The Illness and the Cure
Christianity without repentance is hypocritical, a mockery, even dangerous. It claims what is not rightfully ours, forgiveness without a change of heart. It can only do this in a formal sort of way since such attitudes are based on there being nothing to forgive in the first place. It therefore opposes the truth about ourselves and the significance of what God has done, is doing and will do for us. As St. John says in his First Letter, Chapter 1:-
5 This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
I don't know about you but I would rather not call God a "liar." As St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 3
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...
However, many people just don't think of themselves in this way. In their own understanding their actions and thoughts are neither good nor bad, neither perfect nor imperfect. In so far as these things are thought about at all, a soul is revealed that just muddles along, confident that it is normal and ordinary; neither in the need of the forgiveness of God nor the faith that goes with that. Sin is what evil people do. It doesn't touch me.
There is absolutely nothing anyone else can do about this except to make clear to that person that no one who is impure shall see God, [Matthew 5:8]. Purification, forgiveness, the cutting out of the root of sin, not just the weeds that grow on the surface of things; this only comes about through repentance and we cannot do that for anyone else nor even bring them to the point of wanting to do it for themselves. Only God can disturb a soul sufficiently so as to prompt the first tentative steps towards repentance. We might aid that as His servants, but only in so far as we, with all humility, count ourselves the first amongst sinners since as our Lord taught, we are not to judge. The deep soul surgery that is the mother of true repentance, only God can do that as the soul begins, painfully, slowly to open itself up to new and unwelcome truths about itself as a prelude to genuine forgiveness and new life.
The word most frequently used in the New Testament for repentance is "metanoia." It means an "about turn" ... a revolution in our attitudes arising from a change of mind and heart and a return to God. When we repent in this way we gain both self knowledge and self mastery by the grace of God and we are well on the way to recovery. Avoid the issue, however, close our eyes and stop up our ears to the truth and we are dead already. Turn to God and live; such might be a simple summary of the gospel message.
What We Need to Do
I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, ... [Luke 15:18]
The Orthodox Church has a very practical, loving and healing ministry for all the believers ... confession, the great healing sacrament. If you have come across confession before, either as an idea or in practice, you may be thinking about "sin lists," artificial or pathological guilt, judgementalism, formalism and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Orthodox practice of confession before (not "to") a priest. The priest in the prayers says:- "I am only a witness ... " ... and so he is. The penitent stands before the icon of the Lord and His Cross and he unburdens his soul to the Saviour. Our Lord Jesus Christ only looks back with Infinite Love and Compassion and He heals that soul with his forgiveness and strengthens the change of heart with his grace. The person walks about of confession a free man or woman. The priest is there to facilitate the confession, gently prompting or maybe correcting distorted understandings but always allowing the person to talk more freely and honestly to God. All the Orthodox spiritual literature about confession speaks of it as "medicine" ... not in quasi legal terms at all. That person's relationship with God has to be put right, not just once but regularly for we all sin continually, far too readily in fact not to need confession.
Confession is not the whole story when it comes to repentance. Repentance has to be seen in the context of wider spiritual guidance. We need that guidance because we sometimes deceive ourselves through sin and we then fail to think and act for the highest good of ourselves and others. There is a proverb in the legal profession going back centuries:- "Whosoever is his own counsel has a fool for his client." The same applies in the spiritual life. Orthodox Christians have (if they can) spiritual fathers and mothers who will provide such wise and good counsel based on their ability to listen to their charges, their own hearts and God. It is often more difficult, obviously, to find such a person in non-Orthodox societies but it is always worth the effort if such a person may be found.
Offering Everything to God
Antiochian Orthodox woman praying in Baghdad shortly before the Invasion
The juxtaposition of these two images is, of course, deliberate. The first is a woman offering God her hopes, her fears, her life, her longings; who can say what she is not offering?! This is done in the context of impending international conflict and, as we know now, an enormous eruption of violence in her own country of Iraq. She does not say: "How can I believe in God in the face of so much evil?" She prays. She gets on with the business of being a Christian. Her attitude is not one of Stoic resignation, therefore, but active trust.
Consider now the Panagia, the Theotokos, the Ever Virgin Mary. Is her attitude in prayer not the same? She also has had her hopes, her fears, her afflictions, yet she has responded to the message of an angel and she presents Christ to a world arguably just as battered, bloody and torn apart as our own. She also does not sit down with the rationalists, the moral philosophers, the political commentators. She prays. She offers everything to God. She consecrates.
If we have repented of our sins then in gratitude and great joy, we come before our Father in heaven and with Christ in the Holy Spirit we offer ALL of ourselves and our lives to God.
At the end of every litany of prayer in the Orthodox Church the community prays as these words are said ...
"Remembering our all-holy, immaculate, most blessed, and glorious Lady, Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God."
This is what Archbishop John Yazigi says about this:-
"Every one of us desires to offer things to God. One gives money. Another gives incense, oil, or other things to the Church. The truest and greatest offering, however, is the offering of man himself. It is good and beautiful to offer from our belongings to God, but what is most beautiful is to offer all of oneself to God. It is to make one's heart a throne of the Lord, and make one's being His abode. In this way one is transfigured and transformed into a living altar to the Lord."
[from a sermon at the consecration of St. Michael's Audley, UK on 11th August 2002]
This is what we must do to be of service to God and his world ... offer up ourselves, each other and everything to God.
"Everything" means everything of course ... every human faculty, our possessions, our relationships, our thinking and feelings, our relationships ... the list would be endless. We offer these things to God NOT for to have them taken away but to show in gratitude to our Creator that ALL that we have and ALL that we are is a gift from Him and that one day we shall make the final offering in our dying so that an even greater gift may be given in the resurrection. May then we pray with Christ:- "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Amen."
Definition: The practice of self denial in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to bring everything human, body, mind and spirit, back into communion with God.
Orthodox Christianity affirms the inherent goodness of all creation. Did not God survey his creation and declare it "good" [throughout Genesis 1]? Orthodox Christianity has historically fought against all forms of false spiritualism that would seek either to deny goodness to creation (eg., Gnosticism, Manichaeism) or marginalise earthly realities as mere shadows of a truly real heavenly realm perceptible to an enlightened intellect, (Plato - The Cave). So, Christians do not fast or practice chastity, (to take just two examples), because food or sex is "bad." Far from it; they do these things in order that food and sex might glorify God according to the proper use and purpose of each.
Christianity inherited from Judaism a strong affirmation of the goodness of the physical realm, locating evil not in creation but in the alienation of humanity from God, a primal rebellion that took our eyes off Him and locking us into deadly disordered passions. However, every disordered passion, be that emotional, mental, psychic or of the body, is a human distortion of something GOOD. Evil arises out of the heart not from the natural world itself. Jesus taught that it is to the heart that we must look if we are to confront evil and uproot it.
18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” [Matthew 15:18-20]
The "heart" in Hebraic thought is neither our cherished but abused blood pump not the seat of soppy sentimentality in a greetings card. It is not simply "feelings" nor is it something invisible and fluffy. The heart is the seat of who we are as persons and that includes the body, the intellect, emotions, will, conscience, personality. Moreover the heart is its ALL encompassing reach is the point of contact with God and the spiritual realm. It is the heart, therefore, in BOTH its physical and spiritual aspects that must be brought back into communion with God. This is what asceticism is all about. It is a means not an end. It is the way of bringing us entirely and entire back to God. The fruit of asceticism is no less than the fruit of the Spirit.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23]
How is Orthodox Christian Asceticism Practised?
The first step toward the healing of our rift with God is repentance. The second step is to offer our life entirely to God. We have covered these in the first two sessions. The third step, asceticism, becomes necessary because we soon realise at step 2 that there is an inner resistance, a heaviness inside, even a distracted or disorientated confusion that prevents us giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God. If we don't face up to these obstacles and deal with them, our growth back to God, our salvation will untimely abort and the devil will have won. If repentance and consecration is true it MUST lead to asceticism as a means of bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Such self denial and right ordering and integration of our faculties through the heart to God is what will lead to theosis, deification. It saves us from the charge of hypocrisy, false witness, that what we say with our lips we deny in our lives. So, bearing in mind its vital importance for all Christians, how is asceticism practised?
Asceticism is practised through the through the will in prayer to God and for life. On account of the centrality of the will if anything is going to change for the better in our lives it is the sin of pride that must be dealt with first if further progress is to be made. Pride places ourselves where God should be. It replaces His rule for ours. It subverts our relationships with Him and others through all manners of self pre-occupation. In short, pride has to be killed. In abject poverty of spirit we need to come to God and "throw in the towel" as it were and surrender ourselves to Him. Then, and only then can we hope to make progress with the other sins. How we make progress depends on the sin. This table is given as a guide only for our lives cannot be as neatly categorised as this traditional list might suggest. For a start there are inextricable links between all the sins. Envy and greed are "joined at the hip" as it were. Other combinations are also colour coded but there are other connections as well.
|Sin||Sin's Target||Ascetic Task||Fruit|
|Pride||Will||Surrender to God||Communion with God|
|Envy||Relationships||Thanksgiving||Contentment with God's Gifts|
|Greed||Possessions||Offering||Attachment to God alone|
|Gluttony||Food||Fasting||Strengthened body and will to serve God|
|Lust||Sex||Chastity||Depth in relationships|
|Sloth||Energy||Work discipline||Human development|
traditional table does leave out - although it is there, it just needs bringing
out - is that "pride" can just as much concern our intellectual, technological
and psychological hubris as the usual focus for that sin, which tends to
concern our personal life issues. This, particularly in the modern
context, needs some ascetical attention by Christians.
Finally, a warning! The experience and teaching of the great ascetics in the Orthodox Church shows that the devil can subvert even asceticism by taking hold of idealism and pushing it beyond nature. Many have ruined their health, physically and spiritually by being caught unawares of this trap. It is absolutely vital, therefore, that a Christians consults regularly with his or her spiritual father or mother to determine the right and Godly balance in asceticism that will bring fullness of life rather than a prideful and morbid misery masquerading as sanctity ... over which the devil of course rejoices.
So, these are the main elements of the Christian life; repentance, consecration and asceticism. They together constitute the fullness of a Christ centred life in which the life we live is the life of God which transforms us. The end is deification, the practical realisation of salvation in an utterly God centred life, sacrificially outpoured for others.