Sin


The popular idea that Christianity says “human nature” is inherently bad is actually the opposite of what the earliest Christian theologians believed. This book challenges the popularized negative view by proposing a prophetic alternative grounded in early Greek Christian sources. It draws on the wealth of early theological reflection, the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers, and the heritage of Eastern Christianity to discover what God has made us to be.

Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation (Baker Academic, 2010), 5.

This book arrived several months ago. I have dipped into it, and have wanted to get down to a serious reading of it many times, but let’s just say that other things have intervened. I don’t intend blogging on it in detail, worthwhile though that would be, because such an intention would no doubt simply go the way of all my other good intentions! But I do hope to write more about it at some stage, for it strikes me as a very important book. Sister Nonna is an Orthodox monastic and patristics scholar who has taught in Protestant seminaries, and what she writes here would appear to present a very accessible and also practical introduction to Orthodox Christian anthropology.

The point of this post, however, is to highlight something that she says in the introduction, for this is also something that I keep coming up against and may even at times have said myself without thinking. All too often when we are confronted with the evil around us, and with the bad choices that people make, we hear people say rather resignedly that this is simply “human nature.” Scandals may occur because of greed, but greed is simply “human nature”. Moreover,

The difficulty is that folks today frequently see a Christian understanding of human identity as part of the problem. This is because an oversimplified negative vision of humanity is taken for granted in popular culture, and churches often reflect this negative vision. (3)

The idea that human nature is inherently sinful is of course the opposite of what Christians believe, for “Throughout the ages, Christians have believed that the image of God in which we are created (Gen. 1:26-27) is at the core of who we are and defines us as human.” (5) While sin has buried, wounded and distorted our true nature, it has not destroyed it, for “the image of God remains present in us as a foundation and a potential that awaits our discovery and can transform our lives.” (6)

Although Sister Nonna doesn’t address this in this chapter, I think it would also be worth pointing out that, were our human nature inherently evil, Christ could not have assumed it. Salvation, according to a Christian understanding, is dependent on His taking on our nature and transforming it from within; “What is unassumed is unhealed” in the oft-quoted words of Saint Gregory the Theologian. And we are constantly reminded of this in the words of a prayer by Saint Basil the Great that we pray in preparation for Holy Communion, “with your own blood you refashioned our nature which was corrupted by sin.”

So, when we see evil around us – and, which is more difficult, recognize its roots within us – let us not blame this on “human nature,” but let us rather look at how we may recover the true nobility of our nature which has been tarnished and covered over by sin.

In the fourth chapter of The Compassion of the Father, on “The Prayer of the Heart and Suffering,” Father Boris Bobrinskoy begins by noting that suffering threatens to either destroy us or else to harden us and the only way to avoid this is by turning to Christ. He then continues to address the role of the prayer of the heart in this process.

Human beings are beings of communion, but sin, fear and their consequences have made us strangers to others, to ourselves and to God. Opening ourselves to God involves opening ourselves to those around us and we cannot do that without striving for inner unity. “Prayer of the heart presupposes and signifies this entire mystery of the human heart.” (86)

When we encounter suffering, and especially intense suffering, we run the risk of either self-destruction or of developing a hard shell for protection, or of developing reactions such as sadism and cruelty.

No one is immunized against this. Not one of these dangers is entirely and totally alien to us. All of us, saints as well as sinners, walk along abysses of hatred and evil. (86)

It is in the context of seeking to find the strength to resist such psychic and spiritual destruction, that Father Boris places the importance of the prayer of the heart.

Prayer of the heart, not as a panacea, but as a “master key,” is a tool that has stood the test. What is important is not the “technique” of this prayer, but the deep life of the believer. At the ground level of being and life, Christians faced with suffering find the proper attitude. Living the life of Christ, letting oneself be penetrated by His Spirit, by His breath of mercy, constitutes Christianity. According to the Bible, that means acquiring the bowels of compassion and tenderness of the Father. According to the second chapter of Philippians, it presupposes having the same feelings as Jesus Christ, not in the sense of mimicry or external imitation, but a true “transfer” on a plane more important and fundamental than the psychological level. A transfer of presence, of life center, of grace and love must operate in us so that we might live in Christ, and Christ might live in us. Certainly, this transfer operates in a global, constant, and progressive manner, through the sacramental life, love, prayer, and faith. For us Christians, the Church is the place of apprenticeship of this transfer: its entire pedagogy, its sacramental and liturgical transmission, its spiritual methodology, and its ascetic experience of the inner life, what the Fathers call the unseen warfare against the passions. (87)

According to Scripture and “the most authentic spirituality of the West as well as of the East,” the heart is not simply concerned with affectivity, but is “the preeminent seat of the spiritual life.” (88) It is the place of the presence of God but also of the forces of evil and needs to be purified in order to return to its first vocation. Thus we can see the heart as

the center of convergence and radiation, as the place of unification of all the faculties, feelings, and living forces of the human being: body, soul and spirit.(88)

Prayer of the heart is not only about interiority, but also seeks

to render back to us this unity in which the mind is not alien to this intimacy with God. The entire human being moves in the wake of Christ: the body itself prayerfully reflects in its face the presence and grace of God. The tragedy of sin weighs down our civilizations and causes a dissociation in us on various levels of life: autonomy of the senses becomes sensuality; intelligence becomes rationalism; the heart turns toward sentimentality. This break between the mind and the heart, which reflects the individual as well as society, rebounds on Christian culture and society, on behaviours, on the very life of faith. (89)

Jesus Christ came to restore human unity. The Gospels show Him experiencing intense prayer and also moments of strong emotion in which He was distressed by the suffering He encountered.

Suffering includes not only physical or moral suffering but also this compassion of Jesus and of the saints when faced by those who refuse the light, the truth, goodness, and love – explicitly or implicitly, under avowed or disavowed forms. Our prayer must enlarge to the measure and to the image of Jesus. (90)

This prayer of Jesus was not isolated to particular moments but was a perpetual prayer, a communion, and the key to this communion is the Holy Spirit.

To be continued…

In the second chapter of The Compassion of the Father, Father Boris Bobrinskoy addresses the theme of loving one’s enemies. The work of salvation involves a long, painful pedagogy, for the germ of evil is deeply rooted in the human heart. Nor are the categories of a fallen world enough to protect us from the demands of the Gospel.

The standard concepts of “brother,” “neighbour,” “adversary,” or “enemy” should be reconsidered in the light of the new law. There is no watertight barrier between them, but a passage from the one to the other. From the beginning, the law of sin is spread out over the entire earth like gangrene. It penetrates into the inmost human heart, where it breaks the integrity and inner unity. Man is divided, alienated from himself, from God, from his brothers; he becomes an enemy to himself, of God, of his brothers.

The history of Cain and Abel, like that of Joseph and his brothers, is at the same time decisive and emblematic of all our fraternities, all our natural relations. Ancestral sin, even before the murder of Abel by Cain had already introduced enmity like a universal germ of hostility into human relationships. Friendship and natural love, whether of a parental, fraternal, or conjugal order, sometimes hide hatreds and tenacious resentments behind a smiling face. Let us recall the words of the Lord on the whitewashed graves. They concern not only the Pharisees of His time, but also all of humanity. (69)

Behind the mystery of evil we can discern the profile of the Adversary who personifies hatred. He is the one whom Jesus confronts and overcomes. And it is this personification that allows us to appropriate some of the cruellest texts of the Old Testament.

In their spiritual reading, the Fathers teach us to see in the children of Babylon or the children of Egypt, a symbol of sin, of hatred, of Satan. Thus we try to smash all these offshoots of evil and sin that try to live in us against the Rock, Christ. (70)

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and love for enemies finds its ultimate truth in His prayer for His executioners and it is only in Him that we can find the peace that abolishes the law of retaliation. It is His peace that we need to penetrate in order to become truly peaceful. And we are enabled to do this through His gift of the Holy Spirit.

To the extent that we enter into the mystery of Christ, who died for us when we were all sinners and under the wrath of God, our hearts in our deepest being is transformed. The heart, once inhabited by the forces of darkness and hatred, becomes the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It is no longer I who live – this detestable I – but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). He is the one who lives, who loves, who forgives. He is the one who prays and intercedes. Jesus on the cross makes heavenly intercession, as the one whom the Epistle to the Hebrews and the entire Christian tradition calls “the high priest.” Essentially the risen Christ prays that we might enter into His prayer and forgive. In the breath of the Spirit who sighs in us, “Abba, Father,” He is the one who is poured out in our hearts. This is the gift of Pentecost, the gift of tongues, the anti-Bablel. (71)

If we are attentive to this sighing of the Holy Spirit within us, we will be able to repeat the words of Staretz Saint Siloaun:

The Holy Spirit teaches that one should love one’s enemies so much that one will have compassion on them as one would on one’s own children. The one who does not love his enemies does not have the grace of God. (71-72)

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Christ’s confronting the reality of human sin and suffering in the first chapter of The Compassion of the Father by showing that, for the Fathers and particularly John of Damascus, Jesus took on the blameless or natural passions, banishing sin from them

through the very brazier of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in Jesus. This fire stigmatizes and consumes all temptations, every evil power, and any external evil suggestion. These can never become embedded in the citadel of the human heart of Jesus, the preeminent trinitarian dwelling. (58)

However, this passable condition was not a source of sin for Jesus, for he suffered freely and remained open.

The Incarnation of the Son of God recalls the glorious, even paschal, aspect of His entire life. The light and joy of the Resurrection rebound on His earthly life from the time of the Nativity, even when His divine glory is hidden. He is filled with the power of the Spirit: healings and signs follow one another, compassion is poured out, and demons are chased away. “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Jn 10:18). The Orthodox Liturgy exalts all the moments of Jesus earthly life from His birth, the advent of salvation itself. Even there, the cross and kenōsis are not forgotten or bracketed, but the kenōsis of Jesus, from stage to stage, is never a victory of darkness over light. (59)

When he reaches adulthood, Jesus is sent forth by the Spirit to accomplish the will of the Father, taking the sins of humanity onto Himself.

“He made Him to be sin”: this terse Semitic formulary unhampered by scholastic theological distinctions expresses the mystery of the descent of the Just One into sin, into suffering – the one whom no one could convict of sin (Jn 18:23).

Jesus takes upon Himself the transgressions of the multitude and thereby diverts the anger of God. The Adamic temptations are redone, and Satan unloads them with all his power onto Jesus, who is permeated by the Spirit and the bearer of a divine identity that remains an impenetrable mystery to the spirit of darkness. The temptations in the desert are spectacular, visible moments of the unceasing and permanent combat Jesus wages in our name against the darkness that ebbs and flows, sometimes with forceful outbursts that seem to defy life.” (60-61)

Death is both the consequence and the antidote of sin but we should not isolate any of the images that Scripture uses about redemption. Christ has consumed the infernal roots of sin “and extracted its sting. The seed of justice sprouts in our humanity, which Christ bears…” (61)

Let us not be afraid to speak of the death of Jesus – and of His resurrection – as a sacrifice because the sacrifice is an essential aspect of the love of the Father and the Son. The Father required no sacrifice to appease His wrath – this image of the Father’s wrath is secondary in the Bible. Rather, this is a sacrifice of offering, of descent and then of ascent, in search of the lost sheep. It is a sacrifice of consecration, of the exorcising of human nature corrupted by sin, of the healing of humanity sick through sin, and of the consolation of humanity bewildered in loneliness, far from the sources of living water. Jesus reaches and heals the intimate depths of humanity. This is a sacrifice of reintegration by which all of creation is brought back to the Father. (62)

This work of mercy, healing, compassion and forgiveness is continued in the Church. The Church perpetuates the kenōsis of the Risen One. In the Eucharist we become contemporary to the events of salvation. Our sins tear the garments of the Saviour, but our sufferings always ascend to the throne of God. Sin and suffering retain a residue of “non-sense” and of scandal that we are invited to enter into:

The saints have imitated the unblemished, defenceless Lamb and, like Him, have become vulnerable to love, violent in love, stronger than death. The countless suffering of the living and deceased members of the Church witness to the Lamb. It is in Jesus alone that our suffering also becomes a sacrament; it becomes this to the extent that our hearts and bodies are slowly and painfully purified of the germs of passions – sins that dwell in us and render us resistant to love. (64)

We should, however, be wary of speaking of beneficial suffering or of objectifying the sufferings of others. The challenge is rather to learn to look with compassion which we learn through the apprenticeship of prayer and the apprenticeship of love.

When we follow the path of Jesus, we learn how to offer our own hearts to God. It is then that the heart opens and fortifies itself in the spirit of compassion. The human being is able to be filled with the misery of the world, to carry it on his or her shoulders, and to lay it down before the throne of God. But our hearts are weak and inconstant. Given up to ourselves, we tend to close up, to protect ourselves from suffering – which is always too great – to ignore or forget it. Nonetheless, this same heart is called to love, to compassion, to mercy. It can only respond to this call by merging into the heart of Jesus. That requires, as a precondition, a purification, an exorcising of the evil that is in us, in all forms. The evil in the world can be exorcised and burned only to the extent that the roots of evil which lie in our own hearts are exorcised, banished, and burned, consumed in the face-to-face with Jesus, with His Name, His Cross, and His Spirit. “This type of spirit can be driven out only by praying and by fasting” (Mt 17:22). (66)

The first chapter of The Compassion of the Father is a paper that Father Boris Bobrinskoy presented to the association of Christians for the abolition of torture, and in which he addresses the Christian encounter with human suffering. Here we see the relationship between human suffering and sin, for “To speak of ‘passions’ or ‘sufferings,’ necessitates outlining their evil causes and the roots of sin.” (51)

“Sin is infinitely more than that to which our preaching has reduced it.” (51-52) Referring to the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah, Father Boris continues:

The singular and plural mixed terms. “He took up … our sorrows, our transgressions, our iniquities, the sins of many” represent both a human being and humanity – the one and the multiple Adam – united in solidarity and in a state of deep decay. A personal and collective alienation from God and self creates a state of dreamy illusion, reminiscent of a collective subconscious – an almost sacramental remembrance of primordial sin. (52)

The boundary between sin and punishment becomes blurred and sin itself acts as a merciless tyrant.

Disturbing concepts – the extrinsic punishment of a vengeful God and the notion of a penal and distributive justice – runs throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament, extending to the doorstep of the Gospels and the parables of Jesus. (53)

However,

Job approaches the threshold of a mystery to which Deutero-Isaiah and the Psalms gives greater depth, the mystery of the innocent Just One. Job’s refusal of unjust suffering still resonates in all human sufferings.

In our most elementary and natural awareness, suffering is a nonsense, a scandal at the heart of God’s creation; the humble heart revolts against it. It is an integral part of disorder, of sin, which sickens and enslaves all of humanity. Only by anticipating the mystery of redemption does it finally acquire sacramental, positive, pedagogical, and revealing value, as a sign of the divine love, crucified and victorious. Jesus Christ Himself becomes the living key to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He fulfils and gives meaning to the image of the suffering, poor man in Sheol. (53-54)

Far from being indifferent to this suffering, God is moved by it and takes up Satan’s challenge and

from the first moment of disobedience, when Adam and Eve discover they are naked and flee from the gaze of their Creator, God goes to search for them: “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9). This call of God resonates beyond the boundaries of the primitive Eden; it reverberates throughout the entire history of Israel and of humanity. God goes to search for the lost sheep, and when He has found it, He, full of joy, brings it back on His shoulders to the sheep pen. Upon His return, He gathers friends and neighbours for rejoicing (Lk 15:4-7). Again, we perceive echoes of the heavenly feast.

However, the search for the lost human being is long and hard. The Orthodox Church, at Matins of Holy Saturday, in the wake of St Irenaeus states: “You descended to earth to find Adam, but You did not find him on earth, O Master, and You went to search for him in the Hades” (stanza 25). (55)

Central to our salvation is the identification of God and the human being which involves a double movement of conferring and receiving love. It is the mystery of a divine Love that humbles itself before the creature in order to uplift it to Him.

The entire history of humanity, and therefore of salvation, is a long descent of God into Hell, into the desert, into the barrenness of the human heart. This descent into the abyss befits the magnitude of the love of God. …

The church fathers speak of a threefold kenōsis of the Son of God: becoming human, becoming sin, and dying. These three modalities of descent through the redeeming Incarnation correspond to three places: Bethlehem, the Jordan and Golgotha. A condescending, progressive gift of total love pursues human degeneration to the end. …

The return of humanity to the house of the Father, the ascent after the condescension, will occur in reverse order: death will be vanquished by the death of Christ and its sting pulled out; sin will be destroyed in its very roots, in heart of man, by one man who had not known sin; and humanity will be reconciled, filled with the divine Spirit, by the One who recapitulates in Himself all humans. (57-58)

To be continued…