The long battle with persistent sins has often been disheartening for many Orthodox Christians. As a priest, I have seen many Christians struggle over the years with the embarrassment of confessing the same sins repeatedly. Being embarrassed about one’s sins is natural. We, because of our human nature, are all sinful in front of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is how we respond to our sins, once we acknowledge them, that is crucial to our salvation.
Too often, this embarrassment makes many Christians keep their sins to themselves. You start believing that it is a lost cause. Many people become jaded and resentful. You envelope yourself in a cocoon of isolation. You fabricate a solipsistic world around you, and start resenting family and friends. It creates a numbness in your soul, and you find yourself lost, alone, and helpless. When a person finally builds up enough resolve to confess, some priests make the tragic mistake of emphasizing the wickedness of the sin, rather than administering spiritual medicine to help the soul heal. This leads to a fatalistic state of despondency.
This hopelessness makes us feel as if we are lost in a forest, and we do not know how to find our way back to salvation. What we must realize, and take to heart is that, in Christ, there is always a road back.
This feeling of melancholia is not natural. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven. Christ’s mercy is inexhaustible. To think otherwise, is to deny the love of our Lord. His endless love for us is why he took on the flesh. Christ took upon himself the sins of humanity. In the gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance “(Mark 2:17). The essential word is repentance. We must want to repent.
Trying to do good or feeling bad for our sins is a first step, but we must reach a point where we take full responsibility for our actions. Only a true repentant person turns away from the sin. In the parable of the Prodigal son, the son takes full responsibility for his sins when he states, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18). It is at this point that forgiveness is given. The father does not admonish his son for his sinful ways, but embraces him, kills the fatted calf, and has a banquet to celebrate (Luke 15:22,23).
Our Heavenly Father waits with open arms to forgive any of our trespasses. He does not judge our sins. “Christ came to save and heal, not to judge” (John 1:17,3:17). We must, however, take the first step. He will not force anyone to love him. We must humble ourselves and be culpable for our offenses. Through sincere confession, the sins are totally absolved. The gospels tell us that great joy occurs after the repentance of one person. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine persons who need no repentance “ (Luke 15:17).
How are we able to achieve repentance? What are the steps needed? Fortunately, Saint John Chrysostom, in his homilies, outlines five paths needed to attain repentance. These are, Condemnation of Sins, Forgiveness, Prayer, Almsgiving, and Humility. In condemning our sins, St. Chrysostom talks about the ability to take responsibility and condemn our sins. “Accuse yourself and do not blame others for your actions”. By taking onus for our deeds, we take an important step towards repentance. The second step, according to St. Chrysostom, is forgiveness. St. John states that “In order to master our anger, we must forgive our enemies and those who have wronged us”. This is one of the most difficult virtues to establish. We must, however, strive to forgive and be non-judgmental. St. Chrysostom explains that prayer from the heart, almsgiving to the less fortunate, and humility, are essential to achieve spiritual health. Repentance cannot be achieved without these steps.
This road of repentance may seem to many a Sisyphean task – an impossible goal where the objective is never reached. Do not despair. Take courage that our Lord Jesus Christ will help us. In his letters, Saint Basil writes, “Make the effort to rise from the ground. Remember the good Shephard who will follow and rescue you”. Christ is following us through all our difficulties. He is waiting to rescue us from our sins. Like the Apostle Peter, he will not let us drown in the ocean of our sins. We must, however, reach out and want to be saved. St. Basil also states “Do not despair like the wicked in the pit of evil. There is a time of endurance, a time of long suffering, a time of healing, and a time of correction. Have you stumbled? Arise. Have you sinned? Cease”.
Repentance can seem difficult, but it is not impossible. We must shake off this feeling of despondency and stop wallowing in our misery. You are not alone. Our Lord Jesus Christ is willing to take up the fight for us. He is there to ease our pain. We just have to let him into our hearts. We must be assiduous towards our soul. St. Basil states, “Out of labor comes health. Out of sweat comes salvation from the sins that bind you”.
Do not feel discouraged and embarrassed that you are confessing the same sins over and over. When the Apostle Peter asked our Lord how often he should forgive his brother, Christ answers “I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Mathew 18:22). Repentance is a struggle, but with guidance from a good spiritual father, we can all make great strides in our spiritual growth. I know that many times we feel hopeless and lost, but remember, there is always a road back.