The Jesus Prayer and the rear-view mirror

I’ve posted in the past about the Jesus Prayer and how it summarises, in just a few words, the heart of the Christian message:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

I used to fret about those last words, especially when the Jesus Prayer is used as a “breath prayer”. It felt morbid to be saying over and over again, “me, a sinner … me, a sinner … me, a sinner” – however true it might be.

In that previous post, I referred to how Kallistos Ware (in The Orthodox Way) describes the words “me, a sinner” as the second “pole” of the Jesus Prayer – the first being the glory of God as expressed in the words “Lord … Son of the living God”. As that post sets out, Bp Kallistos explains how it is the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ that reconciles these poles and announces the mercy of God for “me, a sinner”.

But one other thought struck me this evening as I read that section of Bp Kallistos’ book again. Namely: what we say first in the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God”; then we say “have mercy upon me”; and only then do we say “a sinner”.

In other words, I confess myself to be a sinner in the context of God’s mercy shown in his Son. “I am a sinner” is not something I bring as a known problem to be solved, but something I learn after the problem has already been solved. As James Alison puts it (in his book The Joy of Being Wrong, among other places), “original sin” is a truth we learn only after we have been redeemed from it. It is something that we see, as it were, “in the rear-view mirror”.

This then brings us to what it means to call myself (repeatedly) “a sinner”. It is not so much a moral judgment upon myself – “what a terrible person I am!” – as an honest acknowledgement, looking at myself in “sober judgment”, of how I am run by the forces of “mimetic desire”: of rivalry and envy towards others, defining myself “over against” them. That is something we can only really come to recognise once we have witnessed a life that is free from those forces: namely the life (and death) of the “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God”.

In the light of that, to confess myself to be “a sinner” is not a morbid wallowing in a (self-aggrandising) assertion of my moral wickedness. Rather, it is an expression of liberation: by confessing how easily I find myself being run by the forces of rivalrous desire, I begin to be freed from them. The very act of giving a name to that pattern of desiring shows that I have already been given a new pattern, that of Jesus Christ.

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5 thoughts on “The Jesus Prayer and the rear-view mirror”

  1. I think the Jesus Prayer works better in Greek. In particular, the word for sinner is amartolon which means “one who has missed the mark” (and I also wonder if it means “one who has not witnessed”, but am not sure if the etymology would justify that interpretation).

    The other important aspect of the prayer is the word “eleison” (very badly translated as “have mercy on me”) which means to comfort someone by pouring olive oil into their wounds. (Whereas “mercy” means to trade in or to redeem someone, and therefore implies penal substitution theology).

    1. Fascinating! Yes, I certainly think “mercy” has to be read in that sort of way, rather than in a “please don’t execute me!” sort of way.

      I almost added a paragraph to that effect in my post: that Jesus’ “mercy” is precisely his non-rivalrous love towards us, which seems closer to your description of “eleison” than the more “penal” understanding.

  2. In full, the Greek version of the prayer is:

    Kyrie Iesou Christe
    yie tou Theou
    eleison me
    tyn amartolon / ton amartolon

    (tyn if you’re a woman, ton if you’re a man)

    Also, in Orthodox theology, the life, death and resurrection of Christ are understood together as all part of the process, whereas Western theology focuses excessively on the death part.

    Steve Hayes over at Khanya has an excellent post on Christus Victor theology, which also shows how the descent into hell (referred to in Peter 1:3) is important.

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