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Some Views of the Fathers on Excuses

September 15, 2012

In an earlier post I spoke about a reference in Ancient Christian Wisdom to excusing our sins instead of accusing them. One patristic source for this formulation is Blessed Augustine’s On Continence, where he writes the following about the psalm phrase “to make excuses in sins”: “What is more sinful than these words, through which a sinner denies that he is sinful, although he is convicted of a sinful work that he himself cannot deny. And since he is unable to hide the deed or say that it was good that he did it, and since he can still clearly see that the deed was done by him, he tries to make a reference to someone else about what he has done as though that could exonerate him from what he deserves. Being unwilling to view himself as guilty, he rather adds to his guilt, and by excusing, not accusing, his own sins, he unwittingly avoids not punishment, but pardon. Before deceivable human judges, using deceit to clear one’s name might appear to have some benefit for a time, but before God, Who cannot be deceived, we are to use, not a deceitful defense, but a true confession of sins” (PL 40.357). Blessed Augustine reveals how an inappropriate way of dealing with others, using excuses to avoid the fallout of blame for our misdeeds, creeps into our relationship with God and not only sabotages our efforts to be healed spiritually, but even aggravates a debilitated condition. Unfortunately, because such dubious tactics sometimes appear to work in human relationships, people tend to rely on them, rather than on the effort involved in simply being honest and doing what is right and good in the present moment, even after a mishap in the past. Often, children resort to lies in order to avoid harsh verbal or physical punishment and then acquire a habit that lasts a lifetime and becomes so ingrained that they hardly realize they are lying, which as mature adults, they will construe as just providing the context. And yet, somewhere in our heart of hearts we feel that something is amiss. If Christians do not feel relief after going to confession, they can be relatively sure that they were at some point during their description of the events surrounding their sins excusing themselves and their sins, instead of accusing themselves.

Saint John Chrysostom considers making excuses in sins to be the lazy soul’s creative path to destruction and a weapon of the devil, for if confessing one’s sins looses one’s sins, than excusing one’s sins binds them even more tightly to the soul. He notes that there is a certain shamelessness in making excuses and blaming attributes of the soul, rather than oneself. Thus, the adulterer blames desire, the murderer anger, the thief hunger. But desire doesn’t commit adultery, nor does anger commit murder, people who accept lustful and hateful thoughts do (Homily on Psalm 140.7, PG 55.436).

If we wish to be healed of the malady of captivity to the thoughts, the starting point is recognition of our condition and the honest confession of our sins. Self-reproach, learning to accuse ourselves rather than excuse ourselves, is fundamental, because it enables believers to humble themselves, to be honest about themselves, and to place themselves in the care and at the mercy of the One Who has the power to forgive sins and enable us to live in newness of life.

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