Brad Jersak and Andrew Klager recently posted a wonderful conversation on the Jesus Prayer, focusing in on the last phrase, ‘me, a sinner.’ The Jesus Prayer is very important to me. It has been central to my prayer life for a number of years now. I have chewed on it, over-analyzed it, and let it grow in my spirit at an agonizingly slow pace.
I suspect Orthodox Christians would not approve of how I’ve gone about cultivating their wonderful prayer in my own heart, but to be honest, I learned the prayer before I knew it belonged to them.
When I was a teenager, I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer in a novel where one of the characters in the story prayed the prayer. It resonated with me. It stuck with me more than the memory of the novel. It became a part of my prayers over the years, sometimes strongly, sometimes not at all. Then, years later, I discovered the incredible history of this short prayer. I learned more about how profound the words are. Since then, the Jesus Prayer has become very important to me.
I’ve thought about the Jesus Prayer extensively but I will focus on the final phrase, which caused me some consternation as I journeyed with the Prayer. When I would come to the end of the Jesus Prayer and say the words ‘me, a sinner,’ I would feel strong emotions about the words. I felt uncomfortable to be sure. My understanding of the word ‘sinner’ was pretty standard western fare: "you are a sinner; you are bad; you are in danger of not being accepted; you better try harder to get it right; why are you even praying? You can see the cascading tone of accusation. Worse, you can discern the real underlying problem: fear. The word ‘sinner’ was so charged for me that it would cause me to forget the words I’d just prayed: ‘have mercy on’.
To understand my problem, I needed to realize that I was fearful of being a sinner because my belief system--my fractured paradigm--said I was not lovable, not acceptable, and that my low self-esteem was an accurate picture of my true self. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the message that being a ‘sinner’ meant: "you should be afraid." It meant you were not yet good enough for God despite what Jesus has done for you. If Jesus can’t help you, then who can? Uglier words are difficult to imagine for me now. I needed a shift in thinking. I needed understanding.
Yet, despite this inner struggle, I wouldn’t stop praying the Prayer in full. I am stubborn, for good or ill. I knew the words were important. I knew they challenged me on a heart level and that meant they were doing something. It meant that Holy Spirit was working on something, and I refused the inclination to leave the phrase out. I also knew enough to know that fear isn’t what Jesus wants for us, but freedom. Recognizing this root of fear was freeing in a way--it led me onward to discover what the truth was. It kept me going until I had the pleasure of visiting with someone who unknowingly cleared it up for me.
Another element, to be really honest, is classic: Pride. Those who know me probably see that I can appear a little arrogant at times (Stop snickering!). This is one of those strange spiritual/ego dynamics that I hope everyone experiences so I don’t feel quite so alone. Inwardly, I struggle with self-esteem, yet outwardly would show off how much smarter I was than everyone else in the room. That used to be me. I was proud, arrogant and therefore, gasp!...how could I be a sinner!? Did anyone else know? I am so proud and ashamed and fearful and mixed up all at the same time…I sure hope no one notices. What a crazy way to live. Thankfully, the Lord has been transforming me. It is, of course, ridiculous to say it, but I am far humbler now than I used to be, but please read that in the light of this: I have been humbled. Humbled in so many ways by others, by circumstances, by God. And I’ve been able to handle it, in large part, because my understanding of the Jesus Prayer grew. How, you may ask?
I have been reading and discovering more about Orthodox Christianity. This was inevitable as I came to love and value the Jesus Prayer more and more. One day, I decided that I needed to attend an Orthodox service. When I asked Brad if he thought it would be all right for me to accompany him on a Sunday, he was kind enough to say, ‘Yes.’ So, with much anticipation, I went one cold Sunday morning with Brad to church. The experience was overwhelming for reasons I won’t talk about here, as that would distract from our current topic.
After the service, I was honoured to be able to sit and have lunch with Brad and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, who had led the Liturgy. We chatted, but I was too shy to pepper him with questions, though I think he wanted me to. As we visited, he told me this:
"Sin," he said, "is that which alienates us from God and from one another. Jesus has ended our alienation from God and given us the grace to overcome our alienation from one another." My heart skipped a beat; a light dawned in my heart and mind. These words shifted my understanding of ‘me, a sinner’ profoundly. I realized that when I prayed, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ I was confessing my participation as an alienator. I was humbled. This was, of course, true and it was a truth I could grasp and heartily confess. Why this so impacted me, I can’t say, other than it was how Holy Spirit decided to work within me. I need mercy in this regard every day.
I had mistakenly thought the word 'sinner' meant I was unworthy of God’s redemptive love because I could never measure up to a code of rules. I came to realize that the word 'sinner' was simply an acknowledgment of my tendency towards alienation, but that through Christ’s mercy and grace, I didn’t have to give up and continue to be that kind of person.
After this, my Jesus Prayer changed. I had known it only as a petition, which certainly it is, but it became far more to me. It became, and is, more like a love song, for when I enter my heart and pray the Prayer, I experience the mercy and the love of Jesus as he works on my heart, increasing his merciful grace in my spirit, liberating me from my alienation from God, and drawing me closer and closer to him.
It also shows me again and again how I need his merciful action in my heart to empower me to have mercy and grace for people—no matter who and where—recognizing the love and compassion he has for them, just as he has for me. Here, I must resist writing something too long, but suffice to say, praying ‘me, a sinner’ has become a joyous and humbling confession that I am indeed a sinner. Yet, I am a sinner who has been shown incredible mercy and now able respond with mercy, loving others instead of responding out of passions that push them away from me and away from Jesus. I don’t claim to be perfect in this regard, but at least I am following Jesus in this direction, the direction of his heart.
The interesting result is also that when I do sin in action, I find it much easier to face Jesus and confess my sins to him. I have become confident in his promise to forgive my sins when I confess them. I no longer suffer from a fear of sin, though I certainly don’t take sin lightly. Rather, I am consistently humbled and amazed by the loving forgiveness that Jesus extends to me when I come before him, for I know deep in my being that we are no longer alienated from one another.
In the article by Brad and Andrew, they consider the question of what word to put into the blank space in the following sentence: “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.”
I would humbly insert the word ‘experientially,’ for this has been my...ahem...experience.