As I was growing up, I was taught that because of my own free will, I was responsible for my sins, and that these sins separated me from God. Though I could never do anything to fix my sins or carry myself back across the chasm I’d put between myself and God, Jesus, through means I could never articulate, has bridged the gap between myself and God and put away all my sins. All I had to do to accept this gift was to ask that Jesus apply it to me; through a sincere, contrite prayer offered to Jesus, I had to ask that he forgive me of my sins and live in me, so as to assure my salvation forever.
I did that when I was six years old, when, presumably, I was first able to grasp this need in myself. But I have distinct memories of feeling this need in myself soon thereafter. One of my most vivid memories of this was while I was riding in the backseat of our family car, possibly on the way to church, and, staring out the window, began begging Jesus to come into my heart again in case I hadn’t sincerely asked him before. In my most lucid moments of self-awareness all of my life I’ve felt this need, over and over: the need to be saved… from myself. I don’t doubt the sincerity of my prayer as a six-year-old, or the sincerity of my subsequent prayers for mercy and salvation when feeling the weight of my own sin. And I don’t doubt Jesus’ gracious presence and answer in the affirmative to any of those prayers. But I have come to gravely doubt my own fidelity to Jesus. I’m prone to leave the God I love.
I’ve since learned that this phenomenon of consistently rebelling against the God who loves me so much, even after having tasted his goodness and comfort, is not unique to myself. I had actually long shared this strange and confusing burden with others like myself who could make nothing of it in the shadow of the great doctrine Once Saved, Always Saved. But then I encountered others who, though they shared my same burden of rebellion, did not carry it in the shadow of that overbearing doctrine, but continuously relinquished it in the light of God’s countenance. One of these is St. Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century Christian and deacon whose spiritual legacy is preserved in his many hymns, poems, and prayers. Ephrem brilliantly illustrates the spirituality common to the early Church in his prayers, a spirituality that is keenly aware of the sin nature in us all. His prayers speak what I’ve always intuitively felt but have never been able to say. He is aware of his own delusion, awake to his own slumber; he struggles against his own rebellion, and laments his own inability to properly lament his sins. His fear- and mine -is not that Jesus’ sacrifice is not enough to wash away our sins, but that we too often choose sin, and death, over life in Christ. This choosing of death happens deep in my heart every day, but as long as I repent, that is, turn to God and life instead of sin and death, then I may receive God’s mercy. I trust God’s mercy to be eternal, but will my rebellion be eternal? Please God, I hope not. But the battle of my rebellion and my repentance, ever met with God’s mercy, is locked in this tangled conflict for as far as the eye can see, disappearing beneath the far horizon, sinking into the realm of eternity, and solely in God’s sight. Yet I can find help in the prayers of St. Ephrem, as well as in that great- the greatest -prayer in Christian Tradition, “Lord, have mercy on me.”
Love prompts me to speak to God, but my unworthiness forces me to be silent. Torturous spiritual afflictions compel me to talk, but sins force me to keep quiet. My soul languishes and my eyes long for tears.
You have sinned, O soul; repent. For our days pass by like a shadow. We will travel through terrible and frightening places. Do not put off turning to the Lord day after day. Become at last contrite, O my soul.
Become contrite at the thought of all the good things that you have received from the Lord, but not kept. Become contrite at the thought of what you have done, and how patient God has been with you. Become contrite, that at Christ’s terrible judgement you might not be sent to outer darkness.
Woe is me, a sinner. For because of my weakness I have become defiled, and ever do I defile the purity of my heart. Apathy and slothfulness have shamed the boldness of my heart. Evil desire commands me, like a master commands his slave, and I, like a child, immediately obey with fear. It leads me into sin and this gladdens me.
Woe is me, O Lord! Thy grace draws me toward life, but I instead prefer death. Thou takest pains that I might become as honorable as the angels; but I, in my depravity, debase myself. My sins have multiplied, O Lord, and ceaselessly do they multiply and there is no limit to their multitude.
And who will mourn for me or pray for me? Do Thou, O my Savior, Thyself condescend to have mercy on me through Thy grace and regard me who despair with compassion! For how will I pray to Thee, O Master, when my mouth is filled with vile words? Or how will I sing praises to Thee, when my conscience is defiled? Or how will I love Thee, when I am filled with passions? Or how will truth dwell in me, when I have cursed myself with lies? Or how will I call upon Thee, when I have not kept Thy commandments?
-A prayer of St. Ephrem, excerpted in the volume A Spiritual Psalter