I recently had a talk with a dear Protestant who asked me if we could say that people were wonderful. “We’re all such sinners” she said, “can we really say that we’re wonderful?” She then told me that she had been touched by a non-Christian person who told her that she was wonderful, and that this experience had left her in theological bewilderment.
I have been learning is that there is a separation between myself and my sin. St. Basil says that sin is to the person as sickness is to the body, and that when we go to confession we are going to the doctor. What this presupposes is the idea that the general state of humanity is one that is very sick; malnutritioned, fever ridden, and gangrenous. But we are not dead, and we are not beyond help, for we have a great Physician and a place of healing.
My Protestant replies that I have a limited and crass understanding of Jesus’ redemptive power. As I continued to listen, and as she confirmed, what she was concerned of defending was that Jesus’ work “covers” everything of ours: that is, that we can wallow in our sickness and Jesus will cover us, for we will be robed in His righteousness. In one sense I agree with this – for Jesus paid a great price, and in His mercy he does cover us completely. This is His grace, His love, and our great humility to accept. But am I trying to denigrate the work of our Savior by saying that we can be healed, and that His power is essential? Or am I being offensive to Christ’s righteousness when I say that righteousness isn’t imputed, or that abiding in Christ includes the work (liturgy) of imitating Him?
It seems to me that the bewilderment of my dear Protestant is due to confusion between sin and the person. From my own Protestant experience it seems that it is easy to identify yourself with sin, despite ascribing to maxims like “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” It is very much a sin in itself to acknowledge your sin, and be complacent or helpless. For healing and help we must have a more complete reaction to sin. St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite says it better than I:
Just as hunters are not satisfied with merely finding a beast in the forest, but attempt through every means to also kill it, likewise, my brother sinner, you should also not be satisfied with merely examining your conscience and with finding your sins, for this profits you little, but struggle by every means to kill your sins through the grief in your heart, namely, through contrition and affliction. And in order to acquire contrition, consider how much you have wronged God through your sins. In order to also acquire affliction, consider how much you have wronged yourself through your sins.
Do the Orthodox then not see themselves as sinners? One need only look at St. Mary of Egypt and St. Isaac the Syrian to know that the Orthodox never exceed their need to repent, sorrow, and cry for mercy. These are mature responses to the state of man, and they require hard work. This saving and humble response must be learned and cultivated. This is why we pray ceaselessly the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I have received two seemingly opposite reactions from Protestants on this topic. One says that the Orthodox don’t have a great enough view of man’s depravity, and the other says that it wallows in self-denigration. One person reacts against the doctrine of theosis as too optimistic and then finds the multiple “Lord have mercys” morbid. The fast is too intense and demeaning for them, but the fruits of it too fantastic for them to believe. During my journey East I asked both Protestantism and Orthodoxy to show me where these things aren’t true to Scripture or reality. Protestantism told me of my naivety and reaffirmed their position on depravity: Orthodoxy silently showed me its saints and handed me the gospels, the evangelion.
Another reason that I’m more evangel-ical now that I’m Orthodox.