“Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14), – such a commandment was given by the Lord to the healed paralytic. Dear brethren! This commandment of the Lord has a significance of the utmost importance for us. It tells us that we are subjected to illnesses and other tribulations of earthly life for our sins. Whenever God delivers us from illness or tribulation, and then we resume our sinful life, we once again become subjected to misfortunes heavier than the original punishments and lessons that had been sent to us by God.
Sin is the cause of all man’s misfortunes, both in time and in eternity. Sorrows constitute a natural consequence, a natural appurtenance of sin, just as the sufferings arising from physical illnesses constitute an inevitable appurtenance of these illnesses. Sin, in the broad sense of the word, or in other words – mankind’s fall or eternal death, encompasses all people without exception; some sins constitute the sorrowful legacy of entire human societies; finally, each person has his own specific vices, his own particular sins, belonging to him alone. In all these various forms sin serves as the source of all sorrows and misfortunes to which mankind in general is subjected, to which human societies are subjected, to which each person in particular is subjected.
The state of the fall, the state of eternal death with which all of mankind is affected, infected, struck down – is the source of all other human sins, both public and private. Our nature, disrupted by the poison of sin, acquired the ability to sin, acquired the propensity for sin, became subjected to the violence of sin, cannot refrain from engendering sin, cannot do without it in all forms of activity.
Three punishments were passed by God’s justice upon mankind for the sins of all mankind. Two of them have already come to pass; one is still to come. The first punishment was eternal death, to which all mankind was subjected in the person of its forefathers, for disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. The second punishment was the deluge, for mankind’s having allowed flesh to dominate the spirit, for mankind’s descent to the level of beasts. The last punishment will be the destruction and end of this visible world, for apostasy from the Redeemer, for mankind’s ultimate deviation into communion with the rejected spirits.
Often a specific kind of sin overwhelms entire human societies and draws God’s punishment upon them. Thus the Sodomites were burned by fire that descended from heaven for their criminal satisfaction of the desires of the flesh; thus the Israelites were often subjugated to other peoples for deviating into idolatry; thus stone was not left upon stone in magnificent Jerusalem, built from wondrous stones, while its inhabitants fell from the swords of the Romans for their rejection of the Saviour and for theocide. Sin is contagious: it is hard for a single person to withstand a sin that permeates his entire society.
An example of punishment for sin committed by a person individually and punished by God’s justice also individually can be seen in the lengthy illness of the paralytic who was healed by the Lord.
Having spoken of the sinfulness of all mankind and of the sinfulness of human societies, let us turn our particular attention to individual sinfulness, of which each person has his own. Such an examination is essential for us and quite beneficial. It can have a salvific effect on our activity, turning it away from the path of iniquity and directing it towards the will of God. Enlightened by the law of God, we will learn that God, though infinitely merciful, is absolutely just, and that He will mete out appropriate punishment for sinful life. Such conviction will persuade us to make an all-out effort to free ourselves from the lure of both our own passions and the deprave customs of society, to be delivered from God’s punishments, both temporal and eternal.
The Holy Fathers assert that before mankind’s redemption all people were dominated by sin, and committed sin even against their own will. After mankind’s redemption by the Son of God, those who believe in Christ and have been sanctified by Holy Baptism are no longer forced by sin, but have the freedom to either resist sin or follow its persuasion. Those who subject themselves to sin voluntarily lose their freedom anew and fall under forced domination by sin. Those who, guided by the Word of God, engage in battle with sin and resist it, – achieve full victory over sinfulness in their own time.
Victory over one’s own sinfulness is likewise victory over eternal death. Those who achieve this victory can easily avoid the sins of society. We see this in the holy martyrs: having vanquished sin within themselves, they stood up against public delusion, denounced it, and did not hesitate to seal their witness with their own blood. Whoever is enticed and blinded by his own sins cannot avoid being lured by the sinful mood of society; he will not discern it clearly, he will not comprehend it properly, he will not reject it selflessly, but will belong to it with his heart. The essence of the battle against sin, a battle in which each Christian should be engaged, consists of combating sin, of shunning any ties with it, of overcoming it within one’s soul, mind, and heart, which the body will then follow. “Eternal death – says the venerable Macarius the Great, – is located secretly within the heart: it makes a person dead, even though outwardly he may seem alive. Whoever in the innermost depths of the heart went from death to life, will live forever and will never die. Although the bodies of such persons are parted from their souls for a while, they remain sanctified and will arise again in glory. For this reason the death of saints is called sleep.”
All the saints without exception, despite having vanquished eternal death and revealed eternal life within themselves while still living on earth, were subjected to many and heavy sorrows and tribulations. Why so? It is characteristic for sinners to draw God’s punishment upon themselves; yet for what reason does God’s staff not spare God’s elect, but strikes them with blows?
According to the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers, this question is resolved in the following manner. Although sinfulness has been vanquished in righteous people, although eternal death has been destroyed by the presence of the Holy Spirit within them, yet they have not been established in immutable goodness for the entire period of their earthly wandering, they have not been deprived of the freedom to choose good or evil. Immutability in goodness is a characteristic of eternal life. Life on earth is – to its very last hour – a battleground of voluntary and involuntary spiritual struggles. But I tame my body and subjugate it, – says the great Paul, – lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should remain unworthy (1 Cor. 9:27). The apostle says this of a body that was sanctified by God’s grace, a body that was not harmed a whit by an echidna’s malignant poison, a body whose vestments produced healing. And such a body was in need of taming and subjugation, in order for its deadened passions not to revive, in order for eternal death not to be resurrected! For as long as a Christian – be he ever a vessel of the Holy Spirit – wanders on earth, eternal death may revive in him, and sinfulness may once again overwhelm both his body and soul.
However, one’s own labors are not enough for God’s servants to tame the fallen man, who continuously aspires to revive his dominance within them: they need help from God. God aids them with His grace and with His fatherly staff of punishment, in accordance with each one’s state of grace. The great Paul was given, – as he testifies, – a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure (2 Cor. 12:7), for the sake of his most rapturous achievement, for the sake of the multitude of divine revelations he had received, for the sake of the numerous spiritual gifts he possessed, for the sake of the multitude of miracles he performed. Our nature is so corrupted by the poison of sin that even the abundance of God’s grace in man may serve as the cause of pride and perdition for such a man. It was neither honors, nor glory, nor strict obedience that met Paul when he preached Christ to the universe, confirming the truth of the preaching with miracles, but a demon of Satan strewed his path with machinations, resistance, humiliation, persecution, tribulations, death. Having learned that all this was being done with God’s tolerance, Paul exclaims: Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecution, in distresses for Christ’s sake (2 Cor. 12:10). Paul found it necessary to tame his body, so that any indulgence shown to it would not give rise to bodily passions. God’s Providence discerned that Paul’s soul should be protected from pride by means of misfortune. Even the purest human nature has something prideful within itself, remarks the venerable Macarius the Great. This is the reason why God’s servants subject themselves to voluntary deprivations and sorrows, and at the same time are subjected to the various misfortunes and temptations allowed by God’s Providence, which through these sorrows assists God’s servants in their spiritual labors and protects their spiritual labors from being corrupted by sin.
The path of earthly life for all the saints was a burdened and thorny path, full of deprivation, surrounded by numerous tribulations. Some of them, – says the apostle, – were tortured, and others had trial of cruel mocking and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment; they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented; those of whom the world was not worthy wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth (Heb. 11:35-38). The blessed Simeon Metaphrastes remarks in the life of the great martyr Eustace: “It is not pleasing to God that His servants, for whom He had prepared eternal and immutable honor and glory in heaven, be honored and glorified by vain and temporal worship in this fickle and impermanent world.” Why is that? Because there is not a single person who could remain at the pinnacle of worldly grandeur and well-being without harming his soul. Even someone equal in morality to the angels would waver. The fall has instilled in us, in our souls a state of impermanence. The disposition of our spirit cannot but be in accord with our external circumstances and material situation. “My soul cleaveth unto the dust!” (Psalm 119:25), confesses the prophet to God on behalf of every fallen person. – Only Thy hand, Thy most-holy Word, and Thy most-holy Providence raise me from the ground, detach me from it, lead me to salvation by diluting my temporal well-being with sorrows and at the same time comforting me with blessed spiritual comfort, which instills into my heart an aspiration towards heaven. Without such help from God, by my own unfortunate inclination, which I could not have withstood solely on my own, my mind and heart would have become attracted only to material things, and I would have deceived myself terribly, destructively, forgetting about eternity and the blessings that have been prepared for me in it, and I would have forfeited them forever.”
The true servants of God accepted the sorrows to which they were subjected by God’s providence with submission to God, with gratitude and glorification of God. They found their sorrows to be beneficial, needful, necessary for themselves, acknowledged them to be right and good. They united the striving of their wills with the action of God’s will; they were pleased with the chastisement and lessons sent to them from God.
It is with such an inner disposition and such a frame of mind that the saints looked upon the misfortunes that assailed them. The results of such an attitude promoted by humility were spiritual comfort and joy, a revival of the soul through experiencing sensations of the future eternal life. What will we, sinners, say of the sorrows that come upon us? What is, first of all, their original cause? As we have seen, the original cause of human suffering is sin, and every sinner would do well, whenever he is visited by tribulations, to immediately turn his mind’s eye upon his sins, acknowledge his sins, accuse his sins, accuse himself for his sins, and acknowledge tribulation as a righteous punishment from God.
There is another reason for sorrows, and that is – God’s mercy to frail mankind. By allowing sorrows to be visited upon sinners, God encourages them to come to their senses, to stop amid their unbridled amusements, to think of eternity and their relation to it, to think of God and their responsibilities to Him. The sorrows that are visited upon sinners serve as a sign that these sinners have not yet been forgotten or rejected by God, that God still sees in them the ability to repent, to get back on track, and attain salvation.
Ye sinners, who are being punished by God, – be of good cheer! For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receives (Heb. 12:6). So tells us the Holy Writ, thus instructing, comforting, and fortifying us. Accept punishment with an awareness that you deserve punishment; accept punishment with gratitude, glorifying the just and merciful in His justice God; accept punishment with an unbiased examination of the life you have spent, confessing your sins, washing your sins away with the tears of repentance, rectifying your behavior. Often, requiring just minor correction outwardly, it requires great correction internally: correction of frame of mind, direction, motivation, intention. Through your sins you have deviated from the path of righteousness: do not lose it for good by grumbling, by trying to justify yourself before others, by despairing, by blaspheming God. Do not turn the helpful resources that have been provided to you to return to the path of piety, which have been used by the Lord Himself, into the means of your final perdition. Otherwise the Lord will become angry with you. He will turn His face away from you as from strangers, will not send you any sorrows as to those who have been forgotten and rejected, will allow you to waste your earthly life wallowing in your vices, and will command death to reap you in an instant, like chaff which of its own free will has become the property of the fires of hell.
Those who rightly suffer the sorrows sent to them by God become closer to God, dare to approach Him, become His sons. God fills with spiritual blessings the one who endures sorrows with a humble spirit, listens to his tender prayers, and often deflects the rod of punishment. This happened with the paralytic who lay for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda. The paralytic’s illness was a punishment for his sins, which can be seen from the instruction given by the Lord to the healed paralytic: Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.
The Lord, Who had instructed the healed paralytic not to fall into the same sins for which he had been punished with illness, gave the same instruction to the fallen woman whose sins He had forgiven. Go, – said the Saviour of the world to the woman who had been condemned to stoning by the supposed upholders of the law – and sin no more (John 8:11). Healing of the soul and healing of the body is performed by the merciful Lord under the same condition. The woman’s sin was mortal; obviously the paralytic’s sin also belonged to the category of mortal sins. Whoever has become bogged down in the abyss of mortal sins requires special help from God, and this help appears openly – in punishment, and covertly – in a summons to repentance. Man is summoned to repentance either by an illness that is sent to him, as in the case of the paralytic, or by persecution from other people, as happened to King David, or in some other manner. No matter in what form God’s punishment appears, it should be accepted with humility, and one should strive immediately to satisfy the divine purpose for which the punishment had been sent: apply to the healing properties of penitence and promise in one’s heart to abstain from the sin for which the Lord’s hand is chastising us. This sin will be properly indicated to us by our conscience. Forgiveness for the sin and deliverance from the sorrow with which we are being chastised for this sin will be granted to us by God only on condition of our rejecting the sin that is harmful to us and iniquitous in the eyes of God.
A return to the sin that had drawn God’s wrath upon us and afterwards had been forgiven by God serves as the cause of the greatest tribulations, primarily eternal tribulations in the other world. For thirty-eight years the paralytic suffered illness for his sin. An insignificant punishment! But the Lord announces a much greater punishment for a return to sin. What can such punishment be, and so much more severe than a protracted illness? – None other than eternal torment in hell, which awaits all non-repentant and incorrigible sinners.