It is counter-intuitive that God saves man through His own weakness. The irony of the Divine Reversal has provided endless material for the hymnographers of the Church through the centuries: the Strong becomes weak; the Sinless takes on our sin; the Rich becomes poor; God becomes man – the whole of the gospel seems to be a Divine irony.
This irony has a beauty that has always drawn me. Sometimes the imagery drawn out in a hymn within the Church becomes so poignant I want to stop the service just to savor it (of course I can’t do this).
However, I think there is something that makes us want to keep our irony Divine and minimize it in our own lives. St. Paul says that he “glories in his weakness,” but I find that few other people, including myself, want to do so. The irony that despite our intelligence, we are foolish is not our favorite topic. The embarrassment that often accompanies confession is the irony of our sin – it contradicts the image we want to hold of our own ego – or that we at least want others to hold.
At some level, we believe that we are not saved through our weakness, but will be saved through our strength, and that the whole life of grace is God’s effort to make us stronger – never suspecting that God’s grace may actually be purposefully developing our weaknesses.
I do not mean that the grace of God causes sin to abound. But I find it interesting that the work of grace makes sin less opaque – more apparent to ourselves. The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins. If you read the full life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the tale of his great 1,000 days and nights in prayer on a rock, are actually a long extended prayer of repentance. He saw a desire within himself – the desire to become abbot of the monastery. It was that weakness that drove him to prayer.
I often tell people who say they are struggling with prayer to quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican. We often want to pray from strength – to approach God when we at least feel spiritually alive. The Publican refuses to lift his eyes to heaven. The contradiction of his life and the goodness of God are more than he can bear. And yet he prays. And, ironically, it is he who goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.
“My strength is made perfect in weakness” is the word God gave to St. Paul. I pray that this be so, for I find times in my life that what I have to offer to God and to others is my weakness – or so it seems.
In the better than 30 years that I have been in ordained ministry, I have learned that I am not alone in my weakness. All of us share common problems and brokenness, even if they are not identical. But the great irony is that it is precisely those problems and brokenness that Christ has made His own. There is nothing abstract about Christ’s union with our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). It is the greater pity that we fear to meet Him there.
Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen. I really struggle with this concept. These words are very encouraging. May God bless all you do!
Many times I’ve given someone some “excellent” advice on how to get through something only to come crashing to the ground the very next day over the same issue!
Bless me Father
In my own repentance shame obscures my interpretation of my sins, and shame and pride argue my “case” within me, making excuses, and I become defensive and arrogant. The sin usurps the throne of God, commanding my attention exclusively. What I want is to stop worshiping sin as an idol. God does not really enter into the feeling of pride and shame, it is more of a battle between two forms of further sin. How could I ever have time to repent of something like this? I find myself and my sins terrifying to be close to, why would I want God to go to a place I myself hate? (seems to be of no consequence BEFORE the initial sin)
I know that these questions are probably something that I need to pray about myself, but I know that I can’t pray rightly because of my distorted views of myself. What should I consider?
Father Stephen you have discouraged this before, but there is an explanation for the weakness and our strength in it. So kill this post if necessary, but I forge ahead. Carl Jung states we all have a shadow, and that if we make friends with it, it is our finest friend. I very conscientiously made friends with aspects of my shadow, and was assisted. If that sounds like syncretism, I have to say I was assisted. I send you my respects.
Robb the sinner.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for another thought-provoking article.
I have a question about this: “The greatest saints also seem to be those who are most aware of their sins – and aware of their true sins.”
Often it seems to me that the great saints are compulsively preoccupied by their sins and weaknesses – things that most people wouldn’t even consider sins. (I admittedly probably see it this way because I am full of those same sins and weaknesses and don’t want to give them up. If I were in a monastery, I’d probably be volunteering for the abbess’s job :-))
However, it raises for me the question of whether there is a danger of over-focus on one’s sins. I’m not talking about healthy repentance but a relentless remorse in which one spends more time looking at oneself than at God. (As Martin Laird wrote, “We have to let go of everything, even our sense of being a miserable failure.”)
How does one properly balance self-examination with basking in the mercy of God?
I am concerned that specifically you equate weakness with sin. Weakness could be that we are merely creatures in need of our Creator. That is, His work is to save us through our need for Him (a legitimate, ordinary need that has nothing to do with sin).
After all, St Paul does not intend to say that God saves us through our sin. That is, that sin itself is a means to our salvation. It is, in fact, the cause of our estrangement.
I’ve never been contented with the interpretation that Paul had some “secret sin” (a temptation of some sort) that had a hold on him that God left him with. It always seemed that he was talking about a more literal tormentor from which he drew a spiritual lesson.
He was being persecuted fiercely, but was determined to see God’s work in that persecution.
Of course, every sermon (protestant or orthodox) I’ve heard on the subject takes the opposing interpretation. I just don’t see it from the text.
Thank you for this ,Father Stephen. Having just gone through yet another incident of my weakness messing things up , I can attest to the truth of these words. It does seem to take that jolt of recognition of sin that makes me repent and lean once more on God. I suppose otherwise Id be sure I was OK!
I’ll just die…
(life confession just before Chrismation…)
oh well a helpful (!) trick is to keep a notepad on the bedside table for those horrible memories one-at-a time — write’em down quick before they flit away
((Easy enough to happen when you’re 70+))
You sure You’re going to save me?
I’m kind of confused just now… could be the stroke I had a while ago.
The short answer – by being freed from the ego.
David, I don’t know on the St. Paul question. But your suggestion is something to ponder.
I’m not entirely certain that St. Paul doesn’t mean to say that God saves us through our sin. He’s so close to saying that, that he has to say, “Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid!”
I do equate weakness and sin. But mind you, I don’t think of sin in a forensic manner. Sin is brokenness. Sin is the result of resisting communion. The “weaknesses” we experience (call them “brokenness” call it the cause of shame, etc.) are indeed something of an experience of the need of God. Our shame and other similar feelings, want to hide and cover this vulnerability. But the hiding and covering are themselves a continuation of resisting communion.
A problem, I think, is that in our strengths, those places where we judge ourselves to be whole, strong, presentable, etc., we lack to proper ground for communion with God. There is no “need” in them and communion becomes a negotiation, with our strengths holding us back, or creating a reservation.
Archimandrite Zacharias, in one of his books, speaks of the need to embrace our shame (specifically in confession). He doesn’t treat shame as the enemy – but as something of a gateway. Toxic shame is another matter – but as it is de-toxified, it, too, can be a gateway.
Father, there is something here of bearing one another’s burdens in community (physically and spiritually) don’t you think. It is not just Jesus and me after all.
In much of our society today we really don’t like to say we sin. We want to be loved as we are, and we think we are not really very bad. If we are not sinners, we really don’t need a Savior except maybe in a crisis when we get in over our head every now and then. Then we want to be bailed out, not from our sin, usually, but from the crisis.
Held up to the holiness of God, though, we are rotten to the core.
My garden is producing tomatoes now. So far I have had very few ‘perfect’ tomatoes. Most have some kind of blemish which can be cut out and I use the rest. Or I could throw out the whole tomato.
Given the opportunity, God chooses to heal our blemishes instead of throwing us out. God wants to make us a new creation. Will we allow Him to do so? Do we ask Him to do so? Or do we want to stay a rotten tomato?
“I do equate weakness and sin. But mind you, I don’t think of sin in a forensic manner. Sin is brokenness.”
In light of this and your reference to Christ becoming sin for us, would you say that Christ’s becoming sin and self-emptying are two ways of expressing one and the same ‘moment’?
I would like to believe that the marriage of my soul to God is based on ever-deepening love and not only based on my weak and sinful nature – though I will always need Him.
It seems that the beauty of weakness is that, when combined with repentance, it deposes the false self (aka “ego”), opening an otherwise closed channel through which God’s love may be made manifest.
Wise words as always Father , this is a issue I deal with on a daily basis . I have a progressive illness , which is slowly attacking my nervous system , it is quite painful . I struggle to understand why and to learn to live with my disabilities .
Mr. Williams, may the blessings and sustenance of our Lord, His mother and His saints be with you.
I also would like to believe that the marriage of my soul to God is based on ever-deepening love and not just my weak and sinful nature……
But in fact it is my weakness and my sins that bring me to my knees and cause me to finally look beyond myself. We must remember that the Fall turned this world upside-down and inside-out. This means that every good thing is found in the door of its opposite, and that God uses just the opposite of what we would expect in order to save us.
When the devil brought about death, the Lord came behind him and declared death to be our gateway to eternal life. When he brought about pain, the Lord came behind him and made pain the path to true peace. When satan made us weak, God used weakness as the means join us to Him and find our true place – but not as a means to an end.
We don’t get a leg up from God and then turn around in order to be strong on our own. We were always made to live and love by holding His hand. Only weakness and our sins can teach us that.
And this is the “secret” of the saints. They learned to glory in their weakness because doing so brought forth the reality and importance of God in their lives and hearts. This feels wrong to us, this pandering, this squatting in the dirt and being lower than a worm attitude – and it can be done wrongly, in a self-pitying way. But it is in fact the way, “secret” because who would go there on purpose? Luke 14:11
Thank you so much Father! I love your true gem in the line: “quit trying to pray like a Pharisee and learn to pray like a Publican.” Outstanding!
Very true drewster2000…
I was just reading one of the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast where he goes to great pains (he really struggles and pulls all the stops) to explain the immense difference between the simple (and 100% correct) thought-based recognition that we are nought – made from ‘dust’ – and God is all on the one hand; and the ontological realization of this “double” truth that comes upon a person after the experiencing of the third stage of Spiritual life – Theosis in God’s Uncreated Light – and the subsequent return to the ‘natural’ state…
I appreciate and do not dispute what your ideas. However, I think (hope?) that as we grow spiritually, love becomes more of a reason turn to God and sin less of a reason.
If not, it would seem that if I learn to sin less and less, I will fall further and further from God because I won’t have sin to tie me to Him. (Of course, that descent will make me sin and I hopefully I would return.) To carry on that cycle indefinitely without any God-ward movement in love would seem rather absurd.
I am not suggesting that I (or any of us) will in this lifetime become sinless. Nor am I suggesting that being drawn to God by love makes me strong (as in, “I can do this myself.”)
It is more that God in Himself is all my heart could desire and that, as I come to know Him, I want Him for Himself, not just for the relief from my sin He brings. God makes good use of my weakness and sin – but He is not limited to that means makes Himself known.
Much of your reasoning on this turns on a “forensic” understanding of sin, i.e. things I’ve done wrong, rules I’ve broken. “Learn to sin less and less,” is part of this thinking (or certainly can be).
It is the ontological failure of sin that we recognize in ever more completeness as we grow in Christ. Repentance becomes not so much turning from things I’ve done wrong, as the depth and fullness of understanding what I am not.
It was one of the Teresa(s) (I’ve long ago lost the reference but remembered the quote) who said, “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.”
Love, of course, is best, but what we understand to be love is often itself rife with contradictions. The way of weakness, the “Way of Imperfection,” seems to be the more sure path towards love itself.
You are right, of course – forgive me for having stated it so poorly.
My loving surrender to God (the one I aspire to) cannot be viewed separately from my weakness and sin – or it is only the product of my false self, aka ego.
In many ways I have been baffled by some of the thoughts shared on this post. This is mainly because it is my understanding that God works in us and through us.
Years ago I worked with a Roman Catholic healing team, though I am not Roman Catholic. During that time I met many people who came to mass wanting to be healed of their sin. And God healed them. He took away the desire. I remember one lady who wanted to give up smoking. She presented this problem to God. She told us the next month, that on the way home she lit up a cigarette, and had to lean out the window to throw up. Three times she tried to smoke and three times she became nauseous. That was the end of her smoking.
There were dramatic healings, and there were healings that took place over time. People noticed a change in themselves.
I think we need to learn to recognize our waywardness, we need to learn to repent of it, but we also need to learn to turn it over to God and allow Him to work in us. Jesus heals, Jesus saves. We all need healing and we all need saving. We all need Jesus.
In the Divine Liturgy, the priest says,”Let us lift up our hearts.” and we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”
What do we mean when we say, “We lift them up unto the Lord?” My take on this response is that at this moment we are basically saying to God, “Here is my heart, with all its good and its bad. For a while on this blog there was a comment by a saint about our hearts being full of demons and such. Some days my heart has been totally broken and I have wept.
Do we really mean to give God our heart? Do we really trust Him with our heart? What do we think God is going to do with our heart? Do we take it back as soon as we give it?
Thank you again, Fr. Stephen, for this especially in your comments here:
“It is the ontological failure of sin that we recognize in ever more completeness as we grow in Christ. Repentance becomes not so much turning from things I’ve done wrong, as the depth and fullness of understanding what I am not.”
As well as for the rest of your comment, my sincere appreciation. As my sin becomes less opaque, my fear in my inability to repent seems to take over.
Father, that “Theresa” is the “Little Flower” Therese of Lisieux. You offered me that quote in a comment a while back when i was struggling with this whole issue, and it is as relevant as ever. 🙂
The nature of our ceaselessly increasing union with God is like iron and fire. You cannot tell iron apart from fire until it cools down again. In this world we always suffer these fall-backs. The more someone who experiences this union the more aware he becomes of his weakness and sinfulness. He might be outwardly the most sinless man walking the Earth, but his awareness of his darkness against the backdrop of such a Light as he has encountered – the Uncreated Hypostatic Light – is far more acute than the awareness I might have if my hands are covered in innocent blood…
Father Zacaharias somewhere says that going from Earth to Hell might sound terrible, but, reversing the example of the Prophet Elias escalating from one Heaven to another Heaven until he reaches the “seventh heaven”, and how each successive escalation makes the previous radiant heaven seem like complete darkness to Elias, falling from that state to Earth is subjectively worse than Hell.
Sin as a forensic issue becomes the least of my worries when the Cross I taste of is that of the yearning of iron and Fire becoming one for ever again, desiring to depart and be one with Christ (Philippians 1-23), and then the tiniest of blemish – a tiny dwindling of Grace – is felt as an ontological change for the worse on a par with the greatest ‘sins’….
The lack of this perception is a sure indication of a merely “psychological” relationship with God – God as I think or conceive of Him. True perception of God is to know the Light and the Fire against which all is darkness – until it becomes Light, the loss of which is unbearable.
The quote was from Therese of Lisieux. She went on to say: “What pleases God is that God sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in God’s mercy,You can never have too much confidence in God, who is so powerful and so merciful. You receive from God as much as you hope for.”
Oh what merit in perceiving our weakness in a sea of “blind hope in God’s mercy”…!!
This ‘hopeless’ and total hope in God alone – the double knowledge of His infinite Light and my inexhaustible darkness revealed and transformed by It, this simultaneous extension to the depths of my hades as well as the heights of God’s omnipotent Love, like a soaring tree with fathomless roots, is the fuel on which Spiritual Life runs from the beginning to the end – as is beautifully explained by the article above, as well as the previous one…
What is also very noteworthy is how easily graspable (and “ontologically” retainable) these lofty sounding notions are for those who can be described as guileless, sincere and simple souls, compared to those of us who just ‘get it’ intellectually…
Dino, yes! But isn’t that because we have truncated and diminished our intellect? It is so much more than rational, discursive reasoning. It is part of what needs purification in our journey toward theosis, is it not?
As Met. Hilarion notes in his book “Mystery of Faith” it is the ability to perceive the essence of things and was the power the allowed Adam to name the animals.
Also, it just maybe my ego objecting but is our darkness, as deep as it is, inexhaustible? Certainly we tend that way, but does not the Incarnation put a break on the extent to which we can go? Isn’t that part of trampling down death by death? If it were truly inexhaustible, none would be saved I think.
To those who are habituated to the forensic model of sin (nearly all of us to some degree): As Dion point out, it can’t be reasoned, it has to be accepted on faith and experienced to begin to get even a faint idea of it. So, don’t worry your minds about it. Pray, repent, forgive, worship and give alms (mercy and goods) to those around you. God will lead you.
the ‘inexhaustible’ depth of our darkness is revealed as such only by the infinite illumination of God’s Light, it is not our darkness all by itself that is felt so, but our darkness after God’s hypostatic Light, (as in the example of F. Zacharias above on Prophet Elijah) that reveals such abysmal depths…
I hasten to add that when it is God rather than the adversary opening our spiritual eyes to this, there is no dark despair, but there is always a consoling assurance, it’s a hopeful despair from myself which is another term for complete and unshakeable trust in Him.
As a middle-aged RC, educated in RC schools, I grew up with a very forensic model of sin. Confession was presented to me in second grade as a process in which I made a mental list of what sins I had committed and how many times, to tell the priest.
Sins were specific, discrete events (not that I would have understood the word “ontological” at that age – but the second grade approach was never really replaced by anything else). Hence, when someone uses the term “sins”, this is what I think they mean.
I have been uncomfortable with this forensic model for some time but am left confused then about how one uses confession without it. (Not saying that one shouldn’t confess specific events but to me the old list-making seems far too narrow.)
I would appreciate learning about how Orthodoxy views and approaches the sacrament. Thanks.
I want only to say how much I appreciate this post. It goes directly to a situation in my life with which I have been struggling for literally years. It confirms and develops what my spiritual father has told me, and I am deeply grateful.
the ‘forensic’ model of confession can be used in a different (entirely) context in confession too – with an ‘ontological’ awareness of sin, especially of “thoughts” and tendencies in confession too. It can be transformed with a good spiritual Father very quickly
Our early learning of the faith and confession are nearly identical. I’ve struggled for years because sin, for me, was always a moral transaction that needed, first, a legal accounting.
Regarding confession, it has helped me a great deal to think of confession as appearing, not before a judge or accountant, but at a doctor’s office. I confess ailments and anything that’s keeping me from being whole and healthy. The “sins” may include bad things I’ve done wrong, but the focus is not on the list, it’s on restoring my relation with Christ because things that separate me from Him or drive the Holy Spirit away all make me unhealthy. We are only whole, healthy and fully human when we can freely receive grace – God’s gift of divinity that allows us to participate in Trinitarian love for which there is no accounting. The priest facilitates my release by God’s power from sins — anything that presently prevents me from being in Christ where I can be perfected as a divine human according to His calling to me by name.
Confession is a personal mysterious healing into love by grace.
I would add that sin is felt far more profoundly in the “ontological model”, but the exposing of that shame is also far healthier. It is, in some sense, “stronger” to be ’embraced’ and assimilated into Christ the second He responds: ‘neither do I condemn you'(John8:11), than to be ‘handed a legal acquittal’.
Certainly confession involves the acknowledgement of specific acts as sinful and one’s desire to be forgiven of the acts and the consequences but it also involves the exploration of the root of the action and bringing that to Christ and into His light.
To me it is a bit like weeding a garden: the roots of some weeds go quite deep and grow back easily, even with frequent weeding. Others, caught early, are more easily eradicated.
IMO, the forensic model just cuts the top off the weeds while not even attempting to get the root or loosen and feed the soil.
The partaking of the Eucharist gradually conditions the soil of our heart, mind and soul to be more easily weeded and to be less hospitable to the “things rank and gross in nature”
Along with that is the cultivation of virtues which is often left unaddressed, or so it seems to me. A garden full of strong, healthy vigorous plants has fewer weeds and those it has are easy to get rid of.