St. John of Kronstadt Press has recently published a translation of St. Theophan the Recluse’s commentary on Psalm 118 (119 in most English Bibles). Like most of St. Theophan’s writings, this commentary is full of citations from the Scripture and from the Holy Fathers. St. Theophan, as do most Orthodox spiritual writers, never saw himself as an original thinker, but rather as someone who breathed in the insight and teaching of holy men and women before him and having incorporated and assimilated this insight and teaching into his own life, then exhales. He exhales not strictly memorized recitations of what was said before, but life-filled words appropriate to the specific context and audience he is speaking to. This is the Orthodox way. We don’t merely recite those who have gone before us. We imbibe what has been passed down to us—the example and teaching of our holy fathers and mothers—and having brought this teaching to life in ourselves, we then share the wisdom we have received in life-giving actions and words. St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 is full of such a life-giving words.
One of the life-giving insights that has helped me in St. Theophan’s commentary on Psalm 118 has to do with the paradox of being a sinner yet not sinning. Beginning with a quotation from St. Macarios of Egypt, St. Theophan explains both this paradox and how it can best be understood so as to help us grow in humility in our relationship with God. St. Macarios says that the Holy Apostles could not sin because they were filled with the Grace of God in such a way that they did not will to (or want to) sin. However, quoting Blessed Augustine, St. Theophan asks how this is possible since St. John in his first epistle says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”? After all, we believe the saints (and especially the Apostles), walked in the ways of the Lord, therefore they have not worked iniquity (Psalm 118: 3), yet “no one lives and does not sin” according to the Divine Liturgy of the Church. How do we understand this paradox?
To explain this paradox, St. Theophan (following Blessed Augustine) points us to chapter seven of the book of Romans where St. Paul says, “It is not I who do it, but sin which dwells in me.” That is, the sin that St. Paul finds working in his members (in his body and mind) is, on the one hand, his sin because it does not belong to another, it is experienced in his own body; but on the other hand, the sin he experiences in his members is not his because he does not choose it and in as far as he is able, he does not act upon it or let it dwell in his mind. St. Paul says, “I do what I would not, and it is no more I that do it” (Romans 7:20). St. Theophan explains, “When the sin inside us acts in us, then we are not doing it, as long as our will does not agree with it and keeps the members of our body from obeying it; for what can sin do in us, without us, except to invite and induce us to what is forbidden? If no consent from our will follows, then although there is a motion of passion, it has no effect on us.”
What does this mean? It means that sin does indeed dwell in our body and mind in a way that, in one sense is indeed us (because it is not someone else) and in another sense is not us because we do not choose it (if indeed we do not choose it—Ah, but there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say). Within me there is a deeper me steering the ship, you might say. Let’s take a look at a physical example to help us understand this spiritual reality. If you touch a wire and get a small electric shock, the natural impulse of your body is to pull your hand away. However, this natural impulse, this “working of your members” can with attention and practice be overcome. That is, I can hold on to the wire if I want to even though my “members” experience an impulse to let go. Certainly, holding on to a wire with a small current flowing through it takes intention, focus and practice, but it is possible. You don’t have to let go of the wire every time you feel the electric shock just because that is your initial impulse.
Sin is at work in us the same way. Something in my body and mind has an impulse to sin. This is what St. Paul calls, “sin at work in my members” or in other places he calls it “this mortal body” or just “the flesh.” Sin produces in me a “motion of passion,” that is a feeling, impulse or thought to sin, but this motion of passion is not really mine until I choose it or agree with it. This is why St. Paul can say in another place in Romans, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies that you should obey its lusts. Neither yield your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin” (Romans 6:12-13). And so St. Theophan explains, “Thus, sin acts in us through sinful desires. If we listen to them, we will act sinfully. But if, following the Apostle, we do not listen to them, then not we, but the sin that dwells in us is acting.” And this, then, explains the paradox: “Thus we walk in God’s ways without obeying sinful desires; yet we are not without sin because we have sinful desires within us.”
This knowledge on the one hand gives us a certain sense of relief: I can be at peace knowing that even though filthy thoughts and unclean impulses occur within me, they do not define me. I am not my thoughts or impulses. What I do with my thoughts and impulses determines who I am. If I repent quickly when a wicked thought or impulse assails me, if I say to myself, “No. That is not who I am. That is not who I want to be. That is not who I am becoming in Christ.” If I say these things to myself and turn immediately to Christ in tears (whether inner or outer) of repentance and call out to Him for deliverance, then those wicked thoughts and impulses are not mine, but they come from sin acting in my members. However, if I dally with sinful thoughts and nurture passionate impulses, then that is who I am and what I become. Even if I do not act outwardly on those sinful impulses right away, if I willingly entertain them in my mind, then I am choosing them and thus they are mine.
One of the great gifts God has given humankind is time and space as we know it. That is, we are able to change. Even when we make wrong choices and go down the wrong road, we can still change. This change is called repentance. And just as owning the sin in our members begins as an inner choice or desire, an inner wanting to entertain or dwell on sinful thoughts and feelings; so also repentance begins as an inner desire, an inner choice or an inner wanting to be different, an inner desire to forsake our sinful ways and to turn toward Christ. Certainly, repentance involves outer actions—because everything we do begins in some way in our heart.
Yet outer actions are not easy to read. In the Gospel we read about Zacchaeus who was a rich tax collector whom everyone thought was a sinner, but who in reality was a righteous man who gave half of his income to the poor and went out of his way to meet Jesus. And there are others who outwardly appear righteous, but inwardly are full of bitterness, envy and deceit—that is they have chosen the bitterness, envy and deceit of their sinful passions but have done very well at keeping them inside, keeping up appearances on the outside but rotting on the inside, like Jesus said of some religious leaders, they are whitewashed tombs. It is essential to remember that even when our outer sins seem few, when we seem to have our outer sins under control, we are still nonetheless sinners who need to repent because of the sinful impulses and thoughts still at work in our members, even though we do not choose them—or perhaps we just hide them very well. And when we see others who appear to be sinners, we must be careful not to judge them because we do not know what is going on in their hearts. Perhaps, like in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, that sinning person that we see in church or on the street or at work may secretly in their hearts be hating their sin and be seeking Christ in repentance. Only God sees the heart.