Last Sunday, I mentioned St. John Chrysostom’s teaching on the origins of temptation. To recap, he said that, given how broken most of us are, the demons don’t have much work to do at all. We are completely capable of leading ourselves into destructive behaviors and toxic habits. In the epistle of James we read that “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires….” (James 1:14)
To paraphrase a popular meme on social media: Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is that we’re being foolish and we’re making bad decisions.
Saint John of Kronstadt described his life like this:
“My life is a lengthy, stubborn, and constant battle with myself, a battle which I am waging at present being constantly fortified by God’s grace”
A central teaching of Eastern Christian spirituality is that the search for God does not happened outside of ourselves; it is, rather, a journey within. St. Isaac the Syrian said:
“Enter eagerly into the treasure-house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure-house of heaven; for the two are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both.”
The thing is, the journey into that treasure house of the soul looks a lot like the spiritual version of an Indiana Jones movie. There are perils of all kinds before we reach our goal — fears and regrets, resentment and shame (always shame), and many other pitfalls. So the first movements in our spiritual journey are to, (1) acknowledge, and (2) address all of that the messy stuff that blocks our way. That is the lion’s share of the Christian struggle.
We rejoice when we hear Jesus tell us that “the truth will set us free.” We are less happy to learn that part of the way that truth works within us—a large part of it, actually—is giving us a clearer understanding ourselves, both the good and more importantly the bad. If we can’t pinpoint where the growth needs to happen, we’re not able to grow. If we can’t identify the exact location of the infection, it will continue to spread.
It is much easier living in a fog of distraction and denial. In Ancient Rome it was said that the emperors kept people happy by providing them with “bread and circuses”—keep them fed and entertained, and they won’t be a bother; and we accuse modern-day politicians of the same kind of cynical thinking. But if we are being honest, we will admit that we also do the very same things to ourselves. The only difference is that we ask a barista to serve up our bread with a latte, and the circuses we prefer fit into devices we can carry in our pockets and purses.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, I think the most important verse is 17, which begins with the words: “But when he came to himself…” The first step in the journey back to our Father’s house is to “come to ourselves.” We begin with an effort to know ourselves better, to acknowledge our weakness and how they act on us.
In monasteries, monks and nuns will visit their spiritual fathers and mothers every day; day in an day out, they’ll talk about the same thing — what’s on their minds: what they are thinking about, who they obsess over, what keeps them up at night. Without understanding our biases, our preconceived notions, and our proclivities, those spiritual Achilles heels will keep tripping us up.
CS Lewis wrote:
There is someone I love,
Even though I don’t approve of what he does.
There is someone I accept,
Though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me.
There is someone I forgive,
Though he hurts the people I love the most.
That person is me.
This quote reminds us that the act of “coming to ourselves” does not need to be done in a negative way, it’s not about self-loathing. In Christ, we even look at our deepest faults with the hope of salvation.
As Saint John of Kronstadt reminds us, this is not a struggle that we can take on by ourselves. We don’t have the objectivity needed for this kind of work, and we don’t have the strength either. We need to be fortified by God’s grace; divine grace is absolutely capable of healing us. Most critically, that grace is found in the sacraments of the Church, which Jesus offers us “for the remission of sins and the healing of soul and body.”
In particular, we have the sacrament of Confession, given to us for the specific purpose of examining ourselves and bringing our spiritual wounds into the open. The apostle James urges us to, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) And the apostle John reminds us that, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Having admitted to God, to ourselves and to the priest standing with us the exact nature of our wrongs, the then priest prays for the forgiveness of those sins by an authority that Jesus himself gave to the apostles and their successors:
“He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:22-23)
It is very difficult to stare down the naked truth of our brokenness, to take responsibility for it, and to engage in the long uphill journey of healing that God offers us. But it’s the difference between drifting towards an ever more fragmented version of ourselves, or coming home to our heavenly Father, and to the fullness of who he made us to be in his image and likeness.
All praise and thanks be to God who does not leave us alone in the struggle with our selves, but fortifies us with his grace. By God’s grace, we are able to complete the journey into the sanctuary of our souls, and invite Christ to abide there and reign in us to the ages of ages. Amen.
Transcript of a sermon delivered at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fort Wayne, IN, on Sunday, February 24, 2019—the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.