Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny (Matthew 5:25,26).
It has been said by many others that the “adversary” in this saying from the Sermon On The Mount is a reference to the Holy Spirit acting on our conscience. The adversary is encouraging us to admit that something is amiss, something is wrong or broken in ourselves and in our relationship with God and with others. We can ignore this matter and put it off if we want, but Jesus warns us that if we don’t “agree” quickly, while we are “still on the way,” then we will be handed over to the Judge and cast into prison until we do acknowledge our sin, or as the parable puts it, “until you have paid the last penny.”
Jesus told us that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit in our lives would be to convict or convince the world regarding matters of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8). Some say that this convicting role of the Holy Spirit applies only to the world, to those who are not believers. However, in as much as I as a believer am still not completely sanctified, not completely cleansed from worldly habits of thought and action, in as much as I have not been fully purified and illumined by Grace, then as far as I am concerned, the world that the Holy Spirit convicts is dwelling inside me.
In fact, I think a good deal of the purification aspect of our salvation has to do with this agreeing with the conviction of the Holy Spirit regarding our own sin. This I sometimes refer to as the hard work of repentance. The easy work (which really isn’t very easy) has to do with changing the obviously sinful aspects of our outer lives: “Let him who steals, steal no longer.” It may be hard to repent of bad habits of action (looking at pornography on the internet, talking too much about matters that aren’t my concern, eating or drinking too much, gambling, etc.). However, as hard as it is to repent of these outward, physical habits, it is much harder to repent of habits of thought and feeling. In fact, it’s hard to even admit that one is enslaved by habits of sinful thoughts and feelings.
I was speaking to someone recently who asked me, “How can I repent of the fact that someone just disgusts me?” The habits of thought and feeling, the logismoi that we have come to accept as normal, as just us, as just the way we are, these feeling-thoughts too must be repented of. However, unlike physical habits that can be controlled by force of will, by just keeping your mouth closed, by just walking away from the computer or the food or the wine, by just keeping your hands behind your back; unlike the outer habits, the habits of the soul really require the Physician of our souls to be healed. And like anyone who needs to go to the doctor must first be convinced that he or she is sick, so we must be convinced that our soul is really sick too. “I’m fine,” we protest. “It’s just a little rash, a little cough, a little stiffness.” But we all know that the worst cancers can manifest at the beginning as just a small lump, a little ache, just a bit of discomfort.
Admitting that we may indeed have a serious problem is key to letting the Physician heal us.
I often find when reading the Holy Fathers that I am wondering who they could be talking about: who would be such a sinner as that? Who could be such a hypocrite? Who would be that stupid? It has become a sign to me that when I start thinking such thoughts I stop to consider that I may be the very one spoken of.
So, with these thoughts in mind, I’d like to share the following refection on a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian’s homily 51:
Do not hate the sinner; for we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some, who are considered to be discerning men, are moved to anger against the deeds of sinners.
One of the many ironies of the Orthodox Christian experience is that, on the one hand, we are taught to confess with St. Paul that we are each of us the chiefest of sinners. And on the other hand, we get angry with, angry to the point of hating, those who sin in some public way, sin in a way that we consider to be a betrayal of the Christian faith. This is particularly the case when we think that the sinner should have known better, when the sinner had previously seemed to be a virtuous person.
However, it’s very hard for us to admit to ourselves that we hate someone—mostly because we know that as Christians we are not supposed to hate anyone. And so we play all sorts of gymnastics in our brain to avoid admitting that we hate. Years ago, I heard a Methodist preacher try to twist his way out of this conundrum by proclaiming, “I hate those who hate.” You don’t have to think very long to see what a ridiculous self contradiction such a statement is. But we all proclaim such self-justifying nonsense boldly to ourselves all the time, in our minds and hearts. Most of the time, we just deny that we hate; we deny that we hate someone and may confess that we are just angry with the person. And while there is a difference between being angry with someone and hating someone, I think often we use the word ‘angry’ when we mean ‘hate’ just because we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we are hating someone.
An exercise I like to use on myself to determine if what I am calling anger is really hate or not, is to ask myself this question: “How would I treat this person that I say I am just angry with differently, if I actually hated him or her? How would I treat them differently than I am treating them right now?” If I can’t think of a difference, if the way I treat this person that I say I am merely angry with is the same way I would treat them if I actually hated them, then I need to confess to myself and to God that, indeed, I do hate this person.
It has been noted many times before that the famous dictum, “hate the sin but love the sinner,” is notoriously difficult to put into practice. Most of the time, neither party, neither the righteous nor the sinner, can tell the difference in any practical way. That is, hating the sin almost always looks suspiciously just the same as hating the sinner. But no matter how hateful our attitudes and actions really are, we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we do indeed hate someone. Somehow we feel that we are above hating—a very wretched place to imagine yourself to be when you want to spend eternity in the Kingdom that honours humility.
So how do we do it? How do we hate the sin and yet love the sinner.
I think the first step is to realize that we are not doing it, to realize that we do indeed treat sinners hatefully. The first step is to confess our own sin, to confess that, like the Pharisees of old, we too judge by externals, judge unrighteously (c.f. John 7:24). This I think is the biggest step, the hardest step. It is perhaps the only step, the step the brings us to the Physician of our souls, to the One who can heal us.
St. Isaac speaks of all Christians being mocked by the devil in many instances. “Why then,” St. Isaac asks, “should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also?” Should we not rather weep? Should we not rather weep for ourselves and for the other, for the sinner, for all of Jerusalem, for all Christians who are mocked by the devil, who fall prey to fears and lusts and inner confusion of various sorts? Or do we think that we are above being mocked by the devil? Do we think that we never act foolishly or self righteously, or sin in hidden ways that give the devil grounds to mock us also?
No, the devil mocks all of us, especially when we hate one another—and cannot admit it, even to ourselves.
It is interesting to note that in St. Paul’s list of immoral behaviour that might be grounds for breaking off fellowship with a sinning believer, he lists covetousness right along side sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5: 9 – 11).
You know, I can’t remember a time when I felt compelled to break off fellowship with someone who was not a very generous giver, with someone who didn’t seem to have a problem forking out big bucks for a new car every couple of years or a new outfit every other month, but couldn’t seem to give only ten percent of that same amount to the church over that same time. In fact, I’ve never had someone complain to me that “So and So” was hanging out with that notoriously covetous person, that person who claims to be a believer but who seems to spend more money on the latest fashions or on Netfix and cable service than he does on helping the poor. Why is it that this never happens? Could it be that in a capitalist society, wealth is idolized because covetousness is valued as the very foundation of consumerism, even by believers? Could it be that while it is still socially repugnant to be sexually immoral (at least by those of a more conservative bent), society at large lauds the spending of wealth on the latest must-have items—the very sin that St. Paul lists with sexual immorality as grounds for the breaking of fellowship?
But then “seems” is the operative word here. We don’t know what others do in secret. We don’t know what is happening in the heart of others. We don’t know what kinds of fear or confusion others try to cope with. We don’t know why others do what they do. In fact, most of the time, we don’t know very well why we do what we do, why we hate and reject others, those mocked at by the devil, the very devil who mocks us also.
And so St. Isaac advises us to weep, to weep as Christ wept over Jerusalem. Even if I feel I must oppose in some specific ways someone whose sin, for the sake of Christ, I cannot tolerate; still I must weep, weep as one who also is laden with sin—even if my own particular sins, at least the ones I recognize in myself, are not so socially repugnant.