sins.  The behavioral sin might be obvious to others, but we don’t need to discuss with everyone every errant idea that passes through our minds).  However, as he also notes, he is not putting down an unbreakable rule – one has to use wisdom in knowing when to openly admit to one’s sins.  There are some things we do which it is not wise to tell everyone.  We need to confess those to our father confessors, to those who are better prepared to deal with humans as fallen sinners.  If we are honest to our self about our sins, we recognize also how our sins impact our lives and the lives of those around us – especially the ones we love.  Instead of becoming bitter for sin or blaming others regarding sin, when we recognize its power in our life, we can make an effort to correct it and to find the better way to love others or at least to own it and repent of it.

 

Sin is a Wound. Confession the Remedy.

“Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame  and repentance possesses the courage. I beg of you, pay careful attention to me, so you may not confuse the order and lose the benefit. There is a wound and there is a medicine, sin and repentance. Sin is the wound; repentance is the medicine. In the wound there is rottenness; the medicine cleanses the decay. The putrefaction, reproach, and mocking are caused by sin. However, courage, freedom, and the cleansing of sin accompany repentance. Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance. . . .  There exist a wound and a medicine. The wound has the rottenness; the medicine can cleans the decay. Could the decay be derived from the medicine, the cure from the wound? Do these things not have their own order and those things theirs? Is it possible for this to pass over to that, or that to this? Never!

Let us now come to the sins of the soul. Sin has the shame, sin has the contempt and the infamy as its lot. Repentance has courage, repentance has fasting. Repentance procures righteousness. ‘First tell your transgression, so you may be justified’ and, ‘A righteous man accuses himself at the beginning of his speech.’”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom On Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 115)