For many people in our culture, the idea of private confession is neither attractive nor comforting. We prefer “to put our best foot forward,” and make the best impression on others. Everyone is aware that everyone has faults. Those who have grown up Protestant may have been frequently reminded, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In the polite Southern Protestant culture in which I grew up, it was also made clear that gentlemen did not discuss those shortfalls despite the fact that their presence was universally true.
Everyone quickly acknowledged that “all have sinned” – it was the specifics that were avoided. And so it is that most can easily acknowledge that they have sinned generally – it is the particulars that we find embarrasing and hard to discuss.
Churches that practice private confession within our culture notice that confession is the sacrament most avoided. People rarely stand in line or rush to their priest. And upon reaching the priest, people frequently rush to describe their general sins and avoid the particulars. One of my closest and most beloved Archpastors once told me, “I still hate going to confession.”
The Church frequently contrasts the prayer of the Publican and the prayer of the Pharisee in the parable told by Christ (Luke 18). The Pharisee goes to the temple, offering his prayer to God. In the course of his prayer he thanks God that he is not like other men (sinners). He tithes, he fasts, he keeps the Law. The publican (a tax-collector and seen as a traitor to Israel) goes to the temple but avoids even lifting his face towards God. He smites himself on the chest and exclaims, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the Publican whom Christ says goes home justified before God: “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luk 18:14).
There is no discussion of the legal merits of either prayer or either man: everything depends upon the state of the heart of the one who prays. The same is true of confession and of the whole of the Orthodox life. There are no measures of achievement – no rules which once kept render us safe and secure. In this life the heart always rests on the line between paradise and hades and rests nowhere else.
In many Protestant models of the Christian faith, it is paramount to render the question of paradise and hades as moot. We perform certain actions, or accept certain ideas, and all is settled. We are forgiven, our place in heaven is secure. Orthodoxy can be unnerving in this regard – it recognizes the on-going and dynamic state of the line between paradise and hades and the movements of the human heart. The stability within Orthodoxy is found in the state of continual repentance. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
Of course abiding in a state of continual repentance runs deeply counter to those habits formed within a legal or forensic context. We would like the matter to have been settled once and for all and never discussed again. We would like God to abide by the rules of polite Southern culture. A gentleman would never discuss such things more often than necessary.
But God is not presented to us as a gentleman, nor is the problem of our sin presented to us as a series of legal problems to be rectified by a pronouncement of “forgiven!” Rather, God is presented to us as the “Great Physician” and we are told that we suffer from a mortal wound or disease. The doctor, having diagnosed us, would be derelict in his duties were he never to mention our mortal wound ever again for fear of scandalizing the mores of a dissolute but polite culture.
For the wound we bear is nothing other than a hard and unrepenting heart. The sickness that infects us is pernicious – for its very character is that it hates and resists both its diagnosis and its cure.
And so the Publican and his prayer become the model for healthy Christian living. We do not repent one time – we repent all the time. Repentance is not a discussion with God over the legal status of our sins – it is a discussion with the Great Physician over the “medical” status of a heart that is hard and far from contrite. Repentance is another word for living with a broken and contrite heart.
I have sometimes counseled parishioners that they should “learn to pray like a Publican.” It is not unusual in the Christian life to fail. We fail at prayer. We fail in our sins. We fail in our well-intentioned and sworn obligations. The most common reaction to such failures is not making another effort, but giving up all together. Our pride overcomes us. If I cannot pray as I have sworn I would, then I will not pray at all. This, of course, is simply a delusion sent us by the enemy. We want to pray like a Pharisee – to pray with a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. We have been taught to hate the feeling of contrition, and to despise a broken heart. The so-called “middle class” in our cultures embraces a middle class standard of virtue. No one is really good, but no one is really all that bad (or so we think). Mediocrity is the perfect standard – for its measure is those around me – and thus I easily engage in judging others and compare my life to theirs. We trust that there is safety in numbers.
Scripture tells us that our measure is the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). To make anything or anyone else our standard of measure is, at best, blasphemous. It is an agreement to be less than human, much less the divine union with Christ into which we have been called. It reduces Christianity to mere religion, and a mediocre religion at that.
The full measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness is found only in following the path which Christ Himself has set for us: the self-emptying way of the Cross. This too, is nothing other than the daily and continual path of repentance. Christ accepted His humiliation as though it were just – as though it belonged to Him. He neither sought to defend or justify Himself. “Like a sheep led to the slaughter or a blameless lamb before its shearers is mute so he opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ “emptied Himself” according to St. Paul. He went to the Cross with a “broken and contrite heart.”
This way of the Cross is the way of repentance and is normative for daily life in Christ. All theories which seek to set this “mind” aside and replace it with rationalized atonement theories, is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and the fathers and the way of salvation as taught us in Christ.
We learn to “pray like a Publican,” for like him, we learn to be meek and lowly of heart. We learn to accept our brokenness, not as a problem to be solved or overlooked, but a state of heart to be embraced and from which to seek God.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.
And thus it is that publicans and sinners will enter the kingdom of God before many who thought themselves righteous. Pray to be found among the publicans and sinners on that great day.