In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Ephraim the Syrian says that the devil works against us with unimaginable hypocritical cleverness. Before we sin, he diminishes the significance of the sin. He provides us with all kinds of excuses that it’s really not that big of a deal, so it appears as insignificant as pouring a glass of water on the ground. However, after the sin is committed, he puffs it up and he tempts the sinner to despair and hopelessness: to despair of his salvation: “God can’t forgive you; you’re such a great sinner.”
The Church commemorates St. Mary of Egypt on this, the last Sunday of Lent, as we prepare ourselves to enter into Holy Week, to remind us that there’s no sin that we might commit in this life that God will not forgive us of if we repent. There’s no way that we can get so far apart from God that we are incapable of returning and being forgiven and received. As a matter of fact, with the case of St. Mary of Egypt, we have a person who was one of the greatest of sinners but became one of the greatest of saints.
Someone once asked St. Poimen the Great, “If someone falls to some sin and repents, does God forgive him?” St. Poimen thought about it, and he answered, “Would not he who have commanded to men that they must forgive, himself not fulfill it? It is well known that he gave an order to the Apostle Peter to forgive those who do wrong and repent, even to seventy times seven.” He is of course referring to what Christ said in the gospels to Peter. Peter came to the Lord and he said, “How often shall I forgive my brother if he sins against me? Up until seven times?” There was a Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures that said that God would forgive someone up to three times, but for the fourth sin, no, God would not forgive.
So St. Peter was probably thinking that he was being very generous, because he doubled the number three and he added one extra for good measure. He said, “Well, if I forgive someone seven times, is that sufficient?” And Christ said, “No, you need to forgive them seventy times seven.” And Christ’s point was not that we keep really good records so that when someone get so the 491st time that they’ve sinned against us that we can write them off and say, “Okay, now you’ve crossed the line.” The point is, no one would keep those kinds of records; we always forgive. Every time someone asks for forgiveness, we forgive them.
St. Poimen’s point is that if Christ would tell us that that’s how we should treat one another, would he not do that much? The obvious answer is that of course he would.
A certain brother asked St. Sisoes the Great, “Counsel me, Father, for I have fallen into sin. What am I to do?” The elder said to him, “When you fall, get up again.” With bitterness, the same brother continued, “Ah, Father, I got up, yet I fell to the same sin again.” The elder, so as not to discourage the brother, answered, “Then get up again and again.” The young man asked with a certain despondency, “How long can I do that, Father?” The elder, giving him courage, said to the brother, “Until the end of your life, whether you be found in the commendable attempt at lifting yourself up from sin or falling again into it. For whatever it is that a man is found at the last moment of his life on earth, whether it be in good things or bad, there will he be judged, going forever either to punishment or reward.”
St. Sisoes was referring to a saying of Christ’s that we find recorded in St. Justin Martyr’s writings, but there were many sayings of Christ that were circulated in the early Church that were nevertheless true sayings of Christ. As a matter of fact, there’s a saying in the book of Acts that’s recorded by St. Luke—he’s recording the words of St. Paul where he says, “It’s better to give than to receive.” Well, that saying is found nowhere in the Gospel, and here this is in a book that was recorded by one of the evangelists themselves, and yet here we have this saying that’s not found in the gospels. So there were many sayings like this.
But the saying is: “In whatsoever things I shall take you, in these I shall judge you.” What this means is that the state that you die in, that’s the state that God will judge you, and it’s not as if it’s just a matter of dumb luck. That’s the reason why, in the prayers of the Church, we pray that God would grant us a Christian ending, because we believe that God in his providence, if we’re striving to serve him, if we’re striving to live a Christian life, will choose to take us at a moment when we are living for him, when we are in a state of repentance, and not choose us in the moment that we fall into some sin. However, if we’re presumptuous and we just continue in the sin and we presume upon God’s mercy, well, then, who knows what will happen? But if we trust God, if we believe that he’s a loving God, it’s not a matter of fear that Christ said this. We should have faith that he loves us and that he desires our salvation.
St. Amphilochios said, “Satan appeared to a brother who had fallen into sin and said to him: You are not a Christian. The brother, without being ensnared by this thought of the devil, answered: Regardless of what I am today, from now on I will flee from you. Satan, attempting to cast him into despair, spoke again to him: I tell you that you’re going to hell. The brother, not losing his courage, answered a second time: You are neither my judge nor my God. So Satan took leave, having accomplished nothing. The brother then repented sincerely before God and became a valiant struggler.”
There’s another story that’s contained in the sayings of the Desert Fathers. There was a certain monk who regularly fell to concupiscence, but he nevertheless forced himself not to give up his monasticism. After finishing his prayer rule, he would cry out to God with groans, “My Lord, whether I wish it or not, save me, for I, mud that I am, pray from the stench of sin. But thou, as God Almighty, art able to prevent me from sinning. For if thou hast mercy on the righteous, it is nothing of note, and if thou by the same token savest the pure, there is nothing wonderful. These by virtue of the measure of their struggle and virtue are worthy to enjoy thy goodness. Master, let thy mercies do thy miracle and show me thy endless love of man. For the poor man has entrusted himself unto thee, that is, he who has been deprived of all the virtues.” These and similar things the brother said each day, his eyes filled with tears, whether he happened to sin or not.
If you use the Jordanville Prayer Book, you might recall that the seventh morning prayer—or I believe it’s the eighth morning prayer—is very much based on this story right here. Anyway, one night, according to his habit, he fell into the loathsome sin of immorality, but immediately at midnight he got up to fulfill his rule of prayer. The devil, who had led the brother into sin, would literally go mad at the hope that the sinful brother held out for his salvation and his effrontery, as the devil saw it, to place himself before God, by his prayers telling him, “You wretch! How dare you become red with shame in standing before God? How do you dare to bring the name of God to your lips? You are brazen that you dare even to chant!”
To these words of the devil, the brother answered, “This cell is a forge. You give a hit with a hammer and receive one. Thus I will continue to fight against you until death, and wherever I may be on the last day of my life. So take heed: grounding my courage in the limitless goodness of God, I tell you on my oath and assure you that in the name of him who came to call sinners to repentance and to save them, I will not cease to pray to God in defiance of you until you cease to war against me, and we shall see who will win: you or God.” Hearing these words, the devil said to the brother, “All right. From now on I will not war against you so that I am not responsible for gaining the victor’s crown for your patience.” And from that moment on, the enemy departed from the brother’s presence, and the brother who had been so assaulted up to that time came to contrition and thereafter sat and wept unceasingly for his sins.
The point is that we should never give up. As long as we have breath, there is the possibility of repentance, and we know that God loves us and he desires our salvation.
O thou who art long-suffering and does not desire that any should perish but that all should come to repentance and be saved, grant that we may not despair of thy mercy but grant us a Christian ending to our lives and true repentance before the end. Amen.