SERMON: On Repentance and Prayer by John Chrysostom

On Repentance and Prayer by John Chrysostom

Wherever shepherds see dense grass, they lead the sheep there; they do not lead them away prematurely, before the flocks have sheared close all of the grass.  We, too, imitate the sheep.  Presently this is the fourth day that we have put this flock to graze in the way of repentance.  Yet, not even today are we prepared to take it away from here.  For we realize that there is still abundant grazing coupled with much delight and benefit.

The foliage of the trees, which become shelters for the herds at noontime, do not comfort them as much, do not grant them such desirable and delightful shade, do not lull them to sleep with as much enjoyment, as the reading of the holy Scriptures revives and refreshes the suffering souls and the souls afflicted with faintheartedness.  The reading of Scripture destroys the excessiveness and the intensity of pain and grants a consolation that is much more delightful and pleasant than any shade.  It grants you much comfort not only in the loss of property, or in the loss of children, or in any other loss, but even in the worst circumstances of sin.

Once a person is bound by sin and, being tripped up by it, falls unable to rise again, his conscience devours him.  Just as he ceaselessly remembers the sin, he is choked in the excess of faintheartedness which is rekindled every day.  At that time, even if many people console him, he cannot be comforted.  However, when he enters the Church and hears that many saints fell but arose and returned to their original highly esteemed condition, he departs comforted without realizing it.  Often, when human beings sin, they cannot reveal the transgression to others because they are ashamed and blush, and, when they do reveal it, they do not reap any great benefit.  However, whenever God comforts and touches the heart, every satanic sorrow is banished quickly.  This is why the calamities of the righteous are recorded for us in Scripture, so that the upright as well as sinners can profit tremendously from them.  For the one who sins does not come to hopelessness and despair once he realizes that someone else has also fallen and was able to rise again.

The one who labors for righteousness will be more earnest and steadfast.  When he sees many people, much better than himself, who have fallen and were unable to rise up, he will become prudent from the fear of their fall, he will always struggle for virtue and righteousness, and he will exhibit concern for his own safety.  In this way, he who succeeds in virtue will remain steadfast in it, and he who sins shall be delivered from hopelessness and return quickly from where he has fallen.

When we are sad and an individual comforts us, we are consoled for a little while, and then we fall again into faintheartedness.  However, when God entreats us through others who have sinned, repented, and were saved, He reveals clearly to us His goodness. He acts in this manner so we may be assured and certain of their salvation and accept the consolation by common consent.  Therefore, just as in sinful circumstances, so likewise in times of danger, the ancient narratives of Scripture offer an appropriate medicine for faintheartedness to all those who will exercise caution.  Whether our possessions are confiscated, or whether slanderers, prison, or floggings threaten us abusively, or some other form of suffering seizes us, we will be capable of recovering quickly, looking to the example of the righteous who suffered and patiently submitted to these things.

In the case of bodily sufferings, for someone to have in full view those who suffer intensifies the disease of the infirm; many times, even if the disease does not exist, staring at the sick produces it, just as, when certain people saw other human beings with diseased eyes, they contracted the disease solely from the spectacle.  However, it is not the same with reference to the soul; rather, the opposite occurs.  And when we keep constantly in our thoughts the ones who suffered these things, our faintheartedness as far as our own ignobility is concerned, is alleviated.  For this reason, Paul encourages the faithful to bring forward before all not only the saints who are alive but also those who have died.  Discoursing with the Hebrews who were going to be tripped up and destroyed, he brings clearly to the light the holy men Daniel and the Three Youths, Elijah, and Elisha, saying: “They shut up the mouths of lions, quenched the impact of fire, escaped the edge of the sword; they were stoned, proved by mocking and scourging, even by chains and imprisonment.  They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, of whom the world was not worthy.”  (Hebrews 11:34)  Participation in the sufferings of the ones afflicted with pain grants relief to the distressed.  Just as when one person is to suffer something dreadful, his sorrow is inconsolable, likewise, to find someone else who is subject to your sorrows alleviates the pain of the wound.

Therefore, to avoid falling into all the things that seem disturbing to us, let us pay strict attention to the narratives of the Scriptures.  From that source we shall obtain opportunity for much patience.  Not only will we be comforted to see that others shared in these things, we will also learn the method of delivering ourselves from the dangers brought upon us.  After the remission of our sins, we will learn to change our condition, neither falling into laziness nor being conquered by madness.  For to cower together and become humble and reveal much piety when we act wickedly is nothing marvelous; this is the nature of temptations.  The nature of temptations coerces even those with hearts of stone to do the same thing, to feel pain.

After its deliverance from temptations, the pious soul, which has God ever before its eyes, never forgets God, something that the Jews continuously suffered.  For this reason, the prophet David mocked them, saying, “When He slew them, then they sought Him, and repented, and awoke very early in the morning to return close to God.” (Psalm 77:34)  And Moses, who knew this well, endlessly counseled them, saying, “Having eaten, drunk and been filled, be watchful of yourself, lest you forget the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 6:11-12)  This truly happened; “For Jacob ate,” Scripture says, “he grew fat, and became thick, and the beloved one spurned [God].” (Deuteronomy 32:15)  Therefore, one must not so much admire those saints who, in the height of sorrow were so pious and lovers of wisdom, as those who, even when the turbulence subsided and tranquility ensued, remained in the same goodness and earnestness.

Certainly we must admire that horse which, without a bridle, can march in rhythmical cadence.  However, when it proceeds well disciplined because the muzzle and the bridle control it, then it is not to be marveled at; for we must attribute the discipline not to be animal’s nobility but to the bridle’s constraint.  We can also say the same thing about the soul.  For the soul to be calm when fear presses upon it is not marvelous; but when the temptations pass and the bridle of fear is slackened, then show me the philosophy of the soul and all its good order.  However, I am afraid that maybe, wanting to accuse the Jews, I accuse our own way of life; since surely whenever we were in dire distress due to hunger, plague, hailstorm, drought, conflagrations, and enemy invasion, was not the Church pressed for space every day by the throng of the congregation?

Our love and pursuit of wisdom and our disdain for worldly things were great.  Neither desire for money, nor longing for glory, nor an appetite and love for licentiousness, nor any other wicked thought disturbed us then; rather, all advanced themselves in the fear of God with prayers and tears.  At that time, the male prostitute (Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II) became temperate, and the one bearing malice turned toward reconciliation; the greedy one submitted to almsgiving; the irascible and bold one changed his course and turned to humility and meekness.  After God decisively dispersed that wrath, quelled the calamitous storm, and created calmness out of so many waves, we returned to our former habits.  Indeed, I persisted during that season of the temptations to foretell that you would throng to the Church to appease God.  And also that you would go back to your former ways when God dispersed His wrath.  Looking back, I did not gain anything in prophesying this to you.  Because, like a dream and a shadow that passed, you expelled all temptations from your thoughts.  Now, however, in our present situation I am more alarmed than before and I am more afraid of what I was saying at that time.  Perhaps, we will bring upon ourselves evils more grievous than the previous ones, and then receive an incurable plague from God.

When someone repeatedly sins and obtains forgiveness from God, yet gains nothing from God’s forbearance and His deliverance from wickedness, thereafter, God prepared him to invite upon himself the summit of evils unwillingly, so He may crush him completely and deprive him of an appointed time for repentance — something which happened to Pharaoh.  For after one wound, two, three, four, and the subsequent wounds, Pharaoh still enjoyed much longsuffering from God; yet, it was of no use to him.  Thereafter, he was utterly pulverized and obliterated together with the city.  The Jews suffered the same thing.  For this reason, when He was about to annihilate them and bring upon them irreversible desolation, Christ exhorted them, “[O Jerusalem. . . ] How often I wished to gather your children together, and you would not.  Behold, your house is left desolate.” (Luke 13:34)  Therefore, I fear that perhaps we will suffer the same things, because neither the evils of others nor our own make us sober.

I say these things not only to you who are now here, but also to those who have lost their daily eagerness and forgotten their former sorrows.  I say these things to the ones for whom I am always bursting myself and saying that, even if the temptations have passed, their memory must remain in our souls, so we may ever remember the benefit and ceaselessly thank God who granted it.

I have said these things before, and now I say them to you again, so the aforementioned people can hear them from you.  Let us imitate the saints who neither became oppressed by their afflictions nor became filled with conceit by leisure.  Many of us suffer this now, and resemble nimble ships’ bilges that are crowded by waves on all sides and capsize.  For many time poverty attacked us suddenly, submerged us, and brought us to the ocean bed; and the wealth that came to us puffed us up again, and hurled us into the worst possible conceit.  This is why I plead with you to pay no heed to things and for every one of us to direct our souls toward salvation.  If our soul is rightly steered, then whatever danger falls upon us — whether famine, or disease, or slander, or plundering of property, or any other such thing — will be bearable and light, by the commandment of the Master and through hope in Him.  Likewise, when the soul does not stand well before God, then, even if wealth flows abundantly, and has children, and enjoys immeasurable goods, this person will experience much faintheartedness and many cares.  Therefore, let us not seek wealth; let us not avoid poverty.  However, above all these, let each one take care of his soul and make it pursue the economy of the future life as well as cause it to depart from the present life to the next.

For, in a little while, the scrutiny of each one of us will take place, when we all stand before the dreadful tribunal of Christ, clothed with our own deeds.  And we will see with our own eyes, on the one hand, the tears of the orphans, and on the other, our disgraceful licentiousness with which we contaminated our souls, the wailing of the widows, the ill treatment of the weak, the rape of the poor.  We will be examined about not only these matters and others like them, but also whatever indecent thing we committed in thought, because He is “the judge of thoughts and understanding,” (Hebrews 4:12) and, “the one who examines hearts and the inner man,” (Psalm 7:10) and, “He rewards each person according to his deeds.” (Matthew 16:27)

However, my discourse is directed not only toward those who are tested in secular life, but also to the ones who have built their cells in the mountains for the sake of monastic life, because they are obligated to guard not only their bodies from the contamination of prostitution, but also their souls from every satanic arrogance.  For truly the Apostle Paul speaks not only to women but also to men and to the whole Church when he says that the virginal soul must be holy in body and in spirit, “Present your bodies as a pure virgin.” (2 Corinthians 11:2)  How pure?  “Without spot or wrinkle.”  (Ephesians 5:27)  Indeed the virgins who had their lanterns extinguished were virgins in body but not pure in heart.  Although a man had not yet utterly corrupted them, the love of money had.  Their bodies were pure but their souls were satiated with much adultery, since wicked thoughts as well as thoughts of avarice, cruelty, anger, envy, laziness, indifference, haughtiness, had found room to retire there, all of which ruined the modesty of their virginity.  This is why Paul said: “So may the virgin be holy both in body and in spirit,” (1 Corinthians 7:34) and again, “To present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:2)

Just as the body is corrupted by adultery, so the soul is defiled by satanic reasonings, crippling dogmas, and indecent perceptions.  The one who says, “I am a virgin in body,” but his soul envies his brother, is not a virgin.  The intercourse with jealousy ruins his virginity.  Likewise, the vainglorious one is not a virgin.  The passion of envy has destroyed his virginity, because the passion has entered and dissolved the virginity of his soul.  The one who hates his brother is more a homicide than a virgin.  Generally, every one demolishes his virginity by the wicked passion that dominates him.  For this reason, Paul banishes all these satanic mingling and orders us to be virgins by not willingly accepting any thought that is against our soul.

Therefore, what are we to say about these things?  How are we to receive God’s mercy?  How are we to be saved?

I say, let us always take prayer and its fruits into our hearts, namely, humility and meekness.  “Learn,” He says, “of me, for I am meek and humble heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)  Likewise, David says, “Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit: a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” (Psalm 50:17)  God accepts and loves nothing so much as a meek, humble, and grateful soul.  Therefore, you be careful too, my brother; when you see anything unexpected assaulting and disturbing you, do not look to human beings for refuge and do not seek mortal help; rather, disregard all of them, and run quickly with your thoughts toward the physician of souls.  For only He can cure our hearts, He who alone created our hearts and perceives all our deeds.  He alone has the power to enter into our conscience, touch our thoughts, and comfort our soul.  And if He does not console our hearts, all that men may do is superfluous and unprofitable.  Just as when God comforts and pacifies us again, even if men greatly disturb us with myriad troubles, they will be unable to injure us in anything, for when He strengthens our heart, no one is able to shake it.

My beloved, since we know these things, let us always run to God for refuge, to Him who is willing and able to rescue us from misfortunes.  When we entreat human beings for assistance, then we must meet with porters beforehand, entreat parasites and flatterers, and embark on a long journey.  However, where God is concerned, nothing of this sort is required; rather, you can beg him without the interventions of an intercessor and money, and He approves your supplication without expense.  It suffices for you simply to shout with the heart and offer tears, and He will immediately enter into your soul and assist you.  Often we fear to beg a human being, in case enemies should be present, or a friend, or some opponents should hear of the issue and someone else misinterpret what is said and totally subvert justice, but with regard to God, it is impossible for you to presume anything like this.  “When you want,” He says, “to entreat me, come to me alone, without anyone else being present.  Call out to me with your heart, without moving your lips.”  “Enter,” He says, “into your closet, and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6)  Pay attention to the superiority of this honor: “When you entreat me,” He says, “let no one see you.  When I honor you, I bring the whole inhabited world as a witness to the beneficence.”  Therefore let us comply with God’s wishes.  Let us pray neither for show nor against our enemies, and let us not be arrogant to think that we can teach Him the method of assistance.  Since we simply tell our affairs to the lawyers, who counsel and speak publicly before secular judges and we leave them to find the means of defense (since they want to manage our affairs well) we must all the more act this way toward God.  Did you tell Him your injury?  Did you tell Him everything you suffered?  Do not tell Him these and how to help you, because He realizes exactly your best interest.  However, there are many who, in prayer, recite thousands of verses, saying: “Lord, grant me physical health, double all my possessions, repel my enemy from me.”  This is completely absurd.

We must dismiss all these things and pray and supplicate only as did the publican, who repeatedly said: “God be merciful unto me a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)  Afterwards, He knows how to help you.  For he says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)  Therefore, in this way, my brethren, let us pursue wisdom with toil and humility, beating our breasts like the publican, and we will succeed in getting whatever we ask for; but when we pray filled with anger and wrath, we are hated by God and are found to be an abomination before Him.

Let us crush our thought, humble our souls, and pray for ourselves as well as for those who have hurt us.  For when you want to persuade the Judge to help your soul and take your part, never pit Him against the one who grieved you.  For such is the character of the Judge, that, above all, He sanctions and grants the requests of those who pray for their enemies, who do not bear malice, who do not rise up against their enemies.  As long as they remain unrepentant, however, God fights them all the more.

Therefore, beware, my brethren.  When someone dishonors us, let us not immediately become full of hate and indignant.  Rather, let us seek wisdom and show forth gratitude, awaiting the help of the Lord.  Perhaps God could not give us blessings before we ask for them?  Perhaps He was unable to grant us a painless life and a life free from all affliction?  However, He gives them both out of paternal affection.  In other words, why does He step aside for us to be oppressed, and not provide a speedy deliverance?  SO that we may always remain at His side, cling to His aid, and flee to Him for refuge and continuously invite Him to succor us.

This is why the body has pains, sterility and plagues: so that, through these afflictions, we will always cling to Him, and thus, through temporary distresses, we may inherit eternal life.  Hence, even for these, we are obligated to thank God, who heals and saves our souls through many stratagems.  Indeed, if men happen to benefit us, and afterwards we would and sadden them in the least, the benefit they offered will be immediately disgraced and many will collapse and ruin themselves entirely.  However, God does not act in this manner; instead, when He is despised and insulted after He has granted His beneficence, He still defends Himself and grants correction to those who treat Him despitefully, thus saying: “My people, what have I done to you?”  They did not want to call Him God and He did not cease from calling them His people.  They abandoned His sovereignty.  He did not renounce them but considered them as His own and pulled them close to His side, saying, “My people, what have I done to you?  Have I become burdensome to you, or wearisome and ponderous?  However, you cannot say this, because, even if this were the case, you still should not have leaped away from me.”  “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline.” (Hebrews 12:7)  Nevertheless, you cannot say this.

Again, elsewhere He says: “What fault have your father found in me.” (Jeremiah 2:5)  That which is said is great and marvelous, because what He says means: “What wrong have I done?”  God tells human beings: “What sin have I committed?” — something that not even slaves tolerate that their master utter.  And He does not state: “What sin have I committed against you,” but, “against your father.”  He says: “Yet you have no right to say this, that you hold paternal enmity against me, because I never allowed your ancestors to accuse my providence for either a small or a great oversight.”  He did not simply say: “What have your fathers,” but rather, “What have they found?  They sought many things; they experienced much in all the years they lived under my leadership.  However, they did not find a single fault in me.”  Therefore, for all these things, let us continuously seek refuge from God.  Let us ask for His consolation in every faintheartedness, His deliverance in every misfortune, His mercy and His help during every temptation.  For whatever the danger may be, however great the misfortune may appear, He can annihilate and chase away all things.  His goodness will grant us not only these, but also every security, power, good fame, physical health, wisdom of soul, good hope, and not to quickly sin.  Hence let us neither murmur like ungrateful servants nor accuse the Lord; rather, let us thank Him in all things and consider only one thing fearful, to sin against Him.

When we are disposed in this way toward God, neither disease, nor poverty, nor insult, nor barrenness of crops, nor any other of those things that are considered painful will find us.  However, we will always enjoy a clean and pure pleasure, and we will be deemed worthy of the future blessing, through the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belongs the glory, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Amen.

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