Spiritual life is full of paradoxes. Thus, an individual doesn’t notice his sins before he turns to God. He can’t even imagine that he has to confess anything at all. As soon as the individual turns to God, he immediately finds out that he is a sinner. Before we turn to God, the only thing that we can see is our false righteousness. When we encounter God, we begin to acknowledge our sinfulness and powerlessness. Apparently, our image of self is very distorted until God sheds his light into our souls.
Self-righteousness makes you blind, while repentance makes you see. We move forward only when we finally begin to feel and realize how weak and unstable we are without God. The paradox here lies in the fact that a soul that acknowledges that she is lost, will be saved, whilst the soul that regards herself saved, will perish.
Using visible signs to evaluate your spiritual progress is a mistake. It will lead us to notice our so-called achievements everywhere. We will begin to count how much good we have done: we gave money to a beggar, we helped an old lady to cross the street, we don’t swear for a long time already, we don’t drink too much booze, we don’t smoke, we don’t fight with anybody. Don’t we deserve the Paradise? This kind of statistical thinking makes you arrogant, and arrogance in turn leads to failure.
Take, for example, a young man who decided to quit smoking. He stopped smoking on the first day of the Great Lent — amazing, isn’t it? After that, he glued a cigarette to the door of his toilet, where he had used to smoke, and wrote “I DID IT” in big letters. He intended it to remind him that he had summoned enough willpower to defeat his weakness, and that he wasn’t attached to cigarettes any longer. However, two years later he ran into some trouble and started smoking a lot again. That is what “I did it” means; that’s what your reliance on your own strength means. That is why the path to perfection in the Gospel starts with the commandment “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Our spiritual achievement are possible only thanks to God’s power. We shouldn’t rely on ourselves.
You shouldn’t measure your spiritual advancement by counting the good actions that you do. You should detect your own previously overlooked shortcomings and work on eliminating them. Just take a look inside yourself and see what happens in your heart when you are blamed and scolded unjustly, when they prefer another person to you — and you’ll see how Christian you really are.
There is a story about Abba Anthony in the Book of Memorable Stories. Some monks told Abba Anthony about a wonderful ascetic. When the said monk came to Abba Anthony, the latter decided to test whether the monk could be able to put up with an insult, and he couldn’t. Abba Anthony told him, “You’re like a village that looks great from the outside but is devastated by robbers inside.” Likewise, we sometimes appear to be decent but are torn apart with passions, anger, and the search for our own “truth” inside.
If I lose my temper when someone pulls a joke on me or criticizes me, it means that I haven’t made any spiritual progress. If someone’s words are capable of taking my composure away, where is my spiritual maturity and stability?
We make spiritual progress only when the negative impact from other people, their reproaches, annoyance, or resentment don’t quench our love towards them. When our souls love so much that no one in the world can hurt it. When we are happy with someone else’s success and forget about our own — these are the first indications of our spiritual growth. However, it is achievable only if we pursue God and repent of our spiritual flaws sincerely.
To that extent, your confession must not consist of a formal enumeration of your imperfections, which are common for all of us. You should confess your own spiritual issues, the painful memories of your life that you have a hard time struggling with. Have a closer look at what you keep stumbling over and what you may even be ashamed to admit: that’s what you should confess to make sure that you move forward in your life.
May the Lord help us not to stumble on the road of our spiritual life.
By Fr. Valery Dukhanin
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds