I struggle with sin, and with the effects of sin. Guilt and shame follow close on the heels of my transgressions, sometimes instantly. Regret is a lingering scar from past sins. Though I may repent, I soon fall back into the same sin.
My Protestant upbringing taught me to see sin as a grievous offense against God. I have spent Sundays crying in my pew, or kneeling at the altar, contrite and ridden with guilt. I’d beg forgiveness, then attempt to ‘leave it on the altar’ and return to my seat with my sins forgiven. My crying and remorse was equal to the level of guilt I felt, and the relief I experienced.
Walking around with the heaviness of guilt is not how we were meant to live, and not how God wants us to deal with sin. Guilt may be a warning sign that we have sin in our lives, but it should not be an ever-present accuser.
The Orthodox understanding of sin is one of “missing the mark.” The Greek word for sin – amartia – means literally that. When we sin, we are coming up short in our attempts to live in communion with Christ. When we sin, we are called to confess our sins, to ask God’s mercy, and to continue to strive to walk in communion with Christ.
Torturing ourselves with guilt often takes the place of confession and repentance. Instead of God’s mercy, we fear God’s judgement. We confuse our actions with who we are. But this is not true. We are not our sins.
Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance. – St. John Chrystotom
I was reading about the Orthodox concept of sin this morning, and preparing to write this post. At my icon corner I prayed and asked God’s forgiveness for my sins. I was feeling a release from guilt and contemplating God’s mercy.
The fight with my daughter undid all of it.
She was disagreeable. I was angry. Our endless battle of wills flared up again, and we were at an impasse almost instantly.
I continued getting dressed for work, and talked to my wife about all of this. I ranted about how tired I was of our daughter’s attitude and how rude she was, even admitting to wanting to leave her to her own devices, and stop even trying to teach her.
As my anger subsided, I heard how I sounded. How could I ask God’s mercy and then be so merciless? How can I show anger and hatred and then expect only love? Can I ask forgiveness without forgiving?
I made an effort to mend fences just enough to get her out the door to school, and climbed into my car for a long commute to work. A long drive lay ahead of me, and I had time to think about the mercy I have to be shown on a daily basis.
I said the Jesus Prayer a lot today. I needed mercy, and a lot of it. Also, I needed a strong reminder to show mercy.
My daughter and I went out to her favorite restaurant for dinner, and I tried to set a good tone. She was guarded at first, but warmed up eventually. We shared a milkshake and laughed and joked on the way home. I think we were both relieved to be on good terms.
I’d love to say we will never butt heads again, but I know it’s not true. We will both miss the mark, and have to make amends once again. We’ll keep showing each other mercy.
Learning to be merciful is an essential part of obtaining mercy. God is continuing to teach me this every day. I pray I will not always be such a stubborn student.
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