Table of contents
God pours himself out in an ecstasy of love. He does not remain in the heavens and call to himself the servant he loves. No, he himself descends and searches out for such a servant, and comes near, and lets his love be seen, as he seeks what is like himself. From those who despise him, he does not depart. He shows no anger towards those who defy him but follows them to their very doors, and endures all things, and even dies, in order to demonstrate his love. All this is true but we have not declared the highest thing of all. For not merely does God enter into close fellowship with his servants and extend to them his hand, but he has given himself wholly to us so that we have become temples of the living God and our members are the members of Christ. The head of these members is worshipped by the cherubim, and these hands and feet are joined to that heart. [St. Nicholas Cabasilas On the Divine Liturgy, 2:132]
The Sin that Separates Us from God
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9)
36. Just before the Lord was crucified, there was an incident that occurred between Christ and the Pharisees that illustrates how one can distort spiritual priorities. While teaching in the Temple, Jesus was questioned and provoked by the Pharisees as they tried to trap Him in His own words. Finally, He began to point out in very powerful language the discrepancy between what they considered to be righteous behavior, and what God had intended when He revealed His truth to them. At one point, Jesus turns to them and says: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24)
37. If we look at ourselves carefully and honestly, this is what most of us do as well. We strain out 'gnats,' considering ourselves righteous, and swallow whole 'camels' without even blinking an eye. The Lord is making the same point when He refers to the speck in our brother's eye and the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:1-6). This is why the great spiritual teachers of the Church have always taught that we should focus on our own sin, leaving other people's sin to God's judgment. The temptation to judge others, about which the Lord warns us, is as great today as it was when He walked the earth. It will be as real tomorrow as it was when Adam blamed Eve for giving him the forbidden fruit (cf. Genesis 3:12). It is always easier to see another's fault than one's own.
38. Perhaps one of the more curious aspects of contemporary American society is its understanding of sin. The action of sin is not new, but American society's understanding of it may be. Most people do not believe that they are actually sinning. Notice how the word sin itself has almost disappeared from our vocabulary. Even in church many people are uncomfortable when the word sin appears in a sermon or a hymn. Moreover, when the word is actually used, as we can see in the national debates on "declining morality," it is used in an accusatory manner. This is a very serious problem, because it is very difficult to talk about the spiritual life without also talking about sin.
39. The best place in which to begin this discussion is with a solid definition. The Greek word for sin is "amartia." It literally means "missing the mark," as in archery or darts. You shoot the arrow and you miss the bull's eye, sometimes by more and sometimes by less. The more experienced and skilled you become, the more often you hit the mark. While this metaphor may not be perfect, it is still a useful image to keep in mind.
40. Our first question should be: "What is the mark?" What exactly are we aiming for? The short answer is that we are to strive to be everything that God expects us to be, to truly reflect the image and likeness of God. Striving for holiness is not becoming something other than ourselves. It is precisely becoming ourselves, becoming authentic. Sin takes us further away from the "mark" and as a consequence we become something less than ourselves.
41. Throughout this letter we will speak about the salvation that God has offered us in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. But "salvation" can be an abstract concept and difficult to grasp. It can become very real and personal if we see how in moving toward holiness our lives can be rescued. While salvation truly is cosmic in its scope, we actually see and realize its possibilities in us as we turn toward God.
42. When we become awakened to this new and different way of looking at our existence, we feel the distance between ourselves and God. This is another useful way of looking at sin. The difference between who we are and who we should be, the separation between us and God, is a reflection of sin. We engage in this self-reflection not to evoke guilt - although any person who becomes aware of this dimension would find it impossible not to feel guilty about any number of things. Rather, without acknowledging the distance between us and God, it is impossible to change. And we all need to change, because we all sin.
43. There are some who have suggested an interesting way of addressing the peculiarly modern struggle with guilt. They make a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate guilt. The contention is that most of us, having confused the two, spend a great deal of energy feeling guilty for things that are either out of our control or simply social convention, while we spend little energy feeling guilty over things for which we should be truly sorry. We become preoccupied with behavior that other people will see, while worrying very little about the things that God considers vital. Of course, there is a relationship between the two - especially if holiness is the mark.
44. We have witnessed recently the development of another curious (and one might even say bizarre) phenomenon regarding sin and confession. We refer to the television and radio talk shows where people admit their darkest and most intimate secrets to the entire world. Listening are millions of people who, instead of being embarrassed by this public display, tune in to be titillated. We certainly will not pretend that we can fully understand this phenomenon. That people take delight in the sins and sufferings of others is not new. But how can one explain a person who would be loathe to go to a priest to be forgiven his or her sins in the sanctity of Confession, but feels no compunction to share this sin in front of the listening audience?
45. There is something at work here that we should notice. The need to have the burden of our sins lifted has not disappeared simply because we have stopped talking about it. Some have observed that while confession has declined, visits to psychological therapists have skyrocketed. Self-help manuals abound on every topic imaginable. People's desire to be in harmony with God has not lessened, even as they struggle to understand the anguish that they cannot bring themselves to call sin.
46. It requires a certain strength to recognize how we have distanced ourselves from God. In popular thinking, however, the self-confident or self-assured persons are the strong ones. They are the ones who can "make things happen," by ordering and controlling their lives for their own benefit. More than likely you know that spiritual wisdom has always called this pride or arrogance. St. Maximos the Confessor says that pride and arrogance come from two kinds of ignorance, namely ignorance of divine help and human weakness.(12) This attitude is the source of all separation from God. Our society places a high value on self-confidence. Yet, the further we move away from God, the more we need to assert our self-reliance. This is not accidental. There is an inverse correlation between prideful self-assurance and separation and alienation from God.
47. Humility, which contrasts with pride, is a posture of thankfulness. It also leads to a habit of examining our own conscience. Inexperience in the spiritual life may lead us to confuse humility with weakness or lack of conviction. But this is a misunderstanding. Nikitas Stithatos reminds us that "we humans look at outward forms, but God looks on the heart."(13) How many examples could we cite even in our own time of powerful people who have been brought down by their own arrogant sense of invulnerability? "Know yourself," Nikitas continues, "this is true humility, the humility that teaches us to be inwardly humble and makes our heart contrite." The arrogant heart is deaf and insensitive - above all to God, but also to other people. It sees people as things, and abuses creation as if it were its alone.
48. This is a particular challenge for us who are citizens of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. We have always felt that we have been particularly blessed and called by God. We have much for which to be grateful. As a people, we have oftentimes showed our gratitude to God by our generosity to our neighbors, the ones next door, as well as the ones across the oceans. However, this sense of being "blessed," if not accompanied by a humble and gentle heart (cf. Psalms 51:17), can lead not only to self-destruction, but also to the abuse and destruction of others.
49. We are renewed by being certain of God's love for us. We began this section by talking about the difficulty modern America has in speaking about sin. We suspect that one of the reasons for this is that people are not sure of God's love and forgiveness. We have fallen into a terrible cycle. Having grown further away from God, we feel His presence in our life less and less. Rather than turning back to Him, we try to make it on our own. We live with the delusion that the soul's persistent longing for God can be otherwise satisfied. But the emptiness does not go away, because nothing can substitute for God's love. St. Paul reminds us, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2).
50. Rather than address the root cause of sin, we simply seek ways of alleviating our pangs of conscience. St. Maximos the Confessor speaks about this syndrome as the pleasure/pain cycle related to sin. The consequences of sin usually cause a degree of pain - sometimes physical, but usually spiritual. The methods we seek to ameliorate the discomfort often involve the same sort of behavior that initially caused our pain. Rather than cutting to the heart of the problem, we exacerbate it. St. John of Damascus states the question a little more existentially when he asks: "What earthly pleasure is untainted by grief?"(14) There is a spiritual principle here that we can see at work in the world around us.
51. Two examples from our daily lives might help to illustrate. Many of today's environmental problems have as their root cause the mitigation of "pain," or at least discomfort. The planet is warming because of the excessive use of carbon-based fuels. As the climate gets warmer we turn up the air conditioning to cool off. But in order to run the air conditioners we need to burn more fuel, which in turn heats up the planet.
52. Again, we feel that our lives are getting more and more busy. We recognize that the most important things in life are our relationships with family and friends. We sense that there is something missing in our lives. So we engage in more "personal" activities. We enroll our children in more extra-curricular programs. These activities, instead of enriching our lives, cause us to feel all the more detached. We spend even less time with the ones we love.
53. These small, even mundane examples point to a greater truth. If we want our environment to be preserved, we personally need to choose how we will consume. If we value our family relationships, we personally need to choose how we will spend our time. If we desire spiritual well-being, we personally must change our heart.
54. God is calling us constantly, even when we are deaf to his call. At some point, we must become keenly aware of this call and awaken from our spiritual slumber. This awakening is repentance. It means to heed God's call and to have a radical change of heart. This involves a movement of our soul toward God. St. James tells us, "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:8). We can rededicate ourselves to God if we allow Him to show us His unfailing love. This enables us to pick ourselves up, no matter how many times we might fall; or to shoot as many arrows as we may need until we are able to hit the mark. The Apostle reminds us that God, "out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ" (Ephesians 2:4-5).
55. One of the most sublime aspects of Christian theology is how our Lord redeemed us by His suffering and death on the Cross. We cannot make any claim at being exhaustive here. However, we would ask you to reflect on this. God knows our nature. Were He to confront us directly with our sin, we would react by justifying ourselves and hardening our hearts. (Have you ever noticed what children do when they are admonished?) What, then, does God choose to do? He becomes one of us. He lives with us. He works with us. He teaches and heals us. And finally He becomes the object of our jealousy and hatred. He takes all of this on Himself, even to the point of death, so that in watching Him outstretched on the Cross, dying, our hearts will melt and we might repent.
56. When we recognize our own sin then we can appreciate "the Father of mercies who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Knowing that God loves us and forgives us allows us to "love one another, since love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8).