On the Value of Remembering Our Sins (according to John Chrysostom)
Anyone who is truly repentant should never forget their own sins. While it is good & proper for repentant souls to beg God not to remember their sins, it is beneficial for us to always remember them—for as long as we are in this life. For if we humble ourselves now by purposely & regularly calling our sins to mind, then God will purposely forget our sins on Judgment Day. Therefore, let us not be squeamish about exacting punishment from ourselves by remembering our sins. Let us accuse ourselves, and in this way, we shall propitiate the Judge. For sin that is confessed becomes less, but sin that is not confessed becomes worse. For if a person adds shamelessness & ingratitude to their pile of past sins, then how will such a person—who has purposely forgotten that they used to indulge in sin—be at all able to guard themselves from falling back again into the same sort of evils?
Do not be unwilling to remember your sins, and do not avoid feeling ashamed of them lest such evasion causes you to unwillingly pay the penalty for them. Let us admit them and not deny them. Cain heard God ask (in Gen 4:9), “Where is Abel your brother?” And Cain answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Do you see how this evasion made Cain’s sin more grievous? But Adam did not act like that. What did he do? When God called to Adam and asked, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9), Adam answered, saying, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10). It is a great good to acknowledge our sins, and to bear them in mind continually. Nothing so effectually cures a fault, as a continual remembrance of it. Nothing makes a person as slow to resort to wickedness.
I realize that it is only natural for a person’s conscience to avoid the pain of such remembrance. Our conscience has absolutely no desire to endure a scourging by the remembrance of evil deeds. However, we should exercise some spiritual discipline by holding our soul tightly and restraining it while we put a muzzle on it. For like an ill-broken horse, our soul bears impatiently what is put on it. It does not want to remind itself that it has indeed sinned—but such resistance is the work of Satan. Be resolved to convince your soul that it has sinned so that it may also repent and “do works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20). And let it continue to repent & continue to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8/Lk 3:8) so that it may escape eternal torment. How do you expect to obtain pardon for your sins when you have not yet confessed them? Assuredly, the person who has sinned is worthy of compassion & kindness, but if you have not yet persuaded yourself that you have sinned, then how do you expect to be pitied when you have no shame over the sinful things that you have done?
Therefore, let us persuade ourselves that we have sinned. Let us say it not with the tongue only, but also with the mind. Let us not merely call ourselves sinners, but let us also count & recount our sins, going over each of them specifically. I am not saying that you need to make a parade of yourself, nor even accuse yourself in the presence of others. Rather, take the counsel of the prophet when he says, “Reveal your way to the Lord” (Ps 37:5 LXX). Confess these things before God. Confess your sins before the Judge, with prayer. If you do not literally confess them aloud to Him with your tongue, then at least confess them silently to Him in your mind as you bring them to memory, and in this way, you will be worthy of mercy (for God “gives grace to the humble”).
If you continually remember your sins, then you will not bear in mind your neighbor’s wrongs. I am not saying that merely being convinced that you are a sinner will bring about such humility. Merely admitting that you are a sinner will not humble the soul like it will if you were to go over each of your sins in your mind—counting, remembering, & examining each of them specifically, one by one. You will not remember the wrongs that have been done to you if you have these things continually in remembrance. If you exercise yourself in this way, then you will feel no anger, you will not revile, you will have no proud thoughts, you will not fall again into the same sins, and you will be more earnest toward good things.
Can you see how many excellent effects are produced from the remembrance of our sins? Let us then write them in our minds. I know that the soul does not easily endure a recollection that is so bitter & painful but let us constrain & force it to remember. It is better that it should be disturbed & gnawed with the remembrance now, than on Judgment Day with vengeance.
If you remember your sins now, and continually present them before God, and pray for them, then you will speedily blot them out. But if you forget your sins now, you will be reminded of them against your will on Judgment Day when they are brought out publicly before the whole world and displayed before all—friends, enemies & Angels. For surely, God was not speaking to David only, but rather to us all when He said, “What you did secretly, I will make manifest to all” (2 Sam 12:12). It is unfortunate that many people are more afraid of men and respect men more than they respect God. Many people show no concern that God sees all that they do, but they would be ashamed of many of their actions if other people were to see or know it. They have no fear of God, but the eyes of men, this is what they fear.
Therefore, because the eyes of men are what so many people fear the most, by this very means shall they suffer punishment. God will reprove us, setting our sins before the eyes of all. That such a scene from Judgment day will truly come to pass—i.e. that in that Day, all of our sins are going to be publicly displayed before all, unless we now purge them away by continual remembrance—listen to how people’s cruelty & inhumanity will be publicly exposed: “I was hungry,” He says, “and you gave Me no food” (Matt 25:42). When and how will these things be said? Will they be said privately, quietly and in a corner or in a secret place? By no means. When and how then? “When the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matt 25:31), and “all the nations” (Matt 25:32) are gathered together. And when He has separated the one from the other, then He will speak in the audience of all, and will “set” some “on His right hand” and the others will be set “on the left” (Matt 25:33).
Consider also how, in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the five foolish virgins had to suffer having the Lord proclaim that awful statement of rejection to them while He was standing within earshot of the entire wedding party. Everyone, whether inside the door that had been shut or outside of it, clearly heard the Lord’s words to the five: “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt 25:12). The numbers of virgins given in the parable (of five and five) are only figurative; the one group of five represents all those virgins who are wicked and cruel and inhuman, whereas the other group of five represents all those virgins who are not of such character. So also, the servant who buried his one talent had to suffer the shame of hearing it pronounced in the presence of everyone (including the servants who brought the five & the two talents), the Lord saying: “You wicked and lazy servant” (Matt 25:26). However, it is not by their words alone that He will convict them (“Out of your own mouth I will judge you”—Lk 19:22), but it will also be by their deeds, just as the Apostle John shows from the prophecy of “They shall look on Him whom they pierced” (John 19:37; Zech 12:10). For all the dead shall rise in the resurrection—both groups of people at the same time—both the unjust sinners and the righteous saints. They shall all look on Him together, for He shall be present before all in the Day of Judgment.
Consider therefore who it is that will be in dismay & grief on that Day—who will be dragged away to the fire, while the others are crowned. “Come,” He says, “you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34). And again, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).
Let us not merely hear these words but let us also write them down and keep them always before our sight. Let us imagine that He is now present and speaking these very things, and that we ourselves are then led away to that fire. Would we have any fortitude left in us? What comfort or consolation shall we have? And how about when we are cut in two (Matt 24:51; Luke 12:46)? And what will we say when we are accused of having defrauded others and of being covetous, greedy, swindlers & extortioners? What plausible, though fallacious excuse shall we have? What specious or spurious argument shall we offer? None. But bound by necessity, bending down, we must be dragged to the mouth of the furnace, to the river of fire, to the darkness, to the never-ending punishments, and there will be no one that we can plead with or make an appeal to. For as Jesus revealed, it is not possible to pass across from this side to that because “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:26), and it is not possible even for those who wish it to go across and stretch out a helping hand. Rather, we must burn continually with no one aiding us, even if it should be father or mother, or anybody—regardless of how much boldness toward God they might have. For as Ps 49:8 (LXX) says, “A brother does not redeem; shall a man redeem?”
Since it is not possible to have hope in any other human being to save us—but rather it must be in one’s self after the lovingkindness of God—then let us do all things, I beg you, so that our conduct may be pure, and our course of life the best. Let us do whatever we can to prevent our souls from receiving any stain, even from the very beginning. But failing that, in all events, let us then not sleep after the stain, but rather continue always washing away the pollution through our constant repentance, by tears, by prayers, & by works of mercy.
But then someone might ask: “What if I cannot do works of mercy?” Oh, but surely you have “only a cup of cold water” (Matt 10:42), no matter how poor you are. Surely you have at least “two mites” (Mk 12:42), in whatever poverty you might be living in. It is likely you have feet that will carry you to go visit the sick or those in prison. You probably also have a roof, under which to receive strangers. Let us take heed to these exhortations, because according to our Lord Jesus, there is no pardon for the person who does not do works of mercy (Matt 25:41-46).
We are continually saying such things to you in hopes that it might have some effect on you, even if it is only a small effect. We do not say these things because of our great concern for the temporal comfort of those who would receive the benefits you might bestow on them, but rather, it is mostly because we care for your souls. If here, you give them earthly things, in return you will receive heavenly things: which may we all obtain, in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom to the Father be glory, together with the Holy Ghost, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.
(NPNF, 1st Series, Vol. 14, pp. 507-509; revised excerpt from Homily XXXI)