The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
“When we identify ourselves as sinners, we are not speaking ontologically. That is, we are not speaking of our truest selves seated with Christ in the heavenly realms or as those declared righteous by his saving work. Rather, we are speaking existentially of our daily struggle with the passions and the human condition. We are facing into the reality of life in this broken world and our not-yet glorified humanity, posturing ourselves for God's unfailing mercy.” --Sinner Irenaeus
When we say the Jesus Prayer, some Evangelicals balk that we would identify as sinners, since we’ve been forgiven and are now, somehow, ontologically in Christ and identified as ‘saints.’ But clearly we keep on sinning and need to receive daily mercy.
So I am wondering what word you would use to fill in this blank: “When we identify ourselves as sinners, we are not speaking ontologically. We are speaking __________ of our daily struggle with the passions and the human condition. We are speaking not of our truest selves seated with Christ in the heavenly realms or as those declared righteous by his saving work. Rather, we are facing into the reality of life in this world and our not-yet glorified humanity.”
That is, we identify ourselves with the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), publican (Luke 18:9-14)and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), awake to our need for mercy and gratefully receiving that mercy from Christ the all-merciful.
They are worth recounting:
- “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
- "God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
- “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
These prayers are sometimes downplayed or even scorned for their supposed "worm theology" (which, by the way, the Psalmist puts in the Messiah's mouth in Psalm 22:6). But they are not theological statements to be corrected--they are expressions of the human condition, cries of the stricken conscience, and appeals to the goodness and generosity of a gracious God.
Note: not only did Christ commend these prayers--he actually composed two of them and answered all three of them.
So I think the right word us “existentially” but wanted to run that and the whole sentence by you for quality control.
“Existentially” probably works, but “experientially” might work better. I’ll try to think of another word though if that doesn’t capture it. ...or “behaviorally”? ...even, in some sense, “phenomenologically.”
Yes, both those words came up for me.
Behaviorally fits in that sin is actually a regular behavior and in that sense, I'm still a 'sinner.' That is, I actually do sin. Some of the 'pure grace' folks even deny this and do gymnastics around 1 John 1.
I thought of phenomenologically too, but it's more than a perspective—it's an actual experience, which is what bumped me to existentially.
Thanks for thinking with me!
If it's an actual experience, then "experientially" might just work, but I think "existentially" works fine too.
I'd also push back a bit (or want some clarification) on your opening line. I think the fathers would say that we are sinners ontologically — or when we identify ourselves as sinners, we are speaking ontologically. There is a distortion or corruption, which is why the medical rather than juridical model applies. To overlook this means becoming susceptible to a juridical / penal paradigm. But you also allude to what's true about this line, but I think it needs to be made clearer (which maybe it is in the rest of your piece): viz., that we are not sinners ontologically if by this we mean our true selves or "heart," which Ware defines as "the spiritual center of man's being, the human person as made in God's image—the deepest and truest self, the inner shrine to be entered only through sacrifice and death." This true self is still "there" under the layers of sin and persona and accretions of all sorts, but the nous requires purification to see and unite to God, which Ware again identifies as "the highest faculty of humans, through which—provided it is purified—he knows God or the inner essence or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception.”
So there is something—our "heart" or true self—that's left intact deep down, and in this sense, we are not sinners ontologically. But layers that have developed through distractions and their ramifications and that therefore hide and distort need to be peeled back, and in this sense, we are sinners ontologically.
What do you think? Does this resonate?
I think I'm tracking with you, but I'm not all the way there yet.
Here's where I might resist. See what you think:
- I'm thinking about ontologically in terms of human essence or being, which is created in the image of Jesus Christ.
- When we participate in sin, we are participating in non-being or a turning from the good. In that sense, a false self rather than a less true layer of the self.
- One of the theological issues that comes up then (probably since the Keswick crew in the UK) is that we don't have two natures.
They would say we have an old nature, which dies with Christ, and a new nature, with rises with him. We are not our old nature, so they would push back at those translations that render sarx as 'the sinful human nature.' No, they say, the sarx has to do with passions and desires rooted 'the flesh,' and it is through reckoning ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (in our perspective? in our behaviour?) that the new self emerges and overcomes the passions. So they acknowledged the reality of 'flesh' as a seat of desire that can lure us into sin (James 1), but they want to be careful not to set up a two-nature ontology.
- But that's Keswick. When I think of the Eastern Fathers, they have a much higher ontology than Augustine and his Western progeny. The diamond of the image of Christ is still there, but tarnished by participation in the passions and attachment to the world. But the tarnish or even the layers of mud aren't the diamond or the image ... i.e. not our ontology? Rather, the one human nature may participate in any given moment in the new humanity of Christ, or we may turn from the good, participate in non-being and embed the diamond again in the mud. To which Romans 6 replies, "Why would you do that? Why participate in that which is already dead? So in that context, it's as if he's calling them from a delusional participation back into their 'identity.'
- How then does this fit with the Jesus Prayer? Maybe I could say, ontologically, I am human. As a human, I died with Christ and rose with him ontologically on Resurrection Sunday and participated existentially at my baptism. And yet this is only the beginning of that journey from non-being into being ... through willing participation. And to the degree that I continue to participate in sin, I am a sinner.
Now there could be a lot of errors above, but try this on: "In my ontology--my new self in Christ--I participate in his life in me. But experientially, I find myself also participating in sin. To the degree that I participate in sin, I am a sinner."
Although this is much more interesting than anything I'm doing, I'll have to get back to you later on this given how busy I am with other things.
The only thing I'll say quickly is that my concern revolves around what I would like to keep intact — viz., our transfiguration, which is an ontological process. And if we require a transfiguration, this would necessarily imply that there is something or someone yet to be transfigured who is therefore not yet transfigured. Even the "have mercy on me" part of the Jesus Prayer alludes to the oil of healing, where healing is also an ontological process.
But I've certainly tracked with much of what you've written and wouldn't say it's wrong (as if I'm qualified to determine this . . .); we're all being imprecise while fumbling around clumsily with a mystery.
Sorry to carry on. Just leave this until you get time.
Here's a theory:
Transfiguration involves two processes:
- Cleansing: The cleansing of every stain (the tarnish on the diamond) through the blood of Christ.
- Glorification: Aside from our stains, didn't unfallen Adam still need to be glorified? So the diamond itself continues to be transfigured from glory to glory even after all sin is washed away.
In this model, the diamond is the image, whereas the tarnish affects the likeness. The diamond is my ontology. The tarnish is my experience as a sinner.
I re-read your five points, and I think you may have simply reworded what I meant when I wrote, "we are not sinners ontologically if by this we mean our true selves or 'heart,' which Ware defines as 'the spiritual center of man's being, the human person as made in God's image—the deepest and truest self, the inner shrine to be entered only through sacrifice and death,'" and when I wrote that "there is something—our 'heart' or true self—that's left intact deep down, and in this sense, we are not sinners ontologically." So I think we ultimately do agree. And your analogy of the diamond and tarnish is a good one that reflects how I read many of the fathers. The tarnish, however, I think affects our ontology—perhaps not reducing it quantitatively, but maybe undermining it qualitatively by clouding it, oppressing it, disenfranchising it, weakening it. This is perhaps how the ontological / existential explanation plays out: the ontology (being) is still there, but it can't do (behavior) what it wants.
I've also used the being / non-being explanation more and more lately, and I think it's a very good one. As God is everywhere and fills all things and—according to many of the fathers, including Gregory of Nyssa—is not beyond being (contra what Plotinus might say or Eriugena or Jean-Luc Marion) but is instead true being. And wherever there is being, this is divinity. So, what we identify as not of God or antichrist is non-being—the hell we create because we're held captive to death. Fr. Michael has written a good deal on this too more recently in his exploration into the writings of St. Maximus the Confessor on his blog.
And I think that this focus on being and non-being is a good one because it ties into the distractions that hesychia and nepsis guard against. The distractions introduce more and more layers of tarnish in the form of cultural accretions, persona, self-editing the projection of who I am to others, etc. Fr. Stephen Freeman is helpful in some respects on this in his critique of the "modern project." In this piece here, for example, he observes, "In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization." This "self-actualization" ironically comprises the layers of tarnish that accrue through modern distractions. This is the hell we create as a deeper participation in non-being that creates more and more layers of tarnish that oppress our true self.
I like where you're going with all of this and look forward to reading it!
Well then, I think I’ll just copy and paste our conversation. Thanks for your help!