Monday, December 28, 2009

On Feeling Bad About Sin, Part 2 of 2

As I said last time, religions that center around relieving our shame and guilt are dealing with the wrong problem. The problem is a deeper one: how to cure the passions infecting our hearts. Those are what produce the guilt and shame, as well as the sinful acts we commit.

Quite a few religions have not only the wrong diagnosis, but also the wrong cure, even supposing the diagnosis were correct. They tell you to keep your eyes focused upon the Cross, where you see Jesus taking your punishment vicariously and as thoroughly as ever your heart could wish. Such a denomination will probably provide you very gruesome portraits of that suffering, both visual and verbal, for you to contemplate to alleviate your guilt and shame. Well, it won’t. Okay, it will – briefly. Like aspirin, it will take the pain away for a while, but without treating the cause of it; so, very shortly, it will all come back again. And again, and again. Both the objective and the subjective guilt will still be in place as long as the attitudes underlying our sins are in place.

You can't cure a toothache by calculus, because a toothache is a medical problem and needs a medical solution. You can't solve a quadratic equation by baking a cake, because the problem is mathematical and needs a mathematical solution. Trying to take away guilt and shame by an executive decision (“I will believe Christ took my punishment”) or a legal proceeding (God declares you Not Guilty) is a similar use of wrong categories. Guilt and shame, besides being objectively true, are things we experience. Those experiences can only be taken away by a countervailing experience, namely of that sweet sorrow I’ve tried to describe called contrition, bringing with it experience of God’s tender forgiveness and of new hope that we can become better. Absent that, and we shall never be rid of the subjective guilt, because deep down we know we aren't rid of the objective guilt, either.

(And lest anyone be tempted to think, "Oh, but we need the guilt, to keep us on the straight and narrow," no, we serve God much more selflessly, much more effectively, much more to His liking, when we do so in freedom and love rather than from guilt. What we DO need, always, is contritition, repentance.)

Of course true contrition is a gift of God. Have you never experienced it and you wonder why not? I suppose there are numerous possible answers. NOT among them is the pernicious idea that it's because you are one of those God has chosen to damn, or at least has not elected to save (which amounts to the same thing). God elects, according to His foreknowledge, whoever is willing (Romans 8:29). If you don’t believe that, you have been taught to interpret this verse differently, let's not waste time debating the theology; just do the practical thing: make sure you really ARE among the willing and the theological issue will become moot.

If you find yourself (perhaps to your own surprise!) unwilling, perhaps it’s because the god you’ve been taught is inherently very difficult to love. This is because although He is said to be very, very loving, at the same time, certain behaviors are ascribed to Him which cannot be reconciled with love. Even if you think He has every right to commit atrocities, or even a duty to commit them, in the name of justice, that still makes it very difficult to love Him wholeheartedly. In fact, to make it all the more complicated, disapproving of such a god is the morally correct stance!

Or perhaps you’ve been taught that who you are can’t really change much, which to say the least is a bit discouraging. So perhaps you haven’t actually tried yet to overcome the inner attitudes which are producing the objective and subjective guilt and shame, as well as the misdeeds.

I don’t know. You, however, do need to know, if you suffer from chronic guilt and shame and would be cured. Please find out what the blockage is, and let us all pray together, again and again: "Open to me the doors of repentance!"

My most merciful and all-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and take flesh to save all. And again, O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee, for if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty. Indeed, in Thy infinite compassion and unspeakable mercy, Thou O my Christ hast said: Whoever believes in Me shall live and never see death. If faith in Thee saves the desperate, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Impute my faith instead of deeds, O my God, for Thou wilt find no deeds which could justify me, but may my faith suffice for all my deeds. May it answer for and acquit me, and may it make me a partaker of Thy eternal glory. And may satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that he has torn me from Thy hand and fold. O Christ, my Saviour, whether I will or not, save me. Make haste, quick, quick, for I perish. Thou art my God from my mother's womb. Grant me, O Lord, to love Thee now as once I loved sin, and also to work for Thee without idleness, as I worked before for deceptive satan. But supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

-- from the Orthodox morning prayers


Anam Cara said...

I thank God that He has given you these insights, the words to explain them, and the internet that we may all share them.

This is why I could never have a real blog. I doubt that I could ever explain the way others do. We each have different gifts. I benefit so much from yours!

Unknown said...

This is good stuff. Thank you for writing it. I have a few people I think who should read this.

(I am one who without proper repentance, substitutes self-loathing out of habit... you might even say I'm addicted to it.)

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Anam, why don't you start a blog anyway? It doesn't have to be about explaining anything. It can just be your thoughts when they are beautiful, or even when they aren't. Or some of your photos. or your hobbies. Or you can share favorite poems, prayers, saints, whatever. I'll bet your blog will be wonderful!

David, I know what you mean. It's just hard to take that return road when we're imaginging God frowning at us, and we think in addition to our sins, we must face His disapproval on top of our own...

Fortunatley, that's not the way it is. Rather, He's like the Father of the Prodigal, who will come running joyously to meet us as soon as He sees us coming.