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)

Sinners Called by Christ

“You are, of course, quite right: there is no room for doubt! The Lord does indeed long to gather all into His arms. All – but particularly the worst sinners.

This truth must, however, be rightly interpreted, rightly understood: the Lord calls to Him all sinners; He opens His arms wide, even to the worst among them. Gladly he takes them in His arms, if only they will come. But they have got to make the effort of coming. They must seek Him, go to Him. In other words, they must repent. It is not that He rejects those who do not repent. He still longs for them, and calls them. But they refuse to hear His call. They choose to wander away, in some other direction.”

(Macarius, starets of Optino, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, p. 58)

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Correcting, Not Judging Sinners

St. John Chrysostom had very strong words for Christians who want to convert others to Christ or who want to confront a Christian who has fallen into sin.

Do not trample, but admonish. Do not revile, but advise. Do not assail with pride, but correct with tenderness. These commandments offer great blessings to the obedient, but great evil for those who ignore them.

‘All right,’ you say, ‘if one commits fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing and correct the person who fornicates?’  Yes, correct him – but as a physician providing medicines, not as an adversary exacting a penalty. Be not bitter in pronouncing sentence.

If you judge your brother, be sure to judge yourself first. Care about the one you judge, and judge him not for things you yourself are guilty of.”  (Homily on “Judge not, that you be not judged”, p. 3)

Sin and Blame

“It is God, who is merciful and grants everyone what he needs, who is building him up when he gives him more than he needs; in doing so he shows the abundance of his love for men and teaches him to give thanks. When he does not grant him what he needs, he makes him compensate for the thing he needs through the working of his mind and teaches him patience. Because it is our duty to attend to the supernatural aspect of all things, whether we suffer good or evil from anyone, we ought to look at (all things) supernaturally and give thanks for everything that happens to us, always taking the blame ourselves and saying, as the Fathers used to say, ‘If anything good happens to us it is God’s providence; if any bad, it is because of our sins.’ And truly everything we suffer is caused by our sins.

For the holy men of old, whatever they suffered, they suffered for God’s name, either to demonstrate their virtue and so to help everyone else, or to win greater reward from God. But we miserable fellows, how can we say this? Every one of us goes on sinning and suffering what we deserve. We have left the straight road of blaming ourselves and taken the crooked road of blaming our neighbor. Every one of us is very careful, on every occasion, to throw the blame on his brother and to strike him down with its weight. Every one of us is negligent and keeps none of the Commandments, and we demand in return that our neighbor keep them all.” (Dorotheos of Gaza – 6th Century, Discourses and Sayings: Desert Humor and Humility, p 144)

Christ Jesus Came to Save Sinners

St. Paul writes in 1 Tim. 1:15-17 –

Christ and the Prodigal Child

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners‑‑of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Isaac the Syrian comments:

“Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same. Remember that you share the earthly nature of Adam and that you are clothed with his infirmity. Do not reprove those who are in need of your prayer, and do not withhold tender words of comfort from them, lest they perish and their souls be required of you; but do as the physicians, who cure the diseases which are more feverish with cooling remedies, and the more chilling with their opposites.” (St. Isaac in Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology by Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, pg. 202)

Doing unto Others

The Lord Jesus taught:

Showing Mercy to the Stranger Christ

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

(Luke 6:31-36)

St. Hesychios the Priest said:

“If you do not want to suffer evil, do not inflict it, since the suffering of it inevitably follows its infliction. ‘For whatever a man sows he will also reap’ (Gal. 6:7). Reaping unwillingly the wickedness we deliberately sow, we should marvel at God’s justice. “ (The Philokalia, Volume One, pg. 172)

John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

that whoever believes in him

should not perish but have eternal life”  (John 3:16).

But God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ dies for us (Rom. 5:8): God, on the contrary, shows the extraordinary degree of his love for us in that the death of Christ happened not for righteous people but for sinners.[…]After  all, if while enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more now that we are reconciled shall we be saved by his life (Rom. 5:10): if while adversaries and enemies we were granted such care that he gave over to death the Son for us, how could it be that with reconciliation made we do not have a share in eternal life?”  [Robert Charles Hill  (Tr.), Theodoret Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul   Vol 1, pg.71]

Judging the Sinner Who is Tempted

“A brother questioned Abba Poeman saying, ‘If I see a brother whom I have heard is a sinner, I do not want to take him into my cell, but when I see a good brother I am happy to be with him.’ The old man said, ‘If you do a little good to the good brother, do twice as much for the other. For he is sick. Now, there was an anchorite called Timothy in a coenobium. The abbot, having heard of a brother who was being tempted, asked Timothy about him, and the anchorite advised him to drive the brother away. Then when he had been driven away, the brother’s temptation fell upon Timothy to the point where he was in danger. Then Timothy stood up before God and said, “I have sinned. Forgive me.” Then a voice came which said to him, ‘Timothy, the only reason I have done this to you is because you despised your brother in the time of his temptation.’” (Poeman in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pgs.176-177)

The Sinner: Lawbreaker or Infirm?

“We must love our neighbor still more when he sins against God, or against ourselves, because then he is sick, because then he is in spiritual misfortune, in danger; then, especially, we must have compassion upon him, pray for him, and apply to his heart a healing plaster-a word of kindness, instructions, reproval, consolation, forgiveness, love. ‘Forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:32). All sins and passions, quarrels and disputes, are truly spiritual diseases; that is how we must look upon them. Or, all passions are a fire of the soul, a great fire, raging inwardly; a fire proceeding from the abyss of hell. It must be extinguished by the water of love, which is strong enough to extinguish every infernal flame of malice and of other passions. But woe and misfortune to us, to our self-love, if we increase this flame by a fresh internal flame, by our own malice and irritability, and thus make ourselves the assistants of the spirits of evil, ever endeavoring to inflame the souls of men by means of many and various passions.” (St.John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, Part 1 pg. 233)