Posted by: Shawn Ragan | July 6, 2008

The Great Mercy of God

I have started about 4-5 posts, but have not completed any of them yet.  I was just in washing dishes from breakfast this morning, listening to Ancient Faith Radio (click the link to the right and check it out!) and one of the Spiritual Psalms of St. Ephraim the Syrian was read.  These psalms always convict me and spiritually move me.

I have had several people ask, as I have journeyed into Orthodoxy, about this apparent focus on sinfulness that they see.  “Why focus on that?” they ask.  Or “What about the joy?” they comment, not always seeing it.

I have to admit, as I began my journey towards the historic Christian Faith, I, too, often felt overwhelmed by my own sinfulness, and what seemed like a tremendous focus on it.  As I have journeyed further, though, I have seen that this is not the case.  And, once again, as I sought the Church out and her answers, these things came into proper perspective and understanding.

As I listened to the words of St. Ephraim today, I was once again reminded of this truth.  The focus of the Church is not on how terrible we are, but rather how good God is.  Many in today’s culture do not want to think about their own sinfulness…they do not want to consider their wrongs.  A simple general confession “Of course, I am a sinner” and that is often enough.  Ancient Christian ideas, like confession, are not only absent in most modern churches, they are looked down upon.  The thought of having to honestly look at our own sin, our own wretchedness, and to begin to see how deep it truly is, is at odds with the modern feel-good religion of today.  The problem is, when the view of our sinfulness and wretchedness is shallow and superficial, our view of salvation and God’s mercy is equally shallow and superficial.

Our Lord teaches about this many times throughout His ministry, as He teaches His disciples what it means to forgive and about the great mercy and forgiveness of our God.  The mercy of God is truly great – it is truly awesome and beyond compare.  But, I believe, our understanding of that great mercy is directly tied to our understanding of our own sinfulness.

I do not believe the Church brings us to focus on our own sins in order that we might be driven into despair or despondency.  In fact, I believe that despair and despondency is from Satan and equally sinful.  We see these things, and deal with these things, in order that we might truly repent and turn away from our self-centeredness and towards God.  There are things in my life I wish I had not done.  Those things often stay in my mind – not as a self-torture, but rather they remind me of how sin hurts and destroys.  These memories help me to endeavor not to repeat them.  But even more than that – in seeing my own wretchedness, which God has only begun to show me, I see something even greater – something that causes my heart to cry out and my soul to sing – the Great Mercy of our God.

There is a slippery slope in the Christian walk.  To one side is the denial of our own sinfulness – where we do not really see ourselves as sinners (most Christians theoretically see themselves that way, but without confronting your own sinfulness, it often remains ethereal and intellectual rather than real) – where we do not deal with the sins, but deny them.  This side of the slope is pride, and is in truth a denial of who one really is.  It is a denial of self.

The other side of the slope is to dwell and live in our sinfulness – to fall into hopelessness, despondency, and despair.  I have heard that when one begins to truly see their sinfulness, Satan can try to overpower them with how sinful they are just to lead them into this despondency.  The end of this can even be things like suicide.  This side of the slope, this hopelessness, it is not the narrow Christian path, and is in truth a denial of God’s mercy and love.  It is a denial of God.

That narrow way is Truth.  It is the honest look at our own wretchedness – our own sinfulness – in a real way.  It is beginning to see just how sinful we are – and the truth is, most of us will never see that truth in its entirety – most of us, myself included, could not bear it.  But that truth is only truth when it lives and exists in the light of God.  When I begin to see the greatness of my own sin, then another reality also comes into play – this great mercy of God.  His mercy is greater than my sin.  His goodness is greater than my evil.  This is what St. Paul professes in his epistle to the Romans:

O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!

As we grow in our knowledge of one, we also grow in our knowledge of the other.  When I hear things, like the Spiritual Psalms of St. Ephraim, I do not only hear how wretched I am, I hear something much greater – much more significant – much more lasting – how great our God is.  True mercy can only exist where there is true sin.

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