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This article and its second part were published in LAUS PERENNIS, monthly publication of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Belfast, June and July 2002.


On The Nature of Sin, Part One


All over Northern Ireland ­ on notice boards outside churches, on posters on the walls, or even scrawled directly onto the walls as graffiti ­ we find the words: 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.' (1 Tim 1, 15)

This is a great truth, and the society which is interested in that truth to the extent of everywhere wanting to proclaim it is, to that extent at least, blessed. It is the whole problematic of Christianity.

Christians believe that God, Framer and Governor of the Universe, united Himself to human flesh, suffered persecution, allowed Himself to be crucified, descended into Hell, then rose gloriously on the third day. But why should God have done all this unless something was seriously wrong, unless there was a problem? And what word do we have for this problem other than the word 'sin'?

The enormity of the central Christian idea ­ the union of God and Man in the person of Christ ­ is a measure of the enormity of the problem, the seriousness of sin. And yet, even among many who believe themselves to be Christians, sin is becoming an unfashionable idea. It is difficult to focus our minds on it. President Bush, astonished at the depths of hatred revealed in the September 11th attack on New York, said 'We know we are good people.' A strange thing for a Christian to say and yet we all, one way or another, say it, or think it. We find it very difficult to think of ourselves, or of those who surround us, our friends and relatives, as being very sinful. We reproach the recent Christian tradition ­ Protestant and Catholic ­ with a tendency to unhealthy, morbid self hatred. One of the great themes of much modern popular psychology is that we should learn to like ourselves.

I am not arguing with that, nor am I arguing with the view that there has been, and can always be, something unhealthy about some of the ways in which Christians have approached the problem. Yet the problem itself is inescapable. Sin ­ the need to confront it, to combat it, to overcome it ­ is the whole raison d'être ­ of the Christian religion; and it is something so all-pervasive, so deeply rooted, that we cannot overcome it by our own efforts. We need the direct, personal help of Christ; and of the Church of Christ, understood not as an institution with various prescribed practises and personnel, but as the Body of Christ on earth, so that participation in the Church is a real participation in the Body of Christ.

What, then, is this sin that is so all-pervasive, so deeply-rooted? It is our separation from God. More precisely, is is the cause of our separation from God. It is explained in the Book of Genesis. Man was created to live in communion with God. But man turned away from God and chose to live on his own strength. A rupture occurred. We lost Paradise, the place where we lived in communion with God, where we could meet with God, walking in the cool of the evening.

How do we know that this is true? Not because it is written in a book, but because it is written in our hearts. All the major religions ­ not just the Christian traditions ­ tell of it, are full of it, the longing for Paradise, for Eternal Life, which is not just endless life, but fullness of life. All human culture, one way or another, speaks of it. Even profoundly anti-Christian manifestations of human culture such as the Communist movement speak of it in their longing for a Paradise on Earth, free of the effects of sin.

But here, immediately, we touch on a difference between the Orthodox tradition and what, because it includes both Roman Catholics and Protestants, we might call 'the Western tradition.' Both speak of the loss of Paradise, and both speak of Paradise as a state of communion with God. But in the Western tradition, the rupture comes about because of God's immeasurable anger against the disobedience of Adam. It is an act of Justice, and much ingenuity has been devoted to explaining why we are all alike guilty of Adam's sin and therefore punished for it, justly.

The Orthodox Church too talks about the Wrath of God, but we understand it differently ­ as an image to express, not a feeling of anger experienced by God (the thought is absurd), but a state of illness experienced by us. Sin is a disease which has spread throughout the world. The symptoms of this disease are the passions ­ the eight vices. The passions cannot enter into union with God. 'Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.' The pure in heart are those whose hearts are free from the passions. When the passions approach the Light of God, they (and we with them) experience it as fire. That is the Wrath of God.

The passions are, broadly, what are known in the West as the seven Deadly Sins ­ gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sloth, envy, pride. The eighth is despair, or despondency and it is to be taken every bit as seriously as the others. The great nineteenth century philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, has written a book about it (The Sickness unto Death). The mere fact that we give ourselves up to the other passions indicates despair at the possibility of Union with God.

And we do give ourselves up to them. Surely we can recognise in them a sort of route map of the soul. Our lives often seem to be little more than a passage from one to the other, and we surround ourselves with objects that evoke one or the other ­ the smallest acquaintance with television commercials is enough to make the point. Of course most of us are, most of the time, able to control our passions. Our anger does not turn to murder; our lust does not turn to rape; our gluttony does not turn to theft. At least, so it seems, though there is more to be said about this. And so we do not think it is such a terrible problem. But that is not what Jesus teaches:

'You have heard that it as said to the men of old, You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, "You fool!" shall be liable to the hell of fire ...' Mat. 5, 21-2

'You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart ...' Mat 5, 27-8

The point here is not that we are culpable and deserving of God's anger because of these unexpressed, festering passions (though, for what it is worth, we are culpable, and we would be deserving of God's anger if the passion of anger was an attribute of God ...); the point is, rather, that we are diseased. We are ill, and like anyone who is ill, this means we are incapable of certain things which, under other conditions, would be natural to us. Perhaps a person with a serious physical disability cannot walk, cannot concentrate on his or her work, cannot have children. But those who are afflicted with this particular serious spiritual disability cannot attain to Eternal Life, cannot enter into communion with God, the source of everything on Earth that is good, noble, beautiful.

So what must we do to be saved? Many Protestants will insist that there is nothing to be done, we must throw ourselves unconditionally upon the mercy of Christ. The Orthodox position is perhaps slightly less uncompromising, but only slightly; and our position is certainly not easier than the Protestant position. There is a job to be done. We must purify our hearts. We must overcome the passions. We must come to Communion with God. By our own unaided efforts it is impossible. But here is the miracle. Through Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the absolute Unity of God and Man, God has assumed human nature and thus opened Himself to us in a way that is beyond all imagining, beyond all philosophical speculation, unthinkable. Because in Christ human nature has triumphed over death (the Resurrection) and been taken into the fullness of God (the Ascension), we have a path to follow. We can go from the old humanity, Adam, diseased with the passions, to the new Humanity in Christ. We can participate, on Earth, in the very Humanity, the very Body of Christ, which is the Church, which is the restoration of Paradise. And this gives us the possibility, and the incentive, to wage war on the passions, a war that is, necessarily, a life long struggle - a struggle in which we progress, not by becoming free of sin but, on the contrary, a struggle in which we become ever more conscious of just how deeply rooted within us sin is. When the greatest of the Saints declare, as they often do, following St Paul, that they are the greatest of sinners, they mean it. Would that not be enough to plunge us into despair? If we did not already have, through the Church, through the presence of God on Earth, in a form adapted to our humanity, the experience - the real experience - of communion with God and therefore an assurance that eternal communion, a full union of our inmost being with the Being of God, is possible?

Is possible. Is already, to some extent, tasted. But not certain. There is no easy assurance of salvation. We can fail. The greatest of spiritual exploits can turn, so easily, to the dust and ashes of spiritual pride. Nothing is to be taken for granted. Complacency is the utter enemy of the Christian spirit, humility the greatest and most difficult of Christian virtues. We always require help. And we require the help of the whole body of the Church, both the living and the 'dead'. The difficulty of the struggle is proclaimed in the lives of those who gave up their whole lives to it ­ the Saints, usually (though by no means always) monks and hermits. Who withdraw from 'the world'. 'The world' will be the subject of the next of these articles.


Go to Part 2