“Remembering a sin that we have committed does not mean that the sin has not been forgiven. This remembrance of our sins is only a warning to us lest we become proud and sin again. In fact, we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Many years ago I had the opportunity to become familiar with Orthodox prayers from several different sources. There was one prayer in particular that made a big impression on me; it included asking God to forgive a long, enumerated list of a wide variety of more and less common sins. There is one sin from that list that keeps popping up in readings, conversations, and probably most commonly while hearing confessions. That sin is called, “the remembrance of wrongs.” I have sought explanation about this sin and believe I have been able to understand its meaning and nuances. At this holy time of the year it is very appropriate to meditate on the topic of forgiveness.
Are there good remembrances and bad remembrances of sins? It seems to be so. Since the Elder has explained somewhat here the good remembrance let us look at the bad remembrance. It is my experience that the bad remembrance has two components. First, there can be certain attachments to a sin which continue to arouse one’s interest. Yes, even one who is sincere in their repentance can still be attracted to the sins from which they are repenting. Therefore remembering a past sin can be a major source of temptation and provocation, especially if it is remembered with nostalgia and in detail. Second, there is the distinct possibility that one remembers their sins because they are afraid that God has not forgiven them. This is something I’m certain every priest hears from time to time as a confessor: spiritual children re-confessing certain sins “just in case” God didn’t hear and forgive them the first time. When this is the case I am always compassionate, but there are times when I have to be both compassionate and firm. If the remembrance of our sins is based in doubt over God’s forgiveness then we are adding sin to sin. One must be reminded in these situations that God’s forgiveness is, like His love, absolute and unconditional. What are we preparing ourselves for during the holy Lenten season? It is the entrance into the death and resurrection of our Lord. While we should be doing this every day of our lives the annual journey of Lent and the celebration of Pascha is time set aside not as a simple commemoration of a distant, dusty past but as a complete and present affirmation of the work of the Cross and the mystery of the empty tomb.
When one uses words like “absolute” and “unconditional” when referring to God’s forgiveness it must be understood that this does not mean “cheap grace.” First of all, since God’s grace can never be earned (what could a man do to earn/deserve this priceless gift?) it can never be “cheap.” The point is this: when Jesus died on the Cross He did not did not die for only some sins, He died for ALL sins. While the covering of this grace is beyond comprehension, we are yet asked to understand – and accept – this grace as the gift of love in which it is intended. When in Confession or in our daily prayers we ask God to forgive our sins we are essentially asking for a gift that we have already received. Why do we do this? We find an answer in the Elder’s words “we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.” The confession of sin is an act of contrition where we openly admit our mistakes, before God and our confessor, and offer our conscience at the altar of forgiveness. Each of us must know that a man can deceive himself into thinking there is nothing “wrong” with him and therefore he doe not need confession, but the clear truth is that a man can never deceive his conscience. The cleansing we receive through sincere confession readies the soul through the conscience to stand before God in judgment; it is the preparation of man’s inner heart and mind to receive the great gift that has already been given. Our belief in this gift is vital to our growth in virtue which, when lacking, according to St. Peter’s second letter, is a direct result of forgetting that we’ve been “cleansed from [our] old sins” (1:3-9). Or to put it in a more colloquial way, “The man who forgets his past is bound to repeat it.”
Beloved, if we must, let us remember our past sins, but only in ways that are helpful; beyond this let us more importantly remember the Cross and the empty tomb, now as we once again approach Holy Pascha, and always. The love of God is seen in the Life that He has given us and desires us to receive. May we receive it joyfully and each day realize with thankfulness that the Kingdom of God is near!