Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Psychotherapy


A Homily on Repentance : Can we fast without it?
by Fr. Barnabas Yagou,  Parish Priest
of the Church of the Holy Mother Laodegetria, Thessaloniki

(Transcript of the homily delivered on the  29-03-2005)



1. Are we perhaps fasting without it?
Given that Lent is the par excellence period for repentance, and since repentance is the only thing we have to show - and through which we can aspire to earning God's loving Grace - we consider it to be a very basic item.
First of all, we would like to begin with an introduction to an aspect of repentance which is an ancillary one, and then continue with a text on repentance by Saint john the Chrysostom.
The greatest obstacle - or one of the greatest obstacles - for repentance is the idea that we have of ourselves.  It is the ideal self, the imaginary self and the illusion that we have of our self.  The illusion that we have of our self - that ideal self, the facade that we organized and came to believe that it relates to our person - is precisely what obstructs repentance; the obstacle when we seek to have a truly spiritual life.

In our attempt to cover up our feelings of guilt, a mechanism of reaction and repulsion is set in motion. Instead of expressing or displaying our self and having a proper contact with the reality of our self by noticing the corruption of the divine image and seeking to restore the beauty of that divine image, we resort to other devices.  We don't have the proper dialectic relationship with our guilt to attain repentance.  We repel our guilt.  We react to every single event - be it internal, in our conscience, or an external one, with the intervention of people and circumstances that God provides.  We react to these, in order to defend the ideal image we have of our self.  This symptom can manifest itself, not only in us and our family, but in the Church also.
To get an idea of what this means: Events are important in our day and age; there is the word "catharsis" (cleansing) - the expression "catharsis in the Church" is found in repentance.  What does that mean?
In order to save our self and expel God's Grace from our life, we choose to protect the image that we have of our self as well as the one that others have of us. Thus, we may admit our errors, however we still find an alibi for them - and a way out; instead of our fall resulting in repentance, we can restore our image in our own eyes or the others'.  That is why we speak of catharsis - at every level.  We see this in ecclesiastic events, but we function that way at every level. During confession. What do we do? Here's an example, to help you understand.  We commit a sin, and we wait for some time to pass before mentioning it to our confessor, saying: "Oh, I didn't do it now; it was a month ago."  What else do we say - as an example? "I did commit that sin, but I also made two hundred prostrations."
The penances of our Church - which definitely have an educative value - are often also an obstacle to repentance.  For what reason?  Well, for example for penances such as: "if you committed this sin, you will have this penance".  Inside us is created a struggle to "succeed". We don't understand that penances have an educative value that aspires to restoring our relationship with God, and they are not a limit which, if we manage to overcome now, we are "alright".  We make an agonizing attempt to establish our compliance through the penances and feel "OK" etc..  This however breeds guilt.  Morbid guilt. Not the kind that leads to repentance.  So man lives this kind of constraint and an attempt whose core is the law which he has to comply with, and not an attempt to free his heart and feel contrition before the Person that he offended, that is, Christ, for having upset that relationship with Him. Thus, in this context, for example, we tend to say: "Yes, maybe we did go astray for a person of the church, but we also attend to our catharsis (spiritual cleansing) and our self-catharsis"; in other words, "Yes, we erred, but we also have the strength to stay on our feet".
But that isn't what God wants.  He wants our admission of failure; He wants our contrition, not the reassurance of the world, the recognition by the world, so we need to balance out our image in His eyes, but only through contrition.  That is the problem with each individual, personally...  It is my problem, and perhaps your problem too - the attempt whereby we can't escape from our idealized self.  The biggest problem is our idealized self - the image we have formed of ourselves.  The bigger problem is our own will, which springs from that idealized self and conflicts with God's will.  In other words, we absolutize our own - our own personal will - before the will of God.  And what happens then? Religiosity is a sick religiosity which exists so that we might feel spiritual self-sufficiency in order to safeguard our personal worth, but it has nothing to do with God and nothing to do with repentance.  Repentance is merely a sadness that we feel, for having become alienated from the idea that we had formed of ourselves and are now striving to either suppress our feelings of guilt or react dynamically towards those who point out our errors and check us. 

So, it is very important that we understand this - for example, with the trembling that overcomes us when we think about how we are supposed to confess:  this is merely the fear of exposing ourselves, and not a fear of God.  It is the fear of exposure - of being exposed, and as a matter of fact, we react with an agony that needs to learn the other's opinion of us. This psychological myth however is a brake, for our direct communion with God.  It is a brake that hinders us from simplifying our lives and our relationship with God.
That is how, in our attempts to save our image through the illusion we have of our self, we observe the reaction of repelling guilt, because we can't admit that repentance is a form of healing, because repentance is an admission of failure - the tearing down of the idol that we formed of our self... the tearing down of our self-idolization
The anxiety, the fear, the insecurity, the attempt to protect our self - are because we don't believe in God, but rather in our self, and, worried that this idol - this illusion of our idealized self - might be torn down, we defend ourselves against attacks by others, who check us for our errors.  Man thus loses his balance and thereafter has another potential:  in order to protect his idealized self, he constantly projects his positive aspects. This is why he resorts to good deeds - not as the fruit if a loving relationship with God, but as a cloaking of his ugly self.
Quite often, our good deeds, our struggles, do not have an underlying passion for God, so we would like these to express it; unfortunately, they only conceal our attempts to hide our faults - to hide our handicaps in an attempt to display a good self. To tell others that we are not the way it appears, but that we have done this, that, and the other good deeds, thus exerting an agonized (we could even say a forced) attempt to uphold the good.  If we don't succeed this way, there is always another assistant for overcoming this dilemma:  repentance, or an inward turn towards the self.  But, we don't prefer repentance, because repentance signifies complete failure - an admission of complete failure - and so we choose to alter our conscience, by telling ourselves "Look, this (repentance) does not belong in this day and age - why should we observe things like that?"
Therefore our conscience is altered, by giving the truth an illusion of virtue, by changing the ethos, by lowering the standard of our life's ethos as suggested, so that we can satisfy our conscience and feel OK with ourselves.  An alteration, therefore, of conscience, a relativizing of the true ethos, a repulsion of guilt, and an attempt at an artificial goodness which is our mask, our facade.  So gradually, a huge trauma is created - a serious illness - and we no longer are in touch with the reality of our self.
If we delve into our acts, if we delve into social phenomena or even ecclesiastic ones - the current ones as well as those of other eras - and are afraid to admit "we failed", then woe to us.  We prefer to talk about the power of our self, about keeping our self intact.  But that isn't just a fall; it is a demonic fall.  In my attempt to not admit my sin, I begin with prostrations. Then I go to my confessor to tell him that I sinned... Yes, but then have you any idea of the prostrations and the fasting that followed?  So, what are you implying?  How were you healed?  Was it the Crucified Christ and His blood, or was it your ability to find antidotes for your sin? Your self-catharsis?

We really are in need of repentance; it is most important. However, we are blocked. How are we blocked?  Well, for one thing, by the idea we have of our self; in a sickness where we have trust only in our self.  A sickness of that idealized self that we mentioned, as well as a group of laws and penances that exist in the Church - not intended to free us (supposedly), but to enslave us. Because you hear comments like: "when you're told to do this, that and the other before you can receive Communion, or this, that and the other things you're doing are wrong, wrong, wrong, then man (instead of seeing Christ more immediately and genuinely) will strive, amid all those rights and wrongs that should or shouldn't be done, wondering if he is now "alright" or not, and what his confessor might now say - if he will accept me or reject me...etc...etc..."  Well, all this will inevitably make us lose sight of what should be done, and instead of us turning towards Christ, we resort to our spiritual father.  Instead of turning towards Christ, we turn towards people's opinions.
Thus, the penances that were supposed to be understood as a blessing inasmuch as they could help me educatively, in the end (and in my immaturity and my false self whom I worship), I choose to subject myself to the judgment of certain laws whose essence and content I am ignorant of, for the sake of continuing to worship that self.  It is therefore extremely important to realize that things are far simpler than what we imagine, as long as we are aware that our salvation is not our self - it is Christ.  It is sufficient or us to know that there is no need for prerequisites in repentance....that is, I mean to say, that there are no prerequisites for repentance that are dependent on us; that the prerequisite for repentance already existed and still exists: it is the Cross of Christ.  It is up to us to accept it. The only prerequisite that is demanded of us is repentance. A prerequisite-free repentance. A clean repentance.
So many people are tormented by the misery of their guilt, because they are "afraid" of their confessor - afraid of his evaluation, afraid of his rejection.  How many of us leave the greatest of God's gifts - love - because we don't trust His mercy. And we don't trust it, not because we are too strict with our selves, but because we worship our self; because we have shaped an image of our self that we tremble at the thought of losing it.  It is for the sake of that image that we live; it is for the sake of that image that we claim Paradise. And we claim Paradise mostly for the sake of our image, and not for the sake of Christ's crucifixional sacrifice. This gives birth to a suspicion around God Himself.
There is no freedom like the one that the children - the sons - of God have.  We live this phobia we have of Him; we live this suspicion we have of Him; we don't exactly trust Him. And what does that do? Well, you know, when man lives his spiritual facade, which has been built in an attempt to satisfy ecclesiastic laws and makes him feel saved, instead of feeling saved thanks to God's love, he has no inner freedom. He struggles to do this and that, to achieve the other, and within that morbid practice he is not set free, he is not at ease, and that tightness brings him to the lust of decadence, of sin of every form, and of every kind of contagion.
To give an example so that we might understand all this:  Let's say that a certain brother causes us grief, or infuriates us. Claiming that we are Christians, we try to respond the way God wants us to. What do we do?  We try to control ourselves. So we struggle and we suppress ourselves - we try to push this thing away. We try to suppress this event that became a negative element inside us and we resort to oblivion as a means of support. We simply try to forget. Then, when a new cause appears, my passion rears its head again. For what reason? Wasn't my stance the appropriate one?  Even if it wasn't, what else should have I done?  Well, instead of suppressing it, instead of trying to forget the incident and turn to oblivion - essentially suppressing it inside me and creating repressed situations, I should pray. I should ask for God's Grace, to provide me with love for my brother who sorrowed me. To pray for that brother.  Pray for God to give me discernment, enlightenment...
And what does that stance - that move - declare?  That my own powers are not sufficient for overcoming the intrusion. It also declares that I'm not interested in overcoming it in order to create an image of a virtuous man; that I am more concerned that whatever happens around me will connect me to God and my brother.


2. Worshipping our own “virtues”
Then there's the attempt at "virtue-ology".  We tend to remark that "ever since I was young, weren't we told to do this and that in order to be "proper", and to try to attain this and that virtue, and strive to do all sorts of other things in order to become virtuous?" The thing is, we just haven't realized that virtue springs from Christ. And that no-one is holy, no-one is virtuous, except Christ. And also that we should strive to be joined to Him, Who is par excellence virtue and holiness. So we disconnect virtue from the Person of Christ and try to exercise virtue on our own. But what happens with that kind of attempt at virtue?  It is a demonic attempt at walling-off and vindicating our self.  That is why for years we -of the Church-  find ourselves saying "I tried, but can't find any joy".  It's because your attempt, your worship, was a worship of virtue; in other words, a worship and a struggle to build up a virtuous image of your self. 
But that has nothing to do with your relationship to God.  The Church proposes nothing of the kind. If She did propose something like that, it would have been a moralistic system, a system of morals, a legalism.  And what is the definition of moralism, of legalism?  It is that very struggle to objectify spiritual life - a sort of virtue-centered attempt, and not a Christ-centered one.  An attempt at "virtue-ology" and not Christology.
What is "virtue"?  What hides behind virtue?  My self.  That is, I struggle and I strive daily in church to try and build up a virtuous person - my self - and not build an in-Christ person. This attempt to build up a virtuous person eventually shapes those supposedly Christian nerds, who can't enjoy anything, because they were never able to say "My God, I am a terrible mess of a person; I am a wretch"... if they don't decide at some stage to acknowledge from the depth of their heart that "I am a wretch"... 
God's providence allows us to fall, to sin, so that we might come to realize that we alone have nothing good to show on earth in His presence. There is only one thing that we want: His love.  If that doesn't happen, we struggle, we turn into little neurotics and we try doing one thing and the other, and - so what?  Our life is plain misery, a wretchedness.  Within that absence of inner peace, man becomes stressed psychologically, then with more persistence he is led to sins - especially the carnal ones. 
When man does not find his identity in the body of Christ and when he doesn't reach that complete sense of failure, he cannot be saved. You can understand just how perverted it is, when in the church we strive to show a positive face. It is extremely annoying indeed, to say that priests are bad people - after all, good ones do exist also. It is a mistake to say things like that, as most of us are a mess; what saves us is not the virtue of certain priests or bishops - it is the Grace of Christ.
Thus the church's attempt for example to say:  "ok, so how many are the good guys and how many are the bad guys? Let's see..." leads to a battle between journalists and bishops.  This is a common sickness - the rejection of repentance... the rejection of God's love. Look here - the world will not be saved if there are five virtuous people. The world will be saved, because there is a Christ Who was crucified.  That is where the delusion lies: in the attempt by our idealized self to be transported to an idealized Church - an imagined Church. The Church is warped and topsy-turvy, but She is saved because there is a Christ Who was crucified. And that is where our hope lies.
So, while we strive to preserve the image of our self in the eyes of the world by creating an idolization of our self and an illusion of our self, we are making a huge mistake in thus trying to preserve the Church in the eyes of mankind. We abolish Her, because She is no longer a repentant Church but a Church undergoing cleansing.
Whatever we see in others and remark "Oh, that Bishop or that Archbishop did such and such a thing...", it is we who do it. It is our Fall. It is the common Fall of all of us, and our hope is repentance.  Our joy is in there. Repentance frees us.
So, now you understand that we have not actually learnt to confess properly.  And that with confession, we have demoted ourselves to a psychological game of attempting to attain a psychological balance and de-implication in order to preserve the idea we have of our self; in order to haggle over the satisfaction of our personal will with God...  That is not repentance, and it is not confession, albeit things are far simpler.  God asks nothing of you - all He wants is to hear you say "I have sinned".  But how do you utter an admission like that? You first need to demolish your self - the idea that you have of your self, your imagined self. That's where the difficulty lies. 
When the Lord said that the load is light, that's what He meant.  Spiritual life seems like a heavy load to us, because we don't look to Christ.  We look to building a good self, which requires a lot of labour and does not give us any result. It does not bear any fruits.  It does not pacify man.  Man cannot find repose.  What are all those phobias that befall us? They are phobias that we may not succeed.  And what is the phobia of not succeeding?  It means I am ignorant of Grace.  The Grace of God that we speak of is only in words and on papers, and God merely exists to award me for my achievement.
Would you like to ask anything on this matter?  It was an introduction, so that we can move on, to the words of Saint Chrysostom.


3. Questions / The banana peel painter
Question posed:  I am pursuing a spiritual struggle and I have been tormented by a temptation for a period of time.  But, if at one point that temptation passes, I feel myself rejoicing... that I somehow succeeded, so to speak.  So, from what I've heard, it must mean that....
Fr. Barnabas:  Your name?
Answer:  Stratos.
Fr. Barnabas:  So, Stratos tells us that he is pursuing a spiritual struggle during a period of temptations and that when the temptation departs, he feels happy, and is asking whether that is good or bad?
Stratos:  That I beat the temptation. That I beat the temptation, yes.
Fr. Barnabas:  You say "I beat it myself"?  You could of course say that I beat it, with the grace of God. But is the true reason the fact that I'm happy because I'm no longer pressured by temptations? Am I happy now because I have gone to a higher spiritual level?  Or am I happy the way that a person in love is happy, and gives a gift to his lover? In other words, is the practice of virtue and the distancing from temptation ascribed to the fact that I feel I'm a better person?  That my being a better person makes me feel satisfied?  Or, have I honoured Christ's love and honoured His Person?  And that way, I can thereafter regard His Person unhindered?  If temptation has departed and has made me enjoy looking upon His countenance even more, then I should rejoice even more, and say "Glory to God" for having made it successfully.  But, if the overcoming of temptation is only so that I can see myself clearer and admire myself and worship myself, well, that is where the problem lies.
- Audience:   A group of friends who had visited the Elder Porphyrios had a strange experience, when the Elder decided to show them certain things.  The Elder described an actual incident:  There was this political engineer who went to the Daphne mental facility. As he walked towards the technical department office to obtain some documents for the upcoming project, some fifty yards inside the facility he noticed one of the inmates.  The lunatic was whitewashing a wall...
- Fr. Barnabas:  I believe you've told us this incident a couple of years ago? Continue, because there are some in the audience who weren't here two years ago.
- Audience: Anyway, that person was "whitewashing" by dipping a banana peel into a bucket of water.  So the political engineer approaches him and says: "Hey my friend, are you whitewashing with plain water?"  To which he replied: "You are looking at one who was going to be robbed of his fortune by his family - his houses etc... - something like today's turn of events..."
- What turn of events?.....
- Aha - he continued - just before they got me committed to the asylum I told them I had converted all my fortune into cans full of gold coins... See that tree over there?  The political engineer - somewhat absentmindedly replied 'yes...yes...'.  Anyway, that's where I buried all the gold coins - under that tree...  Sooner or later, I will be released from the asylum, I will go and dig up all my gold and leave the others quarrelling among themselves...   The political engineer then asked him 'Could you show me which tree you were referring to? I wasn't paying attention...'.  So the inmate showed him the tree 'There - that's the one..'   'Very well... good day to you...' said the political engineer and went off to pick up the documents that he required.  However, around six or seven o'clock in the evening, he began to be nagged by a sensation... He began to think to himself 'this is a golden opportunity here - a real fortune to be made! Are we going to leave it?'  So, around nine or ten o'clock at night he couldn't resist the thought any longer; he grabbed a pickaxe and a shovel and headed straight for that tree... He dug everywhere around it - almost uprooting it - but no gold coins were to be found.  'Damn it!' he grumbled.  But, when he got home - and despite being exhausted from the treasure hunt - he still couldn't fall asleep. 
The next day he went to the asylum again, and there was the inmate, busy "whitewashing" as usual.
- Good morning, he said - how are you? Are you feeling well?
- I'm just fine, he replied - see: I'll be finished shortly.....
- Can I ask you something?
- What?
- Could you show me that tree again?
- Yes - it's that one, over there.
- But are you sure?
- Who? Me not sure?  I buried the coins with my own hands!
- Look, I went there last night, I dug all around the tree, but didn't find a single gold coin.
The inmate turned and looked at him this way, then that way, then he gave him a punch, threw down the banana peel and grabbed him by the shoulder, shaking him in the hope of bringing him to his senses, saying:
- That's why I tell you my friend - grab a banana peel and start painting!

Question:  What is the difference between the evaluation we make of ourselves to help us overcome difficult situations and the tendency to present a false image of ourselves?

Answer:  It is one thing to evaluate ourselves, and presenting my false self is another.  A true evaluation of my self must be based on the truth, on reality.  And the realities are two:  the spiritual person, the charismas that a person has - and every person has charismas.  To begin with, the first charisma is that we are images of God.  Regardless how blackened our image may be, we are still in the image of God.  Man must acknowledge this; he must show respect to himself.  That is the first evaluation.  The second evaluation is that God also gave certain charismas to each person.  Each person must find those charismas and his aptitude.  That too is an evaluation.  However, that doesn't mean that man has no weaknesses, or that he doesn't make mistakes. The evaluation of our self is not cast aside because of our mistakes.  Quite the contrary: it is through our mistakes (provided we don't see our mistakes falsely and cover them up and turn them into virtues to a degree, but instead, allow them to be the basis for repentance) that we will actually discover the true evaluation of our self.  Because that way, we can see that those mistakes which are a part of us - of our self which is not rejected by God but can be forgiven by Him.  That is how we the least of all, the invalid, the dead, are all revived within His love.  And that is how we have a more profound evaluation of our self, at an existential level.
Question:  Father, God's love is a given, both for those who repent as well as for those who have done evil things in their life - God forgives them.  But isn't forgiveness one thing and what Christ had said is another: "...live by the sword, die by the sword" ?  In other words, that whatever you did in your lifetime you will eventually find before you?....
Answer:  That is somewhat of a spiritual law, Dimitri, which functions not with  a disposition for punishment, but with a disposition for therapy.
Question: I mean, whatever you have done, will catch up with you eventually; if you have done something evil, you won't get away with it...
Answer:  There are two problems ...
Question: ...not that God won't forgive you. One may well become a saint, like Saint Moses the Ethiopian... he was overcome by disgust for his person, but he finally waited.  Because he had killed and robbed so many people, he just waited. He said to himself that the barbarians will come and they will kill me.  That's how his life ended: he meted out death, but he received death... he became a saint afterwards, but he was meted out death.  God forgave him, but he paid for all the evil he had done. There's a difference between the two...
Answer:  There are two problems in people's repentance.  One is indolence and the other is despair.  Indolence appears, when, instead of administrating God's love properly and staying within it and incrementing himself within it, a person instead uses it as a justification of his sin and a relaxing of his conscience.  So, instead of respecting God's love, instead of administering it properly and making it the cause for an essential development of our self, we manipulate it in order to legitimize our sin. And that leads to indolence.  That is the one danger: when a person says "God is merciful" in order to sin and justify himself. That is disastrous... it is the temptation from the "right-hand"... There is the other temptation too: the one that presents God as vindictive, which will lead a person to despair....
4. You can keep sinning – I don't mind
I remember a spiritual elder on the Holy Mountain, who was visited by a young man that revealed his carnal sins to him. He discerned that the young man - whether he sinned or not - was in the same fallen state: in the worship of himself.  And because of that self-worship and narcissism, he didn't see any sin involved.  By making him see that not sinning didn't make him more virtuous (because virtue is one's turning towards God; it is repentance per se), he showed the young man something that impressed me greatly when I heard it (but I discussed this with him later on)...  The elder said to the young man "Oh, you can keep sinning - I don't mind". This was intended to jolt the young man out of the idea he had of himself - to help him hit rock bottom and then say to himself "Hmmm... I have done nothing worthwhile in my lifetime... I am a wretch...."   When a person admits he is a wretch, that is when he gets over himself and his virtue as the measure of things, and realizes that we are saved because of Christ's sacrifice - not because there is something good about ourselves.  Also, that our entire struggle to become good is for the purpose of remaining within those gifts of His sacrifice, His gifts, and the fruits of that sacrifice.  Thus, by having observed that person's self-justification, his mania to succeed in acquiring virtue, and in his desire to help that person to be freed of that measure of himself, the discerning elder showed disregard for both his virtue and his sin.
This is an example that shows how repentance is another matter. But being imprisoned within our tiny self, we don't partake of God's gifts.  We aren't liberated internally; we haven't found inner repose.  Our lives are without surprises.  Our relationship with God is without surprises and we likewise have no surprises in the relationships between us. There is no enthusiasm. There is nothing unforeseen.  Instead, we function with emulative measures.  We emulate the worldly way of life.  For example, what do we do in the church... We say that we must gather people into the church, right? So, what is the worldly method? How are children gathered? Well, the world does it in such and such a way: so, let's transfer that method into the church also.... Emulation.... There is emulation, because man has lost his inner freedom.  Because he has no repentance.  We however function with emulative measures.  We emulate the worldly way of life. For example, notice what we do in the Church.  We say that we should gather people to come into the Church, right? So, what do the people of the world do?  How do they gather the children?  People do this, that and that... so, let us too emulate it in the Church.  Emulation. It is about miming, because man has lost his inner freedom; because he doesn't have repentance.  Man is not inspired. He has no surprises. He has no enthusiasm.  He doesn't do anything original - where his originality is a revelation from God. In fact, we emulate the worldly way of life in a bad way - in order to bring people to the Church... a large number of people.
What we are in need of is for a change in spirit; to become the carriers of Christ's kind of spiritual freedom.  But that requires repentance.  When parents don't know how to raise their children they want recipes to do it.  They ask, they do, they observe; and they accordingly raise their children as well as their relationship with their own spouse. Because they are unable to function like that on their own, as they have not become free internally in order to recognize the essence behind relationships.
5. Saint John Chrysostom about repentance.
So, let's now see what Saint John Chrysostom has to say about repentance.
Last Sunday did you witness a war and a victory - a war by the devil, and Christ's victory?  Did you see how repentance was praised, and how the devil couldn't bear the blow, but was intimidated and terrified?  What are you afraid of, devil? Is it when repentance is being praised?  Why do you wail, why do you shudder?  I do, he says.  I am justified in wailing and shuddering, because that repentance snatched such important things away from me. What things? The whore, the tax-collector, the robber, the blasphemer... Repentance truly took many things away from him - it demolished his very acropolis...
Can you see what repentance snatched from the devil and restored to Christ?  The whore, the tax-collector, the robber, the blasphemer.... The blasphemer Paul, the robber on the cross, the tax-collector through his humble prayer, the whore who repented... So, what measure of morality is this?  Is it possible for a robber to enter Paradise first?  It is scandalous!  Now can you see the Church's measure of spiritual freedom?  The austerity of the Church is such that She does not water down Her wine, but the extent of Her philanthropy is such that it turns a whore into someone who can teach us something.
So, are you righteous? Then don't get too bold.  Come to Church, and stay righteous.  Are you a whoremonger, an adulterer, a criminal?  Don't be afraid. Come, and say "I have sinned".  God is for you.  You will see that your sin can become the cause for a celebration.  How can my sin become the cause for rejoicing and a true celebration?  When you feel so indebted to the truth; that is, so bankrupt on account of your sin, you are afraid to become exposed even in your own eyes.  You may be a thorough failure, but you go to church and confess and repent and will obtain absolution, forgiveness and be vindicated. What happened? Not only weren't you rejected, not only were you tolerated, but you also became a son in His Kingdom.  Isn't that cause enough for celebration?  God doesn't merely forgive you - He heals you.  He doesn't just heal you - He restores you.  He doesn't just restore you - He sanctifies you.  With people, you utter a feeble apology and they forgive you rather hesitantly.  But here, He doesn't only forgive you; He even renders you a son in His Kingdom!  So, isn't it a huge responsibility of ours, when we persist in the misery of our own laws - in the misery of our respectability - and don't repent or receive such a great gift by God?  But isn't that why He came into the world? To give us that gift?  Why then do we turn our backs to God's love?
And - as Chrysostom the saint says - even if you are a sinner, come to the church to deposit your sins; or even if you are righteous, come too, so that you don't lose your righteousness.  Because the Church is a harbor for both.
Do you know how beautiful and easy our life can become?  Instead, we are inclined to say... how shall I put it?  I will garnish the one sin; I will talk about the other sin indirectly; I will want to justify the third sin so that I don't spoil the image of my self and my idealized self... I talk about my problems... I find excuses... I begin to embark on thoughts, I then pass on to irrationalities...  And yet, all that's needed is something simple:  to say a sincere "I have sinned"...
Someone had approached me once; I was deeply moved by the incident - a man came to me during a funeral service that I was attending, and he told me the following:  "I want a friend of mine to come, but I suspect he has a problem. He is probably a homosexual."  Well, I tried to see the matter this way, then that way... I was somewhat hesitant.  Then I began to apply logic, intellectual analyses, pastoral aspects, foolishness...  So I responded by saying things like: "Yes, it's not so much the sin, but these things are difficult to heal" etc...etc... My wise guy attitude began to rattle off philosophical things...  In the end, the other person asked me, in tears: "So, repentance isn't easy after all? Does that mean we can place boundaries on God's love? Can't repentance heal that person?"  So I replied "You are absolutely right. I was not thinking straight."
Finally, things are really simple.  They become complicated, because instead of declaring a huge, clear-cut "I have sinned" to God, we tend to garnish our sins - either to justify our situation, or to resort to various pretenses, or to deny that something is a sin and just have hope with various theories and philosophies.  And that's how we forfeit the gift. If we only resorted to God unquestioningly and without doubts, with a profound "I have sinned", we would open the gate that leads to Paradise.  That is the method for man to partake of God's love.  We need to dispose of our virtue.  We need to remove from our brain our virtue, our sin, our ideas, our philosophies, our inventions... When all these are discarded, and thus stripped stand before God, there is hope for us.
Saint Chrysostom continues:  "Are you a sinner? Do not despair. Instead, come to the Church and show repentance.  Did you sin? Say to God 'I have sinned'.  How toilsome can that be?  How much time does it take?  How much sorrow?  How worrisome is it, to say 'I have sinned'?  Even if you didn't say that you have sinned, do you think the devil won't be your accuser?  Make haste and snatch that office of his, because being an accuser is his office. So, why don't you get there before him and confess the sin in order to eliminate it, knowing that you have an accuser such as him - who cannot remain silent?  Did you sin?  Come to the Church. Tell God you sinned.  I ask nothing else from you - only that.  Because the Holy Bible says: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be vindicated. Confess the sin, and be acquitted of the sin.  There is no labour involved, nor many words or money to be spent, or anything like that.  Just say those words, acknowledge your sin, just say "I have sinned". 


6. Cain and Abel
And (you may ask) "How do I know that if I confess my sin first, that the sin will be forgiven?  Well, there's that incident in the Holy Bible where a person was in fact absolved after confessing it, and another incident with the one who didn't confess it and was condemned for the envy that he bore.  Cain murdered his brother Abel, influenced by the envy he bore against him.  That envy had murder as its outcome - he took his brother to the field and murdered him.  What did God then say to him? "Where is your brother Abel?"  What - do you imagine that God was asking because He didn't know?  God was merely inducing him to confess his sin and admit that he had killed his brother.  In other words, God had acted educatively. He didn't want to say: "Look, I know that you killed him".  God tried to extract repentance from him, so He said (with such discretion, right?): "Where is your brother Abel?"  He, the omniscient One, asks - not out of ignorance - but only in an attempt to lure Cain the murderer into repentance.  He proved that He was not asking Cain out of ignorance of the act, precisely by asking him where his brother was.  Cain however responded by saying "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"  See what Cain was striving to do ?  He wanted to cover up his evil mistake, to not expose himself. He tried to give an excuse, to find a pretext.  God was reaching out His hand for him, indicating His desire to lead him to repentance so that He can say "you are forgiven", but Cain instead found an excuse...
Isn't that how we are?  We don't believe in God's love.  We believe in ourself only, and when we are checked by our conscience or by others, we don't go and say "I have sinned" and deposit our sin.  We find excuses and pretexts.  That is why we don't have any inner repose.  Why we have no joy. We have no peace inside us.  Alright, so you may not be a keeper... but why are you a murderer?
What did God say to him afterwards?  "The blood of your brother cries out to me from the earth."  Then He immediately continued, saying: "You have killed your brother." (seeing that Cain didn't get the first message).  Once again, God seeks to bring him to a clearer stance: He checked Cain immediately, then He added his punishment. But not so much because of the murder.  You know, Cain's punishment from God was not on account of the murder per se.  Then what was the punishment for? Well, pay attention and you will understand what the essence of our sin is.. Our sin is not that we commit fornication or adultery or murder... our sin is something else. 
Observe what it is: God checked Cain immediately, and then added his punishment - not so much on account of the murder he had committed, but on account of his impudence. It is one thing to sin, and another to be impudent and disrespectful... His impudence also... because God doesn't abhor the sinner as much as He does the shameless one, who didn't have the courage to confess his sin... one who tried to fool us... who tried to cover up his passions...
Consequently THAT was the issue, and not that God was essentially "annoyed and meted out punishment".  That is a human notion, used in order for us to understand the situation, expressed in a psychological manner; that it is NOT about being punished by God for committing a sin... on the contrary, it is sin itself that punishes us.  Thus, for example, the essence of sin did not fall upon mankind because Eve tried the forbidden fruit and also gave it to Adam.  What brought on their fall?  It was when God called out to them and they went and hid themselves. 
THAT was the essence of their sin.  They did not believe that God is a father and that He would have forgiven them. They reacted along the mentality of: "Oh, it was You that didn't arrange things properly; You placed strict conditions, strict laws. You are strict, and You intend to punish us.  We don't trust You, so we are hiding from You...."  If they had only gone and said to Him: "You know, that thing You told us not to do, well, please forgive us for doing it - we betrayed You, it was our mistake", mankind would not have undergone the Fall...  The Fall came after the act - it was when they disbelieved in God's love and mercy.  Our sin is when we give excuses for our sin, and not for committing it.  It is our impudence and our disrespect.
And of course God did not accept the repented Cain - because Cain didn't hasten to confess his sin first. So, what did he say?  "My sin is too great to be forgiven".  That was what Cain had in mind.... "my sin is too big to be forgiven".... In other words, "My God, I am placing boundaries on Your philanthropy - my sin is so huge that it cannot be outflanked or covered by Your philanthropy. Therefore You are to blame, for not actually being philanthropical..."   Now isn't that impudence?  Isn't that self-vindication? He should have said "I have committed a huge sin; I am not worthy to live" - thus transferring the responsibility elsewhere, not to God (for supposedly being too strict, per his logic).  He should have placed the guilt on himself for sinning and thus being unworthy of living.  If he had said that, he would have thereafter become worthy of living.


7. David and Nathan
However, in order to become aware that this is how things are, learn how someone else was acquitted of his sin, after confessing it himself in time.  Let's go to David - the prophet and king.  Or, better yet, I prefer to call him prophet because his kingdom was only in Palestine, whereas his prophecy went to the farthest reaches of the world (and of course because his reign came to an end after a short period of time). His prophecy however contained immortal words...
Anyway, this prophet and king fell into adultery and murder.  Because apparently he saw this beautiful woman bathing and fell in love with her.  Who? A prophet!  He then went on to realize the things he had his mind set on:  you all know the story...  Being a king, he sent that woman's husband (who was an officer) to the first battle where he would surely be killed, so that he could have the woman to himself afterwards. That way, the prophet became guilty of adultery - a pearl fallen into the mire. 
However, he had not yet felt he had sinned; that's how absorbed he was by that passion. Because when a charioteer is drunk, his chariot will also move erratically, and that which the charioteer and that chariot are, are likewise the soul and the body, when the person's soul is sunken so deep into a passion that it can no longer control the body....  If the soul is conquered by darkness the body will also be wallowing in the mire, because as long as the charioteer is in control, his chariot will be guided properly.  If he loses his powers however and can no longer pull in the reins, then the vehicle will obviously head for the worst...   The same occurs with man.  As long as the soul is careful and alert, the body itself remains pure. But when the soul is governed by darkness, the body will wallow in the mud and carnal pleasures.  So, what happened with David? 
He committed adultery, but couldn't perceive it, nor was he checked by anyone - and this took place during his old age.  This should be a lesson, that if you are lax, old age will not benefit you; nor again will a young age harm you, if you are careful. Because a proper life is not dependent on one's age; rather, the achievement belongs to one's predisposition.  After all, Daniel was twelve years old and yet he judged a situation properly, whereas elderly men - very old in years - committed the act of adultery and their advanced age was of no use to them - just as Daniel wasn't harmed by being so young.  And - so that you know prudence is not dependent on age but on predisposition - David committed adultery and murder while he was in his very late years, and was in such a state that he could not sense he had sinned. This was because his charioteer-mind was drunk with intemperance.
So, what does God do? See what God did - what sort of educative measure He used, through His prophet, Nathan:  He sends the king the prophet Nathan.   A prophet is sent to a prophet. The same applies with doctors: when a doctor falls ill, he is in need of another doctor.  The same happened here: The sinner was a prophet, and a prophet was the one who brought the medicine. So, Nathan comes to the king, but does not immediately reprimand him, as soon as he walked through the door, by saying: "You unlawful and detestable adulterer and murderer - how many honors has God bestowed on you, and yet you trampled on His commandments?"  No, he doesn't do anything like that.  Why doesn't he?  Because he knows full well that when you go to someone who is drunk with intemperance - when he is steeped in his passion and is at the height of his sin - if you do reprimand him with such an abrupt manner he - in his attempt to defend himself - will become even more aggressive and will not heed the words that you tell him.  A special handling is therefore necessary; when someone sins (we know) there are certain people who go contrary to the Church and like fools, retort "what atheists, what scoundrels, what insidious characters, what antichrists!" 
But that sinner is at the height of his passion, his fury, and you aggravate his fury?  God Himself in this example sent a prophet to the prophet who was a murderer and adulterer, but without aggravating his passion, in order to evoke a reaction, but not to upset him; just to educate him for repentance.  We however are inclined to immediately pounce on him and stress the other things. Do we offer that person a treat and at the same time expose the passions he has, and his sins?  Subtlety is needed. Discernment is needed, if we truly want to address the person who is outside the Church.  If we don't show him love, then we are the ones who are outside the Church.  Furthermore, there are no such things as "powers of light" and "powers of darkness"... What do they mean by "the Church is under attack by the forces of darkness" ?  Does that imply that we are luminous?  Only Christ is luminous.  We are not self-luminous; we draw from His luminosity - His Light - and in order to draw from His luminosity and His Light, we need to extinguish our own lights which are fake... when we pretend to be illuminated.  All of us are darkened... we are all in the dark....
Anyway - Nathan approaches David, but doesn't reproach him straight away, as soon as he went through the doorway.  What does he say then?  He begins to narrate a hypothetical story, in order to eventually get him to check his own actions - to educate him by means of an educative method, so that David will admit his sin on his own.  Nathan did not say anything obvious, which would have incited impudence (because when sins are uncovered, they lead the sinner to impudence - he will say to himself "well, since they know about my sins, then I might as well continue committing them and keep enjoying myself").  So, Nathan approaches him and unfolds a drama about a trial.  And what does he say?  Do you know?  (There are some who ask me "Father, should I tell him that he has sinned?"  I say "No, don't tell him. Because he will think to himself 'since I have done what I've done and have disgraced myself, I may as well keep doing it and enjoy it'. Otherwise, he will be more reserved - knowing he hasn't been exposed - and there is a chance he will control himself a little.  Quite often, when we bring a sin to the light and continually project it, we render it legitimate and we change the measure of our life's morality...)
So, Nathan unfolds a hypothetical drama involving a court case and asks the king for his judgment:  "There was a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had oxen and large herds of animals, whereas the poor man had only one ewe, who used to drink from his cup and eat from his table and sleep in his arms. (This was his way of indicating the pure relations between a man and a woman).  Then along came a stranger and the rich man wanted to spare his own animals, so he took the poor man's ewe and slaughtered it. (Do you see how he unfolds the dramatic story, by concealing the knife inside a sponge? He was stabbing the king with kid gloves.)  How did the king respond? Well, by believing that he was expressing his opinion on someone else, he pronounced a very stern decision. (Because that's how people are: they reach decisions that pertain to others with great pleasure and harshness, but when it concerns us personally, they switch to an entirely different mentality.)  So David says: "In the name of the Lord, that man is worthy of death and he should make restitution for the ewe, fourfold!"
Ah, now is the right moment; having brought David where he wanted, Nathan began the surgical procedure, without further ado (because quite often, too much leniency or too much severity can be damaging; we need to sense the measure that applies to each person and to our self). The surgical "strike" is implemented at the suitable moment. What did Nathan say? He didn't soften his stance after the surgical strike, but instead, he voiced his own opinion - cutting deeper into the surgical section - so that he doesn't deprive the king of the sensation of pain.  He brought the king to an awareness; he presented him with the measure of morality, and then he "stabbed" him so that the pain might function therapeutically (without pain there can be no therapy or repentance).
And this is what he said:  "That was you, my king. You were the rich man of the story."  Nathan didn't begin to attack him personally; he merely brought him to the point of awareness and admit "I have sinned before the Lord".  He didn't say "Who are you to check me? Who sent you to address me so outspokenly? Me? The king and prophet?  How dare you attempt something like that?"  David said nothing of the sort. Instead, he was alerted to his sin, and remarked "I have sinned before the Lord".
What did Nathan say to him after that?  "And the Lord has forgiven your sins.  You condemned yourself, and I will overlook your conviction.  You confessed your sin gratefully and have erased it.  You condemned yourself and I have rid you of the sentence."
Can you see how the following wise saying is confirmed : "Admit your sin first, and be vindicated."


Source of images: Orthodox blog "Pithless Thoughts"


Translation: K.N.

Article published on: 13-4-2012.

Last update: 13-4-2012.