Show me the Evidence!

#33 of a Series on Psalm 50

The psalm of David we’ve been studying has been a fascinating dive into the human mind, and spiritually, the human heart.  The study would be an interesting one, not only for those seeking spiritual meaning, but also psychological understanding.  But it’s easy to speculate about another’s thoughts or do amateur psychoanalysis, but do we really know what they thought?  Where is the evidence?  When it comes to repentance, it’s not enough to profess sorrow.  Recently, I heard it put this way by a Protestant believer, “Repentance is not just sin management.”  Our modern thinking is so outcome and ends-focused that we ignore the inner realities driving our decisions. Repentence is a re-orientation of those inner thoughts and drives. But what we do consistently serves as the roadmap to the heart.

Prove It

When I was a kid and we another kid bragged about his achievements or prowess, the response was immediate – Prove It!

The prophetic tradition of Scripture, of which Psalm 50 is a powerful part, requires evidence of repentence proven by the deeds exercised by the human will. Essentially the message is, “Believe, say, and do the same thing.

The Psalm that precedes Psalm 50 includes these words:

Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…

But to the wicked person, God says:

What right have you to recite my lawsor take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.

 When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.
You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.
You sit and testify against your brother  and slander your own mother’s son.
When you did these things and I kept silent,  you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you and set my accusations before you.

                                                                                                                                Ps. 49:7-9, 16-21

This repeats the theme announced by David in Psalm 50 – the deeds must match the words. Anything else is wicked duplicity.

Repentance as Action

When the Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he built on the teaching of St. John the Baptist, who preached repentance – whose message was, basically, ‘Repent, then prove you’ve repented by your deeds.’  John’s baptism was a sign of that repentance – or change of heart.

St. Luke’s Gospel[i] reports it this way,

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit, then, in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe lies ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” John replied, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Collect no more than you are authorized,” he answered.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages.”

What we see here is something of the sketch of a moral code of required behaviors for the repentant. The behaviors after Repentance and baptism must be consistent with the way of life of the disciple.  As John would recognize his role as Forerunner, and his disciples would begin to become followers of Jesus, they would hear the same messages from their new Master, and indeed, more stridently 

There must be a consistency in life behaviors with that of the repentant follower of Christ.  They take the form of commands, from a superior to a disciple.  In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the ‘moral code’ follows the baptismal narrative in the form of the Sermon on the Mount, and subsequent teachings.

Behavior Modification

I find it really easy to identify what is wrong in my personal situations, or things that are causing me discomfort.  Resolving those issues is a whole different matter.  That takes a change of behavior in many instances – not just a change in external forces.  We bring on much of our own suffering.

Repentance is even more than self-centered analysis, it’s God-focused.  My sin is against God and to be who God wills me to be I must change my thinking, my choices and resultant behaviors.  In a sense, it’s not just the behavior, but often the choice that precedes it that has come from a repentant heart.  So the internet pornography user who sees his life as offending God, must put to death his desire (lust) for it, decide that he doesn’t want to want it any more, then take all the steps necessary to so that he will not be subject to stimulating those passions in the heart, weakening and falling again into sin.  The behaviors that change would include steps like purging internet accounts, installing website blockers and filters, changing behaviors in eating and sleeping, regular confession – accountability to another such as a priest and submission to their recommendations, confronting patterns of thoughts in relationships, etc.  Sometimes this leads to a deeper journey as to where the passions arise from – psychological/emotional wounds, relational failures, etc. 

But it all starts with an act of will, bolstered by grace, to stop it all.  That, in Christianity is preceded by our awareness of Almighty God and His divine authority in my life – taking offense in me and my actions, but also affirming me on the path of penance.

St. John’s practical advice to the questions posed above –  ‘What must we do?’ – are  riveting:

  • “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”
  • “Collect no more than you are authorized”
  • “ Do not take money by force or false accusation,” he said. “Be content with your wages”

What I find interesting is that in each case, the remedy involved changing behavior regarding one’s possessions – the actions required of so many of our sins boil down to curbing desire and sharing with others. Both of these are a death to self.  The ones who obeys these directives gives evidence of their repentance and if this was necessary for the disciples who received St. John’s baptism how much more for the disciples of Jesus?

Action Required!

If we don’t change our behavior, we will surely fall back into the patterns of thinking from sins from which evil actions sprout.  This is why, in penitential practice, the wise priest prescribes an epitemia, or course of activity to help serve as a remedy for the spiritual sins. To the person who stole, she must return the items and any harm caused by his action. But many sins are less simple to address through specific overt actions – things like judging others, envy, pride, despondency, etc. How can behavioral change lead to attitudinal change such things?

St. Basil the Great, in one of his homilies on thanksgiving, says this:

Have you been dishonored? Then have regard for the glory which is laid up in Heaven through patient endurance. Have you suffered a loss? Then contemplate the heavenly wealth and treasure which you have laid up for yourself through your good deeds. Have you been expelled from your homeland? Then you have Jerusalem as your heavenly homeland. Have you lost a child? Then you have Angels, with whom you will dance around the Throne of God, rejoicing eternally. By thus opposing anticipated good things to present sorrows, you will keep your soul in the cheerfulness and tranquility to which the Apostles precept summons us. Neither let the joys of human affairs create immoderate and excessive gladness in your soul, nor let sorrows diminish its exultation and sublimity by feelings of dejection and abasement.

What he prescribes is a way of thinking that leads to a change of attitude, and behavior.  It is an invocation of the World View which comes from our Faith which is focused on eternal things.  In fact, much of the grief of our lives will never leave us because, focusing only on short-term worldly pursuits, we are continuously and forever to be disappointed in this world, and the others who occupy it. We then are unwilling to forgive them of their offenses.  St. Basil describes profound deprivations that lead to despondency in this life – even losing a child!  Only a trust in the eternal love of God can deliver us from despair and despondency and restore hope so that we do not act out of such dark feelings of loss. How many sinful behaviors – like addictions,  anger-driven broken relationships, children doing self-harm, sexual sins and perversions or materialistic indulgence or any of the slough of despairing behaviors we experience in twenty-first century life – can only be healed by a fresh Christian perspective on life in this world and hereafter?[ii]  

We confess our sinful actions.  In David’s case, he confesses his adultery and murderous behaviors.  We confess our sinful actions.  David repented, and while the rest of his life was not wine and roses, his restored love and trust in God enabled him to act in righteousness in his renewed outlook and life purpose.  May we do the same. Ω

[i] St. Luke’s Gospel is replete with moral teachings, particularly those involving the relationships of those in power, with the weak and the poor. This teaching is but a part.

[ii] I ask a question here because I don’t know.  It’s possible to take the saint’s words and turn them into a form of psychological and emotional denial of the reality of the sorrow experienced.  How many of our sermons or counsel to others in times of great suffering are little more than an invocation that they  put on rose colored glasses on a situation?  This is not love – it does not share in the pain, sorrow and grief?  But in such cases, to save us from despondency, we must keep one foot of leverage on the solid ground of our Christian world view, even as we descend into the depth of the deep sorrows of a broken world.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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