By Igumen Nikon of Mt. Athos – It’s not because we sin that we don’t go to Heaven. You have to know that the only sinless one was Christ and no one else. It’s not because we commit sins that we don’t go to Heaven. While we’re still alive and our eyes are open—we sin. We will go to Heaven because we are trying with all of our strength to be what Christ wants us to be, and that kind of effort will save us. Whether we can overcome the temptation to sin or not depends not on us, but on God’s grace.
We must ask the Lord to send us His grace. If He sends us His grace, then we will not be angry, commit adultery, steal, and so on. If God does not send His grace, we will not be able to overcome our sins by ourselves. This does not mean that we are not what Christ wants us to be. We fight, we wage war against our sins. We see our sins and think that if we stop committing them, then we will not be sinning anymore… But what about sinning in our minds? Or with our eyes? Or with our ears?
We should not despair and say, “I always fall into the trap of the same sin. Therefore, I won’t be able to achieve anything; I’m not doing anything!” We do a lot: we confess, humble ourselves, repent… This is what saves us rather than the virtue in which we have excelled. The devil also possesses virtues. Once, having done something good, I went to tell my elder about it. I was a novice monk then. When he saw me, he immediately realized what the matter was, and, before I could say a word, he said:
“My child, why should we boast and be proud? Because we fast? We can never fast more than the devil, because he never eats anything. He is the greatest faster. Or is it because we keep vigil and do not sleep much? We cannot be more vigilant than the evil one, because he never sleeps. Do we abstain, remain chaste out of love for Christ? Do we have this virtue? But we will never become more chaste than the devil, because he does not want carnal pleasures: he does not need them, for he has no body.”
I was shocked! No matter how many virtues we have, we will never be able to acquire those that the devil possesses. But will these virtues save the devil? No; and they will not save us either.
What do I mean by that? That we shouldn’t be virtuous? No. We shall continue struggling in order to acquire the virtues. A true Christian is always virtuous, but not every virtuous person is necessarily a Christian. There are virtuous people among Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Protestants. But virtues in and of themselves are not “salvific”. We will be saved through repentance and humility.
But humility is not just about saying empty words such as: “What am I? I’m nothing!” and pretending to be miserable just to make people say to you: “No, no, you are virtuous; look, you have such and such virtues…” By pretending to be humble, we make others praise us. Real humility is not just saying humble words, but being a humble-minded person, having a humble spirit and not thinking that we are better than others, for all matter of evil is born first of all in our mind.
If we fall again and again spiritually, we should not despair. There are priests, the epitrachelion,1 repentance… This is what will save us and nothing else. Repentance and humility will save us. This is what the devil fears. He has many “virtues”, but he lacks one—humility; and this is what has given birth to hell and has brought about ruin.
To show the power of humility, as Scripture says, Christ descended from Heaven to earth, humbled Himself, and was obedient to the point of death (Phil. 2:8). He humbled Himself to the point where He agreed to be crucified. This is the humility that we need for our salvation.
We try not to fall into sin, but God deliberately allows us to fall so that we may acquire humility, and while we weep over the sin we have committed, God crowns us with humility for our struggle with sin. Therefore, we must never despair.
Make it a rule for yourself not to repeat your sins again, saying: “I won’t be angry anymore, I won’t do this or that…” And then say: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And then bow your head under the epitrachelion of the priest.
We will understand what we have truly gained when the time comes to stand before God. Man measures things one way, but God has His own way of measuring them.
You should never despair. If you have not achieved something, it does not mean that you have failed. There is no sin that is greater than God’s love; there is no sin that cannot be overcome by God’s love. Confess, receive Communion, and do not withdraw from the Church. It is better to be a sinner in the Church than to be a virtuous person outside of it. It’s better to be a hooligan, but to be together with Christ, than to be a good guy, but to be together with the devil. Our goodness will not save us, but what will save us is the love we have for Christ and the spiritual struggle that we engage in for His sake.
One day a monk fell asleep during service. Monastic life is harsh, the soul may aspire to the things on high, but sometimes the body does not have the strength to follow after it. The service ended and we left the church. While waiting to be invited to the refectory, another monk, in order to tease his fellow brother, jokingly said to him:
“Father, I saw you fall asleep in church.”
And he answered:
“Better to be asleep inside Noah’s Ark than to be awake outside of it!”
It is better to be saved by Christ, even if you fall asleep in church, than to be awake out on the street during the flood. Repentance is what will save us and not something else. This is why we must constantly repent. Why is that so? Because we sin all the time, and because we should not be tied to the sins we commit. St. Dorotheos says that you can even upset someone by the way you look at them and thus commit a sin. So, what are we supposed to do then? Hide in a pit and wait there motionlessly until we die?
As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, say: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” and “Glory to God!” Doing so, you’ll make it to Heaven; don’t have doubts. For when one says: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” he shows that he wants to be with Christ, that he won’t sin by his own will, and that if he does sin, then it’ll be against his will. As St. Paul says: I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:23-24). And if we see that even St. Paul—he who could raise the dead—could not overcome sin, then will we overcome it? No. Then how will we be saved? We will be saved by praying: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” and through humility.
Often when we ask God for something, He does not give it to us simply in order to keep us praying, and, when we are finally given what we had asked for, we find that we have benefited more from the prayers that we had sent up to God rather than from what He has given us. This is why the Lord sometimes delays in giving us what we repeatedly ask Him for.
He often puts us in difficult situations or sends us sufferings—for example, an illness—in order to prevent us from sinning. If we had ended up in a different situation instead, we would have been content and would have sinned. As they say, “no one is happy where they are…”