"Awareness of one’s weakness gives rise to hope in God, to an appeal to Him as a personal Savior, which is always accompanied by joy. It would seem that there is a combination of the incompatible: complete disappointment in yourself and joy that the Lord can help you. But this seeming contradiction is the key to spiritual prosperity. . ."
A reader asked:
“I’ve been committing the same sin over and over again and confessing it. My priest encourages me to overcome it, and I want it too, but I can’t. The Scripture says that sin does not let you inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. It worries me very much. Does it mean that confession does not change anything? What should I do then? What should I do with the sins of which I remain a slave?”
Archpriest Fyodor Borodin, Rector of Sts Cosmas and Damian Church in Moscow, speaks on what sin is and what the meaning of confession is, if after it a person still sins. What should one do if it seems that spiritual life has reached a dead end?
Having sinned, a practicing Orthodox Christian, comes to confession and repents. But if you have to confess the same sin again and again, you will involuntarily wonder: what is the purpose of confession? And what should you do in such a situation?
Indeed, when you struggle with your passions, you may get the feeling that confession is not fruitful. In this state, we can understand from our own experience what the Apostle Paul says in the seventh chapter of his Epistle to the Romans: “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). But here it is important to remember that the Sacrament of Confession is not only an action: “you repent – you get cleansed”, but also a way of healing. Yes, a person can repent of the same sin for years, and only after a while the Lord rewards him for this work with deliverance from this sin.
Actually, sin is both a specific sinful act and a sinful passion. But if we can commit an act once and after making a confession no longer repeat it – for example, a person who is not angry by nature may one day lose his temper, repent and continue to control himself – a situation with a passion is more complicated. Passion is a sinful habit which one has become used to, and it is much more difficult to eradicate it. It is for a reason that the Holy Fathers compare it to the root from which other sins grow. For example, a man has shaved, his cheeks have become smooth, but the hair follicles have remained under his skin, and after a while the stubble grows back. The same thing is with a sin: we repent of it, but the root of evil lives in us, and a new sin grows out of it. And it is treated for years, and sometimes for decades.
So what, in this case, delivers us from sin – God’s help or our efforts?
God helps us in response to our desire, which is evidenced by our work. We are only required to constantly work spiritually, and then healing will surely occur. One of the definitions of God in Scripture is He is the One who grants the prayer of him who prays (see 1 Kings 2: 9). St. John of the Ladder explains it this way: the quantity of prayer paves the way for its quality (“Ladder of Divine Ascent”, Step 28). Yes, we can pray absentmindedly for a long time, get distracted, but if we continue to work, sooner or later our prayer will turn from dry and lifeless into fervent and sincere, with tears and a touch of God’s grace.
It’s the same with repentance. If you do not give up, and regularly go to confession, and repent – even of the same sins – sooner or later you will receive the help of the Lord.
Let me give you an example: one of our parishioners, who was used to following the rules of the Church from her childhood, after she got married, she continued to observe fasts, read morning and evening prayers and it was not difficult for her. But then she got pregnant, and it turned out that during Lent she simply physically could not live without meat and dairy products – by the way, pregnant women do not have to fast strictly according to the Church rules – and during confession she repented with tears that only then she realized that fasting meant only bodily abstinence for her for all the previous years, and she could bring nothing more to God in the days of fasting. And this revelation was granted to her for the work that she had carried out in all previous years, fulfilling the church rules, regularly confessing and partaking of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. This is how the Lord opened her spiritual sight so that she could continue to grow spiritually.
Any spiritual work – asceticism, fasting, or regular confession – will definitely be rewarded by God. Therefore, when it seems that your spiritual life has reached a dead end, the best thing I can advise here is do not think that your struggle is meaningless, but continue your spiritual work and ask God for help, no matter what.
But if you cannot overcome passion for a long time, you can become disappointed in the healing power of confession, fall into despondency or even despair…
What are despondency and despair? They are the flip side of pride. A humble person is never discouraged at all, no matter what happens to him. And if you begin to fall into self-criticism and think of yourself as a worthless Christian, because you cannot cope with sin, this is a signal that pride lives in your heart.
Achieving humility is generally one of the most important criteria for a successful spiritual path. There are situations when the very fulfillment of the commandments becomes food for pride, although we do not even notice it. Then the Lord can deprive us of His help in our struggle with passions, so that we would realize our weakness and humble ourselves. It is more important for God if we become humble, than ascetics. The Venerable Mark, who, by the way, is called the Ascetic, said the following words: “God gives grace to man not for his virtues and not for the work he did for the sake of acquiring them, but for the humility he received during this work.”
When I was a seminary student, I ended up in the cell of a monk during Great Lent. The monastery’s brothers came to him, took out milk chocolate sweets and began to eat them. And to my perplexed look, they answered that it was their confessor who advised them to commit this sin once during Lent so that no one could boast later and say “I’ve done everything”.
It may, of course, seem that Christ wants us to feel weak, trampled and unworthy and deprives us of His help. And this feeling can in no way be combined with the Gospel’s call to rejoice. But the fact is that without humility, joy will not be real. Acquiring humility is a prerequisite for experiencing true, spiritual joy.
But even the Apostle Paul was desperate because he did evil which he did not want…
The despair of the Apostle Paul is not disappointment in the healing power of a sacrament, but disappointment in himself. Yes, in order to succeed spiritually, a person must despair of being able to overcome sin and be saved on his own, without God. But it’s not the despair that makes you give up, it’s just spiritual realism. Awareness of one’s weakness gives rise to hope in God, to an appeal to Him as a personal Savior, which is always accompanied by joy. It would seem that there is a combination of the incompatible: complete disappointment in yourself and joy that the Lord can help you. But this seeming contradiction is the key to spiritual prosperity.
And what about the sins that a person is aware of, but at the moment is not yet ready to get rid of? For example, one smokes and understands that smoking is a sin, but is not ready to start fighting it. Is it worth confessing this sin at every confession in this case?
I think it’s worth it. And it is worth admitting that one has no determination to start fighting it. And for this small effort – the regular confession of this sin – one will receive an understanding of the gravity of sin and will reject it.
The sin of smoking seems to be just a bad habit that does not affect one’s moral qualities to some people. But the fact is that all Orthodox asceticism is built on the systematic overcoming of the carnal man in oneself in order to become a spiritual man. This overcoming requires will, but it is overwhelmed by sin. And it turns out that our task is to train our will to defeat our weaknesses. And daily smoking, on the contrary, “trains our will” for a defeat: knowing that smoking is bad, we say to our will several times a day: “Be quiet.” And we grow weaker. And then, when it is necessary to use our will for something more substantial, it turns out that it does not work.
And if a person regularly repents of a sin, he will eventually see how much this sin harms him and will start fighting it.
But what if a person sets the bar too high and can’t reach it?
This happens. I remember how one of my acquaintances entered a seminary in the late 1980s with a clear plan to become prescient in two years, and to start working miracles in four years . He ate almost nothing, attended almost all divine services, but he did not acquire either prophecy nor working of miracles. In asceticism, we must feel the words of Christ with all our being: Without Me you can do nothing (John 15: 5). These words refer primarily to our spiritual life: it is possible to be successful in the worldly life without Christ, but in the spiritual life it is not.
Gradually gaining experience in our spiritual life, we become convinced of the fatal damage of our nature by sin. Therefore, the Holy Fathers call heartache arising from a complete difference between what I should be and what I am, and more precisely, between my fallen state and the fact that, despite it, the Lord loves me, to be a sign of a real spiritual life.
With such an approach, will it not turn out that a person will calm down and stop forcing himself to any kind of spiritual work?
No. The very heartache will not give such an opportunity. St. John Chrysostom writes that the only thing that separates a person from God is sin. Therefore, a Christian who truly loves God feels sin as pain, as his own grief.
Undoubtedly, the Lord heals us from sin, therefore we need to rely on the Providence of God, but we ourselves must continue to work to cleanse our souls.
Is it necessary to fight all sins at once, or should it be done gradually?
Do you know the saying: the brighter the light, the stronger the shadow? Approaching God – the source of light – a person begins to see more clearly the depth of his fall. And everything that at the moment he realizes as a sin must represent the subject of his spiritual work. Another thing is that the degree of intensity of this work in relation to different sins can vary.
There are deadly sins that block our path to the Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, a Christian tries to avoid such sins, and they are the subject of his closest attention. As for less grievous sins, a serious struggle must be done against them too. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that saints differ from ordinary people precisely by their determination to fight against sin. And we Christians are all called to holiness, so we all need to have determination in spiritual warfare.
There is specific practical advice from ancient ascetics on how to deal with sins. For example, common advice is to devote fasting to the struggle against a certain, the most significant sin at the moment. That is, to concentrate on one thing and to put our efforts into fighting this particular passion. Another important observation of the ancient fathers: the first passion that we need to start fighting with is gluttony. If a person does not fight gluttony, he will not win the rest of the passions. That is why fasting is given so much attention to in the life of a Christian.
What should we do so that confession does not turn into a formality?
When a person has acquired real repentance, he does not need any hints, he already feels its fruits in his soul: peace, silence, and forgiveness. But do not be embarrassed if this does not happen to you yet. Our task is to work, forcing ourselves to repent from the depths of even a dry heart, and the Lord will certainly grant us spiritual fruits at the very moment when we will most need it.
The Venerable Isaac the Syrian said the following words: “Repentance is the trembling of one’s soul before the gates of paradise.” In other words, while living on earth, we cannot enter heaven, but sincere repentance brings us directly to its gates. And at this moment only the remaining time of our life separates us from paradise. This thought of St. Isaac the Syrian can serve as a guideline for us and for what our attitude should be when we approach the analoi with the cross and the Gospel lying on it.
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