The Mystery of Sin in the Mystery of Salvation
by Archimandrite Touma (Bitar), Lebanon
This coming Saturday, with God's permission, the thirteenth of November, is the feast of St. John Chrysostom .
He was a good shepherd who was sent by the Good Shepherd. The Lord God provides us with special shepherds so that we may be comforted and strengthened, and so that we may learn. But not always.
However, the true shepherd here in any case remains the Lord Jesus Christ. The one who said he will be with us every day until the end of the ages, He is the same one who is and was and will remain the Shepherd of His flock. Regardless of the identities of the shepherds who guide the flock of Christ, Jesus remains personally the eternal Shepherd who cares for all His flock individually, both through His shepherds and apart from them.
There are shepherds from above who when they watch us, we see the Good Shepherd who is above and here at once. There are also shepherds who are not from above and are not headed upwards, who are chosen by people's passions and behave according to their own passions. Those also guide Christ's flock in His name by His permission, even if they are closer to being hired servants or wolves than shepherds. They obstruct the work of Jesus for a time, but they are unable to derail it. Whatever bad things they do against the work of God, the Good Shepherd will cause them to be for the good of those who seek the face of their Lord, whatever it may be, through ways that we know and through other ways that we do not know. But the question remains: why does the Lord God permit people such as these to govern his sheep and his flock?! Here is precisely where is hidden the mystery of evil harnessed in the service of the mystery of salvation.
The mystery, when looking at salvation, is the way in which the Lord God works, which is beyond human perception. The mystery, when looking at sin, is the way in which the devil works which is achieved secretly, away from human eyes, but is revealed to the eyes of God. Sin would not occur if the Lord God did not permit it, since He is the Master of All, and if He did not put it into the service of salvation, out of regard for the state of humanity after the Fall, by changing it into a remedy, just as serpents' poison is changes into medicine in the hands of skilled physicians.
There is no doubt that the Lord God did not eradicate sin from the world through His death and resurrection. Had He done this, then there would be no end to sin, but rather its eternal recurrence because the source of sin, after Satan, is the human heart and if a heart does not renounce sin, then sin does not leave it, and thus does not leave the world. This is how the Lord God created man: susceptible to sin when he wills to, because there is no value to man's acceptance of God in love if he cannot accept sin if he desires. For this reason salvation is a grace from above, but not without man's acceptance of it, his will and his cooperation. He will either accept the word of salvation and walk in its path by the grace of God so that grace will be active in him and cause him to imitate the example of his Lord, and thus become a god by grace from the God by nature, or sin will leave the man because of the reaction of his heart's will to gentle prodding that deters him through pain, and he repents because he knows the harm of sin, its emptiness and falsehood and ugliness, and out of self-preservation he returns, through God's help, to what is against sin, so that he may not die despairing in his sin. Grace is a support which opens his eyes to the degree that he is disposed and ready for this. Grace also brings about a feeling and vision of his own sin and the swinefulness of his previous way of life. Inward suffering during all this, even if it is after a while, pushes him to purity, humility and repentance and he trembles before his Lord, lowly and in pain. If pain does not deter him, then he only has some moments before death. The ultimate weakness is the final opportunity to prod the heart. The Lord hears a leaping within, or man dies in his sin.
Sin was and still is present and active and it will remain until the Lord sends His angels with a great sound of a trumpet to gather His elect from the four winds and from one end of the heavens to the other (Matthew 24:31). This is why Judas Iscariot was within the circle of the Lord Jesus' disciples. Jesus knew exactly what was within Judas' heart, what he was planning to do, and what he was lacking. Jesus also chose him out of esteem for the freedom which He gave to human nature. Freedom, even if it can bring forth sin can also give birth to precious love. The most precious things always turn on the risk of falling into defilement, otherwise they would not be precious. Judas Iscariot was necessary because if not for him there would be no cross and thus no Resurrection. It is assumed that he would have been an apostle and a shepherd had he accepted to be, and he could have accepted had he desired. Naturally, we want all the shepherds in the Church of Christ at every time and place to be good, but this is not realistic. It is inescapable that there will be corrupt shepherds. However, in a way that they do not wish and do not know, they call down grace upon the flock of God in abundance, since "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Romans 5:20). And so the flock remains secure despite everything. Grace abounds upon grace since it needs a shepherd of souls and bodies. The Lord God does not want us to rely on people. He does not want us to treat good shepherds as idols and to treat the corrupt ones with despair. "Behold the man!" He does not want us to depend on anyone other than Himself. He is active through the sheepliness of man and through the sheepliness of his shepherds, and through their passions and wolfishness as well!
Naturally, the weak stumble. And so the strong must always strengthen them so that the face of the Most High always remains the one thing that is sought. "Be watchful and strengthen what remains" (Revelation 3:2). "When you are converted, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:33). Through patience and humility, through pain and suffering, through the cross joy comes into the world. The Lord comforts souls and strengthens broken backs. They think that delusional, wolf-like shepherds corrupt the Church of Christ and undermined her, but they are unable to do so.
The Lord God allows scandalous shepherds to wreak open corruption in the Church but only for a time and out of His dispensation, since the purpose, on the spiritual level, is the sifting. Why does the Most High permit the devil to cause people to stumble? It is not because he has abandoned His flock. These are the ones for whom He shed His blood! God is jealous of all his flock, of every hair on the head of His beloved ones. He is the Master of All and no one can snatch anything out of His hand (John 10:28), whatever they may think or attempt. He is the one who preserves us and who seizes the clever in their tricks! I need, what evil people believe to have been done for the sake of their passions is without a doubt a means to purify the Church and to make the faithful holy. If Satan did not tempt, then no soul would be saved and if not for unjust shepherds, then the flock would not cling to its first and final true Shepherd.
The Lord God guides us in various ways, through direct care, through consolations when souls are wounded and ulcered, when they do not stand firm in faith. He also guides them in silence and accidental circumstances, so that they will cry out and be patient and stand firm and be purified. His intention is for us to strive in all situations. Likewise, the Lord God guides us by giving us over to shepherds who are like Pharaoh who do us harm and we are ashamed and thirsty and hungry, so we may know that salvation from humans is in vain and so we may orient our hearts upward, placing our hope in the Shepherd of our souls alone. "Everything works together for good for those who love God." "Through your patience your souls are made pure." In any case, we are not left alone. He comes to us at an hour that we are not expecting. The tables will be turned! He will change the situation! "I saw a wicked man strong and haughty like a cedar of Lebanon, then he was struck and he is no longer and he has no place."
The Church of Christ has no fear of those who enter her stealthily and make her into a vehicle for their passions. God will not be mocked! They will lick their own blood and will not pollute the body of Christ, as long as the faithful call upon God with patience, tears, and steadfastness! Times of difficulty are better than times of ease because ease, even if it comforts, always carries the danger of laxity of soul. But difficulty, even if it is painful, makes secure with the Spirit of strength those who rely on their Lord and do not leave Him. The Lord God knows those who are His. And to those who are not His, He sends them a drought because He wants them to be dessicated. "Every seed that is not sown by the Heavenly Father is plucked out." God is demanding. Love is demanding. Faith is demanding! "It is a frightful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God!" He is a jealous God! He asks for every heart and every person. He does not need anything from man. For this reason, he strengthens those who need strengthening, and those who fall behind he subjects to the scourge of sin so that they will cease their slowness ... or cease to exist!!! There must be Babel, and suffering!
However, we do not forsake the Church of Christ during troubles. We bear witness to truth and remain. We are not complacent and we do not give ourselves over equally to fear and despair. If the Church was based on the wisdom of the wise men of this world who govern the Church, then the Church would not remain. Our first and final support is the wisdom of God, which is considered to be folly in the world. He guides us in every situation and His ways are not our ways. It is not important for us to understand. The important thing is to accept. "Into your hands I commend my spirit."
In sum, let no one despair. Satan takes us through despair! However, when his yoke tightens upon us, our salvation through Jesus Christ has come closer! Let none harm their souls by giving them over to fear and despair, sorrow and death and loss of hope. When the noose tightens around you,"look up and lift up your heads; for your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:28)!
The cross is necessary every day so that we may be renewed. But our Lord sends us consolations in their time, so that we will not despair. However, we do not grow through consolations, but through the cross! Without the cross, every new thing becomes stagnant and then rotten. There must be pain and suffering for purification and cleansing. This bears fruit in joy. "Put your mind in hell, but despair not." God is glorified in His economy of salvation!
Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of St. Silouan the Athonite,
November 7, 2010
(The following was translated by Samn! and posted on http://araborthodoxy.blogspot.com on November 9,2010.
You can read more of Fr. Touma's writings there.)