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On Our Habit of Self-Justification. A Talk by Schema-Monk Archimandrite Abraham.

We all like to justify ourselves. For instance, angry, short-tempered people are often rude to others, but in response to a critique they can say: "I am incapable of not getting angry Ц my parents didn't raise me right." Or: "That's my nature, nothing to do about it." Or even: "Who is being rude? I am?! It's a lie, I am always nice and patient with people." We think that our justifications are completely right; and if we do sin, it is due to no fault of ours; it's because we are bothered by people, our nature, upbringing, health, weather, etc.

What does "self-justification" mean? The word in its structure indicates that this word implies the kind of behavior in which the person attributes justice to oneself, in other words, deems himself righteous. In theory we all consider ourselves to be sinners, repent at confession once a month or more often. Yet, when it comes to real life, we justify ourselves: I am not to blame in this situation; I am acting right in this regard... If we add up all these countless instances, it will turn out, to our shame and surprise, that we only call ourselves sinners, but in reality we consider ourselves righteous. And naturally, as we think about ourselves in this way, we thereby debase those who are around us, considering them to be blamed for everything, as if they lead us into temptation and make us sin.

Yet, the way of self-justification is a fallacious, disastrous way. Where does it lead? Either to the state when a person who is refusing to see his own sins gets spiritually obtuse and abandons all attempts to live according to the commandments, or he tries to change the circumstances which are "in the way" of his fulfilling of the Gospel. In this case, he begins to act in a completely un-Christian way, directing all his efforts not at his own self but at his surroundings, and most often, at other people. Yet, every person is a totally free creature, and at best we can only influence them a bit, but no one has the power to change a person who is unwilling to change himself. Thus, oftentimes anyone who makes such attempts sees their futility and falls into despair.

According to the teaching of the holy fathers, one of the most essential virtues for salvation is self-deprecation. I mean not that simplistic, even primitive manifestation of self-deprecation at which we insult, sting, and humiliate ourselves inside with certain words. By self-deprecation we should understand something deeper Ц the state of soul when a person sees his own fault in everything and does not blame the external things. If one would always see his own guilt, if he would not blame others for his own sins, Ц then he would inevitably start looking for means of changing himself. A person who acquired the habit of self-deprecation, is reconciled to the fact that his neighbor is not the way he would like he would like him to be, and starts manifesting love toward everyone, regardless of whether that person is good or bad, a friend or an enemy. One stops justifying himself on the grounds that he got a poor upbringing, because he knows that he is free and if he only wished, he could have behaved differently, choosing the good and rejecting that which he had been fallaciously taught as a child or at school. He would not point to friends leading him into temptation, but instead will start either estranging himself from them, or will be trying to consciously change himself, despite their tempting behavior. He will then stop paying attention to anything else that is external with regard to one's free will; he will stop paying attention to the external things, knowing that he is the one to blame for having deviated in his free will towards evil. Nothing can force a person to do evil, unless he is willing to, and especially if we are talking about Christians Ц the people whom the Lord Jesus Christ has freed through His sufferings on the cross and through sacraments from being subject to sin. Since the time of Christ's coming, one only sins in a voluntary way and not at the onslaught of circumstances as it used to be (and to an extent could be justified) prior to the coming of Christ.

Two ways of thinking, two states of soul Ц self-justification and self-deprecation Ц are depicted in the Gospel, even though there they are not called in these very words, the terms of the ascetic literature with which we have grown accustomed to operate.

Let us consider the well-known parable about the publican and the pharisee to which one of the Sundays before the Great Lent is dedicated Ц the Sunday of the publican and the pharisee. "Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess." This man was justifying himself and didn't see his sins. Such self-justification (if we are to use the ascetic terminology) has estranged him from God. Further it is said in the Gospel: "And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." It turns out that the one who justifies himself raises himself up, and the one who deprecates himself humbles himself.

What do the words of the publican: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" mean? Or the words of the Jesus prayer (essentially they are one and the same): "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"? A sinner is the one who is guilty in the ethical sense. In this way, when we pronounce the Jesus prayer, we constantly deprecate ourselves before God: "Forgive me, guilty in the transgression of the moral commandments." This is what we say, but do we feel this? Do we penetrate into the meaning of these words, does our heart take part in pronouncing them, or does it stay cold? Or perhaps, saying the words of the publican: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner," we in fact mean as the pharisee: "God, I thank Thee, that I a m not as other men are," and that I lead a spiritual life, go to confession, and pray the Jesus prayer? We speak these words of repentance and self-deprecation, but we are having pharisaic thoughts that are in the way of an authentic, attentive, sincere prayer. We justify ourselves both before ourselves and before other people, because this kind of attitude cannot help but burst out. Sometimes we humble ourselves on the outside, because we know that we are in a certain milieu: in a monastery or in Christian settings, at large: humility is looked favorably upon and is deemed something significant. The publican, in the meantime, had spoken just one word about himself Ц "sinner," and if one says something like this sincerely, from all his soul, it means he has acquired the virtue of self-deprecation.

When a man everywhere and at all times thinks himself to be a sinner, it is reflected in any everyday-life situation. We justify ourselves at every conflict, but that kind of person would say: "Yes, I am to blame, I have sinned." Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk once in a talk with a certain free-thinker from the nobility began to prove that his discourse on God was wrong. The nobleman, having flared up, gave the saint a slap in the face. The saint then made a prostration before him and said: "Forgive me for God's sake that I have tempted you." This had such an effect on this indignant man that he himself fell on the ground at the saint's feet and asked for forgiveness and became a good Christian later on. It would seem that St. Tikhon in this case was not to blame for anything, but, as a humble man and a true Christian, he saw his fault even here. If we sincerely thought ourselves to be sinners, if we were to say the words of the Jesus prayer: "Have mercy on me, a sinner" with sincerity, then at any circumstance we would be finding the fault in ourselves and not in the surrounding people, things, circumstances, situations, etc.

We very often justify ourselves, preferring to the commandments of the Gospel and to the biddings of our conscience the so-called demands of common sense. Yet, needful to say that "common sense" (not the true one, of course, but the one that is used by the world) does change with years and especially with the change of epochs. The pagans of the antiquity had one kind of "common sense"; the lukewarm Christians of the times of Christian sovereignty in the civilized world had another kind; the modern materialists and atheists have yet the third kind; the Muslims Ц the fourth one; the Buddhists Ц the fifth one... All of these diverse "common senses," however, unanimously rise against the Christian ethics. At times, it could be seen very clearly Ц the struggle happens between people: some defend the position of the Church and the Church Tradition, others are hostile to it, Ц for instance, from the perspectives of atheism or worldly materialism which manifests in the person's indifference towards spiritual truths and caring only for one's material good. In cases like this, it is much easier to tell. Nevertheless, unfortunately, it happens very often that we ourselves, Orthodox Christians, absorb something from the world and adhere to this alleged common sense, not even realizing or noticing it. Then the struggle between the worldly "common sense" and the truth of Christianity is taking place within us! Unfortunately, it often ends with a victory of this "common sense": we yield to it and trump our Christian conscience.

Whenever we follow this alleged common sense, we also manifest self-justification. Violating certain things from the Gospel teaching and the Orthodox Tradition, we justify ourselves on the grounds that common sense tells us to act in this way: to follow our man-pleasing, fainthearted, or a different kind of passion, in order to not suffer harm or affliction. By justifying ourselves through "common sense," we constantly and thus defiantly, boldly, provokingly go back on the gospel teaching. We must realize that we act sinfully, perhaps out of fear, and to ask the Lord for forgiveness.

We have the publican and the Pharisee within ourselves. The publican self-deprecates, the Pharisee justifies himself. One and the same person instantly repents and becomes a publican; and a few minutes later he justifies himself and turns into a Pharisee. If we do not persist in this struggle, if we incline to self-justification, then, like the Pharisees and the lawyers, we will go far from Christ and will be deprived of Divine grace. We will not receive help in the fulfillment of the commandments and will be left barren.

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