Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Raising Snakes and Losing Mittens

Remove from me the way of unrighteousness
and with Thy law have mercy on me.
Psalm 118: 29

St. Theophan the Recluse in a wonderful commentary on Psalm 118 (119), commenting on verse 29, makes the following comment about sin:

St. Theophan’s comment:
The person who endures assaults from sin cannot but realize that he himself gave sin such power over himself; he reared the serpent in himself, and consequently suffers justly; and if justly, then where is his salvation, if not in [God’s] lovingkindness. And [the psalmist] prays in that sense: “I am guilty, and justly have to bear these attacks; but show me mercy, O Lord, according to the law of Thy lovingkindness set aside this way of unrighteousness.”

Some important and reoccurring steps in our spiritual life involve the following: A) accepting that the temptations we experience are largely self chosen and self induced; and B) that the suffering we experience, the unseen martyrdom, is itself the judgement, you might even say God’s judgement, for these sins, for this “opening of the door for the demons” as St. Isaac the Syrian puts it; and C) that I cannot of myself overcome these temptations, that they are too strong for me, that the little serpent I nurtured within myself (when I thought I was in control) has become a great viper that is poisoning me to death; and D) finally, that God’s response to my predicament is according to the law of His mercy, the law of His lovingkindness.

Many people hit a roadblock in their relationship with God when the weight of their sins catches up to them, when they realize they are trapped in a cycle of sin or habit of ungodly behaviour that they cannot control. It is a road block because now that they see and are fully convinced of their wretchedness, their complete and repeated failure in an area that they also realize they had allowed to grow and develop, once they are convinced of their fault, many people shut down in some way their relationship with God out of fear of God’s wrath, God’s judgement—as though God hasn’t known all along what you have now recently come to realize. When we become intensely aware of our shortcomings, sins and failures, we are the ones who are surprised and ashamed, not God. God has known and seen everything all along and has been waiting patiently for you to see it, for you to become aware of it.  

In fact, the very wrath of God that many fear at this point, when they come to see their own deep brokenness, is not something that God is waiting to reveal. No, it is the very pain and turmoil you are now experiencing. The wrath of God is what the Bible calls the painful consequences of our sins, the result of our own sinful wandering, the venom of the serpent we have nurtured in our heart. This is the “just judgement” St. Theophan is talking about, the just judgement that brings us to our senses—like the prodigal son suffering in the pigsty, we too come to our senses and say to ourselves, “I will return to my Father. Perhaps he will accept me as a slave.” And of course, what does the prodigal son find out? He finds out that coming to his Father, confessing his sin and having the humble willingness to be a slave, the prodigal son finds out that the Father has nothing but compassion for him, what St. Theophan calls “The Law of [God’s] lovingkindness.”

But what about wrath? What about the judgement of God?  What about the suffering that I justly deserve? I know now that I deserve God’s wrath, so now more than ever I fear it. I fear it, yet I know I deserve it. I deserve to suffer and there is a kind of pride, a kind of self-determination, that keeps me from seeking relief from God—no, not until I can do better. No, if I won’t show mercy to myself, then I will not ask God to show me mercy.

Yes, I know this experience well. I have come to this crossroad many times. This is the crossroad where we choose, where we choose either to hide our shame, to wallow in the pigsty, to creep in the shadows of the fig trees in a mixture of fear, shame, self-justification, and pride—a strange mix indeed. We chose to hide and lick our wounds by blaming others—our parents, our teachers, our siblings, our culture, perhaps even God Himself. At this crossroad we can choose to hide and blame, or we can choose to step boldly out from behind the fig leaf. We can stand naked before God (who has know along that we were naked), we can stand naked before God not hiding our shame, not making excuses for our weaknesses, for our failures, for our addictions. We can stand naked before God and say, “Father I am unworthy, I do not deserve to have you clothe me; but I am naked, please clothe me.”

It is kind of like a child losing her mittens again. But unlike our parents here on earth (who are as broken as we are), God is our heavenly Father whose law is lovingkindness. We have lost our mittens and our hands our cold. This is the judgement, the wrath (if you will), this is the suffering that comes from losing our mittens. But our heavenly Father can clothe us again, in fact He longs to clothe us, he knows the suffering of cold hands. Our God has become human, He knows what it is to suffer from the consequences of sin, to be a victim, to have his mittens taken away by the schoolyard bully and to stand with red, stinging fingers in the cold. God knows, and so God longs to clothe you.

But God will not clothe you unless you ask, unless you confess, unless you are willing to come out from your hiding place, bearing the shame so that God can clothe you and take away your shame.  

And this is the crossroad we must encounter again and again. Gethsemane is not for us a one-time experience. In His mercy, God does not force us to see all of our sin at once. Yes, it often seems that we have hit bottom when we are overwhelmed by the messiness and darkness we see in ourselves. Yes, every time I come to the Garden to sweat great drops of blood, and to say again, “not my will, but yours be done,” yes, every time I submit to the Cross and experience a Resurrection, every time I think, “OK, I’m glad that’s over.” But it’s not over, not until it’s over. This world is a crucible, and we are being refined like gold. So long as we live and breathe in this world we experience what St. Isaac calls “changeableness.” We are refined and purified so that we can more clearly radiate the Light of Christ, which is indeed the very clothing with which God clothes us.  

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