Finding God in repentance
Whenever we sin we are like the prodigal son who “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living” because to sin is to journey away from the Father, away from God, to sin is to waste the substance of this very life that God has given us… But to repent is to turn back to the Father; indeed one Greek New Testament word sometimes translated to be converted can be translated to turn or to turn around or to turn back. So if sin is a journey away from God then repentance is a turning back to God, a journey towards God, an encounter with God. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee…”
When Orthodox Christians think of the word “repentance” we do not think only of coming to ourselves, of our realisation that we have gone wrong, of our inner feelings – we think primarily of the Holy Mystery or Sacrament of Repentance or Absolution (often commonly referred to as the Sacrament of Confession)..
“It is true that repentance is a work within the heart involving regret and a resolution to abandon the sin… Yet repentance is completed inside the Church by confession and the absolution. The sinner is to confess his sins and the priest is to read the absolution…also followed by the guidance which the penitent receives from his spiritual father…”
The Holy Mystery of Absolution or Repentance “like all sacraments, is an element of the life of the Church which presupposes a firm belief and conviction that Christ himself is present in the Church… A person without the experience of Christ in the Church will not understand the meaning of sacramental [repentance] and the need for the open…confession of sins. When the Church is experienced as the new life in Christ and as the genuine communion with God in his kingdom already present with men in sacrament and mystery, then not only will sacramental [repentance] and the confession of sins be understood, but it will be cherished as the great mystery of God which it is… reunion with God through the forgiveness of Christ who has come to save sinners who confess their sins and who sincerely desire to change their lives… only God can forgive sins…he does so through Christ in the Church…”
The Sacrament of Repentance or Absolution is most definitely the place to find God, it is absolutely an encounter with God. The priest and the penitent stand facing an
icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ or else facing towards the altar or at the very least a cross – all of which show Who it is we have come to meet, our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the crucified One, exalted on His altar. And just in case we had any doubt at all, these words spoken by the priest in the Byzantine Orthodox rite spell it our absolutely clearly: “Behold, my child, Christ stands here invisibly and receives thy confession: therefore, be not ashamed nor afraid, and hide nothing from me; but tell me without hesitation all the things that thou hast done, and so thou wilt have pardon from our Lord Jesus Christ. See, His holy icon is before us; and I am but a witness…”
And in what way do we encounter God in this Sacrament of Repentance? How do we find Him to be? Not as judge as is taught by those Christians who see the sacrament
“judicially and legalistically – that is…confession…a judicial process in which specific sins attract specific penalties….sin X incurs penalty Y, sin A incurs penalty B, and so on… The Sacrament of Absolution is not intended to be a judicial proceeding. It is part of the guided process through which Orthodox Christians seek spiritual growth. It is intended to be pastoral and therapeutic. Simply listing sins – “I lied four times, stole three times, blasphemed twice and felt lust in my heart once….” – is meaningless. It is equally meaningless just to be given a penalty – “Fast for one day, recite five Psalms, and donate $5 to the poor” – and Absolution. What has happened in this process? What help has been given to the person making the confession to develop and grow in their spiritual life? to gain insight into their way of living? Does this mean that I can steal, for example, provided I afterwards pay the penalty? Can I keep that which I stole?” As Orthodox Christians our encounter with God in this holy mystery, this sacrament is not a legal or judicial experience but rather a therapeutic and healing encounter. We come to find God in the sacrament of repentance as coming to a doctor, a surgeon, a physician to make us well, to make us whole, to save us.
But that doesn’t mean this is an easy encounter with God; this is no soft option, no cheap and easy salvation… for in this sacrament we encounter God as Light. We have to drag our sins out into the light, not leaving them to fester within, harming us, destroying us…
“The sinner not only confesses his sins, but he even enumerates them and admits his guilt; for he does not want to conceal his faults. Just as fevers are not able to be assuaged when they break, so too the illness of sins burns on while it is hidden, but disappears when it shows itself in confession.”
“How precious a sacramental gift confession is becomes abundantly clear to those of us who come to the Orthodox Church from non-Orthodox backgrounds. Our “confessions” once consisted of half-formed, lonely muttered prayers, into our pillows… No priest, no guidance, no accountability and no regular reminder to confess was offered to those raised in most Protestant “churches.” We had little opportunity or active regular encouragement to grow, learn or start anew… We were deprived of the wise mercy of the historical Church. We were deprived of cumulative wisdom of two thousand years. Stranded with ourselves…we were bereft of the sacrament of [repentance] that all Christians took for granted for most of the life of the Church… It might have been of us Protestant orphans that St. Mark the Ascetic was speaking when he wrote, “For it is dangerous to isolate oneself completely, relying on one’s own judgment with no one else as witness.”
“…In His mercy Christ established the Church to help us accomplish the hard life-long task of achieving personal sanctity… the Church does not expect us to be holy by our own miserable lonely efforts. The Church teaches us that we cannot expect to grow toward God if we habor unconfessed secret sin. St.Jerome addressed this fact.
“If the Serpent, the Devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not…want to confess his wound…to his Master, then his brother and Master, who have the Word that will cure him, cannot very well assist him. For if the sick man is ashamed to confess his wound to the physician, medicine will not cure that to which it is not applied.”
“As a new convert to Orthodoxy, I found confession embarrassing and frightening. Yet nothing in my spiritual life has been more helpful to me, or has given me more true peace, than regular confession to my spiritual father. What began as a terror is of the greatest comfort to me now, even though I still approach confession with fear and trembling. Moreover, in trying to be accountable to my priest I have taken genuine, if small and incremental steps, away from certain evil behaviours which seemed to beyond hope of change. Being accountable, without excuses, and knowing that I will have to face someone to whom I will have to admit my…failures, has slowly begun to change my behaviour, step by difficult step. In my own life I have begun to discover the truth that St. Ambrose and other Fathers write about – unconfessed sin is unchanged sin…”
But this dragging our sins out into the Light isn’t something most of us find easy; having to actually name our sins, to speak them out in confession – we humans, we sinners never have found it easy. Right back in Genesis “they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And from the Gospels: “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” We don’t like to bring our deeds to the light lest they should be reproved, we prefer, like Adam, to hide ourselves with our sins away from the Light of God. “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him [see how the father was on the look out for his returning son, hoping he would come back], and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” How ready the priest is to hear our confession! Ask any priest, they are more willing to hear confessions than the people are ready and willing to come to confession! I’m just the same – my spiritual father is far more willing to hear my confession than I am to confess. I too suffer with this same reluctance. But to hold back is not the way to be healed, to be saved. Speaking out our sins, naming them, releases them from being only within us; this bringing them into the open, into the light, breaks their power…
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”