Hearts and Minds:
Sin disfigures a person, but grace makes him beautiful. Sin disfigures a person, but grace makes her beautiful. Let’s talk about that. Recently, CNN.com published a letter written by a young man. His name is Nicholas, who is suffering from substance abuse. It does no good, by the way, to dismiss the addict by saying he’s just doing this to himself and should quit. No one knows this better than the addict, which is why he is suffering. Addiction is not an either/or problem in that you either have it or you don’t. Instead, it is more of a continuum, and probably all of us can find ourselves somewhere along that line where we frequently turn to something or someone outside ourselves for relief. Most of us have some go-to pacifier that is not God.
So, Nicholas has been chronicling his troubled, but sincere journey out of addiction and towards sobriety, and this is an excerpt called “After Relapse Come Terror and Hope.”
My head is all static like a TV not turned to any working channel. There is a sadness in me that crawls up from my stomach and out my throat and screams so loud my ears bleed from it. I feel emptiness. I feel a great swallowing hole at my center. I feel it come on me for no reason, no reason at all. I’ll be at the beach with my dog and my girlfriend, and we’ll be walking there as the sun is setting, the wind will be blowing, and there will be nothing I have to do but go get something to eat and maybe watch a movie. But still, out of nowhere, the darkness will come upon me, grab me by the throat and pull me down. It’s a grave opened for me, a tomb that closes around me, and is cemented solid shut.
What is the difference between a prison and a tomb? The difference is that the door on a tomb only swings one way. Once it is shut on the person inside, it does not open again. Nicholas says that the emptiness he feels deep inside is “a grave opened for me, a tomb that closes around me, and is cemented solid shut.” He says he feels powerless, like a person in a tomb, to overcome some deep interior unrest, some besetting sin or anxiety. So, he seeks relief from his anxiety by turning to something external to himself. In the end, though, it’s never enough.
A person does not need to be addicted to drugs or alcohol to know that kind of frustration. If most of us cannot identify with Nicholas’ particular form of suffering, most of us can identify with the suffering itself. Have you ever been or are you now caught in some sin or old habit or old way of thinking from which you have not yet escaped? Some anxiety or troubling behavior? Just as they do for Nicholas, sometimes these troubles can feel like tombs. They are things into which we have fallen, and we have never been able to pry the door loose. There are all sorts of tombs into which a person can fall long before we are physically dead. During the Lenten season, for example, many Christians pray a prayer that mentions four such tombs. “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.”
Especially in our day and age, tombs are everywhere. Substance addiction, behavioral addiction, a desperate need for approval, a feeling of never doing enough, a fixation on the shape of one’s body, lack of self-discipline, money troubles, lustful thoughts or actions, eating disorders, lingering resentments, judging others, feeling judged, excessive internet usage, peer pressure, an irritable spirit, a lingering illness, and the list goes on. Every one of these is a tomb that drains the life out of us. Remember how young Nicholas described it? He said his addiction was “a grave opened for me, a tomb that closes around me, and is cemented solid shut.” For us, our own tomb is any crippling behavior over which we feel powerless.
There is a song, quite popular in Orthodox churches this time of year, springtime. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” There is a hope that flows from the resurrection of Christ and that hope pours as much into the tombs in which we have fallen now as it does into the tombs in which we will be placed within after our last bodily breath. When we sing this hopeful song, we have in mind not only the graves then that swallow the dead, but the tombs now that swallow the living. Imagine: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death-by-death and upon those in the tombs of laziness, upon those in the tombs of craving approval, upon those in the tombs of depression, of physical pain, of anger toward God, of “fill in the blank.” Upon those in these tombs bestowing life. The hope of resurrection is as much present as it is future, as much now as it is then.
From this hopeful truth flow key questions asked by that face in the mirror. What are your tombs? What are the sins, behaviors, habits that are draining the life out of you? Can you name them? Can you admit that the temptations are stronger than your own strength to resist them? Can you refuse to lay blame for them on anyone or anywhere but yourself? Do you trust God to raise you, finally, from the deadness of these tombs? Are you willing to cooperate with him, to do your part to be delivered, to do your own soul work? Can you imagine a day when you love freedom than you love what is keeping you from being free?
There is an easy way to know when we have fallen into the tomb of some sinful or crippling behavior. We begin to decompose. “I know a boy who looked like an angel,” wrote St. Siluan of Mount Athos. “He was submissive and gentle. His little face was pink and white, his clear blue eyes shone kind and tranquil, but when he grew up, he began to lead a bad life and lost the grace of God. And so, by the time he reached the age of 30, he looked a mixture of man and devil, wild beast and cutthroat. And the whole appearance of him was ruthless and dreadful. I knew a girl too,” he continues, “who was very beautiful. Her face was so radiant and lovely that many were envious of her beauty, but through sin she lost grace and then it was painful to look at.”
Falling into a tomb is easy, but St. Siluan would probably prefer we focus on getting out. “I have also seen the reverse,” he writes. “I have seen men arrive at our monastery with faces disfigured with sin and passion, but with repentance and a devout life, they changed and became good to look upon. Thus, sin disfigures a man while grace beatifies it.” What a hopeful truth. Sin disfigures a person, but grace makes him beautiful. Sin disfigures a person, but grace makes her beautiful. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death-by-death and upon wherever you feel most lost in your life right now, there, bestowing love.