I have for many years made it a spiritual discipline to read Christian literature from the patristic period (2nd to 8th century). The terms utilized, the methods of interpretation of Scripture and the basic assumptions about spiritual life implicit and explicit within these documents have often impressed me precisely because they offend my sensibilities. I have learned to welcome the dissonance of seriously studying these faithful servants of past generations. Frankly, as a disciple of the Lord Jesus living in this supposedly progressive modern world I need to hear voices who challenge the assumptions which I bring to Scripture and impose upon God. Those servants of God from past ages have much to say about truth-telling and sin.
One example of truth-telling and sin is the justly famous writing of St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule. Gregory served as Pope (590-604) at a crucial time in late Roman history. He wrote this book to give guidance to priests whose task it was to give spiritual direction to the people in their congregations. He was not known for his theological acumen or exceptional skill as a writer but he did excel in caring for the flock of the Church in his time.
There is much in this writing that is both commendable and frankly strange to the modern reader. To begin with, the advice and instructions he gives are not what I would think to give and at first the tone and content appear to be harsh and unrealistic. As an aside, upon reading the first section of the book (“Concerning the Qualifications of the One Who Comes to a Position of Spiritual Leadership”) I seriously considered never taking on spiritual leadership! I thought, “How could anyone meet these stringent qualifications?”
What I later realized was I was reading the pastoral counsel of a man who was disciplined in prayer, study and the practice of pastoral care to others seeking God. My experience and expectations for Christian spirituality is tainted by the worship of self (especially characteristic of this modern age) and profound lack of experience in pastoral care. God has been gracious to me and opened my eyes to this fact. So I chose to read and listen to this servant of God.
Pope Gregory the Great assumed that people, even those who sincerely desire to live in obedience to their Lord Jesus, will sin and be afflicted in many ways. This will include their own folly, blindness due to arrogance and being heedless of God’s commands to love one’s neighbor. The consistent theme that pervades all his advice to priests regarding themselves and regarding those they would counsel is the need for self-awareness and frank honesty about sin and weakness. This is most remarkable and refreshing.
This volume covers a broad array of human foibles and inclinations toward folly. He seeks to give specific guidance about how the priest (pastor) should speak into each of these situations—based on the characteristics and behavior of the people involved. Thus he explains that “the discourse of the teacher [pastor] should be adapted to the character of his audience so that it can address the specific needs of each individual and yet never shrink from the art of communal edification.” (St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Part 3, Prologue; cited from The Book of Pastoral Rule, translated by George E. Demacopoulos [St. Vladimir’s Press: 2007], p.87)
There are many insightful observations, stinging indictments of human proclivities and excellent points of application in The Book of Pastoral Rule. I have chosen one of them to quote from at length here and share my reflections on. I picked this one particularly because it addresses a blind spot Christians living in modern Western countries tend to always exhibit regarding truth-telling and sin.
Gregory writes “those who confess their sins but do not put an end to them should be advised to consider carefully what they will offer as an excuse to God, the strict Judge, when, in their own judgment, they did not excuse their crimes. Are these persons not their own accusers? They bring forth their own sins and drag themselves into judgments for their actions. They should be advised to see that it is because of the hidden retribution of judgment that their mind is illumined to know the evil that it perpetrates, even if it does not strive to conquer it. For the more clearly it sees, the worse it will perish, because the mind perceives the light of understanding but does not relinquish the darkness of its evil behavior. For when these persons neglect the knowledge that has been given to them for their benefit, this same knowledge is transformed into a testimony against them. And since the light of understanding has been given to them so that they could be purged of their sins, they, in fact, multiply their punishments. Indeed, by doing the evil that their conscience condemns, their wickedness becomes a foretaste of the judgment to come. And while remaining liable to the eternal punishment, the mind is not absolved of its own self-examination. Moreover, it will experience even greater torments if it does not desist from the evil behavior that it knows to be wrong.” (St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, Part 3, chapter 31; cited from The Book of Pastoral Rule, trans. Demacopoulos, pg.188.)
This is truth-telling about sin and the consequences of not repenting of what one knows to be sin. This passage is remarkable for its clarity regarding the state of mind of the person who is caught in the web of sin, aware of that and yet not willing to forsake it. Gregory’s perceptive observations describe many who say they are Christians yet whose lives do not express the life of God who dwells within believers.
I write this as one who has lived in this condition before. How remarkable that I can perceive and even name my own sin but not be motivated to stop engaging in that! How is this possible? Namely, because if I do not want to forsake sin then I will not stop engaging it—no matter how clearly I know in my mind that it is wrong, unhealthy for me or has a destructive impact on other people.
This insight of Gregory is helpful because we need to stop fooling ourselves that such a condition of the human heart is possible. And perhaps more importantly, his words warn those who serve as pastors (or caring friends) to take seriously this double-mindedness as a foretaste of hell. It should be noted that he does not give a remedy to this problem nor does he say that such a person should be threatened. Rather, the dynamics of sin should be noted and truth-telling in love should be modeled in relation to a person like this.
What is the pastor or caring friend to do when someone is caught in the web of sin? I would suggest: Pray, be a truth-teller about sin and the Gospel. For the work of turning someone away from a life of sin toward the Lord is not ours to do. Only the Lord can this.
Saint Gregory does not give a resolution to the profound problem he diagnoses. However, I want to cite a modern author, A.W. Tozer, who addresses the same point (in a slightly different way). I quote him here as he articulates what I would otherwise try to say (with much less effectiveness).
“As indispensable as is the terror of the Lord, we must always keep in mind that it cannot be induced by threats made in the name of the Lord. Hell and judgment are realities, and they must be preached in their biblical context as fully as the Bible teaches them, no more and no less; but they cannot induce that mysterious thing we call the fear of the Lord. Such fear is a supernatural thing, having no relation to threats of punishment. It has about it a mysterious quality, often without much intellectual content; it is a feeling rather than an idea; it is the deep reaction of a fallen creature in the presence of the holy Being the stunned heart knows is God. The Holy Spirit alone can induce this emotion in the human breast. All effort on our part to superinduce it is wasted, or worse.” (A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous [WingSpread Publishers:2006], p.41)
Above all we who know the living God through our Lord Jesus Christ must tell the truth about ourselves and to each other. This must be done in love, of course, but it must be done. For sin will not be rooted out of a person’s heart and life if truth-telling and sin do not go together. More often than not we simply ignore the signs of disobedience in the lives of others; rarely do we confront one another with the truth about our attitudes toward God and our favorite evil behavior. And even more rarely do we open up to each other and extend trust so that such truth-telling about sin can happen. I would suggest that practicing extending trust and truth-telling about sin will open the door to genuine repentance and revival in our Christian communities.