“Sin is always a crime against the Father’s love. Sin occurs when we distance ourselves from God and incline towards the passions.” (St Sophrony, WE SHALL SEE HIM AS HE IS, p 20)
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
The Greatest Sin
Now the betrayer [Judas] had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to Jesus at once, and said, “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. (Mark 14:44)
“The greatest sin is, as Christ himself stressed, not the violation of a rule but the action against love or without love.” (Michael Plekon, LIVING ICONS, p 90)
“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord in Thy Kingdom.” (Prayer before Communion)
Servant of God vs Slave of Sin
As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Matthew 8:5-13)
In Matthew 8:5-13, we learn a little bit about being a servant. This Roman army officer, a commander of 100 soldiers, who is used to giving orders and being obeyed, comes to Jesus not as a commander but as a servant himself to beg for mercy from Christ for one of his slaves. And this Centurion gives a good description of what being a servant means. “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” A servant is meant to do what he is commanded to do by the master.
A servant serves others and doesn’t demand his own way. That is what the centurion models as he humbles himself before Christ. This should cause us to ask ourselves: am I not supposed to be a servant of God? Then, what should I be doing? If in relationship to God, I am God’s servant, how am I to behave?
Certainly, not demanding God do what I want, but rather I should be studiously trying to figure out what God wants me to do.
At some point in my life I decided to follow Jesus Christ, to be His servant. I must admit that being a servant was a concept that was nebulous to me as I never grew up around anyone who had servants. But I had this vague sense that I was supposed to obey God in my life. I’ve found it to be very difficult to be a servant of God because at times I forget that I am the servant and God is the master. In my prayer life I demand things from God instead of standing before my master to clarify what I am supposed to do to serve Him. I sometimes forget (and other times ignore!) some of the commandments that Christ gave to me through the scriptures. More embarrassingly, I occasionally even forget about my master – namely God. I get involved in life and lose awareness of His existence. Even worse, I have strong feelings and passions and opinions which make me want to act in a way that I know is contrary to God’s will. So I have to struggle with these questions – do I really want to be a servant of God? What price am I willing to pay to be God’s servant? Am I willing to put aside my wants and my will to serve God? AND to serve others as God commands me?
The centurion in the Gospel lesson understood well what it is to be under command and also to command others. He knew how to obey and serve as well as give orders. As a Christian, I need to understand Jesus is Lord, and I am to be his servant.
Also note in the Matthew 8 that Jesus first talks about the kingdom of God before healing the Centurion’s servant. “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” The centurion’s humility and faith speak to Christ about the Kingdom of God. Christ recognizes the presence of the Kingdom in the centurion – who also happened to be an officer in the army oppressing Israel! When Christ sees the Kingdom present in the centurion, then He declares the servant healed. He recognizes the Kingdom in this Roman soldier because the soldier showed himself willing to be a servant of God. Christ will also see in us His Kingdom anytime we willingly serve others and do God’s will.
Being a servant of God is a blessed thing. St. Paul in Romans 6:17-23 talks about another issue related to being a servant: being slaves of sin. Here we see the negative side of being a servant.
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:17-23)
St. Paul shows us sin is not merely disobeying a rule, sin enslaves. It controls our behavior and our way of seeing the world. Christ comes to deliver us from slavery to sin so that we can love God and love one another.
Sin is an attitude which shapes everything we do or think or say. To sin is to miss the mark or completely miss the goal, to fail to do and be what we are supposed to do and be. On the other hand, “Good” as a word meant to do or be what you are created by God to do or be. Being good means to do what God wants you to do. A story from the desert fathers to illustrate that sin is more than breaking a law or that sin is complete lawlessness:
There was a wealthy Christian man who was known for being a great philanthropist. One day the abbot of the monastery came to visit him. It happened that a poor widow also came to the rich man and asked for a little wheat. The man told her to bring a cup and he would fill the cup for her. The woman came back with a pot. The man chided her, “This pot is too large. You are a greedy woman.” The widow blushed and was shamed by her benefactor. After she left, the abbot said to the man, “Were you selling the wheat to the widow?” The man said, “No, I was giving it to her in charity.” The monk replied, “If you gave her the wheat in charity, why did you speak harshly to her and measure the amount of wheat you gave her and put her to shame?”
Maybe we even sympathize with the rich man, but the story shows us that sin distorts our view of everything, even charity. Sin is not just disobeying a law, it is a failure to love and act in accordance with the commandments of our Lord Jesus.
Sin is death because it separates us from God, and from God’s love.
Union with Christ means salvation from sin. Generally we seem to want salvation to mean we are saved from sin’s consequences such as the bad results from what we do, or from sin’s guilt, or from punishment for sin and from hell. Salvation means far more than this – for it means the possibility of living for God and overcoming sin in our life so that guilt and fear of death no longer have any meaning for us. Salvation means we can actually serve God and receive God’s love.
It is also true at times that if we suffer as a result of our own sins, the suffering can be a form of mercy – it warns us to change our life, it warns us that sin leads to death and that it is time to change our minds, our hearts, our direction in life.
Christ comes to free us from enslavement to sin, so that we can be united to God. Being united to God, being God’s servant, requires of us to be willing to love God and one another. It is only by being united to God that we can fulfill our task to be God’s servant. Salvation is not simply from the consequences of sin but from slavery to sin. We regain our humanity by being re-united to God.
I Am the Prodigal Child
“God, be merciful to me the sinner.” (Luke 18:13)
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me – my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts – and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God. Yes, I often carry them off to a “distant country” and put them in the service of an exploiting world that does not know their true value.
It’s almost as if I want to prove to myself and to my world that I do not need God’s love, that I can make a life on my own, that I want to be fully independent. Beneath it all is the great rebellion, the radical “No” to the Father’s love, the unspoken curse: “I wish you were dead.” The prodigal son’s “No” reflects Adam’s original rebellion: his rejection of the God in whose love we are created and by whose love we are sustained. It is the rebellion that places me outside the garden, out of reach of the tree of life. It is the rebellion that makes me dissipate myself in a ‘distant country.’”
(Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, p. 43)
What is Sin?
“The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the eternal Divine life for which man was created and to which, by his very nature, he is called.
Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit but its consequences involve the individual as a whole. A sin will reflect on a man’s psychological and physical condition, on his outward appearance, on his personal destiny. Sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s individual life, to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us affects the rest of the universe.”
(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 31)
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 Monk, Counsels 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.
Show Mercy to the Unfortunate
Brothers and Sisters, if anyone is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1)
St. Basil the Great makes a distinction between rebuking and reproaching a fellow Christian who has fallen into sin. Rebuking in his thinking is correcting the sinner, meaning that if we point out to a fellow Christian that they have fallen into sin, we do so with the goal of helping them, not just embarrassing them. Here St. Basil (4th Century) touches upon something modern counseling would agree with. For Basil, if we merely shame an individual without offering them help for correcting their behavior, then we are wrongfully reproaching them. If we drive someone into feeling shame, we rarely help them improve themselves, for shame most often causes a person to withdraw further from those who might help them. Shame causes a person to hide, to cover up, to lie – all of which are tools of the devil to further keep a person in sin. St. Basil writes:
“And it seems that while rebuking has the goal of correcting the sinner, reproach is meant to disgrace the fallen sinner. Now as for reproaching poverty, low birth, ignorance, or physical disability, this is utterly irrational and alien to the virtuous man. For whatever we did not choose to happen to us is involuntary. And in the case of involuntary disadvantages, it is appropriate to show mercy to the unfortunate rather than to mistreat them.” (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p 98)
A second issue St. Basil touches upon is a tendency of some to shame a person for things over which they have no control: poverty, poor upbringing, bad genes, family dysfunction, social status, lack of education, lower intelligence, physical disabilities, illnesses, addictions and the like (for some unemployment or homelessness might also be issues beyond their control). Today we are confronted with novel claims there are many other issues over which a person has no control – gender identity or sexual orientation.
For St. Basil it is irrational for the virtuous to blame people for issues over which they have no control. Basil’s list, though probably not intended to be exhaustive within the context of his comments, does not include the new categories for which claims are being made that we humans don’t choose these characteristics but receive them at birth. In any case, St. Basil’s teaching on how to respond to those with characteristics which are involuntary and not of an individual’s choosing is mercy. His comments don’t resolve what human characteristics are truly involuntary [some today would say these new categories are not characteristics but rather are behaviors and so were not imagined by St. Basil], but he does see whatever characteristics are involuntary as disadvantageous to individuals, and so require from Christians a response of mercy. He forbids Christians to mistreat them in any way. Certainly, the proscription for how to treat others, especially those with “involuntary disadvantages” (Basil’s words, I recognize many today want these characteristics to be seen simply as human and normal) is to treat them as unfortunate and thus deserving mercy. Many today might say but that attitude is wrong, such people do not want our pity, they want our acceptance, they want to be treated with dignity as full human beings not as defective ones. My point here is only that if we follow St. Basil’s thinking, we will not treat such folk with disdain, judgment, hatred, fear, rejection, but rather with mercy and empathy. We would recognize them as human beings for whom Christ died in order to save them, just as He did for the rest of us. We would recognize them as having human struggles like the rest of us. Struggles that many of us would never want (and often we can’t imagine that God would give to anyone), but nevertheless can recognize as human, and thus the very kind of struggles which St. Paul envisioned when he wrote in Galatians 6:2:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
In the modern world, we accept many more categories of behavior than St. Basil had in his day. In his world there are conditions over which we have no control and behaviors over which we can and should control, including desires. In the modern age we have a much more nuanced approach to human behavior and do recognize the possibility of behaviors resulting from genetics, addictions, medical conditions, mental conditions, chemical imbalances, dysfunctional upbringing and social conditioning – over which we have no control or which we have little control but which seem to control us. Consequently, we have to deal with a more complex world – a matrix of values, beliefs, science and pseudo-science. In the midst of all that, we still find ourselves following St. Basil’s interpretation of Christ’s Gospel commandments that are grounded in love for one another. The changing nature of culture and science continues to challenge us in how to live the Gospel in a society in which there are few permanent values, no one perspective predominates, in which there is little agreement about what the facts are even when related to science.
Meeting our Vices with Virtues
In the desert fathers, a certain St. Isaiah presents the temptations as something that meet us along the paths of life. As we walk through life in the things we normally do, we can encounter these temptations which are looking for opportunities to influence us. We have to be practiced in the virtues to know how to resist them.
“Let us remember love for the poor, that this love might save us from greed, when the sin of greed shall come to meet us.
Let us acquire peace with all, the humble and the great, that this might guard us against hate, when it shall come to meet us.
Let us acquire patience before all and in all things, that this might guard us against hate, when it shall come to meet us.
Let us love all of our brothers and sisters, without hating anyone or repaying anyone any ill done against us; for this shall guard us against envy, when this demon too shall come to meet us.
Let us love the endurance in humility of our neighbor’s word, even if this word should bring upon us hurt and derision; for humility will guard us against pride, when it too shall come to meet us.
Let us seek to honor our neighbor and not to condemn or hurt anyone; for this shall protect us from gossip, when it shall come to meet us.
Let us despise the cares of this world and its honor, that we might be saved from its bewitching evil, when it shall come to meet us.
Let us teach our tongues to be unceasingly occupied with the commandments of God, righteousness, and prayer, that we might be protected from falsehood, when it shall too come to meet us.”
(St. Isaiah, The Evergetinos: A Complete Text, Vol. 2, p 38)
Spiritual Warfare: The Passions
Not infrequently in the writings of church teachers from the Patristic period, we find descriptions of how the passions and sins are related to each other, one becoming the seedbed for the next. To rid oneself of sin, one has to find the root cause of the chain which moves us ever away from God.
There may be a ladder of divine ascent that leads us step by step to the kingdom, but there also is ladder that step by step takes us into the depths of sin.
Here is one description of cause and effect relationship of passions to sins, written by Oliver Clement.
“Pride and greed form an alliance in a sort of metaphysical usurpation that annexes the whole being to the ego.
Spiritual writers, especially Maximus the Confessor, speak here of philautia, self-love, self-centeredness, that snatches the world away from God to annex it, making neighbors into things. […]
Greed unleashes debauchery as an expression of sexuality. The two together, to satisfy themselves, breed avarice.
Avarice produces depression – grief at not possessing everything – and envy – of those who possess.
Thus arises anger, against anyone who threatens my goods, or who forestalls me in securing something that I covet.
Pride, in its turn, begets ‘vain glory’, the display of riches and temptations, followed by anger and depression when the sought-for admiration and approval is lacking.”
(The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp 134-135)
Trying to Escape Death: Becoming Entangled in Sin
One finds an idea in the church Fathers that not only does sin lead to death, but also death leads to sin. Archimandrite Zacharias comments on this idea in one of his books:
“In his anguish, man devises ways of escaping the reality of death, and seeks refuge in the passions. But this only takes him deeper into sinfulness, and death only looms the larger. Hence the tragic vicious cycle that characterizes the human condition: in order to live in spite of death, man seeks pleasure in the passions in a deluded attempt to prolong and give purpose to this present life. Thus he becomes increasingly entangled in the unbearable threat and power and of death. The more he sins, the more death prevails. As Scripture says, death is the greatest enemy of man. It is because of his fear of death that man is subject to the bondage of sin.” (Remember Thy First Love, pg. 300)
See also my blog series The Relationship of God to Life and Death.