Cleanse Us of Our Secret Sins

Many a joke has been made about Jewish or Roman Catholic guilt, as though these two religions have the market cornered when it comes to that nagging sense one gets when shame is suppressed.  But if we are honest with ourselves, all modern peoples—Orthodox Christians included—wrestle with feelings of guilt.  We recognize, at least subliminally, that we sin every day.  Rather than facing our shame, we often try to ignore it (in a futile attempt to ignore God) or justify it (leading to the sort of self-torture that Nietzsche believed characterized the sentiments of western man).  And yet the guilt is still there in the background, gnawing away at us.

The only way to be free of guilt is to accept the shame that comes from sin, and then use it as a catalyst for penitence.  St. John Chrysostom writes, “Be ashamed when you sin; do not be ashamed when you repent” (Hom. 8, On Repentance and Almsgiving).  We must allow the shame we experience to break our hearts, for only a contrite heart will be received by God.  And once we offer up our repentance to him, he cleanses us and sets us aright, removing the sting of shame in the process.  

This should all be obvious when speaking of sins we knowingly commit—the Church has compiled vast lists of what constitutes sin, quite helpful in preparation for the Sacrament of Confession.  But what of the other sins, those referred to in both the Rite of Repentance and the Pre-Communion Prayers as “involuntary” and “unkown”?  How can we be held accountable for transgressions we’re not aware of, “secret sins” (Ps 90:8) that God alone sees?

To live in this world is to be tainted.  No matter how much we may try to appear wholly righteous, we remain ever complicit in sin.  There is no way to be entirely free of these constraints.  Every action (or inaction) causes ripples in the pond that radiate outward and produce consequences we are unaware of.  Even if we were to leave the world entirely, hence living in utter seclusion, we would still sin through our failure to love our fellow man.  In the Law of Moses, these unknown and unintentional sins of the people were expiated through the normal course of temple rites.  In the New Covenant, it is the self-offering of Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29), that makes possible their purgation—should we ask.  With the Psalmist we must cry out to the Lord, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults” (19:12).

Although our participation in sin is inevitable, there are times, when faced with difficult choices, that we must discern and choose the lesser of two evils.  Much of the discipline of ethics is concerned with this intention.  The field whose ethics have been scrutinized the most during recent years is medicine.  Every aspect of modern medicine is linked to one sin or another.  For centuries, physicians have robbed graves and desecrated remains in order to learn about human physiognomy.  We continue to benefit from the unethical medical trials that were performed on patients, often without their knowledge.  And the use of stem-cell lines derived from aborted fetuses were used in either the manufacture or post-production testing of almost every medicine and vitamin supplement currently available on the market.  So do we forego all of modern medicine, shunning the products we’ve made and the knowledge we’ve obtained through unethical means?  Do we disband modern hospitals and return to harvesting our own herbs from the forest and performing our own treatments without medical expertise?

This question may also be put another way: how do we respond to the annals of human history, where tribe has displaced tribe, and nation conquered nation?  Do we make a determination as to which people group originally occupied any given land, perform DNA tests, and then resettle the “original” population there?  A Germany for the Germans, Syria for the Syrians, and America for the Indigenous?  Of course, such debates quickly become an argumentum ad absurdum.  We cannot undo the injustices of the past; nor can we pretend that they did not occur.  We all participate in the sins of our forefathers.  The only solution is repentance.

The irreligious refuse to do this.  Rather than turning to God, they seek to shift their sense of guilt on to others.  With zeal akin to the most frightening fundamentalist fanatics, they seek to destroy the sinners who disagree with them.  As long as there is a scapegoat, there’s no need to introspect. 

Many a Christian has likewise been seduced by this solution.  Desiring to live free of guilt, but not free of God, we often externalize the causes of sin.  We look to the barbarians outside the gates at which to direct our ire instead of looking in the mirror.  It is easier to blame the pornography industry for sexual immorality than to hold ourselves accountable for lustful thoughts.  It is easier to blame the schools for our children’s disinterest in faith than to realize how rarely we pray with them and read to them the Scriptures and lives of the Saints.  It is easier to fantasize about vast conspiracies that seek to destroy Christianity than it is to pick up one’s cross daily and follow Christ.  By focusing our attention on these external foes, we even begin to believe we are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Matt 5:10).

How then must we live in the world?  First, in discerning which is the lesser of two evils, we must consider our circumstances.  Will our present actions result in a greater good, or will they lead to more evil?  A Christian should not answer this query too quickly, as wisdom is gained only through struggle; and the desire to be self-righteous, to be free of guilt, may cause us to make rash decisions.  Second, we must accept that no matter what we choose, no matter how we live, we will participate in sin to some degree.  As St. Paul reminds us, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). 

Even so, we need not be racked by guilt.  Confessing our sins, even our involuntary and unknown sins, leads to forgiveness and spiritual catharsis.  Instead of being crushed beneath the weight of the world, we are lifted up by grace. As St. John writes, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8-9).

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