Lent Course 3 – The Jesus Prayer. A more helpful understanding of Sin – The Passions or Desires

A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn

Praying in the Name of Jesus

‘The Jesus Prayer’

  1. A more helpful understanding of Sin.

The Passions / Desires.


Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.

This Jesus is

“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.”


There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4 vs 8-12

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”


[This text is a conflation of two sets of notes which were used as the foundation of the class.]


We watched the first 15 minutes of this video



As we have prayed this ancient prayer, we have reflected on a simple song lyric. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart. Lord, I want to love everybody in my heart. Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart’ How these words touch the meaning of the Jesus prayer, in that we recognise be it ever so dimly something in the depths of our being which keeps us from that for which we were created, to Love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbours as if they were our very selves. That recognition may cause us to cry out “Lord Jesus Christ. Have mercy on me”

First we have considered that when we pray, we are entering into something far greater than our own senses perceive. St Paul paints a breathtaking picture for us of Jesus Christ who is our Life and the one to whom we pray.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17


We used the illustration of Resonance – or lack of – it to think about our lives in the light of this Reality. In the same way that the better we were conversant with the culture of the song we heard in the first week, the deeper its impact might be upon us. So the more closely our lives conform to that of Jesus, the better they resonate, indeed Resound with His great hymn of Love and Life.

Then we considered how to some extent we knew within ourselves this separation between the Reality of the Life of the Risen Christ and our own. We reflected upon the powerful story of Jesus healing the paralytic. Of how Jesus’ deepest act of healing is the forgiveness of his sins, and how the physical healing was almost incidental. This relationship between Sin and illness is very significant, but we also were reminded that in our culture the tendency to individualise our existence, not to see our lives woven together, might lead us to either make simplistic connections ‘you are unwell because you have sinned’, or rejecting those suggestions, to suggest there is no connection.


But from the earliest times in the Church, Sin was understood in terms of a form of illness, indeed a form of madness – a terrible contradiction of our true nature as God’s children. [It is perhaps interesting to reflect that in this age where often people scratch their heads regarding physical illness and its relationship to the Love of God, our perception of Sin is very weak.] This understanding of Sin however is perhaps not the understanding we have been taught or grown up with in the home and elsewhere. However it is the understanding which continues to be the understanding of our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition of the Church in which this prayer took root and continues to flourish.


Note the language of Peter when he addresses the Jewish leaders in the passage at the head of this paper. There is ‘no other name . . . by which we must be saved’


A parting of the ways and a new teaching

{A brief history lesson}


Our Western understanding of Sin owes much to something which happened almost 1000 years ago, when the church divided. To the East the Churches of Byzantium, to the West the Church of Rome. In the immediate aftermath of this split, the Church of Rome underwent several changes, one being that there was a move to what we might call a ‘Juridical’ model. Rome of old had been the seat of what we know as the ‘legal’ system, and the theology of the Western Church had always to a degree been influenced by this, but without the modifying effect of the Greek based Eastern Churches, ideas which have their roots in legal systems began to profoundly affect the teaching of the Church on Sin.


Sin as a Moral condition vs a Sickness


This is important re the words of the Jesus prayer. When we pray ‘have mercy on me’ it is not because Jesus stands over us about to punish us, but that he is near to us desiring to heal us. The word ‘Mercy’ in Greek is very close to the word for Oil, which of course is used in anointing for healing


So Sin as a condition took a back foot, and sins, the symptoms of the condition came to the fore. It was in this Juridical atmosphere that the idea that upon the Cross God was punishing Jesus for ‘all the wrong things we have done’ (as a Christian song has it) – the doctrine of Penal Substitution came to the fore. A ‘sinner’ in this regard instead of someone who is bound – paralysed – by sin and cannot do what they desire in the deepest part of their hearts, like a form of sleep paralysis, became no different to someone who had committed a civil offence and ended up in the courts.


This had multiple consequences. For example many of us grew up being told to ‘be good’ where being ‘good’ consisted in not doing anything naughty! But more troublingly, everything became a matter of transactions. You did something wrong, and you were punished. But because this punishment was ‘separation from God’, something had to be done, someone had to pay the fines! So Penal substitution – Jesus pays the penalty. Yet in our hearts we still know that separation from God . . . To come back to the illustration we used at the beginning of last week, the Western answer, Jesus pays the price for our sins, doesn’t deal with our deepest need – to be restored to the full Likeness of God


For many western Christians, the idea that ‘sin’ is a matter of ‘doing naughty things’ is so ingrained, often through our upbringing that we might readily agree with Penal Substitution or at least its premises, and like the lady we heard of last week, try not to be troubled by the fact that that we go on sinning – that we are not healed of the condition of Sin. And for some of us, we did so well at not doing anything wrong, that like the Pharisees, like the eldest son in the parable of the Prodigal, we really think we have no problem. Sometimes it is our fall into Grave sin which is the point where we realise we are not Good


The Eastern Church continues to teach that Sin is as it were an illness of the Soul – a form of Captivity or soul paralysis. We are held captive by Sin. Indeed their diagnosis is far deeper than that in the West, where Sin is ‘our ongoing tendency to do naughty things’.


We might paraphrase the Eastern Diagnosis thus – ‘Your condition is far worse than you might imagine. But the Healer is One who even raises the dead’


Seven deadly sins . . . or Ten paralysing Passions?

The idea of Seven Deadly Sins is well known, even to those outside the community of faith, but this like the Legal turn with regard to our sins, is also a product of the West. After all, if we are guilty, there have to be ‘sins’ we have committed. But these are actually a corruption of the earliest teaching of the Church on the Passions or Desires. [Desire is a more helpful word]


The Eastern Church teaches that the root of our problem is the distortion of our desires. Desire, which is create Good – gets distorted. Put simply ‘We do not Love God, we do not even want to Love God’ The distortion of our Desires are the Root of our illness.


Having set out on the journey to follow Christ in Baptism, the early Christians soon found themselves impeded and carefully diagnosed our condition most elegantly in terms of these Passions


Pride – Vain glory – Sadness – Anger – Fear – Gluttony – Lust – Acedia – Self-love – Love of money


It is important to note that all of these Distorted desires have the effect of distracting us from the Source of our Life, that is The Risen Christ. This is our problem. The Wages of Sin is Death, not in the sense of a penalty, but a natural consequence. Our Life is in Christ. All that distracts our attention from Him is cutting us off from Life.


Of course The benefit of our continual praying the Jesus prayer is in this respect two fold – it directs our attention to the source of Life, who is also the One who can heal . . . And it also points out something else which the Western View obscures. Obviously if we do something wrong, we commit a sin, there is nothing we can do to to undo what we have done – but if our essential problem is that we are sin sick, then as with any condition, we can participate in our healing. There are things we can do which either help or hinder the healing. Within the Eastern tradition, The Jesus Prayer is The prayer response, and we will look more closely next time at this – How do we take up our mat and walk?


But for now we must attend to one key aspect of praying this prayer which we must needs be aware of.


Last week I used the illustration of My heart as a pond! It was an image that had formed in my mind and which I took to my Spiritual director. The thing is this, and especially it may be true of those who have been brought up to ‘be good’. When we hear all about Jesus forgiving our sins, we can hardly come up with anything worth writing home about (this sometimes is why Grave sin can better alert us to our state)

Our Enemy, and the Eastern tradition is not coy about The Evil One, is very content with this state of affairs. Leave things undisturbed – but if we invite Jesus in, then things get stirred up!! So it is VERY common to start praying the Jesus prayer and realise that we are in deep deep trouble!


Look at these early verses from Mark


They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Jesus steps into the world and all of a sudden sickness and demons are everywhere! We tend often to think of the presence of Jesus as far from disturbing, after all, what business does he have with us? He is here to comfort us in our difficulties, not make more for us 🙂 But of course he is not making difficulties – He is All Light. When we invoke him in prayer – light shines, which the darkness cannot stand and starts to kick up a fuss. The pond is stirred and all of a sudden we realise things are a lot murkier than we might have thought.

One Important note – Jesus never exposes more than he gives us grace to cope with and we pray MORE fervently Jesus Christ have mercy on me a Sinner.

Of Balrogs and Smaug!!

Our approach to Spirituality in the West – a word not used in the Eastern tradition – can leave us is a dangerous state. We do not do this walk together we need experienced guides. Even basic meditation should really be always an accompanied journey.

Older traditions are far wiser – such journeys are always accompanied

Jesus prays ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ If we are blind to our sin – why do we have such pride in our capacity to understand what happens when we pray


One or two comments

Firstly, and we shall return to this, one of the great weaknesses of the Western Church is its lack of Tradition, or sense of the meaning and Significance of The Tradition. Anglicanism properly understood is well described thus – Based upon Scripture, interpreted by Tradition and applied to our context by Reason. But for many, perhaps most of us Anglicans we have little sense nowadays of ‘Tradition’ which is perhaps why what we call reason is let loose on Scripture, often to tear it to pieces

The Jesus Prayer as we have been exploring lies within a powerful apprehension of Tradition as ‘ the living faith of the dead’ – or perhaps better, ‘the living faith of the cloud of witnesses’ [Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad] At the heart of The Tradition is the Liturgy of the Church, both of which in modern terms are seen as somehow a barrier or irrelevant to the Spiritual Life. The Tradition understands them as indispensable, indeed that to journey without them is at best most unwise, at worst perilous in the extreme, or madness.

In both the East and the remnants of the once common tradition in the West, any ‘individual practice’ must be rooted in the shared life of the worship of the whole church. In this respect we think especially of The Prayers; Auricular Confession and the guidance of Elders; Study of the Scriptures (and we might add, the writings of the Saints); and The Eucharist. The Jesus Prayer is a practice of the Church and can only be fully apprehended within this context.

[Some Orthodox writers would say, within the tradition of the Orthodox Church, and we should be mindful of their counsel and slow to seize hold of a practice which until recently was barely known in the West. Our penchant for practices, as if they were technological tools, to be picked up and discarded at a whim, like a spanner, or worse something to be practiced until we grew bored or give up is at best most unhelpful.]

Second we have problems with words. What I mean by this is that certain words have unhelpful resonances for us. For example, as illustrated above ‘The Church’ is a phrase which generally as people with a largely Protestant heritage we have an inbuilt problem with. We may well think – what is the Church? In some respects we think ‘it may be helpful to me and my journey’, but in others it is like practices ‘disposable’. No doubt, some of this is a deep unconscious apprehension of troubling Church history, when as we all know, the Church has born little resemblance to The Body of Christ.

Or ‘sinner’. Again some of us may well have grown up being taught to ‘be good!’, and that to be a sinner was to be one who was ‘bad’, but ‘sinners’ are those amongst whom Jesus is to be found. It is sinners Jesus calls! Being a Sinner is actually the condition which draws Christ close to us. Of course we are all sinners, but perhaps lacking an apprehension of any particular sins we commit, being blind to our context, we may find this a difficult word to associate ourselves with

Or we might think of the word ‘mercy’. We think of someone pleading for their life, which in a sense we are as we pray the Jesus prayer, but in what sense. As we may well be aware, the sense of ‘mercy’ we are crying for from a Western perspective is that ‘God might not punish us for our sins’. Yet if we return to the Scriptures in which we find the Genesis of the Jesus prayer, the tone is very different


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