“Abba Abraham told of a man of Scetis who was a scribe and did not eat bread. A brother came to beg him to copy a book. The old man whose spirit was engaged in contemplation, wrote, omitting some phrases and with no punctuation. The brother, taking the book and wishing to punctuate it, noticed that words were missing. So he said to the old man, ‘Abba, there are some phrases missing.’ The old man said to him, ‘Go, and practice first that which is written, then come back and I will write the rest.’” – Sayings of the Desert Fathers
When I was a young Christian, I was excited to have been released from my sins and sure that with study and prayer, I would grow and mature. I trust that has happened. However, what I did not expect was that I would now see myself as more sinful than I saw myself when I first returned to the Lord. How is this possible? How could this be?
The answer is found in the Desert Father story quoted in the first paragraph. When the Lord first reaches out to us, he shows us only enough about ourselves to encourage us to run into his waiting arms. That is, we are given an insight into ourselves that omits “some phrases and with no punctuation.” Were he to really show us exactly how we are, we might run away in despair that we could ever be loved by God and could ever be saved.
Let me give you an analogy from this world. I have some friends who are psychologists. When a person first goes to a psychologist, there is an initial interview during which the psychologist uses to reach a preliminary diagnosis and a preliminary treatment plan with goals that he or she wants to help his or her patient accomplish. Now, it is true that God does not need an interview and he already knows what the treatment plan for you will be. However, both the psychologist and God need to work slowly with you to peel the layers of trauma or sin. This is so that you might understand yourself better in order to go through the process of healing. In the case of the psychologist, it is healing from trauma. In the case of God, it is healing from the effects of sin and trauma to change more and more into the likeness of his Son. Should they work too quickly with you, you would become discouraged at the massive inventory of sins and behaviors which you need to change. This might very well lead to your giving up and turning away from being healed.
To prevent our turning away, God only lets us see the truth about ourselves little by little. This is the experience of monks. The longer that they are in the monastery, the more horrified they become about how they truly are. For us non-monks, the Lord often uses the rubs that we have in life to show us what is truly inside of us. For those of us who are married, we find that part of the reason that marriage is called a sacrament must certainly be because the only way in which we are going to have a long marriage with children who bless our name is as we accept God’s grace so that we may truly change into being a good husband or wife, a good father or mother. Should we remain spiritually and behaviorally where we were on the day we were married, we will not have a long marriage. Marriage reveals not only joy but also fills in some of those missing pages and punctuations of which Abba Abraham wrote.
So, here is the irony. As we grow in the Lord (or as we go through the psychologist’s inventory of what needs to be changed), we are slowly shown worse and worse things about ourselves, so that we might work on changing them. This means that the more I grow, the less I like what I see. However, because I have grown, I do not give up nor do I despair often. But do you now understand why one Desert Father commented, “Truly, my child, if I were allowed to see my sins, three or four men would not be enough to weep for them?”
God has given you a partial understanding of your life. There are pages missing and punctuation that should be there. But, in his mercy, more will not be revealed until you are capable of handling what he needs to show you. Yet, this should call you to persevere in growing in the Christian life and in the likeness of Our Master Jesus Christ. But I must admit, it is not pleasant for me to see myself as more sinful than I expected. Such is the price of growth into his image.