When the Three Holy Youths were threatened with fire for refusing to bow before the golden image erected by King Nebuchadnezzar, they did not back down. However, their confidence in the face of a fiery death was not due to a confidence that they would be delivered by God. The Three Youths say to King Nebuchadnezzar that God is able to deliver them, but even if He doesn’t, they refuse to bow before the image the king had set up. They did not believe that they deserved to be delivered from fiery death merely because they were doing the right thing, the righteous thing, the God-pleasing thing.
The prayer of Azariah (in the Septuagint version of Daniel) reveals why the three young men did not expect God to save them. After being thrown into the flames and standing unharmed, Azariah says a long prayer. The prayer begins with praise, but then quickly turns to confession of sin. What is particularly instructive about this confession, is that it is all in the plural: “We sinned and acted lawlessly…. We sinned in every way…. Neither did we...do as you commanded…. All You did to us, You did in true judgement.” Azariah confesses the sins of Israel, the sins of many generations, sins that resulted in the various invasions of Israel and ultimately in the destruction of Jerusalem.
Azariah, however, is not personally guilty of the sins he is confessing. He was a boy when Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah--how could he be guilty of bringing this judgement? Not only was he not personally guilty of the sins that brought God’s judgement on Judah, once captive in Babylon, he refused to eat the king’s (ceremonially unclean) food. Azariah keeps the law of Moses while captive in a foreign country and at the risk of his life. The Three Holy Youths really are holy. And yet Azariah and his friends do not think their striving for holiness should set them above the consequences of the sins of others. In fact, for these Holy Youths, there are no “others,” those sinners. There is only “us,” the sinners.
Holy people understand that sin is not merely a personal matter. Yet on a moral level, this concept is difficult for many of us to accept. Most of us have no difficulty seeing that the consequences of sin are social. When someone acts selfishly, even in ignorance, she or he hurts others. How many of us trace our emotional problems and struggles with addictions to some neglect or abuse we experienced at the hand of another? No, we as a culture have no problem accepting that the consequences of sin are corporate. What we can’t seem to accept, however, is that the guilt for sin is also corporate. My sin is your sin. It is our sin. We are guilty. We must repent.
Just as Azariah accepts the sin of all God’s people as his own, and thus accepts that whatever consequences he may suffer for that sin are just; so also does Azariah pray as though his repentance is not merely a personal matter. His repentance is on behalf of the whole nation. Azariah prays, “Yet with a contrite soul and humbled spirit may we receive mercy…. Let this be our sacrifice before You today, and may it be accomplished for those who follow you. Now we are following You with all our heart, and we fear You and seek Your face.” Just as sin is a corporate matter, so is repentance.
Sin and repentance are both personal and corporate. In fact, if we understand “personal” correctly, we need not add any other word. In Orthodox Christian anthropology, personal is not synonymous with individual. Personal is a community word. A human person is always connected to all other human persons--just as the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are always connected to each other. When one person sins, all people suffer (c.f. Genesis 3); and when one person is righteous, all people benefit (c.f. Romans 5). Therefore the righteous acts of Daniel, Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael are not only for their individual salvation, they are for the salvation of all people. Similarly, when we suffer the consequences of sin--death, disease, injustice--it is not generally because of some specific sin we have committed as an individual. We suffer the consequences of sin because we sin, because human beings sin and we are human beings.
But here is the Good News. We can repent not only for our individual sin but also for the sins of the world. We can confess our sins to God--not their sins, our sins. We can turn to God with “a contrite soul and humbled spirit.” We can follow God with all our heart and fear Him and seek His face. Just as Jesus bore the sins of the whole world, so too we who are in Christ bear the sins of all people with Him. This is our Christian calling, to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. This is our glory, to repent for our personal sins: the sins of the whole world.