I read this statement this week on Facebook, from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s Clean Monday evening sermon: (Photo: S. Vlasov)
"We cannot repent sincerely if we do not know why we have done this or that sin, what inner thoughts, temptations, or movements of our soul has brought us into a state of sin."
I’ve been trying to find a way to agree with this statement. I dislike the idea of disagreeing with a Patriarch of the Church, so I tried to find a number of ways to reconcile this statement with the scriptures. Finally, I sought out the context of the statement, and found this portion that I do agree with wholeheartedly:
"Indeed, the very first step that each of us must make, including now as we enter the forty days of Lent, is to attempt to examine ourselves thoroughly, to examine the circumstances of life that dictate our sinful behaviour. It is not always easy to do this because we justify ourselves all the time. And here, we need to renounce self-justification, to think and speak before God only for ourselves, only of the things that we ourselves have done wrong.”
This can be a starting place for our examination. Let’s pinpoint the basis for our discussion:
- Great Lent is a time set aside for a special effort of repentance.
- This requires a thorough examination of our lives.
- Finding the root cause for our sin is necessary to repentance.
This comes close to what His Holiness said, and perhaps is what he was driving at. In any case, this is the understanding of his message that I believe we need to examine:
As we begin this Lenten season of repentance, we must seek out the root cause of our sin.
We’ll begin with a couple of classic Biblical examples of examined repentance. The first of these would have been read during the service His Holiness had served just before his sermon, the Prayer of Manasseh. We’ll read the middle portion of his prayer:
“Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities:”
Manasseh, in his quest for repentance, prays to God in recognition of repentance as the gift of God, and as a requirement for the salvation of those who sin. He has examined himself, and declares before God and those of us who pray his prayer with him that he
“did not [God’s] will, neither kept [His] commandments: [he has] set up abominations and [has] multiplied offenses”.
Next we turn to another prayer read in every service of the Church, Psalm 50. This is the prayer of repentance David wrote after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah murdered. His definitive statement regarding the root cause of his sin should give us pause:
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
In our psychological age, we have become infected with the idea that we are deep creatures, and that far below our consciousness lie our real motives. If we can just dig deeply enough, we can turn over all kinds of rottenness - or all kinds of natural divinity, depending on one’s viewpoint. From there we can begin to know ourselves and become the holistic, self-actualized people we were meant to be.
David didn’t seem to think so “I know mine iniquity, and my sin is ever before me”, he says. It’s right in front of our faces; we don’t see it because, as His Holiness said, we don’t want to look. David looked, because Nathan the prophet came and held the mirror of God’s word in front of him. He saw that he was a sinner because he had sinned, and he had sinned because he was a sinner. He had identified the root cause. This is what he turned in sorrow away from - a good look at himself and what he had done.
It’s not enough to simply turn away from our sinful selves, however; that is still not repentance. Repentance is a movement away from something and toward something else. A prolonged focus and dwelling upon what we need to turn from is not moving us toward righteousness, it is simply wallowing in our sin.
Both Manasseh and David spent a second looking at themselves, and most of their prayer looking where they needed to to toward. Manasseh prays:
“For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life”.
After identifying the root cause of his sin, David went on in his prayer to list all the things he would automatically do in response to God’s gift of salvation, especially the same thing Manasseh said he would do: declare the praise of the Lord.
This is echoed in the New Testament in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son, “when he came to himself”, did not begin a discussion with himself about how he wound up in the pig pen. He did not see Dr Phil about his “daddy issues”, or try to determine why he was so hell-bent on trying to find his own way when he had it made back home. He turned his face toward home, and prayed the same prayer that Manasseh and David had prayed.
Let us begin this Lenten season by spending a moment looking in the mirror, at the human face that is the root cause of our sin, and then spend the rest of the season moving in prayerful repentance toward our Salvation, lifted high on a cross where we can’t miss Him if we’ll only look. Let us go to the life-giving cross and praise Him, for God will save us that are unworthy, and show us His goodness. Let us praise Him all the days of our lives, for all the powers of Heaven praise Him.