I used to think that the Cross of Christ was just something upon which we hung our sins so that we wouldn’t have to suffer for them later. In point of fact, it also defines much of our suffering now. Some of our suffering is spiritual which, from a Christian point of view, is the source of so much else. How can I define spiritual suffering? Well, Jesus said that cross should define our lifestyle. This lifestyle is summed up by three commands: deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him. Now, we love the Lord and want to be true to our Master, but how can we live such a life? Because we love Him, we try our best to be faithful. We want His life to become our life, but we fail so miserably and this makes us suffer in our hearts and even in our bodies. This pain can increase when we look around in Church and see the many Saints who did not fail Him, and their witness can cause us shame. We want to follow Him, but the heart is divided between faithfulness and pursuing our own pleasures, dreams, and ambitions. After so many failures, surely God wants little to do with me. Maybe I should sit in the corner, face the wall, and wear the dunce cap.
I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for over 20 years, and before that a Protestant Christian for over 30 years. How am I doing in realizing “the Cross-Life?”
Hmmm…NOT TOO GOOD.
Certainly, in my life, many things have changed for the better. Some changed by struggle, others changed because it was forced upon me by tragedy or circumstance. However, I must admit that there are some passions, some sins, that have remained with me to this very day. I have prayed, fasted, repented and cried over them, but they remain nonetheless. What hope is there for me? If I cannot have victory over them in this life, what is to happen in the next life? Is such despair appropriate for Orthodox Christians?
Here is an answer:
“So often we ask ourselves and one another a very tormenting question: How can I deal with my sinful condition? What can I do? I cannot avoid committing sins, Christ alone is sinless. I cannot, for lack of determination, or courage, or ability truly repent when I do commit a sin, or in general, of my sinful condition. What is left to me? I am tormented, I fight like one drowning, and I see no solution.
And there is a word which was spoken once by a Russian staretz, one of the last elders of Optina. He said to a visitor of his: No one can live without sin, few know how to repent in such a way that their sins are washed as white as fleece. But there is one thing which we all can do: when we can neither avoid sin, nor repent truly, we can then bear the burden of sin, bear it patiently, bear it with pain, bear it without doing anything to avoid the pain and the agony of it, bear it as one would bear a cross, — not Christ’s cross, not the cross of true discipleship, but the cross of the thief who was crucified next to Him. Didn’t the thief say to his companion who was blaspheming the Lord: We are enduring because we have committed crimes; He endures sinlessly… And it is to him, because he had accepted the punishment, the pain, the agony, the consequences indeed of evil he had committed, of being the man he was, that Christ said, ‘Thou shalt be with Me today in Paradise…’
I remember the life of one of the divines, the story of one who had come to him and have said that he had led all his life a life that was evil, impure, unworthy both of God and of himself; and then he had repented, he has rejected all evil he had done; and yet, he was in the power of the same evil. And the divine said to him: There was a time when you lapped up all this filth with delight; now you perceive it as filth and you feel that you are drowning in it with horror, with disgust. Take this to be your reward for your past, and endure…
This is something which all of us can do: to endure the consequences, to endure the enslavement which is ours patiently, humbly, with a broken heart; not with indifference, not with a sense that as we are abandoned to it by God, then, why not sin? But taking it as a healing perception of what sin is, of what it does to us, of the horror of it. And if we patiently endure, a day will come when our inner rejection of sin will bear fruit, and freedom will be given us.
So, if we can, in all the ways we can, let us avoid sin in all its forms, even those sins which seem to be so unimportant, because the slightest crack in a dam sooner or later leads to its bursting. If we can — let us truly repent, that is turn away from our past in a heroic, determined act; but if we can do neither of them — let us carry humbly and patiently all the pain and all the consequences. And this will also be accounted one day by the Lord Who in a folkloric life of Moses, in response to His angels saying, ‘How long shall you endure their sins’ — the sins of the Jews in the wilderness, answered: ‘I will reject them when the measure of their sins will exceed the measure of their suffering’.
Let us therefore accept the pain as a redeeming pain, even if we cannot offer it as pain pure of stain. Amen.” Met. Anthony Sourozh.
What a remarkable passage. It gives a poor old sinner like me great hope because it demonstrates the deeper meaning of the Cross. Even if the sin persists and causes me pain, that pain is transformed by the Cross. It shows me of the unfathomable depths of God’s mercy and patience. It is to this mercy and patience that I must place my trust.
Sin may be persistent, but I will not grow comfortable with it nor excuse myself. Such sin is very painful, but I will not accept it as inevitable. I may fail, even 490 times a day, yet God will forgive me 70 times 7. Because of God’s mercy, I have a goal and I have never given up on it. What is the goal? St. Paul described it. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2.20)
This is my hope.