Persistently struggling with our sins, man changes his evil disposition to good with the help of God’s grace. Great Lent facilitates this spiritual activity.
The primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church gives practical recommendations for how to defeat the sinful inclinations of the soul.
Preparing for Confession
—Your Beatitude, the time of Great Lent is a time of repentance and spiritual purification. What is most important for Christians in this spiritual activity?
—Our Lord Jesus Christ came to earth to call us to repentance (Mt. 4:17), to a change of life, and to leading it in accordance with the Commandments of God. A Christian brings repentance for sins committed to the Sacrament of Confession, to the presence of the priest, who has the authority from God to bind and loose a man’s sins (cf. Mt. 18:18).
But, before going to Confession, a Christian must prepare his soul by fasting, going to church, and by attentive self-critical analysis of his life and his actions. And, of course, before Confession a Christian should ask forgiveness from those who he in some way grieved or offended.
Restrain yourself from past sins
—When can repentance be considered accomplished?
—When, after Confession, a man feels a sense of peace and the desire not to return to his former sins. This is a sign that the Lord has received our repentance. It is very important that we continue to restrain ourselves from past sins.
If you fell—get up!
—And what to do when a person regrets committing a sin, repents of it in Confession, but does not have sufficient strength to overcome it and later again commits this sin that was confessed?
—Do not despair. As many times as a man falls, he must get up by means of the Sacrament of Confession and again resolutely battle with his sin with all his strength. As a result of such spiritual battle, there will certainly come a time when a man, by the help of God, will defeat his sin. An oft-repeated sin is a “bleeding wound” on the soul of a man. The grace of the Sacrament of Confession is a spiritual bandage, helping to cure and heal the soul from sin.
Listen to criticism coming our way
—But of course it often enough happens that someone cannot see his own sins, and doesn’t know what to repent of…
—Such a condition of the soul comes from a man’s falling away from God, his immersion in vain activities, and excessive interest in worldly cares. The closer to God, the Source of Light, the more we will see the sinful spots in our souls.
Therefore, when the heart is spiritually stale, we must reevaluate our lives and renounce that which disrupts our path to God. We must intensify our prayer. We should also pay attention to the criticisms of our enemies: sometimes their accusations help us to see our sinful sores which we previously had not noticed.
Free your soul from dependence on the devil
—Sin is evil, so why does it have such attraction and power over men?
—Sin is a “parasite” on the good and essential necessities of human nature: gluttony on the natural need for food, anger on the necessity of rejection and denial of evil, and so on.
Thus, sin is, in essence, a deformation of the natural powers of human nature. It is a sickness of the human soul, which darkens the human mind, poisons his senses and afflicts his will.
The God-given harmony of man’s spiritual and bodily powers is disrupted as a result of this sickness. Sin removes a man from God and darkness his understanding of what is good and what is evil.
Poisoned by sin, the powers of the soul are attracted by evil and fall under the sway of the devil. Man, committing sin, is a slave of sin. This slavish dependence on sin and the devil perceives the diseased powers of the soul as some kind of allure and sweetness of sin.
Delighting in sin, man feels in the depths of his soul that by his sin he destroys and annihilates himself, and blessed is the man who can compel himself to courageously arise and repent and lay a new beginning of patiently battling against the power of sin.
Finding the determination to get up and walk away from sin
—How should we begin to battle with sin?
—To fight with the passions a Christian must have the determination to get up and walk away from sin. This is done with the help of fasting and prayer. Resolve gives people the necessary push, and fasting and prayer help them continue their journey from the land of sin to their Father’s house. But first there must be determination. You can study the Holy Scriptures and the words of the holy fathers, but without the resolve to live strictly according to the commandments of God, the benefits of such spiritual knowledge will be few.
A Christian, having resolved to wage war against his sins, must cultivate within himself a sense of repentance and humility. The Lord Jesus Christ says, Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out (Jn. 6:37). We can draw nearer to God only with a repentant and humble disposition of soul. Then He receives us and helps us achieve victory over sin.
It is also important to remember that sin arises in the thoughts of man. Therefore, a Christian must teach himself to distinguish good thoughts from evil. Having learned to distinguish sinful thoughts, we must renounce them and repel them through humble, repentant prayer. We must also learn to preserve our tongues from obscene words, as well as sight, and the feeling of touch and hearing, through which sinful images and desires so often enter a man’s soul.
Persistently battling with your sins, with the help of Divine grace, man changes his evil disposition and acquires a good inner spiritual constitution. Great Lent facilitates this spiritual endeavor.
Remember: Sin not repented of stands between man and God
—What can you say to someone who is slow to approach the Sacrament of Repentance, although he says he understands the necessity of it?
—People are slow to repent either from unwillingness or timidity to change their whole lives now and give up sin. We must try to convey to the conscious of such a man that sin is a path to self-destruction, to eternal death. If today there is still time and the possibility of repenting and changing and correcting everything, tomorrow there may already not be such a possibility. After all, sin is a disease of the soul. The longer we procrastinate turning to a spiritual doctor and beginning treatment, the more difficult it will be then to deal with our spiritual illnesses.
There are people who are hesitant to approach Repentance because of an imaginary fear that God will not forgive them for the sins they have committed. We must try to convey to such people the truth that the Lord came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mt. 9:13), and that there is no unforgivable sin; only sin not repented of prevents a man from returning to God.
Removing the “thorn” of sin in confession, we deliver ourselves from the sting of death
—What happens to sin in the Sacrament of Repentance?
—If a Christian sincerely repents and resolves to courageously battle with sin, then God will forgive his sin. Removing the “thorn” of sin in confession, we deliver ourselves from the sting of death. And further, the labor of fasting and prayer is needed to recover from the effect of sin on the soul of a sinner.
Uprooting sinful habits and acclimating yourself to the virtues
—What does this spiritual work consist of?
—Spiritual work should be directed towards uprooting sinful habits and acclimating yourself to the virtues, which are opposed to the former sins. For example: the glutton must especially observe temperance in food, for the greedy it is useful to give alms, for the weak in faith to pray more, and so on. A spiritual father may give a penance for some time, with the purpose of helping the sinner deliver himself from the power of sin.
Penance is a means for battling with sin
—There are people who view penance as a punishment for sin…
—For a penance to bring benefit to a sinner, he must understand that penance is assigned by a confessor not as a punishment for sin, but as a reminder of the sin committed, which helps in the battle against sin. The confessor assigns a penance in conformity with the individual characteristics of the person, and his ability and readiness to fulfill the penance. Thus, Christians should understand penance not as a punishment, but as a blessing, and try as best they can to fulfill it.
Proper preparation for Confession
—What is the proper way to prepare for Confession? Should we record our sins daily and then read from the paper? Or should we just confess that which weighs on our heart like a rock?
—Such questions cannot be answered unequivocally. How it’s more useful for you to confess should be decided by your spiritual father. He knows your character and lifestyle well. Of course, we must not treat Confession as some formal report of our sins over the recent period. Confession is, above all, contrite repentance for the sins we have committed. The Lord Jesus Christ shows us an example of proper repentance in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who decided to return to his father’s home in repentance. Heartfelt repentance is the first step of the return of a sinner—a prodigal son—to the Father’s house.
—What should we do if our hearts are calloused and rock hard? It sometimes happens that our minds are aware of what to repent of, but we have no repentance in our hearts. Is it worth it to go to Confession? Maybe it’s better to wait until a repentant feeling comes?
—Spiritual struggle must not be postponed. If you are aware of your sins in your mind, then it’s not necessary to delay your confession. After all, the Kingdom of God, as the Lord said, suffereth violence—that is, it is taken by force. You must compel yourself and pray to God for the gift of sincere, contrite repentance. Christ can touch our hearts during Confession itself. Spiritual conversation, and reading the Holy Scriptures and the holy fathers facilitate the acquisition of heartfelt repentance.
Achieving Christian dispassion
—It is said that ascetic labor is the lot of monks. Is it worth it for an ordinary layman to strive for dispassion? Or are such spiritual heights achieved only by those who renounce this world?
—Passion, in the ascetic understanding, means suffering and sin. Aspiring to dispassion means a Christian’s battle with his passions. The Holy Church calls every man to this, not only those who have taken the monastic tonsure. Of course, there is one measure of spirituality for those who live in the world, and another for those who have renounced the world. However, every Christian must strive for the purification of his mind, senses, and will from the influence of sin, and for service to God and man with a pure soul. This is the meaning of Christian dispassion.
Finding a spiritual guide
—To achieve victory over sin we must have an experienced guide. Many ask how to find such a guide.
—You can confess to any priest in the Church. This is how we must begin. That priest who is closer in spirit, who is more disposed by his humble spiritual leadership to spiritual labor and spiritual benefit, will, most likely, become your spiritual guide. You can confess to various priests, but for the most important questions it’s better to turn to your spiritual father.